Mon beau sapin

Canadian ChristmasWe don’t have a Christmas tree at our house this year. Instead, we are going to visit family in Toronto and let them trim the tree.

For us, Christmas in Canada means family and friends, catching up and pigging out, the chaos of too many people and dogs, shopping from the time we get off the plane and as soon as the sales start on Boxing Day. Yes, folks, it’s consumer excess at its merriest. But I won’t regret it. Not for one single moment. Until I’m back home in January, weighing up the damage.

The thing is, we don’t have any of those things here n France. My husband’s family is too few and far apart, our kids are grown and flown (although one will be heading back home soon – more on Generation Boomerang later…). And the shopping opportunities simply don’t compare.

What Christmas in Canada does not usually mean is snow. To my unending disappointment, our visits almost inevitably coincide with a green Christmas in Toronto….generally followed by a big blizzard as soon as we are back on our side of the Atlantic. But I’m packing my boots just in case.

I am taking a blogging break to enjoy the season. Wishing you and yours a holly, jolly Christmas and hope to see you in the New Year!

La Fête des Morts

IMG_2582‘La Toussaint’ or All Saints’ Day, often referred to in France as ‘La fête des morts’, is a public holiday held on November 1st in commemoration of the dead.

Strange, the cultural differences around this day. ‘Fêter’ means to celebrate but there’s not much festivity in the air. The month of November tends to be gloomy in France and chrysanthemums add about the only color at the cemetery. November really is about honoring, or at least remembering, the dead (followed by Remembrance Day on Nov. 11).

In English-speaking countries, Hallowe’en is the main event: an irreverent but fun-loving ghoul-fest. It is a death-defying, joke-ridden time for everyone from teens to tots to dress up, gorge on candy and shout “Trick or treat, smell my feet, I want something good to eat.”

I’m disappointed that Hallowe’en has never really taken off in France. I like the idea of a special day to honor our dearly departed, but I wish it could happen in a joyful way. To put, as one of my most beloved television comedy characters* once said, the ‘fun’ into funeral.

Remembering those we have lost should be a happy time of shared memories and jokes, of laughter with tears. It doesn’t mean we’re not sad that they’re gone. It means that life is for the living, and deserving of celebration. That those very people we are honouring would probably have wished for us to remember them with a smile.

And at this time of year especially, I could use a jack-o-lantern jolt of brightness and fun. November is my least favorite month of the year. My hypochondriac anxieties tend to rear their ugly head and I become convinced of my impending demise. Perhaps it’s the looming winter that gets me down, as the days grow shorter and darkness falls early. Whatever it is, Hallowe’en has always worked to cheer me up and banish the evil spirits.

DSC00241When my kids were small, we decorated the house, carved a pumpkin or two, loaded up on candy and went trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. There were quite a few families with young children in our village near Lyon, and for awhile it felt like the event was catching on.

But it seems to have fizzled out lately, at least in our parts. The French look upon Hallowe’en as an American import, not really belonging to their culture. Fun for the wee ones, perhaps, but badly timed: it falls in the middle of the Toussaint school holidays when many people go away.

Whether you’re commemorating your dearly departed at the cemetery or warding off the evil spirits in full ghost and goblins regalia, may it be with joy. Wherever you are, and whoever you have lost, may this day bring you fond remembrance.

What about you? How do you celebrate Hallowe’en or All Saints’ Day? Party or bouquet of flowers?

Liz Smith as Nana*Nana, played by the excellent Liz Smith in The Royle Family

Les Bronzés font du ski

Les Bronzés font du ski is one of those cult classic films that define popular culture in France. Released in 1979, it was one of a series of ‘Les Bronzés’ movies by Patrice Leconte, a parody of the singles holiday that featured early performances from an all-star lineup of comic actors: Josiane Balasko, Michel Blanc, Christian Clavier, Gérard Jugnot, Thierry Lhermite.

I remember not really getting the film the first time I saw it: neither the slapstick, heavy-handed humor the French seem to love, nor the lightning-fast repartee. But I came to appreciate that the film defined an era – as did yours truly last time I hit the slopes.

March is a good time for skiing in the French Alps. There are fewer tourists, for one thing, as most of the school breaks are over and the Parisians have gone home.

This winter hasn’t been great for snow – seems the weather gods decided to dump it all on North America this year. So we decided on some early spring skiing last weekend while the skies were blue and the snow still fairly plentiful.

My husband was feeling ‘en manque de montagne’ as he hadn’t been skiing for several weeks – he needed a fix of thinner air. I happily dusted off my old skis and boots that had miraculously turned up after our last move. I’m not an easy fit in a ski boot so I was delighted to rediscover my comfy old Nordicas and not have to rent for once.

We went to our closest resort, Avoriaz. It was a Saturday, a good choice if you want to avoid the crowds. Most people are arriving or departing on that day and so there are fewer skiers on the slopes.

As usual, we’d no sooner geared up than I needed to hit the ladies. Hubby went to buy the ski passes while I went in search of les toilettes. Things must be improving around here: I found clean, functioning facilities right by the pistes. When I returned a few minutes later, an ESF ski instructor was holding up one of my skis and examining it.

“Ahem, those are mine,” I ventured, thinking he’d mistaken my skis for his own.

“Ah!” he sighed, setting them down. “I so regret getting rid of my old ones.”

“Why, because they don’t make ‘em like these any more?”

“Because they were such a great souvenir. Those were the days!”

Right. I hadn’t realized until then that my skis, pointy tipped and perhaps 20 years old, were  considered a relic of bygone days.  I was starting to feel like a fossil myself.

Hubby came up and chuckled along with the fellow, which I thought was pretty mean considering he was sporting brand new equipment. To be fair, he uses it enough to amortize the investment.

Then, as we were about to get on les oeufs (as the French called the Gondola lifts), one of operators noticed my skis and said: “Ha, those are a real collectors’ item!” He went on to advise me not to leave them by the bar too long, or they’d get nicked for sure.

How did he know I’d be at the bar?

But it’s decided:  I’m getting new skis next year.

Le ski: It’s all downhill from here

Ski tips above the cloudsI grew up in a country where snow was abundant. Even in the southern-most climes of Canada, we have plenty of the white stuff every winter. What we don’t have is mountains. The biggest ski hills in our parts have a vertical drop that’s less than the average apartment building.

Still, I learned to snowplow and do the herringbone at an early age and became a competent if not adventurous skier. The biggest resort we went to back then was Blue Mountain. We would line up forever for the lift, then come zipping down the slopes in two minutes to do it all over again.

None of these things prepared me for skiing in the French Alps. The vertical is, well…vertical. Chair-lifts can feel more like elevators. And most of the pistes require a level of skill that is beyond my comfort zone.

My first experience of skiing in France was at Les 3 Vallées, a massive domaine skiable that claims to be the world’s biggest ski area. I don’t know whether that’s technically true but it certainly felt that way to me on the day I got lost in a blizzard somewhere around 3,000 meters.

My husband learned to ski at Les Ménuires, one of the resorts in the 3 valleys area, shortly after learning to walk. He loves the snow and anything to do with mountains. The higher the better. He was keen to show me around its highest peaks. It was un grand moment in our marriage. Right up there with learning to drive a standard and arguing our way around French Polynesia.

The first shock was the accommodation. The resort was above the tree line, with forests of high-rise buildings perched in a lunar landscape. We stayed in a borrowed apartment that managed to squeeze 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and kitchen-living area into a space about the size of a walk-in closet. I felt claustrophobic from the start.

“Don’t worry, it’s the altitude. Just wait until you get on top of the mountain and see the view,” reassured my husband, ever the optimist.

I have only a vague memory of that first day’s skiing together. So the details are blurry. But I’ll never forget the name of the place where I lost any remaining illusions about my spirit of adventure: Cime de Caron.

To cut to the chase: I lost my way down whatever slope we were on and became immobilized with fear in front of a piste noire (black run for expert skiers). My husband disappeared into the white-out and I ended up, shaking with fear and cold, in some sort of refuge with a snack bar until someone took pity on me and showed me the way to the nearest lift down.

I learned a few important things from that first ski trip:

  1. Always check the plan des pistes (map of ski runs) before you go up to make sure you can get down
  2. Avoid going anywhere with the word ‘cime’ or ‘col’ in the name. It will probably end in tears, or a nosebleed. Or both.
  3. If all else fails, head for the bar

Oh, and one more: never trust my husband if there’s a mountain involved.

I still enjoy skiing from time to time. But I’m a fairweather skier – the conditions have to be just right. Mostly I stick to the blue runs. I can manage the reds if I have to – even if it means sliding down part of the way on my derrière. But there’s only way I’m heading down a piste noire:

How to descend a black run

Et toi? Are you a snow bunny or a lounge lizard? Schuss or snow plow?

Why ‘Les Soldes’ leave me cold

Les SoldesI won’t be going to the sales this month and probably not next summer either. Here’s why.

The semi-annual sales officially kicked off last week in France for five weeks – as they do every year on the second Wednesday in January and third week in July. Like most things in French life, these dates are closely governed by a complex set of rules and regulations. Merchants are not even allowed to use the word for sales except at specific times of year defined in the Code de la Consommation (Consumer Code). Stores can offer discounts or ‘promotions’ at any time but the actual, hard-core ‘sales’ periods are strictly controlled.

The idea is to protect the poor, innocent consumer from manipulation by unscrupulous retailers who want to sell them a crock of lies.  This is French paternalism at its best.

The precise etymology of the French word for sales, les soldes (masculine and plural), is hard to trace. It comes from the Latin solidare (consolidate) and has common roots with the words soldat (soldier) and solde (bank balance). Strictly speaking, the concept of sales seems to have little to do with either, although some people’s approach to getting a bargain can be described as military and have a devastating impact on their bank balance.

But the problem I always have with the French word for sales is that it’s a false friend in English: why would I want to buy something if it’s already solde?

And having grown up with the tradition of Boxing Day sales in North America, I expect to find things on sale immediately after Christmas. By the time the French sales start, I’ve generally lost interest and am licking my wounds from various excesses over the holiday period. Besides, I only have to step across the border to Geneva, which follows the Anglo-Saxon tradition, to find sales starting on Dec. 26th.

But are the sales really worth it? Truly, why bother? Unless of course you love crowds, pressure and stress. Or you have that competitive streak and really want to fight over the last sequined top in your size. During the sales more than ever it’s buyer beware: nothing will be exchanged or returned. If you’re lucky, you’ll get something you can actually wear, in your size and color. If you’re like me, you’ll buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need because it’s 60% off, stick it in a closet where it’ll gather dust until next year’s soldes. Then, you’ll get rid of it to make room for a new crop of stuff you’ll never wear.

I have a much better idea. Wait until the spirit takes you to a shop that you love, where they’re offering a pre-sale promotion to preferred customers. The fact is, most French boutiques offer their regular customers the best deals way before the sales even start.

In just about every French shop you enter, you will be offered a ‘carte de fidelité,’ or customer loyalty card. They’re generally free (and if not I refuse on principle). You’ll need to carry a large wallet or purse to hold the hundreds of cards as no one seems to be able to take this to the digital level.

Another fine tradition in French boutiques is the ‘paquet cadeau.’ If you’re offering any gifts, take advantage of free gift-wrapping to save yourself the trouble. Some boutiques take it to an art form, although the larger chains will probably just throw in the wrap.

One word of advice: in the smaller, family-run boutiques in France, act as if you were visiting someone’s home. What we perceive as a public space is considered very differently by the French. Be polite. Don’t forget to say bonjour, s’il vous plaît and au revoir, even if you only slipped in for a few minutes to look around. Do not ask to use the toilets.

And now for a confession: these days I shop for very little in physical stores – I much prefer to buy most everything online. The fact is, if you want something specific, ordering online will be faster, cheaper and more efficient. French retailers just don’t offer the broad selection of merchandise available elsewhere; a whole world of shopping choices is now just a few clicks away. So unless it’s something you need to try on for size, go for the online experience.

And before anyone starts moaning about shops closing, jobs lost, the importance of ‘la proximité’ (local retailers)…I beg to differ. Online shopping is progress. There are just so many other ways I’d rather spend my time and money.

Sold?