Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Ready and waiting ... for winter



Disappointingly, we did not wake up to snow this morning. But, I think that we have ticked off the major items on our ‘preparations for winter’ list. The fuel for our heating system was delivered just after 8am as I was setting off to walk my youngest to school. I watched in admiration as the driver manoeuvred his truck across the bridge two doors up from the house, with inches to spare on each side and then ran up to greet him and introduce myself. I explained to him what the driver who came with last year’s delivery had done in order to get the truck to the house safely down the narrow, winding streets. He smiled kindly at me, nodded and said “Yes, that was what I was going to do.”

Chatting a few minutes later as the fuel was surging into the underground tank he revealed to me that he had been delivering in the Annecy area for 27 years and “knew most things.” He then pointed to the houses around us in our hamlet and explained where he had to park the truck in order to access each property. On one occasion, he told me, when our street was blocked he had even used a ladder to climb down into the river with his hose and up and across our garden to the manhole. I guess I hadn’t needed to worry about helping him with his directions. Nor the driver from last year who had responded with “I’ve got it covered” when I asked if he needed any help getting his truck out of the tiny street. Luckily, in hindsight, as I am still not sure what I could have done in practice to help avoid his several tonne fuel truck from being artistically wrapped around my low stone retaining wall.

Today’s driver was friendly and wore cool tartan-patterned gumboots, which I complimented him on. My words were so nonchalantly accepted that it felt like I was a player in his daily casual conversation routine. The boots may have been part of his seductive delivery method and they were clearly working their magic on me. I would have liked to have kept him chatting to discover a bit more about the things that he said that he knew.

Typically for me, when I looked at the bill after his departure I discovered that I had mis-heard the quoted price over the telephone. Instead of quatre-vingt-treize (93) centimes per litre it had cost me quatre-vingt-seize (96) centimes per litre, easily done over the phone but another one of the frustrating little examples of being let down linguistically by not being a native speaker.

So, now that we have had the wood and fuel delivered, snow tyres bought and put on, salt for the roads near the front door at the ready, spray and ice scrapers for the windscreen placed in the car along with a blanket, snow chains and snow shovel, winter clothing checked and ski school bookings made, we just need the winter. It is making me feel a bit like a wallflower at a school ball, all dressed up and ready with no one interested.


Have I gone a bit over-the-top with our preparations? Probably, but we were so under-prepared for our first winter here that I am scared into action each year now. Memories of sloshing through snow with my toes achingly cold in shoes that leaked, my under-dressed children with despairing looks in their eyes, skidding in the car down icy, un-salted roads and sitting freezing cold in the kitchen with no wood left and our heating fuel nearly all gone are hard to erase.

Now that I think about it we were also way to keen to try out all the different local Christmas markets. We had no idea that the huge banners and roadside signs on the main road from Annecy to home could lead us to small community halls set up with only a handful of cute stalls, which we conspicuously kept on appearing at.

But, how often is it the journey rather than the destination that provides the interest and the excitement in life? We look back on our mistakes with pride, content in the knowledge that despite all of the things that we did not get right last time around, we made it through. 

Still, please hurry up and snow so that I can feel better about being so prepared.









Sunday, 1 November 2015

It's Done !

The book "But you are in France, Madame" is now published and available for sale from Blurb as a softcover print book or an ebook for ipad via the link below.. I hope you enjoy it.

http://au.blurb.com/search/site_search?search=but+you+are+in+france+madame&filter=all&commit=Search


At the collège for a parent-teacher interview, I met my daughter outside in the courtyard and she showed me up to her classroom. Her teacher was busy chatting, so we waited patiently in the corridor. When he did come out, he indicated that the meeting would take place downstairs and headed off with us in tow.

Before sitting down, I introduced myself using my first name, and put out my hand to be shaken. He mumbled back his full name as he took my hand, although I suspect he would have been shocked if I had actually dared use it. By this stage, I had already understood that teachers did not expect to be questioned about their practices. Of course, I did—question him, that is; politely and almost deferentially. There was a slight pause, as he dipped his head to better digest what he had heard. Then, with the assurance of a perfect, unarguable answer, he replied, “But you are in France, Madame”.

Some months before, my husband, three children and I had casually unzipped and discarded our comfortable Australian lifestyle and slipped on life in the country of haute couture. On arrival, there was no celebrity designer waiting for us, ready to pin and fit our new life to us; so we threw it on and wore it loosely, tightly, uncomfortably, any old how—until we learned for ourselves how to trim, hem and stitch à la française. This book is testament to the joyous, but not always easy, journey that we took along the way. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

En Forme


I got hooked on running when I was a little girl. I was of average height, skinny with long feet and I could run for kilometers. Joining a club was financially out of the question, so I did laps of the block after school. It was a big block and I ran on the footpath, which went past the primary school and down a tiny path across a low-lying bridge. I hated that section as it was isolated and I had visions of being ambushed or confronted by one of the three billy goats gruff. It made me work hard to get up the hill on the other side and as I did ten or so blocks several times a week it kept me very fit.

A friend’s mother had South African origins and had been a good enough hurdler to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. She took my sisters and I under her wing and encouraged us to train for fun runs on the weekends. She would set us time and distance objectives for when we were running at home during the week and when we had sleepovers at her place we would set off early in the morning when it was still quiet and cool and run in the National Parks. After we had finished our long training run she and her husband would design obstacle courses for us, under and over logs, around bushes, through play equipment, if there was any, and time us to see who was the quickest. We would go home exhausted and happy. In fact I would count these mornings amongst my most treasured childhood memories.


I wanted to pass this love of sport on to my children and so from when they were very young we would avoid the car and walk as often as possible. My first child had to give up her pram for the second and then the second refused to stay in it as soon as she was capable of walking. So, we were off to a good start. Little Athletics in Australia then really made the difference. Every Saturday morning during the summer season the children would head up to the outdoor running track and in the winter season to a designated cross-country venue. There, they made great friendships and learnt about coping with losing and winning, being part of a team and trying to beat their personal best.

I looked around for an athletics club for the children when we arrived in France. Due to the approaching winter the training sessions were initially all indoors. They were geared both to fitness and learning about the different track and field events, but the one thing that was missing was the competition. By chance I saw an advertisement for a weekend cross-country run half way between our house and Annecy and made enquiries at the tourist office. That was two years ago and yesterday marked our third participation in the same event. Unlike the first year when we arrived and understood nothing about where it was to be held, how the children were to collect their competitors' bibs and where they were to start from and run to, yesterday we felt like old hands. For a start we weren’t a lonely group of foreigners trying hard not to raise our voices with each other as the stress of working things out was working us up. We knew people and we knew what to do.



As a child and young adult my different sports had me sliding around in mud on the hockey field, playing on rain-soaked fields that made it difficult to even see the hockey ball and toasting on the tennis court in the reflected burning rays of hot summer days. But, I never had to tackle snow and temperatures below zero like my children have now had to do here. In these conditions warming up and keeping warm before the start of a race is difficult but essential and beanies, gloves and long-sleeved tops and bottoms are commonplace before and during a race. We had also never come across the French habit of restraining the youngest runners behind a rope for the first couple of hundred metres of their already very short seven-hundred metre race. If it wasn’t so dangerous it would have been funny. In attempting to make things safer the children got more agitated, pushed more, fell more and were then stomped over whilst the adult runners, holding the rope and moving forward at a snail’s pace at the front, continued on obliviously.


None of this mattered by the time that the hundreds of children had been cattle-herded through the finishing gates to get their prizes; A medal of course, for participation but also a goody bag of odd not-necessarily-sports-related articles. A friend who came second in the veterans category found a wood-turned bowl and a multi-tiered letter and bill stacker in her prize bag to take home! My children were more fortunate with trendy white woollen beanies or black gloves to choose from.

 

We know now to expect organisational differences but one thing that we haven’t had to adjust to and that doesn’t change from one side of the world to the other is the euphoria of putting yourself to the test and the sense of accomplishment that comes from participating in, and finishing a race. Three mud-spattered, cold, tired but happy children hopped in the car yesterday to head home. I recognised the feeling.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Road Safety

I didn’t like it but I was becoming more used to men and women beeping me when I was driving, shaking their fists and tailgating me to the point of feeling like they were in my car with me. It was not that I drove slowly I just tried not to go above the speed limit, including in the villages around the lake where 30 kilometres per hour was the maximum allowed. This frustrated a lady who was driving a powerful black car behind me through the village of Veyrier-du-Lac. But, I was not inclined to go faster, particularly as she was gesticulating at me to do so right in front of the police station.

I did, though, raise my hand whilst looking at her through my rear vision mirror and call back at her loudly with the supercilious confidence of one who is in the right and far out of earshot, “Trente degrés. Trente degrés.” In the car with me were my daughter and her friend who turned to look at each other quizzically and then back at me as if I had gone mad. It was nowhere near thirty degrees. I had meant to say trente kilomètres and the wrong words had come out. Of course it did nothing to deter the other driver who continued to mouth-off madly as she passed me at the first opportunity.

Road safety figures for 2014 in France were released last week. They showed an increase in both injuries (35000) and road deaths (3384) over the 12-month period, which was the first rise in 12 years. Startlingly, though, that mortality figure has been as high as five times greater. In 1973 the national road toll was 17,861. That year the village of Mazamet in the Tarn conducted a Journée Ville Morte (Dead Town Day). As a town of roughly the same population as the national road toll, the inhabitants, at a pre-designated hour lay down, immobile in the streets for ten minutes in a stunt to raise awareness of the seriousness of the situation.

I remember several of the television campaigns of my youth with great clarity. Everyone, myself included loved Norm, the smiling likeable couch potato, who urged us to get off our couches, be active and give life a proper go. As schoolgirls we walked miles with our rubbish bags picking up as we went to support the Keep South Australia Beautiful or KESAB campaign, long before Ian Kiernan’s Clean Up at Sydney Harbour led to an Australian Clean-Up day. The Slip, Slop, Slap seagull, Sid, changed my sun habits with my children and brought about school ‘No Hat, No Play’ policies. But, it was the ‘Drink, Drive, Bloody Idiot’ advertisements that I remember the most. They were shocking.

 

The first time I was asked to blow into the bag at a random breath testing station I was like a nervous schoolgirl. Actually, I wasn’t long out of school and probably looked like one too. I knew that I had had nothing to drink but I still wondered if the indicator would collaborate my story or if I would be appearing in the Launceston Daily the next day. This fear had sane, normally mature male friends stopping their car in sight of the breath testing unit, flinging open all car doors simultaneously and running for the hills, only to be scooped up by the police waiting around the corner and shamefacedly brought back to front the bag-touting ‘men in blue.’

Between 20 and 30% of fatal accidents in France and Australia can still be attributed to alcohol. Back in November 2011 the then French President, Monsieur Sarkozy announced that, as of spring 2012, every car would be required to carry a breathalyzer kit. The announcement came during the presentation of the ‘Echarpes d’or’ or ‘golden scarves,’ which is an initiative of the Road Safety office and rewards communities for their attempts to improve road security. The efforts recognized can be for improvements in infrastructure, campaigns to educate or raise awareness of road safety issues or promotion of the respect of the road rules.


Of course, the requirement to purchase and leave a breathalayser kit in every car created debate and discussion. An opinion poll conducted by our local paper, which prompted nearly 3000 people to vote gave an outstanding ‘no’ to the idea. There was the usual skepticism concerning it being an excuse to revenue-raise. Then there was this - “The drunker I am, the faster I drive so I am not on the road as long and therefore am not as dangerous to others.”

The latest road accident figures also indicated an increase in the number of cyclist deaths. It is still not compulsory to wear a helmet when out riding in France. But, time has rendered me complacent. Initially, I would point out to my husband every non-helmeted bike rider with an exclamation of surprise, bordering on contempt. After years of living in France I don’t think I even notice the lack of protective headgear anymore. Sadly I tend to register the clothing and style of the Frenchwomen who manage to ride, without a helmet, but with high heels, scarves and mini skirts and not look at all sweaty or dishevelled. I am usually more distracted with jealously wishing I knew how they did it.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Letterboxes and benches


My daughter’s friend from school eats with us every second week on a Thursday. When she is due to come for lunch my usual routine involves picking my son up from outside his school at 11.30am, walking him home, driving in to wait for my daughter and her friend outside their school gates at midday, racing them home, feeding them all a three course meal, cleaning up and then dropping them all back at school between 1.20pm and 1.40pm. Through my Australian parent eyes I would no doubt have scoffed loudly at the idea of children going home for lunch, considered it to be unfeasible for working parents and an unnecessary pampering of the children. Dare I admit that last year they were coming home twice per week to eat plus they were home for lunch and all of Wednesday afternoon?

It certainly puts me under pressure but it does seem to allow us extra time to talk about the perhaps otherwise small details of the day that might be lost in the after-school activity, homework, dinner, bath, bed program that we used to work to in Australia. The children seem more relaxed, smile more and laugh more with each other than I ever remember them doing before.

For my daughter’s friend, who goes home for lunch every day, there is nothing unusual about what we do. She is quiet and easy-going, never fusses about what there is to eat and sometimes comes up with observations that make us realize that in so many little ways life is different here.

One such example was when we were letting ourselves in through the front door. She noticed the letterbox on the wall and asked whether it was indeed the letterbox. “Well, yes,” we replied wondering how that was not obvious. “It is just that you do not have your name on it. How will the postman know where to post your letters?” I had to stop and think about letterboxes in Australia and struggled to remember all the different ones that we had had in the past. As they resurfaced in my memory in all their various shapes and sizes the one thing that they did all have in common was that there was no name on any of them. Wasn’t it enough that the address was on the envelope and that the house number was visible?



Out walking later I looked around and sure enough all the letterboxes were labelled with the occupants names. To me it was like a sign to burglars declaring how many people lived in each dwelling and it felt strangely unsafe. Many houses in the villages here have no front yards and their front doors open directly onto laneways or footpaths. In Australia there is often a no-mans-land between the front door and the letterbox, which somehow seems to provide a barrier of security. But, even as I write, I reflect on the fact that it was in Australia that we had our house burgled, the car stolen from the road in front of the house, the windows of our flat egged and the car vandalised in our own carpark. Maybe we should have put our name on the letterbox?

Practically, though, it makes sense to provide more details for the postman, as houses are not set out in a regular pattern. In our little hamlet, we are very close to other houses but there is no rhyme or reason to the lay-out of the streets. Moreover, what looks like one big house from the street can in fact be divided into several apartments. I’ve often surmised that this lack of regularity and boundaries between houses leads to a more open, friendly relationship between neighbours.

As my husband and I were walking home today up the hill our always-beaming neighbour was coming out of her shed with a bucket of freshly peeled potatoes, turnips and carrots in water to stop them turning brown. We stopped, exchanged kisses and then had a long chat. As we were saying good-bye and she was once again gathering up her bucket of vegetables to go in and prepare her soup another neighbour came up the street. Down went the bucket, more kisses were exchanged and another conversation ensued.



The carpenter from the village has made a bench, wooden of course, which he has slotted into the wall in front of his house, which runs along one of the laneways into the village. It is a good-looking bench and he has affixed a sign near it which reads ‘Banc des amis’ or ‘a seat for friends.’ My neighbour also has an old-fashioned slatted garden seat near the road in her garden. It is next to her shed and when the season is right it has perfumed red roses hanging above it. Hers is not labelled but clearly does not need to be to gather her friends around.




Monday, 4 May 2015

The woodpile



The alarm went off and in my befuddled state I couldn’t remember what day of the week it was. Sunday, why the alarm? Then, the events of the day to come played out in my mind. I happily jumped out of bed. I had a woodpile to stack.

Last night in the pitch-black, bitingly-cold night our wood had finally arrived. I had rung the woodsman four times in the afternoon. Usually I am not that insistent but I really wanted our wood. And, I really wanted to prove that I could do it. Manage that is. But I was doubtful.

For a start he kept saying that he would come and then not be able to make it. He also insisted that the minimum delivery would have to be eight stères (8 cubic metres) whereas I only wanted five. He subsequently rang back to say that another gentleman from around the lake wanted just two so would I be happy with six? Well, five was what I asked for. If he really wanted to make an eight stères trip why could he not tell the other guy that he had to take a minimum of three? After all he bumped me up three why couldn’t he raise the other guy just one? Still it is better to have too much than too little. The first winter taught us that.



Knowing that he would find it difficult to find us in the dark I waited on the bridge ready to direct him. Standing in the circle of light disseminated by the old-fashioned lamppost breathing out warm vapours, with my hands in my pockets but slightly underdressed for the low temperature, I felt rather conspicuous, but serenely peaceful.  The cold makes things quiet and the quiet makes things peaceful. There was a reassuring glow of lights from inside the houses in our hamlet and shadowy movements behind curtains, which meant that there were people around. I felt safe even though I was on my own.

A minor traffic jam occurred when the woodsman arrived as he went past the bridge only to have to back his laden six-tonne truck and trailer up the winding ill-lit old road. He needed reassurance that he would fit down the little passage beside our house. No hesitation. I had had fuel tankers back down the road to deliver our fuel with easily centimetres to spare on each side.

He turned out to be a nice guy much younger and slighter than his gruff voice and less-than-methodical approach to organisation had led me to expect. He manoeuvred his truck into place and dumped the mound of wood expertly into our driveway. It was all over very quickly but as I was handing him his cheque he grinned at me and said “You were waiting for this wood, weren’t you?” “Yes, we were down to our last couple of logs,” I replied. “You were starting to doubt me, weren’t you?” “Uh huh,” I admitted smilingly. And a friendly conversation ensued. He had chosen to bring his truck over the mountains from Magland through Sallanches, past Megève, the turn-off to Les Saisies and down into Ugine before winding his way around the lake. He still had all of that to re-do, this time in the dark and it was already nearly 8pm. I didn’t really mind that he had quoted me two euros more per stères than his Internet site had advertised and that I hadn’t questioned him. I just hoped that if I was being a bit green, that his wood wouldn’t be.

It was too late to stack the wood without making an excessive amount of noise and doing a mediocre job in the dark. So, with a few happy glances at my jumbled pile I retired into the warmth of the house. I had done it. I had found wood when the common consensus was that there was no more to be had around the lake.

Thus it was that I jumped out of bed eager to attack the task this morning. The children, husband and I got the stacking done in a record time at the same time as receiving admiring comments from our passing-by neighbours, both for the size of our pile plus our application to task. It was the beginning of a top-notch day.




Saturday, 25 April 2015

Truffles

We had never come across a truffle market (marché aux truffes) – until on holidays in Bourgogne (possibly more well known for its Burgundy wines).

For a start I would have presumed that this sort of event would be by invitation only – after all the reputation that truffles have in Australia is that you only ever eat them at exclusive restaurants, paying through the nose for them and then barely discerning them in your dish other than, well, through the nose.

But no – in Noyers-sur-Serein, where we were staying we saw the discreet little advertisements at the walled entrance to the town announcing that there would be pedestrian-only access on Sunday during the festival. We were curious and put it on our long list of things to do for the week which also included visiting caves with drawings from 35000 years ago, roman sites where Vercingetorix (Asterix readers you’ll recognise him) and Julius Caesar the French leader fought and unsurprisingly where Roman organisation won out over French passion, an abbey built in the 1100s by Saint Bernard and of course vineyards in their thousands.


Most markets start at the crack of dawn but curiously this one had a 10.00am starting time listed. Punctuality has never been this family’s forte but as we had other things to do in the day we happened to be there on time and for the start of proceedings – luckily.

Anticipation gave way to disappointment as we wandered around the very small market with empty trestle tables.  Wine, jewellery and local produce were on sale, truffle plants were for purchase (I had no idea that you could buy such a thing presuming that it was just a naturally occurring mushroom-like phenomena and that the critical component was your capacity to train your pig or your dog to find them) and there were some very expensive chocolates made with truffles available– but no truffles.

I consoled myself by buying a hand-made ring – pretty, sparkly pink glass and taste testing the local burgundy. The children went for the macaroons. So absorbed were we with the choice between peach, lemon, raspberry, vanilla and chocolate that we nearly missed the announcement that the count down to the official truffle selling would begin at 10.30am. Like the Biblical wedding feast at Cana the empty trestles had magically become laden and as the lids were lifted on the black nuggets the air became thick with the earthy smell. Barricades, which had been erected around the stalls, were now 5 or 6 deep with people. I felt the nervous excitement within me building and watched and waited to see what would happen, as had become my standard practice in new situations.


Trois, deux, un, partez! - and the mostly middle-aged men and women surged through the gates and towards the 20m long sales area. I watched aghast as 2 kgs of the black gold, at 350 euros (nearly AUS $500) per kg was ordered, paid for in cash, carefully placed in a paper bag and held up protectively by my nearest purchaser as he rescinded his spot in the queue. I was keen to give it a go but knew that I only had 25 euros in my pocket and wasn't at all sure that I wouldn’t embarrass myself by ordering black gold that I couldn’t pay for. I chose a couple of kind-looking truffle sellers before stepping up and admitting to them that it was my first truffle market. With my hand hovering over their tray of nuggets I was told that the small were just as good as the big and was invited to smell the truffles to see for myself. Of course, I could have done like I do with wine tasting and followed their advice and nodded knowingly but decided to just smile and place my chosen ones onto the scales. With the first weighed truffle registering 10 euros I knew that I could afford two. I was given a recipe sheet, instructions for storing the truffles,  an encouraging "bonne dégustation" and it was my turn to emerge triumphantly from the crowd with my paper bag aloft.


Thanks to my more-culinarily-competent-than-me husband we sat down to a dinner that night of duck with truffle sauce and baked endive purchased later in the day at the market in Chablis along with a glass of ... Chablis. Another ordinary day in France filled with yet more extraordinary sensations.




Monday, 20 April 2015

The village library

A ten-square metre room in the many-roomed, three-story building standing prominently on the main road through the village opens its shutters for four and a half hours per week. At the same time a large metal sign reading BIBLIOTHEQUE is placed outside on the window ledge to advertise the fact that therein lies the village library and that it is open for business.

In my busy pre-France life I had no time for reading – other that is, than work related articles and documents. I didn’t allow myself to read for pleasure. I used to tell myself that I had too many other important things to do and convinced myself that I was somehow letting myself, and my high standards down if I gave in and read something just for the sake of enjoying reading it.

When we moved to France this idea that had accompanied me for the previous 25 years was so engrained that, despite the fact that I now did have free time I still couldn’t ‘waste’ it on such a frivolous pursuit.

What prompted me first to seek out the local village library was the children, and admittedly it was more to get them French DVDs. They were doing fewer activities than they used to do in Australia but I had justified the passive DVD watching idea to myself on the premise that it would help them with their French language learning. So I looked around for a video store but they just didn’t seem to exist. The closest that I came across was an ATM-like ‘hole in the wall’ at the village supermarket that had literally just a handful of very outdated adult-oriented movies for loan. I then remembered that in Australia the libraries often had a collection of videos and DVDs for loan and presumed that the same would apply in France. Wrong!

I had been living in France for a month by then – I should have known that this would be another difference between the two countries. The first library that I tried, which was near our first house, looked promising from the outside. It was modern and quite large with two wings of books. By then I had become more used to the idea that public buildings could easily be mistaken for residential premises and hesitated only slightly as I pushed open the door to face two sweetly smiling ladies seated behind a long desk quietly controlling who was going in and out and with what in their bags. I explained that I was new to the area and they assured me that as long as I could prove my address with a ‘justificatif’ and then pay my money that I could start borrowing books straight away. Pay my money – weren’t libraries free in France like they were in Australia? I felt that I couldn’t back out and so did what was required. I moved auspiciously to the books section first and then stealthily attempted to hone in on my real target, the DVDs – but where were they?  and what a disappointment when I finally located the single half-empty shelf holding more out-dated adult-oriented movies. To save face with the eagle-eyed librarians I resorted to borrowing books for the children pretending that that had been my principal objective all along.

Just because I was there and because it jumped out at me as a familiar name I also borrowed a book – for me. It was a Tim Winton book in French. I haven’t looked back. I am once again hooked on reading.

We have changed villages and therefore libraries and this time I was a bit more prepared for the interaction that would take place when I first went for a visit– but not the size of the library or their methods. Don’t get me wrong – it is one of my fortnightly pleasures to go down to the library and have a short whispered exchange with one of the many older ladies who man the room. The borrowing system involves exchanging yellowing hand-written cards for book. There are no due dates – and the books seem to date from the period they were written about – a long time ago. There is a table for new releases and a box  - one - for children’s books but mostly I concentrate on the ‘B’s. By default the first author that I picked up had the surname Bourdin (genre: easy romance). I methodically returned to her shelf, read all of her books and only realised that I had come to the end of her offerings when the style of my newest loan was so vastly different (more difficult and somewhat educative) than what I had become accustomed to. I re-read the cover and realized that I was reading a Bourdon. I have since progressed to Bordes – and am loving reading once again.



Yesterday I had to return an overdue book as in principle you keep a book for two weeks. I presented my apologies and was told reassuringly not to worry as it was an old one – the word is ‘ancien’. I guess that it will always be ok then – as they are nearly all old.



Monday, 13 April 2015

Cheese


Charles De Gaulle, French General and politician who led the Free French during the Second World War and was also the architect of the fifth republic and French President from 1959-1969 famously said “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays où il existe 258 variétés de fromage?” or “How can one lead a country where there are 258 varieties of cheese?” Surely he could have just said “How can one lead a country made up of Frenchmen?’ But no, that would have been disrespectful of the personality differences, passion and that little ‘je ne sais quoi’ which mysteriously defines a typical Frenchman. How clever to make the Gallic chest swell with pride at his culinary achievement and his individualism. Yes, you can hear De Gaulle’s compatriots thinking, we do have a lot of cheeses, yes it is probable that we might be the world cheese masters, how clever are we? distracting them from the veiled message that they were just an unruly lot who were hard to control.

It works even to this day. If ever I feel a conversation flagging or progressing into dangerous territory, linguistic or otherwise, I casually throw in what I had for dinner, or lunch, or breakfast last week. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is about food we digress happily out of more-trying-vocabulary quarters and potentially disharmonious sentiments.


On holidays recently in Bourgogne we visited a market. A little market in an out-of-the-way village with a lovely castle, which is open for visits, a main street and not much else. But even small villages have the right to hold a market. It wasn’t busy, unlike the Saturday morning affairs in Annecy where the pleasure of strolling and becoming intimate with the stallholders is reduced to elbowing your way to the stall, queuing for long periods of time and then making your transaction as quickly as possible so as not to annoy those queuing behind you. In fact, quite the opposite, it was almost imtimidatingly empty. It was the sort of place where you felt obliged to buy from every stallholder just to show no favouritism. After purchasing vegetables from two different sellers, fresh goats cheeses from the goats cheese lady, bread from the baker and regretfully nodding at the cheap and nasty toy seller we found ourselves in front of a second cheesemaker.

I explained to him that we were not from the region so asked whether he would be kind enough to recommend a couple of local cheeses. He pointed to a strong rind-washed, oozing Epoisses, a soft, slightly denser in the middle Chaource, and then presented the Délice de Bourgogne, otherwise known as the Crémeux. It has a fat content of 76% he added and I stopped in the middle of my “yes, we’ll have that one,” reply only to quickly regather my momentum and say ”yes, we’ll have a thin slice of that one please.” But, was it delicious? Worth every calorie and re-ordered as soon as we spotted some more at the next market.

Later that day the children were discussing cheese. My oldest daughter dared make the outlandish statement that she could name fifty French cheeses. I laughed and went to the computer as she was beginning her list and typed favourite Australian cheeses into my Internet search engine. It was time to laugh again when amongst the esoteric cheese conversations recorded, some jokester had written “I’m really enjoying Dick Smith’s Cheese Spread.” There is no doubt that Australia has cheese of quality but the comment did remind me that before arriving in France my children’s attempts to name cheeses would probably have stopped after three. Let me give it a go – Coon, Tasty and ‘green cheese’. The last was my oldest daughter’s favourite when she could barely walk. She would ask it of her granny when spending the night at her house. It didn’t refer to my mother’s Scottish background and her ‘waste not want not’ approach to food but rather the green wrapping of the aged cheddar that my mother preferred. My children also used to happily munch on individually wrapped cheese slices. I have never seen them in France, and don’t really want to. I can’t even imagine the look of stupefaction I would receive from my children’s friends if ever I did find them and served them up.

My daughter had to admit defeat after thirty-one cheeses. I was impressed. Sure we had been living in France for a couple of years but it only took a couple of months of French living before the children’s tastes and appreciation for food started changing. I vividly recall my daughter running back to me through yet another market, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me back to where she had come from. “You have to taste this cheese,” she said. She had, I did and a great slab was purchased. It was a Beaufort d’été, made from the summer milk of the cows in the pastures around Beaufort. To this day, despite all the competitors for her number one cheese ranking it has not been replaced.

I also smilingly reflect on the afternoon that I observed my three children from a discrete distance. They had a cheese platter in front of them. As they were making up their sandwiches for lunch they discussed the merits of each cheese. The taste and texture were seriously debated and small slices were shaved off to check and re-check on their taste preference. My son was equally as happy participating in the discussion and he had only just turned six. Is it any wonder that this country produces great food and great chefs?


Friday, 3 April 2015

Our return


Two years had passed since we were last in France. This time when we packed our bags in Australia we had a much clearer idea of what to expect when we touched down in Geneva airport, made our way through customs and were asked for the first time “Parlez-vous français?” by the unsmiling uniformed man behind the desk. Back then, eager to prove my linguistic competency I had lurched forward with an emphatic “oui” ready to put my skills to the test, in much the same way as I would have facing a University lecturer armed with my pre-prepared oral exam replies. This time of course it was over in seconds, “How long were we staying?” a quick glance at our passports and a polite “au revoir” and we were on our way. But I had changed too. There was no nervousness, no need to attempt extended conversation. It was all too simply like we were coming home. From the very first moment it was as if we had never left.

That feeling continued. We knew that we could be stopped at the Swiss-French border to produce our vignette, we knew that we did not have to stop if we were not stopped and we knew how to drive on the right-hand side of the road with decidedly fewer husband and wife moments than at our first attempt.

We drove straight to Talloires and I hopped out of the car to introduce myself to one of the three estate agents that I had not met in the from-over-the-seas purchasing of our long-desired French residence. It was the first time that we had seen the house, the final signing of the sale papers was scheduled for the following day and, despite a few puzzled ‘so, you bought your house over the Internet’ comments from our entourage I felt only excitement.

The house was in every way as charming as we had expected from the pictures and the reports that we had received. The signing of the papers, after a jet-lag-induced sleepless night, and in stark contrast to the preceding months of stress and struggle, was a fun formality and the opening of the front door with our own set of keys the happy realization of years of work. We were ready to begin the next phase of the adventure.

Of course we had forgotten the intricacies of living the French way. We had a whole house to set up and furnish, and needing to use most minutes of every day in the few weeks that we were there to do this, we tried to buy a couch between twelve and two. Non, non, non. Ah yes, it was lunch time. Time to eat, not shop. We tried to withdraw cash from the bank after midday. Non, non, non. Please come back tomorrow morning. I could order a withdrawal for the next day, euh correction, morning, but not actually do the withdrawal. And then there were the imposed weekly credit card limits and ATM maximum withdrawals despite the sum of money sitting in the account, which meant that we were effectively cash-strapped after day two and had to bide our time patiently until seven days after the beginning of our spending spree had elapsed before we could start up again.

But – it did not matter. I recommenced my morning ritual of opening the window shutters, which successfully slowed me down. No matter how urgently we were needing to rush it was impossible to not stop, look at the lake or the mountains, the stone walls of the houses around, the window lintels wide enough to sit in or the bubbles in the window panes, made when mercury was still used to fashion the flat glass surfaces, and feel the effects of time and people gone by.

Our eating habits, too, slowly metamorphosed back into the pattern that we had lived, loved and left. Cheese before dessert, and that after a slow aperitif and a hearty main course around 8pm, calls to our son to head out to do a quick boulangerie run, an obligatory café stop at our past village haunt and a long lunch at our new village café of the same name cemented our long-awaited return with a delightful twist. We were heading back...home.


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Skiing

We had our first ski outing of the season today. As per my usual pattern my dreams last night were interspersed with snow catastrophes and uncertainty about how I would go physically. It used to be worse.

The very first time that we took the three children to the snow was in Australia on the Queen’s Birthday weekend, which was the opening weekend of the Australian ski season. We had no intention of skiing as the children were too young and it was uncertain as to whether there would actually be any snow. A patch of artificial snow was made to provide a somewhat authentic backdrop for the official opening photos and newspaper report but to get to this you had to take a chairlift. My youngest child was only a baby and I, having not skied for many years, and never with children, had never considered the safety aspect of children and lifts.

I had just gotten my, not-old-enough-to-walk son out of a carefully selected age and weight appropriate car seat from a car with safety airbags, new properly inflated tyres and a voice-controlled, ok me, driver cautionary system. At the chairlift embarkation point I, like all the other passengers, was offered a benchseat with one metal safety bar at about waist height when sitting to hang on to for safety. The only problem was that waist height when sitting was above head height for my son. The gap was so large that three babies sitting on top of each other could have slipped through it. What should I do? I didn’t want to miss out on all the fun that was only that chairlift away but how could I put my son into the risk zone just to satisfy myself? I decided to ask for advice. The liftie, a young guy certainly not old enough to have children of his own, assured me it was fine to take a young baby on the lift, as long as I held him tightly.

Well, I did, hold him tightly that is. So tightly, that my arms were aching by the time the ride finished. I dared not breathe, let alone move as it felt like if I relaxed a single muscle anywhere in my body I would send him tumbling into the void below. The day ended without incident but I suspect that my ongoing dreams are my punishment for lack of due care.

Strangely enough whilst driving to the ski station this morning I mentioned that I had not slept well because of ski related accident dreams. My daughter said that she had dreamt that there was an avalanche. With the abundant late snow of the last week followed by days of sunshine there certainly is an increased risk of avalanches and this is mentioned frequently on the evening news. At every ski station there is a team responsible for ensuring the security of the slopes. This at times means deliberately placing explosives on slopes judged to be at risk of avalanche to deliberately set one off. However, if you keep to the marked trails the risk is very low. The warnings apply to the real thrill seekers who look for pure virgin slopes, or ‘hors-piste’ skiing.



The discussion, nonetheless, continued about what to do if you did get caught in an avalanche. Firstly and obviously try to avoid it by moving out of its path, but secondly, my husband said, try to swim with it. ‘Swim?’ ‘Yes, and then be quick to act once you and the snow are coming to a stop, make space around your head because once the snow has stopped moving it compacts around you and you can find yourself without a pocket of air to breathe.’ Right, at this point we were still on the road, which was becoming more slippery and icy, the snow was starting to fall and the reassuring metal road barricades, that had been present when we were leaving the village below, had mysteriously disappeared, leaving unwary drivers the distinct possibility of missing a bend and flipping into the steep valley below. Ah, all the reasons why we love skiing so much were all coming back to me – and I hadn’t even thought about the cost of the day’s outing or the fact that it might be cold once we got there.

It was not just cold, it was freezing. The snow was attacking us horizontally and whipping the exposed parts of our faces. The ski lifts were barely visible at car park level and as we watched they disappeared completely from view. The wind was howling and we looked at each other despondently. At least we were wearing appropriate clothing.


As a first-timer years before in France my ski wear consisted of a pair of old navy blue tracksuit pants plus my black bushwalking japara. Not only did I freeze I felt miserably different. I didn’t have the all-in-one brightly coloured ski suit, cinched in tightly at the waist that my French female companions had, nor the matching lipstick and sexy fur bonnets. Neither did I know how to ski. Hard to say whether the not altogether friendly glances thrown my way were surprise at my outfit or my lack of ability.

After half an hour of procrastination this morning the weather cleared enough for us to decide to get our gear on and ski together. The reasons why we repeatedly go through this complicated ritual each winter were once again exhilaratingly clear.

Monday, 2 February 2015

A New Path


We discovered a new path yesterday. Out walking through the snow along the track overlooking the village leading to the castle we ran into one of the teachers from the primary school. She mentioned that a new path had been opened close to the castle and descending to the ‘Moulins.’ I was quite excited, as up until now the only way to do a round trip to the castle from the house has been to walk back along the road from Bluffy. I have always found this to be less than relaxing as there is no footpath to speak of and the cars take the bends as a bit of a challenge, fast and tight.

Sure enough, a bit further along on our walk, as advised there was a new wooden gate just off the main track, signposted to the Moulins. We took it and found ourselves coming out alongside La Vallombreuse, an imposing and beautiful old guesthouse, literally the other side of the bridge from our house. The path felt like the backdrop to an Enid Blyton adventure, drooping pine trees partially covered with snow that would make great hide-outs, stone steps hewn into the walled paths, perfect for bandits carrying contraband, an old stone doorway, still standing but leading nowhere, prickly blackberry bushes that would have served as good traps and all just at the base of the castle walls. Covered with snow with the light fading and the twinkling lights of the village appearing below we could have imagined ourselves either the heros of an historical adventure story or the wily smugglers needing to outdo the Famous Five.

More beautiful snow was falling this morning and once all the ski gear was back on, the destination of choice was the secret castle path. This time we went armed with toboggans and cameras. Everyone, except Granny had a go on the toboggans, first along the rather steep track and then as the children became more confident, straight down the even steeper slope trying to avoid the prickly tentacles of the rose bushes hiding just below the surface of the fresh snow. Too tempting was it to not use the field as a battleground for a massive snow fight. Grandpa and my husband quickly fashioned snowballs whilst the children were playing below and when their pile of ammunition on the path above was satisfactory they called the children up, on the pretext that we were heading home. Obediently and unsuspectingly they started up the slope. When they were close enough the signal was given and the attack was launched. Laughingly, the children ducked and weaved and unsuccessfully tried to retaliate. Then, in the spirit of all good Enid Blyton books we headed home to a steaming hot chocolate and a hefty piece of homemade fruitcake.

The morning’s activity cost us nothing and yet the fun factor was at an all-time high. We hadn’t had to get in the car, we hadn’t had to queue and jostle to see what was happening, we hadn’t had to wait around for opening hours and more importantly we had been outside together in the cool fresh mountain air enjoying running around. For the adults, there was the bonus of being able to momentarily regress into child-like behaviour and get away with it.

The reality of growing up was brought home to me recently. A young Australian girl contacted us. Her teacher, a friend of ours had given her our details. She is in France for the period of her summer holidays and is staying with a French family who coincidentally live within walking distance of our house. Even though she did not know us she rang, made a time to come and see us and then spent two hours intelligently and confidently conversing with us. She spoke about her aspirations for the future, her final years of school, her desire to improve her French, the travels that she had been on and the places that she still wanted to visit. I could see myself as a sixteen year old again in her, keen for new experiences and impatient to start the challenges that will open up the world to her.


The conversation left me feeling unsettled and reflective as, although not dissatisfied with the path that life has taken me on so far, I feel the urgency of time passing and a somewhat heightened reflection of past choices. My girlfriend, the same one who recommended that her student come and see us, wrote me a letter before our departure from Australia. She concluded with a poem by Robert Frost entitled The Road Not Taken (below). I still have it and I take it out occasionally to remind myself that the future should be viewed optimistically, as an opportunity and that with an open mind and a dash of stubbornness, ‘way can in fact lead on to exciting way.'

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.



Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Bill blanching


The exchange rate when we first arrived in France was close to 0.50, which meant that we needed to double the euro value of whatever we were buying to work out what we were paying in Australian dollars. Our first shopping experience had us blanching at the sum spent.

We needed grocery items. We were not just on holidays, we had come to France to live for an extended period of time. So, the many essential bits ‘n pieces that one tends to take for granted such as salt, sugar, flour, oil, breadcrumbs and other non-food products such as toilet paper, hand towel and tissues were no longer just there on the shelf to grab as needed. Admittedly even when we are on holidays we try to cook our evening meal and eat picnics at midday wherever possible to reduce costs. I had just spent weeks clearing out seven years of accumulated pantry stocks in Australia, which amounted to considerable waste and lots of requests to friends to take half-opened packets of still-useable products. Just a few days later and on the other side of the world I had to start all over again.

So, in our hire car following the GPS to the supermarket the whole family went. First test was the navigation, including around and around the roundabouts. Yes, we fulfilled the tourist cliché of going the wrong way around, yes, we did hold traffic up as we tried inexpertly to park and yes, my husband and I did exchange a few less than courteous words. It is always easier to drive from the passenger seat.

In Australia the ‘no plastic bags at the check-out’ rule wasn’t yet being enforced, here it was. It seemed to slow things down considerably as each customer unpacked his trolley, and then raced to the other side of the cashier to pack his home-sourced bags as fast as he could to avoid toppling piles of goods that were being scanned faster than they could be packed. The cashier would then just sit with boredom etched on her face, check her nails and wait for the packing customer to be finished whilst the check-out line grew longer and longer. Wasn’t it obvious that this was lost time for the supermarket, and that Internet purchasing and home delivery are not just ideas, they are here and ready to take over the daily practices of consumers if non-efficient supermarkets let them?

We had arrived in France with only a suitcase each and so the children had a very limited array of books and games. Indulgently, and because I was rather overwhelmed by not knowing where things were, what things we needed or wanted and how the system worked, I gave in when my daughter asked for some ‘pâte à prout’ (a fart pot) and my son a Bionicle toy. My rationale for both was that I wanted them to be happy from the start of this imposed adventure plus they were games that could be played with boys and girls who didn’t understand each others language, weren’t they? And, who was I to say 'no' when my husband and I were spoiling ourselves with slabs of cheap cheese.

We had brought Hyperdash from Australia, a game comprising small coloured plastic disks that players ran between in response to its automated voice spouting a colour or number. I had somewhat over-eagerly imagined the children keeping fit racing around outside needing only a few English words to be able to play in French, laughing happily with their new French friends. This toy; however, needed batteries so I sent my oldest daughter off on a search for these whilst I gazed in amazement at the aisle-full of alcohol and their ridiculously low prices.



Altogether we collected only a couple of bags of goods but it was not the rush of the cash register boogie that had the blood draining from my face, it was the 200 euro bill total. Fortunately our Travelcard was accepted, which as we discovered and to our ongoing embarrassment wasn’t always the case, as we certainly did not have enough cash to pay for our frivolous two bags worth.

Once home, after having wondered aloud on the way back if our one-year adventure might have to be cut short because we had under budgeted by a long way, I spread the contents of our shop out on the kitchen table and meticulously compared each item with the bill. I discovered that the three small packets of batteries, valued at twenty euro each, accounted for nearly one third of the shopping bill.  Why so expensive? They were the rechargeable kind. A victory of sorts – we had got the wrong item, which turned out to be the right item and we were back to being able to stay in France for, well, hopefully, our year.

Since then, the exchange rate has improved in our favour but very soon after our arrival we had to stop doing the money conversion in our heads. It was too hard to live thinking constantly that if we were in Australia we would be paying less. Mind you, for a while it did take the pleasure out of stopping for a cup of coffee when we might be charged nearly 7 euros  (14 dollars) for two cups. My coping strategy - I just thought of the number 7 instead.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Waiting Rooms


With three children it was inevitable that we would at some stage need to find our way to the doctor’s in France. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon after our arrival. Ten days to be exact before my daughter broke her arm and needed medical assistance. It was a low point to be sure as not only was she in pain but the incident highlighted sharply the fact that we were horribly on our own. By that I mean that in Australia we knew where our hospitals and our medical services were, we knew how they operated and we had a list of people that we knew we could call on to help us out in an emergency. We had none of that here. I hadn’t thought to find out what the emergency numbers were, and still find it hard to remember whether to dial 15 for ambulance and 18 for firemen or vice versa.

It was a Sunday afternoon and we were out and about grimly determined to embrace our new life. We hadn’t yet moved into the house that was to replace our temporary cottage but we wanted to show the children where it was. So, we drove to the end of the lake, admired the bright yellow of the external walls of what was to be home, wondered momentarily at the décor inside and then set off into the nearby village of Faverges, where we stumbled upon their annual vide-greniers. We had a lovely time learning about how these open-air trash and treasure markets work and ended up with a few books and DVDs for the children plus a schoolbag and a cheap pair of rollerblades for my daughter. They were to be the most expensive bargain of the trip.


We hurried home to try them out and within the space of a few giggles and near misses night had fallen as had my daughter. Unaware of how major the pain was we gave her some Panadol, which we had very cleverly thought to bring from Australia, and popped her into bed. The next morning her white face clearly showed that she was still in pain and so I sent her off to school. No, I am not mean and nasty and in my defense I did not know that her wrist was broken plus I was plain scared of whether I would be capable of working out how to help her. As soon as I could I spoke with the lady who owned our cottage and got her advice regarding which doctor to see. I rang, made an appointment and went and picked my daughter up from school an hour later.

The whole experience was tough. We had no idea where the medical centre was and when we arrived at the stated address we found what looked like a block of flats. We hesitated and then figured out that the correct procedure was to press on the entry button to alert the secretaries to one's arrival and then to go in and up the stairs to the correct floor. It was poorly signposted and I presume that they were in the middle of renovations as when we pushed open the hallway door we found a couple of trestle tables and a few people standing around.  Nothing looked familiar or at all like an Australian medical centre. I explained that I had telephoned for an appointment and without undue welcome or attention was told to go and wait in another room.

There were other people waiting on the plastic bucket seats but the room that we were sent to was small and otherwise bare. When one’s senses are working overtime, as mine were, I’m sure that you notice things differently. I found myself fixating on a small roughly inch high piece of wood sticking vertically up from the floor, running the full perimeter of the room excluding doorways which was set at about two inches out from the wall. It didn’t make any sense to me but after several minutes of deep concentration it occurred to me that it was to stop the waiting patients' chairs from banging into the wall. I was debating internally whether it would be more aesthetically pleasing to have horizontal marks on the wall from the backs of the chairs or the ugly wooden strip on the floor, when we were called.

After hearing our story but before examining my daughter the doctor confirmed that her wrist would be broken. “It always is, when children are involved, “ he remarked and sent us off to have an X-ray and to buy the bandages necessary for him to make her cast. Off we set on foot to wander around more apartment type buildings with my daughter holding onto her wrist supported by the rough sling that my husband had made for her. At the X-ray stop I was asked if I had a 'carte vitale'. I had no idea what that was but knew that I didn’t have one, so "Non, Madame," I replied, wondering if that would mean immediate ineligibility for treatment. Fortunately not. It just meant that we had to pay the full amount of the consultation up-front. Broken bone confirmed, off to the pharmacy. More hassles there as our credit card was refused. I had enough cash on me but it didn’t stop the chemist ringing me the next day to ask me to come in and make another credit card payment on the basis that the first one had been refused and that I had not paid. “No, incorrect. I have paid,” I said very firmly.

Back at the doctor’s we waited some more before it was our turn again. Cast in place and gathering up our things to go and pay the receptionist as we would have done in Australia, the doctor stopped us and let us know that we needed to pay him directly. Beyond surprise we fished around for notes and coins, watched him put them in the top drawer of his desk before filling out a form for us to present to a health fund if we had one. He then ushered us out of the building via an exit that was not the entrance. We drove home, gave my daughter some more Panadol and, desperately needing de-brief time my husband and I asked her if she was up to going back to school. “Of course.” What child does not want to show off a plaster cast. She came home with signatures and cute little French expressions all over her arm, outwardly happy with her increased notoriety. I felt relieved and depressed in equal doses. Relieved that we had made it through our first major incident and depressed at how hard and different it had been. Little did I know that that would be the start of many more difficult moments including many more hours spent in doctor’s waiting rooms.