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 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 10.00 am 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 20 m 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.