Wednesday 31 December 2014

Le malheur des uns fait le bonheur des autres

Still no snow and it is the first of December. On this day last year the children were hurtling down the road next to the house on their toboggans in seventy centimetres of soft fresh snow. Then, I watched with video camera in my hand and heart in my mouth as amidst shouts of joy they veered away from the bridge at the bottom of the hill at the very last minute avoiding toppling into the icy river. In fact there was so much snow that once again it was causing havoc at airports around Europe. My husband, on his way back to France from Australia, was stuck in Abu Dhabi awaiting news of whether his flight to Geneva would be allowed to take-off. At our end, the children and I were monitoring the Geneva airport site constantly trying to get the latest news on whether or not his plane would be allowed to land.

It turned out that his plane was re-routed to Milan where, upon arrival, the passengers had a choice of waiting until flights were able to land in Geneva, trying their luck with another plane to another airport or taking a bus to Geneva. My husband chose the third option and then spent ten uncomfortably cold hours in the bus as it wound its way around Switzerland through hand-size flakes of falling snow.  He was hungry, too, and could only dream longingly of the Tim-Tam biscuits, which he was bringing back to our children as an Australian treat, but which were tantalisingly just out of his reach in his luggage in the hold. On the bus with him was a young Australian couple who were doing their best to keep their baby and toddler calm. There was also a young man in his early twenties who asked to be dropped off at the side of the road on the outskirts of Lausanne. He disappeared into the pitch-blackness of the eery homogeneity of the night wading through waist-high snowdrifts and weighed down by his back-pack. We hope he made it to where he was trying to go.

Dropped of at Geneva airport at 2 am, my husband then tried to work a little and sleep a little just to pass the time before attempting to get on the 6 am bus down to Annecy. The security guards in the otherwise empty airport smiled encouragingly at him as they passed doing their rounds but were unable to relieve the discomfort and tiredness of two consecutive days travelling without a break. More bad luck when he went to get his bus ticket from the bus station at just before 6 am to find that the first bus out had been cancelled, as the autoroutes were considered too dangerous to navigate.

I got a call from him around 8.45 am just after I had walked the youngest two up the snow-covered road to the primary school.  A snowplough had cleared a 2 metre wide path from the front gate of the school to the classroom entrances. The rest of the playground was a labyrinth of ice sculptures and igloos made by the children the previous day. Most were in ski pants and jackets as they had been told that they would not be allowed to play in the snow if they weren’t wearing ski gear. In Australia I fought hard to bring in a ‘No hat, No play’ policy for the summer months in the school that I was working at back in the early 1990s. What a contrast! But what a joy to have eager, affirmative responses to set school uniform guidelines.

I tried calling the bus office in Annecy on my husband’s behalf, as he still only had a smattering of French and they assured me that there would be a bus from Geneva mid-morning.  Thankfully, this turned out to be true and after another couple of hours in the bus he was back in Annecy. Our own car was completely snowed under, so a taxi ride from the bus station to home completed his long exhausting journey.

There is a French proverb which sums up these two days: ‘Le malheur des uns fait le bonheur des autres’ or in English ‘One person’s unhappiness is another person’s happiness.’ At the same time as the snow was making life miserable for many, including my husband, my children were in seventh heaven rolling around in it at home. But it was my oldest daughter who was the happiest. Her bus into school was cancelled and there were no expectations that she find an alternative way of getting there. I think her translation of the proverb would be ‘Lots of snow, no school-everyone happy!’

As for snow this year, we wait in eager anticipation. It might be tomorrow.  The snowplough did drive up our street as we were eating lunch, which is a sure sign that the men at the town hall have been given the word that snow is on its way. Plus, one of the Mums from school told me yesterday that it was definitely going to snow, as she had smelt it when she opened her windows in the morning. She might be right.

Swimming through a Tim Winton story

My husband woke me this morning with a cup of tea, and opened the curtains so that I could see the snow falling. It had started snowing again last night after I had gone to sleep and in a few hours had left a thick cover on the ground. As always, a fairy-like world had replaced the dreary greyness of last night’s landscape. It was a lovely romantic surprise, as today we celebrate our wedding anniversary.


Sixteen years ago, I was in the final happy hours of preparing to get married. Being summertime, we had planned a five o’clock church ceremony followed by a reception dinner. It meant that the whole day could be spent indulgently ‘getting ready’. I had woken early in the hotel room in Saint Kilda that I had booked for my three sisters and myself and, leaning on the windowsill with my chin in my hand, I remember looking out over the deserted beach in view, for a long, quiet moment. I was the last of my sisters to get married and I was looking forward to the adventure. I knew that I would be pampered and in company all day, but for a few moments, contemplating the distantly silent waves, I was alone with my thoughts.


This morning, I was again looking out of the window with most of the rest of the household asleep and it was the silent twirling snowflakes that formed a backdrop to my thoughts. It was hard to believe that another year had gone by. Would we still be celebrating after fifty-six years like my French neighbours, who still go for long mountain walks together and, when out walking around the village, do so arm in arm?


I wore a traditional white wedding dress. After all, I figured that it was a one and only opportunity, so why not? Plus it is hard not to be swept up in the euphoria of being the bride. Marie Stuart was apparently the first to choose white when she married Francois the Second, son of Catherine of Medici in 1559. Amazing to think that since that time many of the same wedding traditions; carrying a bouquet of flowers, being attended to by a bridesmaid, receiving guests afterwards for a meal and giving gifts to the bride and groom, are still adhered to despite the vastly different lifestyles that we live.

Here in France the main difference from my own wedding experience is that the official marriage ceremony is held in a mairie (town hall) and is performed by the mayor. It is the compulsory legal declaration and signing of a union and although many couples choose to have a second ceremony some time after with a priest in a church, this is not necessary.

Friends of ours got married a week after us in England, which gave us time to fly across the world to join them. Coincidentally, my girlfriend and I had announced our engagements at the same time, independently planned our weddings for the same time of year and then, some years later, our children were born on the same day, minutes apart. We had shared all the joys of the planning of the two wedding celebrations and both nearly came off without a hitch.

She and her husband-to-be had chosen a magnificent old stately home as the venue for their wedding day. We arrived the night before in the dark coldness of an English January evening and fell under the spell of the sizeable grounds, lushly carpeted and decorated reception rooms, thick walls, gaping fireplaces and quaint bedrooms with odd-shaped bathrooms, added years after the mansion had been divided into rooms. The staircase was majestic and wide, quite worn down in places and I for one felt like I was a princess at home in my castle.

The beginning of my girlfriend's wedding day was full of vigour and happiness. All of the guests breakfasted together before we made our way to the registry office for the first official joining of the couple. A loud, informal lunch in an English pub next to a warming open fire followed. Back to the manor house, my enduring soundtrack to the pretty church ceremony that had been organised in the mansion's chapel remains the enthusiastic pre-ceremony song rehearsal, where unfortunately twenty plus the priest does not a choir necessarily make. Any mild discomfort was chugged away with multiple, generous cups of afternoon tea in the drawing room before we retired to our rooms in order to prepare ourselves for the wedding dinner; the meal de résistance, carefully planned and orchestrated from Australia. Early evening, and dressed in our gowns and suits, we met again for elegant apéritifs in the suite of the bride and groom. Responding to a call for dinner, we made our way to the staircase.

A happy end to the day it was not to be. The bride fell, broke her leg and did not make it to her own wedding dinner. After being operated on, but still in hospital later that week, she heard a couple of patients discussing the unfortunate ending to a bride’s wedding day; her’s. Her wedding cake comprising handcrafted flowers, flown over as part of her hand luggage, had been divided amongst the hospital staff and the skiing holiday, planned as the honeymoon, cancelled. We jokingly put the blame on another of our girlfriends who had written a telegram to the happy couple, finishing with a theatrical ‘break a leg’. Curiously, and despite much agonizing over this unfortunate coincidence, the telegram had never actually arrived.

We had planned to go out and eat in a restaurant at lunchtime today with all the family but ended up having soup and bread together at home after a long walk in the snow and rain.


I didn't share this story at the time of writing, and a further seven years have passed as, once again, my husband and I are celebrating. This time, the sky is blue, the shutters are drawn, the cricket is playing on the television and, outside on the deck, I am being chorused by a very loud contingent of cicadas. We have returned from our morning swim at the beach where the water was a deep, silky green. Not for the first time, did I feel that I was swimming through a Tim Winton novel.

In many respects, it is a day like any other, just encased in lovely reflections and extra personal attentions. Of course, our anniversary falls at the very end of the year, which possibly contributes to the sustained looking-back. Where will I be writing to you from next year? Where will you be? What will our conversations sound like? I hope that they will be interesting and informative, kind and generous, peppered with humour and lightness. Happy new Year. Bonne Année.

For more of our French story - Kindle or print - click here But you are in France, Madame