Tuesday, 10 February 2015


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.

Friday, 9 January 2015


I used to be very happy with a sandwich at midday or thereabouts. It was better if the bread had grains or a bit of character as the white plastic-bagged square slices only hold appeal for me when freshly toasted with margarine and vegemite. I wasn’t particularly fussy about what I ate between breakfast and dinner although I knew when I had got lucky and was served up a proper sandwich, usually by my husband. Then, it had good volume, flavour and colour and was definitely always more calorie laden than my restrained attempts. Often I would realize mid-afternoon that I had forgotten to eat anything and then would ravenously scavenge around for nuts, fruit… ok, chocolate, biscuits, cake.

So, what has changed? Why now do I find it normal to sit down at lunchtime and consume an entrée, main course, cheese, dessert with wine and coffee? And have I put on weight in the process? First question, easier to be objective, the second will just have to remain a well-guarded secret. Suffice to say that a book has been written about how French women don’t get fat.

The first step towards the change happened on day 4 after our arrival in France. The children had all headed off to their first day at school, still feeling a bit jet-lagged and decidedly nervous about what was to face them with new pencils, papers and folders in their school-bags but no lunch box. They just don’t exist here. In fact I struggle to come up with a word to describe the phenomena, usually resorting to ‘boîte à pique-nique’.

So, naturally, we said that we would pick them up for lunch. We wanted to make sure that the first morning hadn’t been too traumatic and were eager to enlighten the guilt burden that we were carrying concerning having wrenched them from their well-loved Australian schools and friends into the foreignness of French schooling.  We thought that a fresh little salad, followed by pasta and crunchy French bread and then little tubs of cold pudding, the latter pre-prepared from the supermarket, would do the trick. As we were walking distance from the school and freshly off the plane my husband and I also enjoyed a glass of red wine picked up from the wine cellar on the way home. At that stage we thought that we were getting a right royal bargain, only paying 12 euro for the bottle. We laugh now to think that the supermarkets have a big selection at a fraction of the price without the need to undergo an intimidating interrogation about one’s personal preferences from said wine cellars. Reasonable table wines can be had for just 3 euros. But, I digress from the lunch. Once had and enjoyed, both the lunch and the wine, it was a pleasure to be re-served.

The second factor in our changed behaviour came in the form of hand written personally delivered invitations for lunch – yes, our children were regularly invited out for lunch. The two hour window of opportunity, between 11.30am and 1.30pm on school days, gives the children and their families the opportunity to travel home for lunch, take a real break from school, eat and then not want to return. It also gives them the opportunity to be social and in our case the opportunity for the host family to practice their English.

What we didn’t think about was that acceptance came at a price – that of the return invitation. Knowing what ours had eaten when out we simply could not serve up freshly cut homemade baguette with ham, cheese and tomato, perhaps a touch of mustard or mayonnaise and a little side salad. No, it was necessary to plan, shop for and cook a proper meal. What stress, as our newest guests turned out to be unintentionally very French. They were always most polite but hard work all the same, declining some courses and picking at others. Clearly we did not know what the rules of dégustation were and had to find out quickly.

Here is an attempt at deciphering the lunchtime etiquette which was learned by asking the tough questions of my few French aquaintances:-

Bread, yes always – but definitely cut – not torn
Water – always, no need for juices or fancy drinks
Salad – served before or after the main course. Before if it is an entrée and after if it is an accompaniment.
Size of salad varies according to whether it is served before or after.
Extra bits and pieces, such as corn, cucumber and tomato in the salad are acceptable if entrée size, it is usually plain if served as an accompaniment.
Plain salad as an entrée is also fine depending on the heaviness of what is to follow.

Are you following?  Let’s continue…

Main course could be a piece of meat on its own but woe behold anyone who dares serve it up without a sauce.
Dessert can be a tub of yogurt or a piece of fruit. It does not have to be fancy but a little homemade apple tart with cream or ice cream would similarly go down a treat.
Cheese comes before dessert – the French are just incapable of eating anything else once they have eaten their sweets. This last fact I already knew having accompanied a French school trip to England twenty years previously. My French colleague had had to wade through an English high tea of shortbread, sweet sandwiches, savoury biscuits, cheese and cups of tea at 5pm. She had no idea whether she was eating afternoon tea or dinner and politely picked at just a few dry Sao biscuits and cheese and went hungry until the morning.

It is hard now to imagine life without our multiple-layered languorous lunches. Initially, we would somewhat guiltily hide the fact that wine was always on our menu, or justify our consumption under lame pretexts such as 'we are on holidays,' 'we are living like the French,' 'it is so very cheap' or even 'why not, the sun is shining' until we realized that we were not alone. On the ski slopes, in the cafés and restaurants, camping grounds, autoroute parking lots and family kitchens all over France time is devoted to sitting down together and properly eating and drinking, not just consuming at speed. 'Santé, alors.'

My son now asks if what he is being served is an entrée or main meal. We used to smirk indulgently behind our hands but now it seems like a sensible question. And the right answer, 'entrée, but please help yourself to seconds anyway.'