Winter, Christmas Trees And Re-Opening Snags
Winter has arrived in SW France! It all came this week in a mighty blast from the Pyrénées, a front of cold, wet and biting weather that rolled down the mountains and hit the valley below.
Everyone is cozied up inside, candles lit at night as the darkness creeps in, with woolly socks and thermal underwear the new “mode de la jour”. We rub our bellies, all a smidgen softer after two full lockdowns & months of baking, and thank them for their extra insulation. We snuggle into bed at night, our winter duvet and my middle-aged body-fire of menopausal heat (seriously….fire) keeping us toasty warm at night. And we watch the final autumn leaves fall and the garden going slowly, but surely to sleep.
This is winter-time in the countryside, where everyone rests & everything is neatly tucked away. As nature goes into hibernation so do we, the natural rhythm of the season slowing all activity in every corner of the village.
Of course some things still do happen in December.
This is usually the month of Christmas markets all over France, where streets and towns decorate to the nines, and stalls filled with the aroma of sugar cookies and hot chocolate sell scented soaps, candles, art, trinkets and more. Normally we’d go visit at least 3 or 4 different markets around our area. This year alas, all the Christmas markets are officially closed.
The yearly Calendars however are still on sale, and it’s a tradition that everyone respects.
You see every December all over France, the local volunteer firemen go round the villages to sell their annual wall calendar. The post lady/men do the same, and in some areas the garbage collectors have one too. This is an old tradition that can traced back to the 1810, and it’s still done today. All the calendars are are donation-based (so you just give what you can), and the money goes towards the workers, volunteers and their families. A valuable and important cause. We have benefitted from the fine work of our local firemen several times in the past (including this summer!), so we always oblige and donate generously.
The Calendar itself is fairly vanilla, although a few years ago a specific group of French firemen (les pompiers sans frontiers) decided to spice it up a bit by posing in topless splendor with only a minimum of the standard pompier protective gear. The result was “smokin” as they say, and their sales reflected that with calendars flying off the shelves faster than they could print them. Tragically however, for some unknown reason this trend faded away. So now, we must make do with local pictures of fire engines and standard country scenes. Ah well, such is life…
Other than that we’re all chugging along…
Everyone Is Out Shopping En Masse
As far as the ‘ol virus goes, France is still following the re-opening plan they announced last week, albeit with a few, unpredicted snags.
According to the numbers and curves, it all looks fairly good, with hospitalizations, deaths and ICU numbers trending well down from the highs of mid-November. From that point of view confinement #2 seems to have done the job, and we can again say we’re out of the red zone. Phew! But the newfound freedoms of re-opening are intoxicating, and with folks COVID-weary and Christmas around the corner, no-one seems to be able to hold back.
This week dad and I experienced that full phenomenon for ourselves.
On Friday we decided to go out and buy a Christmas Tree. It was the our first major outing in months, our first escape beyond the limits of our few closest villages, and it was a BIG EVENT. We turned onto the A64 motorway with the giddiness of young kids, mixed with the danger & excitement of teenagers doing something they’re not sure they’re supposed to do. You see despite reading the government FAQ, and looking through reams of online links written in archaic, legal French, I couldn’t figure out if we were actually, technically allowed to do this. I mean we are allowed to shop for essentials, but is a tree “essential”? And does the 20km “exercise” circle apply, or can we drive further for such a thing??
In end I just said a l’enfer to it all, and threw caution to wind. We were going out to get a darn tree, and we were going to the place we always buy it close to Toulouse.
Turns out we were not alone.
Half the French population seemed to be on the roads that Friday morning, most of them massing towards the big outlet malls south of the city. Where are all these people coming from? We swung by IKEA just for a look-see, but decided to bypass our usual visit after observing the tidal wave of people streaming in the front door. I guess the lure of self-assemble furniture is just too strong? Thankfully our Sapin de Noel guy was outdoors and quiet. So we took our time choosing the perfect specimen, twirling the trees around and assessing them critically, in our own little two-person fashion show. It was all quite exciting, as first outings go, and as we left I told the owners as much, thanking them for being there, and complimenting them on their trees
Vous avez toujours les meilleurs sapins. On achète chez vous chaque année (you always have the best trees. We buy them here every year)
The young lad who helped us was mightily pleased, or at least I surmised as much (hard to tell these days with masks and all that) as he promptly threw in a bag of Christmas snacks (mandarins, nuts & fruit) for free. Sweet!
Our tree is now at home, waiting to be adorned, most likely next week, and is definitely adding a bit of our cheer to our day-to-day. All-in-all a wonderful treat and a fab little outing, whether or not it was technically allowed (honestly, I still don’t know).
French Re-Opening Has Hit A Little Snag
While Christmas shopping is going gung-ho and fully endorsed by all the necessary governing bodies, other things are apparently not quite so easy to address. This week in particular the French re-opening hit a petit snag on the tricky subject of ski holidays.
Apparement c’est compliqué (apparently, it’s complicated)
You see this past week of winter weather has left the high mountains covered in a tantalizing blanket of powdery, white snow. They glisten and beckon from all angles, their slopes seductively soft and enticing. And the French, eternally romantic and keen to get out, are eager to heed their call. Alas, this potential massing of people on the ski slopes has the higher-ups in moral knots in a way the hoards of active Christmas shoppers, for whatever reason do not. Apparently ski and après-ski are their own special kind of super-spreader events, or so we are told. But skiing is also an essential economic interest in the mountainous areas. Without a full ski season, how will these places survive?
The government pondered this difficult question for a week and then, in an apparent stunning moment of inspiration, found the answer. Yes, ski stations would be allowed to open for Christmas, but the ski lifts would not. Voilà…
As you can imagine the hilarity and uproar over this decision was immense, followed swiftly with ski stations creating workarounds by offering vacationers bus rides to Swiss or Italian slopes (where the lifts are still open), followed by bus rides back to the French side at night. All part of the ski package, all technically legal. This of course enraged the government who immediately announced that French would not be allowed to ski abroad, which in turn caused the ski resorts to retort back with a Gallic shrug, and the French equivalent of “how y’a gonna make us?”.
This schoolyard scrape has been going on for a week now, and it doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon. In fine French fashion exceptions are bound to be announced shortly, which will be covered by other exceptions, and opt-outs for exceptional cases. I’ve got my popcorn out and am eager to see where it all ends.
In the meantime if you’re willing to hike up the slopes with all your gear, I guess you’ll have them all to yourself?
Here In Our Little Corner All Is OK
As for our little SW lives, everything is pretty much A-OK.
Our radiators are keeping us toasty warm thanks to our new boiler that’s been chugging pellets and working tirelessly day and night. It’s been flawless so far, and we’re still only ~1/3 of the way through the first 7 ton delivery we had back in July, so the savings are working out too. Our new septic is also working well, or rather nothing at all interesting is happening anywhere near it, which is exactly what we signed up for. Poo in, water out, and nothing to worry about.
Our RV unfortunately, is still out in the cold. Since our own petit snag regarding the building permit, I haven’t been able to muster up the necessary mental grit to tackle the mountain of paperwork to get things started again. Maybe next week…..
In the meantime Polly is just loving all this winter stuff. I guess when you wear a black fur coat for a living, cold weather and biting winds are just a minor inconvenience and way, waaaay better than summer. As I’m in the “heat” of my middle-aged prime now, I have to agree. I’ll take winter over summer any day, and since I’m not much of a skier (or really any kind of sliding sport), I guess I’ve got everything I need and more. It’s a good place to be.
Another week and we’re only two and a half weeks away from Christmas! What are you doing my friends? Have you bought a tree? Have you decorated? Are you going skiing? Or perhaps you’re hanging out in my favorite place in the SW desert? I know some of you (sadly) are going into lockdown right as we’re coming out of it. DO feel free to share your thoughts & experiences below.