Switching to winter tyres in France

wintertyres

Last year, I bought a new car. It has big tyres, so I looked at the cost of snow tyres and thinner wheels online, hoping it would be cheaper than in La Clusaz or Annecy.

Undecided, I visited Norauto for advice. The guy was super helpful and provided three printed quotes. He offered a loyalty card with 15% off any purchase, bringing the total price down out to around the same as the online prices. “Just call the number on the paper if you want to book your car in,” he said. Too easy!

It really was too easy to be true. It seems that my first Norauto experience was in some parallel world with customer care. Why? Because I called that number almost hourly for four days and only once did someone pick up. Apparently put off by my accent, she hung up within 20 seconds of me speaking.

Undeterred, I drove to Norauto. There was a queue, yet staff wandered past doing more important things than serving customers. After 30 minutes, it took a further 30 minutes to make the appointment for 10 days’ time (it would take that long for my new winter tyres to be mounted on my new winter wheels).

Buying winter tyres in FranceI arrived early for my appointment and queued for another half an hour just to hand over the keys! No, you can’t pay by cheque, and of course my French bank card has a counter transaction limit. One trip to the bank later (work wouldn’t start until I’d handed over ALL the cash), the mechanics did the job in a mere 25 minutes. On top of that, they were helpful. After the soul-destroying queueing, this was a lovely surprise, and I’m happy with their work. Still, a 25-minute job took up an hour and a half of arrange.

The picture shown arrived in my inbox and says “Did you know that your card gives you access to a range of advantages?” Can it give me back my hour and a half? Norauto, I think I’ll be going elsewhere next time. No advantage is worth the length of time wasted waiting in your shop!

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Just a standard night out in Le Grand Bornand…

lalu-grand-bornand

Le Grand Bornand is marketed as a family ski resort. They even hold a week-long summertime kids’ festival, and provide all sorts of family entertainment throughout the year. So it’s no surprise there’s only one nightclub in town.

Lalu disco poster - Le Grand BornandLalu Discotheque has been going for five or so years now, and it’s popular with the locals and tourists alike. The nightclub seems like a bit of a racy one (you might recall the smurf pubic hair flier). As you can see from this flier, there’s a sex toys party on tonight. What on earth happens at a sex toys party? Do they give out toys upon entry? Is there some sort of live act? Is it a swap fest? Or is it like a Tupperware party where everyone sits down and looks through brochures, while the party planner demonstrates and displays some of his or her favourite items?

I can’t help but wonder if this event is filled with old men in long coats, or perhaps today’s generation really is that easygoing that it’s now normal to go to sex toy parties at nightclubs. Is this unique in France? Am I just old?

I’d love to satisfy everyone’s curiosity and answer some of these questions by going tonight, but I’m opting for the old prude card and settling for a hot chocolate in front of a roaring fireplace instead.

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What a difference a day makes

saleve

<The view from Saleve, overlooking Geneva>

The French Alps have had a slow start to the ski season, with Christmas holiday-makers in La Clusaz limited to just a few small ski areas. My  visitors sought alternative entertainment, opting for the Titanic Exhibition in Geneva and the view from the top of La Salève (above), where paragliders were able to soar in the unseasonal mild conditions.

Snowy traffic in French AlpsLess than 24 hours later, Geneva (on the left in the photo above) was covered in a snowy blanket, and the Savoie region of France  ground to a halt. Roads to ski resorts were closed after midday. People had to abandon their cars and take overnight emergency shelter in town halls.

French news showed scenes of traffic jams, police putting chains on family cars, and cars that had slid off roads. Local newspaper Le Dauphine had loads of reports and pictures showing the standstill.

Here in La Clusaz, a trip back from Annecy yesterday — normally  35 minutes — took 2.5 hours. That’s not bad, actually. The two-minute car trip between Le Grand Bornand and St Jean de Sixt took a friend three hours.

I suppose I should eat my words about how well equipped France is compared with the UK. However, yesterday was probably the busiest day of winter on the roads, with Christmas guests leaving and New Year revellers arriving. Rather than eat my words, I’m about to consume some of that fresh snow before the new arrivals do!

 

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Does this make you want chocolate?

suchard

Just when you thought chocolate adverts in France couldn’t get any weirder (I’m thinking about the Kinder Maxi advert where a woman on a train offers a random kid some chocolate, while some lyrics “If we sleep together would it make it any better” play in the background), they did. Suchard chocolate have been doing their pre-Christmas marketing on television this week. They’ve tried to make chocolate sexy. It’s impossible to embed the latest advert, but an older one is very similar (minus the phallic scene, which you can watch with this link instead). Here’s the older version:

(People receiving this in their inbox will need to click on the link.)

Chocolate is my guilty pleasure. It’s childhood memories of Easter eggs and stealing a piece from the block while breaking it up for a dessert recipe. The advert says it’s “Chocolate for adults”, but I don’t want to think about bums and boobs while I’m chowing down on some chocolate. It puts me off buying this chocolate. The advert also says that giving this chocolate to someone is to “Offrez le plaisir” (“Offer pleasure”), but I’d be worried that the receiver might think I’m trying to give them a hint about my feelings for them.

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When things get busy…

<Photo of a gingerbread boat>
Hello after a month’s break! Apologies for the length between posts: I just haven’t had anything interesting to say, and life has been busy, with a new car purchase, trips away for special birthdays/celebrations, and lots of pre-winter work. In fact, this busy time formed a crescendo last weekend with an annual pre-season party, hosted at my place. This year’s theme was ‘Pirates of the Aravis’, allowing people the freedom to dress as traditional pirates or to incorporate a wintry, snowy theme.

After many years of making gingerbread houses, I decided to make a gingerbread pirate ship, based on the one pictured here. Isn’t it pretty? I went a size bigger. It was a mistake.

The initial construction went well, with a gingerbread mast, portholes and a length of gingerbread added to the deck for walking the plank. I wish I had taken a photo. However, with all the other cooking going on, my house was humid, and gingerbread is a bit of a sponge for humidity. My crispy gingerbread turned as soft as cake overnight. The mast fell over, then the back of the boat collapsed. A friend helped me turn the pirate ship into a pirate ship wreck, with a grassy rock tactfully placed to help hold up one side of the boat, and the mast placed into the sea, plus brown ‘rope’ dotted around. We also added a shark fin, some red around the shark, and a pink hand nearby. The result is below. What’s that saying? “Saw it on Pinterest: nailed it.” Yes, that.

<Photo of my gingerbread boat (wreck), copyright, Le Franco Phoney>

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‘Lac en Partage’ fun in Annecy

<Photo from a boat on Lake Annecy, France>

<Image of 'Lac en Partage' Annecy 2014 brochure>Cruising around Lake Annecy on a large boat has an air of glamour, especially if you’re watching from solid ground. Last weekend, I finally became glamorous, stepping onto one of the famed red and white boats to cruise the lake at a discount price of €5 for the entire day.

The special deal was part of an event called ‘Lac en Partage‘ (‘Shared Lake’) which combined the discounted boat service with free shuttles, hikes, plants, cake, brochures galore and local information stands at each port.

Although the event started early on Sunday morning, I arrived ‘fashionably late’ (I slept in) after midday at the Veyrier port and bought my ticket. Taking a boat across a beautiful lake on an unseasonably hot October afternoon was glamorous enough, and then it peaked when I was interviewed for a national radio station covering the event — in French.

<Photo inside one of Annecy's water plants>Uber-glamour quickly turned to economy on the freebie shuttle bus to Annecy’s newest water plant, not far from the lake. The tour of the plant was interesting, with more than €2m of microfilters inside the white barrels, pictured. The tour guide carried on for an extra half an hour to show us the layouts of every water reservoir in Annecy. There are lots. It was not interesting. Paint drying is more fun. The tour finished minutes before the last boat to St Jorioz — that I was supposed to be on — was due to depart. The bus driver said there’d be no chance of making it back in time.

Thankfully, the boat was running late too. A sprint from the bus to the port got me noticed, and the staff waited for the crazy running lady to board before closing the gate behind me. With just 10 minutes in St Jorioz before the last boat back to Veyrier, I raced around the information stands at the port. I learnt about the ancient submerged villages in Lake Annecy. Diving is forbidden, so the only way to view these protected sites is by looking at photos. On the upside, free plants were available, with gardeners on hand to help choose wisely.

Back in Veyrier, the mood was chilled in the late afternoon sun. Plant in one hand, drink in the other, next year, I’ll make sure I get up earlier. An afternoon was nowhere near long enough.

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Learning first aid in French

france-cpr

<Photo of Anne, the French CPR doll'>Meet Anne. She’s a very important mannequin: she saves lives. Anne was given to me at a short first aid course here in St Jean de Sixt after a friend talked me into going. As always, I was apprehensive about making some big faux pas in French and looking like a complete idiot.

The start of the course about heart attacks involved croissants, pains aux chocolate, juice and black coffee (hey, this isn’t a prevention course: let’s stuff our faces on fat!). This welcome should have made me less nervous, but watching the other participants walk in and greet everyone else with kisses, then a polite ‘bonjour’ for my friend and I made me wonder if we were the only two people in the room who the rest didn’t know personally.

Once seated, Anne the mannequin was given to each participant to keep. Immediately, I thought of fancy dress themes that I could use an extra head for and my nerves subsided. Anne comes with a fake mobile phone, a fake defibrillator, and a DVD of the course. She’s also boxed up with extra internal balloons in case of blow-outs. Anne’s face is modelled on a dead woman found in the Seine in the early 1900s. A suspected suicide, the body was never identified, and the authorities made a mask of her because of her striking beauty. Since then, romantic stories have been written about her, and, apparently, a first aid mannequin, which is slightly less romantic.

Three firemen (‘les pompiers‘) took the training course and were patient with all our questions, extending the course by fifteen minutes to cover everything. I was relieved when half the class was confused by which number to dial in an emergency in France. For the record, you can dial 15, 18 or 112 (15 and 18 are old French numbers and 112 is the European-wide number). All three go to the same switchboard. Being close to the border of Switzerland, we also learnt that the Swiss number is 118 (because Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union, so they have their own number).

With a serious voice, one fireman emphasised the need to respect the patient’s privacy and to prevent a crowd of people hovering around. When someone asked him how high up the chest to perform CPR, he said to look for the nipples and stay in line with them. “Unless they’re grandma boobs,” he said. “Then aim higher up.”

The 1.5-hour first aid course cost €12 (subsidised €10 by local authorities) and was well worth the pre-course nerves. If you live in France, check with your local council as these courses are running nationwide.

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And then suddenly, France seems logical!

aussieflag

<Photo of hire car parking in Sardinia'>France, I’m sorry. I’ve made light of you many too times and questioned why you do things in what seems to be the strangest of ways. I take it all back after visiting the Italian island of Sardinia. Looking for late summer sun, I took a road trip around the island. The first sign of oddness was the car hire man, who upgraded me from a Fiat 500 to — wait for it — a Fiat 500. Maybe the upgrade was the dusty finish, or the unnecessary bumper parking in the half-empty parking lot. Thankfully, the car exceeded its ‘Fix It Again Tomorrow’ label and I whizzed around without any mechanical hitches.

<Photo of an Australian flag hanging upside down in Europe'>On the southern coast, I spotted this Australian flag. Did someone have too much limoncello? I mean, it’s not like the flag consists of, say, three stripes that might be easy to hang upside down: there’s a union jack and the Southern Cross star constellation to guide you to the right way to hang it. What happened, Sardinia?

<Photo of fish in Sardinia being fed spaghetti'>On an island that makes mochas without milk and feeds pasta even to the fish (our skipper pointed out “They’re Italian fish: of course they eat pasta”), I wonder where Sardinians go when they feel like something other than pizza and pasta. Yes, that’s a photo of a frenzied fish attack on tomato, olive and prawn pasta. Okay, the food in Sardinia is delicious, but the locals must have to travel long distances for any cuisine that isn’t Italian.

<Photos of all roads leading to Bono in Sardinia'> Meanwhile, too much partying in the days before Sardinia led to a nasty case of tonsillitis. By Arbatax, I felt so bad that I followed the signs to the hospital. After establishing “nobody” spoke English or French, I tried “tonsillitis” in English and French. She shrugged, even though the Italian word is pretty similar. In broken English, she said the hospital was for scans only. And no, she couldn’t tell me where to find a doctor. Nobody around town seemed to know either. I wonder if the people waiting for scans at the hospital wrote their own scan requests.

Even in Italy, not all roads lead to Rome. Sardinia, being an island, has a different mecca. All roads lead to Bono. Who knew he lived there?

France, I’m happy to be back.

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When ‘forbidden’ doesn’t really mean it

interdit

<Photo of a public sign in France, saying 'Entry forbidden, with people entering>The sign in this photo translates roughly to “No public entry on work site”. Yes, on the left of the photo is a new building development. On the right is a picturesque view of the village of Les Plombieres les Bains in Les Vosges. Two members of the public are visible, and another four were standing in the unfinished building.

Despite the warning sign, the four people in the building were looking at plans for its completion. Normally, if you didn’t want people poking around your building site, you wouldn’t put up plans. You might even fence off the area.

But this is France, where the word “interdit“, which literally means “forbidden”, realistically means “just don’t break anything on your way through”.

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Vegie burgers hit La Clusaz!

France is many great things, but it is not known for its friendliness towards vegetarians. As a non-meat eater, I’ve been offered fish galore, and even chicken — “because it’s not meat”, (“Yes it is”), “No it’s not” (and so it went on).

In La Clusaz and the Aravis area, vegetarian options usually revolve around cheese, regardless of rennet content. Raclette and fondue is available for indulgent vegetarians, and goats cheese salad for those being healthy. Pizza and pasta are sometimes available, but they get boring after the first few years.

A change has been taking place in the past few years, with a vegie burger on the menu at Le Coin Gourmand in Le Grand Bornand (made with a potato patty instead of beef) and at Le Maz’ô in St Jean de Sixt (courgette and aubergine base, with a tasty home-made pesto sauce).

<Photo of a vegie burger at Le Chavinette, La Clusaz, France'>And finally, La Clusaz has given in. Although the burger isn’t yet listed on the blackboard menu, the owner of Le Chavinette told me last winter that demand was growing and he was thinking about making a vegie burger. When I walked in on the weekend, he offered up his latest creation. Pictured is the burger. He too has included a fried potato patty, but on top of that is a patty made of mixed vegetables, which he described as ratatouille. It’s actually far tastier, and with the fresh salad on top, it tastes pretty healthy for a burger.

The Brits around town affectionately call Le Chavinette ‘Chav Burger’, and now I feel guilty for joining in. If you happen to visit La Clusaz and you don’t eat meat, demand the vegie burger!

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France Vegatarian - website for vegetarians and vegans in France

Website for vegetarians and vegans in France