All you’ve got to do is not exercise for twenty-three and a half hours a day: the long tail of everyday life

I saw this excellent video on Martin Weller’s blog and was so impressed I thought I’d share it here. The message is, in short, that exercise gets the ‘biggest bang for your buck’ in terms of any lifestyle change you can make. You needn’t hatch plans for that triathlon, either: it focusses on walking in the main.

That’s 30 minutes a day to reduce a number of risks of ill health. The implied message here is that relatively small changes make a big difference. In a way, it’s like Chris Anderson’s idea of the ‘long tail’: we don’t need to embark upon an enormous feat of fitness like climbing a mountain or running a marathon. Instead, we can achieve success through an accumulation of smaller successes.

So, why stop at exercise? Learn a language, write that novel – ok, perhaps ‘read that novel’ is more likely if you’re time-poor. But the point is that the changes needn’t be the kinds of major ones we chase when the New Year begins and we jot our hopeful resolutions in our new diaries. And, if you like photography, you could always try Blipfoto.

These are a few of my favourite things – a cultural review of 2011

I won’t do anymore throat-clearing before starting the list other than to say that this list might equally (and more accurately) be called ‘stuff which I listened to / read / watched, etc but that didn’t come out in 2011’. Although many of them did appear for the first time in 2011, many didn’t – this list just means I encountered them in 2011. Since I have an almost preternatural way of seeking out and sharing what you’ve already seen / done /read, this comes as hardly a surprise.

So, that said, here they are, in no particular order…

Favourite song – ‘Video Games’ by Lana Del Rey

I read on Twitter from Caitlin Moran that she had more or less repeatedly listening to Lana Del Rey’s song, ‘Video Games’, all summer long. Clicking the link, I could hear why. It’s amazing. Best seen as well as heard – the video and song work seamlessly together – it has topped the polls for many others, so I’m hardly being original – a theme that perhaps is true of all my list. This piece nicely sums up why we like it. I like it because it will forever remind me of my little bike tour, where I sang it, if not word perfect then with gusto (and aloud), for most of the way.

Favourite album – The Courage of Others by Midlake

I started listening to The Courage of Others in 2010 and I haven’t stopped playing this regularly since. It was the same with Vanoccupanther in 2009. The Courage of Others might 2012’s favourite album, too – I wouldn’t bet against it. I know it will always remind of being here in France and the mountains in particular. It’s so tied up with memories it’s hard to think of anything else which has touched me like it.

Favourite book(s), article

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

‘Two Paths for the Novel’ by Zadie Smith

I’m opening up the idea of a ‘favourite’ book by including two books, both published outside of 2011 and one of which I read in 2009; and by including an article. It’s a bit sneaky, I know. Bear with me and I’ll explain.

Remainder is one of those books that helps you rethink the boundaries of fiction and offer a glimpse of where it might be heading. There are problems with it: the forensics of assembling some of the scenes can drag and some of the red herrings seems a little contrived, by even both of those approaches illustrate how this book is different. That said, it is brilliantly conceived and is packed full of ideas – what time means; how we construct reality; the difficult of being authentic; public and private lives. There’s so much there to think about. Its style is deceptively light: it’s a complicated book with an unforgettable ending that seems to capture what it means to be living now.

I wouldn’t say that either book is ‘about’ cricket but both contain an element of the fine game, so that’s my ill-conceived ‘hook’ to bring them together. Netherland is a novel about being lost in a new country; about expatriation and changing identities; about new worlds and the old. As such, it spoke to me a little following my move to Switzerland, then France. The character of Ramkissoon is brilliantly drawn, the narrator convincing. Alas, it dies a little by the end; but what comes before is enough.

As good as these books are, I would suggest they are best read in conjunction with Zadie Smith’s perceptive work of comparative analysis which considers both books and their contribution to the identity of the contemporary novel. I think Smith (who also wrote a brilliant analysis of the effect that computers have on us, ostensibly as a discussion of Jaron Lanier’s book You are not a Gadget and David Fincher’s film, Social Network) offers two paths that fiction might take, illustrated by these two novels. Remainder and Netherland diverge in many ways, not least in realism and technique – one more conventional, the other ‘experimental’ (that dread word). It’s ok, though – we can read both.

Favourite internet meme – Ultimate dog tease (hungry dog)

In our house, something that is especially good is now referred to as ‘the maple kind’. If a video is good enough to get you starting you own, minor meme then it has my vote. Honourable mention goes to Fenton. Unusually, it’s dogs, not cats, that rule the roost.

Favourite restaurant – Bistrot des Halles de Rives

This unprepossessing place appears to offer very little if judging by appearances. Sandwiched between the stalls in the indoor (admittedly, gourmet) food market in Geneva,  there really is (for me) only one dish – the steak frites equivalent, served with buerre Parisien and garnish (a rather lonely half tomato). It is uniformly superb. I have to keep returning to make sure they retain their standards.

Favourite computer game – Dead Space 2 (Playstation 3)

I played Dead Space 2 before the first version and nearly didn’t play either. I played the first Dead Space in demo and thought to difficult and unexciting. I was wrong – the difficulty is just right in both games and it could hardly be said to be boring. Rather, the often samey scenes – both games are set onboard spaceships – are deliberately crafted to appear claustrophobic; their uniform design appears authentic and contrasts well with the horrors you find within. A superb game, superior in all departments to any other I’ve played this year.

Favourite Tweet / Status Update

This tweet made me laugh when I first read it – always a good sign:

tashapotamus
#midnight #snack

It introduced a whole new way of thinking about Twitter for me – no content, only metadata. Wow. Perhaps this is how we will communicate in the future – perhaps the modern aside (or soliloquy) will make the hashtag its vehicle? Who knows. This just made me laugh.

Favourite gadget – Apple iPad

I’ve used this more than any other single gadget, mostly for ebook reading, but also for travel – it’s 3G is useful for maps and for learning more about the place your in. I can’t imagine life without it now – and the new iBooks night reader has made it even more useful.

Favourite blog – ‘Heathen’s Progress’, Julian Baggini, The Guardian (Comment is Free)

The latter half of the year saw the start of philosopher Julian Baggini’s excellent blog on philosophy and belief, Heathen’s Progress. This series has sought to further understand the nature of belief as it is experienced. It suggests that rather than a single set fixed dogma, believers often have individual ideas about how to characterise their faith. It has sought to understand, if not to reconcile, without fundamental compromise. The comments are also unexpectedly good; like so many blogs, the author’s by line should be supplemented with a thanks to those who comment.

Favourite photo that I took – Tate Modern (version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

I had some trouble with this photo. I asked my Twitter contacts if they could help and they made some good suggestions. But still I couldn’t get the crop right. Even now, when I look carefully, it doesn’t fully work. Still, it’s an interesting image and one that I like because it happened completely spontaneously. They are sitting where I had just sat, to have a beer and a sandwich and watch people flow over the bridge across the Thames.

Favourite photo that someone else took – Black Macaque Self Portrait (David Slater)

You may have heard the story of a photographer – David Slater – who had his camera stolen by a black macaque, who then went on to take photographs of itself, like the one below. A great story – and some accomplished photos. Honourable mention to all those excellent photos I’ve seen on Flickr, too

Copyright David J Slater / Caters

Favourite television programme – The Hour

I think Mad Men was excellent again, now at Season 4. But the show that sticks in my mind was The Hour. It approached Mad Men’s mix of private and public politics – the grand and the great, the intimate and the secret – and I loved (again, like Mad Men) the period feel, only this time it British. Well worth seeing, I hope they make another series.

Favourite film – Rabbit Hole

I was completely surprised by Rabbit Hole (2010). I think Nicole Kidman plays some interesting parts and acts well but I was suspicious it might have suffered from the Hollywood gloss. It hasn’t. It’s very moving, horribly so around half way in – but it captures the horror that few of us will hopefully never know so beautiful and with such dignity. It was also superb at the dynamics of relationships and the sudden escalation of marital arguments.

Favourite artwork – Isenheim altarpiece

I saw the Isenheim altarpiece for the first time this year. I’ve written about it elsewhere (with photos) so I won’t repeat that, suffice to say it was incredible to see in the flesh.

Favourite memory – pitching a tent by the lakeside on my bike tour

Camping by the lake, Provence

Camping by the lake, Provence

Aside from all those wonderful times I have shared with Jennie (and which remain private), my bike tour provided me with the most pungent memories. But which one? Starting off, thinking I had forgotten to pack something – then relaxing and starting to enjoy it the ride? Arriving on a sweltering hot day in The Camargue, the journey over, and sitting in a bar to order a beer – when the waiter took my dry bidons and filled them with ice and water? All of these – but this one, moreso – making camp on the banks of a lake in Provence; cooking dinner on my portable stove; and looking over the lake, listening to the cricket on BBC TestMatch Special. Oh happy day.

England won, too.

 

That’s it. That was my 2011. Here comes 2012…

 

When is a walk a hike? Hiking Mont Vuache: a photo blogpost

Me posing and, ahem, wearing tights

At the weekend, Jen and I hiked up Mont Vuache. The small mountain is close by to us and we’ve been there before but this time we took a different route up and down. It’s a moderately difficult hike (that is, you can do it in trainers but not flip flops) and takes a few hours if you amble and enjoy the views as we did. We took the eastern route, which begins in the lovely hamlet of Chaumont and climbs steadily for around an hour before you reach a plateau with a much gentler slope.

An appealing part of the hike are the views. When higher, it offers an almost panoramic perspective: you can see a great deal of the Jura, Geneva and the Genevoise bassin, and Mont Blanc and the Alps. We loved seeing Salève, ‘our’ mountain close to home.

View of Mont Saleve, with the Alps in the background. Our home is down there somewhere.

You know when you’re arrived at the summit because there is a cairn there. You place a stone on the pile, rest for a moment, and if you’re like us, go and find somewhere to eat your lunch.

View from our lunch spot.

The descent was a little more difficult because the leaf fall of autumn hid the loose stones and rocks. Of course, the locals hot-footed it up and down in a nonchalant, carefree manner whilst I walked sideways like a crab, trying not to slip.

On the descent - the remains of the old castle are our goal

So – was this a walk or a hike? And does it matter? Well, it matters in how you classify it for Garmin’s Connect page, or Runkeeper, or any of a host of fitness sites that track and record your sporting activity. As for the definition, well – perhaps it’s to do with intensity, or how long you’re out there, or how fast you move.

We suspect these must be inedible - the locals would have snaffled them otherwise

I’ve tried for a while to define a hike and all I came up with is this: when hiking, you need a decent pair of shoes and you wear a rucksack. If what you’re doing on your own two feet fits this definition, then it’s a hike. Otherwise it’s a walk.

Clear view of Mont Blanc from Vuache, nice

Of course, you could easily walk the route we took to climb Mont Vuache in trainers and without a rucksack. But then it wouldn’t be a hike, would it?

Keep running, running… small steps to small successes

I have been running for about a week now, on most days and already I’m pleased to say I’m getting better. I stress immediately that I’m not good: I’m not even bad, I’m worse than that. I’m just better than I was when I started, compared to me. That probably isn’t too much to ask, really: I started as absolutely dreadful. But now I’m just horribly terrible and that’s happened in just over a week.

I am an averagely fit person, no more than that (I do cycle a bit and that helps). So, if you’re thinking of running then it might lift you to think that if I can get a few small victories, then you might too. Here’s how it happened to me.

There is a circuit around our the back of our home, through the high street and back again which I eloquently describe as ’round the block’. It’s around 2.25 kilometres. We walk it fairly often. It’s part jeep track, part road, part pavement. It’s not ideal for running, nor is it terrible. It has the advantage of being not too short but not too long, either.

The first time I tried to run this loop I had to stop after about five minutes or so. I walked for a bit and then ran again when my heart rate returned to a reasonable rate. Now here’s something I do feel is useful for those beginning: a heart rate monitor. I’ve put in all my details and when I enter the red zone, my heart is beating too fast to sustain over time. So, I slow down and stop. On my first run, this happened around the five minute mark.

When I returned home on the first day my legs ached. They ached the day after too. That’s ok. I stretched them a bit and then a bit more and had a rest day on the third day. That helped enormously. I noticed, too, that my running ‘style’ was a little irregular – not quite legs and arms flailing but not well balanced – so I tried to be more uniform and measured, a little more controlled. That helped too I think.

Once I had gotten the measure of my comptency, or otherwise, at running like this, I set myself small goals. The first was just to get around the block and return in one piece without the need for an ambulance. The second was to run the entire loop (I hesitate to call it a route, lest it inflate its significance) without stopping to walk. To my joy, I did this on the third attempt. Conveniently, running the entire thing took me around 16 minutes on the first successful attempt so it occurred to me that running the loop in under 15 minutes would be a clear goal. I did that today for the first time and as I write I’m buoyed both by this mini success and by those lovely endorphins that keep me from feeling, temporarily, the pain in my calves. You can see some of the detail of that run below.

I am amazed at the progress: in just over six or so runs I can not only complete the loop but I have improved my speed. And that’s just the ‘stats’: I feel better, I ache less when I’m done and I carry around the satisfied look of someone who started their day with energy-supplying, healthy exercise. It’s not comparable to any even half-decent runner but it’s a sign that I’ve got better, at least so far.

My next goal is to run for half an hour and then to run 5k, hopefully within half an hour. I think 5k would be a landmark. It’s one of those numbers. I can’t tell you what, if anything, I’ll do after that – I’m not looking that far ahead. I think it’s probably one of those things when the early goals are more easily achieved than the moderate ones. Ho hum.

So, far from being a guide on how to run as a beginner, this is just my experience. It might not work for you. You’ll have you own things to contend with, your own way of approaching it. But I’m amazed at how quickly I have achieved my small goals and it’s made me want to keep running running (and stopping and aching)…

Biketour update, final day – ‘le petit tour’ is finished!

(I have collected some of the photos into a ‘photo story’ of the bike tour. You can find it on Flickr, here.)

The bike tour, like all good things, must come to an end. I made my way from Remoulins, where I stayed in a well-equipped campsite (with pool and restaurant, no less) to The Camargue and specifically to Grau-du-roi, where I found the beach and the Mediterranean, my final destination.

Once again I had a difficult night. The campsite was being used by workers to park their vehicles and stay overnight. So, at around midnight they turned up en masse, in vans, making a lot of noise. Duly at dawn, they took their vans and heavy equipment and left. I was wide awake – disturbed by the noise and now too tired to sleep again, excited by the day ahead.

The cycle went well. I travelled through a tiny village with cobbles which lead to a decent-sized col. Unlike climbing in the earlier part of the tour, this was bone dry and very hot. The landscape changing has been once of the most impressive elements of this trip and even within the 500kms or so I have travelled there has been a dramatic transformation.

Not least in Camargue, where the mountains disappeared and the flat, salt plains and etangs dominate the horizon. Despite being in Grau-du-roi, a coastal village and working fishing port, I had trouble finding the sea! At first it was barricaded by private hotels and villas which each divide and protect their portion. The destination of the sea proved as moving as I thought it might – I love the ocean (who doesn’t?) and seeing it spread before me was really quite something, even for this little trip.

But more urgent matter pressed me. I was hungry and as dry as the dust bowls that surrounded parts of the salt lakes. I bought a beer at a bar – no more food for the afternoon, though – and the barman filled my bidons with ice-cold water and some ice. Bliss. I drank deep. That was the best beer I have had for a long time.

So, ‘le petit tour’ is over. It wasn’t much of a tour but it was mine. The high and low points? The high points were the cycling itself, which I enjoyed even in the worse conditions; the camping at Ancône, right next to lake; and eating from my stove (and listening to the cricket). The low point came during the night, where the constant rain on the tent kept me awake and killed my spirits – and made my bottom lip wobble as I turned my bike into the heavy rain and rush-hour morning traffic in St. Laurent du pont.

The experience has given me some time to think about what makes a good short tour, what to take, some reviews on the equipment I used and all that so I’m going to collect my thoughts on that in the next blog post. Until the next one…

Made it! My trust Orbea on the beach at Le Grau-du-roi, France

‘Un petit tour’ – cycling from the Alps to the Mediterranean, via Ardèche and Provence

In an hour or so I will start cycling solo from the Alps region where I live to the Mediterranean. Along the way I will cycle through the contrasting landscape of Ardèche, through the red earth and tall plane trees of Provence, and end the trip at the wide flat salt plains and lagoons of The Camargue on the South coast. I’m carrying everything I need on a specially equipped touring bike, including my stove, tent and sleeping bag. It will take a few days and 400 or so kilometres.

It’s not an impressive trip especially: Googling ‘bicycle touring’ will quickly reveal the trials of those cross the globe on two fragile-looking wheels, perhaps circumnavigating more than once. One man quit his job, packed up and left home several years ago to embark upon a perpetual world tour, never to return (at least, not yet). Some people might cycle this distance in a couple of days. So, relatively speaking, it’s not ground-breaking. But it is for me. Besides, this trip is the beginning, not the end: I am certain there will be more to come. So I consider this a trial run of sorts: will I like it? Will it like me?

Which begs the question – why bicycle touring? In short, I might not get another chance like this. I have some free-time at the moment, so it’s opportune. I also want to get to know France, and in particular the places I am visiting, in the kind of depth that only the immersive, slow-paced approach a bicycle offers. I want to improve my French; and hopefully meet some interesting people, too – bicycle touring seems to dissolve social boundaries, it’s a good conversation starter. What’s more, I’m obsessed by cycling. It will be a pleasure to be on the road for so long in France, this ‘spiritual home’ of the bicycle (if I still think the latter after this tour I will judge it a success).

I am going to be blogging each evening and Tweeting along the way, technology permitting, with updates (although there will be no photos until the end of the trip since I don’t have the suitable doohickey at the moment). So, bye for now and I hope for a ‘bon voyage’.

My first mountain: cycling Mont Salève

From my study I can see Mont Salève, a mountain that forms part of the pre-Alps before the Alps proper begin. It’s full of tracks for hiking and mountain biking and I’ve taken my scooter along the winding road that traces the mountain’s spine dozens of times, mostly to wonder at the view of Mont Blanc amongst the mountains there.

Mont Salève in all its glory

I hadn’t been cycling long when I began to harbour a desire to climb Salève on the bike. At this point I could hardly winch myself around the block. But my dreams rolled before I could catch them: one day, I would think, one day.

Today was the day. I climbed the mountain.

There are five major paths to follow to climb Le Salève and I took neither the most difficult nor the easiest. I left my house and climbed the longish gradual incline to Mont Sion, when I took the road to St Blaise. These initial stages were the most difficult in the entire climb, at some points exceeding a 10% incline.

The road from St Blaise to Lachenaz is steep - and gets steeper as you climb

Here, I stopped briefly twice to reduce my heart rate, take it all in and shoot some photos. I never pushed the bike. I climbed it all in the saddle. In future attempts, I am confident that I won’t stop at all. At some points I wouldn’t look up in case the hill overwhelmed me. I thought: just keep spinning, just keep spinning. And I did, even though at times the road seem to rise up towards me and my legs burned and the bike weaved and I wanted it all to stop.

The mountain road twists and turns. Once you see the cobbles on the wall, you know you are nearly there

The mountain path itself is relatively easy. Its main difficulty is that it’s long and that one is likely to be tired from getting to this point. I didn’t push hard here and kept my heart rate at a reasonable and consistent level.  When I arrived at Virage du Salève, a stopping point for those who have made the climb, I was welcomed with the most amazing view of the Alps.

The prize for getting to Virage du Salève is to rest - and take in the view of the Alps

I decided to curtail my trip and descend at La Croisette to Le Coin rather than take the road through Le Sappey and return via Cruseilles. The weather was closing in and I felt coldish, although strong. The descent to Le Coin was almost as difficult as the climb earlier! It’s very steep and the many tricky hairpins are hard to navigate. The relatively flat road home was blissfully easy by comparison to what had come before.

The descent from La Croisette to Le Coin is nearly as difficult as the ascent. Nearly.

This is a significant achievement for me in that it is the culmination of months of regular cycling and lifestyle changes. I’ve become stronger, I can ride longer, I’ve lost weight and eat better; I feel better. I love cycling in itself and for what it has given me. I hope to go on to achieve new goals, including a metric and then imperial tonne. You might even find me on a higher longer mountain path sometime soon.

Climbing Salève isn’t of itself remarkable: many do it every day, some perhaps as you read this. I didn’t ride it quickly or with especial elegance or power (indeed, I suffered the obligatory humiliation of being passed by a gentleman at least 20 older than me and who was quite able to say a full and rounded ‘bonjour’ as he passed me on a particularly nasty climb, in contrast to my breathless reply). Nor is it a grand mountain, nor particularly long or arduous. But it was all those things for me. It was truly challenging. And besides, it was my first, so it’s worth remembering.

All of this is doesn’t make me a good cyclist or even a competent one. In fact, I would go further and say I’m a terrible rider. But perhaps before I was abominable, atrocious, lamentable even. At least I’m going in the right direction.

 
http://connect.garmin.com:80/activity/embed/92557198

Photo and video blog: Cycling Mont Salève

Me on my bike, at home

When I was a younger man I cycled everywhere – to and from school, to friends and girlfriends, I explored all I could on the bike and loved it. The love affair eventually ended (with my girlfriends and cycling) and the bike gathered dust.

Until just recently.

I had no idea that moving to France would mean I’d be compelled to jump back on the saddle again. But compelled I am because cycling is, to paraphrase a memorable description of another beautiful ‘game’, more than a matter of life and death for Haute-savoyards. Le Tour (the cycling tour of France) is the nation’s sport, a spectacle that seems to visit and then take over every city, town and hamlet for a handful of unforgettable long summer weeks. But it’s my understanding that the Alps region where I live holds a special place for cyclisme – because there are mountains there.

Le Tour: a spectacle loved throughout France

Now, this is wonderful for the enthusiast. There are hills to climb. And then more. Then mountains, even. And when you’re done, there’s the high-speed descent. And all this in glorious Alpine splendour. But for un débutant like me, it is a different matter.

For example: upon leaving my house, there is a slight incline, which, after I’ve navigated my way out of the community gate, is met by another, slightly steeper incline. And so it goes. Until, for me at least, you meet the holy of holies – the ascent from Le Coin to La Croisette, a terrible, forbidding climb up dozens of sharply twisting roads. You’ll know when at the top because you’ll be on a mountain. It is difficult to drive this road, let alone cycle.

Imposing face of Salève, taken from Le Coin

The first time I decided to ‘go around the block’, I took out my downhill mountain bike, a disastrously heavy, angular collection of steel, springs and rubber. I went down the hill and rode back (here, I can tell you that ‘the hill’ would, in my native London, be considered something of an understatement). When I got home, delighted that ‘I still had it’, I bent over and put my back out. I still hadn’t it.

Since then, finding a local route has been fun, because I’m out in the country and there’s always a lane or road to explore. The views are inspiring, although it tends to be colder, especially during the descent. This short video shows you a typical bit of road and what I see when I’m out and about.

Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to have a new bike now. My old one – now known as the ‘tractor’ – has a lively rear suspension, so I bounce when I ride it. Quite comical when writing that, less so when it’s happening. I don’t know a great deal about bikes so I played safe and bought a friend who is far more in the know to help me choose. In the absence of thousands of Euros thrown lavishly at a bike I might never use (my wife Jennie joked that at least that way it would never wear out), I was relatively sensible. I ended up with a Decathlon Alu Carbon Competition bike. As the name suggests, it is a mix of aluminium and carbon, keeping it light and strong. But between me and you, it is white, with a bit of yellow and black and the occasional gear. Here it is.

My bike

Progress has been unusually speedy. Within only weeks I had improved, and now I occasionally stop thinking about the pain and enjoy the ride (enthusiasts might add that I’m doing it right in this case). Finding a route has been fun. It means getting a little lost, exploring new places, something I always enjoy. At the moment, I generally take my bike around the flatter roads of Salève, the mountain that runs from outside my home, connecting Geneva and Switzerland at one end and Haute-savoie and France at the other.

The path more travelled

This doesn’t mean I’m avoiding the hills, just the worst of them. I record all my cycle rides using an iPhone 3G and Runkeeper. The stats it produces tells me that often the climb (which it considers to be a sum of the ascent and descent) goes into the hundreds of metres. I find the stats useful so I can compare my times, try to get better. Bizarrely, I’ve found myself even enjoying the challenge of a hill: as I long as I don’t, like the sun, look it right in the eye.

It sounds corny but riding with the ever-present mountain is inspirational. For me, it is the most brutal of critics, it offers the most tender support. It is a fixed point, solid, impenetrable; it endures – a counterpoint to my dwindling stamina, always reminding me to just keep spinning those legs.

Just keep spinning: "Moon with Salève (Le Grand Piton)"

If you want to see more of my photos, my Flickr stream is here.

What I like about France, what I miss about England: leaving the UK, one year on

It’s been a year since Jennie and I left England to move to Geneva Switzerland, and later to nearby France where we live now. I won’t go into the sentimental details of the ‘anniversary’ – suffice to say that there was a little reminiscing over a glass of champers last night, thinking about the year that has passed – so instead here’s a list of how French life is great and the things I miss about the UK. In no particular order…

Why I love France

Weather. It’s hotter here in the summer than the UK, there are more days filled with sunshine, and it’s relatively consistent and predictable too. Summer last year was like the feted one in 1976 in the UK, the one we think all summers should be like. Since meteo.fr is particular to my specific area, the forecast seems always to get it right. There are some indifferent days, of course, but generally it is less damp than England, less gloomy. The barbie gets more use. Conversely, when it snows, it is colder than the UK, colder but a dry cold. What this means is there is a greater range of…

Outdoor activity. In the summer you can plan days out because it’s likely you’ll get decent weather. Since we live in the countryside, more or less, we have some excellent hiking, golf, cycling, climbing, swimming… the list goes on. We have a tennis court and football ground at the end of the road. The key thing is, as the winter comes the sports only get better: when it’s snowing, we go snowboarding or snowshoeing. It’s this kind of year-round activity that is one of my most favourite things about this place.

The mountains and the water. We live in the Rhône-Alpes region, so as you might expect there are lots of mountains and there is lots of water. We live around an hour or so from some of the best Alpine locations anywhere and I can see the Salève and Jura mountain ranges from my window. We have Lakes Geneva and Annecy, which we plan to boat on soon. What’s more, we have Geneva on our doorstep, so we get to do all the city things, too – and there are the all-important opportunities for work.

Food and wine. I’ve done some independent studies* on this and, in short, food is better in my part of France than in the UK. Much better. Even local stores have local produce, lovingly laid out and presented. (There is one exception, as you’ll see.) Even the small fact that France loves whisky, as do I, seems as if it is just the right place. The aisles dedicated to cured meat and cheese found in the hypermarché should be enough to convince you of its culinary superiority; if it doesn’t, try some of the local wines from Satigny, or the Rhône, or…

Secular, liberal, republic. So far, I’ve counted the physical things, like weather and mountains. But there are political or philosophical things, too. One of the latter is the fact that France is a modern, democratic secular, liberal, republic. This generally coincides with my approach, my politics. It doesn’t mean that France is without its issues. But nor does it mean that these high ideals are completely detached from public life either. You’ll find them in bars and restaurants and in the fabric of life out here. I even found a copy of Camus’ ‘L’etranger’ at the local supermarket.

People work to live, not live to work. Shops are closed on Sunday here (some large supermarkets are open in the morning) and often closed on Monday, too. Many more close for a long lunch, between 12.00 and 14.00. It’s annoying sometimes and takes getting used to, but it illustrates how the French try to put living before working. It’s not perfect, and we’ve been affected by strikes and so on, but it’s something I can believe in (and not just because I’m lazy, either).

Before you get on the plane (or not, as the case might be) to leave it all behind, there are some downsides, at least as far as I’m concerned…

What I miss about England

Family and friends. You have to leave your family and friends behind. That is, unless you can take them with you. I’m working on the latter. You get more popular when you live in a nice place and I try to convert every member of my family who comes through the door to move out here. France isn’t a million miles away, either, and it’s only a short plane flight to go to the UK. We all do a lot of social networking stuff, too.

Newspapers. The quality of newspapers here is very high. Le Monde, Le Figaro and even the free or cheap newspapers like 20 Minutes focus on more on news, not just gossip. But since I’m still learning French, I can’t read them effortlessly, which is how I like to read a newspaper, especially at weekends. The French Paper is quite good but it doesn’t have the frequency or sheer heft of a good old weekend broadsheet, stuffed with magazines and reviews.

Marks and Spencer. There’s plenty of good shopping out here, but there’s nothing like a Marks and Sparks. It’s the corduroy, you see – the cardigan. There is one in Geneva but it sells only clothes for women and food. However, I can order online, and it’s fairly cheap at around £5 to ship to France, so all is not lost.

Curry. Despite an ongoing fervent search, I still haven’t found a convincing curry house. The curry in Geneva, even in what appear ‘authentic’ places, is adapted (read ‘made innocuously bland’) to a Swiss and French taste in the places I’ve been. It’s just as well my wife Jennie is a great cook. On a related note, you can get Marmite and baked beans (other staples) but they are often horribly expensive.

Language. It’s hard sometimes to know that everyone around you doesn’t understand what you might want to say, that you are divided by a language, even if you might share common interests and beliefs. The answer is to learn French. If you’re like me, you might find this tough. But when you get a moment of breakthrough – perhaps you listen to the radio, and understand what is being said, at least in part – it is completely rewarding and worthwhile.

I can’t say I miss UK culture – music, tv, movies – because we get them all here. Without them it would be difficult, I think. And I can’t say we’re completely immersed in French culture, either. Some of it, especially some of the pop music and comedy shows, I’m happy to leave aside for now.

If you think these lists amount to my succumbing to the temptation (common in other ex-pats, I’ve found) to criticize their home country when they leave it, then think again: I love the UK and always will. A move away from home can mean that you love it just the same, not less. I’ll be supporting England in the football World Cup. It’s just that I now have another couple of teams to shout for, too – France and Switzerland. Addition doesn’t mean dilution.

But the biggest thing I’ll take, though, is not necessarily to be found in either the UK or France and is this: we feel good because we took ourselves from our relative comfort zones and tried something new and challenging; that we developed a new confidence and broader outlook that comes with the huge upheaval of moving to a country with a different language and culture; that we’ve not just sat and thought it would be nice to move, but actually gone and done it.

It’s not that people don’t do this kind of thing every day, or that it’s particularly unusual or daring or brave. We’re none of those things. It’s just that it is unusual for us, a challenge, something that has allowed us to be different from ourselves and one we’re lucky to say has worked out wonderfully. And who could not love an area like Haute-savoie when it has the motto: ‘In tartiflette we trust!‘ This is a place I’m happy to call ‘home’.

*I mean I’ve eaten in both France and England quite a lot.

Snowboarding: letting go

Me in a silly hat: first day on the slope

Me in a silly hat: first day on the slope

I’ve never been snowboarding before until recently – but I can already tell that it’s going to be a central part of wintersports out here in Haute-Savoie. I loved it!

With my educationalist cap on (a little dusty and frayed at the edges, but still usable) its learning curve at these early stages has a pleasing simplicity to it. You start learning on one edge (either the toe or heel edge) and then the other. When you’re competent at this (that is, you don’t fall down every single time you get up on the board) you are ready to turn.

When you turn, you begin on one edge and when you are past the turn you switch to the other. This three step process – from (say) toe edge, heel edge, then using both during a turn – has an obviousness about it, an inevitability in the linear transition from one stage to the next. At least in theory. Doing it is another matter. I can tell you it’s a steep learning curve but once I’m past the stage of turning more than falling over, I’m on my way to becoming a ‘boarder’. That means I’m allowed to comment upon the quality of the ‘powder’ – but you won’t find me saying ‘gnarly’.

Even from my short time on the board, I can say it’s a sport that depends upon confidence. Take the turn, again. On a board you’re used to using the edges for control, of direction and speed. But at one point on the turn you need to accept the fact that the board will be – albeit momentarily – facing down the slope and going faster than you might like (for a noob like me, anyway).

What you realise quickly is that it’s about confidence. You need to let go. It’s a bit like sleep; you can’t forcibly will yourself there, you have to wait and let it wash over you. In those tiny moments when it all fits into place on the board, it’s unforgettable. You’ve just got to try not to want it too much, lest it doesn’t come again easy. In that, it feels just like the rest of life.