Oeuf to France

The annual plume of unseasonal warm air making its way up towards the British Isles from North Africa (aka fake summer) coincided with a trip to France. In some ways it was a shame to miss out on such glorious weather in Britain over Easter – how I would miss the opportunity to pop to Tesco in my shorts to battle for the last bag of charcoal and three packs of sausages for a fiver. Or negotiate the single track roads to Cornish coves whose hillsides are coated in cars charged eight quid for the privilege. But France would be nice.

fr02Indeed, the weather didn’t bring too much to grumble about and my shorts proved a justified inclusion on the continent. There were countryside ambles and meanders through parks, Easter egg hunts in the garden and trips to the market. All the usual trappings of life on the French-Swiss border in Ville-la-Grand, snow coating distant peaks while spring was springing all around.

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Out of town, a morning amble around Lac du Mole took us slightly closer to the snow. Yet here the sights of ducklings and the sounds of randy toads were ample testament to the fact that things were hotting up.

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It was good to be out, within flirting distance of the mountains, the sight of which always entice you to explore more. However, the primary rationale for this particular outing wasn’t really to survey mountain tops and randy toads. It was – of course – the proximity of the lake to a patisserie; a roadside stop that could be a Little Chef or a Costa Coffee in the UK, but here was brim with fondant artistry and crème extravagance. As opposed to despondent mediocrity and frothy incompetence.

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While there was gateau and – naturally – cheese aplenty, this was also a trip featuring roast dinners, toads in holes and homemade lasagne; a franglais stew to cater for cross-cultural cravings. I find ice cream works in any language, whether this is whipped in Walsall or churned in Chernobyl. Both places where you’d hope not to find yourself buying ice cream to be honest.

fr06Annecy, on the other hand, is a gem of a place to take in an ice cream or do whatever you should please. From the hive of construction that is Annemasse station, a pleasing hour long train ride delivered my nephew Guillaume and I to what has been described as the Venice of the Alps, largely on the count of a canal infiltrating a few of the streets and – possibly – gondoliers wailing about their need for Walls Cornettos.

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Passing through France almost every town or village you come upon proclaims itself as a Ville Fleurie, going on to illustrate this with an intricate arrangement featuring a cast iron cow and a cluster of geraniums in the middle of a roundabout. Annecy would live up to Ville Fleurie and then some, at least in its medieval centre chock full of flower boxes and civic blooms. The suburbs could well be as grimy as Walsall for all I know, but in the midst of town, much is done to attract and charm.

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fr09The waterways and the flowers and the daytrippers milling about eating ice cream largely find their way towards the jewel in the crown that is Lac d’Annecy and its quite dazzling surrounds. Clear, glacial water hosts an array of boats, encircled by forests, villages and rapidly elevating peaks. It’s a popular spot to row or cruise or be a hoon on a jetski. Or even pedalo for half an hour in a large figure eight. Everybody loves a tourist.

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fr10bThe frequent sight of tourists eating ice cream impels one to wander the streets like a tourist to seek out an ice cream. Heavily topped cornets increase in frequency back near one of the canals, and a large queue meanders from the serving hatch of Glacier des Alpes. Patience may be rewarded with sublime ice cream but neither Guillaume nor I had much patience and opted for a perfectly satisfactory version nearby. Safe from the clutches of any devious gondoliers.

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Leaving Annecy, storm clouds were gathering over the mountains and the very fine weather would break the following day to deliver a period of wind and rain. Preparation for my return to England – and the frequently damp northwest of England to boot. Unlike in the northwest of England, the weather front passed here and left a glorious late afternoon and evening, ripe for a walk across to Switzerland.

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A recurring spectacle across my trip this year – both in France and the UK – was the sight of rapeseed flowering in the fields. A swathe of lurid yellow regularly interrupting the tranquil patchwork of green, unable to be contained within its boundaries and peppering nearby hedges and springing from cracks in the concrete. Insatiable and seemingly inevitable around every corner, in places stretching as far as the eye can see. Only the mountains appear to stop it.

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fr13And so, the last evening in France turned out as sunny as the unseasonably warm sun that was soon to fade away in Great Britain; to be replaced by a storm so irritating it was awarded a name (Hannah), heralding a permanent return to long trousers. One last slice of gateau would compensate for the impending doom, and cap off a very fine Easter; my first in the northern hemisphere since 2006. So, fake summer or real, it was undoubtedly one that will go down in history.

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Plymouth – Bristol – Geneva – Perth – and so on…

For once, Devon did not farewell me with blue skies and fluffy white clouds and fluffier white sheep scattered on a carpet of rolling green. Darkness and wind and menacing cloudbursts accompanied the passage of dawn along the A38 and onto the M5. My final footsteps on English soil, for now, were along the sodden tarmac of Bristol airport, urging the cattle onto the plane and out of the rain and towards Geneva. In the tumult I dropped my passport – no, even scarier, passports – without knowing about it. Somewhere between aisle 2 and 3 I reckon, recovered by the air stewards and pronounced out loud. Call button pressed, gratitude expressed.

frawa01Geneva and its French environs were more bronze in grey lake cloud, a backdrop to stock up on cheese and cake and final family time. A bright and brisk Saturday morning was fine for some neutral ambling in the stylishly rustic Swiss countryside, dodging blade runners and cross country concrete skiers and tractors and little boys fleeing on scooters. Dinner was tartiflette, but then dinner usually is tartiflette!

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frawa03The Sunday was a lazy Sunday French style, involving hours of food grazing and gorging on cheese in various states, matching with wines from different parts of the country and conversation from different parts of the planet. From very young cousins to the more senior-oriented, a splendid afternoon and a fine way to say goodbye, even if such times make that even harder.

frawa05Not quite the end for me and my exploring however as my very last day in Europe involved spending a lot of time on a bus which should have been a train to propel me to the visual feasts of Annecy. Wandering the lanes and streets as a grey cold gradually lifted, soaking up a very different ambience, a very different backdrop to where I would soon be heading. From Rue des Chateaus to Quiche aux lardons et fromage, past outdoor stalls selling musty old sausages and caravans of unpasteurised cheese, alongside riverside paths lined with shuttered houses and glowing red leaves, this was the time to soak it all up.

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It was also the time to marvel in the landscape of this part of the world which is unlike any I would soon encounter. Escaping the town proved something of an uphill challenge but soon enough I entered the absolute golden delight of the Foret du Cret du Maure. Now sunny and warming up, strenuous work ensued in an effort to find an overview of Lac d’Annecy and not get lost. Thanks to my phone and maps I didn’t get lost, but apart from a few snatches through the trees, a lake view escaped me. Still, having really enjoyed the subtle, colourful transition from summer to winter over the past few months it was quite wonderful to end it in such a dense explosion of green and yellow and red and brown.

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frawa07Back down at lake level the water was much more visible and, now in the latter part of these shortening days, glowing in the clear afternoon air. This is not a landscape I will see for a while, the lake as clear as a coral sea, the mountains snow-capped white as a pristine beach. An aspect warmly regarded with coats and scarves and hats strolling along a genteel, contented promenade…

…the local time is 5:30pm and the temperature is 35 degrees. So said someone several many hours later in a different hemisphere and season. Welcome to Perth, where the international terminal currently leaves much to be desired. Still, it is Australia and I can be welcomed in with my Australian passport that so nearly went astray. There is a new government but, apart from being significantly warmer, much appears the same as I left it. Taxi drivers still wittle on aimlessly about the toll road or monarchy or carbon tax, everything is still ridiculously expensive, and Perth is still some urban lifestyle paradise masquerading as a city.

frawa09And so to the beach, or to several beaches, or stretches of one long beach over the course of the next two weeks. With a coffee or book or a huge plate of calamari, accompanying a stroll along the waterline, never far from the mind and just fifteen minutes from the body in a car. Goodness me, these Perthites are blessed with their ocean frontage. What is great about it mind is that it is rarely built up; no graffitied Gold Coast hotels casting morning shadows, no regimented wooden loungers and parasols for hire and cheap fake watches for sale, and plenty of space for dunes and parkland between the sea and the expensive show off homes.

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frawa12With baking days and arid winds it seems I have missed Spring completely. There is little sign of the much heralded wildflowers of WA on sight around the city’s parks and reserves; even Kings Park, which remains a delight whatever time of day and year, seems fairly subdued as it accepts its fate of another hot, dry summer. However, there are remnants of suburban Jacaranda lining the streets; having spent springs past in Canberra I had totally forgotten about Jacaranda, and how its elegant green leaves burst into purple flower, transforming quiet streets into a flurry of colour and giving them the smell of a new age essential oils and pointless candles shop.

Not every day has involved lolloping on the beach or sniffing trees, as I gradually reorient myself with the more mundane Australia – from work interludes to soulless shopping malls, from slower internet speeds to expensive, but lush, mangoes. A sign that I have been away a long time is in currency, where I say to myself…oh gosh…that Heston Blumenthal Christmas Pudding is twenty-five quid…blimey…oh wait twenty five dollars, that makes it, well, still quite expensive, but, you know, when shopping for essentials for a trip back across Australia you need a Heston Blumenthal Christmas Pudding with you, along with Marmite, Hellman’s Mayonnaise and Heinz English Recipe Baked Beans. Adjusted much?

frawa13And yes indeed part of my time has involved planning the next steps of this journey through life, at least the next few weeks or so. There is an excitement about returning east, tinged with melancholy of letting go of this isolated idyll of the west. Perth and I have become good friends this year and I feel like we will see each other again sometime in due course. And here I leave even better friends who introduced me to my good mate and nurtured and shared and entertained and sledged and made the whole Perth experience easy to fall in love with. So I prefer to think it’s not farewell old chap nor au revoir, but a very Australian see ya later.

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