March 18, 2009

Winter sport for pensioners. Oh, and pregnant chicks.

On a typical winter Friday night, the husband and I should be bitterly bickering about the coming weekend: will it be ice climbing or alpine skiing? Cranking hard in a south facing crag or setting up for a 2000-metre-ascent back-country skiing trip? Not that it matters: as long as it involves snow, ice or rock, a decent dose of adrenaline and preferably an epic, it is all good.

Problem is, I am pregnant. Which is all good news, except for one major exception: in this new state of mine, I am apparently supposed to show common sense and a minimum of restraint. Read: avoid intense efforts, activities leading to a risk of over-heating, major falls. In a nutshell, we’d better find alternative ways of having fun, as ours don’t seem to be the ones typically recommended for a woman ‘in my condition”.

So here we are, on this late Thursday evening, fitting our gear, having driven to the Jura plateau after work for a 3-day snowshoeing and cross country skiing week-end. Which, for my dearest husband, is more akin to “stuff for pensioners” than to anything worth being called a sport.

It may be so, but tonight, as we get ready in the dark, it quickly looks like the wannabe pensioners will get a bit of adventure. For a start, it has snowed heavily all day, and driving to the plateau has already provided us with some action. No surprise then that the “well marked” track supposed to take us to the refuge in a 45 minute snowshoe hike is nowhere to be seen. Here are we then, plodding along in knee-deep snow for the husband, tight-deep for me. After 15 minutes, the faint tracks we could just about guess suddenly disappear for good. We, of course, have a compass. Which, of course, is totally useless given we don’t have the faintest idea where we are. Back on our own tracks then. Eventually, after more than twice the time it would have taken on a normal day, we at last get to the refuge, where the owner, feeling sorry for our freezing selves, feeds us tartiflette. Pity feels good, sometimes.

The next day is earmarked as The Full Pensioner Experience: a full day of snowshoeing. Jura is not Greenland, and the plateau has some marked tracks for those who want. Of course, we are not among them, and decide to leave straight out for the powder, equipped with our map and compass.

Seven hours later, we are back at the refuge. Shattered. We have been once again stunned by the magnificent view on Mont Blanc, seated by the cliff bordering the plateau. We have marvelled at the crystal-like flakes of a weightless snow, shinning in the winter sun and at a lonely flower, miraculously sticking out of the powder. We have wondered about animal tracks tracing their ways across the plateau. And we have been plodding along in ultra-deep, ultra-light powder for the whole day, went up slopes we would not have dreamed of tackling with the skis on, jumped cornices, crawled under bushes to make our way through the forest, and somehow managed to climb a cumulative 600 metres on a plateau which would look as flat as a pancake on Google Earth. Our legs are hurting, our arms are hurting, our backs are hurting. In a nutshell, a perfect day.

And on Monday morning, the husband would almost be happy to be back at work and get a chance to rest, since a gentle sports outing for pensioners or pregnant chicks, maybe it was not, after all.

March 11, 2009

My new running partner

For the last couple of months, I have found myself a new running partner. The new partner is just this: a partner. If it had been completely down to me, I would have chosen him fitter, faster, or the perfect pacer, which he is not. But you have to give him credit for it, he never lets me down, and comes running with me every time I want to head out. Whether I go long or for a short jog round the block, face the snow or take advantage of a sunny winter day, hit the asphalt or run up alpine trails, no questions asked, he is just coming.

I enjoy running with the new partner, and, icing on the cake, the husband is not even jealous. Problem is, the more we run together, the more he seems to have a pretty detrimental effect on my running. It is actually dead simple: the more we go, the slower we are. But hey, I guess it is normal when one is pregnant.

Yep, you read well.

Now, I am a runner, not a triathlete, and even less a swimmer, but a few months ago, I took the plunge. Or rather, I guess Martin and I did, although, at least until this little thing I am “housing” inside me gets out, I feel I am plunging a bit more than Martin.

My new running partner and I did our first race together in early January: a Trail Blanc, or race in the snow, in the Southern Alps. It was great. The new running partner, our collaboration entering its 6th week, was still clearly showing some goodwill, since I did not feel too slow, too out of breath, too tired. Actually, be the truth told, I was totally feeling my normal self. Read: stressed out at the start. Competitive against myself. Annoyed against the competitors who, for a while, slowed me down to the point of walking (yes, a walk. During a race. A running race. Horror), being literally and figuratively frozen at the sight of a steep slope of deep snow waiting to be climbed. And, frozen fellow runners aside, decently fast. So far, so good.

Then for a (too long) while, the new running partner, although still never letting me down when it came to get outside, was clearly not too keen on helping either: every 5-miler felt like I had run a few marathons back-to-back the previous day. Not that I could log in a lot of 5-milers anyway, because I was just too exhausted.

The husband and I both have our own - and slightly diverging - theory about this lack of cooperation. Martin, who believes the little stranger inside me is a girl, thinks she is just showing some early stage of rebellion against the mother (I, at least, waited until I was a teenager to become a pain in the neck with my own mother) by showing a non-negotiable opposition whenever I decide to put on the running shoes. I, on the other hand, am convinced we will have a little dude, who, faithful to his gender, is already showing us what lazy b*** men are, most of the time.

The situation has however greatly improved lately. Maybe is it because I am out of the infamous first trimester. Or maybe is it just that my new running partner, whatever its gender is, has understood Mummy will always have the last word, especially when it comes to going running. So let’s move our (two) butts, and off we go.

March 10, 2009

Long Live the Queen, and Barclays

I never thought I would miss Barclays. These days, I am considering voting them best bank of the century. That’s since I (re-)discovered the French banking system.

It started as soon as we arrived in Annecy last year. Trying to set up a bank account, we got a very simple answer to our very basic request: NO. As to why, the bank manager was not short of answers. For instance, we did not have any tax return to show. No, she did not know why on earth this may be required, and no, a British one would not suffice. Martin not having pay slips to present was also an irrefutable argument for the refusal. And here again, she did not seem to worry about providing an answer to the catch 22 that this created: how to get paid, and therefore have a pay slip, if one cannot open an account on which to transfer the said salary?

Six months later, having gathered some courage again, we are back in the office of the account manager.

Things don’t start too well. As we show her our passports she looks up at us, clearly confused. Austria, that’s like… Germany?” she asks Martin. Anybody who knows Martin knows too that it takes quite a lot to make him angry. Problem is, calling him a German is right up there north of “quite a lot”. No need to say, he is not overly impressed.

At the next question, we wonder if she is faking her own stupidity: “passport issued in London. (puzzled look at us)… where is that?”. Then she asks me if I, too, am Austrian. I mean, I know my French is sometimes a bit sketchy and my accent sounding from time to time a bit foreign but for heaven’s sake, SHE HAD JUST CHECKED MY PASSPORT TOO!

Compared to this interesting start, the rest goes reasonably, if not ideally smoothly. Goes smoothly but does not come cheap. Instead of Barclays’ interest bearing current account and debit and credit cards, everything is now on a fee basis. Cards, check books, you name it, you pay for it.

Oh, and internet banking is charged, too, although our account manager seems at a loss to understand why we would want it anyway. But, weird as it may seem, we got used to managing our accounts from the comfort of our own home rather than getting a post-communist Russia feeling by having to stand in a queue for hours. So, deciding to get wild and splash out, we go for the full internet banking package. Not that we want to do more that the occasional bank transfer, but in the heat of things, you know…

An hour and a half later, - a tiny bit longer than the 10 minutes previously mentioned by the bank manager, and with Martin by now seriously late for work - we are done. It was a fight, but now, more than 6 months after we have arrived, we feel like real citizens, with still no tax return, but at least a bank account. And internet banking.

Or so we think. Until, a few weeks later, we need to make a transfer. Nothing fancy, involving cross border transactions, different currencies, crazy amounts (like, where would the crazy amounts come from, I am unemployed, for heaven’s sake). No, just a plain transfer, from a euro denominated account in a French bank to another euro denominated account in another French bank. So, here am I, logging on my hard-fought for, brand new, secured, internet page. I scroll through the menu. Look for transfer. Can’t find it. Look again. Still can’t find it. I am stuck. I call a friend (or rather, a husband, actually). Who can’t find it either. I give up.

A few days later, as I am walking past my bank, I think I may as well go in and ask what kind of stupid thing I have missed.

Well, as it turns out, the thing I have missed is that I actually CANNOT make online transfers. The fact that the possibility to do online transfers is the service we are actually paying for, and the fact that the girl at the desk explains to me that online transfers are not possible for security reasons but then proceed to set up the transfer without asking for any form of ID, all this is not relevant. ONLINE-TRANSFERS-ARE-NOT-POSSIBLE-FULL-STOP.

Shall I carry on with a list of the things you cannot do as a (clearly not at all) valued client of a French bank. Actually, I shall not, because it is bad for my health, gives me palpitations… But one thing for sure, forget everything I may ever have said about Barclays. Actually, give me Barclays any time. The staff may be useless and their outfits ridiculously ugly, the foreign exchange commission fees akin to day-light robbery, the website rubbish, at least, they do online transfers. So, to hell with the French banks, and God save the Queen, and Barclays.

March 02, 2009

An ounce of London nostalgia, part I – Or: me and my burgers

Is it still worth mentioning it: we love our life in Annecy. Still, as unbelievable as it seems, there are some things I sometimes miss about London. Burgers, for instance.

It is a widely known – and accepted – fact: the French have straight-out-of-heaven-good bread. Then, we have great meat, too (yes, I know, from time to time, I switch from “the French” to “we”. It is called “a little bit of self esteem boost has never harmed anybody”) since we don’t believe in mad-cow beef, over here. Last but not least, the French also do very, very good fries indeed, although the Belgians will try to tell you they invented it all and theirs are better. But then, fries are called French fries; not Belgian, is all I need to say.

So, I will ask you, since it seems all the necessary ingredients for the perfect burger and its must-have side-dish are available; HOW COME IS IT IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND A DECENT BURGER PLACE IN ANNECY? I recently got so desperate that I even ventured into a Mc Do (the “French” translation for Mc Donald’s), of all places. Granted, it will never happen again, but this is a clear sign of how desperate things had become. I also toyed with the idea of opening my own burger joint, which would have been cool, organic, a real community place with a café, books, mountain photo exhibitions and even a little bouldering wall at the back if there was enough space. In a nutshell, the perfect place where everybody would have loved to stop for a Saturday post shopping snack or spend Sunday brunch. Then I realized I, for one, did not want to spend an early Saturday evening, let alone Sunday lunchtime, in a café when I could be happily having an epic somewhere in my mountains instead, and the idea quickly lost a tiny bit of its appeal.

Some may say that a burger is not exactly the epitome of British cuisine, and they would be right. But while there are a lot of things that the Brits took from their American cousins they’d better leave across the pond (in no particular order, “z” replacing “s”, fad diets, investment bankers), one may give them credit when they import something really worth it. Like burgers.