Tag Archives: #expat life

Running Evensong

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The bad news today was that I spent most of it trying – with the assistance of an electrician and a building contractor – to figure out why the electricity in our house kept going off for no apparent reason. One of those unnerving household events that I’d almost rather attribute to a poltergeist than to an impossible-to-locate shorted cable buried somewhere in one of the stone walls of this old pile we call home.

My morning run got delayed past noon, and then past evening, and then it was nearing sundown.

The good news today was that when I finally got out for a run, the air was still warm and fragrant with the scents of cut grass, the sweetness of wild flowers that line the roads, and this, the evening chorus of birds.


The run was also punctuated by cowbells, low sunset calls between free-range cattle, a carpet of amorous crickets, and the occasional whoosh of large mourning doves flying past.

The lights in the house are back on, but that’s not what recharged my batteries.

Spring Unfolding

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Today marks the vernal equinox, and looking out at my garden, I’m eager to get outside and be a part of the day by getting my hands dirty.

The air over the past few days has been soft with warmth, spiced with the scents of new grass and turned earth, sweet with birdsong.

Nomadic harvest dress.
Artist: Nicole Dextras

My garden and I will be engaging in our usual dialogue, the one that starts when the snow melts and goes on until the snow starts falling again, usually some time in December.

It’s not a one-sided conversation; the garden talks more than I do, tells me what it wants or doesn’t want, and I try to come up with a witty or timely response. We don’t always speak the same language, and I know that’s my fault.

Cutting down a line of long grasses yesterday, I found the winter nest of some small mammal hidden beneath a particularly imposing clump. There was a thick ball of moss, leaves and grass that had been a home. I had just been telling myself that I should cut back these grasses in autumn for a tidier look; now I’ll be sure to leave them long as an invitation.

Weedrobes
Artist: Nicole Dextras

I’d like to think I have some say in shaping the garden. Often enough, the garden laughs me off and does as it pleases. Mostly, the garden shapes me.

I wouldn’t call us friends, because I impose myself on the hospitality of this small space. I try to listen. I try to be companionable. I don’t always succeed.

I suppose that’s true for my life outside the garden, too. We are a work in progress.

Weedrobes
Artist: Nicole Dextras

Frost Love Note

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View across the fields. Photo: PKR

View across the fields. Photo: PKR

The past few weeks have been a feast of fog and frost. Thick fog lingers, the moisture freezes to every surface outside, the world is held in suspension…and then a couple of rays of sunshine break through and within minutes, the hard days of frost quite literally evaporate.

I’ve a fondness for this season, a time in our area that finds many of our neighbors in a grey funk due to the lack of sunshine. Lucky me, I like the comforting uniformness of fog. The white ice sculptures that are still trees, blades of grass, fallen leaves make for excellent viewing, appearing as they do like still actors revealed by a slow-moving curtain.

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

But what I really like is how transient it is. Back and forth, we drift in and out of cracking white-in-grey days to brilliant sunshine without the deep commitment to winter that will come with the first deep snowfall. There’s nothing transient about two feet of snow, especially once it’s been shoveled from the paths and driveways into large piles. That frozen stuff will stay put for weeks, if not months.

Not this frost, though. It’s quick as a hot breath on a cold window. There just long enough write a quick love note…and gone.

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR

Sly Fog And Moon

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The Lake Geneva basin is known for its foggy autumns, when weeks can pass beneath a layer of thick brume with little sunshine. And when it breaks, it does so with suddenness. It simply parts like a fragile veil and you realize the sun has been blazing away up there all along.

Our little corner of the region, though, has countless hollows and dips and the fog wanders around as if seeking a new foothold. Even as it retreats, there are unexpected pockets of mist. The first meadow on my running loop is one of fog’s favorite places to play hide-and-seek.

All photos: PKR

Photo: PKR

I know a lot of people here who dread the weeks of gloom. It can be like being lost in an endless down blanket. Sure, you can always drive up a mountain, and literally get your head out of the fog. But who has the time on a daily basis to make the hour long round-trip? Luckily for me, fog is an old friend. Growing up in a foggy region of the California coast, the days and weeks of fog here just make for pleasant nostalgia.

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Moonrise. Photo: PKR

And then there are moments like this one, when the moon rises between cleft in the fog that is still covering Lake Geneva, which lays a bit lower in altitude than our place. It was just a minute or two, a keyhole between sunset and nightfall, but the moon shown brighter than the sun had for many days. It rose into obscurity, but stayed with me for the duration of the run.

Hoarfrost Quietude

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Throughout winter, our little village can often be found directly on the fog line of the milky blanket that covers the Geneva basin for weeks at a time. We are just high enough in altitude (490 m/1600 ft) to catch a glimpse of blue above, not quiet high enough to see out over the fog itself.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

The freezing temperatures and lack of sunlight coat most surfaces with an ever-thickening layer of ice – hoarfrost – as the fog lingers and becomes solid. The garden, the roads, are obscured by a moving veil, with visibility down to a dozen yards or so, and then suddenly, like the revelation of a hidden truth, the fields and mountains and tree-tops reappear.

When the sun bursts through, there’s a brief, wonderful space of time when the hoarfrost falls from the trees and bushes in chiming shards. And the birds, mostly silent in the fog as it’s an eternal evening, suddenly begin to sing again.

I went for a run today at just the right moment. The fog broke, and though I could see the borders of the fog bank just below our own property, above was all soft light. I could hear raucous birdsong, and the gentle tinkling of frost rain.

Waiting For Rain

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I was running my loop the other day when I came across this delicate specimen in the middle of the road – a damselfly that was flitting around two weeks later than the very end of the usual damselfly season, probably because it still feels like high summer.

I shooed it off the asphalt as a car approached, and it alighted on a leaf just long enough for me to take its picture. Not for nothing is it known as ‘beautiful demoiselle’ (Calopteryx virgo), but it was a little far from its natural stream habitat. Maybe it was looking for water.

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo). Photo: PKR

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo).
Photo: PKR

In a normal year, we’d get a week of rainfall the first few days of September. Same routine year after year. School starts, and it rains. Not this year. This year saw unbroken rain from spring to early summer, and not much since. The garden lawn is brown and crunchy as shredded wheat underfoot, the plants and trees are hanging on (or not – we’ve lost at least two trees to the heat this year).

The air has been still and heavy, the corn fields look green from a distance but the corn is dried and ruined on the stalks, and while no one is using the word drought because of all the rain earlier in the year, it feels…strange.

I was actually out on two separate runs the day I took these photos – the morning run, when I saw the damselfly, turned out to be too oppressively hot to complete my full 10k. I waited until dusk to do the rest.

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset. Photo: PKR

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset.
Photo: PKR

NASA released numbers showing that 2016 is the hottest year on record, meaning of course not the hottest year ever, but just since we’ve had the technology to record temperatures. Meaning the ‘modern age’ which defines current society.

As much impact as our industrialized society has on the planet’s temperature, it’s hard to even estimate what impact these rising temperatures and extreme weather will have on societies around the world.

A recent study published by the Harvard University Economics Department correlated temperature with school test results and found that above a certain temperature, performance went down. Consistently. We talk about the adaptability of animals and plants to changing conditions, but what about our own adaptability?

Temperature reconstructions by Nasa, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming. Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Temperature reconstructions by NASA, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming.
Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Humans actually function within a relatively small comfort zone of temperature. We can survive at extremes, but it’s not always easy or pretty, and historically it’s been in smaller populations than currently sharing space on Earth.

The sky has turned grey in the past twelve hours, we’ve had a smattering of raindrops, but it’s still summer-hot and sticky. Much of France is on an extreme weather alert this week, not for heat, but for severe storms and hail.

Guess I’ll have to see what the day brings.

Here’s a good waiting for rain tune – one that I like, and not just because of the spoonerism of the band’s name.

Inadvertent Sabotage

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Not long ago, a news story went around the world about a weasel that shut down CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, forcing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to go offline for a few days.

As it turns out, it was actually a beech marten (Martes foina), a cousin of the weasel. The animal gnawed through a cable of an open-air electrical transformer, causing a short circuit.

From time to time we hear stories of animals – usually small mammals – that wreak havoc on large-scale, technologically developed installations.

Beech marten, also known as a stone marten.  Source: Chest of Books/Ray

Beech marten, also known as a stone marten.
Source: Chest of Books/Ray

Almost always, these stories are told with a kind of breathless David versus Goliath glee at a victory of the tiny over the towering, the power of the small over the great.

At the same time, there’s also a tone of uncertainty and bafflement – shouldn’t we be better at protecting Very Important Human Things against wild creatures by now?

A raccoon short circuited an electrical bus between two main feeder lines at a Seattle substation, causing an outtage for 38,000 households. The raccoon didn't survive. Source: Huffington Post

A raccoon short circuited an electrical bus between two main feeder lines at a Seattle substation, causing an outtage for 38,000 households. The raccoon didn’t survive.
Source: Huffington Post

As if the animals were intentionally trying to take us down a notch or two by showing how fragile our machines really are.

But I think the uncertainty speaks more to how we see ourselves and our achievements – it seems like complex structures that supply so much energy, or which are so advanced, demonstrate just how far removed we are from other animals on the planet.

Until we realize how easily these structures can be inadvertently rendered useless, at least for a while.

A wild vervet monkey tripped a transformer after falling off a roof at Gitaru Hydroelectric Power Station in Kenya's Eastern Province, knocking out power across the entire country. The monkey survived. Source: Kengen/Independent

A wild vervet monkey tripped a transformer after falling off a roof at Gitaru Hydroelectric Power Station in Kenya’s Eastern Province, knocking out power across the entire country. The monkey survived.
Source: KenGen/Independent

It also shows how close we still live to other life and animals for whom our fences are obstacles that don’t pose much of a challenge.

If we need protection from their intrusions, there’s probably no way to reliably protect them from wandering into the wrong tangle of wires.

For better or worse, we are all in this together.

 

An iguana caused a short circuit at a hydroelectric installation in Guyana, causing a blackout for 80% of the country. The iguana did not survive. Source: FranceTV

An iguana caused a short circuit at a hydroelectric installation in Guyana, causing a blackout for 80% of the country. The iguana did not survive.
Source: FranceTV

*I suppose in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that beech martens are also regular criminals at our place, chewing through cables in car engines and generally making mischief. They’re protected, so no trapping allowed.

We live close to CERN in rural France on the border to Switzerland, so the only aspect of the news story that surprised us was that the animal was first reported to be a weasel – everyone around here knew right away what kind of culprit it must have been.

 

Soft Palette Distraction

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I was hustling to get a run in before nightfall – my usual loop has a couple of kilometers that are uneven farm track, stony and rutted, perfect for the occasional sprained ankle due to inattentiveness.

So I run, eyes on the rutted road just a few strides ahead, avoiding the rocks and grooves misplaced by tractors, rain and horses.

Why pick this loop? Because when I lift my eyes, I get these views.

Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc
Photo: PKR

And if I run just a little later than is safe for my ankles, I’m rewarded every so often with splendid sunsets.

And then my ankles aren’t in danger. Because I stop, pause my stopwatch, and take pictures.

Not great for my running time, but there are other benefits to running besides the physical.

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle.
Photo: PKR

For a growing collection of skies, mine and others, I invite you to visit my new collaborative blog – FavoriteSkies.com, and to share your own favorite skies.

End of Year Buzz

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Everyone’s talking about the unseasonable weather. Too hot, too cold, no snow, too much rain.

Here in eastern France, after a glorious autumn and then a first snowfall that was properly timed and then quickly melted, it’s been warm.

So warm, in fact, that a few of the bees under the eaves left their protective winter huddle and ventured out to explore the winter landscape, which sees our hydrangeas budding and otherwise dormant flowers starting to blossom.

Bee on a window shutter Photos: PKR

Bee on a window shutter
Photos: PKR

The bees wander around the outside of the house.

They attempt winter pollination of the holiday floral decorations.

They must be so confused.

As are we.

Bee on a winter rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Bee on a winter rose (Helleborus orientalis)