Several years ago, my husband and I watched a popular French film called Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis. The basic plot revolves around a postmaster in the south of France who is on the verge of a promotion which could include a prime coastal location. For several reasons, he's transferred instead to the far-northern city of Lille.
When the postmaster informs his wife he's being sent north instead, she responds, "To Lyon?" This question is hilarious if you know that Lyon is well below the mid-line of France. It also tells you a lot about the south of France's perspective towards the country's upper two-thirds.
Later the postmaster tells his uncle he's been transferred to Lille. The uncle leans forward, and drawls out, "c'est le noooooord," his horror at the news plainly evident. My husband and I laughed loud and hard; our housemates later admitted hearing us despite living in a separate wing of an old stone farmhouse.
For those of us accustomed to the warmer temperatures in the south, Lille, way up on Belgium's border, can seem like the north pole. Last week, I traveled in that direction–but not quite the far north, le grand nord. My destination was the Champagne region, an hour and a half east of Paris, for meetings and a conference at one of our ministry centers.
Located in a tiny town called Le Gault-la-Fôret, the buildings are over one hundred years old. Formerly an orphanage, they are now a Christian training center, housing staff, students, and conference attendees.
On the fast train, le TGV–Train à Grande Vitesse, I sped through the countryside from the south to the Paris area in three hours. I love traveling by train and always wish my journey was a bit longer. To my surprise, quite a bit of snow lay across the terrain in the middle of the country. There's been an unusual amount this year, even sticking to the ground in Paris.
One of the things I love about France is how different each region is from the other. For a relatively small country, it contains quite a variety–from majestic alps to gorgeous coastlines, from the chilly north to the sunny south. Architecture also changes according to the regions, adapted to the climate and the raw materials available before the advent of home-building stores. I never grow tired of discovering the uniqueness of each area.
From my top-story room, I had a lovely snow-sprinkled view of the tiny town. Sunrises and sunsets glowed through my windows, blessing me on both ends of the day.
Whenever I had a free moment, I headed outside to get a bit of exercise between sessions and before the 6 pm curfew, now in place all over France. I crunched along on snow and walked carefully on icy streets, braving blasts of frosty air. Daytime temperatures hovered around 28°F/-2°C and felt much colder. Multiple layers saved the day!
Snow on branches, pods, and twigs produces such interesting textures and designs. I find it challenging to capture the essence of this beauty in photographs or watercolor. The Master Designer created endless, fascinating detail that continually delights me if I take the time to truly see.
We took a circuitous route home, stopping in Annecy, on the Swiss border, for lunch. Set on a grand lake nestled against the alps, it's one of our favorite spots in France. I've only seen this unbelievably picturesque town in spring and summer when a multitude of brilliantly colored flower boxes line the streets. Seeing it under a blanket of snow was a new and equally beautiful discovery.
The fragrance of melted Jura mountain cheeses wafted through the street, interspersed with the scent of hot, mulled wine. Yes, please! Restaurants have been closed for months in France, except for take-away orders. We were delighted at the ingenious invention of a "raclette sandwich," taking what is usually a plated dish– melted cheese on potatoes with charcuterie and cornichons (tiny French pickles)–and putting it all in a baguette. Strolling the streets, juggling our sandwiches and wine while taking in yet another architectural style, another ancient town full of history, filled us body, and soul.
Our little town of St. Hippolyte du Fort does not have many shops, so we quickly visited a few stores before a walk by the lake. I was so happy the graceful swans braved the cold and made an appearance.
One of the best parts of traveling is being home, back to our comfortable beds and habits. But I wouldn't trade the blessing of a change of scenery, scents, sights, and sounds, especially in this long covid season, so full of limits. One silver lining, in this otherwise challenging time, is less taking for granted of things large and small. I'm grateful for the many gifts from my good, heavenly Papa.
Oui, la vie est belle!