Deadly alpine air prompts mayor to suggest evacuation

Parents preparing their child for a trip to the Mont Blanc

Parents preparing their child for a trip to the Mont Blanc

Suffocating fumes are nothing new in the Vallée de l’Arve, home to towns such as Sallanches and Passy, where industrial plants spew a deadly cocktail of chemicals into the supposed ‘fresh mountain air’ while cars, lorries and wood fires add insult to injury. Over the years, environmentalists have had an occasional pop at the lorries which plough through this otherwise beautiful setting to reach the Mont Blanc tunnel and Italy, but never has the issue really grabbed the attention of the general public who are regularly warned against exercising as it might induce one of many fatal conditions due to poor air quality.

After years of ‘il faut faire avec’ (you just have to put up with it), which is the same attitude the majority of this great nation had when faced with German occupation, it seems that finally the spirit of resistance has grown wings in the shape of a local doctor who spoke up passionately against this mass-poisoning on national TV and now on his Facebook page. France 2 has to be congratulated for running an insightful and shocking report on this issue which can be seen here.

Jumping on the bandwagon a tad if you want my honest view, the mayor of St Gervais, Mr Jean-Marc Peillex (who has been around for years and must be perfectly au courant with the situation) has written to the government to ask them to either confirm or deny Doctor Champly’s claim that 60 people a year at least die directly as a result of poor air quality in the area. If confirmed, he says, and of course knowing that the answer from the government will most likely not be ‘Oh yes, the doctor is absolutely right’, then he suggests nothing less than a mass evacuation of the valley. To quote the man, ‘seules des mesures d’évacuation pourraient donc permettre, si les affirmations du Docteur Champly sont bien exactes, une protection de la population’.

I’m sorry to use internet-born abbreviations but really, WTF??! So he’d rather inconvenience an entire valley-full of people rather than address the root of the problem – ie. mistakenly-placed factories, over-use of the Mont Blanc tunnel, and too many wood fires? To use a very English expression which must be untranslatable – he’s really got my goat with this idea.

But at least the issue is making headlines even if the powers-that-be react shall we say somewhat slowly to well….everything. The hope is that the momentum generated by this outspoken doctor’s comments will force a new word into the French dictionary – change.

Wait a minute, didn’t they have a revolution in this country? And then nearly another one in ’68? Then why is change so gradual as to be almost invisible? Plus ça change….

Snow set to make a special comeback


After the greenest Christmas practically in living memory, the slopes are to get a serious topping up of powder from Wednesday as up to five solid days of snow are predicted to fall. Already, this Monday, Haute Savoie has been placed on Orange Alert and this is really the support act for what is due at the end of the week. Not to be outdone by what’s happening in New York, some reports have suggested that up to 2 metres of snow could blanket the Alps between now and next Sunday, bringing joy to those whose businesses depend on the vagaries of an increasingly extreme climate.

A word of caution naturally for road-users and thrill-seekers off the beaten track beware – high winds will make off-piste skiing particularly risky.

Somewhat uncannily, two French departments have been placed on vigilance, er, purple? Does anyone have the faintest idea what that may mean?

Netflix – a review of the first month

A real game changer?

A real game changer?

The arrival of a new player on the national commercial stage in France is always an exciting moment. For years it seemed like the mobile phone industry was a byword for ‘everyone charge the same extortionate price’ until the long-overdue advent of Free had the big three – SFR, Orange and Bouygues, running off the golf course together to hastily think about …er…reducing their prices. These days, brave new ‘break the mould’ companies are arriving on Gallic shores like never before (once a decade) and shaking the old guard at its foundations…..or at least getting them to charge less. This September, at last, was the turn of the American streaming giant (or are they Mexican?), Netflix.

So I was one of the first to sign up to Netflix for the free one month trial which will end this weekend. First impressions? A little mixed. Positives first – signing up was painless in the extreme and navigating around the site is trouble-free. The streaming is very high quality in terms of sound and image so the viewing experience is tip-top.

The main negative, albeit a fairly crucial one, is the catalogue of films and series. Now this is a matter of personal taste of course but there was not one episode of  ‘Naughty Nuns Go Naked in Stockholm’ – cue first major disappointment (just a wee joke!). At a glance, most of the movies fall into the ‘excellent film you first saw 20 years ago’ category like Goodfellas, There’s Something About Mary, Catch Me If You Can, Good Will Hunting….need I continue? It seems a no-brainer to conclude that you could throw a house brick into any given crowded room and not risk hitting anyone who hasn’t seen these old classics. Well, yes, unless you’re a lot younger than me, which is within the realms of possibility. Let’s not dwell on that thought.

When re-watching these ancient gems is completed, you have a lot of films you’ve never heard of – for very good reason. The basic split is then aged cinematic masterpiece versus total C Movie junk.

The kids catalogue seems a tad more meaty but no Shrek or Ice Age? Again a smattering of oldies like Jumanji combined with fry-your-brain-cell dross like Garfield the cartoon series, the latter inexplicably popular with the household minors…

In summing up, your honour, Netflix has braved significant obstacles to operate a new business in France and should be vigorously shaken by the hand and possibly taken out to dinner for doing so. While the choice may not yet be up to scratch, come back in a few months – these are early days after all. Personally HBO series like The Sopranos are conspic. by their ab. But hats off to Netflix. Chapeau. At the very least for shaking up the market (Canal Play, Numericable et al …are already knocking down their previously inflated prices). So although I may be saying au revoir to Netflix this Saturday, it will be an au revoir and not perhaps an adieu.

Next month – A review of Canal Play

PS: You’re right, I should get out more

Free parking near Geneva airport

AKA. Shangri-La

AKA. Shangri-La

It used to be difficult. Now it’s practically impossible. Parking near Geneva airport has undoubtedly sounded the death knell on yet more of my hair follicles (already quitting my polished head in ever-increasing numbers) but it is with a certain amount of smugness that I can claim to have discovered the airport parking Shangri-La. Strange but true (for now), but this has not been an easy process. In fact, the path to such a fantasy place has been beset with misery and hardship of nearly biblical proportions.

As a frequent visitor to the UK (in fact this my de facto holiday destination) I’ve tried it all. I used to park up in a suburb of Geneva (Chêne Bourg) and then hop on the number 5 bus which takes you direct to the airport. Now this was already cunning enough for a couple of tails. Until I returned from holiday to find the area had become a blue zone (so limited to a couple of hours, not weeks) and three of my tyres had been slashed, although presumably not by the blokes painting the blue lines. The only beacon of hope in a very dark evening was being looked after by a kindly passing millionaire who offered tea while we waited for the tow truck and then interrupted our conversation by saying ‘I hope you get back OK, my son will look after you now as I have to take a call from my agent in LA’. I have spent many hours fantasizing that one day I will be able to say that to someone although if I do it will in all honesty probably be what bulls leave in fields.

Then there was the P51 car park, that near the airport but not in it sort of a little cheaper but often full type place. The sort of car park where divorces and nervous breakdowns are commonplace. You think you’ve spotted an empty space and then realise someone’s reversed a Smart car right to the wall just to mess with your day.

With blue time-limited zones proliferating in residential areas, for free parking near Geneva airport you need to head to the Zone Industrielle Zimeysa (pictured) and jump on the ‘Y’ bus which takes you straight to the airport. There’s another couple of other industrial zones on the way up towards Meyrin / Satigny which are equally as good if not quicker. The only catch is you have to arrive on a weekend as during the week you’re more likely to find a Frenchman without a mistress than you are a space to park around there. Apologies in the unlikely event of a sensitive Frenchman finding that last comparison in poor taste and a grotesque generalisation and over-used cliché.

French TV presenter late for evening news


David Pujadas, veritable news icon of France 2, was caught napping (possibly literally) this Wednesday as his news programme nearly started without him. A speed-walk onto the set, with a lady seemingly in hot pursuit, a slightly dishevelled-looking Mr Pujadas starts the show with a ‘hein?’ (eh?) which presumably followed a grumpy grilling from an off-stage superior. With the behaviour of French men often in the media spotlight these days, the mind boggles to wonder what could have caused the implacable veteran to slip up.

Geneva……a job seeker’s Eldorado?


If you’re the sort of person who is often jetted off to some new foreign clime by a global conglomerate, to be met on arrival by an army of relocation agents, chauffeur-driven cars, nannies, personal chefs and the like, then this article may not be your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you fancy dipping your toe into the choppy waters of international employment then it might just lend a hand. And while it is always wise to remember that if it seems too good to be true then it probably is, there are places on the European continent which seem to have brushed off the current economic woes wreaking havoc through the old empires. And Geneva is one of them. Not forgetting the rest of Switzerland of course, but the focus here is on a place which is an open door to European job seekers. Or is it?

Perched on the western shores of Lac Léman, or Lake Geneva to you and me, is a gilded city seemingly brimming with cash and opportunities. Following a somewhat textbook entry into the expat world through ski repping and then taxi-driving in France voisine, I turned my attention towards a place which draws in many thousands of French people every day, who cross the Swiss border to take advantage of salaries which are easily three-times higher than they can get back home. And with the Swiss Franc still as strong as you like against its younger cousin (the slightly under-par euro), these salaries are now worth even more. To number crunch for a moment, a typical Swiss wage of 5,000 francs a month is now worth a thousand more euros per month (€4,000) than it was before the pickle involving the financial markets. Even if your mathematical skills are as meagre as mine, you can quickly see that this is a €12,000 annual pay rise for doing nothing extra.

But what comes up, must come down, right? For sure, and the exchange rate fluctuation has hurt Swiss exports, cue a somewhat tepid intervention from the Swiss National Bank which buys squillions of euros every day to try and convince the markets that the Franc isn’t that good after all.

Which it is? Well, yes, in a storm and all that, Switzerland is more than a fairly safe bet and is not only small and wealthy but unlikely to get involved in some major international conflagration. Apart from playing about in the Alps with guns the Swiss Army’s only meaningful task is to guard the pope (popes?!) and they pretty much count on the fact that it will probably not kick off in the Vatican any time soon.

So not much danger of them joining the euro? Hmmm, I think not. As a landlocked country in the heart of Europe, the Swiss are more likely to start digging towards the Mediterranean, à la Suez Canal.

Getting back to the point, Geneva is then an expat worker’s paradise? Let’s look at the whole story before we decide on that.

It is certainly a lot easier in theory to get a good job there following the agreement that was reached with Europe in 2007 to open up the borders. Before then you had to live within a fifty kilometre radius of the border to be considered by the Office Cantonal de la Population for a work permit. All that has changed and the numbers of frontaliers (people living in France but working in the Helvetic Republic) has increased dramatically, especially considering the job markets elsewhere.

Right. So I could be living in Ayia Napa and still work in Geneva? Yes, in theory, providing you recover from the all-night partying in time for your flight. You could fly in every Monday bright as a button and stay locally, fly back every weekend for whatever raves may be on offer, earn €4000 a month and sit on your terrace at the end of it all with a cigar and a glass of the local plonk and consider yourself worthy of the cherry on the cake.

I’m sensing there must be a catch…, am I right? Yes pretty much. You see the thing is the OCP (the permit providers) are fairly luke-warm about giving away their precious permits so they are only really easily available to those who have an EU passport. There are ways round this of course, particularly if you have a penchant for Swiss millionaires and end up marrying one.

Time to overlook a few little personality flaws? Well, quite.

So if you do make it through the myriad of red tape, what sort of jobs are available? English teaching is certainly a first port of call, but due to the salaries and the numbers of interested candidates, schools can demand a lot of qualifications and experience. It’s not the same as if you rocked up in Tanzaniki to offer your services.

Where?! Oh, never mind. Suffice to say there is a lot of competition. Add to that a large collection of international companies, the banks, the watchmakers, I.T companies and of course the impressive number of international organisations (like the UN) who are always looking for English speakers, particularly (but not exclusively) if they speak French and German. Once on the inside of these hallowed walls (it pays to know the right people to get inside incidentally), you can set about either saving the world or organising paper-clips, depending on your level of ambition. Both pay handsomely.

And what do you do? I teach English and do office work for local language schools – to both adults who were hoping against hope years ago that English wouldn’t become the international language and to their offspring who are generally much more motivated and adept at learning languages.

OK, so I’m nearly packing my bags but hit me with the down-sides. OK, if you’ll forgive me this is better in list form.

  • Crossing the border can take a long time due to the sheer numbers of those tempted by the rosier economic climate in Switzerland.
  • If you choose to live in Geneva itself, good luck finding somewhere to live and even better luck finding a rent under €1,000 a month. A friend of mine just paid €68 for a steak in a restaurant in Lausanne (just up the lake from Geneva) so you can already see that salary dwindling somewhat.
  • Health care is apparently excellent if you live in Geneva but involves a compulsory monthly contribution of around €400.
  • The Swiss are becoming a little unhappy with foreigners taking their jobs (actually in most cases these jobs are the ones they either wouldn’t do or can’t) so there is always much talk of cutting down on the foreign labour force.
  • Living in Switzerland means adjusting to somewhat uncanny laws, such as the one about guinea pigs.

Sorry? Yes, it is illegal to only have one guinea pig in Switzerland, as they are social animals. I also nearly forgot to mention the high fines for bad driving – it cost me €200 for driving in the bus lane (when I was frustrated in traffic) and the authorities take a very dim view indeed of speeding.

And if it all goes wrong? As the working hours are longer than France (most working hours are!) and the employers have more flexibility to hire and fire, losing your job is indeed a possibility. This will not mean that you will be cast out onto the street overnight as the Swiss unemployment pay 80% of your old salary for up to 2 years. If you live in France the figure is nearer 60%. Welcome to the world of high social contributions – after all, someone has to pay for all this generosity.

One last question – what’s Geneva like as a place? Despite occasionally having the look of 1980’s Warsaw, it has some pretty areas, such as the old town (pictured).

A small glass of tap water, please, waiter!
A small glass of tap water, please, waiter!

There is a large expat community but many I have spoken to think of Geneva as a good place to live rather than work. It is such an international place that at times the feel is somewhat soulless. Barcelona it is not.

In conclusion, I would say to those who now feel inclined to dip not only a toe but perhaps a leg into the world of working abroad to seriously consider Geneva while understanding that gold there is, but Eldorado is a fantasy land and like anything that’s connected to real life, there are always aspects which aren’t exactly perfect. But bearing in mind the rapid descent of France into la misère, we should feel lucky to have been welcomed, if not perhaps enthusiastically, into the Swiss bosom.


This article is my latest attempt to win a writing contest on, an excellent place to go by the way to read about others and their experiences of living abroad.

France’s Seven Deadly Sins


This was a close runner-up in the writing contest on earlier in March….

Un              Not saying ‘Bonjour’.  Politeness in interactions with just about anybody is probably the most vital part of moving here. Nowhere is this more obvious than in shops, where you can spend seemingly hours locked in an exchange of formal banter which can easily turn into a polite dispute as to who exactly needs thanking (eg. You: ‘Je vous remercie’ and the shopkeeper retorts with ‘Ah non, c’est moi qui vous remercie’).  Meanwhile a queue is building so you just have to make a run for it. This can be quite a jar for those used to a nothing more than a grunt from the shop assistants back home. While the French are the kings and queens of polite etiquette (brushing over the well publicized gripes about their customer service skills), they are unlikely to chat about why you’re buying three packs of Nappies, as France is a very formal culture. So regard the ‘Bonjour’ and the accompanying handshake or kiss on both cheeks as the lynchpin to being accepted by the natives. If you meet a friend who happens to be out and about with thirty or so pals, then it’s not unthinkable to say the B-word to every last one of them, which can leave the head spinning. If you miss someone they might never speak to you again. Attending an office party a while ago was more akin to an audience with the Queen, as I made my way down the long line of colleagues and then joined the end of said line which pretty much stretched to the other side of the restaurant. There’s no let up even in the doctor’s waiting room, where a ‘bonjour’ as you enter is required, although thankfully not the Full Monty of kissing and shaking hands.


Deux          Not learning French.  Even as I write that it seems too obvious as a deadly sin but I suppose that if you’re moving to Copenhagen, Stockholm or even Vladivostock then no one in their right mind is going to expect you to start waxing lyrical in the local language. But English is very far from being the lingua franca of France. The French have swallowed the pill of English becoming the international language in the same way that one might swallow a small melon. ie. with great difficulty. Not only are we talking about an immensely proud nation, somewhat akin to the fervour you might find the other side of the big pond, but a French person doesn’t feel comfortable conversing in (as they call it) ‘the language of Shakespeare’. I think they call it that because for them the English spoken today is as incomprehensible as that of Billy S. himself. The shift from sounding cultured and romantic to stammering over seemingly impossible hurdles like the th phoneme is just too much to bear. During the Olympics in London I noticed that the announcements were made in French first, and to this nation this is exactly how the pecking order should sound. And when Anglo-Saxon celebrities appear on French TV, they only really score points with anyone if they converse in French. Even then they don’t like their language to be butchered, as much as they are repelled by an overdone steak. When Bradley Cooper appeared on the TF1 news channel and chatted merrily in the language of Molière (again, their words not mine), he won many more fans although there were a few critics grumbling that he had missed a couple of subjunctives. So, in short, dust down the old grammar books and get stuck in.


Trois          Not respecting French time-off. Contrary to the ideas championed in the media, I can attest that in general French people work hard. Yes I can understand you coughing and choking at that point, but as a nation they keep their Gallic noses to the grindstone like the best of us, notwithstanding their undeniably profound respect for time off. Midday has an almost religious significance, and at that precise moment millions will down tools and forget about it for a couple of hours. You could literally set your clock by the workman drilling outside my flat a few years ago; when the silence fell I knew it was exactly that revered hour – 12pm. Getting it into your head that you can achieve zip during the hours of 12 and 2pm takes some getting used to.

The French have a seemingly inordinate number of public holidays which seem so numerous because they fall invariably (or so it appears) on a Thursday so they predictably do le pont (take Friday off), which to you and me means you won’t see hide nor hair of them till the following Monday. So if you’re new to France and fancy getting some work done on the new dilapidated farmhouse in Provence during the month of May, you should be aware that there are usually about six Public Holidays in May and when you’ve counted the pont days and the long lunches most French builders don’t bother going to work at all. The same rule of thumb applies to August, when actually the entire country is on holiday, not forgetting July when most are already winding down quite noticeably.  So while the quality of workmanship (or workwomanship as this is the 21st century) is generally high, the inhabitants of Gaul have an unbreakable bond to slacking.


Quatre                 Expecting to see other people or do anything productive on a Sunday. This is a quite different phenomena to Trois  as of course, barring absolute necessity, you would have to be a few baguettes short of the old pique-nique to think that Sunday in France had fallen the way of the 24/7 culture you may well be used to back home. This deadly sin is the undeniable shock to the system as you shuffle onto the streets of France on a Sunday to find that the millions of people who normally inhabit your locality have been abducted and / or developed an allergy to light. As a student in Grenoble in 1991, the endless sight of closed shutters and dusty streets with accompanying tumbleweed made me think initially that my dear neighbours had fallen victim to some deadly virus. But years later it dawned on me that Sunday is when the French spend time en famille. Now don’t expect me to know why they need to do this in absolute silence and darkness but they do. It is practically unheard of to see a Frenchman proudly mowing his lawn on a Sunday, that most Sunday of activities, and there are laws against it. The government occasionally wheels out the idea of Sunday trading but then it is duly returned to a cupboard somewhere so everyone can forget about it for a while. So if you want to drive anywhere in France, or cycle around a normally busy city, do it on a Sunday.


Cinq                    Imagining that the same road-use rules as back home apply in France.

Now this one is quite literally deadly. Firstly as a pedestrian you can’t hope for a second that those white lines across the road indicate that you have any priority whatsoever, and if you do then your impending hospitalization will be a testament to this deadly sin. For the French the pedestrian or piéton is the lowest of the low and has to wait by these lines growing old and grey before someone will let him or her cross. Cyclists are held in much higher regard and if you are wearing a Tour de France type outfit then you can expect a hearty Bonjour! from similarly-clad enthusiasts passing the other way (see Deadly Sin number one). Generally cars will not try to shave your ankles with their bumpers but I wouldn’t put money on it. Bad driving is happily tolerated in France so if you find someone very close on your tail it is perfectly normal behaviour and not something to warrant a rude gesture or angry words at the next traffic lights. Road rage is a very rare phenomenon as expectations of skill and consideration for others are pretty much nil. It’s very much every man for himself, so lower your expectations and remove any self-righteousness you may possess as a road user.


Six              Underestimating the French love of drugs. No, not that sort.  I’m talking about the legal kind, which are guzzled to a breathtaking quantity by the majority of the population. In ten years of surviving various ailments in this country I am proud to say that I have never inserted anything in my bottom and have no intention of starting. This is not without considerable efforts on the part of the medical profession to convince me otherwise. If you visit the doctors for having a cold, you can quite easily find yourself taking twelve different pills and potions, being strapped up to an ECG, probably with a couple of x-rays and why not a blood test thrown in just to err on the side of caution. Call me cynical but it seems to me a given that doctors must get some pretty seriously worthwhile backhanders from the Pharmaceutical industry. That said, the medical set up in France, while bankrupt, is excellent. The Carte Vitale medical card takes care of most of your expenditure so you’re left ruminating about who is picking up the tab for all this needless medication.  


Sept  Santé!

The French love drinking as much as the next person although it tends to be on a dinner party basis rather than singing in the street and abusing passers-by. Quite often the so-called apéritif can last the entire evening so don’t be fooled by the apparent culture when someone uses this word to invite you round as the translation might be almighty binge.  Having fallen innocently into this trap, I can advise strongly against drinking Pastis in any great quantity, or at all if you can help it. The deadly sin here is quite subtle, and is something I have only been informed of recently which means that I have been convincing people for years that I am a rude ignoramus. Cutting to the chase, at the moment the glasses clink and you utter the immortal word Santé!, you should without fail look the other person directly in the eye, in a moment of perfect social synchronicity. In the UK we look at the glass because presumably we fear (having had a few already) that if we look elsewhere then we risk smashing our host’s glass and covering him in beer. The French drinker is seemingly oblivious to this contingency.


It should be said that once you have correctly surfed the little cultural adjustments outlined above you should discover a quality of life, somewhere in between the wine, cheese, and beautiful scenery that makes you think that God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.