11 December 2010

Paradise freezes over

The summer is clearly over, but that doesn't mean the same there here at the Mediterranean Sea as it does further north. I still ride 21km to work, by bicycle, in shorts. But not every day anymore, sometimes it's a little cool in Marseille and when it's cool in Marseille it can be positively cold out in the hills, where frigid winds blow down from the Alps. Meanwhile, Paris has come to a standstill because the weather has turned it into a full-blown disaster zone, two days ago they had 11 cm of snow!

Wait, 11 cm, four inches, a hand's width? Throws one of the largest European cities into chaos? I polled some Canadian friends and they found this very funny. Two meters of snow won't stop a Canadian. I have seen people in Montréal, Quebec, walk around in shorts while it was snowing in May. These people pay no attention whatever to 11 cm of snow. But Paris wasn't prepared. Two years ago it was snowing very lightly in Marseille, an unheard-of phenomenon, and Marseille is even less prepared for such a natural disaster. This city of one million does not own a snowplow or any other kind of suitable equipment. So they closed all the schools and stayed at home, waiting for armageddon to end, while parked cars gently drifted to the bottoms of the hills.

The city of Dresden in the east of Germany not far from the Polish border, had temperatures of -24 degrees centigrade a couple of weeks ago. Now that might get a passing notice from Canadians, in early December at least. It's not supposed to do that in early December, if at all. I have walked to work in Montréal in -25 degrees in January and it's hard to breathe in these temperatures. Marseille dropped to 5 degrees that week and I saw ice on the puddles out in the countryside. No bicycle that day.

Today we had 6 degrees at night and 14 during the day. That sounds warm for December in Europe but consider that these people are not good at installing proper heating. They don't have to be, normally. My three-room apartment has exactly one gas-fired radiator in the hallway. My hallway, and only my hallway, is very warm. I use a large fan to blow the warm air into the living room and close all other doors, and I have stuffed styrofoam into the fireplace because cold air (even hail, once) enters through the chimney. I can't actually use the fireplace because they run antenna cables through the chimneys. The French would rather be cold than give up TV.

I was hoping to show some pretty Christmas decorations in Marseille, but there isn't much to see. They decorated rue Saint-Ferréol, the main shopping street, put three or four rides on La Canebière, and hung a few lights in the trees. I have seen more than that in Bangkok last year and Christmas has exactly zero tradition there. Some pictures, taken on Ferréol, rue de la République, and Canebière:

That's pretty much it, Marseille before Christmas, now you've seen it. Nothing at all like the Champs-Elysées in Paris, now that is a sight in December.

The one thing that seems curiously out of proportion here is the Christmas market on Place du Général de Gaulle. There are maybe 30 large booths, all selling the same thing: little painted clay figurines for nativity scenes. Armies of little Josephs, Marys, Jesuses, and wise men, plus auxiliary personnel and some donkeys. Who buys all this stuff? There must be a huge market for it. You can buy them unpainted as well. They don't do it for the tourists because there aren't a lot of tourists here at this time of the year. (Which is surprising, considering the ongoing end of the world in Paris.)

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