Cham’ and me

Chamonix, France

We are fortunate to live between two chains of mountains. I awake to views of the Jura, the older, gentler slopes just across Lake Geneva on the Swiss side. In the other direction, to the southeast in France, are the Alps. They aren’t far, although we don’t get many views of the Alpine peaks from here.

Visitors are a good excuse for us to get out and see the Alps close up. That is just what we did when my sister and her family came to visit the other week.

Outside of ski season, it’s easy to forget just how close we are to Chamonix – Cham’ to the locals – home to our highest mountain, le Mont Blanc. We drove about an hour to Valorcine, then parked the car and took a series of chair lifts up. It’s fun to take a chair lift in the summer as you can see all the detail of the green slopes just below. And I enjoy it more when my fingers aren’t frozen.

We couldn’t figure out why so many chairs had spots blocked off but decided it was for all the people with bikes. This is a popular spot for the sport and just below us, we could see mountain bikers descending the narrow dirt trails at break-neck speed. I can see why they take the lifts – riding down must be a lot more fun than going up.

Chair lift near Valorcine

At the top, the views open up to the valley below in a way that soon had us singing, ‘The hills are alive…’ Thankfully no one started yodelling or the Swiss, who share a border just a few hundred metres away, might have changed their minds about staying neutral.

We could see the glacier called La Mer de Glace – the Sea of Ice – and a little bit of the Mont Blanc peak, although there were a few clouds. There were wild flowers and a few mountain cows – although we argued as to whether they were cows or bulls. Do cows have horns? And are there male cows? My daughter the future veterinarian would certainly have a few things to say on that subject.

From the top, we hiked downhill for half an hour to a small mountain refuge that runs a restaurant. This was my favorite moment of the day.

thumb_img_5605_1024It’s enough to make me want to come back and do it again – but don’t tell ZFrenchman, or he’ll soon have me up and out the door to Cham’ every Sunday morning.

 

When was the last time you were in the mountains?

Mayday, m’aider!

Did you know that the expression ‘mayday’ used as a distress signal comes from French? I did not, although I speak the language and have lived in this country for over twenty years.

Amazing what you learn watching television. I was glued to the news last night watching reports of the Germanwings plane crash in the southern French Alps. A former commercial pilot being interviewed on France 2 says that the mystery of this crash is the fact that there was no call of ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday’ – which must be repeated three times according to international protocol. And suddenly it clicks. Mayday is ‘m’aider’ – meaning ‘help me’ in the formal or infinitive form of the verb.

Like you, I am horrified by this crash. The loss of innocent life, the tragic fate of 150 people who took off for a short-haul flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf on Tuesday morning. Something that low-cost travel has made almost like a taking a bus for many Europeans today.

It is all the more shocking considering that the flight was operated by Germanwings, a low-cost affiliate of Lufthansa, one of the world’s safest and most technically reliable airlines.

Perhaps because it has happened here in France, I find myself obsessing about that 8-minute descent into oblivion. The strange trajectory of the crash into the worst possible mountainous region. The gut-wrenching fear of the passengers, the impossible news for the families, the courage of the crews who must sift through the debris for bodies at 1500 meters near Seynes-les-Alpes.

Like many, I’ve considered the possibility that it could be an act of terror. Suicide or a medical emergency is now looking likely with the discovery that one of the pilots was locked out of the cockpit just before the crash.

My thoughts are with the victims and their families, the hundreds of police and investigators trying to recover the bodies on treacherous terrain at high altitude.

And for anyone who has to get on a plane knowing that their worst fears could be just a ‘mayday’ away.

Grimentz and grumbles

IMG_3089After my one-woman tribute to the 80s on the ski slopes last winter, I swore that this year I would get new gear. If only to keep up with my husband who is fully outfitted in the latest high-tech layers, skis and boots, including a set of seal skins for going uphill. I didn’t make it to new skis but did manage to get a new pair of boots, the most challenging part of the whole operation.

Let’s just say I have a rather substantial calf. A pair of gams that call up images not of limbs so much as tree trunks, or, as one (obviously former) suitor once said: “Your leg looks like something that should be put on a spit and rotated.”

Getting a ski boot I can actually do up without cutting off all the circulation in my lower extremities is a challenge. After terrorizing two salespeople and trying on at least six different models, I finally thought we had a good fit in a Salomon. Last weekend it was time to put them to the test.

Now that the spring is upon us, the Alps offer my kind of fair-weather skiing. We decided to make a weekend of it on the Swiss side, more picturesque and less crowded than France. On Friday night we headed for Grimentz, a cute little village in the Valais region of Switzerland where I’d been once before for a work event.

The trouble began the next morning when I tried to do up the boots. Either my calves had expanded in the weeks since we left the store or the altitude was playing tricks with my brain. We somehow managed to do them up but I was feeling pins and needles by the time we got to the télécabine.

The view from the top
The view from the top

My husband instructed me to wait while he got the ski passes. He has this habit of taking charge whenever we get near a mountain. He then directed me to the gondola lift and up, up, up we went – a full twenty-minute ride to the top. What the–? I tried to catch my breath as we got off the lift but the air was a little thin. This was not what I’d had in mind. I studied the map of ski runs. Where were all the blues? And the restaurant? Hubby looked at the map and pointed out that we were on the other side of the resort, its highest point. Seemed there had been two possible ways up and we had taken the wrong one. A few choice words were exchanged but I’ll spare you having to pardon my French. I admired the view while he did a few red and black runs. We took the next cable car down.

By the time we got down to the nice blue slopes it was almost lunch time. We got in a few runs before heading for a sunny spot on a terrace where, a sausage and a large beer later, I began to enjoy myself.

The boots were still a bit tight but at least I could feel my feet. We skied several runs and enjoyed the afternoon.

IMG_3092The best part of the weekend was being in Grimentz. It is a picturesque mountain village built almost entirely out of wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire hydrant

Which probably explains why there’s a fire hydrant on every corner.

 

Unlike the French, who so often let their ski resorts turn into concrete monstrosities, this place is nothing but old wood and cobbled streets. Lots of good places to eat, too, and the Valaisans make great wine and cheese.

 

 

 

Stay tuned for more adventures next winter!

 

Bon voyage!

The French travel rather well.The French tend to holiday in their home country, especially during ‘les grandes vacances’ of summer. After all, why go anywhere else when you have so much to enjoy at home? Between the invigorating coasts of Normandy and Brittany, the beauty of the Alps and the sunny beaches of the south, there is something for everyone.

But since the low-cost airlines opened up the skies of Europe, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to discover the world beyond our borders. Living in France, we enjoy taking off for the weekend to neighbouring capitals like London, Lisbon, Barcelona or Berlin. And when we do, lo and behold, we find them. Sitting at the next table or right beside us on the bus. The very people we thought we’d left behind.

Les Français. They’re easy enough to spot when they’re not at home: the quiet ones who tend to keep to themselves. Who mutter in French to each other, usually things like: ‘Rien compris’ (I didn’t understand). Who clutch a French guidebook, usually le Routard or Lonely Planet. And who always look a little hungry.

As a native speaker, I am instantly at home in any English-speaking country and can travel to most parts of the world with the confidence of knowing that someone will speak my language. This gives me an unfair advantage over my compatriots, one that I shamelessly exploit. When abroad, I enjoy going undercover and observing the French as they struggle to adapt to my world. It’s payback time.

I watch them studying the menu board outside a restaurant so intently, trying to determine whether the food will be remotely edible. Queuing politely to buy tickets and timidly trying out their English. Putting their best foot forward in every way.

They’re like fish out of water. But the fact is, the French are great travelers. They’re well-read, knowledgeable about their destination and prepared to walk its streets. They explore, adapt to local customs, try the special foods. They’re budget-savvy and know how to find the best deals without dropping needless cash on bells and whistles.

In fact, when they’re not at home the French are much more endearing than they are in France. (Unlike certain other nationalities who shall remain nameless on this blog – I’ve already offended enough sensibilities.) I guess that’s because when they’re not on home turf, they don’t have that certain je ne sais quoi – no, actually I do: arrogance. Yes, folks, the French can be humble. And it is a lovely thing to see.

Last week we were in Scotland visiting our wee lass and there were a great many French-speaking tourists in our midst. The combination of the Scottish brogue and the French r-r-r’s made for some challenging communications. But overall, I was quite impressed at how well everybody managed to understand each other.

Seems a little humility goes a long way.

So, where are you going this summer? Home or away?

Les Bronzés font du ski

Les Bronzés font du ski is one of those cult classic films that define popular culture in France. Released in 1979, it was one of a series of ‘Les Bronzés’ movies by Patrice Leconte, a parody of the singles holiday that featured early performances from an all-star lineup of comic actors: Josiane Balasko, Michel Blanc, Christian Clavier, Gérard Jugnot, Thierry Lhermite.

I remember not really getting the film the first time I saw it: neither the slapstick, heavy-handed humor the French seem to love, nor the lightning-fast repartee. But I came to appreciate that the film defined an era – as did yours truly last time I hit the slopes.

March is a good time for skiing in the French Alps. There are fewer tourists, for one thing, as most of the school breaks are over and the Parisians have gone home.

This winter hasn’t been great for snow – seems the weather gods decided to dump it all on North America this year. So we decided on some early spring skiing last weekend while the skies were blue and the snow still fairly plentiful.

My husband was feeling ‘en manque de montagne’ as he hadn’t been skiing for several weeks – he needed a fix of thinner air. I happily dusted off my old skis and boots that had miraculously turned up after our last move. I’m not an easy fit in a ski boot so I was delighted to rediscover my comfy old Nordicas and not have to rent for once.

We went to our closest resort, Avoriaz. It was a Saturday, a good choice if you want to avoid the crowds. Most people are arriving or departing on that day and so there are fewer skiers on the slopes.

As usual, we’d no sooner geared up than I needed to hit the ladies. Hubby went to buy the ski passes while I went in search of les toilettes. Things must be improving around here: I found clean, functioning facilities right by the pistes. When I returned a few minutes later, an ESF ski instructor was holding up one of my skis and examining it.

“Ahem, those are mine,” I ventured, thinking he’d mistaken my skis for his own.

“Ah!” he sighed, setting them down. “I so regret getting rid of my old ones.”

“Why, because they don’t make ‘em like these any more?”

“Because they were such a great souvenir. Those were the days!”

Right. I hadn’t realized until then that my skis, pointy tipped and perhaps 20 years old, were  considered a relic of bygone days.  I was starting to feel like a fossil myself.

Hubby came up and chuckled along with the fellow, which I thought was pretty mean considering he was sporting brand new equipment. To be fair, he uses it enough to amortize the investment.

Then, as we were about to get on les oeufs (as the French called the Gondola lifts), one of operators noticed my skis and said: “Ha, those are a real collectors’ item!” He went on to advise me not to leave them by the bar too long, or they’d get nicked for sure.

How did he know I’d be at the bar?

But it’s decided:  I’m getting new skis next year.