Aux Alpes Francais

Trip Start Aug 31, 2008
Trip End May 21, 2009

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Flag of France  , Midi-Pyrénées,
Friday, March 13, 2009

Not surprisingly, a recent trip to the French Alps has totally reinvigorated and inspired me. It's amazing what nature can do for the soul, for the spirit. Four days in the Alps and I am a new woman.

Bonnie used to work in a little town called Hope in Alaska. She was there for four summers in a row and made wonderful friends, some of whom I came to know as well. One of those friends is Jay, an American guy originally from Iowa, now living in Sunrise, Alaska who owns a white water rafting company and spends his winters skiing 7 days a week. For the last 20 years Jay has been coming to the tiny town of La Grave in the French Alps to ski its world-class mountains. This place draws serious skiers. I mean S-E-R-I-O-U-S skiers. These mountains aren't for beginners folks! But that didn't stop us of course...

As lucky chance has it Jay's visit to France coincided with Bonnie's and we planned a visit to the small town in the high Alps to do some skiing ourselves.  As an added bonus, two other friends of Bonnie's happened to be visiting Jay at the same time that we were so we were 5 in the tiny one-bedroom apartment in La Grave. But we were a hell of a group! Dave and Lana are also fellow Alaskans and die-hard skiers. They're married and I don't know that I've seen many couples who are as good together as these two are. It's sick. Anyway, I digress...

Getting to La Grave from Montpellier involves a series of bus and train rides which take you through some beautiful country. I have to admit that as the last bus took us into the town itself, winding around sharp turns in the high Alps I couldn't stop thinking...."What the hell have I gotten myself into? I'm going to attempt to ski in these mountains???" Let me point out that I am NOT a skier. I had only been once in my life, in Colorado about nine years ago and the little resort we went to back then was cake-meal compared to these massive peaks. I soon realized why a Welsh friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago, "The Alps? Have you skied before, Graciela?" when I told him where I was headed for the second ski experience of my life...

Anyway, first night was easy enough. Arrived at Jay's apartment right on time and they were waiting to take us to a wonderful Indian dinner just 10 steps from our front door. Our first night in La Grave was spent feasting on wonderful Indian food, French red wine, and a local liquor called Génépi that feels like paint thinner running down the esophagus as it goes down. It was everywhere and no one takes non for an answer so you will likely find yourself imbibing lots of Génépi in the French Alps. At least it serves to warm your internal organs...

Since Jay has been going to La Grave for more than 20 years he knows the locals well and has all kinds of connections. Bonnie and I each had all the gear we needed...for free. It was awesome. Got up on Tuesday morning, had breakfast and then headed over to Chazlet, the "beginner" resort. Jay was kind enough to give up one of his priceless skiing days to come over with us and give me a lesson, help get us going. Thank God for his help. Chazlet was a great place for me to start out. Still a lot bigger and more intimidating than anything I saw in Colorado but doable I guess. It was very painful in the beginning. I think both Jay and Bonnie thought I was a lost cause. It took me 30 minutes and 30 falls to make it to the first lift! In my defense, the stupid catwalk to get to this lift is treacherous! It's a steep, narrow, ice-packed slope. I hadn't worn skis in 9 years and it showed! What a  clown. If I'm honest I really didn't think I was going to be able to hack it. I was terrified. I mean TERRIFIED. Once at the lift I managed to get on and off successfully and then I really hit my stride. About an hour into my first ski experience in 9 years I was skiing! Jay and Bonnie were pretty impressed I think with my progress, especially considering how sketchy I was in beginning. Of course, I continued to pound the mountain with each butt cheek and sometimes face cheeks (did one really good face plant) but I got much more daring as the hours went by and I felt mighty proud of myself. Not as much for my skiing skills as for my courage. It really took everything I had to will myself down those mountains. 

Our first day of skiing was a success. Apparently I was paralleling and turning well. We were all in pretty good spirits by the end of our day. The little cafe at the top of the mountain had something to do with that as well as it offered us plenty of wine, beer, and pizza. 

It was Tuesday night,however, that I truly felt on top of the world. Jay had dinner plans at some French friends' house that evening. There were about 10 people invited and they were kind enough to have Bonnie and I over as well. The beautiful home belonged to a lovely French couple, Fanny and Reji. Our menu included pork pate, pork head (no joke, everything but the brain ground into a sort of paste), some kind of potato pastry that is deep-fried and a local specialty as well as lamb and wine galore. Everyone there was a skier of course and I spent most of the evening conversing in French with Fanny and another girl from Quebec. Several times throughout the evening I heard Fanny tell her sons that I spoke French, English and Spanish and she remarked on how good my French was. I had one of those epiphanies that night in which I realized that indeed I was sitting at a dinner table at a French person's home in the high Alps, having great conversation in a language I have dreamed of speaking for years. I'm doing it! I'm meeting great people who I otherwise never would have if I didn't speak their language! I couldn't stop grinning that evening as I contemplated it all. I was on top of the world...

The second day of skiing was even better...

We took the lift up to the top of La Meije. Oh la la...La Meije. It is the most technical lift-served mountain in the world so no secret why we were graced with the presence of truly fantastic, crazy skiers. This 7,000 foot mountain sits directly in front of our apartment in La Grave. Bonnie and I got up early and accompanied Jay up the mountain. We were the only two people there NOT wearing skis and I know I must have been dribbling out the mouth because my jaw was agape THE ENTIRE TIME I WAS ON THAT MOUNTAIN. The lift itself is super cool. A good 25 minute ride with the skiers and sometimes their dogs too. Once at the top we stared in awe at the skiers. I couldn't´t get over the fact that those crazy people were all about to fly down that mountain on their skis. I don´t know how steep it´s slopes are but riding up the lift I just couldn't´t believe people were actually skiing down it. Looked a like a beautiful death wish to me. Even more amazing was seeing several ladies in their 50s and one kid that couldn't´t have been older than 8. Wow. Bonnie and I being the adrenaline junkies that we are opted for a bowl of soup and some red wine. So what if it was only 11 o´clock in the morning???

After our visit to La Meije we headed back to Chazlet for a little skiing that was more our speed. Had a nice tranquil afternoon on my little slope with the 3 year olds and the 60 year olds. At least I was the fastest among them...well, not really actually. Some of the kids were whizzing past me.

That night Bonnie and I cooked dinner for our roommates, chicken and spinach curry and we ate and talked late into the night. A lot of the conversation was about corn (the term for frozen hard snow that is thawed on the surface by the sun so that it´s sort of slushy), or mashed potatoes (deep slush which is good unless it gets too deep), or skiing trees (skiing at 90 miles an hour through forest), or pow pow (powdered snow, unskied, deep, fresh snow), or hard pack (also known as boiler plate. Frozen hard snow, no edging, if you fall you´re going down a long, long ways). But we also talked about our views on life, travel, the human experience... I felt so happy to be surrounded by these wonderful, full-of-life people who feel the way that I do about travel and standard of living and what matters in life. Sometimes it just feels good to be surrounded by people who share a unique world view and a true passion for life. Another beautiful night with wonderful food and even better people...

Our last day in La Grave we all got in the car and headed to the town of Briançon, about an hour and half drive from La Grave. Jay has an American friend, Jane, who lives there with her French husband, Pierre and their two kids. Apparently they divide their time between the French Alps for one half of the year and British Colombia, Canada for the other. Must be rough. Jane´s house is spectacular. We went there to pick her up and hop in her car to go have one of the best meals I have had in France yet. And that is saying something. We dined on candied duck, mushroom gnocchi, French red wine and some of the most amazing desert I have ever had the pleasure of indulging in. Our view was of skiers coming down the mountainside, snow covered peaks encircling us. Briançon is the highest city in the Alps. We took a quick tour of the city and when Jane had to leave to meet her kids who were coming home from school, the four of us drove up to an old abandoned military fort somewhere in the mountains. Ignoring DO NOT ENTER and TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED signs, we made our way into the old fort and discovered abandoned barracks, graffiti covering the walls where soldiers had written messages as far back as WWI. It was spooky but really, really cool. We felt like kids running around and hiding behind walls when we thought we heard noises and finding bullet casings and hidden coves and dark stairways. I wish I had a better idea of how far back this fort dated but I know it was at least a century old, probably much older.

Once back in La Grave we went and had pizza and then took a walk to the cathedral and gazed at the constellations before heading home for bed.

Friday morning Jay and Dave were off for one of their most daring ski attempts yet on a mountain whose name eludes me at the moment. Lana opted out and instead drove Bonnie and I to a nearby town where we would hitchhike to the larger town of Grenoble to begin our journey back to Montpellier. We got out of the car, said our goodbyes and stood on the side of the road, thumbs pointed skyward and prayed for a friendly French soul to come along quickly as we were on a time schedule. Our bus out of Grenoble was leaving at 2 o´clock that afternoon. Ten minutes hadn´t gone by when a woman in a tiny Cooper with her son pulled over and let us in. We crammed ourselves into the tiny backseat that was already filled with skis and other gear with our backpacks and took off. She and her son were headed home but their town was a good distance shy of Grenoble. She told us not to worry, that she would drop us off at a roundabout with plenty of traffic were people were used to hitchhikers and that two pretty girls like us would have no trouble at all..."Urrrr...isn´t that sort of the problem?" But she was so warm and friendly as was her son that we couldn't´t help but feel relaxed and optimistic.  Twenty minutes later we were roadside again, thumbs out for less than 5 minutes when a fancy sedan driven by a white-haired Swiss looking fellow pulled up. We hopped in and sped off. Turns out Swiss-looking fellow was indeed Swiss, a medical doctor doing research on AIDS and Hepatitis who spoke 4 languages fluently (not uncommon for the Swiss) and had worked all over the world but is now living in Lyon, France. Luckily for us Mr. Swiss Doctor Man drove 200km per hour and we were out our bus stop in Grenoble with 15 minutes to spare.

I must mention that both of our drivers (who picked us up on the road) were friendly and warm as were all of the people we encountered in the mountains. I continue to see a pattern with "mountain folk" all over the world. There is a genuine generosity and hospitality they seem to possess from Bolivia to Peru to Brazil to Spain to France and beyond. This trip to the French Alps was so invigorating, refreshing and redeeming in terms of my impressions of French people. We were welcomed with kindness and generosity throughout our time in the Alps and the scenery and fresh air, the skiing all served to send back to Montpellier a new and revived Graciela.

And lucky for me because two days later we would begin a non-stop 3 week travel spurt beginning with mom and dad´s visit to France followed by 2 weeks in Turkey with the Bzdok...
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