a precious, fleeting gift

All of sudden, there was snow. Last week, we were gazing at the bare pistes anxiously and checking the weather forecast religiously; one neighbour had promised snow by the end of November, while another said there would be none before Christmas.

When it started, it fell quickly. Twenty centimetres, then thirty, forty, fifty… we threw on boots and dug out thermals and drove through the blizzard to the Col des Montets, where we hiked the Aiguillette des Posettes trail until it was growing dark and our socks were soaked through and the path had long since disappeared under that magical white blanket. We retreated to town for vin chaud, shedding layers as our cheeks turned red from the alcohol and the warmth of the cosy bar, but my thoughts were with those first few steps through the icing sugar snow, untouched by any other animal, and the lonesome beauty of the winter forest against the slate grey sky.

In the days that followed, we built snowmen and we sledged and we skied, we skied until our legs and backs ached, but my mind kept returning to the first few hours of the snow, when it felt like the winter belonged only to us; a precious, fleeting gift.

Tomorrow, I fly to London and from there to the Caribbean for two weeks. Just as the seasonnaires and holiday makers are flooding to our valley, we are leaving, and when we return, the streets and the mountains will swarm with brightly clad skiers, and there will be racks of dripping snowboards outside the bars, and we’ll drop our bags and go and join them for our last month of living here.

This evening, I walked around central Les Houches, silent and dark but for the glow of a bustling Bar Delice and the glitter of streetlights falling on snow. Across the valley, the chalet windows of Servoz glowed benevolently, and I felt torn with the longing to make one of those lights our forever home.

With each day that brings us closer to the next phase of our life, I take a few extra moments to etch the impressions of these mountains and this valley onto my memory so that they will always be with me.

Posted in French life, Memories, Seasons | Leave a comment

the quiet anonymity

We went to Milan, to eat pizza and gelato and to see the Last Supper and, for the first time this year, I didn’t want to leave the city as the day drew to a close. Perhaps it was the Christmas lights, and the well heeled ladies in fur trimmed coats balancing a pile of gift bags on each slender arm, or perhaps it was the quiet anonymity, and the introspective faces of the commuters on the tram to the suburbs where we parked, and the sombre shop windows of the garment district, each one dedicated to one particular item of clothing, and the unexpected juxtaposition of the words Asian and trattoria. For the first time in a long time I could see myself living in an apartment and travelling in the crowded, lonesome world of city buses and trains and having nothing in my fridge except half finished jars of chutney because home was only a place to sleep; it was the rest of the world that was for living.

Not that I want any of that, really. Not that I don’t still inhale deeply the first time I step outdoors each day, just to feel that fresh Alpine air drawing deep into my lungs. Not that my heart doesn’t lift every single time we drive past the exit for Servoz and know that we’re almost home amongst our mountains. Not that I can bear the way the sadness that you see in cities – in the homeless, the downtrodden, the exhausted – breaks and hardens my heart, little by little.

But as we sped home, weaving between taillights to a Moby soundtrack, I was comforted in the thought that there might just be a thousand different places on this troubled and wonderful planet that I could call home.

Posted in Italy | Leave a comment

the heart’s slow turning

At a certain point on the run home from Les Bossons on a winter afternoon, you cross from the realm of sunset to the realm of dusk. You leave behind the delicate pink glow of the Dome du Gouter and the elegant red Aiguilles du Chamonix and the frost underfoot becomes deeper, more satisfyingly crunchy, as you pace along the streets that see very little sun during these colder months. The candy floss trail of an aeroplane over the Col du Lachat reminds you of the colours that are unfolding behind you but you yearn now for the bright, cosy windows and slow, winding chimney smoke of the chalets of Les Houches.

Outside your front door, before being enveloped by the warmth of the sitting room that has two cats sprawled out, dozing placidly on the sofa, you inhale the sharp air deeply and are quietly, abundantly, gloriously thankful.

Posted in Memories, Seasons | Leave a comment

A night on Mont Blanc

After our brief foray on the Midi Plan traverse, Ben and I have been itching to start our mountaineering season properly. Unfortunately, the weather has been anything but compliant, so when the forecast gave us a brief window, we decided to walk out of our back door and climb Mont Blanc. (Les Houches is the starting point for the Gouter Route, the most popular route up the mountain.)

We set off in blissful, almost too hot sunshine; leaving the town behind, we hiked through Alpine meadows vibrant with flowers and butterflies. More exciting was the sight of at least half a dozen baby ibex wandering onto the path, who were more than happy to pose for pictures.

As is typical of the higher climbs in the Alps, an ascent of Mont Blanc involves a night in an Alpine hut, or refuge, followed by a pre-dawn summit bid in order to get off the mountain before the dangerous midday heat arrives. On the Gouter Route, climbers can either stay at the Tete Rousse Hut, at 3167m, or the Gouter Hut, at 3817m. The two huts are separated by a rocky ridge, which is, under normal circumstances, an easy scramble, particularly since metal cables have been installed on the steepest sections. Staying at the Tete Rousse can mean a better night’s sleep for those who have trouble with altitude, but it also means a longer summit day and the necessity of navigating the ridge in the darkness.

We reached the Tete Rousse at 3pm, but it already felt like evening. To our dismay, the sky was filling with thick, grey clouds, and a light rain had started to fall. We decided to press on, however, figuring that the ridge would take us a couple of hours at most. Unfortunately, we were quickly to find that the conditions were much poorer than we’ve experienced in the past. The ridge was a mixture of ice, rock and snow, often too bare for crampons but occasionally alarmingly slippery without them. Worse, the rain had turned to hail, which the wind whipped into our faces like hundreds of tiny needles. Our hands were numb in our sodden gloves, and the refuge didn’t seem to get any closer, however high we climbed.

We reached it eventually, though, stumbling out of the storm and into the gear room with immense relief, tearing off wet clothes and pulling on all the dry down and wool we possessed. After inhaling a bag of dried fruit and some noodles we were feeling much more cheerful, and Ben decided that he would brave the weather and attempt to summit during the night. I had already decided that I had no interest in going further; for me, mountaineering is about the views, and the sense of peace, and neither of these things is possible in a storm. I tried to talk Ben out of it, hating the thought of him heading up the dark, lonely mountain, but he was adamant, and I reasoned with myself that he is an accomplished climber; that he has been in much worse, and that he has no desire to die. So off he went, and I climbed into my bunk, to try to sleep.

 Not long later, a peal of thunder cracked the sky, followed shortly by the kind of lightning that leaves an afterglow on your eyes. Where was Ben? As I listened to the storm rage, I felt more and more nauseous. My head spun with the worst kinds of thoughts. Then, about an hour after he had left, I heard the door of the dormitory creak open. I looked at the shadowy figure that walked in, and recognised its posture and its form with a flood of relief. At the first signs of lightning, he said, he had virtually run through the snow back to the hut.

The storm raged all night, hail pounding against the tiny window. At one point, the window flew open, and even I – about six metres away – felt a few flakes of snow on my face. At around seven, the room started to wake, and with the snow still coming down outside, jokes were made about “our new home, the Gouter hut.” Then the wind dropped, the guides announced that they were taking their clients down, and a mass exodus began; everyone knew that a big storm was coming in, and if we didn’t get down then, we probably wouldn’t for a few days. Naturally, my main concern was how the cats would get fed…

Through the clouds that swirled around the hut, we could see that the ridge was now about a foot deeper in snow than it had been the evening before. I was nervous about the climb, but ended up really enjoying it, remembering equally the satisfaction of a solid axe placement between two boulders and the unnerving skittering of crampons on rock. High up, the weather was a real issue, with winds strong enough to blow me off balance, but as we got lower, its sting became less painful, and sometimes the clouds would clear enough to grant us views of sun soaked fields far below. Several hours later, we were walking through those same fields, exhausted and hungry, and wondering at how benign the clouds shielding the high mountains looked.

“For Love is of the valley, come thou down And find him; by the happy threshold, he, Or hand in hand with Plenty in the maize, Or red with spirted purple of the vats, Or foxlike in the vine; nor cares to walk With Death and Morning on the silver horns…” – Tennyson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Old friends; old mountains

Around this time two years ago, I was putting together the table plan for Ben’s and my wedding. Thinking that they would get along – both Oxbridge graduates, both very intellectual and both fierce Tories – I sat Ben’s school friend Craig and my school friend Ellie next to each other.

Last weekend, Ben organised a stag do for Craig in honour of his upcoming wedding, to Ellie. Needless to say, we’re more than a little bit excited about that event.

Anyway, although the weekend was spent wine tasting (or, I should say, wine overindulging) in Dijon, Craig, and a third school friend, David, came a couple of days early to spend some time relaxing in the mountains. We went rock climbing, we hiked the Aiguillette des Houches, we BBQ’d on one of the most beautiful, delicate summer evenings we’ve had so far this year, and we all suffered from sore heads in the mornings.

The groom to be

David and Ben atop the Aiguillette des Houches

We were lucky to have a few more days of David, who recently left his job in litigation and is, thus, in the same blissful post-corporate-world-state as Ben and me. With his newly conceived goal of climbing Mt Blanc, we took him up the Aiguille du Midi with the intention of getting him used to crampons and covering as much of the Midi-Plan traverse as possible, typically a straightforward snow walk along a sometimes slender ridge between its two eponymous Aiguilles.

It was a cloudy day, still early in the season, and the mountains felt as though they were all ours’ as we set out through the powdery snow, crampons kicking firmly to gain purchase. Those first few moments were quite magical for me; whether it was the thin air, the deliberate steps, or remembering the relief of a solid axe placement, I became imbued with a feeling that I was not only walking out in these high mountains now, in 2011, but I was also, simultaneously, walking out for the first time when we came to the Alps as a bunch of ill equipped and ignorant university students in 2006; as a slightly more experienced but still utterly awestruck NOLS student in the Cascades in 2007, and as a honeymooner in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca in 2009.

Things got somewhat less romantic after lunch when a blizzard blew in; as the wind and snow stung our faces, I struggled to distinguish ridge from sky in the whiteout, and shortly before the final climb back to the cable car, the sole of my mountaineering boot fell off!

Luckily, none of this seemed to deter David, and we’re hoping that he’s back soon for that Mont Blanc attempt, as well as more discussion of religion, humanism, and our favourite political bloggers.  


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Garden

My knee injury has resurfaced, which means no hiking for a while, so I’ve finally had a chance to work on the garden.

All we had in the way of outdoor space at our flat in London was the top of a fire escape; I did have a small trough filled with compost there, but the cats commandeered it for snoozing and sunbathing before I could get any seeds in. (Other uses of that space included, once, a disposable BBQ that filled our kitchen with thick, noxious smoke…)

The chalet here has plenty of outdoor space, including a patch of land beyond the lawn that our landlord really only bought so that nobody could build there. In past years an elderly man from the village has grown vegetables there, but it seems like he has decided he’s too old for that now, so it is pretty much at our disposal. It’s totally overgrown and the soil is filled with weed roots, so it’s tough digging beds and I think it’s going to be a constant battle maintaining them, but I’m thrilled at the prospect of growing our own food.

Fighting back the jungle

So far I’ve put some lettuce in, and we have basil and mint nearer the house. It’s such a joy to have fresh herbs; it makes you remember just how bland the ones that come in those awful plastic packets from the supermarket are. I can’t wait until we have enough mint to make ice cream. We’re planning carrots and tomatoes, perhaps chilli, maybe some strawberries or raspberries.

Instead of heading straight to the computer, my day now starts with a little potter around outside. I’m grateful for the sound, or the feeling, of drops of rain; never more so than when the skies opened just after all the lettuces were planted.

I’m seeing this particular garden as a learning experience (one of my lettuces has already been munched by an unwelcome guest… must set up some netting tomorrow). I wish I had Jacob at my side, expert grower of both flowers and produce, to show me where I have planted too close together, or haven’t turned the soil enough. But hopefully this will be my first season of many, wherever we end up making our permanent home. How wonderful would it be if our kids’ first tastes of something were from our own garden?

He'll probably be the greatest beneficiary of my labour

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Genova and the Cinque Terre

I was missing “culture”. I don’t need to write any more about how much I love it here, and how this experience has – somewhat to my surprise – really affirmed that I am no longer a city girl, but suddenly, last week, I wanted to see paintings, or a palace, or even just a different style of architecture, and then I remembered that we live half an hour from Italy.

We looked at going to Florence, but the cost of the trip was prohibitive (the Italian autostrada are horrendously expensive, even for someone used to travelling on French roads! Good old UK road tax…) so we looked closer to home. Genova? That would work… and then I noticed the city is just along the coast from the Cinque Terre, a part of the world I’ve been keen to visit for a long time. With a route home via the wine country around Gavi and Barolo, we had a perfect road trip planned.

It was exciting to step out of the parking garage in Genova and be consumed by the crowds and the bustle of the streets; to see the people rushing in and out of shops and cafes and offices. But I appreciated being the innocent tourist, and not being in a hurry myself. How many times did I race through the streets around St Pauls trying to grab a sandwich and get back to the desk inside fifteen minutes, never stopping to appreciate my surroundings?

After a very un-rushed lunch at Genova harbour

In a country that counts Venice, Rome and Florence amongst its treasures, Genova is not much of a tourist destination. It’s a port city, industrial and slightly raffish, but then this is Italy, so amongst the apartment blocks decorated with that day’s laundry and the cranes and shipyards there are cobbled streets filled with tiny churches whose frescoes and marble are astounding. We stepped into one such church – quite unprepossessing from outside – which was filled with paintings by Rubens, and whose ceiling was decorated with so much gold leaf that to look at it felt like staring into the sun.

In the Piazza de Ferrari, Genova

After a couple of hours, though, we wanted to be breathing fresh air again. More precisely, the sweet, perfumed air of the Mediterranean. We drove along a classic Italian coastal road – imagine verdant cliffs tumbling into the sea, broad beaches, beautiful villas and cluttered seaside towns revealing themselves at every turn – finally arriving at our campsite in Sestri Levanti in time to lie on the beach in the evening sun.

In the morning, we set off for the Cinque Terre, the name given to a protected area of the coast that contains five extraordinary villages which cling to the hillsides and tumble down to the shores. Despite the region’s tough terrain, every inch of cultivable land is covered in vineyards and olive groves, and this relatively tiny patch of land produces a large amount of wine and oil. And lemons – almost every house had a prolific lemon tree in its back garden; we were surprised and slightly disappointed that nobody had set up a homemade lemonade stall in the street…

I love the fact that places like the Cinque Terre exist. True, the villages are overrun with foot traffic, and for the villagers themselves, the numbers of tourists treading through their narrow streets and peering into their gardens must feel tremendously intrusive. However, the Italian authorities have done fantastic work in making the place as sustainable as possible – there are no new buildings or hotel developments, and while there is a road that runs above the villages, it remains almost empty since the rail links are so excellent and cheap. (It costs €10 for a card that entitles you to unlimited train travel in the area, access to the hiking trails and entrance to the various museums along the way. These include an olive press, a wine museum and a virtual aquarium, but sadly, all were shut when we visited.)

The main trail linking the five villages is extremely well trodden, and entirely flat between the first two villages making it accessible to people with even quite limited mobility, though it gets harder thereafter; harder than we expected, to be honest, and I loved the fact that people of so many different nationalities were there, puffing and panting their way up the hills in the blistering sun. We also used some of the harder trails, which take the walker very steeply inland, through the vineyards and groves. Needless to say, we were very impressed with the (almost exclusively, it appears) elderly men and women who work this land.

The final section of the walk – from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare – was particularly busy, and the main trail was very narrow, meaning that every few minutes we found ourselves coming up behind a party and having to wait until they moved to the side to pass. Normally, that would happen pretty quickly, perhaps after a few words were exchanged on the weather, the beautiful surroundings, etc, but as we neared the end of the hike, we got stuck behind a tour group whose leader was perpetually stopping to examine a flower, a pebble, a wire fence. We asked the members of the group if we could pass, and were let by until one man inexplicably shook his head. The Mediterranean, our final reward, was twinkling away beguilingly just beyond the final section of path. I had to laugh when Ben, irate at being held up for so long, threw himself down a crumbling slope in order to gain the path beneath the tour group… I followed, and we ran down to the sea, stripping off clothes and launching ourselves in.

But how amazing to be able to swim in the Mediterranean in early May – it was slightly numbing, but exactly what our bodies were crying out for. And how wonderful to lie on the pebbly beach afterwards, skin heated by hot rock from below and hot sun from above, listening to the Italian children playing and asking for ice creams.

We drove home through wine country the next day, sad to be leaving that magical stretch of coast. The landscape around Alba, where we stopped for lunch, was very beautiful, but it doesn’t seem well set up for wine tourism; we had hoped that it would be possible to visit a vineyard, but none had welcoming signs so we carried on through. An odd feature of the area was the number of prostitutes by the roadside. These were all young black women, brightly dressed, and stationed every couple of hundred yards. We couldn’t help wondering how they had ended up here and how much business they got. It would be a sad sight anywhere, but was somehow particularly shocking in this bucolic setting.

To end on a slightly happier note (and because I haven’t mentioned food at all, surely one of the draws for any visitor to Italy). When we visited Orpierre, we were sad to see the decline of the French auberge. These simple restaurants offer a menu at around €20 which typically includes a salad or pate to start, a well cooked piece of meat or fish for the main course, and a dessert of chocolate mousse or tart, all served, of course, with as much fresh baguette as you can manage. In Italy, we were delighted to see that the concept is still alive and well, though even more of a bargain as for just €10 one could always find somewhere serving a menu prezzo, always comprising a primi, a secondi, and a glass of wine, and often throwing in an antipasti, gelato or coffee in addition. We tried one of these in Alba; the food was simple but generous, and we didn’t need much dinner that night.

Perfectly cooked calamari - for me, the taste of childhood summers in Greece

Much has been written in the food press about the decline of French cuisine at the hands of McDo and other perpetrators, and indeed the cuisine became UNESCO protected earlier this year (and I’m looking forward to the first Fete de la Gastronomie Francaise, a new annual tradition that will commence this September). I wonder whether Italian cuisine is faring somewhat better because the people are more committed to it, or is it because Italian food is so on-the-go friendly. Who needs McDonalds when you can have fresh pizza by the slice, or a crispy Panini oozing with mozzarella?

All that said, France still closes at lunchtime; it is still possible, throughout the country, to eat extremely well relatively inexpensively; the produce in the supermarkets is still incomparably better than what I was used to in England. And, in my book of French idioms, one of my favourite sample dialogues is that used to illustrate the idiom manger sur le pouce, or to grab a quick bite to eat, in which one conversant tells the other that it is terrible to eat on the go, without taking the time to enjoy and appreciate your food. They certainly wouldn’t approve of those inhaling a sandwich at the desk days…

Posted in Hiking, Italy | Leave a comment