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Published: January 22nd 2009
On the train
After walking the length of the train, we eventually agreed that the bike holding area would be best for us to settle down and play cards.
I must say, it's really wonderful to be dating someone with a real job. Every year Guillaume's company offers a fantastic weekend in the alps to all of their employees, each of whom can invite their friends or family at an additional cost of 10 Euros a night, train and meals included. And Guillaume had invitied me, so for 30 euros I got to come with him to Les Arcs and stay in a beautiful little alpine village and ski some of the best slopes in the world for 3 days. It was a wonderful, romantic, weekend; just me, Guillaume, and forty of his colleagues, all tucked away in the mountains together.
Friday afternoon, after finishing my Franco-American Relations final exam and going for a long walk from the 4th to the 10th just shopping the soldes in Paris, I went home and packed every long-sleeved article of clothing I have into my faithful backpack and got ready to meet Guillaume before heading to the train station. I have to say, I love my backpack. Landsend, green, big well-sewn zippers, I bought it before my first trip to Europe and it has seen me through four continents and over a
A card game that comes from the south, it's played with a special deck that has the 4 regular suits and one special suit of 22 cards, two of which are seen here.
dozen countries, it's been good to me, though I can't say the same myself, shoving it under plane, train and bus seats, almost having it stolen in Spain, sleeping on it in airports from Chili to New York, it's like a friend, or maybe a dog, always there, always ready, without fail. And so I stuffed it to capacity with sweaters, pants and leggings and went off to Guillaume's.
We met up with Guillaume's colleagues at Gare de Lyon, where I was then introduced to all of them, and whose names I promptly forgot. The tickets were handed out with as much efficiency as one can expect in an unorganized group of forty or so people, and then we were all herded onto the train, where further chaos ensued as the tickets didn't have which beds we were assigned printed on them. We couldn't just take any beds we wanted as people who were not part of our group kept coming in to rooms we had claimed and kicking us out with valid proof that these beds were reserved for them. Eventually it all got settled, as the train was leaving the station and we tried to maneuver around
In the train
Sara travels by plane, train and automobile!
each other in the narrow halls with our bags and everything. Once in our rooms and on our tiny beds, stacked three high, six to a car, Guillaume and I decided we weren't tired enough to sleep just yet and went wandering to see what other people were up to. Magalie and her boyfriend had brought cards, so we collected a few other people, settled into the bike holding area and delt out the tarot deck. Tarot is a fun game of strategy from Marseilles, where you get points by collecting the royal cards and the special 5th suit tarot cards, numbered 1 through 21 plus "l'excuse", which is marked with a star. I won't bother to write out all the rules because if you don't have the special deck, you can't play, and if you have the special deck, I'm assuming you already know how the game works. After many rowdy rounds of tarot, we all headed back to our bunks to pass a rough, swaying, and all to brief night before being awoken by the conductors announcement that we were approaching our stop.
Heading out into the cold alpine air really helps wake a person up, no
Six people on tiny beds in a tiny room, it was okay once we were all settled on our beds, but getting everyone, with their stuff, in the room was rather difficult.
matter how rough one slept on the train, and so by the time our bus reached our little village and dropped us off by our chalet, everyone was ready for breakfast and then to hit the slopes. We were greeted by Babette and her husband Gérôme who own the chalet where we stayed. They were absolutely wonderful, an adorable french couple who just live in the mountains and open their home up to tour groups like ours. They cook dinner and set out breakfast, staying up late drinking and telling stories with everyone, only to wake up at 6 the next morning to get everything ready again. Everything we ate there had been prepared by them, from the tartiflette to the terrine du porc, and of course the infamous génèpy. Génèpy is an alcohol made with mountain herbs, all gathered locally. It has a slight greenish tint, and perhaps a hint of the herbs, but it's so strong that all you smell and taste is the burn of the alcohol. Gérôme poured us all a bit before telling us what it was, and watching the looks on people's faces as they tried to drink the stuff was really quite entertaining.
Our stop, from which we took a bus up to Les Arcs.
This was after dinner though, as breakfast was a small, traditional french affair, bread, jam, coffee, no alcohol. After filling up on bread, homemade jam, and yogurt, everyone headed out to rent their skis, or in my case, board. Coming from California, I have to say, I have never seen so many skiers before. Of the roughly 40 people that came on this trip, only 5 of us were on snowboards. I think this ratio accurately reflects what you see on the slopes here too, the vast majority of people were on skis. Rather different from the Tahoe slopes I'm used too, where snowboarding is THE thing to do if you want to be cool.
And so with our skis and boards and boots all ready, we headed up the slopes for a day in the snow. As it was such a large group, everyone ended up breaking off with people around their same level, with the plan of meeting at one of the alpine restaurants at 12:30. Guillaume and I headed off on our own, got lost, and were half and hour late for lunch, but luckily they had saved us our appetizers and ordered our entrees for
Aw, aren't we adorable?
us. Like everything here, it was delicious, as well as hearty and warm, perfect for refueling before heading back out to the snow. This time I went out with a different group of less advanced skiers, as Guillaume wanted to hit the black slopes, but we met back up for the last ride of the day. We took the last lift up to the top, "l'aigle rouge", just before it closed. This should have warned us of our mistake, but we didn't really think anything of it at the time. The wind was picking up and whipping ice into our faces, I was exhausted, not doing any sports myself this was the most exercise I'd gotten in years, and we started our descent, my legs aching, not willing to control the board properly, I rode most of the top slope on my heels, falling leaf down the face, not willing or able to try and carve. The bottom of l'aigle rouge was the top of the derby, still above Arc 2000, our village being at 1600 and only accessible by a lift that closes at 5:30. We were not really aware of this, ended up at the village at Arc
The majesty, the grandeur, the ski lift cables...
2000, took two buses and then skied/boarded a little "piste" (groomed slope) in the dark (as it was now 7:30 or so and the sun had set a while ago). A man on the bus told us that the slope would take us straight to our village, Peisey, but he was off by a village, as we ended up in Vallandry, the village above ours, with no bus or slope to get back home. I'm not sure if everyone is getting the picture yet that this place is HUGE. Les Arcs is a collection of slopes that all got linked together for the Olympics that was hosted there in 1992, there are little villages all up and down the mountains, some of which you can ski home to, others, like ours, where you have to take a lift or gondola. And our little cage lift was long closed at this point, so Guillaume went into the tourist office we stumbled upon and asked the man working there for directions home. As he was just shutting down for the night, he said he would just give us a ride, which was wonderful. I love getting rides from strangers in situations like
this, and he was really cool. He'd worked in the states for a rental car company and has seen more of the US than I think even I have. We chatted about the states and the mountains and it was really quite nice, and he dropped us off right next to our chalet, where upon entering we were greeting with thirty or so curious pairs of eyes and everyone asking "where WERE you?"
The next day was much of the same, except that we decided no to be late for anything. Guillaume and I split up for a bit, and then met back up at the restaurant at lunch and finished the day together. By late morning it had started snowing, and was getting really heavy before lunch, to the point where it was pretty much impossible to ski without goggles. And so to not be stuck on the mountain with nothing to do, Guillaume and I went and bought goggles to finish out the day, and they really did make everything better. And tonight, we were not late for dinner and were there early enough to even enjoy the aperitifs. Violet flavored wine is really very good, I
must say, as was the pasta and sausages that we had for dinner. After the main course was the cheese plate, which was delicious. I am constantly amazed at just how much the french know about and love cheese! It's not even a stereotype, it's just true, it's in their genes or something. Gérôme brought out a platter with three types of cheeses on it, all made within the region. The first cheese he described got hungry looks from everyone, beaufort, a cheese manufactured in the mountains, the flavor of which changes with the season. We were going to be eating the summer version, fattier and with a more yellow color, a bit lighter in texture from the fresh herbs and flowers that the cows eat in the spring and summer. The winter version of the cheese is paler and less fatty, with a more earthy flavor from the dried hay the cows eat in the winter. Everyone knew this cheese and loved it, the other two were less well known, but also very good. I loved the demi-vache, demi-chevre (half-cow, half-goat), it had the light texture of a goat cheese but the milder flavor of one made with cows
Guillaume surveys the mountain.
milk, very good. Wow, I really am assimilating! Did I mention that at this moment I have over half a dozen different varieties of cheese in my fridge? And I live alone, with a mini fridge. I guess it's really more of a cheese-box now, I'm just a beret away from being French!
We stayed up a bit with some of the other people in the kitchen, drinking wine and Génèpy. David, one of Guillaume's coworkers is also dating a Californian, and she and I got to talking about our homeland. It was quiet fun, but of course saying I was from Chico elicited the "Chico? Party School!" response, and then I had to explain the reputation to everyone and why it was changing, if slowly. If it is indeed changing, who knows, the town has effectively killed most of the big party days, but the reputation is a hard one to shake. Still, it was fun to talk about home with someone new who knows and understands the California systems and way of life. I hope we set a good example for our country and our state that night for all the French people who were there. If
nothing else we helped perpetuate the stereotype that California girls are hot, and that's one I'm ok with having.
The morning of the last day I woke up feeling surprisingly good, stiff neck aside. I had been expecting to not be able to move after the first day, as it has been so long since I was last on a board and I have done almost no serious exercise since high school. And yet I made it through this entire weekend, boarding everyday, and still able to move in the morning. My body was tired, but not sore (neck aside, and I think that was due more to sleeping on Guillaume's arm than riding the slopes). We went down to the main chalet for breakfast, yogurt, bread and jam again, before the two of us took to the slopes. As it had snowed since yesterday morning and all night long, the powder was fresh and perfect, especially for snowboarding. We went up to the top, and started off in one direction when Guillaume saw a red slope, "la combe", which had been closed, but looked very ridable. Off we went, and it was magic. at least a foot of
It's so pretty!
How are you supposed to actually ski when everything is so beautiful? I guess that's why I kept eating it, just got too distracted by the surroundings. Sure, that's why.
fresh snow that hardly anyone had touched, and as the signs were up saying the slope was closed, no one was ahead or behind us, we had the whole slope to ourselves and it was wonderful. We probably spent more time kissing than actually skiing on that run, but who cares, it was great. We decided to not meet the group for lunch and instead continued on to the backside. Unfortunately I had gotten ice in my bindings and took out my plastic ski pass, the only thing small and rigid enough that I had on me, to scrape it out, and then left it in the snow, meaning I couldn't get back onto any of the lifts, which was really disappointing as we had just reached the backside and it was amazing. It also happened to be where all the other boarders were hiding, mostly Australians who follow the winter around the world, some Irish and some English, very few french. Snowboarding appears to be an overwhelmingly Anglophone sport, but that's just what I was seeing on these slopes. We convinced the woman at the bottom to let me back onto the lift so we could check and see
If trees had feelings, these ones would feel cold.
if I'd left my pass at the top, but we never found it. I guess that was alright though as I was getting rather exhausted and I wanted to head back and have enough time to shower and build a snowman before having to catch our bus at 5:30.
And so my magical weekend in the alps came to a close as the bus pulled away from the chalet and we waved goodbye to Babette, Gérôme, and our snow woman. We took the TGV back to Paris, whizzing through the night and arriving back in Gare de Lyon at 11:30 pm Monday, when Guillaime and I walked to Gare d'Austerlitz so I could catch the RER C back home. Boarding my train, the only thing I wanted was my nice, warm bed, clean and waiting for me in my happy little yellow room.
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