Sunday, June 12, 2011

Nous faisons du camping

How to even begin to describe what a three-month sabbatical does for one's soul? I could certainly wax poetic and get sappy on you in trying to sum up three months of life in France, but I wouldn't be able to begin to put into words what living abroad as a family has truly been like. In a way I feel as if we've all been tattooed by France. I know that with time the edges will start to blur and the color will fade, but the overall design and imprint will remain. I've come to realize that travel is a deeply personal experience, even when traveling with others. Jim and I have talked a lot about what this time away has been like and in trying to think about how we'll communicate back to our loved ones what this trip has meant, we can only come up with, "We had a great time and we're forever grateful for this experience." End of story.

So this post won't be long on philosophical details, but will probably read more like, "and then on Friday we turned down road D902 and then stopped at a little boulangerie and ate bread." So bear with me as I try to capture what the last week has been like driving and camping our way around France.

We've seen so much and such variety of landscapes in our week on the road that our time in Paris seems but a distant dream. We are currently camping for a few days in the town of Briancon in the Alpes near the Italian border. The scenery is unparalleled and the weather sublime. But allow me to back up and start at the beginning of our driving/camping adventure, if only to document for our sake so that we don't get hazy on the specifics later.

As with any trip there are plenty of logistics involved. For this segment of our sabbatical, it was trying to rent a large enough vehicle that could fit all of our long legs comfortably, AND fit our luggage and camping gear. No small feat in Europe. While you'll see the occasional larger vehicle, most are small and smaller, which is great if one isn't shlepping all one's luggage, camping gear, food and two teenagers. We ended up with a Ford Focus (how we got an American car brand in Europe still confounds us) and despite its many shortcomings, it is serving its purpose, and for that I'm grateful. Much as we tried, we were unsuccessful in smashing all of our luggage in the small rear compartment and so our first stop was to our friend's apartment to stash some of our luggage. Once we finally got on the road and left the city our first stop was to Belleau Wood where my great-grandmother's brother was killed during WWI. His body was never found, but his name is engraved in the chapel at the American cemetery. It was a very moving afternoon, as the cemetery is located right around the hills where the fiercest battles took place, and to be able to walk around the hillside and see the old trenches still there, and feel its tranquility now, is quite the juxtaposition of emotions. Also, seeing the Irminger name engraved in the wall and knowing how much my great-grandmother loved her youngest brother was quite stirring. As we were leaving the cemetery there was a little airport. By little, I mean one building and maybe three small planes. We needed kerosene for our camping stove and Jim thought that airport fuel would be our best bet, as we weren't finding kerosene in all the other places we had looked. A wonderful cultural exchange transpired and between our limited French and the limited English that a few of the men hanging around spoke we were able to figure out that our fuel could be found at a Bricorama store just down the road. One of the men offered to lead us to the store as he was heading in that direction anyway. Not only did he take us to the store, he went inside with us and and explained to one of the workers what fuel type we were looking for. Unfortunately, they didn't have quite what we wanted and so we ended up purchasing lamp fuel, which has worked only okay for our stove, but it works, so I'm not complaining. As long as we can boil water for coffee, I'm a happy camper. We were back on the road and spent our first night at a municipal campground in a little town called Cezanne. Jim and I enjoyed a hike through the rolling hills and the boys played badminton. After a peaceful night's sleep we then headed toward the Alsace region and stayed a few nights in a little medieval village named, Eguisheim. This was such a fairy-tale book village that it truly seemed unreal! I kept expecting some Disney character to jump out and start singing a cheesy tune. We enjoyed the Alsace wines here and the cheese, oh the cheese!

From Alsace we then headed to Gex which sits just outside Geneva, Switzerland. This was the science portion of our trip, as CERN (particle physics research and where the Large Hadron Collider is now operational) is located in this area and we were like kids in a candy store spending time at the exhibitions explaining the science and research taking place here. It blows your mind, really! The feat of engineering just to build the LHC is mind-boggling and then you learn about the research being done and it's over the top. What normally takes people two hours to explore, we took seven. I had to read some of the scientific explanations at least three times before I could truly absorb what was being conveyed. Heady and giddy stuff to be sure. We were all a little buzzed after leaving CERN and so we decided to head to Geneva to check out the city. I'll keep it brief: It's not Paris.

From Geneva we then headed into the Alpes and onto Chamonix-Mont Blanc. It was a bit overcast for our drive, and while it was spectacular, we were only seeing the forefront of the Alpes, as most of the peaks were shrouded in clouds. Regardless, the drive was beautiful and our little car chugged up and over the mountain passes like a champ. Jim is having so much fun driving a manual car again and he loves, loves driving tight, windy roads. Good thing, as there are a lot of them through the Alpes. At last we made our descent into Chamonix and set up camp just south of town under a large glacier looming overhead. I will say that Chamonix is everything one would expect and then some. Jim awoke early (as in 5:30 a.m. early!) and saw that the clouds had cleared and the Alpes were looming large overhead and were bathed in the early morning light. He was so darn giddy that he woke me up and then the boys to make sure that we could get the first gondola car up to Aiguille du Midi at 8:10 a.m. While I didn't appreciate the early morning get-up, to see the sun come up behind the Alpes was well worth the extra cup of coffee. We made it to the ticket line and were up and whizzing our way up the mountain at 8:10 sharp. Here is one of those experiences that neither words nor pictures can truly describe. It's a place that one must experience to truly understand. We spent nearly four hours at the top because we didn't want to leave behind the endless views. After our lips were blue and we felt satiated by the beauty we took the gondola down to the mid-point and decided to hike the rest of the way down. I will say that Jim and I didn't make the best parenting decision by insisting that the boys hike down the incredibly steep incline. They both suffer from Osgood-Schlater in their knees and going downhill is especially painful. In our enthusiasm we underestimated the steepness of the descent even though we saw just how steep it was on our gondola ride up. Mostly we didn't want our day to end and we knew that by hiking we would prolong it. Prolong it, it did. Two hours of traversing the steep mountain and we were all sore and a little cranky. Fortunately, it took only a Coke to cheer the boys back up and a bottle of wine for me and Jim. The weather turned rainy again the next day and so we decided to cut our time in Chamonix short and head to the southern Alpes. Before leaving we walked through the town again to buy some postcards and more bread and cheese. Here again was one of those cultural exchanges that makes the trip all the more worthwhile. We ducked into a little shop that sold lovely, old prints and tins of Chamonix-Mont Blanc and we were admiring the art when the proprietress asked if we needed any help. She spoke limited English, and as we are always trying to practice and improve upon our French, we responded to her in French. She either falsely assumed that we were conversant/fluent in French, or she was happy to have a customer who at least made an effort in her native language. Not sure which, but it was if we uncorked a champagne bottle. This woman went OFF! She talked non-stop for at least 25 minutes in French and it did more to improve our comprehension than any other encounter. I felt like one of those Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons where I was hanging onto the edge of a cliff by my fingertips. For the most part I could follow along as to what she was saying and I was able to respond (albeit very clunkily) for the whole one-sided conversation. In a nutshell she was describing how the whole world comes to Chamonix and she is able to interact with people from all over, which also makes her a good study of cultures. Russian parents are very serious while their children are happy-go-lucky; Parisians are stressed out and want everything done quickly; She can't understand Australian accents to save her life; Americans are loud (imagine that!); Germans are okay; She can't stand the Swiss. The conversation finally came to and end when it was time to close her shop up for the afternoon siesta, which most shops do outside of Paris. Side note--don't ever plan on getting anything done between the hours of 1 - 3 p.m. as every shop, except some bakeries, close. A far cry from the 24/7 mentality that is expected in the states.

Our itinerary has been somewhat loose, which our only expectations being time spent in the mountains and along the Mediterranean. We perhaps underestimated the size and extent of the Alpes and when we thought we were headed for the sea, really we just kept driving through more mountains. Not that we're complaining at all, I think mostly it took us by surprise how extensive the Alpes truly are. We prefer the smaller, scenic roads rather than the motor ways and we knew our next stop would be Briancon, which has some of the highest fortresses in the Alpes. Not even knowing what we were doing we decided on the scenic roads which in this case also happened to be the quickest way to arrive to Briancon from Chamonix. This route happens to be the Route des Grand Alpes and what a drive it was! Every switch back we rounded afforded yet another incredible vista. We kept pulling over just so we could stop and marvel. These are the very roads that much of the Tour de France follow and it has given me a whole new appreciation for what these riders accomplish. The grades of the uphills are impressive enough, but I was more impressed by how they must ride down! The skill required not to fling off the side of the mountain (forget guard rails, they don't exist) is significant. It was challenging enough keeping one's vehicle on the road what with the motorcycles and touring cyclists also on the roads. You just never knew what would be around every corner, and that was probably the most stressful part. I know I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but Jim LOVED driving this route even though I was starting to feel a little pukish. I think it is easier to be the driver rather than the passenger on such roads, at least for me.

We are staying three days in Briancon so that Logan can take his last exam and be done with the school year. We are at a lovely little campground that has a community room with tables and chairs, which makes sitting at the computer for a few hours more comfortable. Camping in France is beyond ideal. This country knows how to cater to campers! First off, every little town has at least one campground and they are always well marked so that as soon as you come to the first round-about you'll start seeing signs for camping. We did buy a Michelin campground guide in Paris but we've used it only twice as everything is always well marked. While each campground is a little different--there are municipal campgrounds, family-run campgrounds and "corporate" campgrounds--they are all clean and have nice shower/bathrooms. Some have laundry facilities, most have wi-fi and some have little epiceries (stores selling provisions.) What we still find amazing is that you aren't price-gouged at these places. The little epicerie where we are currently staying sells fresh baguettes, croissants, beer, wine and other necessities and they are priced the same as what you'd find in the local grocery. Not being screwed and price-gouged at every opportunity has made me question our hyper-capitalist culture. It's almost as if it doesn't cross people's minds here, or it's strictly regulated. I'm not sure the reasoning behind the affordable and equal prices no matter where one is, but it is so refreshing not to be gouged and held hostage to those charging six times as much, just because they can. I kid you not, even at the little restaurant at the mid point of the Aiguille du Midi, the prices for coffee, sandwiches, and all the rest were exactly the same prices as you'd find in town! We kept thinking that had we been in the states, you'd be paying at least three times as much just because there was no other place to go, and hah-hah silly customer, you either pay these exorbitant rates, or you go without...sucker!

Tomorrow we head for a campsite on the coast, somewhere between St. Tropez and Marseille. As is our habit, we'll stop when it feels right and stay for a few days soaking up the sun. We plan on all taking a cooking class while down in Provence and doing some more hiking. It's hard to believe that we leave in a week. I'm doing by best to stay in the present and enjoy every moment and trying not to think about the mountain of work that faces us when we return home. My goal is to make changes in our daily life back in the states that somewhat mirrors what our lives have been like here in France. Mostly it is moving more slowly, taking time to enjoy the company of others, speaking more quietly and of course, eating well. We've now lived this type of life long enough while here that I hope we can push back against the culture of stuff and speed and noise when home. I think we've all noticed the improvement in our own lives to be inspired to try to keep it going. If it's just too hard, then we'll just have to return to the center of the universe, for all we know.