Sunday, 30 December 2012

le depart

On our last night Magali invites us to join her group in a night-time walk in the snow to a farmhouse for supper.  The moon is almost full and the light in the woods is incredible - the villages across the valley seem quite near.  There has not been much fresh snow and at night it is frozen and has become crunchy underfoot.  As we climb up the hillside the sound of snow-shoes is deafening.  We eat a hearty meal at the farm - even Jean-Baptiste looks replete - before returning at around midnight.  

We have asked Jean-Baptiste if he can take us to Briancon in his car, over the Col de Lautaret which is just over 2000m to catch a train out of the mountains.  There is snow falling when we leave and we begin to wonder about the wisdom of taking this route as we start to climb to the pass.  The road is covered in snow but there is traffic in both directions.  Over the pass on the way down to Briancon the road becomes quite indistinct.  We just edge the tarmac and as Jean-Baptiste corrects the steering we suddenly enter into a slow-motion spin across the road.  There's nothing we can do.  The car turns almost 360 degrees and the back end hits the wall of snow on the inside of the road.  I say the inside - on the other side is the drop into the valley.  The bikes on the back of the car push the back window in.  Horrible.  I have to confess that at this point I was also wondering if the bikes could possibly have survived but they have.  Fortunately the road was empty when we danced across it.  Jean-Baptiste seems very phlegmatic. We are appalled that we have drawn him out on such a foul day only for this to happen.

We get to Briancon, unload the bikes - they have a couple of dented racks but seem okay - and quickly get our tickets.  The train is sitting on the track.  The snow is still falling and we know that Jean-Baptiste has yet to drive home back over the pass, with a dent in his car and no back window - the cost of doing us a favour.  We feel lousy about the situation but we can't undo it.  We say our goodbyes and the train is soon heading southwards out of the mountains and out of the snow.

Thursday, 27 December 2012


We've been unpacked at Magali and Jean-Baptiste's for nearly a month so it's been a time to sort out things, replace some items, clean them or make repairs.  It's easy to forget that all of this stuff will have to go inside our panniers and back on the bikes.
I had asked Father Christmas for a Kindle (179gm) but all I got was a bookmark (4gm).  Gayle has finally finished Little Dorritt, which we've carried all the way from home.  Now it's my turn to read it.

not so little at 400 gm

What is even more alarming than the weight of our books is the weight of our food supplies.  We are hardly in the wastelands of the Sahara here, but for some reason we have accumulated 1kg of chocolate alone.  I refuse to let Gayle see my coffee stash.

My mum will be pleased to learn that we finally washed our down jackets for the first time since we bought them in 2001.  They are now twice the size they were and won't squeeze into the panniers so easily.   And Xavier next door offered to wash our sleeping bags in their old industrial machine which they use for all their accomodation laundry.  He tells me they have 50 beds.  The village only has about 40 residents!  In return I lend a hand in moving some furniture with him.  All of a sudden our stuff is smelling much more sweetly.

And Gayle now has a bike helmet to replace the one she left behind at a bus shelter in Norway. So the only thing we don't have for the next stage of our journey is a device to keep wild boar away from our tent in Corsica.  Apparently they have a nose for chocolate..........

Friday, 21 December 2012

joyeux noel

After a snowfall some of the neighbours in the village appear with their shovels and brooms to clear the paths around their houses.  At first we think they are slightly obsessed but we soon realise the advantage of doing it before it compacts and freezes.  The snowploughs pass back and forth along the roads to keep them open. All the locals have winter tyres, and they're needed sometimes for the steep roads.  The landscape is draped in white layers - it's hard to distinguish the mountain tops when the sky is white too.

"I'm sure Gayle's here somewhere"

On a couple of days we accompany Magali on her guided walks.  The snow is fresh and dry and oh-so soft you would just sink right in if you didn't wear raquettes (snow shoes).  On both days we walk with Helene from Toulon and Marco and Rosy from Milano.  Magali breaks trail and leads us through woods, along barely defined tracks, down steep slopes and winding paths.  On our first day she points out to us tracks of some of the animals that live in these mountains and then we see chamois and deer, a rabbit bouncing off into the woods.  Everywhere is silenced by the blanket of snow - all we can hear is the gentle crunch of dry snow underfoot.

One Saturday night we are invited to the village hall for their Christmas party.  There are a few young families in Clavans with their children and hogging the seats around the room are the older folk.  We are all in thick sweaters or fleeces.  The mayor says a few words and then we are invited to help ourselves to drinks and vol-au-vents.  Our conversational French is a little rusty but Gayle thinks that it's getting better as we drink more wine.  What she doesn't realise is that she's actually speaking English with a French accent.  But it's fine - the folk we speak to understand us and we understand them.  Soon pastries and sweets are being passed around followed by the cheese.  Everyone seems fairly merry and the event reminds me of the ceilidh scene in Local Hero.  We take our leave before we're left with the local boozers.

In such a small community it obviously helps to get along with the neighbours.  There's a mixture of locals and incomers and it seems it can take a while to become a fully-fledged member of the village.  Jean-Baptiste describes how some of the older people can't yet use tu when they address him, as he is still a new arrival in their eyes (he's lived here just over a year).  But equally they don't want to use vous when they address him as this is too respectful and of course, he would use vous to address them as elders.  This linguistic and social difficulty is therefore overcome either by addressing him in the third person (e.g. if Magali is present they might say "Would he like a cup of coffee?") or using passive sentences ( e.g. "This wood might be useful for starting fires" instead of "You might find this wood useful for.....").  Jean-Baptiste is not offended - he knows these are good people.  We do have a laugh about Xavier and Mairie-Odile who run a guesthouse with quite a lot of self-catering accomodation.  Indeed, it seems they own a third of the village property.  He is always out and about fixing this or doing that and she is always complaining that she doesn't know where he is.  If you appear at their door in the evening there's a fair chance that Xavier might invite you in for an aperitif, as without a guest it seems his wife does not approve of these tipples.

Clavans le Bas

Before we know it, the days have flown by and Christmas is upon us.  The ski resort is filling up with holidaymakers and Magali's work gets busier.  Meanwhile Jean-Baptiste is starting work at the Alpe d'Huez ski resort.  The winter season is high season for most of the workers in this area.  It seems nearly everyone has some job linked to the ski resorts.  An exception are Francine and Pierre who are shepherds.  It's their holiday at the moment but soon they'll be moving around to shear sheep in the valleys.  We are thinking about our next steps on this journey and the route to Tunisia from here.  Despite the good time we've had here we know that after Christmas we must move on.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

chinese poker

A game for all ages.  For 3-4 players with one pack or up to 8 players with two packs. The aim of the game is to be first to discard all of your cards.  Each player is dealt 13 cards.

2 is high, 3 is low.  The suit priority is (highest first) Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds.  Therefore, the highest-value card is the 2 of spades.

The game is played in a series of hands.  The first hand is begun by the player with the lowest value card - the 3 of diamonds, or if this is not held by anyone, the 3 of clubs, or the next highest the 3 of hearts etc.  Each successive player must better the cards played or pass.  If everyone passes then the hand is won by the last to have played.  The player who wins a hand then opens the next hand.

The number of cards played in each hand is determined by the opener.  They can play one card, two cards of a kind e.g. 10-10, three cards of a kind e.g. Q-Q-Q, or five cards according to these values, starting with the lowest value: a run e.g. 5-6-7-8-9 (n.b. a run can cross over at the end e.g. Q-K-A-2-3); a flush i.e. 5 cards of the same suit; a full house i.e. two of a kind and three of a kind n.b. only the three cards count in terms of value; four of a kind and one other(only the four count in terms of value); a running flush i.e. a run all of the same suit.

So, if the opener begins with a pair of threes, say the 3 of diamonds and the 3 of hearts, it must be followed by a better pair.  This could be the 3 of clubs and the 3 of spades (because the spade trumps the rest), or any other pair. In effect, if the cards are of the same value, the suit determines which is the higher.

If someone plays a 5 card run, it can be bettered by a run with a higher card in the run e.g. K-A-2-3-4 beats 10-J-Q-K-A. Any kind of flush beats a run, a hearts flush beats a clubs flush, a full house beats any flush, a full house K-K-K 8-8 beats one of 10-10-10 A-A etc. etc.

A player can pass on one turn and then rejoin if the hand has continued round to them again.

This all might sound complicated, but the game is fairly simple to play. 

(with thanks to David)

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

ecole de ski

When Magali returns with her van she has to begin her winter's work as a Mountain Leader, taking people for snow-shoe hikes in the surrounding countryside.  She works from the nearest ski resort, Les Deux Alpes, which is just on the other side of the main valley.  On our first visit it feels like Bright Lights Big City.  A collection of hotels, chalets, ski schools, shops and restaurants, with a few administrative buildings tossed in, the resort sits on a col between two slopes.  The main ski pistes are high above out of sight and there are numerous ski-lifts running up the slopes.  It's an eye-opener for us.  Why is everyone walking like a gangsta rapper?  Ahhh, ski boots.

Our kind hosts insist on getting us onto skis.  Gayle is excited.  I'm terrified.  They have all the spare gear we need including helmets. Magali very patiently demonstrates some basic skills: how to carry the skis, how to put them on, how to plough, how to stop, how to walk like a gansta rapper.  At one point she whizzes off uphill and we have to follow.  I am reminded of one of Gayle's swimming lessons when I was trying to learn.  She uttered the words "You just do this" and then swam off in a crawl leaving no wake. 
keeping the peace in Les Deux Alpes
We start off on the mildest slope you can imagine.  I soon discover that I have a flare for skiing backwards - I'm a natural.  Unfortunately, I seem to have difficulty going forwards.  Gayle can stop when she wants.  I can only stop when the laws of physics allow it.  But this is dull stuff for Magali and Jean-Baptiste.  Soon we are on the nursery slopes where there's a free ski-tow to drag you up to what looks to me like the top of a cliff.  I take the steel pole which will drag me to the top but somehow my skis go in opposite directions, one gets tangled in some orange netting and before I can do anything about it I'm on my arse with one ski on and one ski off.  Everyone in the queue for the tow has to wait while the operator steps out to help me up.  I cannot extricate my ski from the netting and I sense panic setting in.  The man is calm and relaxed, helps me reattach my ski and guides me back to the start.  Now Mag and Jean-Baptiste are starting to get some Value For Money.

Okay, I'm standing upright, but how do I go forward?

da-da-dee da-da-dum
Of course it is natural and healthy to have a certain amount of fear in some situations.   Such an instinct can determine survival.  This weighs on my mind as I look down the sharpest incline of snow imaginable.  We're supposed to go down there??  Magali and Jean-Baptiste are the sweetest people you could ever wish to meet.  Surely it can't be dangerous.  They urge us on.  I seem to veer, literally, from immobilty to hurtling at breakneck speed until, in an attempt to turn gracefully, I end up doing a 'Uey', facing uphill and sliding backwards until I fall on my face.  Learning to fall over is an integral part of learning to ski.  My problem seems to be getting beyond the falling over bit.  Gayle meanwhile waltzes around me whilst humming the theme from 'Ski Sunday'.  Her powder blue helmet makes her look like a UN peacekeeper, I reflect, whilst struggling to my feet and brushing the snow from my face.

We continue on the nursery slopes, zig-zagging down and being towed back up.  Eventually I almost get the hang of it.  I can zig.  I can zag.  Look Ma, no hands! Suddenly I'm going about 50 miles an hour towards a child as tall as my knees.  I have to go to ground before disaster happens.  What's that sound? Ahh, Gayle's humming that tune as she passes.

how do you stop again?

Sunday, 16 December 2012


We are being met by Magali and Jean-Baptiste back at the train station. We go in mufti.  Anyone who has been faithfully following our blog will remember that Magali and Jean-Baptiste are the 2 French cyclists we met in Lithuania. We spent a great week together cycling in Poland and now we are meeting again. Magali is off to Paris to see family and collect her van so it's a quick hello, goodbye.  Jean-Baptiste loads our bikes onto the car and we head off into the hills.  Did I say hills?  We drive past the turn-off for Alpe d'Huez, famed for being a stage finish in the Tour de France.  Magali and Jean Baptiste live on the other side of the mountain in a village called Clavans En Haut Oisans.  There is snow on all the mountains around us.  As the car winds up the valley I am wondering how cold it can get - it was already pretty chilly in Grenoble.  The scenery is stunning - steep-sided valleys and immense peaks crowned in snow on all sides.  The valleys are covered in trees and small villages are dotted around, perched on ledges and small ridges jutting outwards.  

It begins to snow soon after we arrive and doesn't look like stopping.  A plush carpet of white lies everywhere. We can measure the snowfall by the depth of the snow on the roofs and in the garden.  The fresh snow brings a hush all around, but the village is hardly awash with noise.  There are about 40 inhabitants in Clavans Le Bas.  We take a walk with Jean-Baptiste up to Clavans Le Haut just further up the valley where perhaps another 60 live.  Some of the houses are closed up - family houses only visited in the summer, or rented accomodation.  The valley used to have terraced fields but these have been given up to the trees.  Now the only farming is during the summer when sheep from below are brought up to the grassy plateaux and slopes above.  In fact the word 'alpe' originally referred to high pasture, but as the word has become synonymous with the mountains, alpage now refers to these grazing areas.

We are very happy to be staying here in this remote village.  Suddenly we are no longer in motion.  We have the chance to sleep, eat, rest, consider our further travels and reflect on our journey to this point.  We both need this and we're grateful for Magali and Jean-Baptiste's hospitality.  But we ain't half glad of them tights we bought in Decathlon - it's absolutely freezing when the sky is clear. 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

les anglais sont arrives

Grenoble train station.  We've got the bikes onto the platform and loaded up, only to discover that there are stairs to the exit.  But hey, we're in a civilised country and there's a small lift.  While we wait for it to come a member of staff calls out to us.  She is telling us to use the ramp on the side of the stairs instead of taking the lift.  We ignore her and Gayle gets her bike inside and descends.  The woman shouts at me again, pointing at the stairs.  I point at my heavily loaded bike and give my best Gallic shrug.  The lift can't return soon enough.  She strides up to me and gives me an earful.  I smile and shrug gormlessly.  She asks me if I understand French. Non. Are you English? Oui.  She tuts, rolls her eyes and walks away defeated.  I take the lift.  In the station foyer Gayle goes to use the toilet.  When she come out there's a man waiting for her demanding payment for the use thereof.  Gayle replies in English that she has no money. The man gets angry, in French.  Gayle gets angry, in English and strides off.  Attention Grenoble, les bloody anglais are here.
John displaying his francophile tendencies
We are staying with Albane and Benoit and their son Yourn.  We are undoubtedly going against the spirit of Warm Showers by only cycling from the station to their appartment, but they understand in this weather.  We turn out to be their first guests and more bizarrely we have already met - in China in 2010.  Gayle realised this after they had agreed to host us.  They had done a long cycle tour in 2010 and Gayle remembered an evening in Chengdu when we were taken out for a meal by Sim, the owner of Sim's Cosy Garden Guesthouse, along with about seven other cyclists all staying at the guesthouse.  Benoit and Albane were there that evening with Albane's brother.  So it is very nice to meet them again and meet their new son.
a subtle comment on the position of immigrants in French society or just another silly name for a kebab shop?

We come across the city Museum of the Resistance.  This part of the country was governed by the Vichy state during the war and many locals formed small unconnected groups determined to resist.  When Italy surrendered the German army arrived in the region and cracked down hard on the groups.  The museum is an interesting account of these times.  At the very end of the exhibition is a plea not to let extremists take over again and a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
"to pray when we like if we are religious. to write how we like if we are poets."

St.Bruno's square
Albane takes us to some of the markets in the city - there's the farmer's market with stalls full of local produce (cheese, vegetables, meats, bread and more cheese) and then the allsorts market in St Bruno's with cheap clothes, shoes, cookware, jewellery, perfume, etc.  Gayle eyes a cast-iron casserole.  But will it fit in the pannier? Worried about the cold weather, I buy a Nepalese chullu.  We do some 'bike shopping' and Gayle finally replaces her lost helmet and we get some leggings (tights?) for cold weather cycling.  These turn out to be inspired purchases.........