Saturday, July 25, 2009

À Chamonix

I have been a Francophile for as long as I can remember. The language, the food, drinking wine, making love, philosophy, conversation-- the French embrace and savor every aspect of being human, and I have long fallen in love with that way of being. And so it is no great surprise that on our first week-end out, Emily and I chose to cross the mountains into the French Alps, to Chamonix. The train from Zurich took us along rivers, through lovely valleys, rainy and green. Finally we arrived at our first transfer, in the French part of Switzerland, Visp. We only had 5 minutes to transfer, so I asked the conductor "c'est le train du Martigny?" "Oui, he replied, followed by a long stream of rapid French, only a portion of which I could understand with my high school level French. But I did catch one word, "premiere." No, we are definitely not premiere, still travelling like vagabonds on the cheap with our half-price Swiss rail passes. "Deuxieme!" I proudly shouted, surprised that I'd actually found the right word. Second class compartment. He smiled and pointed behind us.

Ah, after two weeks of struggling against Swiss German, to be able to converse at least briefly, to understand even a few words, was bliss. The conductor and I shared a French moment, then Emily and I ran toward the back of the train.

We arrived in Chamonix, and treated ourselves to French-Alpine pizza (actually very good, thin crust with just the right amount of cheese and sauce), wine and fondue. The waiters sneered at our mediocre French, much better just to speak English here. We took the tram to Mount Brevent and the train to “La Mer de Glace” (a giant glacier sliding down the mountain, with a gondola that takes you to the cave carved in ice). And everywhere, French. But not the French I dreamed of in my earlier, romantic visions. But loud French. Constant French. French children climbing half out the windows of trains and French parents talking to their children, even when the words were meaningless (“lalala, lalala”). And the frightening crosswalks, where French drivers dared us to try to cross.

On the train ride back over the mountains, I surprised myself when I realized I was longing for Switzerland. Ah, the quiet tram rides to work. The drivers that screech to a halt when you enter the crosswalk. Maybe I am getting old. Maybe I no longer crave the passion, the non-stop days of conversation and activity. A bit of Swiss gentility, rules and quiet sound...just so nice.

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