The Alps in May

Out of season. Not a normal time to be in Méribel Mottaret but we needed to be there for the installation of a new kitchen in our apartment.

We broke our outward journey near Macon.

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‘Snail House’

We were the only people staying there – they had only one room. Did we want to eat? A menu of Burgundy specialities and local wine, reasonably priced. Yes, please!

The starter arrived – a surprise, our host said. A choux pastry ball in a nest of salad. I cut into it.

‘Mushrooms. Lovely.’

As we ate, I realised that the mushrooms had sucker feet – they were snails. My husband, Tony, does not eat snails. He’s probably never tried them but dislikes the idea intensely.

Are you enjoying this?’ I asked.

‘Mmm. Yummy.’

I had a dilemma – should I tell him about the non-mushrooms? I decided I should, waiting until he’d cleared his plate. He was horrified. Our host asked if we knew what we had eaten, so it was fortunate I’d been honest. It was a Burgundy speciality. Fortunately the rest of the meal, Burgundy beef and a blackcurrant dessert, was less contentious and totally delicious. Tony is now trying to wipe the memory (and unfortunately I didn’t take the appropriate photo!)

It was around six degrees when we arrived in Mottaret. We piled on the sweaters. Between visits of kitchen fitters, there was the chance to do some walking. We wondered how far we’d get as there was so much snow remaining. What a winter it had been – metres of the stuff!

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The view from our apartment – in May!

We walked over snow fields, firm enough at 2000 metres to take our weight. But when it came to walls of snow across the path we had to turn. We did not reach the Refuge du Saut, a regular summer destination, but got close.

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Snow blocking our path on the way to the Refuge du Saut

Then there was the zig-zag walk to Col de la Loze. Snow piled at each of the bends and we clambered over it with difficulty, digging our toes in to get footholds. We hoped we weren’t being too adventurous. Sunshine and warmth at the top was our reward. But the thought of the return journey was bothering us – it would be more hazardous than the route up. So we chose the easier way back along the ‘Boulevarde’.  It was totally covered with snow, a depth of a couple of metres at the start.

‘It’ll go on for half a kilometre or so, then it’ll be clear,’ my husband assured me. ‘Much the best choice.’

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The path ahead!

Two kilometres later, we finally left the snow behind, a twisted ankle and a jarred knee our souvenirs. But we made it.

Lower down, spring had arrived – it wasn’t all snow

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Fields of dandelions

A different holiday. Almost nobody around. Shops and restaurants shut. Peaceful. And we like the kitchen.

 

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Harmony

Fifty years of marriage deserves a celebration so we went to Spain to the places everyone said we must visit – Seville, Granada and Cordoba. They didn’t disappoint.

It was festival week – Feria – in Seville with a parade of horse-drawn carriages. Hard to know who were best-dressed – the horses or their drivers. It was a day for bright flamenco dresses, mantillas, elegant riding outfits, plaited manes and tails, all festooned with ribbons and bells. What a privilege – all this for our anniversary!

Dressed in their best
Dressed in their best

We were glad of a map to find our way through the narrow, winding streets. The city was busy in the day but that was nothing compared to the evening. Everyone eats late, many arriving at the restaurants and tapas bars past ten o’clock, as we were leaving. How do these people get up for work the next day? It was April, warm enough to sit outside and pavement tables were full. The house Rioja suited us well.

We went to a flamenco performance. Just two dancers, a singer and guitarist. It was on a tiny stage in an old, traditional house. We sat within touching distance of the performers, saw the emotion on their faces and their intimate interactions as the sultry dances unfolded. The rhythm of the clapping and stamping; the way the performers watched each other.  I felt like a voyeur, stealing a forbidden involvement in their art.

Flamenco
Flamenco

We moved on to Granada. Finding our hotel in the old Muslim area was a challenge. Thankfully, our hire car was small as we battled with one-way streets, limited access and barriers. A friendly local on a scooter offered to guide us. How kind! We followed him, hoping there were no cameras as he shot off down bus lanes, waving for us to follow. He pointed out the hotel and took us to a spot where we could briefly park. An outstretched hand and a request for five euros. Okay, fair enough.  My husband only had a ten euro note. His anticipation of change disappeared when our guide grabbed it, muttered something about ‘por bambinos’ (which probably translates as ‘for the beers’) hopped on his scooter and drove off smiling.

But we needed his help. The Alhambra was absolutely worth it.

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The elegant pillars in the Alhambra
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View across Granada from the Alhambra

Then our last city, Cordoba. The Mesquita cathedral dazzled us. Once a mosque, it was converted to a church by the invading Christians without damaging the existing structure. The two styles and religions live in harmony, nothing destroyed, nothing clashing. It is an outstanding combination of architecture that works.

Moorish arches inside the Christian Cathedral in Cordoba
Moorish arches inside the Christian Cathedral in Cordoba

We stayed in the old Jewish quarter in a hotel that was an intricate mix of buildings and courtyards. Another religion that found its home peacefully in Cordoba. Only once did we lose our room in the maze of the hotel – a helpful workman found it for us. They were kind, the Andalusians.

It was a memorable anniversary. A fitting place in which to celebrate. And yes, we’ll put up with each other for a while longer.

J is for …. If it was good enough for Josephine…

…it was good enough for me.

We stayed at the Château de la Ferté Beauharnais, in the Blue Tower Room. Apart from the novelty of being round, it boasted a four-poster bed with beautiful linen and a mohair blanket. Elsewhere were pieces of period furniture, riding boots and some elegant hats. I wondered whose feet had trodden the oak boards and who had gazed out of the shuttered windows.

While our host, Daniel, was phoning a restaurant for us, my husband, Tony, discovered there were no bath towels (they arrived later). We then learned the restaurant was closed (vacation) and there was no key to the room (not even a key-hole).

We went in search of food. The nearest town claimed it was the home of the ‘véritable tarte tatin’, my husband’s favourite dessert. We found a lively restaurant and at dessert time, the waitress rattled off a list.

‘Is there no tarte tatin?’

‘Not tonight.’

Maybe Josephine suffered the same dismay at her wishes being frustrated.

The next morning, the breakfast table was laid with fine china and elegant cutlery. We avoided toast as the smell of burning was strong. I asked about the house and Daniel settled himself down beside us.

It had indeed belonged to the Beauharnais family, Josephine living there in her pre-Napoleonic days with her husband, Alexandre, before he lost his head in the French Revolution.

‘Do you have time to see the original kitchen in the cellar?’

Of course we had. In the centre was a wooden table, polished by many hands. It was where Josephine signed over the house to her son, Eugène de Beauharnais. I stroked the table and felt her fingertips.

What’s a bit of disorganisation when you get a treat like that?

chateau-de-la-ferte-beauharnais

Cracked in the Head?

 

 

‘Un enfant est fragile. Mettez-lui un casque.’  ‘A child is precious. Use a safety helmet.’ Illuminated signs in the Trois Vallées ski area in the French Alps exhort parents to take care of their skiing children. And I’ve yet to see a small child without one.

But what about adults? Aren’t they breakable too? There was a time only children or racers used such protection, it being considered either unnecessary or pretentious for ‘ordinary’ skiers. I thought that when I learned to ski in the ’80s in Norway, so shunned a helmet. It was unfashionable. But those were different times.

This week the slopes were busy, it still being half-term in parts of France. There were many ski lessons and the red-clad ESF (Ecole de Ski Français) instructors were everywhere. I heard on the local radio that it takes five years to train an ESF instructor. You’d think there would be time in the five years to mention safety helmets.  None of the instructors wears one. No exaggeration. None.  These people are role models. Children look up to them. Adult skiers follow them off piste and down black slopes.

A few evenings ago, a group of ESF instructors put on a demonstration of their skills – synchronised skiing, jumps and acrobatics – for our entertainment. It was impressive and great fun. I spotted just three or four instructors wearing helmets. They cared about their skulls when doing back-flips. Presumably the others were already cracked in the head. Fortunately none of the falls was serious.

What is it with skiers in France? Probably around half of the adult skiers I saw this week wore helmets – better than it was, but still poor. In Austria and Switzerland, the percentage is nearer 90%. In Norway, it’s almost unknown to see anyone on the slopes without a helmet. A helmet won’t protect you from all injuries – Michael Schumacher was wearing one when he had his accident – but anyone with any sense tries to minimise danger.

Helmets cost around 100 euros, less in the end-of-season sales. It’s paltry compared with the cost of a ski holiday, insignificant if skiing is your livelihood.  And what price a head? An expert skier friend was hit by a snowboarder and knocked out for a few minutes in spite of his helmet. He’s sure he’d have lost more than consciousness without it.

There are now multiple opportunities to do a head-plant, with snow parks proliferating everywhere. You can take off over huge jumps and reach high speeds going down skier-cross courses. Great fun but risky. And even if you avoid such risks, busy slopes bring collision dangers.

I’ll wear my helmet.  An adult is precious too.

 

 

 

E is for Enrepreneur

 

 

Pompous bighead. There’s always one on a trip like this. A group thrown together in Sri Lanka. We shared a love of travel but probably little more.

I complained that the insect spray I’d used had dissolved my watch strap as I looked yet again at my empty wrist.

‘I’m wearing a cheap watch. Didn’t want to bring my good one.’

‘Sensible.’

‘Well, it’s expensive. Just paid £600 to have it cleaned.’

Pause.

‘It’s a Rolex.’

He had to get it into the conversation. Yet he didn’t have fancy ways, quite the opposite.  Then I looked more closely. His clothes had designer logos on them; his wife carried a Gucci bag. When we all got chatting, he’d visited more places than most, owned a yacht, had driven a Ferrari and flown a helicopter. He needed to tell us.

When talk turned to jobs, he’d had more than all of us.  Now he ran a number of businesses, had sold a few successful ones and was moving into property.

‘Not bad for a Secondary Modern boy, eh?’

Well, good for him. I was moving away, not wanting to learn more about his entrepreneurial lifestyle when a snippet of conversation floated by.

‘I didn’t know I was adopted. Learned it from kids in the street who taunted me with “She’s not your Mummy”. I was a war-time illegitimate baby, signed over to a woman with a mental age of eight.

‘Just a signature. Didn’t matter it was a slum with a hole-in-the-ground toilet. My adoptive parents never discussed it.

‘My real parents? I did find them. They didn’t want to know me. All posh cars, big houses.’

He needed the comfort of possessions. It gave him a place in the world. The recognition he missed as a child.

I listened after that.

 

 

 

C is for Confusion

‘I’d never have married him if I’d known he’d turn out like that!’

‘It’s not Arthur, Betty.’

‘Isn’t it? Then where is he?’

‘He’s not here.’

‘Has he died?’

‘Yes, a long time ago.’

‘But just look at the way he’s dribbling. Arthur, Arthur, look! My friend will give you a tissue.’

‘No need, a carer is looking after him.’

‘But that’s my job. Not that I like it here. My boys are trying to get me out. I’ve told them not to make too much fuss or they’ll get themselves a bad name.  But if I do get out, I’ll get the place shut down. Then Arthur will come home. They live downstairs, you know, the warders. On the ground floor.’

‘Warders? It’s not a prison, Betty. It’s a modern care home for people who find it too much living on their own. Your boys chose it.’

‘It’s a prison. You can’t get out. I know. I’ve tried the door. So has Margaret. Just look at her over there playing with her dinner. It must be stone cold. What a way to chew with her mouth wide open! Mother would be ashamed of her. We were brought up to eat nicely.’

‘Oh, Betty, it’s not Margaret. She died years ago.’

‘Looks like her! And I suppose Mother’s dead?’

‘Of course she is. You’re ninety-six.’

‘Mmm. I’m the only one left with any manners. Arthur slobbering, Margaret making a mess of her food.’

‘Shh, they’ll hear you and it might upset them.’

‘Well, if the warders hadn’t hidden my hearing aids, I wouldn’t have to shout! My rings have disappeared, too. You can’t trust these people.’

‘I think you’re just a bit confused, Betty. It’ll be alright. Give me a hug. See you next week.’

‘Bye-bye…er…dear.’

I is for Interview

What hoops applicants have to jump through to get a job! Online tests, presentations, in depth interviews by a daunting panel – and that’s just to get on to the short list. Terrifying stuff.

I didn’t so much jump as wriggle on my stomach past the observers.

In the 80’s, my husband’s job took him to Norway so, being a pharmacist, I applied to a score of pharmaceutical companies in Oslo for an opening – just speculative, no advertised vacancies. It was a gamble – I’d never worked in the industry. Half ignored me; many rejected me. A handful made positive noises. One company called me in to talk to them at their UK branch.

We had a pleasant chat. They told me what they did – I wasn’t well prepared but fortunately they didn’t ask much. They said they couldn’t offer me a job at an affiliate office in another country but they told me who to contact when I arrived.

It worked.  I met a charming office manager in Oslo. He introduced me to the staff, a small group who preferred to speak Norwegian rather than English. I contributed haltingly having learned a little of the language. They made jokes about English pots of tea – theirs was made in a coffee machine. It was laid back and casual. Nobody wore a suit.

I wondered what the next step would be. Another, more formal, visit? An interview with a senior member of the company? No.

They simply asked me if I could start the following Monday.

Did everyone think someone else had done the interview? Who knows? If I didn’t wriggle past them, then I slipped through the net.

I worked successfully for the company for the next twenty years.