A Conservationist Abroad #5


by Emily Sloan, ’05 Fifth in a series about daily life in a small French village I awoke this morning to a mist-laden village laced with frost and the sound of my gas heater humming. It’s back to work today after a ten-day break in honor of All Saint’s Day, and frankly I’m not in the mood for the classroom. But can you blame me? I’ve just returned from an incredible trip to northern Provence in southeastern France. As a brand-spanking-new member of the local branch of the French Alpine Club, I tagged along on a rock climbing trip to the Drome, an area of tiny, picturesque villages dwarfed by massive limestone cliffs. It was mostly sunny and warm (only 60 miles from the Mediterranean), the air smelled of native lavender, rosemary and thyme, I spent the nights in a tent under the waxing moon and sheltered from the notorious, internmittently fierce Mistral wind, I was closely surrounded for the first time by an intimate group of French people eager to share their food, homemade liqueur, language and rock climbing knowledge, and now I’m back in a chilly, small town with computer screens and a near-empty, lonely apartment. As I say, can you blame me for my reluctance to return?

 During one of my training sessions, another American adivsed me that the best way to really get to know people in a foreign country was to join them in physical activity. I learnd the basics of rock climbing many years ago but only began doing it with any kind of regularity last January, with the help of a climbing gym in Burlington, Vermont. I’ve climbed outside, too, but only on either technically easy routes (during Alpine ascents of peaks in the North Cascades) and top rope or bouldering formats. But it’s an addictive sport, so much so that I brought my basic gear to France with me in hopes that I’d find a way to keep it up (especially significant because I normally just go with whatever flow comes my way; I am normally a hopeless generalist). To my great good fortune, there happens to be an active climbing community in Gérardmer. They have a small but functional climbing gym visited by 10-20 sporty types once or twice a week. I was happy enough to discover the gym but truly lucky to be invited on last week’s climbing trip by Alain and Isabelle, two teachers I work with who are leading figures in the local Alpine Club. A group of about 24 made the 8+ hour drive to the cliff-enshrouded village of Saou; most were enrolled in an official training course led by an experienced Alpine guide, but a few, like me, were there for the fun of it. I’ve read that the challenge of rock climbing is threefold–to equal extents psychological, physical and technical. When you add the additional element of foreign language to the mix, it becomes significantly more challenging, but often humorous. Imagine, for example, lead climbing your way up a route as hard as any you’ve ever done, reaching the belay point and not knowing exactly how to set up the ropes to allow to you descend. You’re along on the rock and advice comes only in the form of information shouted between you and your belayer, 80 feet below you on the other end of the rope. Your inability to imitate the correct pronounciation of the word for “rope” induces laughter every time you attempt to say it. And yet of course you keep climbing, because you love it, and you survive seven days without mishap despite the challenges. To anyone interested in climbing, the Drome has many sites worth checking out. I personally made several major technical steps forward, learning to set up top ropes and belay stations and lead and multi-pitch climbing for the first time. But equally satisfying on this trip was, as I mentioned earlier, the social immersion I experienced. My vocabulary and comprehension increased notably (often here in town I feel like my level has plateaued) and I got a good feel for the French gastronimical philosophy. We ate breakfast and dinner together at a picnic table at the campground and lunch on the rocks at the base of whatever cliff we happened to be climbing that day. Meals tend to be leisurely affairs with many compenents from which you can pick and choose. Breakfast is light, simply tea or stong coffee with bread fresh from the bakery slathered with butter and honey or an assortment of homemade jams. Lunch is more substantial, again bread with sliced ham or paté, hard and soft cheeses of various levels of stench (I continue to avoid chèvre and Munster whenever possible), fruit, shortbread or yogurt, a piece of chocolate and ideally a mug of tea or coffee. Dinner is the most elaborate affair, with appetizers of nuts and pretzels and beer or any one of myriad home-distilled liqueurs (fruity and potent). Then comes soup, and several bottles of wine are passed around (any bodily chills are quickly overtaken). Nothing is rushed; oftentimes, drawing out each course allows for conversation as much as it also permits digestion. The main course ain’t fancy, grains plus some type of meaty dish (pasta and sauce, chili con carne, couscous and veggies), and it’s inevitably followed by sliced cheese, fruit, yogurt or a smooth, pudding-like cheese, the ubiquitous piece of quality dark chocolate, coffee or tea and a small glass of liqueur to help it all down. Needless to say, I’ve been charmed and am trying to introduce more elements of French cuisine into my daily life–many more vegetables, for example, along with an unhurried pace, and, of course, some dark chocolate. It is now almost lunchtime and so I should probably go; I’ll need the time, after all, to nibble my way from cheese to chocolate, and I still need to iron out the details of my afternoon lessons. Sigh… Salut for now!