A Weekend in the French Alps

My first official blog post from France!  It’s a joy and hobby for me to write and share my stories, capture this journey, and all the moments in between that I can remember.

I have always wanted to start a travel blog and I definitely wanted to capture this journey here.  I have been writing and taking notes in my journal since I arrived in France in my spare time and have tried to capture as much as I can.  It takes time to recount my experiences because SO much has happened since I arrived in Paris on October 15th, 2015. So I am going to try my best!  I have been in Lyon, France since the first week of November.  I didn’t know where to start, so I’m going to start in the middle of my trip.  I also hope to continue this blog beyond Europe to capture my future adventures of all kinds, in all places.

Alas,  I just returned from an incredible weekend in the French Alps in a town called Die (pronounced D-ee) in the southeast of France…

Manon is my sweet roommate who is hosting me for the rest of my time in Lyon.  She has a cute, cozy studio apartment in Villeurbanne, a part of Lyon.  She works at a local hospital and enjoys outdoor activities, climbing, and hiking.  That was so refreshing to find out when I met her! She is truly generous and a calm, quiet person.  I feel calm around her and honestly am more quiet when I am with her also, not feeling the need to talk or fill the void of silence with anything but my company.  She plays several musical instruments and is quite talented at the piano and plays often in her apartment.  My first night at her apartment she played “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy.  This song has actually been a theme throughout my trip!  I’ve always loved that song and have heard it often.  It was SO beautiful and I felt like it confirmed that I was in the perfect place, exactly where I needed to be.

Life is simple here, it feels.  The food is rich but simple, conversations the same, and the wine and cheese readily available.  My life in Lyon has been mostly pleasant and I giggle sometimes when I see cliché French things happening in real life.  Like the other night, I was walking in the city after a magnificent dinner at an Italian restaurant.  I had THE best pizza in my life.  It was truly Italian, the pizza was not perfectly round, topped with the freshest ingredients and real Parmesan cheese.  I ate the whole thing accompanied with a glass of wine.  After I left, I began walking and I think I counted 12 people in about 5 minutes with French baguettes in hand.  It sounds stereotypical, but I love it.  It turns out they were leaving one of the best bakeries in that part of town, fresh baguettes in hand just out of the oven!  I discovered that tonight when I stepped in la boulangerie myself and waited in line!  Délicieux!   I also love seeing people wear French berets.  I love the café culture. And so much more.  I’ll write more about that and the culture here later, but back to my weekend in the Alps~~~

Manon and her family are from Die, so when she asked me this past week: “Veux-tu venir avec moi chez mes parents ce week-end?  La ville est en les montagnes.”  I said, “Bien sûr!”  (Do you want to come with me to my parents house this weekend?  It’s in the mountains.  I said, of course!)

We left Friday evening around 3:45 p.m. with our backpacks and started the 3 hour drive southeast.  The next town we arrived in after Lyon was Vienne, and I quickly noticed how ancient it looked!  Many towns in the Rhône-Alpes region (Lyon and eastward) were once occupied by the Romans long ago and it was they who constructed the streets, many of the buildings, and some of the ruins, amphitheaters and more, still remain today.

We drove alongside Le Rhône (one of the largest rivers in France) and continued into the mountains, passing old villages in the countryside, cathedrals, chateaus, monuments, and the outlines of the foothills to the Alps.  Along the way we stopped at a chocolatier called Valhrona which is quite famous in France.  I mean seriously…..truffles,  a selection of chocolate pieces, chocolate covered everything.  I lost it with joy.  I bought 4 things and that was plenty and they gave me extras for free…Christmas gifts?  Whatever it was, I left like a happy kid on Christmas morning!

As we approached her town, many of the villages, such as Pontaix, reminded me of Italy as it was built along the river and with stone buildings and bridges!  The area was quickly reminding me of the Middle-Ages and I later discovered why!

We arrived in Die later that evening just in time for dinner.  Manon’s parents were so welcoming and had a cozy little house in the valley.  This was my second time having a meal with a French family. This was so different because it was like the France I pictured.  Rural France.  The old town, the colors painted on the window shutters, the flowers, the gardens, the real and raw culture.  Manon’s mother, Edith, prepared a delicious meal (several during the stay) and that night dinner included a traditional French salad with greens from their own family garden; a gratin made of potatoes, fresh French cheese from the region, ham and seasoning; and fresh fish from the rivers in the region!  Followed the main dish was an assortment of cheese of course, more bread, and fruit.  I love that cheese, bread, and wine are true staples of the French cuisine.  Almost every meal.

I love the conversations and the passion over meals.  The way the French discuss… it sounds like there is a debate or argument, but no, it’s just the tone and the flow of the words.  And they speak quickly and with gestures and facial expressions, and it’s just delightful.  I understood most of what Manon and her family were saying though there were times I had to pause and confirm I knew the current topic and that they hadn’t switched again, just like I would at any family dinner when they are talking of things familiar to them and the latest news and stories.

My French has truly solidfied here.  I speak quickly and with ease, always learning new words and expressions of course and conversing easily with all the people I meet.  I have learned to listen carefully when they speak fast and tone my ear.  After some time, it’s just natural — picking up the expressions, the accents, the jokes.  I’ve always been in love with the language since I started learning it at 14 years old.  To be able to be here in France, on the soil, speaking with French families and joking and laughing in French, that is part of my dream come true.

On Saturday, Manon took me for a tour of the town, through the streets and to the market.  The town of Die is so quaint and historic, ancient Roman buildings throughout, apartments, tiny streets, passages and tunnels, and walls around the city that once protected it during wars!   I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was the France I pictured in a village like that–the décor, the people hanging garments out the windows, the cats roaming the streets (I saw several) and one evening I experienced the cutest moment.  A woman was closing her windows (in France, the shutters are on the outside and/or the external wooden shutters), and right as she was about to close the last piece, a hurried tabby cat ran through the alley and jumped into the window and squeezed through the corridor.  She laughed and said “Vas-y, vas-y”  which means go, go, continue, get in here.  That cat knew it was time to get inside for the night!  And he almost didn’t make it, but it was the cutest moment ever.

As we walked through the town, I smelled the wood burning in the chimneys all around.  The view of the snow-topped Alps was exquisite and breath-taking.  The air was cold and crisp and I started feeling what I thought was rain.  I looked at Manon and I said “Il pleut?”  She said, in French, no, it’s the snow coming from the mountains.  It was awakening to me.  It reminded me that it was real life.  I wasn’t dreaming, though I felt like I was by looking at the surrounding scenery.  I could actually feel the cold droplets on my face through the wind on that beautiful sunny Saturday.

After walking through the town and touring some of the area, we returned home for lunch.  Manon’s mother said “Tous, à table” (Everyone, it’s ready, literally “at the table”)  I loved that expression.  The sound of the expression, the way they gather around the table.  It’s a little messy, the meals here.  And I like it that way.  It’s real.  The French dine first, clean up later.  Enjoying the meal takes time.  It’s not rushed.  I tried young wine for the first time, from young grapes.  It was delicious and fruity and sweet!  For lunch, her mother placed a pot on the table and I saw 4 fresh fish cooked in that skillet.  I mean FRESH, whole fish, eyes and all, staring back at me.  I thought to myself, “wow, this is real stuff.  I’m not used to seeing the whole fish so fresh!”  So I took a piece and filleted it myself and it was delicious.  They explained that it’s fresh fish from the local river actually.  Her mother had gotten it at the market that morning (where she went by bicycle) and brought back that along with fresh cheese and bread.

After lunch, Manon and I went for a hike.  We just started walking down the street.  The trails ARE the streets.  We walked so many miles that day, through the mountains, closer to the Alps, and past houses and vineyards, horses, and gardens.  I had no idea what I was in for!  The beauty was just…..unreal.  The wind was stronger closer to the mountains, the winter blasts coming through the passages, tickling our faces with snow melt.  It was sunny and beautiful that day and I’m thankful the weather allowed us to explore the mountains as we did.  We walked by one of the main rivers, fresh clear rapids and we got to the end of one road right at the base of the mountain, and hit a walking/biking trail.  We eventually ended at an ancient Roman aqueduct, where the water is gathered and flows all the way back to the town.  It was also the passage in the mountain between the town of Die and the neighboring village.  It was one of the oldest things I had ever seen.  We climbed to the top of the canal on ancient stairs and then saw 3 climbers across the river on rope, scaling the rock wall!  That’s the neighborhood sport I believe.

My joy was unable to be harnessed that day.  I gasped and smiled like a little kid as I saw all the beauty around me.  I can’t help but appreciate the beauty wherever I am in the world.  It’s moments like those that remind us we’re really alive.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”  That was true that day in Die.  It was the best day in the year, just like all the days before that, and all the days after.  My heart was full, my joy was rich, and my eyes were wide open, my senses fully alive to everything around me.

We walked back towards the city and across bridges, through small passageways and I saw the ancient door to the town.  We explored an ancient Roman neighborhood with cute windows and doors and troughs out in the open for washing clothes.  I truly felt like I was in the Middle-Ages.  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  I had never seen or walked by something so ancient and historic.  The last stop of the evening was at the local winery which sells many wines made in the region.  I tried “Clairette de Die” which is a sweet, fruity champagne from the area and bought a half bottle to take home.

That night I watched Manon’s mom prepare dinner as we chatted, in French of course, about life and food and culture.  She taught me how to make a tarte/pastry dish stuffed with fresh vegetables and ham.  Simple and delicious.  I was very impressed with her parents.  They are so active and bike everywhere and her father has a tree trimming business.  They have a simple life in the mountains and it was just delightful.

On Sunday morning, for breakfast, I tasted the best apricot jam I’ve ever had to date.  It was made by Edith herself and from local apricots in the region.  So many fruits and nuts grow in the region!  It’s incredible!  They have an abundance of fresh food there to eat from daily.  I went to church with their family in a historic place in the center of town, and after that we returned to the house for lunch.  For lunch we had rabbit.  I mean, fresh rabbit.  Just like the fresh fish.  I saw Edith prep it the night before and I learned how to prepare fresh rabbit.  I’ve learned a lot about French cuisine while I’ve been here that I hope to use when I return back to the States!   (Maybe not whole fish or rabbit….but tartes and salads I can do!!)

After lunch, they asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with their family, Manon’s aunt and cousin and family, and I said of course!  We drove to a neighboring town through the mountains and started driving up a mountain.  I mean, really up a mountainside.  I thought, wow their family really lives in the mountains!  They stopped and started looking at the pine trees, discussing the size of each one. And I thought, yeah…. that one is nice….and that one is nice.  And then they stopped and got out of the car.  I realized that they were choosing a Christmas tree!!!  They climbed up the hill and Manon’s dad, Joel, sawed 2 small pine trees down and loaded them in the back of the car.  I had always wanted to do this since I was a kid!  Go into the mountains and pick a Christmas tree!  I was so full of joy that I couldn’t express it.  It was a special moment.

Now, with 2 trees in the car, one poking through the back seat a bit, and the smell of fresh pine, we descended the mountain and ended up at Manon’s aunt’s house (a.k.a. a cabin with a VIEW).  There were little French kids playing and family talking and noise and chatter.  I thought to myself, “somebody pinch me.”  Is this real?  It was just a gift to be there with their family.  I spoke to the little kids in French and they spoke to me.  THAT was precious.  They were probably 3, and 4 years old.  They showed me the cars and trucks and asked me all kinds of questions in French.  I responded with ease and it was the cutest thing ever.

Then the whole family got ready for a hike!  I mean, the WHOLE family! The kids gathered up, coats zipped, hiking backpacks and carriers for the kids.  We hiked up the mountain.  All of us.  It was just delightful.  I spoke with Manon’s family and only in French of course.  Their family actually doesn’t speak much English which was refreshing for me to only speak French the whole weekend!  I actually had a dream in French after we returned to Lyon.   I typically only speak French in Lyon and wherever I am in France, but there are people from Australia, New Zealand, and England that I occasionally meet who speak English of course and want to chat.

So I hiked along and spoke quite a bit with Manon’s aunt and we talked about bears and nature and politics and culture and America and France and more.  They don’t really have bears in that region anymore, but she told me that her great-grandfather was the last one in the family to see a bear in Die.  (Pronounced, D-ee).

We got back to Manon’s aunt’s house and they invited me in for tea and fresh walnuts.  We had to hurry off to drive back to Lyon though, so I grabbed a handful of walnuts and jumped back in the car.  The precious little French toddler asked me before I left, “As-tu une voiture?”  (Do you have a car?)  Probably wondering, how are you getting home?  And I responded, “haha, non, je n’ai pas une voiture en fait mais je suis venue avec Manon.”  (no, I don’t have a car in fact, but I came with Manon)            I smiled at him, his name was Maneo, and told him I had to go, and he said “Au revoir!”

On the drive back to Manon’s parent’s house, before Manon and I headed back to Lyon, we saw a woman on a bicycle.  I didn’t see her clearly, but Edith said, “Tu sais quel âge a ça femme?” (Do you know how old that woman is?)  I said, “Non, quel âge?”  She said, 90 years old.  “Incroyable!” I said. (Incredible!)  On a bicycle.  Every day.  This entire place was incredible to me.  In Europe in general, many people seem to bike daily to commute.  It’s the way of life here, in addition to the trains and cars of course, but it’s typical.  Though many of the French smoke in the cities, overall, it seems that they are active and healthy here.  I don’t know if they live longer than Americans, but maybe they drink enough wine to keep their health, hike through the mountains, and bike home at 90 years old.  🙂

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