With some trepidation I surreptitiously checked out the guy standing on my right in the cable car taking us up into the clouds next to Mt. Blanc in the French Alps as he casually flipped his medieval-looking ice axe. A rock climbing helmet dangled from his belt. Hmm. I looked left. This guy had a coil of about a mile of multi-colored rope over his shoulder. On his back he wore a Hydration System. I know it was a Hydration System because it said so in bold orange letters. Plastic tubes ran over his shoulder from his Hydration System and were attached by velcro to both shoulders so he could slurp Hydration Fluid – I knew it did not hold ordinary water – by turning his head. An assortment of twenty or so carabiners, which I thought were only used by cool kids to hold their key collections to their belt loops, dangled from his pack. His ice axe hung from a sling attached to his Hydration System. The man and woman in front of us lugged gigundo red backpacks. With their parachutes – or more accurately, their paragliders – stuffed inside. They weren’t planning on walking down.
Obviously, equipment was a big deal here. Nobody seemed especially impressed with the red LL Bean book bag on my back. It held an extra WoodenBoat Magazine tee shirt. And an apple. Sandra lugged her own apple. And half a bar of Toblerone. We’d topped up the orange juice carton with water that morning and I carried that in my book bag. It was our Hydration System. Tropicana, I think. I was the only one on the mountain with a backpack that had a separate compartment for a pencil sharpener. And an eraser. And a homework planner. We glanced at each other. And waited for the cable car to emerge from the clouds. Then, when it did, we hoped the clouds would return. It was a long way down and we were a long way up.
We were in Chamonix, in the French Alps, a long, long way, horizontally and vertically, from Hoop Doet Leven.
– The gravel area behind Sandra is all that remains from what was once a major Alpine glacier.
We left the barge tied securely to the quay in Lutzelbourg, on the Lorraine-Alsace border. We took the train to Strasbourg, on the French-German border, spent a few days there, then rented a car and drove to Chamonix, in the French Alps. We’d rented a little cabin through AirBNB at the foot of Mt. Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain. Our original plan had been to continue on the canal – the Marne au Rhine Canal – to Strasbourg and then turn around there rather than proceeding into Germany. That seemed like a lot of effort to get to Strasbourg so we opted to do the turnaround earlier, at Saverne, and visit Strasbourg by train.
Our goal was to get some time away from the boat to a place far from the canals. The Alps. It turned out the shortest distance from Strasbourg, in France, to Chamonix, in France, was to drive across Switzerland. Somebody had mentioned that “Switzerland is not in Europe” but I was pretty sure I’d seen it there on a map, pretty much dead center in Europe in fact. As it turned out, “Europe,” to Europeans, is a political entity, not a geographic place. Switzerland, for reasons that probably make sense to the Swiss, being Swiss, is not a member of the European Union. That meant three things for us, pretty much at the moment we crossed the border. First, we had to stop at a border crossing, something we hadn’t seen much of previously in present-day Europe. After all, we’d walked from France into Italy one afternoon – the coffee is better in Italy – and the former customs post was derelict. Then came the second surprise. But first a digression.
We live in Massachusetts, on the Northeast coast, the upper right hand corner of the States. Up the coast from us is New Hampshire. Just north of New Hampshire is Maine. Maine bills itself on billboards and, until recently, on its automobile license plates, as Vacationland. According to Maine’s tourist office, 23 million people drive to to the state for their summer vacations. Without stopping in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has its own in-your-face state motto (each of the fifty states has a motto. And a state bird. And a song. Usually a flower. And a food – here’s a list of official state foods – Maine has both blueberry pie and whoopie pie and if you don’t know what a whoopie pie is, google it, then try one. http://www.netstate.com/states/tables/state_food.htm).
New Hampshire license plates rub a thumb in your eye and declare the state motto of Live Free or Die. Not surprisingly, New Hampshire has no state income tax. New Hampshire has just fourteen miles (about twenty-two kilometers) of coastline between Massachusetts to the south and Maine to the North. Strategically, the primary interstate highway from pretty much anywhere that isn’t Canadian to everywhere that is Maine Vacationland runs along that fourteen mile New Hampshire coast. So,rather than tax its own residents, the Live Free (at least Tax Free) or Die folks planted a toll booth across the highway and elicit a dollar from every carload of vacationers whizzing north to Maine’s Vacationland.
Which brings me to the second surprise on entering Switzerland. Since it is not part of “Europe,” Switzerland doesn’t receive any highway money from the European Union. Instead, a polite young woman speaking impeccable English stopped us at the border crossing and informed us that we would have to pay a Swiss road tax of 33 euros, about $45. We reluctantly handed her 40 euros in exchange for a red windshield sticker. She consoled us by saying it was good for a year. I replied that the car was rented for a week. She smiled and said, “I suppose you don’t care where I stick it on the windshield then.” And gave us change from the 40 euros. New Hampshire highway officials should be humbled by the Swiss.
Which led to the third surprise. Switzerland, not part of Europe, does not use euros. Our 7 euros change was delivered in Swiss francs, which we had about two hours to spend before we reentered France. And Europe. As it turned out, we had just enough Swiss francs to purchase two Toblerone bars at the next highway rest area. Thus the remaining Toblerone in Sandra’s pack as we rode the cable car into the clouds.
We did three long hikes through the mountains. And exercised great discretion in choosing not to take a shortcut down from one mountain in a tandem paraglider. It might not be wisdom that comes with age. But it could be a somewhat reasonable facsimile thereof.
We survived our mountain hikes above Chamonix, aided by the purchase of a pair of batons, basically ski poles with no snow baskets on the ends, which helped shove me up hill and down.We had a snowball fight on July 1. And went out for fondue. And had dinner with an actual Chamonix mountain guide, who owned the cabin we rented, with his wife, who managed it. Chamonix has the oldest certified mountain guide service in the world. Its numbers are strictly limited. Qualification is rigorous and takes years. Our jaws dropped as we listened to his stories about climbing Kilimanjaro six times, climbing in the Andes, climbing in the Antarctic, climbing throughout the Himalayas – including Everest. We complained about the thin air we experienced on the Aguile du Midi at 3,842 meters (12,605 feet) and asked at what height he uses oxygen. He smiled. “I have never used oxygen,” he said.
We’re back at the barge now with friends from home visiting, back in thick air with lots of oxygen. But adventure lurks even here.
Last night was the World Cup elimination match between France and Germany. The World Cup is not a Big Thing in France. It is The Only Thing. Picture the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup and Mardi Gras rolled into one event. With a few thousand years of on and off animosity between the countries each team represents. Especially here straddling the French-German border, in a region that has flip-flopped between being part of Germany and part of France after each succeeding war, presently French but stuffed with German tourists. Well, this match was a Big Event. The Germans took over the main square here in Saverne, waving flags, drinking beer, singing hearty fight songs. The French held their own. Picture the wonderful scene in “Casablanca” where the German officers in Rick’s Cafe Americain gather around Sam’s piano and sing “Die Wacht am Rhein” (“The Watch on the Rhine,” a patriotic song intended to intimidate whatever country happens to be on the other side of the Rhine, i.e. France), Victor Lazlo then orders the band to play La Marseillaise. Rick nods approval and the French drown out the Germans. (Check the translation for the French national anthem: “The tyrants are coming into our midst to cut the throats of your sons and consorts.” Consorts, apparently, take priority over wives and daughters. See, http://www.marseillaise.org/english/translation.html?standard). Last night Saverne felt like a night out at Rick’s Cafe. We were cheering for the French but braced for the worst. A few nights ago, when Germany beat Algeria, the local Algerians vented their displeasure by burning a car, though inexplicably not a German car. The scorch marks are right next to where we are moored. Germans seem more restrained but a loss to France could have instigated an angry act of impoliteness, such as a visit from the Panzer Corps. But it was not to be. France lost 1-0. The town wallowed in pastiche and the local beer, Licorne (which is exceptionally good, by the way, especially the Black wheat beer.)
Next week we’ll be continuing our Alsatian immersion program, then after our guests depart we’ll be skedaddling back over the Vosge Mountains to Burgundy, trading sauerkraut for escargot and passing the halfway point in this year’s love affair with France.