May 1 Spent all day working on my French presentation. This mainly consisted of writing out, longhand, the substance of my thoughts on Vichy and the Jews. The translating process proved very slow, and I ran into several grammatical road blocks (how can I have taken a full year of college French and still not know how to use the passive tense?). Feeling tired, and a bit nervous about tomorrow. Not to mention the essay and midterm that finish on Wednesday.
May 2 Wasn't feeling too confident about my French presentation, but it worked out quite well. I knew my topic, the only barrier was finding the right words on occasion, and with pauses now and then, I managed. Apparently not everyone in the class had heard of Vichy, which made the whole thing a bit harder, but oh well. Ignorant Americans!
Afternoon was in the library, reading two accounts of the invasion of Egypt, one by an Egyptian religious scholar and another by Napoleon's personal secretary. Not sure how I'll write an essay on them, but I'll do my best.
May 3 Basically spent all day after history lecture writing my essay for tomorrow's class. Wasn't too confident about what I was writing, but nonetheless attempted to use the previous week's lecture on Foucault and "power-knowledge" to structure an argument around. Also studied for the in-class part of the midterm. We've gone through a lot of history in just 4 weeks.
May 4 Today was what one might call busy. First, there was the hour-long history midterm exam, the essay part of which I did last night. Identifying the importance of 6 major terms. Not too tough. Then came French class. We had a presentation today about the history of the metro. Over a hundred years old. Whew. Also had a quiz, on the subjunctive, which was easy enough. Finally, had a 2 hour discussion of readings on the French "mission civilisatrice." Was it just window-dressing? Probably not. However, Iraq inevitably entered the discussion, and we never quite ended up back on topic. A lot of folks have really screwed up ideas on the causes of the Iraq war.
For a bit of fun in the evening, I went out to a movie with some friends. The movie they chose was a true 'chick flick': "Tout pour plaire." It did have the one redeeming quality that I had to concentrate on the French, since there were no subtitles. Oddly enough, I found the previews and commercials much more amusing than their American counterparts. After the movie, we wound up at a café, splitting a large desert. However upon leaving, one of our group couldn't find her house key. So she ended up walking back with me and my housemate to our area, and spending several hours waiting, until her housemate returned and could let her in around 5AM. I went to sleep at 3AM, which was quite late enough for me. Exciting, but exhausting.
May 5 Holiday. Since France is a secular country, Ascension is holiday. Don't ask me to explain. Woke up late on account of last night's complications, which appear solved. Began the morning reading a debate between Ernest Rénan and Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani over whether Islam and science are incompatible. I'm sure Rénan was a great intellectual, but his piece was riddled with patently incorrect facts. Good acholarship is apparently a relatively new phenomenon. In the afternoon, went with my Uncle to the chateau of St. Germain-en-Laye, a little bit outside Paris. Very nice chateau on a hill, with a beautiful set of grounds where one could walk. Of course, I forgot my camera. Afterwards, stayed for dinner and talked for the afternoon. Looks like my cousin will be returning from the U.S. in a bit, but only for less than 2 weeks before he's off to Iran again. People sure do move around.
May 6 Yay, housing... Finished all the housing stuff I need for next year. We got 933 of a possible 2000, so we did okay (a bit better than average, since its random). Sent in our list of preferences, but barring disaster, we should get our first choice (which was chosen expressly to be possible). Otherwise, visited the library, did reading, and even managed to practice a little flute. I'm almost feeling relaxed.
May 7 Weather wasn't great today. Went to ISEP for some morning internet access. Returned home, having failed to find what I wanted, and did a large quantity of reading. Edward Said's "Orientalism" is a wonderful book, but obtuse doesn't even begin to describe it. Perhaps impenetrable would do it more justice. Further proof that literature professors need to have more interaction with mere mortals. Actually, it would probably help most professors, but I digress.
May 8 Have to do work. As a result, couldn't go with my Uncle to Normandy. Instead had a quiet day at home, writing, reading, and doing the usual. They had a market across the street in the morning, so I was able to pick up quality bread, even though all the local bakeries are closed. I am getting addicted to good bread. Wasn't enormously productive. Beautiful day outside though.
May 9 Mondays are long. Class at 10:30. Class at 6PM. In between, try to get work done. That's pretty much what I did today. Had a nice long argument with the printer here, but hopefully am done with it for a while. Otherwise, worked.
May 10 A pretty normal day. History lecture, followed by lunch, followed by a trip to the American Library to pick up backs apropos of yesterday's history discussion. Oh and return a book that was due as well. Fines are nasty things, but so is carrying 2 big books around most of the day. Unfortunately, when I actually looked carefully at the books, it became apparent that they didn't really serve my purposes.
May 11 I don't like Wednesdays. 4 1/2 hours of class is too much in a row. Start with a lecture on 18th century liberalism and its contradictions in history. Move on to French where we discuss the differences between French and American men. Finally, our Franco-Arab discussion devolved into a lecture on Orientalism. Not that I mind the lecture, since the professor is good. But every time I try and say something, it gets changed into something I didn't mean to say, and I wind up looking like an idiot. Argh. We had a guest lecturer talking about Islamist movement in Morocco afterwards. I understood most of the French, but the whole talk seemed awfully disorganized, or at least I couldn't follow the logical structure at all. Went home tired with a headache. Too much class today.
May 12 Lots to do today. Began with history class in the morning, followed by an unproductive stint in the library, followed by history section (for the same class) in the afternoon. Much as I admire Edward Said, I really appreciate the more down-to-earth approach of Tom Metcalf's "Ideologies of the Raj." Not only can I actually read it at a reasonable pace, but the ideas are "palatable." The end of Said for the week. Then tried to get a series of newspaper articles on French torture in Algeria. Pricy little things. I see how Le Monde makes money.
Ran off to the American library next, to return the books I'd gotten Tuesday. Good books no doubt, but the information I needed was actually on Wikipedia.
Made it back home for a brief rest, and then off to my uncle's for dinner. This was the first time I didn't arrive earlier than he did, so my French received a longer exercise than usual. Hard to talk politics in a language I barely can speak!
May 13 Had to get up shockingly early for the train. We (me and the other student who is going) wanted to get to Chamonix early, so that means taking the 7AM TGV train to Bellegarde (near Geneva). Up at 5:30, had a quick breakfast, and was off. Took a lot less time to go 14 metro stops to the Gare de Lyon.
I found the other student easily, but actually boarding the train was complicated, since they didn't bother to tell anyone which track it was on until 20 minutes after it was supposed to leave (probably cleaning it out or something?). Anyhow, we eventually found the right railroad car, and the right seats, and left gray soggy Paris around 7:40AM.
We chatted for a good part of the trip, and so by the time we reached Bellegarde, 2 1/2 hours later, I was mostly awake, and the weather had brightened up considerably. After passing up an opportunity to use some truly horrendous bathrooms, we went down the street for a look around the town, and wound up with bread from a bakery. Quite good bread in fact.
Our next train, to St. Gervais-les-Bains, was divided into two parts. Apparently the first half of the train went to Evian, and the second half to St. Gervais. Interesting arrangement. At any rate, the train paused and split in Annemasse, and we were on the right part. Right afterwards, some officials did a very desultory passport check in which roughly every 3rd person actually showed a passport. I'm still not sure why, since the train never left French soil. Odd.
We reached St. Gervais-les-Bains around 12:30PM, having gone through progressivley more scenic chunks of the countryside, including an ever-improving view of the Mont-Blanc area. Skies were blue, and so we had a nice little walk in the town, snapping photos, and admiring the surroundings.
The train to Chamonix left not much later, and so we continued up the valley of the Aarve river, in full view of mountains, glaciers, forests, and river itself. We got off the train in Chamonix, which proved to be a rather large resort town, around 1:30PM, with an amazing view of the Mont Blanc massif. We walked to the tourist office, got a map of the town and a rough idea of the possibilities, and headed off toward our Gîte (effectively a youth hostel), Le Chamoniard Volant.
Getting there proved quite a walk, partly because I took a wrong turn, and partly because the bag I was carrying was quite unwieldy. When we got there, I couldn't open the front door, assumed it was locked, rang the bell, and the rather annoyed receptionist came out to ask why I hadn't learned how to use a door.
Despite this inauspicious start, we got a room (shared with two other unknown tourists), and after some reorganizing of stuff, set out walking in search of a short hike and some scenery. Finding a trailhead proved problematic though, and we made several false starts before actually finding a way to go up the west side of the valley. The weather also proved inconvenient, and began drizzling after we'd been going less than an hour. Around 5:00PM, we decided to head back, having gotten a decent view of the valley, but not much else courtesy of descending clouds. Still, we made it up a good 400 meters in the process, and seeing much of the Petit Balcone Sud.
Going back down, we followed a wide road paralleling the Le Brévent life line (not running), and passing through a lot of washed out areas. Landslides apparently are a major problem, as is inconsiderate construction work. We arrived back down in Chamonix after a rapid descent.
We went up and down one of the main streets, where on a whim, I bought a new walking stick (my old one is back in Half Moon Bay, and is no longer fully extensible) and some apple juice. From concentrate of course (they don't believe in fresh fruit juice in Europe).
For dinner, we went into a small Indian restaurant, based on something the other student (J) had read in a travel guide. Looks like the guide was right, since the lamb curry was both tasty, filling, and kinda cheap. Service was slow too, giving plenty of time for talk and thought.
Eventually though, we did receive our bill (the propietor had been talking with a customer for a solid half an hour before), and wandered back to the Chamoniard Volant. Our roommates had also returned, and were busy reading, so I took the cue, reading my map and other odds and ends until it was late enough to go to sleep. They spoke good English but we didn't say a whole lot.
May 14 One of our roommates got up around 7 to visit the bathroom, so I woke up then too. Decided it'd be nice to have a look outside seeing as everybody else was trying to sleep in the room. Took a little walk in the direction of uphill, finding in the process a path through the woods the ended by a train track, as well as a shorter route back to the center of town than the one we'd used the day before. The weather was hovering somewhere between high clouds, and about to rain.
Breakfast was around 8AM, once everybody was up. While not special, fresh baguettes and tea make a more than adequate breakfast in my estimation. Unfortunately, I had a little accident with the tea, most of which wound up on the floor. Oh well. The map too, though it seems to have survived.
After breakfast, I filled up my backpack with relevant stuff (jackets, food, water), and we headed off in the direction of the railroad tracks I'd found earlier. Since there's a train going up from Chamonix to the Mer de Glace glacier, I figured we could take the train up, do a little hike from the top, and then walk down.
The train was actually a rack railroad on account of the steep slope. While slow, it was red, and it had a good view, though the windows couldn't be opened for photography. A shame, since we saw much of the valley on the way up. At the top was a little train station, the Hotel de Montenvers, and a telecabine (cable car) going down to the Mer de Glace.
We took the telecabine down to the Mer de Glace, in the process going by a large group of middle school students who appeared to be going glacier hiking. One was afraid of hikes and was very vocally objecting to going in the telecabine. The trip down was short and uneventful, and from the life we could follow a path to the edge of the glacier.
That wasn't all though, since a tunnel had been dug into the glacier for people to go in. We did, and discovered not only the wonders of looking at a glacier from inside, but also a series of ice sculptures and displays, as well as a very large St. Bernard dog who one could have one's picture taken with, for a price of 6 euro.
Declining this possibility, we explored the caves, took a lot of very low-light pictures, and commented on how amazingly different ice can look depending on lighting and thickness. When we reemerged, it was drizzling slightly outside, and the clouds had moved lower. By the time we took the telecabine back to the station, it was raining in earnest. Moreover, it was quite cold, and there were large patches of snow nearby. So we didn't end up doing a hike from their.
We did however go into another cave, this one carved in rock, where a large number of crystals dug from the nearby mountains had been placed. Very colorful and pretty.
The train left us at the bottom around noon. It was still raining, so we took out the umbrella, and discovered in central Chamonix that the Saturday market was very much underway. In addition to the usual things, they had wood handicrafts, Savoy sausages and cheeses, honey from Provence, and all manner of tasty items. Perhaps uncoincidentally, we got rather hungry around that time, and paid a visit to a sandwich place.
It was an unusual sandwich place, because it was decorated like a bar, and most people sat by narrow tables on a dimly lit second floor. The sandwiches themselves had a vaguely American twist, but were tasty and filling. They also had a T.V. that was showing motorcycle racing (the Alice Grand Prix, whatever that is). Lunch was good. And even pretty cheap.
I still hadn't finished drying by the time we went back outside, but it didn't matter, since it was raining. We went to the main church and looked around, getting an impromptu concert in the process from a women who was singing from the pews. Since there was a movie theater nearby, showing a French movie, we ended up going in to see "Lemming." What else does one do on a (very) rainy day?
The movie was rather weird, but most of the dialogue was understandable, and the plot had enough twists to keep us occupied. It was almost a surprise, therefore, when we went back outside, discovering that the rain had almost stopped, and the sun was brighter than it had been at noon. Visiting the high mountain office, we got a recommendation for a hike for the next day, as well as saw the conclusion of a wedding at the nearby church (it was loud).
We did a little more walking about the town afterwards, but soon decided that dinner was a good idea, and walked into the first place we saw that claimed to offer authentic Savoy cuisine. The dishes we got, which we split, were a collection of Savoy sausages (with sauerkraut), and a cheese, potato and ham stew called Tartiflette. Both were good, but it proved to be a very heavy dinner. The waiter seemed to be enjoying himself quite a bit, speaking to us in English and saying some rather peculiar things.
I was tired enough, that right after we got back to the hotel, I went to sleep.
May 15 Our roommates left this morning. After breakfast (the same as yesterday, minus the tea incident), we had a nice chat as they were packing up. Turns out they're a Canadian couple from near Vancouver, and had been traveling Europe on vacation for the last 3 months. They'd managed to get through almost all of western Europe, and good bit of southern Europe as well, having what sounded like an amazing time.
The weather had improved amazingly, with only a few clouds in the sky, making the hiking idea a lot more appealing. We began by heading east up the valley, following more or less the course of the Arveyrone river. Passing the town of Les Bois, and beginning to ascend, I managed to leave my walking stick behind, and had to run back and fetch it. The views, especially of the snow-covered areas, were magnificent. We ascended rather reasonably for a while, winding up at what was labeled "Source de Arveyrone."
Backtracking slightly from this dead-end, with a view of the extremely narrow river gorge, we proceeded up another trail that took us out of the forest toward the chalet of Le Chapeau. Just below the Chapeau was another cliff, where a waterfall gracefully descended into a field of very dirty snow. The chalet itself didn't look like it was open as a restaurant or hotel, although earlier signs on the trail made it seem like more than just someone's house. We took pictures and continued.
Our next stop was at point with a great view of the Mer de Glace. Now on the other side of the valley from the day before, without obstructing clouds, we got to see an the glacier and surrounding mountains in all their enormity, as well as two small lakes below the bottom of the glacier. A group of hikers we'd seen earlier (3 reasonably elderly women) caught up as we admired the view, to tell us that the lakes were actually new (within the last 6 years) and that the glacier had shrunk a lot since they had first seen it. Let's hear it for George W(hat global warming) Bush and his illustrious predecessors.
We ate our lunch at the overlook, perched on some rocks in the sun. Miraculously, nothing managed to fall off our little ledge, and vanish into the valley below. Lunch was simple, but sufficient. A little before 1PM, we started heading back.
We went back the way we came, without much eventful occurring, though I did learn a lot about the responsibilities RAs have (the other student is going to be an RA next year and had plenty to say on the topic). Near the bottom, a helicopter flew over the river, extremely low, and disappeared. Not sure what it was up to.
Back at the hostel, the other student wanted to take a rest, so I wound up walking up the little path I found the morning before for pictures. I discovered that a sledding competition was being held on two tracks parallel to the railroad tracks there, while nearby, a number of folks were learning how to para-glide. It was fun to watch the kids go zipping along down the track, while others were desperately trying to get aloft.
Since the other student wanted to rest some more when I returned, I decided that it would be a good time to try the telecabine that goes most of the way up the Mont Blanc massif to Aiguille de Midi (South-facing Rock). By the time I got to the lower station, clouds had covered much of the sky again, and the lady at the ticket-counter told me the views weren't too good.
Still, the forecast for the next day was for more rain, so I figured I might as well try it now, since it certainly wouldn't be improving. At 4, I got into the lift with a few other folks, and up we went.
The lift line actually ended at Plan de Midi, around half-way, elevation-wise, to the top. From the station, one could see both the valley (no clouds obscuring it), and a significant chunk of very steep, snowy mountains above us, although Aiguille de Midi remained wreathed in clouds.
The second leg, which took us to the top (3841 meters), was made more interesting by the fact that much of it was in the clouds, where one could see nothing save for the nearest cliff face, zipping by a few meters from the side of the cable car. When I did get to the top, not only was I oxygen deprived, but there was a good bit of wind, and the temperature was the coldest I'd experienced in months.
The view, which changed rapidly as clouds blew by, over the ridge, was amazing in spite of the parts that were obscured. One could see much of the Mont Blanc, as well as the continuation of the range to the east and west. One could also see some of the valley around Chamonix, the mountains on the other side of that valley, and an ocean of clouds (from the top, since we were above most of them) stretching north across the region. It was quite something.
Still, it was cold, and after I'd been to the very top (need to take the elevator to get their), to an ice cave (inside the mountain itself), to a cave ending in the snow (with a view Italy) and so on, it was time to head back. I was too enthusiastic taking pictures at the middle lift station, with the result that I missed one lift and had to wait for the other. I did however meet a very nice old man who pointed out several marmots to me, as well as explaining some of the peculiarities of the region. He did not apparently have any problems understanding my French, which was also remarkable.
After getting back, me and the other student decided to go for dinner. As always, decisions were difficult, but we wound up at a restaurant that served thin-crust Italian style pizza. Still, I might have been better of ordering 2, seeing how hungry I was. To make up for it, I got an incredibly rich dessert (les profiteroles) which left me more than sufficiently full.
The walk back to the hostel fortunately let my stomach digest a bit, and so after a little discussion of plans for the next day, I went to bed.
May 16 As the day that we returned to Paris, Monday was a full one (though we weren't skipping classes, because Pentecote is a holiday in France, secular for the same reason Ascension is, I suppose). We began with breakfast and packing. Once packed we decided to walk around in the valley and have a look at the other towns nearby.
More or less at the same time that we began our walk, it began to rain. Thus while we did make it through several towns, the combination of getting wet and poor visibility meant that we didn't make it all the way to the next major town, instead going through a variety of little hamlets before returning. Having returned early, we had lunch at a relatively fancy restaurant in Chamonix, which disposed of some of the time before our train was to depart, but didn't really help with the issue of rain. The lunch was so filling that I didn't even manage to finish it, a first for me at a restaurant on this trip.
The train was pretty much on-time, and I half dozed as it slid through the rain, past a dozen small towns, on the way to St. Gervais. In St. Gervais, we had perhaps half an hour to stretch our legs, find a toilet, and get on the next train. Forty minutes later, we got out at La Roche-sur-Furon for a twenty minute break. Our next train was to Geneva, which is where things became slightly more complicated.
Our train arrived at its destination, on time without incident. Geneva Eaux-Vives was however a small station, and after getting out, discovering that there was only 2 tracks total, and no customs or passport control, we realized that we were at the wrong station. To take the TGV to Paris, as we intended to do (and had bought tickets for), we needed to be in Geneva's main train station, Cornavin.
Followed a panicked discussion with the conductor (the TGV was due to leave in 45 minutes), we raced out, and by a miracle, reached the nearest taxi stand just as a taxi was arriving. While the conductor had suggested the tram, the tram would've required Swiss currency to pay (we had none) and probably would've gotten us to the station barely one time. Instead, the cab took us to Cornavin in less than 20 minutes. While it cost 20 euros (not a good exchange rate for 23 Swiss francs), it saved us our train. We made it through passport control at Cornavin to our gate with 20 minutes to spare. Incidentally, this is the first time since leaving the U.S. that my passport was stamped. Not sure exactly why.
The TGV ride back was not a whole lot of fun. A group of Japanese folks (tourists I presume) were having a tour plan explained to them by a rather loud guide. Their conservation continued, loudly, throughout much of the journey, making it hard to concentrate on anything in particular. I dozed a bit, but couldn't really sleep, and didn't really feel like doing anything. Too tired to work, not tired enough to sleep, that's more or less where I was at.
Still, all things must end, and our TGV ride landed us back at the Gare de Lyon precisely on time, around half past 8 in the evening. Paris weather looked about on par with Chamonix weather (raining slightly, low gray clouds) and appeared not to have changed since we left on Friday.
Back at home, I discovered that my room had been very thoroughly cleaned out. Although I wasn't expected (apparently forgot to tell my host family when I'd be back) they very obligingly prepared a small dinner for me (but overdid the salt by a factor of 4 or 5x). At any rate, I was tired, and after attempting to clear my phone messages, I went to bed.
May 17 I'm baaaaack! Well, actually, back to school. Woke up latish, but made the lecture on the Victorian Raj. British policy seems to have differed somewhat between various administrations, but that still doesn't mean they had much of a clue.
For the afternoon I grabbed lunch, and tried to write my essay for history class. I eventually went to bed without finishing. Dinner was probably the high point of the night. Still have to finish the paper tomorrow.
May 18 Let's keep this short and sweet. Up painfully early to finish my history essay. Then rushed to ISEP in time for an hour lecture on the formation of the Indian nationalist movement (and the ways it was misinterpreted). Somehow didn't realize that Gandhi was fully British-educated. A western-educated anti-modernist?
French class was watching the film "La Haine" (The Hate) about folks in the French equivalent of the ghetto (cité). Very hard to understand, since they speak a very 'coded' type of French. Had 15 minutes to grab lunch, followed by a 2 hour discussion of Paul Aussaresses memoirs, "The Battle of the Casbah." Not the greatest peace of literature, though I see definite parallels between counterinsurgency measures by the French in Algeria (torture) and those employed by the U.S. today in Iraq and elsewhere.
Then we watched "The Battle of Algiers" (extended edition with scenes cut from the original release). I see why Aussaresses complained that the FLN leader Ali-la-Pointe was portrayed as an Algerian Robin Hood. Nonetheless, the film was sympathetic to the French, perhaps too sympathetic given just how repressive they were. Surprised that the Algerian government signed on to such a project.
Visited my uncle in the evening for dinner, which proved good for my French, which the normal school day doesn't exercise very extensively. Tea makes me look at life much more philosophically, so our discussion was less political than usual.
May 19 The most productive act of the day was actually an extended bout of webpage updates. I guess I had gotten behind. Otherwise, had a lecture in the morning and did a lot of reading. No longer extremely behind on all that school stuff. But I hate spending weekends on essays (have to do 2 for next Monday).
May 20 Spent a surprising amount of time in the morning trying to figure out an exciting place to go for next weekend. The Pyrenees on the Franco-Spanish border (pun intended) are my current best bet. So I also wound up at the IGN map store. Found a surprisingly good hiking guide for only 12 euros. Dinner was with the family, and I was tired enough to go to sleep not long after, though I did finish 2 assignments for French class, so it wasn't an entirely unproductive day.
May 21 As with most Saturdays when I have stuff due in the upcoming week, this one was spent indoors typing and thinking. Mostly finished one of my essays. Got a little flute practice in for the first time in a really long while. Now I'm just kind of tired. And I have a second essay to write tomorrow. Oh and I found out where I'll be living next year at Stanford. Yay Suites. I'd be more excited though, if I hadn't discovered that we could definitely have gotten into a Row house. No Row for me alas.
May 22 Got up pretty early for Sunday and got part of my second paper written. My uncle suggested that on account of the good weather, we go to Normandy for the afternoon. So we did. Of course, by the time we arrived in Rouen, capital of the Normandy region, it was raining. We nonetheless had a pleasant visit, walking through the narrow pedestrian-only streets, and in and out of the 3 enormous churches in the old quarter. Amusingly, we also found an Afghan restaurant, where my uncle struck up a conversation with the proprietor. His opinion of developments in Afghanistan: things are slowly improving, but the U.S. is messing things up. Frank discussions are always nice.
From Rouen, itself an hour by car from Paris, we went to Dieppe, a medium-sized town on the Atlantic with more than its share of beach-front appartments (or are they condominiums?). Still, once it stopped drizzling we had a pleasant stroll on the boardwalk, where ice-cream and volleyball vendors abounded. Felt a little bit like Santa Cruz really.
The return was lengthy, which meant that I went to bed without a finished essay. Or dinner. Guess tomorrow will be busy.
May 23 Well that's enough writing papers for a while. Finished one before my first class of the day, and the other afterwards. Then read (more like skimmed) 200 pages of Indian nationalist history. I couldn't help but feel that what Nehru was after was not so much creating a new India as making the existing one look more like Britain. Perhaps if the British had been assimilationist instead of racist, he would never have become a nationalist? Our evening discussion section went over much the same topic. For the evening, visited my cousin who's been back from the U.S. for a few days. We went to a sushi restaurant with a number of his friends. The conversation was in Farsi of course, so I didn't really understand that much. The restaurant had an interesting system, where the sushi rotates around the bar area by conveyor belt, and you just grab what you want. Or ask someone near enough to it to do so, as in my case.
May 24 Running around doing all sorts of odds and ends. First, there was class in the morning. An introduction to modern Egypt as it were, from 1805 to 1882. After class, I finished doing my research and picked up train tickets for tomorrow, going to Lourdes in southern France. Back at home, did a combination of packing, homework and procrastination. Productive. Sort of.
May 25 Only two classes today instead of the usual 3, but they were still quite long. At any rate, there was construction (adding an air-conditioner) going on in the campus study room. So my studying didn't happen too well, though I did finish the necessary readings before class. Our afternoon discussion centered on the role played by women in the Algerian War of Independence. Then we watched "Nasser 56" about the nationalization of the Suez Canal. A long, somewhat overly done film, but interesting. Ran back home immediately after to pack, finish the homework for the weekend, and have dinner with my host family, which turned out to be a rather quicker than usual affair. But since I won't be around for the next few days, probably a good thing to do. I was painfully early to the train station, and ended up waiting a good 40 minutes on the train before we actually left, around 11:30PM. I had a bed ('couchette') in a compartment with 6 others. It was crowded, and the ride wasn't especially smooth. Still, I did sleep.
May 26 Woke up worried that I'd missed my stop. Needn't have, since the conductor announced it, quite loudly, on the intercom, 10 minutes before we got there. It was already a beautiful day in Lourdes when I got off the train at 7:30AM. Here's the map of the route I followed over the next few 3 days.
From Lourdes, I took a bus to Cauterets. The ride was only about an hour, but we still managed to go through a good number of small towns, and watch the bus maneuever in some awfully tight spots. Once in Cauterets, I went immediately to the tourist office. They weren't frightfully helpful, but they told me that one of the mountain refuges was open (Baysellance) which was good news, and that no buses went farther up the valley than Cauterets, which was not. They had no trail condition information. I also dropped by a grocery store, picking up lemonade, chevres (soft goat) cheese.
The trail from Cauterets (elevation 900 meters) took a bit of work to find, but I did, and soon was ascending through some pleasantly shady forests. My map was dreadfully imprecise which led to a lot of guesswork, but things worked out. Around an hour in, I crossed the road below a huge section of rapids on the river, as well as a series of restaurants and shops full of tourists. After that, the trail kept to the right bank of the river, in plain view of quite a number of waterfalls. Nonetheless, it took a good hour more to get to Pont d'Espagne.
Pont d'Espagne (1,500 meters) proved to be a parking lot, chalet, and vista point. I sat on a rock in the shade for a snack, hoping to lighten my extremely overweight backpack (2.5 liters of liquid, in addition to food, clothes and whatnot: probably about 7-10 kilos total). I continued around noon in the direction of Lac des Gaubes.
The stretch to Lac des Gaubes was steep, and the sun was hot, so I took my time. The lake appeared in due time, delightfully blue and cool looking. I'd initially intended to have lunch there, but decided that I had a ways still to go, so just stopped to take photos instead. At the end of the valley, a series of ominously snow-covered mountains were already coming into view. I continued following the course of the river, and did not stop at the little restaurant by the lake.
The next two hours were an exhausting climb along the river's left bank. It was hot, there was no shade, and my shoulders were aching from the pack. I reached the Refuge de Gaubes des Oulettes (2150m) around 3PM. The view was astounding: 3300 meter peaks, mostly covered with snow, across a meadow itself half under snow. This refuge was closed though, and the next one was 600 meters above, a climb itself almost entirely through the snow. Moreover, several people had told me that it was closed (though one told me it was open).
I stopped for a snack and a thought, only to discover that my food was being uncooperative. The side (not the top) of one of my yogurt containers had split, and the chevre cheese, on account of heat and pressure, had more or less become an amorphous collection of goo smeared around my food back. Still, I managed to eat some of each, in the process discovering that my lemonade was actually lemon juice. Oh well, 3/4 of a liter of lemon juice in a glass bottle up 1200 meters for nothing.
Deciding that I would chance the next refuge's being closed (choosing to belief the tourist office), since it was closer than going all the way back to Cauterets, I continued. Initially, I could avoid the snow by climbing up on rocks, or steeper sections, paralleling the trail. Pretty soon though, this became impossible, and I had to follow the tracks in the snow. Even that path proved quite steep, and the snow, while deep, was very wet and soft on account of the afternoon sun. Since I was tired before even getting to the snow, the stretch was painful at best. I'd take ten steps, pause for breath for a few seconds, and then continue. I didn't have real sunglasses either, so the glare of the snow started giving me a headache.
Still, I inched my toward the pass, whose location I was still far from sure of. Slipping and sliding in the snow became a real problem toward the end, since I sank in as far as my waste, and getting myself out, pack and all, required everything I had (plus the use of both ski poles that I'd brought as walking sticks). Miraculously, I finally crested the Col de Gaubes des Oulettes (2750 meters) around 6PM.
The Refuge de Baysellance, not far over the pass, proved open. The only other people there was a group of 20 or so high-schoolers and their guides. We had dinner not long after (tomato soup, pork stew, lentils, and cheese, quite good), and I went to sleep immediately after. The sky was still not fully dark when I went to bed around 9:30PM, although it was extremely cold. I did not have any difficulty falling asleep.
May 27 I was up well before 7AM breakfast. Unfortunately, neither my boots nor my socks had dried from the snow of yesterday afternoon. Breakfast was hot chocolate, bread, butter, and jam, which was certainly sufficient. Then I loaded my pack, and despite a lengthy chat with the women who managed the refuge, left before the group of high-schoolers had fully packed themselves up.
The trail was still in the snow, but it was morning, and I was going downhill. My pack was a bit lighter too, although I had sore shoulders to begin with, not mention a nasty case of sunburn. The snow was nicely packed though, so the descent was rapid, if occasionally hair-raising, traversing some disturbingly steep slopes. Soft snow would have made the whole thing impossible. I saw my first marmot about 30 minutes in, and saw them in steadily larger groups as I went down. They too seemed to be enjoying a beautiful crisp and clear morning.
At the bottom of the valley, which took a fair bit of time to reach, there were also sheep, and eventually a lake. This was artificial however, for at the end was the Barrage d'Oussoue dam (1850 m). I paused there to decide what to do around 10AM.
My problem, as on the other day, was the lack of bus service to the trailhead. While there was a road, there was no good way to get to the next trailhead, which I had planned on. So abandoning my hope of spending the night at the Refuge de la Bréche, I decided instead to make a shorter side trip to the seemingly more practicable Pic de la Bernatoire, and spend the night in the town of Gavarnie.
Thus I took a trail that crossed the river below the dam, and then ascended on the other side of the valley to the Cabane des Lourdes (1950). The cabane was alas closed, so I quickly continued along, going up the little valley toward the Col de la Bernatoire.
Still, if the valley was little, it was not that little. It took a good 2 hours to reach the Col, and my legs, still tired from the previous day, were highly uncooperative. Along the way I crossed a few snowfields, and passed innumerable marmots (probably on the order of 2 or 3 dozen). I even past the corpse of one, dead of I know not what. The day heated up as I ascended. The trail was frequently inundated by small streams which chose it as a good method of descent.
The Col de la Bernatoire (2350 m) is situated on the ridge which is the Spanish-French border. The view of the French side was of mountains well above where I was at the end of the valley, covered with patchy snow. On the other side was the quite beautiful Lac de la Bernatoire, looking utterly desolate (no trees or vegetation near it, only rocks), and an extremely steep second ridge. I'd toyed with the idea of going down on that side, but the combination of undetailed map and the steepness of the terrain convinced me not too.
Instead, I went up along the ridge I was already on, to the Pic de la Bernatoire. There was fortunately no snow to speak of, but there was also not much of a trail, and the scramble put me on top of the peak around 1PM, once again completely out of energy.
The view from the top would've been 360 degrees, had the peak been a little less broad. As it was, one could see in all directions, but had to move around a bit to see them. I indulged my camera for a bit, and then set about the serious business of lunch. I ended up sitting on a rock next to a small snow patch, where I stuck my lukewarm water and cheese to cool them off. I also stuck some snow into an empty bottle to use as water.
The descent was memorable only for its rapidity, and the rapidly forming blisters that appeared on my feet. By 3PM, I was back at the Cabane de Lourdes. The trail I continued on toward Gavarnie was more challenging than I'd hoped. Rather than descending, it more or less kept its current elevation, having to dip in deeply to cross streams and rivers from various side-valleys. I passed another cabane around 4PM, and with it a section of trail that was for all intents and purposes a marsh. There were pastures of goats, cows and more sheep. Then the trail was once more on the steep narrow mountainside. At one point there were a number of horses on the trail who refused to move, and it took quite a scramble, and a bruised knee to get around them. Later I met two men and a sheep dog who were looking for them.
When I finally did reach the road, I immediately lost the trail. It was 5PM, and my feet were already in bad shape. The next hour or so of banging away on the pavement didn't do me a whole lot of good. The descent to Gavarnie was slow, and as I couldn't actually see Gavarnie, my idea of where I was going was pretty vague.
When I actually did find the trail again, I took it, but discovered after the descent that the medium-sized town I was expecting did not exist. Rather there were two smallish clusters of buildings, and that was it. Somewhat disappointed, I made a beeline for the church, and was pleased to discover Gavarnie (1300 m) was in fact a respectable town after all. Still, I could not find the tourism office, and so, exhausted, I tried the first hotel I found with a reasonable posted rate. They were of course closed for the interseason (winter-summer) period. Two tries later, i found the Hotel Le Taillon which was both open and had space. Once I'd arranged for a room, I spent a long while in the shower, and an even longer while drinking water from the tap (which was actually quite good).
When I had enough energy to go out, I went looking for a restaurant. I found a pizza place with a good view of the valley, and immediately went in. Although I was the first one there, the place filled up rapidly, even though the streets of the town were all but deserted. Making up for my somewhat makeshift lunch, I got a salad, a pizza, and a dessert. All were good, and the mixed salad even convinced me that paying for a salad is actually not the end of the world.
I made a desultory attempt afterwards to call my folks, but I had no cell-phone service, and my attempt to use a credit-card as a phone-card was a pretty complete failure. So I called it a night, and was asleep in no time.
May 28 When I woke up, my feet were still sore. This forced me to jettison my main idea of a hike for the day. So I packed up my stuff, attempted to lighten the load some, and went off in search of the tourist office. The weather outside began quite foggy, but steadily cleared, so that by the time the office opened, I was quite disappointed at the thought of missing out on a good day for hiking. Moreover, the bus to Gavarnie didn't operate on weekends, leaving the somewhat open question of how I was going to leave.
Rather than worrying about that question, I took a stroll to the end of the valley, partly to see the famous 'cirque', partly to see whether my feet were going to let me do anything at all. The short walk gave me a good look at the more remote section of Gavarnie as well as the cirque itself, and the Bréche de Roland where I'd hoped to be going. Alas, not this time.
Going back to Gavarnie, the sun was out in full force. I popped in a couple of shops to look for postcards, although the salesman in one was sufficiently creative that I ended up with a largish block of cheese. Since the day looked nice, I figured I could probably walk down to the next major town on the road, a few kilometers off. Since the trail required climbing to get to, I wound up just following the main road.
Like most mountain roads, this one was scenic, with lots of wildflowers, mysterious woods, and small streams nearby. Unfortunately, it also had its share of traffic, which gradually picked up as the day went on. Moreover, it was nice hard asphalt, with no real shoulder to walk on. The result was that my feet managed, but barely, and the continual looking back over my shoulder for passing cars was a nuisance to say the least.
Still, it took me less than 2 hours to walk from Gavarnie to Gèdre. I managed to see most of the town, including the very much under-construction church, by walking down the main street. I was rather disturbed to discover at the tourist office that there were no hotels in the town I'd hoped to spend the night. Hmm... At any rate, it was lunch time, and I ended up at the Hotel-Restaurant Bréche de Roland, in a shady alcove overlooking the street. Lunch was trout, supposedly cooked in the local style. I'm not entirely sure why I chose to order a soup on a hot sunny day, but the lemonade, and about a liter of water, canceled it out.
Around 3PM, I started off again, deciding that I'd just go all the way to Luz-St. Sauveur, where there was most definitely a bus. The town that I'd hoped to spend the night in turned out to be a half-dozen houses clustered around a power-plant and a very closed-looking hotel. I didn't wait long. The road, which was descending by the river bed, began to do not so nice things, as did the traffic, but fortunately I soon reached Sia, a tiny town where I could reach the trail parallel the road from.
Once actually on the trail, I had second thoughts. It was hot, muggy, rocky and steep. The trail seemed to spend most of its effort going up, not forward, leaving me doubtful as to where I'd end up, despite occasional reassuring markers. The shade wasn't especially nice either, since I was constantly on the verge of running into a branch from one or another low-lying tree. Still, it did make progress, and after a bit, we crested at what was labeled Croix de Sia, a small wooden cross in a clearing some indeterminate distance up the hillside. From there, the trail descended without second thoughts.
Indeed, it actually started switchbacking toward the end on stone steps, next to a treacherously steep ravine. Once I reached the bottom it became clear though that however sore I was, this was not Luz-St. Sauveur, and so I wandered on, rather slowly, hoping to get some idea of where I was.
Luz-St. Sauveur was of course on the other side of the valley. So, with a number of pauses that is where I went. Indeed, I didn't even bother to try and figure out which hotel was best once there. Instead, I picked the first 1 star hotel I found, and ended up in a very pleasant room for 19 euro. The propietress was quite friendly, and as soon as she learned I was from the U.S. of A., she began to speak excitedly about her son who, as best as I understood it, had been a cook at a restaurant in Yellowstone, on account of the good quality fish they had there.
I was however exhausted, and so after bidding the hostess and her large cat Billy ('the kid') adieu, I went to my room and sat for a long while. My sunburn had even improved to the point that after writing postcards, I fell asleep pretty much immediately.
May 29 It being Sunday, I woke up at 7AM. This didn't do much good, since the bus to leave wasn't 'til 10, but it gave me plenty of time to pack, and look around the town a bit. While larger than Gavarnie, Luz-St. Sauveur was for all intents and purposes closed on Sunday morning, so I had an excellent time admiring buildings which seemed to have absolutely no people anywhere near them. Probably they were simply smarter and were still asleep.
Indeed, on the bus ride to Lourdes, I more or less did fall asleep a couple of times, and was not at all alert, when at 11PM I was dropped off at the train station. Half a day to spend in Lourdes, with sore (though much better than yesterday) feet and no idea what the town had to offer (lacking either map or guidebook).
Still, after going toward what seemed the older buildings in town, things brightened up a bit. It was a festival of some sort, and all manner of blue and yellow flags were out in the streets. There were plenty of people too. After discovering that the fort overlooking the town was closed to visitors for the next 2 hours, I made my way toward the cemetery. While I didn't recognize anyone in particular there either, I found a nice bench to sit on and read.
When I eventually left, the streets were positively packed with folks who were all dressed up. By going in the direction of the source of this people-flood, I wound up outside the church of St. Bernadette, near the grotto where the said saint had her first visions. Since they had benches there too, I watched the dispersing crowd. Most of the costumes were of soldiers, and some were even identifiable. There seemed to be a lot of Polish and Croatian uniforms in particular (the flags were on the shirts).
I took a look at the church too, although I didn't find it especially exciting. It was however built overlooking the assembly grounds and had a rather grandiose pedestal, through which one walked to reach it. I ended up sitting through half of a ceremony, watching soldiers file to the front of the area as various national anthems were played. Surprisingly, I don't recognize most national anthems, so I kept having to look for the flags to figure out who was busy being honored.
Eventually I left and made my way to the fort. This castle on sizable hill in the center of Lourdes gave nearly panoramic view of the town, and I explored it quite thoroughly, making use of the camera on the way. I also sat and read for a while, so that by the time it was beginning to get darker. My quest for the Hotel de Ville was successful, but on the return, I got quite lost. This was in some sense good though, for it gave me something to do. I ended up finding the train station after a good hour of looking, and then wandering back to the center of time for dinner.
I picked what looked like one of the few restaurants that actually had a reasonable number of customers. Apparently it wasn't on account of the service, since I spent most of my time sitting and waiting for this or that. Still, this too occupied time, as did eating the pizza and salad that I ordered. Not as good as what I got in Gavarnie two nights ago though.
Still, dinner did end, and I wound up back at the train station, reading my book. The fact that the train was late wasn't a surprise, since the train before it was late in leaving, and giving us a space to get on board. On the other hand, I didn't expect the train to just sit in the station for half an hour. We finally left the station around 11:30PM. My first class seat (bought at half price) was comfortable, but directly faced another occupied seat. As a result, sleeping looked challenging, since legroom was not nearly enough between the two to stretch out. The other passenger put her legs up on the table though, which gave me room to stretch underneath. Though I don't usually sleep well sitting, here too I had no trouble falling asleep. Even when the ticket-controller woke me to check my ticket, I fell immediately back to sleep. I remember waking up once, when the train stopped in Bordeaux, but that was about it.
May 30 Despite its delay in Lourdes, the train arrived on time at 6AM in the Paris Montparnasse train station. I took the metro home, and after a lightning session of unpacking and repacking, grabbed breakfast, and made it to school by 9AM. My card key was feeling uncooperative though, so I didn't get into the study room for a while.
The first thing I learned was that the EU constitution had gone down to a crushing defeat while I was in Lourdes. Good riddance, I'd say. The second was that things in Iraq aren't going well. In short, the world hasn't changed much.
I had French class first in the morning, and wasn't frightfully alert there to begin with. I had a few hours during which not much was accomplished before the make-up history lecture for the days people had missed the week before while at a globalization conference in Berlin. 90 minutes of modern Egyptian history ran my computer out of batteries, and ran me out of steam. The subsequent discussion, focusing on the achievements (and failures) of Nasser wasn't frightfully coherent in my mind either. I was happy to go home, have dinner, and more or less immediately, go to bed. I did get my papers back from last week, and was pleasantly surprised to discover no comment to the effect of "tell me something I didn't already know." Good news.
May 31 Off to school for my morning course. History lecture was all about the development of Algerian nationalism. I went back home more or less right afterwards, dropping by the store to pick up some food in the process. The afternoon was spent relatively unproductively: organizing photographs, reading, arranging odds and ends and trying to come up with good ideas for my history paper. I failed in the last one which was probably most important. Had two long phone conversations with the folks back home. Wouldn't mind going back home soon. Stupid thesis thingy.