13 March 2002

Weekend in the French Alps

While studying abroad in France, I wrote of our weekend trip to Serre Chevalier:

We have to leave Aix at 5:20 am and take a bus to Serre Chevaliere, which is 4 hours away. Serre Chevalier is a unique resort in the heart of the Alps. Sixteen villages, all different, make up one of the largest resorts in Europe. We are going to Serre Chevalier 1400 which is made up of La Salle, Moulin Baron, La Chirouze, Les Pananches, le Bez , Villeneuve (we will be staying in Villeneuve). Serre Chevalier is at the foot of the Ecrins National Park with heights of over 4000 m (12 000'). I’ll probably go snowboarding on Sunday because Jenny and I want to take a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the mountains. Apparently, it takes us through the most beautiful parts of the Alps!

On Saturday morning my alarm went off at 4:06 am and I was up and ready to go right away. That was the first surprising part of this trip. I was so wide-awake! My roommate, Cassie, on the other hand, is NOT a morning person. I was trying to contain myself around her because the night before she was saying that if anyone was chipper, she’d shoot them. But it was so exciting for me--I actually had energy! I think you all know that that rarely happens to me. I decided that I need to wake up at 4 am more often!!! Well, maybe not, but the thought did cross my mind.

Anyway, we walked to the bus station in the dark for a four-hour ride. When we arrived we dropped our bags off at out hostel and walked down to the ski rental place. After we all got fitted for our boards and skis, Jenny, Meryl, Kristy, Krista and I walked into town for lunch. We sat at a café right across from a snowboarding tournament. There was a huge tent for the NOKIA Snowboarding Tour. It was a big deal--and there were a lot of adorable snowboarders--it was nice. Oh--did I mention it was like 70 degrees? Yeah, we were soaking up the rays over huge, yummy salads. Sorry--on with the story.

After lunch, we walked back up to our slope and hopped onto the bright yellow ski lift. We couldn't believe how high up we were getting! Then there were jagged rocky cliffs beneath us. Of course, what question is always asked at times like this? That’s right-- "If we fell, we would die, right?" The answer was a definite yes. I think I still have some marks in my arms from my friend Jenny frantically clutching onto me when our cart would go through the guide wheels and make everything shake.

So after our ten-minute trek into the upper atmosphere, we step out into the most beautiful scene--bright white slopes and a hot, intense sun. And just like an oasis in a hot desert, we see a packed café and creperie with hundreds of tables in the sun. Jenny and I made a beeline to it and grabbed a table. Our view was amazing. The sky was bright blue, the slopes pure white, and every color you could possibly image walking around. Europeans wear some really colorful ski outfits! It’s pretty funny. A sign out front said we were 2100 meters up. The hot chocolate was amazing. Jenny and I spent the remainder of the day in this spot, sunning ourselves like lizards to stay warm. It was great.
We caught the last ride down the mountain and we were over the shock of the first ride, so the second time was really cool. It was beautiful and we could barely see the village where we were staying. It was unbelievable. We all had dinner at our hostel and then figured out our rooming situation--8 to 10 people per room. I got a top bunk! Our room was great because we had our own shower, but the heater wasn’t working. That room was sooo cold! You can’t loose heat at night in the Alps! So this typical French guy (black and white striped shirt and all) came to fix it and also brought us a space heater. Thankfully because we could have died during night without it!

Sunday was very similar to Saturday--except this time Jenny and I were all ready for a day sunbathing. We got to the café by 11:00 so we had some prime ray time. I was planning on getting a little snowboarding in that morning, because after all, I had been carrying around the damn board everywhere. I finally pried myself from our table and got my board. It was really slippery and when I lifted my right foot to click in, I fell over. I looked over at Jenny sitting in the sun with her cocoa, and then I looked at the long line of bundled up people in line for the lift--can you guess what I decided to do? I was back at that table so fast! We ate a little lunch after we were joined by some of our group, and I ordered a lemon crepe.

At 1:00 we had to leave to take our sleigh ride! Jenny and I were so excited. On our way down the mountain we were saying how well the weekend was going. Everything was great, the weather was beautiful and we got tan! Then, our gondola started to slowdown, and then it came to a complete stop! Might I mention that we just crested the steepest point of the ride? The part with all the jagged cliffs below--yeah, that was fun. I was fine, I just kept telling myself that it was a normal thing and we’d get going in a few seconds. But after a few minutes of dangling several thousand feet in the air, and Jenny absolutely freaking out (she is a little high strung) , I started to get a little scared. We were stuck for about five minutes, but then we started moving and getting on the ground never felt so good.

We met up for our "Romantic Sleigh ride" at 2:00, but it turned out that it wasn’t really a sleigh--it was more of a ghetto cart. The driver was about 70 and there were these little girls bouncing all over the place. I looked at this tiny cart with ripped seats and I thought: "You have got to be kidding me." Then I thought that maybe that took us to the sleigh because after all, we were in the middle of a parking lot. But no, that was our "sleigh" and it was a tight squeeze for the five of us. I made sure I sat on the outside so I could get some good pictures. Then the little girls decided that they were going to come too! So they squished themselves up against Jenny and I. So much for taking pictures! We took off on our adventure through the city streets. Yes, the city streets--where the cars drive. Keep in mind that a horse and buggy only goes about 5 miles an hour, and there was no getting around us. There were angry people--and they were honking. Jenny and I were really pissed that we got scammed into this "romantic sleigh ride through the woods". She kept saying that we should just get off and go back to the café. But there was no way I was going to turn back--we were on that thing and we were going to see some beautiful scenery!!!

Fortunately, the little girls were only getting a ride home, so they didn’t stay long. The ride got a lot better after we had room to breath. But we were still going through town with our ugly, old horses with pink bows and bells. And then, everything started to look really familiar-"Oh God! it’s the Nokia tour!" Jenny and I were trying to hide. All these adorable guys started laughing and pointing at us-it was so embarrassing! But then we got over it and the next group of guys that were laughing at us, we started laughing too, and we motioned for them to catch up and hop on! That way they would look more stupid than us because they were trying to run after us in ski boots! It was really hilarious. Just when we were getting used to trotting through town, he takes us on the highway! Yes folks, that’s right--the highway. Luckily there wasn’t anyone coming at that point, so we didn’t realize we were on the freeway. But I did recognize the road from our bus ride. Just as I asked Jenny: "are we on the freeway?" a car came up behind us and had to slam on their brakes to keep from killing us! That answered my question. If we were embarrassed before, we now had a line of cars behind us and they weren’t happy. Yeah, there was more honking. When they would get a chance to pass us, they would rev their engine and gas it around us. Jenny and I were waving to people and apologizing for causing a hold up. Car after car zoomed by and we were still there, trotting along the side of the highway.

Wouldn’t you know, a huge Land Rover comes up behind us and the driver looks really familiar--it was the guy who fixed our heater! Great! We were turning the other way so he wouldn’t recognize us--embarrassing. Finally we got to a little village and had some scenic views. But we knew that the inevitable was coming--we had to go back the way we came. We had to merge back into traffic and the driver started yelling at the horses "Allez, allez!" (Go!,Go!). Like a scene out of Clueless when Dion accidentally gets on the 405 and everyone freaks out because they almost die--that was us. A big tour bus was just going too fast, and our driver quickly changed to "Arretez! Arretez!" (Stop! Stop!). We had to wait until the next break. People drive really fast in this country, and on we go with a horse and buggy! That was a little scarier than dangling in the gondola for 5 minutes. So, we were repeating the same thing when, low and behold, a Land Rover pulls up behind us, and it’s the same heater guy! Go figure.

When our ride was over, Jenny and I couldn’t stop laughing. The whole trip was so hilarious! It was worth it just for our laughter. We didn’t get our "romantic sleigh ride through the most beautiful parts of the Alps," but we still had a good time. On our way back to the Hostel I stopped for some home made candy and a dark chocolate crepe. It was yummy. Then we left to go back to Aix at 5:00. We got stuck in traffic, so our bus ride was more like six hours. But we played the card came Uno, and we even taught two French guys how to play. That was pretty funny. It was a good weekend.

20 February 2002

My First Experience with Italian Hospitality

This is an old story I sent out while studying abroad in France. And it's the first glimpse into my morph from a Francophile to an Italiana...

Last week, I had a week long break from school. My friends Jenny, Jason, Leslie and I planned to go to Italy. Jenny's friend, Kara, is studying in Florence, so we could stay at her place for free. We were very excited.

Anyway, we left for Nice on Friday night because we had an early morning flight to Florence on Saturday.  A classmate of Jenny’s recommended a hotel in Nice to stay in, as it was pretty good, cheap and in a great location. We thought, "Cool, this is working out great!" So we get to this "great" hotel and it’s a little disheartening. We still had pretty high hopes as we entered the small lobby, but things were about to change. We asked to see the room before we committed to it, of course, but that didn’t really change anything. As we walked up the rickety stairs to the first floor, we were immediately transported into a B movie with a bad script. Picture the grossest sleazy motel on Sunset Blvd., where they have hourly rates for the prostitutes. Now you have an idea of our hotel. The floor of the landing/ hallway was so repugnant; I don’t think I could quite describe it. What was left of the carpet was so stained it looked like those old big brown seventies patterns--but it wasn’t--they were stains. There was a heavily dilapidated couch that you couldn’t pay me to sit on. I can’t even imagine the things that have taken place on that thing.

By this time, the "eeuuws" and the "Oh My Gods" were free flowing, and a number of other expletives about the conditions that I won’t mention. So, we find our room, and we all look at each other with desperate faces before opening the door in front of us, as if a surging cesspool of rot and dank lie just beyond the door. But, when we opened it, it wasn’t as bad as we were assuming it to be.  There were two queen-sized beds, the wallpaper was peeling off the walls, and the carpet was almost black. I had a sudden urge to check the room for used needles, crack pipes, and dead hookers. But none to be found--fortunately. We checked the bathroom after comments of "there’s no way I’m showering in this place", but none of us could shower because there wasn’t one! Now, you’re probably wondering whether or not we stayed in the place, right? Well, my opinion was that it was only for one night, we had really heavy bags, and the only important things were a) a clean toilet, b) a lock on the door and c) clean sheets. If the sheets appeared in the least bit to be unwashed, we were out of there. I checked the sheets and they were crisp, clean and white. Therefore, I was willing to stay for one night. We took a vote, and decided to stay.

Anyway, on with the trip to Italy…when we got on our plane, we were almost the only people there, so the flight attendant chilled with us for the whole flight, telling us everything we were flying over, giving us magazines, extra croissants, and so on. I felt like a pig after that flight because I had breakfast at the airport just before out flight, I had a plain croissant with tea in the beginning of the flight, and then, I of course couldn’t refuse the chocolate croissant that he offered me later on. But it was really good, so I didn’t feel that bad. Before we landed, he slipped Leslie a bag filled with goodies like mixed nuts, chocolate covered almonds (that’s a Provencal specialty here--they look like olives because of it’s green candy shell, but the taste amazing), and a bottle of Irish whiskey for all of us. Nice guy.

Florence was great; we had a lot of fun. Jenny and I couldn’t get over how great the shopping was. But I think the best part was how warm and friendly everyone was. And I also loved hearing the language. French is a beautiful language, but Italian sounds so fun and lively and enjoyable! Every restaurant we went to we got pictures with the waiters, and it was such a great time.  We stayed in Florence from Saturday to Tuesday. On Sunday and Tuesday nights, we made dinner at Kara’s place. The first night we went to the market, and made bruschetta and linguine with fresh garlic, olive oil and tomatoes, finished off with some Italian red wine. On Tuesday night, Kara made eggplant parmiggiano, pasta, bruschetta and I made sautéed zucchini with garlic and tomatoes. It was so delicious and easy. Yummy.

On Wednesday, we took a train to Rome, where we were visited by about 20 Italian soldiers in our car. We were kind of annoyed because we were all really tired and they wouldn’t leave. But it was pretty funny because none of them spoke any English. There is a picture of Jenny sitting with the four main guys that were talking to us. Leslie has a friend in Rome who picked us up from the train station and arranged everything for us with our hotel. We had a slight problem with our arrival in Rome because the workers at the Termini station were on strike. So we had to get off at a different stop. Poor Alessandro had to drive back and forth between the two stations about four times because he kept being told different things, plus the fact that our train was about 2 hours late. But everything worked out, and he took us right to our hotel. Alessandro is currently working in one of the best hotels in Rome and is training to become a sommalier. We had a most unbelievable experience in Rome thanks to him because we didn’t have to worry about anything and we were taken to fabulous restaurants for dinner. Plus the added excitement of seeing Rome in a car! Roman drivers are officially insane. We almost died about….um...well I lost count. But we had a great time. By day, sightseeing and touristy stuff (and shopping as Jenny and I discovered its even cheaper in Rome) and by night, fabulous restaurants with great company.

Friday afternoon we took the train back to Florence and had our last dinner out at our favorite restaurant. We had to say goodbye to Alfredo! We had a great time and they told us that the next time we come to Florence, they would be in a different restaurant, they gave us directions and told us to go there instead.  They were sweeties, and the food was great. Saturday morning we left Florence (regrettably) to return to France. Aahh, Italy--I miss it so much already.

Vernazza Updates:

Vernazza is well on its way to normalcy and while I no longer write updates on their status, you can learn about the devastating floods of 2011 by clicking the label "Vernazza Updates". For the latest information from the organizations in Vernazza and Monterosso, visit SaveVernazza and Rebuild Monterosso.

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