In case you haven’t noticed, I live in Kansas City now. On short notice, without pomp or ceremony, I moved to the West Coast of Missouri to start a new job. I’m now a teaching assistant at Horizon Academy, a private school for students with learning disabilities. The last two weeks have been a bustling mess of packing, traveling, working, apartment hunting, painting, cleaning, and unpacking. Now that I’m settled into my new address and my new position, I finally have some time to think. This city isn’t mine. Then again, no place has been entirely mine for the last half decade; I’ve bounced from one semi-home to the next in constant flux.
Two months ago I returned from France to St. Louis, a wonderful city that I can no longer legitimately call home. While my parents are still there, many of the friends I grew up with have scattered. The ones who remain no longer enjoy the freedoms of being a student; frequent, spontaneous hangouts are a thing of the past. St. Louis is to me a city of woven memories.
This summer, my only home was my 55-liter backpack. I explored Ireland and Scotland, never staying in one place for more than a few days. As I hiked across the Pyrenees, I dreamt beneath the stars every evening in a bivouac sack. Names, distance, and time all lost meaning as I slept on a new patch of ground each night. My backpack was a kind of home for adventure, but it offered no permanence.
Before becoming a nomad, I had just begun to call Chambéry home. I’d arrived in the Alps on a September morning, disoriented by the mountains and encumbered by luggage. By April I’d grown up a little and grown into the language, culture, and people of France. My first year of adulthood was in Chambéry, sweet but temporary.
Before France, Kirksville Missouri was my makeshift home. Every year as a student I lived in a new building, every break I went back to St. Louis, and every summer I worked elsewhere. In many ways I grew to love the small town atmosphere of Kirksville, but as a student it was impossible to become a true local.
I studied abroad in Angers, France—the most brilliant and ephemeral home of them all. The three months were a whirlwind of novelty: new cultures, new places, new people, and new worldviews. I was separated from everything I’d ever known, liberated but adrift.
Throughout my summers at Camp Eagle, Texas became a kind of home for me, too. It’s there that I developed some of my most meaningful and lasting friendships; it’s there that I fell in love with the outdoors while backpacking and kayaking in the blazing summer heat. The people and the landscape of southwest Texas will draw me back for years to come.
In the last five years I’ve had many homes, and no homes. Each place I’ve lived has offered something special, but never something whole. I’m continually homeful, and homeless. This move to Kansas City is yet another passing stage; if all goes according to plan, next year I’ll move yet again to start graduate school.
I’m finalizing the layout of my new room. I’m memorizing my new zip code. I’m getting to know my new students and coworkers. I’m growing accustomed to being surrounded by Royals fans. I’ve found a few radio stations that will suffice. Each day I can better navigate what I’ve realized must be the most haphazard and knotted streets in America. I have a purpose here, and I’m close to people I love. With each passing day, I feel a little more homeful and a little less homeless.
I did it. After forty-five days and five hundred miles, I successfully completed my traverse of the Pyrenees via the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne. There were tears and blood and an incredible amount of sweat. There was an unceasing chain of awe-inspiring landscapes. I savored plenty of solitude. Equally, I met people along the way whose company I cherished. At times it seemed like nature offered little gifts, and other times nature seemed indifferent and overwhelming. Some obstacles gave me serious pause. Some moments filled me with the rush of victory. At one point I even believed I had failed and my dream had slipped from my grasp.
I pushed my body, applied my skills, and quieted my mind. I made some great judgment calls and some enormous errors. I learned through experience. I smiled to myself, entertained myself, and talked to myself. I got tan, grew some facial hair, and lost some weight. (I think I've already regained the weight).
How can I even write about such an immense experience? How can I process, organize, and articulate in a way that does it all justice? I don't think it's possible in a single post, but I feel compelled to write something to help people understand this milestone in my life. I'll just need to trust that the details will come through in my conversations with people and in my future writing. So for the moment I'll summarize the experience, what I learned, and how it's influenced the way I imagine my future. I'll let photos do the rest of the talking.
The route that I followed consisted of five sections. The first section crossed through the Basque country from Hendaye to Lescun over the course of nine days. My departure on June 19th was, of course, anticlimactic. I set off alone on a rainy morning, but it wouldn’t be until almost a month later that it rained on me again (the weather was bizarre in the Pyrenees this summer, but it worked in my favor). During the first leg I transitioned into life on trail: conditioning my body, adjusting to my no-cook diet, and establishing my daily rhythm and rituals. I savored the green and bucolic landscape each day. The Pyrenees are pastoral in the truest sense of the word—there are grazing animals everywhere. I enjoyed getting a sense of the Basque culture and passing through picturesque villages as I crisscrossed the French-Spanish border. I was filled with peace and contentment each afternoon as I stopped for the day and set up camp; it felt as if I’d been hiking all my life.
On day six, however, the trip took a turn for the worse. During the ascent of the Pic d’Orhy, the first summit over 2000 meters, my right knee started hurting. Then it hurt more. Then it became excruciatingly painful. Each step caused extreme, audible suffering. With each step my pace slowed. With each step I could tangibly feel my dream slipping further and further away. It began to sink in—I’d severely damaged myself, only a week in, and my trip was almost certainly over.
For the next two days I limped onward to Lescun, where I took a few rest days. The situation didn’t improve much; if normal stairs proved to be an obstacle, how could I hike through the mountains? I had great doubts, but verbalized them to no one except my mother—I asked her to look into whether or not my plane ticket could be refunded and rescheduled. The more I thought about it, however, the more resolute I became. I reminded myself of how long I’d wanted this, how far I’d come, and how difficult it would be to return and try again later if I gave up. I decided that if I failed, it would be because of my body and not my mind. I would not make the choice to stop walking—I would stop only when I was physically unable to continue. I was prepared to hobble all the way to the Mediterranean.
The second section from Lescun to Gavarnie entailed seven days in the French Pyrenees National Park. The first few days went better than I had expected. I became absolutely in tune with my body. In the general sense, I ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired, and relieved myself when I so desired. But for the first time I truly listened to my body. I learned to distinguish the nuances of soreness, ache, and pain. I figured out precisely when I could continue and when I needed to rest, dip my bandana in a stream, and cool my knee.
Little by little, I became accustomed to walking with an injured leg. As long as I didn’t weight my knee while it was bent, I could handle most terrain. Rocky trails, boulders, and snowfield still proved to be difficult, but I was inspired by my surroundings. The views during this part were absolutely stunning. Every day was beautiful, and in retrospect I consider the second section to be the most consistently impressive of the entire trip. In fact, I was so motivated that I didn’t take variants that would have made the section easier and safer. On top of that, I wanted to complete the section one day faster than the guide book prescribed so I could have a rest day afterwards and not fall behind. The end result was that I successfully tackled some of the most challenging terrain of the entire HRP while shaving off a day in the process. I was only able to accomplish this via virtually interminable days—I limped for thirteen hours three days in a row.
Towards the end of the section I was reminded of what inspired me to do the HRP in the first place. There was one day where I hiked the exact route that I did in 2012. It was as if I’d gone back in time, back to the person I used to be. As I climbed towards the inspiring north face of Vignemale, I couldn’t help but feel as if each of the last three years was a decade. When I descended into Gavarnie I was filled with pride: in a week I’d gone from thinking my trip was over to overcoming some of the hardest days the HRP had to throw at me. I had proven much to myself, but I also knew it was time to get serious about letting my knee heal.
The third section stayed primarily in Spain during the nine days between Gavarnie and Salardú. During this time the HRP passed some of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees, and the landscapes were enchanting. The normal HRP route includes four extremely difficult days in a row over snow and boulder fields and high passes. I decided to take a three-day variant following the GR 11 (the Spanish route) during this part for a variety of reasons, chiefly for the sake of my knee.
For me, this was the most social stage of the entire hike. As my knee improved, I was able to hike with other people again. I reunited with hikers that I’d previously met, and I spent the majority of the section walking with others. I enjoyed the company, the conversations, and the cooperation. People went from meeting each other to feeling like old friends within a matter of days. Chatting made the time fly on trail. I was even gifted with a few hot cups of herbal tea. All of this prompted me to reflect on myself and my relationships back home. I wondered often about what type of person I truly am at my core, and what that means for the people around me. Bit by bit my knee healed, as I crossed the halfway point of my trip.
The fourth section crossed some of the most remote areas of the Spanish and Andorran Pyrenees in the ten days from Salardú to Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre. The area was so remote, in fact, that there was essentially no place to restock on food for the entire duration of the section, so on day one I crawled out of town with an absurdly heavy pack.
The rain finally caught up with me as well. Every afternoon, like clockwork, clouds darkened the sky, and most nights they let loose. It wasn’t a tremendous hindrance, however, because the rain usually began after I’d stopped hiking for the day. This region contained many unstaffed shelters along the trail, so I often had protection from the rain if I really needed it. While the clouds did provide some welcome shade during the day, they didn’t create ideal lighting for photographs. As I approached Hospitalet I could sense the beginning of the end. I began to look back on the trip, think about how I’d changed, and try to grasp what it all meant going forward.
The fifth and final stage of the HRP consisted of ten days between Hospitalet and Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was afraid that it might be less interesting after having completed the rest of the traverse. The last section, however, still had much in store for me—including the highest point of my entire trip, an incredible two-day ridge walk, and one crazy thunderstorm. Any concerns that it would be too easy were further invalidated by the fact that I compressed the ten days of hiking into just eight. Over the course of those eight days, I appreciated the most diverse scenery of the entire hike: desolate alpine peaks, grassy high plateaus, and the dry Mediterranean bramble.
As I neared the finish, I became increasingly elated by the probability of my success. Only a few obstacles stood in my way; I only needed to avoid stupid mistakes. With greater frequency I passed hikers going west to east on the trail—just starting. The beginning of my trip seemed both unfathomably distant and undoubtedly proximal. It felt, simultaneously, as if I’d started my journey years ago and as if I’d started it the day before. Either way, I certainly felt changed by it.
Due to poor weather on the Pic de Canigou, I didn’t see the ocean until the penultimate day. I had prepared myself to be impatient towards the end, yet I found that I was simply excited. I was saturated with a constant happiness. I couldn’t wipe the grin off of my face as I drew closer to the Mediterranean, as Banyuls came into sight, and as I descended for the last time. I prepared myself for anticlimax as I entered the calm streets of Banyuls. I saw the beach, packed with sun-soaked crowds. I slowly walked up to the water, crouched down, and let it lap against my dirty hands. Puzzled beachgoers observed a single, oddly clothed man with a giant backpack, completely unaware of the gravity of what he had just accomplished.
So what now? I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. I still don’t know if I’m an introvert or extrovert or both. I still don’t know whether or not, at the deepest, most hidden level of my being, I’m a bad person. I still don’t know exactly to what extent I should regulate my interactions with technology. I still don’t know if or when or where I want to establish my roots. I still don’t know whether I should give money to panhandlers. I still don’t know why women do what they do. I still don’t know why Donald Trump is number one in the GOP presidential primaries right now.
I do know that I’m well rested in body and mind. I know that when your greatest stress is physical, you’re living a pleasant life. I know that, after a month and a half of eating out of an old peanut butter jar and sleeping in a plastic bag on the ground (albeit an expensive plastic bag), I want to live a more minimalistic life. I know that I’m excited to apply what I’ve learned to hiking in the U.S. I know that I want to get involved with more serious mountaineering. I know that completing the Triple Crown (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail) is now a long-term goal of mine. I know that the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne has been the biggest dream that I’ve conceived of, planned, and achieved in my entire life. I know that that I’m enormously grateful for my experience in the Pyrenees, and I know that someday I’ll be back again.
See my video of the HRP here.
If you're interested in the logistics of my thru-hike of the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne, this is the post for you! My (annotated) packing list and some general comments are below. I have a total weight for my pack, but unfortunately I didn't have a scale accurate enough to weigh each item. I've decided not to use brand names as I don't want it to turn into a gear obsession list. If you have any questions about my general approach or about specifics, send me a message (however you won't get a response for quite some time, as I'm currently hiking and this is a timed post).
Things Worn/Used [Not included in the base pack weight]
-Full grain leather waterproof boots
-Wool hiking socks
-Softshell hiking shorts
-Synthetic boxer briefs
-Synthetic button-up t-shirt
-Waterproof map case
-55 liter internal frame backpack
-Ultralight 20 liter day pack
-Waterproof bivy bag [I am not bringing a tent]
-Tarp and cord [I can set up a shelter with this and my trekking poles if weather gets really bad, but it will otherwise serve as a ground sheet]
-Stakes [So my bivy doesn't blow away]
-Closed-cell foam sleeping pad
-Down sleeping bag and waterproof compression sack [Bag rated for 0 C/32 F]
-Sleeping bag liner [To add warmth when it's cold, function as an ultralight bag when it's hot, and keep my bag cleaner]
-Inflatable pillow [Okay this is a bit of a vice, but it weighs almost nothing and it’s worth the extra comfort and convenience to me. Most hikers use a sack of their clothes as a pillow]
-Instep crampons [There will probably be snow in some parts of the mountains, and the security is worth hauling them all the way across]
-Snow attachment for trekking poles
-Waterproof hardshell jacket
-Waterproof hardshell pants
-Light synthetic gloves
-Synthetic fleece cap
-Synthetic/wool base layer upper
-Synthetic base layer lower
-One extra pair of underwear
-Two extra pairs of hiking socks
-Synthetic hat [To add some extra sun protection]
-Flip-flops [As camp shoes]
-Small microfiber towel
-All purpose biodegradable soap
-Floss [Also useful for repairs]
-Tongue scraper [I know it’s weird but for me a fresh mouth is a real morale booster, and it weighs almost nothing. Especially when it's also cut in half]
-Small nail clippers
-Foot powder [Not for feet]
-Drugs [Antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, a few strong pain killers in case something goes very, very wrong]
-EpiPen [Most people don't know, but I'm actually allergic to beef now]
-Biodegradable toilet paper
-Water purification droplets
-3 liter hydration system
-3 liter dromedary [Primarily as a second container to hold water while it’s purifying. I won't be lugging around six liters of water everywhere]
-Empty peanut butter jar [I’m going no-cook. That means no stove and no hot food. This peanut butter jar will be where I soak my dinners to life in cold water]
-Various spices [How I'll keep my sanity]
-Stainless steal multitool [On the heavy side, but I'm still willing to take the weight for a sturdy companion. I also keep it in the waist belt pocket of my pack, so the weight goes directly to my hips]
-Duct tape [Rolled around a plastic straw to save space]
-Repair kit [Nylon patches, thread and needle, safety pin]
-Stormproof matches [Backup]
-Aluminum space blanket
-Maps [Number will vary according to where I am on the trail]
-Cheap, light cellphone [For calling emergency services if needed]
-Electronic tablet in waterproof case [See comments below]
-Universal USB charger
-Wallet [Well, a ziplock bag that contains things that wallets do]
-Extra ziplock bags
-Earplugs [For cowbells and snorers]
The total base weight of my pack is just at 12 kilograms, or about 26 pounds (the final weight will fluctuate drastically based on how much food and water I'm carrying at any moment). That's heavier than I wanted, but much of that comes with the territory of solo hiking: I can't split gear with other people. In a group of three, for example, there would be one first aid kit, one repair kit, one tent, etc. Well I still need all of those things but there's only me to carry them.
In other ways I want to be conservative with my gear selection, because the consequences of an accident are amplified when hiking alone. I have an EpiPen, extra matches, and a space blanket even though I am almost certain I will never touch them, because they could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency.
As I'm a little early in the hiking season, I want to be on the safe side with protection from the elements. The weather in the Pyrenees is notoriously unpredictable and temperamental. Maybe I could make it without a down vest and a sleeping bag liner, but I don't want to push my luck—especially because I'm not bringing a stove and can't easily warm myself if needed.
On that note, I decided after careful consideration to make it a no-cook hike. Even among hikers it's often considered an odd choice, but eventually I became convinced of its merits. I save a fair amount of weight by not bringing a stove or fuel. I don't have to hassle with cooking when I'm tired and hungry. What’s most appealing to me, however, is the time saved—depending on how many meals I would normally cook a day, up to two hours including cleanup. It means I can get going quickly in the morning and get to bed quickly at night. Plus, I can probably get a hot meal every once in a while when I go through a village to resupply.
The question of technology was for me one of the most difficult when considering what to bring on my hike. Would bringing an iPad inhibit my ability to connect with my environment and live in the moment? Would it over complicate the trip? Is it cheating?
It quickly became clear that it was a going to save me weight. The iPad alone weighs less than the HRP guidebook, which I downloaded instead of bringing a hard copy. It's also functioning as a journal, reading material, a camera, and a video recorder. I could theoretically use it for GPS as well, but I don't think I'll have the need and it drains the battery.
It is certainly practical to have some contact, at least intermittently, with the outside world. I'm not certain how often I'll be able to find internet access, but I estimate about once a week. I can find weather forecasts and prepare accordingly. I can update my itinerary with the people I've entrusted it to, which is important because I'm solo hiking. In case of an emergency I would be able to contact family and change plans.
I could also check my email, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram at every chance I get. I could theoretically download a ton of movies and entertain myself every night. I could play video games alone in the woods until my heart was content. But instead I intend to abstain from social media, games, surfing the web, etc. I feel like those could indeed become a distraction, and I relish the opportunity to let go of them and have some mental peace for a time.
But I think this touches on a deeper philosophical issue: the relationship between humankind and nature. Firstly, this is a false opposition: humans are nature, but we separate ourselves from the rest of nature. That didn't start with the iPad. If I wanted to have a “pure connection” or “true encounter” with nature I would ditch my boots, all of my gear, my food, and instead dance around naked in the mountains foraging for plants. Then I would die, because our ability as humans to manipulate and insulate ourselves from the wild is the only reason we've survived and thrived. Ultimately, wise usage of gizmos on my hike will require personal responsibility and self-discipline—qualities that everyone in the 21st century needs to cultivate in relationships with technology in order to live healthy and fulfilled lives.
What's in my pack will no doubt change as the hike goes on. I suspect that, no matter what, it will gradually become lighter. Some things will work well, some things won't. Some things I'll really need, some things I won't. If there's an interest, maybe I'll post an analysis of my equipment afterwards!
I awoke in the cold mountain hut the same way I went to bed—alone. It was the second day of my hike through the Parc National des Pyrénées in October 2012. The day before, I had slowly ascended the Gaube Valley towards the Pic de Vignemale, the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. But as I had drawn closer, the weather had worsened. From my map I could tell that I was close to the base of the mountain, but I hadn't actually seen it yet due to the thick gray mist. As I stirred some nuts into my oatmeal, I glanced outside to see the clouds retreat for an instant, revealing a dramatic wall of granite right before my eyes. The rush of perspective overwhelmed me with awe, and then the valley was veiled again with clouds just as quickly as it had been uncovered.
Nevertheless, I set off and hiked for the entire morning without seeing more than fifty feet through the fog. It was a grueling path, working up to the highest point I would reach in my entire trip. The air became thinner: I made a push, paused, and restarted without any proof of progress from my surroundings. Then, suddenly, the sun burst over the ridge-line to my left, immediately banishing the mist. Everything around me glistened with dew, and directly in front of me—close—the spire of Vignemale shone brilliantly.
I think that moment of rapture, when both the light and the jagged mountains pierced through the clouds, was when I first sensed I would return to the Pyrenees. It was a slow realization that I wasn't anywhere near done here. In the months following my trip, the sense turned into an idea: to traverse the entire range from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. In the months following my return to America, the idea turned into a dream. Then over time the dream intensified and crystallized into a plan—the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne.
The Pyrenean Haute Route, as it's called in English (or even more commonly just the HRP), is just one of several ways to hike across the Pyrenees. The GR 10 runs all the way across on the French side. It has a twin on the Spanish side, the GR 11. Both of these trails are well-developed and well-traveled, often providing a mountain refuge for the hiker each night. The HRP, on the other hand, is more of an idea than an actual trail. It attempts the follow the highest walkable path all the way across the Pyrenees, frequently crossing the border while linking together bits of the GR 10 and GR 11 with local trails, livestock paths, and bushwhacking. Over the course of 45 days the HRP thru-hiker travels almost 500 miles with 140,000 feet of elevation change. Quite the ambition.
Yet even though I've had this dream for so long, it's often proven difficult to communicate—most of all to a close friend whose wedding I'm missing, to parents concerned for my safety and unclear future, and to a woman I love dearly but from whom I'm voluntarily prolonging separation. When I tell people I'm going on a 45-day hike alone in the mountains, the nearly unanimous response is, “You're crazy.” The rest say, “Be careful.”
Part of what draws me is the challenge. I’m guessing the HRP will be the most physically demanding thing I've ever done, and that's very appealing. It will also be a test of my wilderness skills—most of all, navigation. There will certainly be a mental challenge as well, which I've heard can often be the most taxing part of a thru-hike. I crave the feeling of success and accomplishment that can only come from pushing oneself to the absolute limit and overcoming.
A few people expressed interest in doing the hike with me, but an essential part of my dream has always been solitude. This of course amplifies the challenge and raises the stakes, but I feel that solitude has inherent value, especially when interacting with the natural world. Being alone enables deeper introspection and reflection—maybe even making them necessities. Of course it'd be nice to experience some self-discovery or revelation along the way, but you can never expect these things.
I think it'll be good for my health. I'm not in peak physical condition at the moment, and that's not a great feeling. I’ve known the vitality that comes from having a fit mind and body and I wouldn't mind returning to that level of fitness. Also, as a sort of experiment, I'm abstaining from caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol for the duration of the hike. It's not that I consume any of these in excess, but they are easy things to cut out and I'm curious to see if it will have any effect on me. Finally, and possibly most importantly, I want to look tan and lean for all those pool parties I'll attend when I get back to the U.S. in August.
So here I am, about to start this hike. I’m about to begin what I’ve dreamt of for more than two years. After spending so much time gathering information, reflecting, and planning, the moment has finally arrived. Just like any other major event, it doesn’t seem real now that it’s here. Whether it feels real or not, tomorrow morning I'm going to walk down to the beach in Hendaye, touch the water, and turn to walk east. Wish me luck.
I owe all of my readers (and my mother) an apology. Fortunately, I’ve been extremely busy over the past two months: travelling all over, seeing the world, and just generally transitioning. Unfortunately, it’s left me little time to process, write, and share. I’ve been on the move so much someone recently asked me if I was “perennially homeless.” It’s not far from the truth. Here’s a little life update on what I’ve been up to, what I’m doing now, and what’s to come.
The first of my trips was over Easter weekend. The other English assistants and I went to Chamonix, France as a last hoorah together. The town itself is bustling with tourists, but that’s for a good reason—the surrounding mountains are magnificent.
Shortly after, during my school’s spring break, I spent two weeks in the Rhône Valley and Southern France. I couch surfed, saw heaps of Roman ruins, met up with a friend from college, and reunited with the host family from my high school trip in 2009.
When I returned I had only a week left at my school. I said farewell to my students, colleagues, and roommates. Some friends in Chambéry have been kind enough to allow me to keep all of my things in their basement during this nomadic period of mine.
Next was my month-long voyage. The first stop was Paris, where I spent five days doing obscure things that I had never been at liberty to do. All of my prior trips were with first-time visitors eager to see the main attractions, so I ended up repeating the same things. This time I saw Paris on my own terms.
Ireland was my second destination, where I spent about nine days touring the island. I greatly enjoyed the lively cities, the lush countryside, and the welcoming people. I will no doubt return someday.
I took a ferry across the Irish Sea to Scotland, where I spent more than two weeks exploring both the Lowlands and the Highlands. I had originally planned to descend to England, but I found Scotland so agreeable that I simply decided to spend the rest of my time and money there. I visited distilleries, heard a lot of bagpipes, and shared quality time with two dear friends from back home.
I intend to post about all of these in greater detail, but it may still be a while. That is because I am currently preparing for a challenge I’ve had in my sights for over two years. On June 19th I’m going to start the Haute Randonnée Pyrenéenne, a 45-day hike across the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. At this very moment I’m squatting in a friend’s living room in Chambéry for a week, digesting my travels and preparing for the coming expedition.
For the next month and a half I’ll essentially be off the grid, but I hope to prepare some pieces in advance that will automatically post while I’m gone—stay tuned. If all goes according to plan, which is not a guarantee, then I’ll finish with my hike in early August and return directly to the US.
My post-European future is less definite. I plan to apply to creative non-fiction MFA programs this fall (which would start in the fall of 2016), and I’ll search for a job in Missouri when I return. I’m sorry again for my silence, but I hope you’re now up to speed!
Lyon is an unequivocally terrible city. It is, simply put, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. You, dear reader, will have lived an enviable life if only you can boast that you never entered its miserable confines. Still, Lyon’s matchless unpleasantness deserves a review of sorts. This guide will outline exactly why it is an awful city and specifically what you should avoid if you are ever forced to visit.
Once the prestigious capital of Roman Gaul, Lyon is now the decrepit center of the French Rhône-Alpes region. The metropolitan area is the second largest in the country, home to some two million pitiable inhabitants. The layout of Lyon is determined by the surrounding hills and rivers. The confluence of the Rhône and Saône creates a peninsula called the Presqu’île. To the north of this peninsula is the neighborhood of La Croix-Rousse. On the left bank of the Rhône several neighborhoods are grouped together as the “Rive Gauche.” On the right bank of the Saône are Vieux Lyon—or “Old Lyon”—and the neighborhood of the Fourvière, which overlooks the entire metropolis. Travel between these areas is a continuous ordeal thanks to the sorry state of Lyon’s infrastructure: there’s only 1 international airport, 3 train stations, 4 metro lines, 5 tram lines, 123 bus lines, and 340 bicycle-hire service stations.
The office of tourism in Lyon has developed a clever little stylized slogan: “Only Lyon.” They would have you think that Lyon is filled with manifold attractions, but don’t be fooled dear reader—it is but a cheap trick. Lyon would be a terrible place to take people who are visiting you from America. There is nothing worth seeing, but there is indeed plenty to avoid.
Stay away from the Fourvière hill. There’s no point in looking out over the vast urban panorama. The Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière has an unoriginal exterior and the décor inside is terribly bland. The ancient Roman theatre and odeon are uninteresting and they certainly don’t offer a fascinating view into the lives and cultures of ancient peoples.
Don’t even think about visiting the Presqu’île. The Opéra Nouvel hosts no events worthy of note. There is no pleasure to be derived from strolling along the banks of the rivers and taking in the city views. The whole neighborhood seems haphazard: the Place Bellecour, Place Carnot, Place des Jacobins, Place des Terreaux, and all of the expansive avenues connecting them seem as if they were organized by a blind person.
Keep away from La Croix-Rousse, dear reader, if you know what is good for you. Just walking down the streets, one can sense the oppressively bohemian and lively atmosphere. The Roman amphitheater located there is just like every other Roman amphitheater. It is a neighborhood completely bereft of history and culture (apart from it being the capital of the European silk industry for several centuries).
Don’t waste your time with Parc de la Tête d’Or; it is one of the oldest, largest, and dullest urban green spaces in France. It has nothing to offer in any season: the gardens are lifeless in the spring, you shouldn’t bother boating on the lake in the summer, the foliage lacks any color in autumn, and it’s a miserable place to spend Christmas Day biking around with the woman you love.
Steer clear of Vieux Lyon at all costs. For some reason UNESCO has declared it a world heritage site—probably as some sort of joke. The Cathédrale Saint-Jean is just a modest little chapel of no cultural significance. The narrow pedestrian streets and Renaissance architecture throughout the neighborhood leave much to be desired. Vieux Lyon is known for its traboules (covered passageways originally used for silk transportation in wet weather), but what’s so special about a few tunnels?
In addition to all of these places to avoid, it should be noted that Lyon offers an embarrassingly meager selection of museums. The tourist unfortunate enough to travel to Lyon can see it all in a short afternoon: the Gallo-Roman Museum, the Fine Arts Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Confluence Museum (of science and anthropology), the African Museum, the Hôtel-Dieu (medical museum), the Center for the History of the Resistance and Deportation, the Decorative Arts Museum, the Gadagne Museum (history of Lyon), the Museum of Automated Puppets, the Lumière Museum (the birthplace of cinematography), the Miniature and Cinema Museum, the Silk Weavers’ House (museum of the Lyonnais silk industry), the Printing Museum, and the Laundry Museum.
Regarding Lyonnais culture, there’s not much to be said. While Lyon might be lauded as the gastronomic capital of France (and sometimes the world), anyone with a sense of taste will disagree. There is a dearth of regional ingredients, excellent markets, and international restaurants. The traditional Lyonnais eatery, the inhospitable bouchon, serves minuscule dishes of a quality barely rivaling Kentucky Fried Chicken. Any culinary culture that Lyon once had has been thoroughly stamped out by the infamous chef Paul Bocuse (whose only praise comes from fringe organizations, such as the Culinary Institute of America who named him Chef of the Century). Worst of all, dear reader, you’re forced to wash this so-called food down with the obscure and tasteless wines of Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhône—too insignificant to warrant further review.
Lyon is widely known for its annual lights show, the Fête des Lumières—although it’s difficult to understand why. The Fête des Lumières is one of the top three biggest festive gatherings in the world in terms of attendance (after Rio Carnival and Munich Oktoberfest). Three to four million people come to see the hackneyed train wreck each year. It is a truly pedestrian event in both senses of the word: every road closes to traffic and swells with spectators. The entire city of Lyon is lit up by dozens of unimaginative installations, ranging from run-of-the-mill psychedelic animations projected on the cathedral to giant, bromidic puppet shows. You will see more originality, dear reader, by driving around your neighborhood in Christmastime.
Sure, Lyon may have ranked as the second best city in France by the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, but anyone who visits can observe otherwise. As you can discern from this guide, dear reader, there is nothing to see or do in Lyon. Its only redeeming features are six Starbucks locations and transportation to other destinations. It is utterly devoid of vitality, diversity, and culture. You will lose a fragment of your soul for every second you spend in such a miserable place, just ask any of two million people who reluctantly call Lyon home.
In February I went to Spain for the first time, and it was unlike any trip I’ve ever had. For ten days I travelled in Andalucía (the south) with Isabella, a Spanish friend from my time studying in Angers, France in 2012. We toured extensively, but I never felt like a tourist. We were hosted and accompanied by a dizzying array of friends and relatives—all locals. It was an extraordinary experience, but I’ve been debating how to write about it ever since.
This is my dilemma: do I try to fully represent my time there (putting a lot of effort into creating a lengthy, cumbersome, and self-indulgent account), or do I give rich little snapshots (neglecting large portions of the experience)? I’ve decided to try something different altogether.
While travelling in Spain I carried around a little black Moleskine in my pocket, as I do everywhere. I made dozens and dozens of notes about things I saw and things that interested me, both the mundane and profound. It even became a joke among my hosts, every time I pulled out my little notebook to hastily jot something down as I lagged behind the group. I’ve decided to present these little notes; I hope they convey honest and concise insights into my journey in Andalucía (and maybe some insights into my mind). I’ve occasionally included meta-notes in brackets, but I’ll rely on photos to fill in the blanks.
Note: when Americans think about Spain, they normally conjure images of bullfighting, flamenco dancing, and sombreros. That last one is because Americans can’t distinguish Spain from Mexico, but the first two are because foreigners tend to take the stereotypes of southern Spain and apply them to the entire country. As I only visited Andalucía, I’ll try not to generalize; my usages of Spanish or Andalucían to describe people and customs are deliberate.
Lucena: Isabella’s hometown, a humble city, our base of operations.
-Fran [Isa’s brother] picked me up from the airport and took me to Lucena. He is crazy. And more than a bit sexist. He likes to pull the e-brake and drift through roundabouts.
-Tita Juaquina and tito Enrique [Isa’s aunt and uncle] are the kindest people to ever grace this planet.
-Upon arrival, tito Enrique took me to a giant barrel in the basement and scooped up a glass of homemade white wine. A man after my own heart.
-Apparently people here can go out to bars with their own booze and soft drinks and pay for glasses and ice.
-I don’t enjoy discussing gun policy in the US through broken Spanish and English when I’m exhausted.
-The house where I’m staying is in el campo (the countryside). It a seven-minute drive from the city center, it is not the countryside. The house is freezing at night, it was meant for summer. There is no central heating.
-¡Brasero! The best invention ever conceived: a heater under a table covered in thick blankets, everyone sits around the table and puts their legs under. Heaven of warmth. I’ll popularize it in US and make millions.
-It is good to fall asleep reclined at the brasero.
-Andalucían breakfast is bizarre: toasted bread, olive oil, garlic, fresh tomato paste, ham. But bless tita Juaquina for making it for me every morning.
-Hiked [with tita, tito, and Isa] up the Sierra de Aras, to the Santuario Virgen de Araceli. Andalucían countryside is not unlike Texas hill country: hills, low shrubs, dry air, dry cold in winter, clear sun, loose clouds. Spanish is spoken.
-I learn about the tradition of carrying the images and statues from the sanctuary down to Lucena as part of the Holy Week celebration, or Semana Santa.
-Rows and rows and rows of olive trees. Leaves are dark-but-light-green, pale soil, brown mountains in the distance.
-Olive cultivation is total monoculture. Lines and patterns of green as far as the eye can see. Beautiful and desolate at the same time.
-The church at the top of the mountain: smelled the incense before it was visible, whitewashed exterior, rococo ceiling, dark except for the glass chamber which holds the Virgin statue.
-Why Mary so decked out?
-This church brings out my iconoclastic tendencies.
-We all light prayer candles and add them to a wall. Isa tells me to wish for something. I drop mine [accidentally] and make a scene.
-Why do we make altars in high places? The Croix de Nivolet [in Chambéry], the Altar ridge [Camp Eagle], the Old Testament. Religion as process, journey, and destination. Earning, working for a spiritual experience.
-Paragliders take advantage of the weather. We watch them prepare, take off, and soar.
-I have eaten authentic paella [during a Sunday family gathering]. I have eaten the best orange I can ever remember having. Isa’s grandmother [with dementia] repeats in Spanish: he looks hungry, he is still hungry, he should eat more.
-My first siesta was a failure, I slept for three and a half hours.
-I picked an orange from the yard, and sixty seconds later it was in my glass and I drank it.
-Lucena: construction, empty streets on Friday night, bricked up storefronts, 40,000 people, kind of run-down
-[Isa tells me] the bricked up storefronts are to stop squatters.
-It seems underdeveloped in a way… propane tanks delivered instead of gas lines, there are still pump workers at gas stations, roundabouts are bare, internal heating other than fireplaces is uncommon. Some of that is logical because it’s the in the south though.
-Shop hours in Lucena: 8:00 or 9:00 AM until 2:00 PM, then 5:00 PM until 9:00 PM. Even later in the summer, 6:00 PM until 10:00 PM. Rhythms of life slower here.
-I ask Isa about her grandpa’s experience during the Spanish Civil War. She tells stories about rations, bandits, and Nationalist sentiment.
-In churches they pay to change the flowers every day.
-Outside of Lucena is the largest chair in the world, which was pointed out to me multiple times. Apparently it is a hotly contested title.
Córdoba: architectural intersection, where I discovered tapas, an absolutely charming place.
-The streets are lined with orange trees. Quite charming.
-We [me, Isa, and Chumi—Isa’s boyfriend] wander around small streets, trying to find the city center.
-[After meeting up with Isa’s parents] We tour the Mezquita de Córdoba, a mosque/church. Such a weird mix of architecture… The audio guide tells me Moorish conquerors built several iterations of a mosque on top the site of a Catholic Visigoth church, which in turn was built on the remains of a Roman temple to Janus. After the Reconquista, the Spanish built a giant church right in the middle, but they didn’t destroy the whole complex.
-Mosque section is dark and open, lines of columns, intended for thousands of people praying together.
-Church section is illuminated by bright windows, but assumes hierarchy of power.
-It’s all so obviously political: Islam building on top of Christianity, Christianity building on top of Islam. You, dear Christian, must walk through the shadowy remnants of a false religion in order to reach the enlightened center of truth.
-My understanding of tapas: institutionalized snacking, moving from bar to bar, getting a little dish and a beer, a social process, an event in and of itself, can replace a meal if you’re poor. Tapas are the antithesis of French cuisine.
-Tapas number one: a slice of Spanish tortilla [like a thick potato and egg omelet], some odd tomato paste, and a glass of beer.
-Walking through the Jewish quarter, Isa’s parents emphasize the tolerance under the Caliphate of Córdoba. Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted. Architecture from all three still remains.
-Tapas number two: olives and almonds.
-These people still build homes like the Romans: internal patios, arches, openness. Fit for the climate.
-In the Museo Julio Romero de Torres, I start to get a picture of this city. How a place views itself and its past is revealing. Reconquista, flamenco, beautiful women, brave men, the drama of attraction.
-Tapas number three: various seafood platters. [I will now stop counting tapas, but I had dozens more]
-There is a Roman bridge in Córdoba. This alone is incredible. It is massive, and it still exists.
-We see the Holy Week carriers of the icons practicing.
-From the top of the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos [fortified palace of the Christian monarchs], the lights of Córdoba glow before the sun has fully set.
-Kids are in the street at night socializing, even in the cold. Isa tells me this is because they cannot drink at home.
-[We stop by Carrefour on the way home]. Supermarkets are such a wonderful crystallization of foreign cultures: cheeses, legs of ham, giant olive oil jugs, pets for sale, a different checkout process.
-This is the first time in years that I’ve been in a completely new culture, I’m absorbing everything.
Sevilla: a city of great history, a city of great pretense, a mild letdown.
-All of my friends hyped up Sevilla.
-First thing we see: Cathedral of Sevilla, third largest church in world. A truly mighty building. Cavernous and beautiful vaults. Looks like an entire temple complex from the outside.
-La Giralda [the bell tower of the cathedral]. Again, the Reconquista kept the best of Moorish architecture and Christianized it.
-I can sense the recession here. Empty carriages are lined up in front of the cathedral, beckoning tourists.
-[We pass through the Alcázar de Sevilla grounds] The Moors made beautiful gardens. It’s all nestled underneath these old fort walls. In every Andalucían city you can feel traces of a Muslim golden age.
-La Torre del Oro. I’m told that it’s called “The Gold Tower” because it was used to store riches brought back from the new world. [I discover later that this is completely false]
-Meeting up with more friends, eating more tapas
-We go a place locals call Las Setas, or “the mushrooms” [the structure’s real name is the Metropol Parasol]. It is certainly an interesting structure, but at the top there’s no distinctive or powerful view. You look around Sevilla, huge and scattered. The view reflects the reality of walking: everything interesting is far away from other interesting things. I’ve never experienced such a decentralized city.
-We walk along the Guadalquivir River. There are some cities that turn their back on their waterways—this is not one of them. You feel like you’re supposed to be near it.
-Most of the churches I’ve seen [save some of the big famous ones] in Andalucía are rather bare. The emphasis is on the statues, paintings, etc. In France it seems that the emphasis is on the building itself.
-We see the image Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza in the neighborhood of Triana. This whole place deals in images. They are expensive, laden with gold, millions and millions of dollars. I still think they’re ugly. They are locked by key blocked by glass, separated from direct contact with the faithful. Evidently the people are pious, but realistic.
-I am told that during the Semana Santa, when they march the images around, the chief carrier pays 10,000 € for the honor—as well expenses of everyone else in the group [meals, celebrations, practice, meetings]. I’m starting to realize how important this image moving is to the Andalucíans.
-We walk around the ceramic production district in Triana. No one finds this fascinating but me.
-[As time goes on I think] Sevilla is unimpressive. Too big, ugly buildings, lots of high rises, an absence of architectural unity as a whole. It lacks the charm I’ve seen elsewhere. Feels like it goes against the ethos of Andalucía. It is a big modern city that has succeeded in becoming an international city, but at the cost of its spirit. Yet it still peddles a version of its former self as the romantic and enchanting regional capital.
-We meet up with another one of Isa’s friends, Gloria, who works as a model in Sevilla. I am encouraged by how human she is.
-We go to the Plaza de España at dusk. It is incredible! Powerful and impressive. Architecture is a perfect execution of whatever architectural style it is [Renaissance Revivalism and Art Deco]. Such a vast and expansive structure! I feel so small. If I lived in Sevilla, I would take walks here every day. I want to see it in every condition. I want to see it illuminated by summer sun. I want to see it in a downpour. I want to see it surging with people in some sort of celebration. I want to see it completely empty.
Granada: ancient capital, cultural junction, fiesta epicenter
-Hosted by Isa’s cousin Maria on the outskirts of the city, in the brick high rises of the Camino de Ronda [the longest and straightest street I’ve seen in Spain].
-I’ve never relied on others’ hospitality for such an extended period. It’s touching.
-We go over to a friend’s house to watch the Tuna de Ciencias de Granada [one of Granada’s famous groups of young guitar-playing gentlemen] practice. The same kind of atmosphere as all-male college a cappella groups in the US—a musical fraternity.
-Every dwelling I’ve seen in Granada contains hookah.
-I accompany Isa on her driving lesson [because most people here in their early twenties don’t know how to drive]. I fear for my life.
-I saw what must be the most hideous dog to ever exist [please see photo]. Its disposition matched its hideous under bite.
-In the Capilla Real de Granada [Royal Chapel] it is not permitted to take photos, even without flash. I’ve seen this a lot in Spain, and it is extremely frustrating. The only possible reason would be so they could have a monopoly on image distribution, and this really irks me. If I pay, I should be allowed to document. I wanted to document specifically some beautiful gothic arches and a sculpture of a decapitated man: you could see all of the detail on the neck: spine, esophagus, blood…
-The Granada Cathedral is a mammoth Renaissance beast. Stalwart white columns. Again, no photos allowed inside.
-In a few different squares, there are street musicians who play the most heavenly instrument I’ve ever heard [called the hang, I find out later]. The soft melodies reverberate off the ancient walls and fill the whole area with numinous music.
-Everywhere there are outdoor markets of teas and spices and cloth.
-The view from Plaza de San Nicolas is stunning. It stares across at Alhambra, the famous Moorish palace and fort, and the mountains beyond it.
-On the bus [up to Alhambra the next day], we’re sitting next to two American girls. French is the common language of our group, so that’s all we’re speaking. The two girls are talking about the respective penis sizes of their mutual acquaintances. They pause for a second and wonder if anyone can understand them. Of course not, they conclude, and continue on. Why does America export the most basic, privileged, contemptible tourists?
-The sun crashes against the walls of Alhambra.
-We enter the Carlos V palace first [same king who put the church in the Mezquita of Córdoba]. Interesting layout, the courtyard looks Greek or something. It’s another building-turned-political statement, new Christian palace in the old Muslim fort.
-Inside the Royal Complex, I’m immediately impressed with detail of the plasterwork… I just love Arabic calligraphy. The intricate arches and wooden ceilings are stunning.
-It also feels very human, like human-sized. In general, not grand ceilings and doorways everywhere. Not particularly luxurious compared to later Christian palaces, or earlier Roman palaces. The pillars are low, and sometimes slanted.
-Beautiful patios and fountains throughout, especially the Patio de los Leones [Court of the Lions]. Water was critical to the Moors, and it showed in their perceptions of luxury: gardens, fountains, irrigation, etc.
-The whole things is significantly restored [the abandoned gardens caused a lot of water damage] Oh how I wish I could have seen it in its original splendor!
-I love the ceilings that are like caves, with carved fractal patterns.
-All of these gardens must be wonderful in summer.
-We save the fortified section [the Alcazaba] for last. The oldest part, it has interesting building foundations in the courtyard.
-We climb up the highest tower and there is a spectacular view. You can see everything: Alhambra, mountains, city, the plains in the distance. For a moment I sense everything drifting up to Alhambra. I can see every monument in the city. I see people taking pictures from the Plaza de San Nicolas. I can clearly hear a singular guitar, and I eventually spot the man playing it far below me. There is one dog barking. One car honking. I smell a brush fire. It is so close. I experience everything, the entire city, in a moment.
-The group sees me writing this. It’s what I’m known for. They think it’s hilarious, but they’re very curious.
-I am told that no trip to Granada would be complete without going out.
-“Toca Toca.” My favorite song I heard in Spain, and the one that I associate most with the trip.
-As the only American in our entourage, I need to prove something. I will drink and dance more than all of them combined.
-We took a cab to the club [which I have never done before]. There was more than one room in the place, but our group stayed in the reggaeton section all night. To me this type of music just sounds like the same song over and over again, but I sure did dance anyway [until seven in the morning].
Málaga: idyllic Mediterranean city, tourist magnet, my last stop
-[I have a day to spend on my own in Málaga before my return flight]
-On the bus from Lucena, I cross the mountains to the south. After exiting a mountain pass, the clouds immediately disappear and I know I am near the sea.
-The streets are sunny, breezy, and wide. I feel free and empowered.
-Palm trees remind me where I am.
-Málaga is touristy [I overhear more English and German in one day than in the rest of my entire trip].
-The roads are littered with the leftovers of Carnaval.
-The Málaga Cathedral is very large, with a picturesque bell tower. I walked around the building and witnessed some frustrated nuns complaining about construction. A man was telling a beggar "if you worked..." She was holding a picture of her children.
-Very impressive interior. Renaissance? Baroque? The altar is impressive and open. Inspiring columns and high vaults. Effect slightly diminished by weird nets attached to the ceiling, one of which held a dead bird.
-Roman theatre was closed because it was Monday, but that was better because I could take unobstructed photos.
-La Alcazaba [the fortified palace] is interesting, but it felt more like a walled park, not a whole lot of content inside. Wonderful views of the city, the ocean, and the countryside. The Alcazaba as it stands today helps the imagination, but compared to Alhambra it's a little silly/fake. It’s almost completely reconstructed. Very few original stones… Some of it is off-limits to the public, which is tantalizing. There’s a small ceramics exhibit in the palace [which probably no one finds interesting but me].
-The Alcazaba was originally connected to the Castillo de Gibralfaro [the castle above it] via a fortified corridor. Unfortunately you can’t walk up that way.
-Hiking up to Gibralfaro… it was hot!
-I love it when museums are called interpretation centers.
-I wish there were more buildings inside the castle grounds, it’s a little sparse. Again a little park-like. There is, however, a forty-meter deep cistern. It’s an endless abyss!
-The walls are the main attraction. The views are astounding. I see the whole city, an industrial port, a ring of mountains, two wisps of clouds, a single freighter anchored in the distance, a divide between shallow water and dark water.
-Scholars think the Gibralfaro hill was originally the sight of a lighthouse in the original Phoenician settlement. I look down: the Roman theatre, the Moorish fortifications, the modern arena—descendent of the Roman coliseum.
-I’m ending my trip in Andalucía on top of the world, on the edge of the world. The only things above me are three flags. The only things in front of me are ocean and more ocean. If I didn’t know Africa was somewhere in the distance, I would think myself at the end of the earth. How can humans fathom such enormous distance? How could ancient man conceive of it?
-As the sun dips in the afternoon, the ocean to the west is not so much blue as silver, or gold, or just a flat sheet of pure light.
-How could humans comprehend something so flat, so vast. It’s inhuman and unnatural.
-I grab my last glass of Cruzcampo from a stand outside the castle, and after a fifteen-minute walk I’m at the beach.
-Walking along the pier and smelling the ocean brought me back to Florida Sea Base and fourteen-year-old Boy Scout me. I want to experience more ocean!
-At the beach I take a few photos. I look out. I touch the water. I pause. Then I turn around and head for the airport.
-After ten days in Spain, I have a much deeper appreciation for my command of French. I understand and can communicate almost anything.
-Spanish is a good language for rap, it’s rhythmic.
-When Spanish people laugh they say jajaja.
-For a while it’s interesting to listen to conversations in Spanish and work to piece it together through cognates and body language and tone, but after a while it gets old. It’s fatiguing, then isolating. You have the desire to truly communicate with someone.
-In Andalucía you don’t use the theta and often you don’t pronounce the final consonant. Thus what’s pronounced muchas grathias in the north sounds like mucha grasia in the south.
-Things I learned: caña, copa, tapas, el twerking, mezquita, virgen, entender, comer, cocinera, naranja, naranjo, aceituna, oliva, olivar, brasero, pan, yo también, polla, coche, campo.
-Spanish people get lost all of the time. As time went on, I realized that they actually just leave without knowing how to get where they want to go, and then they rely on asking for directions along the way. [This was kind of frustrating as an outsider, but in retrospect I can see that it’s flexible and communal]
-The sidewalks of Andalucía, like France, are plagued with dog poop. Except in Andalucía the poop was smaller [smaller dogs?].
-Young people often send each other voice messages instead of texting or calling.
-Spanish people stir things for a long time [like when putting sugar in coffee]
-In Andalucía many houses are decorated with Catholic iconography.
-Cat-calling seemed more common.
-60% of Spanish guys my age look the exact same: dark-curly-unkempt hair, kind of skinny and kind of short, hipster beards.
-It takes forever to leave a gathering of people.
-It seems common for people to start eating before everyone gets their food.
-Nail salons are operated by Asians in Spain as well.
-I will still never, ever, use a bidet.
-Some stereotypes of Andalucía proved true in my experience: I saw how much emphasis is placed on family, I noticed connectedness of Andalucían society [my companions couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone they knew], and I was welcomed with overwhelming hospitality everywhere.
Grenoble has much in common with Annecy: they are both cities, they are both located in France, and they both contain people. Grenoble is a truly majestic city, nestled beneath the Vercors, Belledonne, and Chartreuse mountains. It is so nestled that the amalgam of concrete buildings stretches all the way up to the slopes of its geographic confines. If you, dear reader, ever have the chance to visit, you too might feel nestled—suffocated in a beautiful way.
If you are working as an English teaching assistant in Savoy, Grenoble will probably be the nearest real city. With the resources to sustain and entertain 600,000 people, you will frequent it in an attempt to satisfy your cosmopolitan inclinations. It is to this metropolis that you will voyage in search of important government offices, a movie theatre showing Interstellar in English, and a Mexican restaurant that you will have convinced yourself is the best in all of France (your desperation for margaritas having clouded your judgment).
Grenoble has the air of an old capital. Evidence of the city’s former political clout remains: expansive boulevards, elegant apartments, and—most notably—an immense prison-fort looming over the entire city from atop its hill. This last item, the Bastille (a note to the debutant: not the infamous Bastille of the French Revolution), has become a considerable attraction. Instead of serving as a bastion of punishment, it is now a citadel of tourism—a citadel whose import is readily apparent in the volume of Asian visitors it attracts. If someone from the Orient is on vacation in Europe, it means they have travelled a great distance and their destination is a worthy one. Millions, if not billions, of Asians visit the Bastille every year. They summit the fortress by way of the téléphérique: a system reminiscent of a ski lift, but with magical glass space globes. This is, of course, a destination that you do not want to spoil by physical exertion: from the Bastille you can see the glorious mountains, the winding river, the expansive city, the marvelous high-rises, and an enchanting haze of pollution that renders the whole landscape mysterious and ethereal—if a little obscured.
But dear reader, someone as cultured as you will not be contented so easily with the main attraction. Grenoble has so much more to offer: rapid public transportation, modern shopping centers, a myriad of ethnic food, and an abundance of bars and dance clubs in which you can completely redefine your previous notions of personal space. The Museum of Grenoble is like a miniature Louvre. The iron-lined balconies and mansard roofs near the Place Hubert Dubedout are reminiscent of Haussmann apartments in Paris. Notre-Dame de Grenoble is just like Notre Dame de Paris, in that they have the words Notre-Dame in their name. Why would you go anywhere else (for example Paris), if you could go to Grenoble?
As you probably know, dear reader, a city is so much more than its attractions. Grenoble is a rich tapestry woven of beautiful and diverse neighborhoods. Take, for example, Arlequin. It was here in 2010 that, after a robbery suspect was killed in a shoot-out with the police, massive riots erupted throughout the housing projects. In the following days gunmen fired upon police, SWAT teams sieged apartment complexes, and protestors burned dozens of cars. Such culture! On your visit to Grenoble, it is likely that a friend of a friend will invite you over for a raclette party at his hippy commune located in a condemned house in the middle of Arlequin. You will probably attend this event with your friend (a local) after you (not a local) assure her that the neighborhood is probably just fine. It is not, you will emphasize, one of the most dangerous in all of France. As if the universe seeks to prove your point, you will certainly not find a knife just lying on the ground as you approach the commune, and your perception of Grenoble will certainly not be thus undermined.
Overall Grenoble is splendidly existent, magnificently populated, and lavishly urban. You, dear reader, will almost certainly visit at some point. It might be that you don’t have many choices for real cities, but there’s no need for other choices when you have a metropolitan paradise like Grenoble.
Dear reader, it is to you, the curious and enlightened, that these exceedingly humble guides are addressed. Truly they are intended to be amicable, for in the wake of such novelties as the Internet and television this culture finds itself lacking in goodwill and classical sensibilities. Surely there is no better way to restore them than to become acquainted with France—that heart of classical beauty. France is a country rich in history, culture, and diversity. Therefore, it would behoove you to explore it a little, either in person or in contemplation.
Furthermore, dear reader, if you ever happen to find yourself working in the French Alps as an English teaching assistant, you shall find the following guides to be of especially great utility (and they may mirror your experiences). In such a circumstance, you will be working only twelve hours a week in a tiny city, and you will have both the time and the desire to organize some excursions; your only hindrance shall be your pocketbook. Without further ado, here is the first episode.
Annecy is the most beautiful city in France.
Actually, upon further reflection, Annecy is the most beautiful city on planet earth.
Actually this second claim could be considered modest: while science has yet to explore extrasolar planets and the potential civilizations thereupon, it seems probable that Annecy is a significant contender for the most beautiful city in the observable universe.
If you, dear reader, are in the region of Savoy someday, you will be humbled by the mere thought of your proximity to Annecy. As it is only a short train ride away from where you might reside, you will no doubt make multiple pilgrimages to adore this crown jewel of a city. Truly you will be a pilgrim, for there are no tourists in a settlement as glorious and hallowed as Annecy.
If you arrive by train and intend to make your way into the town center, you will be greeted shortly by Annecy’s picturesque canals, the first of many gifts this place will bestow on you. These waterways of the Thiou River, while few, form the vital arteries of this city of fifty thousand. The pristine alpine currents of the canals put to shame the matrices of lagoon and rubbish found in Stockholm, Amsterdam, or Venice.
These arteries are lined not with flesh but with benevolent walkways and delightful houses, whose walls of windows sometimes push right up to the water. It is common to see these paths and bridges filled with booths from which locals sell their foods and wares. There is one particular booth that traffics in Native American flute covers of such classics as, My Heart Will Go On. The vendor is generous enough to project this music, filling the air with a soundtrack perfectly suited to a French mountain town.
Follow the current upstream, and you will eventually arrive at the Lac d’Annecy. If the canals are the arteries of Annecy, the lake is its heart. What was one of the most polluted bodies of water in France fifty years ago is now crystal clear and exceptionally pure. The lake is hemmed in by Annecy on one side and a crown of mountains on the other. On a calm day, you can witness the breathtaking marriage of peak and heaven numinously mirrored on the surface of the water. Truthfully, the allure of Annecy does depend largely on the weather. There is, however, only one imaginable reason that the Fates could deliver anything but beautiful conditions to Annecy’s shores: jealousy.
Dear reader, there is no greater temporal pleasure than to stroll along the edge of the Lac d’Annecy. If you follow the path northward, you will encounter the Pont des Amours: the Lovers’ Bridge. It arches over the tree-bordered Canal du Vassé, simultaneously dramatic and humble. Here, like on all of Annecy’s waters, pairs of swans pass the time together. Of course, they are not the only ones! Any place called the Lovers’ Something is bound to attract lovers; it is not so much descriptive as prophetic. These couples are frequently seen gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands, and (even!) kissing. It is also common for lovers to take self-portraits with their portable telephones—framed by a flawless backdrop worthy of their everlasting commitment.
If you have the good fortune of making a pilgrimage to Annecy, you will encounter no shortage of attractions. After all, such a destination is certain to have many other pilgrims, each demanding as much entertainment as the last. Go visit the Château d’Annecy: the previous residence of Geneva’s nobility is filled with historical objects, as well as windows so clean that American girls are prone to collide into them with great force in their haste to take a picture of the view. Explore the Palais de l’Île: a really really old building whose purpose is difficult to understand but whose charm is not. Absorb one of the most transcendent sunsets of your entire life while resting in a field of perfect grass.
Dear reader! There is one last attraction that absolutely necessitates your attention. It could only be the last subject of this humble guide, for it dwarfs all other natural and cultural treasures found in Annecy. In the old quarter, past the clock tower, nestled on the first floor of a building from the seventeenth century, is a boulangerie. This bakery is unlike any other bakery anywhere, because it produces what can only be described as the apex of the culinary arts and the human experience of taste: the maxi pain au chocolat. Not only is this French pastry infinitely superior to its bumbling Anglophone cousin, the chocolate croissant, its dimensions are unparalleled in the history of mankind. The maxi pain au chocolat alone, dear reader, justifies any amount of effort required to visit this corner of our planet!
An apology is warranted here: perhaps it was imprudent to begin the series with this installment. It is likely that now every successive guide will pale in comparison to Annecy, the most beautiful city in the observable universe.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
A few weeks ago, I went on a day hike with some of the other Anglophone assistants. Our goal was to hike from the train station in the town of Saint-Pierre d’Albigny (295 meters) to the top of the Dent d’Arclusaz (2041 meters) and return before dark. Spoiler alert: we failed. I still consider the trip a success.
Our party consisted of the Brits (Dawn, Julia, and Rose) and the Yankees (Adam, Hannah, Neal, and myself). Our motley crew assembled at the train station in Chambéry in different stages of preparedness—from hangover to headlamp. Except for Dawn and me, the group didn’t have much out-of-doors experience.
We arrived to find Saint-Pierre shrouded in mist. As we walked up through the town, the gang became concerned: if visibility stayed so poor, would it be worth continuing? As we ascended the sun did the same, and the clouds melted away to reveal the landscape surrounding us. The Dent d’Arclusaz was directly in front of us, massive but distant. To our right, we saw the high peaks of the Belledonne range, already covered in snow. The party reacted with awe, followed by uncertainty. The space separating us from the peak was difficult to comprehend.
Still we pushed on past the outskirts of the town, finally reaching the trailhead. The first section was muddy and steep, which only cultivated more doubt. The word impossible bounced around. It seemed silly to me, however, to undermine our chances so early, so I encouraged everyone to keep hiking as if we were aiming for the summit. If our goal turned out to be unattainable, it wouldn’t be because of our own pessimism.
The forest was a consolation. Autumn was in its fullness, and the myriad of trees enclosed us in living color. When I think back on the fall of 2014, I will remember the fiery blanket spread over the mountains.
It’s a good thing that the woods were pleasing, because we didn’t see much else for the next several hours. The trail leveled out as it meandered up switchbacks, which made the hike easy but time-consuming. Not everyone in the group thought it was easy, however. This was Julia and Hannah’s first time ever hiking up a mountain, and a few of the others were running on inadequate sleep. Much of the challenge was mental. The trail was narrow and even though we were concealed in a forest, the steep drop directly beside us was enough to give some people vertigo. To be fair: the slender path, combined with the wet leaves and mud, gave us reason to be cautious.
As we hiked higher and higher, the party approached physical and mental breaking points. Hannah, as always, was endearingly vocal. She frequently asked for the elevation in an attempt to judge progress, but she really meant are we there yet? It was clear that we wouldn’t reach the top, but still we pushed on towards the tree line. Although the strugglers were periodically revived by little glimpses through the forest, it was clear that we couldn’t keep going much longer.
Just when surrender was palpable, we reached a clearing below the summit. The cliffs of the Dent d’Arclusaz, which had been concealed for the past several hours, suddenly shone right above us. Gasps, then cheers. We had a clear view north into the folding range of the Bauges. The group shouted in disbelief: it was difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that the cliffs that were once so far away now lay right before us. The gravity of the scene filled us all with a sense of immense accomplishment.
At our highest point we reached 1440 meters, but it was apparent that we couldn’t reach the top before dark. After a late lunch and an extended break, we started our descent. It wasn’t long, however, before we reached another opening in the woods. It was even more stunning than the last. The town and the valley opened up below us, and we could trace the Isère River for miles as it snaked towards the mountainous horizon. The earth and the sky were draped in wispy clouds, and the afternoon sun illuminated the entire landscape. This is literally the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, Hannah said. The sentiment echoed in our group, albeit with more profanity.
We didn’t reach the summit, but that day I witnessed something far more rewarding than the view that would have met us there: I saw other people discover the mountains. What other place offers such rich grandeur? What other place confronts man with such an abundance of challenge? Only the mountains can pummel you into submission one moment and overwhelm you with beauty the next. The fact that this beauty is well earned makes it all the more sublime. It invigorates and enriches the spirit. This is real wealth; this is living.
Over the last several years, traveling and living abroad have made me a sort of real life Yes Man; I try to accept every opportunity that presents itself. Special access to a cathedral spire? Sure. Spontaneous trip to Turin? Absolutely. Sharing a bottle of exorbitantly expensive wine? Please and thank you. So naturally, when my new friends Léo and Antonin invited me last minute to join them on their weekend traverse through the Chartreuse, I said yes.
The massif of the Chartreuse stretches between Chambéry and Grenoble, and—even though the peaks reach only modest altitudes when compared to the high Alps—it’s not a geological formation to be trifled with. This is real hiking, Léo warned me; we would span the entire range from north to south: about eighty kilometers of distance, five thousand meters of ascent, and five thousand meters of descent in three days. I, however, was thoroughly psyched, and the fact that these measurements were metric made them all the easier to ignore. The weather forecast was ominous as well, but I was not to be deterred.
On Friday, October tenth, I met up with Léo and Antonin at their house. We were joined by an Austrian named Bernhard, a friend of Antonin from his time studying in Calgary. I learned that we were also to rendezvous with a British girl named Emily somewhere in the mountains—as of Friday the location wasn’t very specific.
This ambiguity seemed characteristically French—as were many other aspects of our voyage. As we split the group gear and loaded up our packs, I couldn’t help but notice our food: paté, taboulé, cassoulet, saucisson, Nutella, and on our way out of Chambéry we purchased no less than six fresh baguettes. This was also a francophone journey in that it started far later than originally anticipated—after a lackadaisical lunch and some desultory preparation, we left at four in the afternoon.
I felt our departure from the city slowly; we went from downtown to the suburbs, then outer villages, then the countryside, until finally there was nothing but a lone trail in the forest. We followed the French grandes routes—primarily the GR 9. Much to my disappointment, I quickly distinguished myself as the weakest member of our party. I had the shortest legs, the heaviest pack, and I was the most out of shape. The difficult trail only widened this gap: I learned quickly that the switchback is a trend that never really caught on in the French trail system. Instead of zigzagging up the mountain, the path went straight up at a relentlessly steep incline. Even worse, the trails were nothing but mud as a result of the recent rain. With every step, the ground absorbed my energy. Any momentum gained after a short break was quickly sapped away by the fluid earth.
If the first day of the hike discouraged me with its challenges, it consoled me with its views. We walked through the picturesque meadows of the countryside, passing furry cows as they grazed. When I periodically looked behind me, I could see all of Chambéry, nestled in the valley. As we pressed on we caught larger and larger glimpses of the dramatic northern face of Mont Granier. We ascended into the clouds, feeling their cool moisture envelope us. Then we climbed above the mist as the sun was setting: we found ourselves in a numinous plane, punctuated by mountaintops.
The most impressive panorama, however, waited for us at the Pointe de la Gorgeat. At 1486 meters it was the highest elevation we achieved on the first day. Although the sun had set, the valleys we straddled were still illuminated in the glow of twilight—it was just barely too dark for pictures. Behind us, we looked down at the lights emanating from Chambéry and the surrounding towns; the giant Lac du Bourget was a dark void surrounded by glimmering settlements. In front of us, the entire Chartreuse massif presented itself in an otherworldly scene. Only the outlines of the mountains were defined; their dark masses jutted out from the earth like broken, contorted teeth. The clouds hung in the sky as dark smoke, and the scattered lights of small villages in the distance burned like the last dying embers of some epic cataclysm.
After absorbing it all in amazement, our party began a whirlwind descent. The conglomeration of mud and leaves that was so tiresome on the way up proved to be sympathetic in descent. With each lunging step, the ground cushioned the impact; we could safely rocket down the slope without destroying our joints. An hour or so later, we arrived at the outskirts of a village and stopped. In the darkness we set up camp, ate, stretched, and discussed the imminent storm.
At six in the morning there was a break in the rain. All four of us awoke simultaneously, and when we transitioned out of a sleepy daze and realized our fortune, we moved. As quickly as possible, we took down the tents and loaded our packs. We went down into the village to make breakfast (if you can really make soggy baguettes and jam, that is), finding shelter under someone’s deck. After a slight scare about our dwindling water supply, an early riser in the village pointed us toward a public restroom where we could refill our bottles.
Before the sun had risen, we were back on the trail. For a while, the hiking was relaxed as we moved forward in the valley. Eventually though, it was time to get up on the ridge. I was confused as we approached a small cirque. Eventually I realized that we were to follow a solitary forested corridor up the cliffs. An ominous sign read: Col de l’Alpette .9 km; 1 hr. It doesn’t usually take an hour to walk one kilometer…
More mud, more ascent, no switchbacks. As we pressed up the slope, no one had the breath to talk. The only sound came from the cowbells below us in the valley. The multitude of bells reverberated and echoed into one, continuous drone. It was both charming and eerie.
As we neared the top, the sun peaked over the ridge right above us. The sudden burst of light created intense shadows, and the energy of the sight gave me motivation to keep going. Once we reached the crest, we stopped for a moment to enjoy some chocolate and our sense of accomplishment.
The next section of the trail was sublime. We continued underneath the backside of Mont Granier into a brilliant meadow, which was covered by the lushest grass I have ever seen. The blanket of green was wet from the night before, and it glistened in the directional sunlight. We weaved in and out of rocky glades and diffuse evergreens. Bernie proved to be quite the forager: he found wild blueberries, blackberries, and cherries. I have never met an Austrian before, but somehow this seemed to be fitting.
Around this time, Antonin’s knee started giving him significant pain. Apparently the morning’s ascent had revived an old injury, and as we moved Antonin struggled to keep up with his limp. As much as I could sympathize with Antonin (I’ve had intermittent pain in my left knee since my hike in the Pyrenees two years ago), I was also relieved to no longer be the slowest. While Léo and Bernie eagerly progressed, Antonin and I stuck together and followed at a slower pace—a trend that continued for the rest of the trip.
After the meadow, we transitioned into the high plateau of the Chartreuse. At the risk of sounding less-than-literary, the whole landscape truly felt like something out of Lord of the Rings. We were on a great journey through misty clouds, ancient forests, and dramatic mountains. Within the course of the day we passed through a dozen distinct environments; the diversity gave the impression of elapsed time—as if we had been traveling for months.
The Chartreuse is powerful. Even in the daylight, my impression from the night before at the Pointe de la Gorgeat lingered: you can’t escape the sense of being immersed in a brutal geology, something both mythical and violent. The mountains are giant shards, and you can almost feel the pressure that formed them. In some places, it’s as if you are walking amid the collapsed ruins of a giant stone table. In others, you can see the enormous folds of rock that were formed when some ancient colossus kneaded the peaks in his hands.
After some more ascending and descending, we stopped for lunch. It was a hardy backpacker’s lunch—comprised primarily of different forms of fat (and a little bread). I shamelessly sucked on a heaping sporkful of Nutella for dessert. It amazes me that, when I'm backpacking, I can feel my energy being restored after a meal.
We followed the GR 9 into a thick forest. It wasn’t long after we left that I slipped in the mud and bent one of my trekking poles. I wasn’t too happy, and my mood sunk further once we entered the woods: the trail became a disgusting trench. Whereas at other points on our journey we could just walk beside the trail when it was particularly muddy, in the forest it was flanked by the most combative of thistles—there was no choice but to trudge through the deep, watery muck. I could also surmise from several of my senses that the mud was in no small part composed of cow feces (local herders also use the GR system to graze cattle). Mud, mud, mud—it was the constant of our voyage. Memorial of mud; millennia of mire.
After the forest we worked our way toward the Col de Bellefond, a pass situated in a beautiful crown of mountains. The approach was littered with boulders of all sizes, and once again we felt ourselves in a fantasy as we weaved in and out of the rocks and trees, passing a pack of chamois. When we arrived at the top, we were shrouded by clouds. Although the weather had been far more agreeable than we expected—it was supposed to rain on us all day—it was a little disappointing to not be able to devour more spectacular views. In another way, I suppose, the clouds did make the occasional glimpse all the more titillating.
Again we rocketed down the mountain. Antonin was able to get cell service, and he contacted Emily. We would meet up her and her friend first thing in the morning. As the sun began to set, the trail seemed never-ending. We had been hiking for almost twelve hours straight, and we just wanted to be done for the day. After becoming tired, then becoming numb to the stress, our muscles were reaching a third wave of fatigue. Léo and Bernie kept pushing on, hoping to find a campsite before dark. Antonin and I lagged behind, out of sight and out of earshot. We were both in pain now, as my ankle had started to hurt with every step. I don’t know exactly how long that final leg of the day lasted, but it felt interminable. Finally, well after dark, we stumbled upon the other half of our party. In an exhausted hurry we ate and then collapsed.
Although Antonin and Bernie woke up at six, Léo and I slept in for another forty minutes. I use the word sleep liberally, for most of the previous night had been an attempt to find some modicum of comfort with a giant rock in the middle of my back and while sliding down to one side of the tent. The briskness of the morning and the beautifully blushing sky, however, quickly invigorated me.
Shortly after we hit the trail, we ran into a section of very steep rock. We descended slowly using all limbs, but the rock was polished from the friction of thousands of other hikers. At one point I slipped, and the only thing that stopped me from a ten foot fall was landing on top of Antonin, who was down climbing directly below me. Scrambling with a pack on isn’t very fun.
After the rocky section, we rounded a corner and caught our first glimpse of Grenoble in the distance. Even further beyond that—about 70 km away to be precise—Mont Aiguille poked up above its neighboring peaks. We continued on for a bit until we were above another pass, the Col du Coq. Léo spotted Emily waiting below us, and he started sprinting down the switchbacks (apparently they do exist, just where you don’t need them). When I reached the bottom, Emily, topped with blonde dreadlocks, greeted me with a full hug. To my utter surprise, I looked over and saw that Emily’s friend was none other than Dawn—a British teaching assistant who I had just met at our training a week before! Once the six of us had all been introduced or reunited, our formidable multi-national coalition set off for Grenoble.
I want to brush it off as mere coincidence, but soon after the women joined our group we started having navigational issues. We took the wrong trail, doubled back, and then decided to take a shortcut. This shortcut somehow led us to a peak, the Bec Charvet. To get there we climbed off the trail up a blank, steep face of loose rock. Then we continued up yet another steep path of mud, on which everyone slipped at least once. Even though the original goal of making our trip shorter was a failure, the view was astounding. From there we swooped down yet again and then followed a gravel road for quite some time. It had a gentle negative slope, which left us all with enough breath to socialize—a welcome change.
For the next leg of the trip we would follow a ridge for several kilometers up until the Fort du Saint-Eynard. The effort it took to get up on the ridge was worth it; for a couple of hours we commanded a view of the winding Isère and the outskirts of Grenoble in the Grésivaudan below. A breathtaking view awaited us at the fort. We peered over at the Vercours and Belledonne ranges, and we looked down at Grenoble and the Bastille (which, in turn, overlooks Grenoble). It felt simultaneously as if we had already arrived and as if we still had a long way to go. The latter was more accurate.
As the group made our last big plunge, we realized that we were all out of water. I was surprised by how quickly thirst gripped us all. No one spoke on the way down, almost as if to safeguard the moisture in our saliva from evaporating. As we descended lower and lower, I could also feel the temperature rising; I had become accustomed to the chill of the mountains. At the Col de Vence we stumbled upon a spigot, and we guzzled down as much water as we could fit in our stomachs. There was only one stretch remaining before we arrived at the Bastille, but just like the day before it seemed unending as we drew nearer to the close of our journey. Trees encased the trail; the only thing to focus on was my feet. After a sign identifying the Bastille as one kilometer away, I began counting my paces to distract myself (it took 823). At long last, we arrived just as the sun was about to set.
I had imagined myself coming up to the Bastille from Grenoble at some point as a tourist; I would have never guessed that I would descend upon it as a stepping stone at the end of a greater adventure. Sitting there on top of the Bastille, yet again I was struck with the same powerful scene from the Point de la Gorgeat. This time, however, it was just light enough to record. Although I hesitate to share such a poor approximation of the real experience, maybe it can impart something to my words.
Léo led us down a secret path below the Bastille that he discovered when he lived in the area (which was, this time, an actual shortcut). After just over fifty hours from our departure, we stepped off the trail and onto the city streets of Grenoble, elated and exhausted. Before we ate and caught the last train, Antonin snuck off to the nearest grocery store and bought a bottle of green Chartreuse, which is produced in and named after the massif we had just successfully crossed. Sitting in the company of friends, enjoying the complexity of an herbal liqueur, and feeling the heat of fifty percent alcohol—I can think of no better way to have celebrated traversing the Chartreuse.
In March I hiked back up to the Pointe de la Gorgeat in daytime, as I promised myself I would in October. Instead of snow, imagine it ablaze in the dying sunlight.
I am in France! For the last three weeks I’ve been occupied with getting acclimated to my new city and preparing for my work as an English teaching assistant. I had forgotten how much I love this country and language. I had forgotten that everyone looks beautiful, I had forgotten that everyone smokes, and I had forgotten that every single toilet is different.
Unfortunately, I had also forgotten about the bureaucracy. France has a cultivated and rich tradition of administrative entanglement. The paperwork is simultaneously nightmarish and impressive. Over the past few weeks I’ve had to accomplish a series of tasks: find a temporary place to stay, get a cell phone, find a permanent place to stay, open a bank account, register with my school, get a bus pass, and finalize my working visa with the French government (to name a few). To complete these tasks I’ve had to furnish a multitude of proofs, circumnavigate catch-22s, schedule and reschedule meetings, message and call, message again and call again, seek the help of others, exaggerate my helplessness, and smile.
Finding housing has proven to be the greatest challenge. Teaching assistants are required to organize their own housing, and there are many different options. There was a possibility that I could live at my school (they have housing for students as well), but I didn’t receive a response from the school before I departed—so I arrived in Chambéry relatively unprepared. The first night I stayed in the cheapest hotel that I could find (still expensive), just to give me a little bit of flexibility. The next day a girl named Perrine accepted my Couchsurfing request, so I hauled all of my luggage over to her place—I’ll describe my experience there later on. I only planned to stay for the weekend, but once I told Perrine and her roommates about my situation they welcomed me to stay until I found a permanent place.
Once I set up camp in their living room, I started wholeheartedly searching for an apartment. I continued searching for two weeks. As it turns out, there is a shortage of real estate in Chambéry. Even the most undesirable of accommodations will fetch at least three hundred euros a month. Something approximating nice will cost around five hundred. I wanted to share an apartment or house with French people. It’s cheaper, I could practice my French, and I could make some easy friends. For two weeks I scoured close to a dozen different sources: websites, agencies, university postings, and friends of friends. After incessant calls and messages, I received dismally few responses. Again and again, promising opportunities fell through. I became discouraged.
This period of instability would have been even more distressing if it weren’t for my hosts. Perrine lives in a colocation with four other young people: Amel, Antonin, Jean, and Léo (colocation doesn’t have a great English translation, so I’ve chosen to use the French word—or its abbreviation—throughout: it is a name for a living situation with multiple roommates, flat mates, or housemates. It commonly connotes conviviality and community). In one of the most vulnerable periods in my life, I have experienced profound hospitality. From the moment I arrived they not only put a roof over my head, but they invited me in on their meals, conversations, and plans. Antonin and Léo took me hiking (although we got rained out). Amel introduced me to all of her friends and brought me to her English class. Jean included me in all of his game nights and movie nights. Perrine took me climbing. In particular, Amel was immensely helpful in assisting me with my paperwork and housing search, and she was a constant source of encouragement. I also just returned from a three-day backpacking trip with Antonin and Léo through the Chartreuse mountain range—although I’ll save that for another post.
The coloc quickly became more than just the place where I slept—it is now where my closest friends in Chambéry live. Although installing myself in this city has been a slow process in other regards, I am tremendously fortunate to have established the roots of friendship so rapidly. I have no doubt that they will remain close for the duration of my stay in Chambéry—and long after.
Eventually my housing search started to yield results. I secured a visit to an apartment about ten minutes from the center of the city. It is a coloc with two other guys: one Asian student and a French man who I suspect is around thirty or thirty-five. I met them both, along with the landlord, during my visit. I saw the room being offered and the amenities of the apartment. My impression: it seemed to have neither spectacular advantages nor significant drawbacks. It was attractive because it existed and because it was available—which is more than I could say about any other option I had pursued. I told the landlord that I was interested and that I would decide within the next couple of days. In the meantime, I was still waiting for responses and seeking other leads.
Several days later, there were no new options. After three weeks in limbo, with my job about to start, I decided that it was time to make a decision and get settled. Exactly one week ago I accepted the offer, signed the papers, and moved in. The relief that comes from transitioning out of virtual homelessness in a foreign country is difficult to qualify; for the first time in the better part of a month, I was able to unpack my suitcases. I could organize my belongings. I had privacy. I felt secure.
Over the past week I’ve made this apartment my home. It is quite nice! So are my new flat mates, Xiao and Cédric. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the coloc had Wi-Fi: I was told it didn’t. There haven’t been any nasty surprises yet, and the bathroom is pretty normal (you never know in France). As I explore the neighborhood, I’m also realizing how practical the location is. The bus stop is right in front of my door, there are multiple grocery stores nearby, my favorite restaurant is only a couple minutes away, and the old coloc is right up the hill.
I am getting established with my job. A couple of weeks ago, all of the foreign language assistants in the area of Grenoble (about two-hundred and forty) congregated for two days of training. We met our colleagues, we were guided through the impending administrative obligations, and we attended workshops on pedagogical strategies for assistants.
Last week I started at Lycée Louis Armand as the English teaching assistant for the entire school (there is also one Spanish assistant and one Italian assistant). The English faculty has been welcoming, and the students have been surprisingly agreeable. Although French classrooms are known for being a bit more rowdy, my students have been engaged and interested—for now, at least, I’m novel. I am enjoying my work, and I feel confident in my ability to do it well.
After three weeks of uncertainty, I am finding equilibrium. I have a home, I have friends, and I am fulfilling the purpose for which I am here. It is no longer the beginning.
It’s not until now, with my spirit hovering over the waters of the Atlantic, that my new reality starts to register. I’m not just leaving—I’m arriving. For the next seven months I’ll be working as an English teaching assistant in the city of Chambéry—cradled in the Alps. I’m going back to France. Back to another world, both alien and familiar. A different language, a different paradigm, a different life. A return to the daily adventure, sustained novelty, and real baguettes.
I am at a new threshold, fresh from collegiate exodus. It’s a time of great opportunity—and thus great consequence. I feel pressured knowing that the coming months will be extremely formative. How will I sustain from afar relationships that are dear to me? How will I manage my increased independence? How will I make time count?
This next phase in my life will be a sort of genesis: exploring, teaching, traveling, writing, and living well. I need to discover and define who I am in a world outside of academia. If I were anywhere else, I would still be exploring this new identity, but moving to France compounds the searching. By exploring environments, cultures, and relationships around me I hope to get a better sense of the world and my place in it.
As the flight attendants roll out our food—or rather, the symbol of food—I can finally feel I’m in the beginning again.