Hey, it's les Alpes! But to get the full effect, you've got to say it the way my French-speaking buddy said it, lays Alpeez. It sounds so much more, well, Fronch that way. Yep, some thirteen years ago I packed up a change of clothes and made my way to the border between France and Italy, taking nearly every form of transportation conceived by man along the way -- bus, hovercraft, train (regular and bullet), and automobile (taxi and personal). It was the ultimate road trip: Eating pop tarts and noodles out of bags and fast food from roadside cafes, living in one big room with several people (a coworker and good buddy arranged the trip; he had several French friends, one of whom he married), and spending a week screaming at high speed down the sides of some really huge mountains -- skiing! Something the O-man had never done before! It seemed like a good idea when I agreed to it, and even when I got my first look at the mountain I was so absolutely gobsmacked by the sheer size, majesty, and other hifalutin', poetic feelings that I didn't get to wondering which screws were loose in my head until I was at the top of a chair lift, clipping skis on my boots. Immediately after I stood on them, I fell down. Didn't even move forward much, that I remember. Once I learned to move forward, I fell down even more quickly. After I'd moved forward a pitifully short distance and fallen a dozen times, I pulled myself up out of the snow in front of a sign that informed me I had only four kilometers to go until I reached the bottom. Oh, great, I thought, I get to fall flat on my face over four more kilometers. But it was way too late for second thoughts by then.
On our last day there, it snowed like I've seen snow only in Upper Michigan before, beachball-sized, wet, puffy flakes that quickly piled up in heaps of snow deep enough to swallow me up to my hips if I stepped off my skis. I fell -- no, dove off my skis on a fairly simple run and was entirely buried in the snow, almost couldn't lever myself out of it, and when I lost my balance on a lift and fell off the packed track, poof! Gone. We skiied for all it was worth, but we weren't powder hounds -- at least I wasn't. I'd just spent a whole week learning to ski on packed snow and ice, so it really wore me out! I'm wearning nothing but ski bibs and a t-shirt under the grenade jacket in the picture, and my memory tells me that I was sweating like a pig all day that day. But I look great in this rather composed moment, don't I? Well, don't I?
But in no sense did we have a bad time, or at least not that I remember. In the first place, I learned how to ski, after a fashion. In the second place, I got to meet Gerard, who couldn't speak much English but was a terriffic buddy to me, especially after I shared my whiskey with him (I offered him some ramen, but I don't think he was as interested in my cooking), and provided his car for us to get from the train station to the resort and back, without which things would have been difficult. And aside from a whole wonderful week of skiing, we got to spend a day in Briançon, the old French town where we caught our train. This is the kind of medieval time capsule I really froth and babble about but which seems to glaze most people's eyes, so if you're completely disinterested in centuries-old castles and such, you can probably skip to the next paragraph. There were actually two towns called Briançon, the new town with modern facilities, where the train stopped, and the old town up the hill, which appeared to have been some sort of fortification a couple hundred years ago. It was completely surrounded by walls and stone-and-mortar earthworks, commanded the valley below it (under the bridge in the upper right photo), and probably could've withstood just about any attack until armies learned to drop bombs on forts using mortars and such. Now the old town is, well, just an old town, full of rustic-looking buildings, which is to say I thought it was -- and I hate to drag this word out again and again, but here I go -- charming, exactly the kind of place I think of when I imagine places I'd like to visit in France or Italy or Spain. Amusement parks and well-photographed tourist sites don't do much for me. Walled outposts on the French frontier, where you can get a hotel room for a couple bucks and breakfast on tea and kwahsonnnnnnz in the morning, are what really light me up. After our last day skiing, we checked into a hotel for the night in Briançon and wandered around town through the next day, waiting for the temperature to climb to a point when we'd have diesel gasoline instead of jelly in the tank of Gerard's car.