On French & South African Whine: An Observation from Val Thorens

Val Thorens
Val Thorens

A few weeks ago, I was privileged enough to go skiing in France. The resort our friends recommended was Val Thorens, part of the Three Valleys (made up of Val Thorens, Meribel and Courcheval) in the French Alps. The nearest airport is Geneva which is approximately two and a half hours’ drive from Val Thorens. When I met my friends in Geneva, they had heard news at Charles de Gaulle airport that the road to Val Thorens was closed because an enormous boulder had fallen onto it the previous evening.

"Concerted Mobilisation to Get Road Back into Use"
“Concerted Mobilisation to Get Road Back into Use”

Soon enough, this rumour was confirmed by, Thierry, our taxi driver. He had been delayed getting to Geneva because of the road closure and as we drove, he listened to radio up-dates about the situation. Since 6am that morning, a tiny alternative route was being used. This road was so narrow it only allowed for one-way traffic and, as such, the local authorities had chosen to allow traffic down the mountain. It was a Saturday and the second last day of school holidays for the Paris school zone so it made sense to try to allow the people whose sojourns were ending that day, to exit the village.

At one stage we heard that vehicles would be allowed up the mountain at 2pm. But 2pm came and went and that wasn’t the case. By then we’d been in our mini-van for about four hours, driven alongside the magnificent Lake Annecy.

Passing Lake Annecy
Passing Lake Annecy

We’d managed to avoid a fair amount of bottle necks, thanks to our taxi drivers’ knowledge of back routes. We finally came to a halt in the village of Moutiers – at the foot of the closed road – and drank beer and espresso inside the local Carrefour’s cafe, where men still in ski gear, sat. They had made it down the mountain via the one-way road, but I overhead them saying that some had chosen to walk the last six kilometres as it was the quickest way down at that stage. The latest official information was that the (two-way) road would re-open at 6pm.

At about 4pm, our taxi driver raced into Carrefour and hustled us back to his van. He’d heard a rumour that the road might be opening. Once again, this proved untrue and instead we read our books in the van, while Thierry chatted to fellow taxi drivers and locals peered out of their windows at the curious sight of stationery cars lining their streets. By this stage of the day, there were cars lined up in every direction, up and down every nearby road.

At around 4:30pm, the authorities made way for buses to begin lining up in front of the closed off road as there were to be allowed up first.  At exactly, 6:05pm, the road was opened to all traffic. Thanks to Thierry, we were well positioned towards the front of the queue.

We then began making our way up the mountain. Besides a crane and other machinery, there were no signs of any disruption.

About half way up the pass, a woman taxi driver from the region was being interviewed about the situation. Her emotions were running high and she went on and on about the local metro police, about how unreasonable she had found them and how she vehemently disagreed with the way things had been handled. Lots of anger, lots of superlatives and lots of repetition. I confess if the rant had been translated into English and given a South African accent, I would have felt completely at home – as though I was tuned in to Radio 702 and someone had called in to complain about our local metro cops policing a road closure. In short, it sounded exactly like a quintessential South African whine, but instead it was being delivered by a French taxi driver in the Alps.

I try not to seek solace for the troubles of my country by finding fault with other countries, but hearing this woman losing her marbles and lambasting the authorities, did make me smile, in spite of the latter. This takes absolutely nothing away from France – the world’s most visited country with 84 million tourists per annum. It has just given me another perspective on whining: I no longer regard it to be quite so unique to privileged South Africans.

IMG_4735

Thierry’s  response to the crisis is probably one of many reasons France has such a booming tourist industry. He fielded calls from clients and potential clients all day and was ultra professional throughout. He must have lost out on a fortune of revenue that day, but he never showed an ounce of frustration. He simply did what he could to make our experience as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances. He even went as far as to lend me Euros to buy lunch until we could get to a bank machine.

Despite the possibility that we may have been stranded in the village of Moutiers along with thousands of other tourists in the same boat, we were in our hotel having dinner by 8pm that night.

Sometimes, no matter its provenance, the glass really is half full…

The End of our French Adventure

The Husband’s sojourn in France ended on a high note.
Even though he doesn’t exactly have a mop of hair to manage, he can’t go more than a week without getting a haircut. Our two weeks in France were no exception. And so, on our second last day (miraculously, a non-cycling day), we took a walk into the village of Fayence in search of a “coiffeur hommes”. This coiffeur hommes was not manned by an 80-something year old Frenchman with a pair of shearers and a shaving bowl. Instead, we were greeted by an attractive 40-something Frenchwoman with some sort of modern hair-cutting machine that The Husband approved of. The hairdresser couldn’t have been friendlier and The Husband even tried to practise his French on her but the real clincher was when she paused, looked at him in the mirror and said, “You know, you look a bit like Bruce Willis.”
Well, The Husband was in seventh heaven. The hot French hairdresser had made his day.
Buoyed up by his new-found mean man looks, his confidence in practising his French that evening was up too. He decided to practise a sentence on the waiter at our favourite Fayence restaurant. We were thinking of ordering the crayfish risotto and wanted to know whether the crayfish was served in its shell. I wasn’t entirely sure how to say this in French so I translated it literally from the English: “is the crayfish still in its shell?” It didn’t sound entirely right but I was at a loss as to how to phrase it any other way and so I taught The Husband this literal sentence in French. He, very bravely posed our question to the waiter. But the waiter beautifully finished his sentence because, you see, in French there is a wonderful word which means “out of its shell”. “Decortique”. Isn’t that just so neat and beautiful? Sigh… French is such a beautiful language.
After our last dinner under the stars on the terrace of our villa, we retired for our last night in France, before waking up the next morning to a 24 hour journey back to SA. We had to check out of the rented house by 10 in the morning, even though our flight from Nice was only at 4pm. When I say “our” flight, I mean myself, The Princess and her nanny, Charity. The Husband had found out a few weeks ago that he had to fly straight to London for work. I was terrified and decided I had nothing to lose by asking the French granny at the check-in desk whether there was any chance Charity could be up-graded to business class? Pretty please, with a swish of creme fraiche on top? Of course, there was not a frigging chance of that and so The Princess and I were going to be all alone sans daddy and sans nanny on the long haul flight from Paris to Jozi. Oi.
We had a six hour layover in Paris where The Princess fell asleep once only on Charity’s shoulder, lulled into slumber by the soothing music in Sephora. She promptly woke up 20 minutes later and was as wired as anything for the rest of the night which is precisely what I had been afraid of. Our flight was only leaving at 23:20 and I figured by then she’d be hysterical if she hadn’t slept. I was praying I’d have no-one next to me in the two-seater configuration but it was not to be. The flight was jam packed. Luckily, the guy next to me was a father of two kids under the age of five and was the most chilled neighbour you could wish for. A Brazilian engineer living in Maputo and building a mine somewhere in Mozambique, he kept on telling me that everything I apologised for was “no problem, no problem” in his thick Portuguese accent. And when I think back to my tolerance for babies on planes, I should be ashamed of myself. A tiny peep out of any kid on an aircraft in my former life and I would’ve shot the “pathetic” parent the blackest look ever… How the tables turn.
Fortunately, The Princess reserved her two hysterical screaming fits to nappy changing time in the bathroom. The first time, the well-meaning stewardess who was holding her while I mixed her bottle, told me she thought she’d heard some butt thunder. There was nothing but pee but The Princess was still outraged at being dragged into that tiny bathroom and placed under those bright lights and boy did she let me know it.
The next morning, just before breakfast we really did have a Code Brown on board. Of course, it would be one of those Code Browns that had smudged all the way up The Princess’ back and soiled her vest, so we had to do a full clothes removal and re-application. NOT a happy princess.
That aside, though, she really behaved well. I was too terrified to “abandon” her in her little bassinet as I was certain that would produce screaming, so she simply slept in various positions on my chest all night and I think the two of us actually got a fair amount of sleep. She must’ve sensed her mommy was panicked and that she needed to behave.
When we finally got our bags and met our transfer company, the idiots hadn’t sent a safe baby seat for The Princess, so we were off on our next adventure: The Princess’ first train journey aboard the Gautrain. The Princess is strictly a one-poo-a-day girl but on very, very special occasions she has been known to poo twice a day. Today was one of those occasions. With ten minutes to spare until the departure of the Gautrain, we had our second Code Brown on board. It was too bad, though. There was no time for a nappy change. We had a train to catch. And so it was that The Princess, Charity and I, boarded the Gautrain with a monumental whiff wafting about us, for the final leg of our two week adventure.
Twenty minutes later, we were home AT LAST. And what fine weather we have come home to! Summer is upon us. The Princess and I celebrated by taking a stroll to Tasha’s in all our summer finery. Long may it last!

French Adventure Begins

Fortunately for The Princess and I, The Husband is now so “used to” flying business class for business, he is unable to downgrade to fly cattle for leisure. Even more fortunately, Air France allows The Princess to travel business class for the bargain price of R2,000 – the cost of a last minute ticket to Cape Town but instead, she can go all the way to Paris. She even gets her very own flat bed, although that is about all she gets as she can’t partake in the champers or the fois gras. The problem with babies and business class is that babies don’t know how lucky they are that they’re not in cattle and so they still cry just as loudly. The Husband confessed yesterday he was not very sympathetic to parents with screaming babies in a class reserved for stressed business people in need of their sleep. He used to think to himself, “why don’t those lazy parents just do something?” That was until we were “those lazy parents” on Thursday night. Suddenly, “just doing something” seemed impossible. What was that magic ingredient that would make The Princess stop screaming? It turns out, in her case, it was food. She broke all records by gulping back 200ml of formula at 7:30pm (and that was a top up as she’d been breastfed at 6pm). By around 10pm, in desperation we prepared another 100ml which she drank, in stages, between naps. Under the circumstances, I think she was virtually as good as gold after her meltdown from about 9 to 10:30pm.
At one stage, she was fast asleep on my stomach (she wasn’t as impressed with her flat bed/ bassinet as she ought to have been and preferred to sleep on Mommy) when another baby, somewhere in the plane, was howling. The woman behind us had clearly had enough because suddenly a loud “Jesus Christ!” could be heard throughout our section of the plane. No doubt The Princess’ earlier screaming had gotten to her. Obviously, we felt bad for all our fellow passengers but firstly, there is precious little you can do and secondly, we were just thrilled that when this woman’s temper finally flared, it wasn’t our baby who had been the cause.
Having survived the flight to Paris, we still had a long journey ahead of us:
       four hours in transit at Charles de Gaulle
       a one and a half hour flight to Nice
       a six hour drive to the Alps The Alps was slipped into the holiday itinerary by the ambitious Husband who wanted to take part in a gruelling cycle race on Sunday 21 August, before embarking on the six hour drive to our villa in Fayence.
Air France, however had other plans. When we landed in Nice, only The Husband’s bike and our nanny’s suitcase arrived too. Two suitcases plus The Princess’ stroller had been left behind in Paris. There had been some kind of mistake at Charles de Gaulle and they would only arrive in Nice late on Friday night. With much sadness and negotiating about future bike races, The Husband agreed to forgo his race in the Alps. We now had to find a hotel for one night, before our villa would be ready on Saturday. And so it was that we found ourselves at the Park Inn, with a beautiful view over Terminal 2 of the Nice airport as well as the railway tracks, for added aesthetic value.
On the bright side, we had escaped the cold of Joburg for the beautiful balmy weather of Nice. On the downside, The Husband and I had nothing but the sweaty, stinky, hot clothes on our backs and so could not even take advantage of the hotel’s pool. But we had survived our first international trip with The Princess ….

Vin de Sable on a Beach in the Camargue

After four days in Barcelona, The Sister, The Best Friend and I made our way by train to Montpellier, France.
 
Once we’d converted from train travel to car travel, our trip in the surrounding Camargue region quickly turned into European Vacation Three. What do you get when you cross three chicks, a 1.2 horsepower hire car, and no GPS? The answer: many trips around…
and around…
and around…
and around…
and around and around and around
French traffic circles.

In our defence, we were trying to find a beach bar whose address was listed as: “au bout du petit chemin” (at the end of the little road). This was literally all that was given as a physical address on the flyer we’d picked up in Montpellier. When we eventually found “the little road” and the bar “at the end” of it, admittedly the road had no name. Still, the name of the village would have been a nice clue. On the bright side, we got to see more of the Camargue and it's flamingos during our  traffic circle joyrides.

 
Our next stop was a wild, windswept, 9km long beach, known as “l’Espiguette”. Several wrong turns and a number of rounding roundabouts later, we discovered the beach. It was well worth the joyrides. It reminded us of Noordhoek beach in some ways, except it's much more expansive and possibly a little less wild. Here it is:
 
 
Despite the many signs stating that the beach and its surrounding ecosystem were protected, we were greeted almost immediately by a coffee-shop-cum-snack-shack only about 10m from the water's edge. I was thrilled since we’d been driving for hours and I was desperate for the loo. When I reached the “bar”, there were two people sitting at a table looking super chilled out. It was hard to tell if they were customers or if they were running the place, they looked so laidback but there was no-one else around so I assumed they were in charge and asked them where their toilets were. Unfortunately, this was met with an amused grin and the following response.

“Welcome to nature – where they are toilets everywhere: behind the dunes, in the sea, everywhere!”

Not exactly the answer I was looking for. But I was pretty desperate so I duly ran off to find a dune, or a tree, or something.

Or something.

The dunes were cordoned off by a little rope with nature conservation signs all over the place and there were honestly no trees. Desperate, I ran into the car park wondering if I could take a leak behind our car. No such luck either. Parked next to us were a pair of 60-something French hippies in their David Kramer-style volksie bus, tucking into their supper and grinning at me.

Sh**.

I decided to try the other side of the car park, hoping it’d be more deserted. Just as I was about to bare my backside behind a conservation hut, a car crawled past. I waited for it to leave but then seconds later, another car appeared from the other direction. And just after that, a surfer strolled back to his car and proceeded to tie up his board in pain-staking sl o o o o o o w motion.
 
By now I was beyond desperate and, illogically, started running across the car park like a mad-woman with my packet of tissues, hoping that the answer to my problem would somehow be revealed to me. Nothing. I couldn't believe it. The beach was 9km long, it was practically deserted but there were just enough cars dribbling across this massive parking lot to completely prevent me from taking a leak. It felt like a conspiracy!

After I developed a small stitch from tearing across the car park, I adopted the “who cares-no-one-knows-me-here” approach and squatted behind a parked car. I think the universe must’ve taken pity on me because, mercifully, I had just pulled up my pants when the next car came past.
Relief.
 
I arrived back at the beach to find The Sister and The Best Friend worried that I’d been abducted by the hippies. Not that worried, though. By this time they’d made friends with the snack shack peeps. Very hospitable peeps, at that. As I arrived, I was welcomed with open arms by the very man who sent me into the tree-less wilderness to wee. He introduced himself as Jean-Pierre. We later learned just why he was so very comfortable abluting in the wild – he actually lived inside the snack shack from May to September and had done so every year for the past seven years. Luckily, this was no ordinary snack shack – this was a French beach café and what would a French beach café be without some good old French wine? No sipping on Coca-colas while we watched the sun set in this natural sanctuary. Instead, we were able to enjoy the view while sampling the local vin de sable – literally translated as “sand wine” but figuratively translated as “yummy”.

Several carafes of vin de sable later, Jean-Pierre and his head-waitress were well on their way and at one point they were jamming to SA music from The Sister’s I-pod. Here they are in action:


Life's tough in the South of France.
 
By the time the sun set, it was after 9pm and we still had no accommodation booked for the night. We decided it was time to say goodbye to the crazy snack shack peeps and to go in search of shelter. Jean-Pierre offered us his “spare room” (the snack shack’s deck, to be precise) but we declined, tempting as it was to get up and brush our teeth in the Mediterranean the next morning…