The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Beech Mountain Won't Seem Quite The Same

Here in Lyon, everyone skis. Wouldn't you? I imagine Denver is much the same. Every day during the season--and the season can last into May and even June here--charter buses pull out of Place Bellecour at 0-dark-thirty in the morning and fan out to the ski resorts that are within two hours' drive. Through a tour company called Skimania, you can get round-trip bus transport plus lift ticket plus a box breakfast for under 40 eurobucks...and hell, you can't even drive to a resort for under EUR40 in gas and tolls, so that's a deal right there.

[You might want to click on these photos to enlarge them...kinda hard to see much except a big white blur otherwise.]

So I booked myself a trip to Alpe d'Huez [photo: rebel base on ice planet Hoth], picking that one mostly at random but also because Alpe d'Huez is the (in)famous finish of a mountain stage of the Tour de France. I schlepped myself down in front of the Poste early in the morning, found the Alpe d'Huez bus among the others, settled into a seat and passed out. When I awoke, the bus was creeping up the 21 switchbacks on the vertiginous road leading from the Isere valley up to the ski station--each hairpin turn bears the name of a previous TdF stage winner, and here and there are monuments to riders who died in the effort. [photo: heavy traffic on the Le Couloir run]

Turns out that Alpe d'Huez is a big resort, not so much in terms of a large town, but in terms of the sheer size of the skiable terrain. The vertical drop is over three times of any resort in the Southeast, and significantly greater than even the big Western resorts; there's one run that is ten miles long. [photo: looking down from the lift station halfway up the mountain]

A lot of that's over my head, though, so I stuck to the intermediate runs. Even those were quite long at times, and when I got to the bottom of the hill I'd be completely gassed, my legs jackhammering from riding out the moguls, and I'd have to catch my breath over a pint on a sunny terrace. All in all a good day skiing, though I did find out where the limits of my ability were on some of the steeper red slopes. The best part was that at day's end I could just collapse into a bus seat and zone out, sorta-watching Meet the Fockers in French on the bus' overhead video system. [photo: looking back up the hill. That peak in the background's the top, but I didn't go up way down without miles of black runs]

I looked for some sort of braoder statement or conclusion to draw here about French life, but I couldn't come up with one. Skiing is fun. France has good mountains. I took some pictures. Fin.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Junk Shop Report

Occasionally when I have a few hours to kill on a Saturday afternoon (because these places are closed for lunch, when it would be much more convenient for me to visit) I like to drop by La Boite D'Occases or Troc d'Isle, two local junk-shop/thrift-store/used-furniture places, and see what is the most interesting thing I can pick up for under 5 euros. I often end up with used paperbacks to add to my bedside-table stack of French Books To Eventually Read, but sometimes I come away with something actually odd or interesting, or that requires interrogating the harried store staff just to figure out what it is or what it does.

Here are two examples.

The first object at hand is a graduated cylinder inside a fitted woven protective basket with a leather carrying strap and toggled lid. Embroidered clumsily on the side of the basket lid is the word "Preste".

Something about the graduated cylinder made me think "urine sample". Preste means, roughly, "nimble" or "agile"... so, something that lets you nimbly transport your pee sample to the medecin while it's still warm? Wouldn't you want, y'know, a lid, to prevent inadvertent golden showers while skipping down the cobblestone street?

The first employee I collared had no idea what it was, either, but he at least had the good graces not to call security when I came running up shouting "Excuse me, this is for to put in your pee-pee?" He flagged down a manager.

"Ah, c'est une verre curiste," the manager said, and here my French failed me yet again.
A curiste glass?
"It is for ze taking of ze waters. The eau minerale. To help ze maladies."

See, in France there is a long tradition of people going to spas usually centered around minteal springs, to take the waters. Various springs were reputed to be especially good for various ailments: if you have digestive problems, you go to Vichy; if you have rheumatism, you go to Dax, etc. Most of these old spa towns are still plugging away, though they have fallen on hard times, their grand 19th-century pavilions fallen into disrepair. But people still come; incredibly, the French national healthcare system will still pay for "taking the waters" if you can get your doctor to write a scrip for it. Evidence-based medicine, shmevidence-based medicine.

This particular place, La Preste Les Bains, still exists down in the Pyrenees by the Spanish border (link en francais), and you can still go there to ease your kidney stones, treat your fibromyalgia, and re-educate your sphincter (Don't ask. And definitely don't Google.).

"I took ze waters once, at Aix-Les-Bains," said the manager.
"And how was it?"
"Beurk. Terrible. Tasted like warm pee-pee."

See? I was right all along!

Bonus Junk Shop Score:
You may be more familiar with this item, particularly if you frequent high-end restaurants that have sommeliers. Properly called a tastevin, this little silver cup is frequently worn around a sommelier's neck on a silver chain or ribbon, more as a ceremonial badge of office than as a functional item of wine-tasting gear.

But it's actually a well-thought-out piece of kit: the broad, shallow cup and bumpy surface allow for the fastest possible oxidation of wine poured into it, so the bottle captain has some idea of what the wine will taste like after it's breathed for a bit. The striated surfaces opposite the handle permit observation of a wine's "legs" or body; also, all of the concave surfaces serve to reflect as much light as possible--ideal for judging the color and clarity of a wine while in a dim candlelit cellar.

OK, but what am I going to do with it? Well, once I get that wine cellar built...

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Duct Tape Fixes Everything

...even cathedrals.

[photo: inside Cathedrale de Lausanne, Switzerland, where can also be found the most friggin' metal tomb I've ever seen, photo. The clock face behind the crossed femurs and pissed-off-looking skull is an especially nice touch. Rock on, random 14th-century bishop dude!]