Monday, February 24, 2014

La Pierre St. Martin

The schedule at the abattoir has changed, and instead of taking pigs to slaughter on Thursday and working Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to process them, the pink porcs now head out on Monday, and the red blood and white fat return on Tuesday morning along with the heads and innards for making pâté, with the half-carcasses hanging in the cold room to be cut up as needed over the following days. That means that Sundays, instead of being sausage-and-salami-making days, are days off at the butchery. I always had Sundays off (though I often used them for doing school or freelance work) but Florence always, and Frédéric and Jeanne and Éloi almost always, had to put at least a few hours in on Sundays, and since the on-site store is open all day Saturday (except for the two-hour lunch break, of course) that meant no opportunity for weekend trips, or even day trips. However, the last two Sundays we've all had time off, and have profited from it, and yesterday Florence and I drove up to the ski resort La Pierre St. Martin, along with Aurélie, her childhood friend now living in Paris, and Aurélie's boyfriend Matthieu.

The other three were planning to ski, as one does at a ski resort, but during my first and only time on downhill skis in Japan back in 1984 I tore the ACL in my right knee, and then completely shredded it during a game of tag with Morgan and Leah approximately 20 years later (correction: the game was "hot lava monster" per Morgan), so I'm a bit nervous about strapping long boards on my feet and getting all twisted and tangled. I considered doing some cross-country skiing though, or going for a walk on snowshoes, but the area for those activities is further down the slope, and I wanted to get a good view of the mountains. So while the other three stood in line for ski rentals and lift tickets, I set out to explore the area around the resort, which is mostly chalets and apartment/condo buildings and parking lots where people set up their motor homes for the two-week school vacation we were in the middle of that day. School breaks are staggered around the country, and right now it's the turn of the kids in Aquitaine and Paris, who are currently in their second week, and the non-Parisian northern half of France where the break started on Saturday. The rest of the south of France gets their two weeks starting March 3rd, and that's when I go back to school.

I got into a snowball fight with some kids playing in one of the chalet complexes, admired a snow cat someone had sculpted, watched the chair lift going overhead from the lowest slopes down by the cross-country area back up to the second-highest peak, and squinted my eyes to see the people skiing and snowboarding back down. There are about 25 kilometers of ski runs, and a vast area hors piste that people head out into even against the warnings of the orange signs and roped-off access points. However, I haven't heard of any avalanche problems recently in the Pyrénées, though there were a lot of them in the Alps not too long ago, leading to several deaths. The slopes lead down from the drop-off points at Soum Couy (above) and Arlas, criss-cross down into and past the resort, through a tunnel (if you choose that route), and end up at the Pas de l'Ours by the Nordic ski area. I had seen on the resort's website that there is a service where a person can sit in a sort of ski-chair and take to the slopes, steered by one of the expert skiers on staff, but it turned out that this was only for truly handicapped people, not just ones with wonky knees who wanted to feel the wind in their hair. I could have also signed up for a dogsled trip, but although I enjoyed the sled rides I took in Alaska, I didn't feel like spending a half an hour staring at dog butts.

Instead, I bought a 5-euro lift ticket to go up to the drop-off point at Arlas where I could take pictures and admire the view. I sent a quick text message to Florence to tell her I'd meet them at the top, and joined the queue.

I was the only person in the lift line, other than the lift operators, who didn't have skis or a snowboard, and as such was getting a few sideways looks; I think the pedestrian traffic for the ski lift is a lot higher in the summer. The lift operator slowed the télésiège down after I remarked that the seats were whipping around the bottom of the pole rather quickly (I'm kind of a wuss sometimes), helped me into the middle of my own private four-seater, and punched up the speed again, then radioed up to the drop-off point to tell them to expect a shoe-wearing lift rider in a few minutes.

It was a lovely ride up, and my shoes and I thought it was great fun. For all that I'm scared of heights (in certain circumstances) ski lifts don't bother me much, unless they're swinging from side to side, and in that case it's not the height, it's the stomach-churning back and forth that gets to me. I did have one moment when I thought, "Wow, that's a long way down; I wonder if I'd survive a fall?" but my next thought was "I am so content in this moment, on this sunny day, that I don't think that worries me too much." I don't know how many minutes it took to go up the 300 metres/1,000 feet to the drop-off below the top of the Pic d'Arlas (still another 500 feet up) but I enjoyed every one of them.

The Pic d'Anie is the highest point near the resort, but it's well short of the highest peak in the Pyrénées. At its southwest base it sticks its foot into Spain. The resort is very popular with Spanish tourists/locals, partly because it's so close and partly because the ski resorts in France are in part State-funded (or so I was told) and are cheaper by nearly half when compared to the lift ticket prices at the Spanish resorts. While I was waiting at the top of the slope for Florence and the others to arrive, a group of Spanish snowboarders asked me (in Spanish) to take their picture, and I did, all the while talking to them in French - why I didn't try English I don't know - but mutual comprehension was achieved, as well as the series of fifteen or so photos I took when I accidentally held down the camera button on their iPhone screen. I noticed that at least half the people getting off the lift were speaking in Spanish, the rest in French, and perhaps once there were people from Germany, though I'm not sure. No English spoken within earshot, although all the resort signs are in all four languages. I thought of my visit to Norway, and of my friend and former teacher Bea Rynning-Tønnesen, who spent much of her twenties traveling around to ski resorts in many countries, using her fluency in many languages, and wished she were there, though since her knees are wonky as well, she's not downhill skiing any more either.

The people continued to arrive and descend, peeling away to the right-hand blue-flagged medium-hard slope, or to the left and the red pole marking the difficult route. I was amazed to see so many young children - they looked to be as young as 6 years old, sometimes - confidently settling their goggles on their heads and their ski poles around their wrists before zipping off alone down the red side. An amazingly fit man came walking up the red slope while I was there (no wussy ski lift for him!) then strapped on a set of crampons and took ice picks out of his backpack and headed up to the top of the Pic d'Arlas. A cross-country skier glided off the lift and herringboned his way up the same slope a few minutes later, and I watched them crest the ridge and disappear over the top, shadowed by the chocards à bec jaune, the alpine/yellow-billed choughs that kept swooping by, or hanging still-winged in the breeze blowing up the cliff below.

I stayed up in the fresh air and hot sun and cold wind for a half an hour or so. The view was lovely, although a smoky haze started rising up from several spots down the valley. I learned later that it was from herders burning the pastures where the sheep and cows (and occasionally goats) graze during the summer, to get rid of the old growth and encourage the new green shoots. They wait until the snow line is past the trees so that they don't have to worry as much about starting a forest fire.

Florence and friends having arrived and departed, and pictures having been taken, I signaled the lift operator that I was ready to go back down, and hopped back up onto a swaying seat (which fortunately for the skiers below me, stopped swaying after a minute or two) to enjoy the ride back down. The towlines were busy taking the six-year-olds who hadn't had skis strapped to their feet shortly after birth to the top of the short bunny run, and the kid's sledding area was full of snowsuited toddlers, and parents trying to balance themselves on plate-sized plastic circles.

I thought about walking down to explore the cross-country ski area, but it had been a long time since breakfast, and I was hungry.

I don't know I can really claim to have been enjoying an après-ski moment since I didn't actually do any skiing avant, but the hour or so I spent on the terrace in the sunshine with a small carafe of local red wine and a salade Montagnarde (hold the croutons and sheep's-milk cheese, please) was quite agreeable. And Frédéric and his wife and their son arrived unexpectedly, and I happened to see them from my table, so they joined me for some conversation and coffee while Clément gnawed on the bread the waitress had left for me (because there is always, always bread in France) and we waited for Florence to finish a run down the track called the Boulevard des Pyrénées. I decided to beg a ride back to Agnos with them, and leave Florence and the others to continue skiing. There will, I hope, be other opportunities to play in the snow; Aurélie's mother had gone snowshoeing at another location, and had invited me to join her and her friend that morning, and Florence said that we might go with them another time to one of the other cross-country ski areas nearby. The snow, and the peaks of the Pyrénées!

La neige, eau éclatée, sable de gel, sel non pas de la terre, mais du ciel, sel non salé, au goût de silex, à la texture de gemme pilée, au parfum de froidure, pigment du blanc, seule couleur qui tombe des nuages. - from Le Sabotage amoureux (1993) by Amélie Nothomb, a writer of strange and entrancing fiction


  1. It was almost certainly "hot lava monster" and not "tag".

    1. Oh my gosh, you're right! Ha ha ha! I'd forgotten that - you guys were leaping around trying to stay out of the wood shavings that I slipped in.

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