Monday, December 26, 2011

French Christmas

Christmas in Provence was undoubtedly one of the biggest eye-openers during my stay in France. I had the honor to take part in really Provençal celebration held at home of one of Thierry's handicapped patient's parents and experience series of traditional customs.

First big contrast I noticed compared to Polish way of celebrating Christmas was the starting time and length of gros souper. While in Poland we used to start celebrating at 16-17 and feast for 1,5-2 hours, here the fête didn't start until 8.30 and lasted for over 6 hours.

The work Dani's mother did was more than impressive. The table adorned with wheat and lentil seeds sown in small dishes, rowan branches and candles, elaborate crèche with colorful figurines, little pictures painted on the windows and other embellishments were enough to make all my previous Christmas decoration-oriented memories fade.

All meals for the celebration were home-made, prepared in a special room that could as well serve as a place for cooking workshops, since it was so big. I especially liked the Provençal stone oven where some baguettes were being made while I investigated the place.

I have to admit, non-carnivores don't risk gluttony that night (but only at first glance). Apart from turkey that had the place of honor, being the typical Provençal dish, too many meat dishes were served to count them.

Only meet-free meal, apart from assorted cheese. A mix of mushrooms and leek.

I noticed that on the contrary to Polish Christmas dinner, the meals are not eaten all at the same time, but they are slowly served one by one. Each break before next meal arrives is filled with chatting, chaffing and shouting. The people didn't form small groups while talking, but discussed altogether, so you couldn't avoid speaking up to be understood by the person sitting at the other end of the table. Moreover, the unique feature characteristic of this family is that they're all from Provence and, to make it more interesting, all live in the vicinity of Lagnes. Many of them speak with Provençal accent, which explains their foghorn voices and flowery speech full of idioms. It's not a surprise that this delivery is often unintelligible to somebody who is not local - and in Provence, where people who came from other parts of France/other countries outnumber people who have lived here for generations, it's often the case.

Surprisingly, after this excessive dinner people still felt like savoring the sweet treats. If you're on a diet, look away now - it's a feast for gourmands. The famous thirteen desserts were displayed on a huge table, among them walnuts, almonds, dried figs, dates, apricots, prunes, black and white nougat, pompe à l'huile (cake made of fruited olive oil) and bûche de Noël (Christmas log). They were accompanied by fruits grown in Dani's parents' orchard (Dani's father beamed with pride when he told me almost all the fruits served this day grow on his land) and some non-French sugar-filled creations.

Kids need a lot of patience this day. The anticipated gift-giving ceremony doesn't start until midnight. At this time Papa Noël in disguise arrived with a wheelbarrow and did his duty. The kids were mesmerized to see him and eagerly stretched their hands to receive presents. Later on, the disguised man whisked away and came back in his regular clothes to display gifts between the other members of the large family.

It's been long since I celebrated Christmas like this. Being an atheist, it's more like a regular day for me, same as yesterday and tomorrow. Yet it was nice to take in the Christmas atmosphere, get to know local traditions and somehow, somehow recall the times when my beloved uncle and aunt used to come to us for the dinner, when my brother and I rushed to open the door when we heard the knocking and the first words we said to them were not "good afternoon" but "what did you buy for us?", when we used to tease them, play with them, go sledging together and build a snowman taller than my 1,90 m tall uncle, when preparations meant eating up the cheesecake before it made its way to the table, when my own pink and red bauble was my most treasured possession. The part of me that is still this carefree child still loves Christmas.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Only one sky like this...

Fall turns into winter.

There are no more figs that I used to pick along the way as I hiked, apple trees in orchards are almost bare, vineyards, once rich with fruits, are now withered. Another season I can experience in the south and it's not any less magical than the preceding ones.

A usual winter day in Provence
The weather here is absolutely not winter-like. While the rest of France gets snow and rain, here you soak up the beams of sunshine (I'm still as dark as I was in the summer and I already resigned myself to the fact that as long as I stay here I can't be pale, just as I'd like to). All thanks to Le Mistral, the infamous wind of Provence that sometimes blasts even 120 km/h but on the positive side, clears the sky and provides the area with some 2800 hours of sunshine per year! In Iceland I longed for warmth, whereas here I even gave up walks during the day. Maybe I'm too used to cold winter in the north? It's just too hot for me. But later...

When you live in Provence you love lonely walks at night. My preference are hidden pathways, not so safe during the day, since it's the peak of hunting season and on the hill where Viviane and Alain's house is located we can hear unnerving yet comfortably distant shots until dusk. But during the night there's no place you'd rather be. The sky is wonderfully starlit you have to stop for a while and cherish the view; and the biggest, the most shiny star, that must be Aiguille du Midi (also known as Venus, but being sentimental I prefer to call it with the name of the peak in French Alps I used to see every day not so long ago)! Beauty comes after the wind and it's one of the most idyllic sceneries, one of the most personal experience that no one else could share. These are my last days in Lagnes; I couldn't enjoy them any better.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Encore Chamonix

What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks disappearing? - It's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's goodbye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies. ~Jack Kerouac

Crazy ventures, there were a few. And now life took full circle. Almost a year after I had come there for the first time, I arrived once again in a place where I had the time of my life. Burning with anticipation from the very beginning of my hitchhiking there, I got more and more excited as the kilometers passed by. In leaps and bounds at the beginning (despite quite late start at 11, at 1 I was almost at the Swiss border, thanks to a driver who picked me up in a town just 40 km away from my starting point), dragging a little at the end. Surprisingly it took some time to get a ride to Martigny, with most of the traffic heading the opposite direction, and from there to Chamonix. N'est pas un problème pour moi, I tenaciously waited until somebody would stop and take me to the place where my memories remain the same way I got there one year ago. 

One sign that took me all the way to Karlsruhe.

This one brought me to Bern early in the morning.

I slowly started bursting with excitement when I saw the vineyards of Martigny, the sign "Dès la frontière 21,5 km," when I drove up the switchbacks above Martigny, which reminds me of taking off every time I do it, when I passed through every other village after the border: Vallorcine, where we got stuck due to an avalanche in December, Argentiere, which I mistook for Chamonix when I passed it for the first time, Les Tines, the destination of two hitchhikers we gave a ride, Les Praz, which seemed more cozy and peaceful than Chamonix; and finally Chamonix itself, where an extremely friendly elderly lady touring France in her green van dropped me off at Place du Mont Blanc. 

Martigny, almost France

Is there anything more awesome than being able to lie down after more than 24 hours of sitting and standing? All thanks to...

...Hélène, in her late sixties; thousands of kilometers in France alone in her van.

A simple happenstance place where I found myself not having anything else interesting to do over the winter. And now, when I read my second blog entry (click here to view), I have a feeling that such events don't happen by chance.

What else could I do than bring forth these memories, hidden in landscapes infested with mountains, exploding fall colors and tiny 18m² in Les Houches; all of them calling for attention?

Since the Sun whimsically does what it does, I had to be patient until I could feel like in Provence again.

This randez-vous ends around 11.

After this, even without a shirt... can enjoy the best view from above!
There was a time to meet friends. There was a time to be foolish...

How to be a douchebag on the slope...

How to stay extra safe on the slope...

...and time to do useful things...

How to make an Icelandic hat even warmer or "this time it's not me who's playing with the needle." only the time that I move into some warm and snug apartment and seeing snow-capped mountains become the order of the day has to come!

Friday, October 7, 2011


The beautiful été indien of last weeks didn't wait for me. Instead of >20 degrees I found clouds and rain. It's not easy to change temperatures reaching 30 degrees every day for such cold weather.

But much more than this, it's more difficult to change this:

...into this:

...or this:

There's still no pavement on my street! Well, it is there, but it ends right in front of my house.

One thing that surprised me was exorbitant prices of public transport.

Warsaw has surpassed everything! Even in Paris single metro ticket costs only €1,70. Not to mention that you don't have to buy a new one for every transfer. Here for 2 transfers on the distance of 15 km you have to pay around €2,50.

No hitchhiking this time. In order to save time and not risk getting very cold on my way to Poland (I had mainly summer clothes with me and only some for slightly colder weather) I decided to take a plane. The search for lowest fare was enough to drive me crazy within minutes. When you hitchhike, you start when you want, end where you want. Nothing will happen if you stray a little. But here you have to go through tons of bullshit before you find the best fare and you have to do it long enough in advance to make sure you actually have it! So I found a flight from Beauvais to Warsaw, and I swear, I have enough of flying for the rest of my life. I was at the airport on time (thanks to some help from my covoiturage driver who works there) but still wasted so much time. There were delays and we had to wait for so long for the boarding, which started at the time when the plane was supposed to take off. After the landing in Warsaw we had to squish in a shuttle that took us only 50 meters further. Walking that distance would take less time than squishing passengers in this tiny bus. On the top of that, the guards at BVA thoroughly combed the luggage for any forbidden objects and took away some of my possessions I deliberately tried to smuggle. Not anything really important or irreplaceable but still enough to remind me that choosing any cheap airline and taking only hand luggage will give you lots of headache packing it.  I even wondered whether my plastic spork would attract their attention, it has the knife-looking part in it! Fortunately no more flying on my way back to France, so I could take a cistern of liquids and the best equipped Swiss army knife, if I wanted to, without anybody telling me "it's forbidden, it's forbidden!"

Good time in Paris once again. Very short, but nicer than my previous stays there. My carpooling driver (originally from Marseille) told me the French of the north are more cold and distant than exuberant southerners. These exceptions that occurred to me in just 2 hours of my stay there proved the rule. Some elderly dark-skinned men stopped me on one of the streets in African district and we had a short chit-chat in French and in a little bit in Polish, but it was not me who said anything in the latter language. Then on my way to metro station an Indian guy stopped me, took me there and opened the gate for me using his monthly ticket so I didn't have to use mine. Then in Créteil I first stayed at the metro station and read my book waiting for the morning when I would go to the airport, but after some time one guy who passed by named Mikko offered me to wait in his place so I stayed there, without sleeping too much, but at least it was cozier and warmer then at the station.

And now I have 2 more night in my comfortable Polish bed, a few friends to meet and very short time where I have to squeeze as many things as I can before I leave for France again. That's my home now, there's my place. Chamonix, Les Houches, Lagnes, Roussillon, carefully chosen by the gods to attract events of specific significance. Soon...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Turquoise calanques once more

Boating with Éric was an experience to remember. But water is not my element. I need to move, walk long distances, change places. Why not walk the Calanques? Over 20 km over the mountains? I'm up for this!

On Friday Thierry and Jehane picked me up from Marseille and we headed for Grand Méjean, on Côte Bleue. We reached our clandestine place to sleep just before sunset - a rock with little space on the top enough for 3 sleeping bags. The red sun like an eruption and its rays reflecting on the rocks was an alluring view.

Our planned hike from Callelongue to Cassis became a hike from Les Goudes to Col de la Gineste. With moderate difficulty at the beginning, it slowly became more demanding when it advanced. First difficult passage came at Calanque de Marseilleveyre (3rd km). Jehane chose to follow a small passage and not the main trail and this way she led us to a precipitous slope with a drop right to the water. We had to be hypervigilant while crossing it but still it was a piece of cake compared to parts of the trail that were in store for us.

The path...

...and how it looked from the beach.

More difficulties came around Falaise des Toits (6th km). First time to climb into the mountains, which was demanding only because of how long we had to walk uphill on a steep slope. Still nothing to really make you think "hell, that can't be done." Yet when you see a mountain that is almost vertical in front of you, you'll for sure think how the hell it's possible to reach the top.

After Calanque de Morgiou (12th km) came the first chance to check our adhesion abilities. A vertical rock, with just enough holes to put your hands and tiptoes, nothing more. And the empty spaces were damn slippery with no edges to grip strongly. What if we had to pass it the other way, not seeing anything? It would probably be a slide that ends in the calanque.

The diagonal connecting top left corner with the bottom right corner is the way we made.

Roads just like in Alps! Everything resembles beloved Alps.

Mingling colors of Calanque de Sugiton (13th km)

Another difficult passage and the first point with chains. Holding to them, we had to make a U-turn in a tiny corridor (with our backpacks) and descend on the ladder. Too slippery and too tight to take photos of the corridor itself (13th km).
We didn't manage to complete the hike in one day. Around 14th km we started searching for a place to sleep. At that part of the trail it wasn't very difficult. Compared to some parts of the trail we encountered, this one was like an autoroute. Small rocks on the ground didn't bother too much; after entire day of walking on slightly demanding terrain anybody would sleep like a baby.

Have a close look!

The second day started with getting woken up by a runner passing next to our camp. Once again, mosquitoes ate us alive. No sunrise this time, too many rocks. But the improving weather and other magnificent views made us afire for more.

More obstacles on our way this day. More steep passages to traverse or climb. How good we didn't decide to hike the other direction, otherwise we'd probably be forced to change our route too many times. 5 hours on a safer detour or 5 seconds - the duration of a jump from the top of the rock?

Pas de l'Œil de Verre - even with chains and steps to support it's still a perilous place (16th km).

How much determination in Jehane (17th km)!

Around 1 pm we saw our destination from afar for the first time (20th km). But instead of getting closer, it slowly receded. We reached some road and I tried to figure out our location, futile. It turned out that we took the wrong trail and passed the mountains to get to Col de la Gineste, almost the same distance as to Cassis (24 km in total). But no regrets, the views were splendid too, and moreover, no sooner had we hitched a ride to Marseille than it began to rain. And that'd be even more lousy to be in the mountains at that time and climb even more slippery rocks.

Jehane was defnitelly the bravest person. This girl is almost 9 years old but did things that many grown-ups would quiver in fear to do were they in the same position. She never whined, cried or threw fits when we had to pass the most difficult parts of the trail. With her little hands and legs she reached for the best place to place them and safely pass the cliff. Sometimes the good spots were too far from each other for me (or rather because of our size, she had bigger choice to find the right spot) but she tackled them without any problem and even in some situation was the first one to run and make it happen. Never in my life have I seen so much courage in a child.

And Marseille itself? The first impression about it I had seeing Le Vieux Port and its surroundings two weeks ago was "It's so dirty." Worse was yet to come. After many walks in different parts of the city I thought that I'd never been to a place that looks quite nice seen from above and so disgusting when you walk its streets. At least in the center. Marseille resembles one big landfill. The oldest city in France that has nothing old about it, with the most lively part of the city inundated with trash, the old quarter Le Panier very quiet, with houses that not much different from derelict buildings in my home town, almost empty at nighttime, with steps leading to the beach that smell like sewers, with rats running on the streets!

But I don't travel only to see places! It was good to come and spend time with my host Stéphane and hist friends, use both English and French to communicate, listen to Stéphane's stories about hitchhiking in Sicily and his Mediterranean roots, discover the city at nighttime, talk to strangers on the street, receive smiles. However the city is disgusting, its people are one of the kindest I've met during my travels. Even if they insist on having a drink with you or getting your phone number.

Great team: Pierre, Stéphane and Endrik. Only Gersende, my French-speaking mate is missing.

I loved being back in touch with nature of real adventure! Hopefully the weather stays as good as it is right now, so we can do the second leg of our hike to Cassis!