Aspen Times Weekly: A self-guided season in Chamonix
When I got the text message from my husband that we had been invited to a kid’s birthday party, I was more excited than my 4-year-old daughter. Our family had been living in Argentière, in the Chamonix valley of France, for over two months of a planned four-month stay. Our daughter, Caleah, had been attending the local école maternelle (preschool) five days a week, and, aside from the occasional polite nod or bonjour during school pickup and drop-off, we hadn’t yet met any other local families. Lately, I had been querying Caleah about who she hung out with at school — I was so desperate for friends that I planned to have her point them out when I picked her up and then accost their parents, demanding a playdate. The birthday party invitation, for a little girl named Anjolie whom Caleah had occasionally mentioned, came at just the right time.
As we were planning our winter in France, consumed in the details of finding housing, childcare, and ski passes, I never thought about how long it might take to feel like part of the community. Having lived in Aspen for far longer than our kids have been alive, I had forgotten that — unlike those mobile younger years when you easily make friends in trains and hostels and bars — it takes time as a family to settle into a new place. Although Chamonix, like Aspen, is a world-renowned mountain town populated largely by outdoor-loving transplants, there are many things that make it different.
Like the skiing. Massive, above-treeline expanses of white — with much of the terrain on glaciers — Chamonix’s ski areas (there’s about a half-dozen major ones) are studded with cliffs, crevasses, and other unmarked hazards. Signs point the way to the pistes (groomed runs), which are marked with bamboo poles on either side, but which comprise a small percentage of the available ski terrain. Ironically, although you could easily ski off a 50-foot cliff, fall into a crevasse, or leave the lift-served area with no warning, you get berated for not lowering the chairlift safety bar. Skiing during a storm is pretty much pointless — and can be quite dangerous — as visibility often barely extends beyond your ski tips.
Danger factor aside, Chamonix is among the world’s best places to ski, with more than a lifetime’s worth of lines and the most jaw-dropping views you’ve ever seen. The birthplace of alpinism, this is a place where the boundaries between the ski area and the backcountry are blurred (hence, no boundary ropes?), where the lift-served off-piste can deliver ski-movie-quality experiences, where locals use touring gear and habitually carry avy packs because a jaunt into the backcountry is often part of the ski day, and where some of the best skiers in the world — Glen Plake and Seth Morrison and many, many more unknown ones — return season after season (or stay permanently), drawn by endless lines and the challenges of going higher, steeper, bigger.
Visually, the Alps make the Rockies look like gentle rolling foothills. Jagged spires jut into the sky above glacier-covered snowfields and crazy steep, cliff-studded forests. At 12,605 feet, the Aiguille de Midi is the highest and most well known (aiguille means needle). Like the steeple of the church of mountain sports that is Chamonix, it fronts 15,780-foot Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe, and serves as the access point for the famed Vallée Blanche, a 13-mile ski “run” that drops some 9,000 feet in elevation.
My home mountain (I love saying that), Les Grands Montets, has a respectable vertical drop of over 6,600 feet. I’ve easily had two of the best runs of my life here, one in knee-deep compacted powder, hurtling toward the glowing blue Argentière glacier that had just emerged in the sunlight after a major storm, and the other a full-on face-shot fest of probably 100 quad-quivering, consistent, fall-line turns. Both runs seemed to go on forever, and there was no one nearby — the Grand Montets is so big that it can very effectively spread out powder-day crowds.
When the conditions aren’t great, all I need to lift my spirits is a tram ride to the 10,750-foot summit. On a clear day, it’s one snowy mountain range after the other as far as the eye can see, Chamonix and its surrounding villages more than a mile below. And when the mer de nuages (sea of clouds) obscures everything but the highest peaks, floating above the puffy white expanse like lonely islands, the magic in this fantasy landscape is palpable.
While people often hire guides to show them around the ski mountains here, sometimes I wish we had one to help navigate French culture. Influenced by layers of bureaucracy and deep-rooted traditions, one of the most common French words is impossible (ehn-poh-see-bluh), which we encountered trying to do seemingly simple things like sign up Caleah for an after-school activity and get a delivery actually delivered to our door. Sure, it’s great for employees that businesses close for two hours for lunch, but a ski shop? A bakery? And we found out the hard way that the Chamonix valley bus system inexplicably stops running at 7:30 pm. But perhaps even stranger was how easy it turned out to be to hitchhike the 9 kilometers home to Argentière — the driver of the second car we stuck our thumbs at had no qualms whatsoever about cramming two adults and two small children into his very small French car.
One area that needs no guidance is food. French cuisine may have an image of being rich and sophisticated, but the fact is, it’s just really good, mostly inexpensive food. In France, access to high-quality food seems to be a fundamental human right, GMOs are mostly verboten, and concepts like eating local and slow food are not trends, but ingrained in the culture. Groceries are affordable — local, in-season fruits and vegetables rarely cost more than 2 euros per kilo; an endless variety of regional cheeses, pates, and charcuterie exists for every budget; and meat, while on the expensive end of supermarket staples, is usually of equal or better quality than American organic, grass-fed, or hormone-free varieties.
Whether in the oven or on the stove, I cook everything straight up — no elaborate recipes, intricate combinations, or fancy sauces, except an occasional fond de veau (thick veal stock, which comes in convenient packets you mix with water) for oven roasts, or a cup of wine tossed into a stew for extra flavor. My spice cabinet consists of salt, pepper, and an herbes de provence mix — I haven’t felt the need to buy anything more. I love the tradition of buying fresh bread daily (and our kids devour it, plus the occasional pain au chocolat or a delectable patisserie for dessert), and 2-euro bottles of perfectly decent wine accompany dinner.
At my daughter’s school and my son’s daycare, they’re fed hot, three-course meals; as a result their palates have expanded faster than in the typical American lunchbox, mac-n-cheese routine. With the exception of the occasional pizza or boeuf bourgignon, schools also serve food straight up (no hiding vegetables or other tricks to get kids to eat something): a vegetable course to start, a main course comprised of protein and vegetables and sometimes a starch, and dessert of fruits, cheeses, and occasionally something chocolaty or baked. My daughter now adores “those little red things” — beet salad — although not even the French system can get her to like potatoes.
Learning how and what to eat is as important as academics in French schools . The French government actually requires kids to sit at the lunch table for a minimum of 30 minutes to properly eat a meal. And I think it pays off: My 4-year-old and 2-year-old recently sat through a two-and-a-half hour lunch at a nice restaurant with minimal fussing and fidgeting — and not even any help from electronics.
Swiss schooling and sticky fingers
If it sounds idyllic, it’s not. As in Aspen, life in Chamonix has its challenges. Housing is expensive (although not nearly by Aspen standards), and, without an affordable housing program, many people are forced to commute from downvalley — and upvalley — communities, exacerbating an already bad traffic problem that, without a very sensible public transit system as previously mentioned, contributes to some pretty horrendous pollution.
In our case, we sucked it up and paid a hefty rent for a large (by European standards), conveniently located place with amazing views. We could do it for four months; had we wanted to stay a year, things might have been different.
I had no intention of getting a car, presuming that everything in Europe is either in walking distance or that public transit is always convenient and reliable. In Chamonix, it’s quite possible to be carless if you’re young and single, but more difficult for a family of four. Renting a car for four months from an agency would have been prohibitively expensive, buying one for that period of time not worth the bureaucratic hassle. Luckily, we got connected with a sweet old Parisian lady who comes to Chamonix only in the summer, and she let us use her tiny Volkswagon Polo for a reasonable fee. Suddenly, the downvalley grocery store and the family-friendly ski area became much more accessible — not to mention we could send our son to school in Switzerland.
Despite its multiple layers of bureaucracy, France’s free education system is very inclusive. It took all of three documents and a 10-minute meeting with the service scolaire to get my 4-year-old enrolled in the local school. Under age 3, it’s decidedly more complicated. There are apparently not enough spaces in the local crèches (public daycares for ages 2 and under), so they’re limited to full-time, year-round residents, who themselves often linger on waiting lists for months or years. We looked into in-home daycare providers (called nou nous), but it would have taken over six weeks to get started with all the bureaucratic hoops to just through. Then we found the Swiss daycare, which took us right away. Located in a ridiculously quaint town 12 kilometers from our home, it’s where 2-year-old Merric learns French, visits the village sheep, gets potty trained, and eats Swiss chocolate for snack.
So it took more time, money, and effort than we thought to get settled in France, and along the way we had our share of disappointments, including two pairs of stolen skis — to which the local reaction was to tell yet another story about the French phenomenon of sticky fingers. But by and large, living in a French mountain town — Aspen’s sister city, for many good reasons — has suited us well. The skibatical was a success.
Oh, and the birthday party? It didn’t necessarily open doors to the local society — all the French moms dropped their kids off and went to get coffee together. But after that, we did start making some playdates — and, we hope, some long-term friendships. For we’re already trying to figure out how we can come back. Impossible? We don’t think so.
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