After nearly eight months, I finally made it to the mountains. Invited by one of my students and her husband, we headed to Bourg St. Maurice in the heart of the French Alps at nine o’clock on Saturday morning. That was the plan at any rate. Naturally, I made it difficult for everyone. Remembering on Friday evening that whisky always goes down well in the mountains and seeing as I had never used the hip flask my friend Steve bought me, I reluctantly persuaded myself to buy a bottle of Scotch for the weekend. Next thing I know my phone’s ringing on Saturday morning with my friend at the other end shouting the French equivalent of ‘Where the fuck are you?’ To which I answered, ‘Sorry I was out with my Scottish friend, I’ll be there in 15 minutes.’
In the end they picked me up and made me sit in the back of the car in silence all the way to Chambery until I offered to buy them breakfast. Nothing can lighten a French heart like the lure of food. After a plateful of croissant and pain au chocolat we headed up the ever deepening valley with the mountains on either side growing in statue and size as we drove.
And just like a child going on holiday with his parents, I was pretty excited. I can’t imagine any other human response on seeing huge 10,000 foot slabs of rock soar into the sky, their peaks obscured by feathery clouds one minute, uncloaked the next to reveal needle sharp summits. With the road threading its way through the valley with the occasional tunnel to transport us through to the next, I felt a long way from the pollen filled streets of Lyon.
In the intervening weeks since my last entry, I have been diagnosed with seasonal asthma. At first hearing this from the doctor I angrily told her that I don’t get asthma, I’m perfect, my lungs are like balloons. She told me not to worry; it didn’t mean I have asthma as in the chronic condition. I just have it now.
‘Well,’ she paused and then smirked. ‘Until the pollen goes.’
‘How long is that!’ I demanded. There was no answer. Just a Gallic shrug of her huge Gallic shoulders.
It’s my old friend again, Platanus occidentalis, that has crippled me for the past few weeks. I’ve still been doing my lessons but it’s been a case of me wheezing in and out of them like an old man. Sneezing and coughing into my cheap Carrefour tissues with my students looking on in utter disgust. If I had known this I would have never given up smoking. I used to smoke thirty a day and never felt this bad. I used to cycle, row, jog, fag in hand. Now for the past few weeks, I’ve hardly been able to climb stairs without stopping for a wheeze. People hug trees. I say cut them all down and turn them into matchsticks. The so-called lungs of the city. Pah!
I read that in Philadelphia they have over half a million of them. It must be like sitting under a time bomb, as the pollen of these trees I read on the internet is hugely allergenic. There was even a reference to Lyon as a city particularly affected. It was comforting to read: not only is the city populated by snivelling miserable Frenchmen, but the malady is exacerbated by chronic pollution, constant wind, and poorly implemented hygiene regulations caused by constant striking. Anyway, the tablets the doctor gave me did the trick without the mind numbing hallucinogenic properties of the Mister Doom variety I had previously bought from the dodgy chemist up Rue Sebastian.
After a three hour drive we hit Bourg St. Maurice and as everybody does when they arrive here, they buy cheese. Why? Because the town is famous for it. Like Melton Mowbray is for pork pies or Somerset for cider. We bought a boulder sized lump of Beaufort and a gigantic wheel of Roblochon which I was told was for tonight’s dinner. Whereby I instantly had a vision of us all sitting around this huge cheese hacking into it like it was a steak and kidney pie, all washed down with the crate of Bordeaux I had already spied in the boot of the car. ‘This is too much: too French,’ I thought until my student erased the picture from my mind by adding that the cheese was for the Tartaflette: a traditional Savoie dish of bacon, potatoes and Roblochon. In short, Carbonara with potatoes instead of spaghetti.
Half an hour later we were in our chalet situated halfway up the mountain between the quaint village of Montvenix and the sprawling ski resorts of Les Arcs. After coffee and cake we wandered up to the resort to enquire about skiing and walking.
I’ve always had this slight uneasy relationship with skiing. I have the sense that the mountains aren’t being appreciated for what they are. That these ancient monoliths plugged into the Earth’s crust are simply used as theme parks for us to ski up and down in our ridiculous luminous jackets and painfully ill-fitting boots. I’m not being self-righteous; I’ve been skiing many times and it’s always the highlight of the winter, great fun. Yet, it all seems a little too easy; a little too, dare I say it, bourgeois. Why can’t we just enjoy the mountains as they are. A simple walk. No cumbersome equipment, no waiting for lifts, no people crashing into you, no ranks of middle aged Germans blocking up the pistes trying to execute their 4000th snowplough turn of the day.
My feelings on this matter were put to the test over the weekend, as I both skied and hiked. The six hour walk through the snow up to the 15th century chapel of Notre Dame Vernette that lies below Mont Pourri on the Sunday made me feel contemplative and spiritual. Conversely, the six hour adrenalin fuelled knee wrenching ski session on the Monday made me feel totally the opposite, thoughtless and rowdy.
During the hike to the chapel I walked alone ahead of my friends gazing at the mountains trying to work out what it all means. I wanted to build a hut high in the mountains and live there meditating, speaking to no one with no one to bother me. Oggers the hermit. Come the following day however, hammering down the slopes swigging whiskey, all I wanted was alcohol, women, hedonism, wildness, adventure. Oggers the wildman. If asked at knife point which one I had enjoyed most, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. Like being asked, who do you prefer, your son or your daughter? An impossible question.
It was a shame we had to leave on the Monday evening. The thought of going back to the detritus filled city triggered a moment of despair as I loaded up the car with our empty food containers and bottles. But it passed and as we drove down the pass to the main road, I felt happier than I had since I had been in France. Back in Lyon my friends dropped me off on the banks of the Rhone and after saying my farewells decided to jog the rest of the way home along the route I have done so many times. I felt that I could run forever. I looked ahead up the Rhone towards its source in the Swiss Alps and saw myself running in the mountains wild and free, my mind focussed not on being a hermit or a wildman, but concentrating on the task ahead. The third Oggers: the one in the middle that keeps it all together. The sensible one. The runner.