voyage aux alpes.

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A few days ago I saw an opportunity: a Monday morning with no class. That meant a weekend a few hours longer. This could not go to waste and on the spur of the moment I bought a train ticket for Grenoble, booked a hotel, and got my skis down from their dusty perch atop my closet.

This is the beauty of your 20’s, I’ve said again and again: you can get up and go. You have work or school, but no house, no husband or kids, no pets that need to be fed, no garden that needs to be watered.

My approach to travel has certainly changed a bit since beginning grad school, though. Now I spend the time to search out a deal at a fancy hotel, and it’s totally worth it because the craphole of a dormitory that you are stuck in is so miserable. Even if time is money, it’s reasonable to spend some making sure that you’ll have a big bed and a nice shower (the benefit of traveling at the last minute is that even if I’m cheap, I’m a better guest than having an empty hotel room). These are things that do not exist at CROUS Montpellier. Even in Sweden, I used to simply look for the cheapest hostel or a floor to crash on: better to spend the money on many trips that cost practically nothing. Now, with a little bit more cash spent, I can enjoy comfort that I never, ever find in my daily life.

(To my classmates who say that everything is too expensive: I suggest a job. I have one and I haven’t died yet or failed out of school, and even the tiniest bit of extra money every month makes a big difference in how you’re able to spend your time.)

And so on Saturday I found myself at a hotel in Grenoble, with a shower that poured water out of a foot-squared matrix of spouts like a rainstorm. I sat under the hot water for 20 minutes, soaking up the chance to be in a shower where you don’t have to hit the button every 15 seconds to restart the water. There’s plenty of water here.

The plan had been to ski, but that first day it hadn’t worked out with the buses, so I ran up and up and up into the hills above town, first past the views of the city – which says it is the second-largest economy in France – flanked by Alps, and then into the hill farms, no city in sight. My calves ached, my knees twinged on the way down, my feet slapped. I collapsed into my huge bed that night.

Come Sunday, I finally boarded the bus to Autrans. It was raining and gray. In the city, there was no snow to be seen anywhere. As we rounded one hairpin turn after another, cutting through gorges and across cliff faces, there was still no snow. I got more and more nervous.

About ten minutes before arriving at the small town that hosted the cross country ski races at the 1968 Olympics, I began to see snow through the fog. But it was still raining. It was 9:30 and the bus home didn’t leave until 5:30. I wasn’t sure how I was going to occupy myself all day in the rain.

After walking to the nordic center, I timidly approached the ticket booth.

«Je veux skier, même s’il ne fait pas si beau» I said, doubtfully.

«La neige est bonne» the woman replied. «C’est meilleur que s’il faisait chaud…»

I thought to myself, of course she’s saying that. She’s just trying to sell tickets and convince people that it isn’t completely disgusting outside. That’s her job.

When I finally stepped into my skis and took the first few strides, though, I saw she was right. They had groomed that morning and the corduroy – barely skied on because the weather had turned most people away – was surprisingly fast. It felt more icy than waterlogged, and didn’t have the cementy-potatoes feel that I had been dreading. Okay, maybe this was going to be fine.

Just as I had on my run the day before, I climbed up and up and up to start. Knowing that I had almost 2000 feet to ski up into the Alps if I really wanted to try the whole trail system, I paced myself. But the skis slid easily, and my body worked better than I had expected after the hard run the day before, and after a month of not skiing.

I eventually reached the upper trail center of Gève, where it wasn’t raining anymore. Half my climbing was complete. Onward I skated, onto a trail called “Panoramique.” Not so much today, but it would take me up to the ridge and around a snaking bowl that, I am sure, would have had lovely views if it hadn’t been fogged in. Every once in a while things would clear for a moment and in just one direction I would glimpse a few ragged peaks before they disappeared back into the fog.

After two hours of skiing and some hard climbs, I reached La Quoi. But things weren’t over yet. Up here, it hadn’t been groomed, and the skiing was slower; it was also snowing. But there was a loop of maybe eight or nine more kilometers along the ridge, which dropped down to a refuge before climbing up through a steep meadow to rejoin the trail and head home. At the refuge I bought a lunch of ravioli and cured ham, plus an entire pot of Russian Earl Grey.

Back on my skis, it was cold. The next few kilometers alternated between rain and snow. I had expected to feel better after lunch, but I had been skiing for almost three hours already and I did not feel better at all, at least not at first. I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake: the weather was terrible, and here I was, 15 or 20 kilometers from the touring center, cold and tired. I could die out here!

That was a little bit melodramatic. Yes, climbing was hard, but as soon as I got on more gradual terrain, it was so easy to be on skis, gliding along, even in the slow mush. At one point, feeling cold, I decided to sprint up a hill to try to get the blood going. Much to my surprise, after a long ski and months of no speedwork, I fell into the easy rhythm of attacking and reached the top of the hill warm.

It was an exhilarating feeling: I’ve still got this. Against all odds, I’m still a skier.

And as I began my descent of the Alps, cruising around corners and gleefully picking the best lines, popping up and over the hills with my momentum and a few quick hop skates carrying my speed, I thought: I’ll always be a skier.

Maybe it’s not so different than the joy I found in Font Romeu a few weeks ago. But for one thing, I’m in better shape now. Trails or no trails, two weeks ago I decided that I would be damned if I sat on my ass all day and signed up for a marathon to kickstart a running routine. I have incentive to go run, even if I don’t like the places I’m running. After two 30-mile weeks and a crash diet, I felt fit (fitter; hills still kick my ass). I swear I felt lighter and stronger than I had in Font Romeu. Skiing for hours was hard, but not as hard as it had been then.

For another thing, my entry to Montpellier had been confusing, more confusing as time went by. I found myself in a city unlike anywhere I had ever lived. Not a city to be a sportswoman. There’s a lot of pavement and cars that pay no attention to pedestrians or cyclists. In the first few days I thought, well, I just haven’t found the good part yet. But as the weeks wore on, it seemed more and more impossible that my kind of city even existed within anywhere in Montpellier.

Here, there’s no ski club for me to embed into, nobody to tell me the secrets to happiness. Some of my classmates have made new friends here, outside our program. I’m jealous. They have people who share their interests and their cultural backgrounds, people to cook Chinese food with or talk in Spanish. How did they do it? Where are the people like me? I glimpse them every once in a while, but I can’t truly find them.

Hence, running in yucky places, on the hot pavement, dodging ubiquitous dogshit that covers the sidewalks.

It’s not that I’m not having fun – it was nice to have so many options for what to do at night, pubs and restaurants and classmates who I love. We have a good time. In the last few weeks it has seemed so impossible to have the kind of life that I’m used to that I thought, well, maybe I just resign myself to this semester being different, because this isn’t miserable.

Back in the States, my friends are all multitaskers. They are professional skiers who paint amazing pictures in their spare time (look at Hannah’s website!); scientists who get out every weekend to kayak or rock climb or mountain bike; professors who rip turns on their tele skis at every chance; adults with full-time jobs who nonetheless donate their free time to coaching kids. They hike the mountains, play Frisbee, farm. Doing one thing never means that they can’t also do something else.

That’s how I lived too, but it’s foreign here. Sure, people have interests – drinking, watching movies or sports, eating, (occasionally when the weather is good) being a tourist, talking to their boyfriend or girlfriend on the phone. These interests prevent many further trips and adventures. It’s “normal” that these simple things are all a student has time, or desire, for. Being a student is apparently very limiting.

School had never defined me before, but I was ready to let it. Maybe this was my new life, the kind of friends I would always have. Maybe my old life was over; maybe this was growing up. Had my friends at home just not grown up yet? Or was following several passions a uniquely American trait? This wasn’t so bad, after all. We won a bottle of vodka in that pub quiz. In a few years, I’d be married to another scientist, doing research somewhere as part of a PhD.

As I skied back down to Autrans, I rejected that completely. Not a single person I know in Montpellier knows or understands the joy that I get from being on snow, or how having skis attached to your feet is easier and more natural to me than running. They are my good friends and always will be, but they can’t be my only friends. Just as a few of them have found people outside of our program, I need that, too.

To come back and not be able to even convey this feeling I had on my skis was just wrong. To not be able to share this trip with anyone was disappointing. I have no problem traveling alone – I find it much more agreeable than most people probably do, and it’s relaxing to be able to decompress and just not talk – but there’s an undeniable yearning to have someone to experience these new places with. I wish I could have turned to someone as I sped through the trees and said, “isn’t this awesome?”

But nobody was there.

If I can survive this semester, I’ll find them again. If I marry another scientist, he’ll be one who climbs mountains or ride bikes or does something – anything – in the outside that I love so much. Maybe he’ll fish or hunt, or watch birds or dabble in nature photography. Maybe he won’t be a scientist at all. Maybe I won’t get married at all! But in the next months, I will find some friends who won’t pass off my trips as that unfamiliar, but cool, I guess, thing Chelsea does because it makes her happy.

Sitting on the train back to Montpellier, my legs ache. That’s my souvenir from the weekend – that and the reminder to keep being myself, that my people are out there and sometime soon I’ll find them. Until then, I’ll keep running and enjoy the nights out at the pub. Just not every night.

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