It’s strange to think that I have barely written about my life in Barcelonnette. I guess it’s harder to write about la vie quotidienne than it is to write about voyages here and there. But lately, as have noticed my time here slipping away, I have resolved to write something about what I’ve been up to for the last few months.
Back in January I had a bad bout of homesickness. Many factors combined to put me down in the dumps. But after a short time, I crawled back out into the blinding Alpine sunshine, and since then I’ve been thoroughly enjoying myself, and I have grown more and more attached to Barcelonnette.
The first step to happiness, of course, was deciding to “latch on to the affirmative” and “accentuate the positive.” This is not hard to do when you are surrounded by snow-covered peaks that, by day, reflect the eternal sunshine of the Southern Alps and, by night, form a glowing basin under the stars. Or when your weekends fill up with skiing and your evenings with dinner parties.
No. 1: Farmers’ Market.
There’s nothing that makes me feel more connected to Barcelonnette than walking to the farmer’s market on a Wednesday or Saturday morning. I almost always make the trip, even when I don’t need anything, because I love the tiny little hustle and bustle that is the market of Barcelonnette. Luckily, I can almost always find a reason to buy some honey, cheese or jam, because I love saying hello to my lanky apiculteur, my fromager with fantastic hair, and my cute confiturier.
Usually I show some restraint at the market, but on my birthday I decided to go all out and buy everything I wanted: honey, jam, bread, and two types of cheese! By noon, I already had everything my little heart could desire.
Honey: Monsieur Rampinini’s honey is certified organic, though I don’t see how you can certify bees as organic. Maybe the label refers more to the honeymaker himself, though. Thanks to some supermarket espionage I can attest to the fact that he aliments himself with solely organic products.
Jam: Monsieur Tron was my first favorite vendor at the farmers’ market, for who can resist jam? And who can resist a young man who tells you to regale yourself with each jar of jam that you buy? (And who doth sweetly protest when you buy another and another, saying, “But you buy so much! Can’t I offer you anything?”) You don’t have to give me any freebees, Nicolas, I’ll happily pay you to overstuff my refrigerator with your confections.
Cheese: Monsieur Autheman and I had a long conversation, drawn out over a number of weeks, about when his lambs would be born. I told him how the first lambs at Mayflower Farm are usually born on my birthday, and wondered if the rule would hold true in Barcelonnette. On the morning of my birthday he told me, “sorry, there aren’t any yet!” But when he got home from the market that day what did he find but his first lambs!
One Wednesday, M. Autheman greeted me with a big “ça va?!” at the market. Following up on our previous conversations, I asked if Delphine and I could use our free afternoon to visit the sheep farm and see the lambs. The farmer readily agreed, so at around 3:30 Delphine and I wound our way up the Route de Restefond until we saw the sign that announced “Fromage de brebis.”
La Ferme d’Abriès has about 90 ewes, and when we visited they were all quietly lolling around in the remarkably clean barn. In the back third of the barn were the lambs and their mothers, while the ewes who had yet to give birth were in the front right third and the unbred yearlings were in the front left third of the barn. We spent our visit at the entrance of the barn, where the farmer leaned back against the gate and shot the breeze with us. It was such a relaxed hour, it was as if we were friends stopping by to catch up. It was nice to be treated like this, and not like the tourists who Autheman described as noisy summer invaders. Not wanting to ruin the rapport by acting like the outsider I am, I didn’t cuddle any lambs or take many photos. Even though I might have missed stroking the baby lambs’ silky forelegs and chins I appreciated the lack of preciousness at the Ferme d’Abriès. Everything was business-like, functional, and old-hat, as if things are done the way they have been done for centuries, (which is probably not far from the truth).
It was refreshing to see how well-suited to his occupation and happy with his place in the world M. Autheman seems to be. Though he obviously enjoyed chatting with us, I bet he’d also be happy to spend weeks with only his sheep for company. Indeed, he told us how he used to pass the summer (“estiver”) with the sheep up in the mountains, and admitted that he only goes to Gap (the nearest city) two or three times a year. As you can see from the photo, he is pretty well-situated; I think I understand why he likes to stay put.
No. 2: Skiing with friends.
My first big skiing adventure was in January, when I grabbed my backpack and ski boots and took the bus up to Grenoble to visit the Maulny family for a weekend. Frédéric took me skiing at their local mountain, Les 7 Laux, on Friday afternoon as a warm up. Then we went to L’Alpe d’Huez on Saturday, where Julien and Tobias had a competition. With 250 km of trails and a summit at 3330 m, it was the biggest ski area I’ve ever been to.
We wore ourselves out on practically vertical trails, hopping through the foot-deep powder. After falling once (and seeing how painless the powder was) I lost most of my fear, and became a much better skier.
That Sunday was rainy, and so I took a break from skiing and Nora and I rode the bus into the center of Grenoble to visit the museum. With our winter hats and backpacks on we looked like regular schoolgirls, and when we got on the bus we both paid the student rate! After strolling through the museum we enjoyed a coffee and some tarte at a perfect little café and bookstore across from the Cathédrale de Grenoble. While we were thus enjoying some of France’s finest, we compared life in France and the United States.
After that weekend, my skiing took place much closer to home, at Le Sauze, where I bought a season’s pass. It’s sort of miraculous, the amount of skiing I got to do this winter, considering that it barely ever snowed and it was almost always above freezing during the day. I’ll be totally spoiled for New England skiing now, because I won’t be able to stand the cold!
The other miraculous thing about my winter was that at the end of February, a whole crew of friends from my former life suddenly descended on Barcelonnette! Aaron and Amanda, who my readers last encountered as Arab and feline Scared Harp singers, made the long journey down from Paris, as did Lauren. They made it down in time to join a bunch of my colleagues and friends and me for a nighttime snowshoe hike up the ski mountain to the restaurant at the top, Le Blanc Mangé. Cloud cover foiled our plans for a moonlit hike, so we were forced to rely on blind perseverance to get us to the light just over the ridge, and blind sledding to get us back down to the cars.
My memory of dinner at the Blanc Mangé is dominated by frantic text messages and phone calls with a few Austrian cell phones, because another long lost friend, Jeff Rovinelli, was making his way blindly through the Italian Alps towards Barcelonnette. He and his friend Steffi set out from Salzberg with a GPS to guide them, not realizing that the Italian Alps don’t take kindly to GPS. After a few wrong turns, they spent the night in a monastery-turned-hostel, and arrived in Barcelonnette the next morning, ready to ski. We then had a some great days of skiing, all six of us, with a lot of sun and one really good snowstorm. After that I took a breather from skiing, as I headed off to Paris with Lauren, where I spent four days before flying to Cork for the Sacred Harp convention.
As soon as I got back from Ireland it was ski ski ski again, mostly with my friend Emilie, who works at the high school. Although the local ski areas have fought a good fight, I think we have finally arrived at the end of the season. Today was probably my last day of skiing, and I think it was as close to water skiing as I’ve ever gotten. I went to Pra Loup (for the first time) with Delphine and Maée, and I was full of that “this is it” feeling.
No. 3: Cooking.
When I’m not skiing or at school, I’m probably in my kitchen. After having such fun at Wesleyan, cooking with Kayla and with our weekly ‘dinner co-op’ it’s been an adjustment, cooking just for myself most of the time. But I appreciate the opportunity to improvise and experiment with no pressure, since I don’t have any one’s palate to please but my own.
But it’s not as if I eat by myself all the time, either. In Barcelonnette, dinner parties make the world go round. If a week goes by without a potluck at someone’s house people start saying “it’s been ages since we all got together!” I hang out mostly with Michela, Francesca, Mariangela, and teachers from the high school.
Alexandra, a Spanish teacher, is the queen of dinner organizing. We went to her house for dinner on my birthday.
Farther afield, I occasionally bake apple pies at other people’s houses.
No. 4: Changing scenery.
Getting out of the valley once in a while (even if it’s only to another valley) keeps me from getting bored in Barcelonnette. After a trip full of activity and visiting friends and buses and trains, it usually feels great to get back to Barcelonnette. It seems that each time I get back to Barcelonnette I appreciate the beauty of the mountains and blue skies more.
A few weekends ago, Emilie and I drove through the Col de Vars (col = mountain pass) and into Le Queyras, a valley with a string of tiny little villages that live on mountain tourism. In Abriès, we met up with some of Emilie’s friends and rented an apartment for the weekend.
The skiing we had in Le Queyras was the best of the season. The ski areas there are specially situated so that they catch snowstorms, an effect the valleyans call “le retour d’est.” There was fresh snow and sunshine all weekend. It was strange to suddenly find myself with a bunch of people I hadn’t met before. Confronted with new faces, I suddenly found it more difficult to speak French. I had gotten too used to my community in Barcelonnette. It was good to step out of my comfort zone for a little while.
My other adventures away from my valley will have to wait for the next post, for I fear I’ve drawn this one out too long now. I’ll leave you with a bit of school spirit: