• Day 128: A French Fourth of July

    Date: 2010.07.05 | Category: Uncategorized | Tags:

    What better way to spend the Fourth of July in France than with the first hiking club I joined when I moved here?   We spent Sunday up in what the Nicois (residents of Nice) call the arrière-pays, the high back country, hiking the foothills of the Alps.

    Every Sunday,  club members wait at various pickup points in Nice at 6:30 a.m. and are whisked up to trailheads – that can be all the way over in Provence or the Var departments, here in the Alpes-Maritimes, or just over the border in Italy. Depending on the destination -it can take anywhere from 90 minutes to two and a half hours.

    In my nearly five years here, I’ve hiked places like the Col de Tende, the high Alpine pass between France and Italy, where you walk by eerily abandoned military fortresses from the two World Wars, the piney mountains in the Esterel Massif way above St. Tropez, and one of my favorites, the Gorges du Verdun, France’s answer to the Grand Canyon.

    When I went on my first hike with this particular club, the president, Pierre, warned me that some members were fairly old.  That was OK, I thought, it would give me an idea of what a local hiking club would be like without any pressure. When I hopped the bus the very first time, Pierre told me the club had four groups depending on ability.  The fastest group was called les grands pieds, or “the big feet.”

    Of course I knew I’d go with les grands pieds. I’ve been hiking and climbing mountains – the Himalayas, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Roraima in Venezuela, Mt. Whitney in California and more – since I was 21. I’m strong and fast.

    No, Pierre said.  For my first time, I had to go with the base, the second-fastest group and considered the “average” group.  That was the rule – and the French love their rules.

    I was annoyed.  This was going to be a long day, I thought. Hiking with a bunch of snail-like old people?  I wish I’d never come.

    P.S. We started hiking at 9 a.m., finished at 5:30 p.m. with nothing but a 10 a.m. pause banane (banana break) and a 30-minute stop for lunch.  We climbed about 1200 meters during a 13-mile hike.  There were several people in their late ’70s in the “average” group with me.  Many were in their late 60s.  When we finally got to the bus, I was so exhausted I could barely speak English, never mind French.  I dozed on and off in a nursing home-like stupor all the way back to Nice.  The French, in sharp contrast, chattered like high-energy magpies and acted as if they could have easily taken several more hills.

    This particular group is pure Nicois and they’re known for being a closed, not particularly friendly breed, maybe because Nice has been invaded by strangers for millennia beginning with the Romans and the Phoenicians.  They did everything the could to discourage me from coming in the beginning, including a refusal by many to call me anything except “l’américaine.”

    But then they got used to me and welcomed me, to the point where if I didn’t come, they’d call me up and ask where I was.

    They won me over in large part by their lunch traditions.  I brought a vacuum-packed, ready-made sandwich from the supermarket,  a can of Diet Coke and a Mars bar (what else) for lunch the first time I went with the hiking club. They looked at my plastic provisions like aliens inspecting the eating habits of an abductee.

    Turns out, the French have a French meal even if they’re seated on the edge of a cliff while doing so.  As I watched in amazement, they whipped out tablecloths (really!) to spread on the ground, homemade quiches, fresh cheeses, thick slices of ham, fresh bread and all sorts of delicious desserts!

    During lunch, various people walk around offering something they’ve brought; fresh cherry tomatoes from their garden, figs, black Nicois olives etc.  My friend Colette, a retired supermarket cashier, always bakes a chocolate cake, cuts it into slices and distributes one to everyone.

    They bring bottles of wine, of course, covered in special wine socks which blew my mind the first time I saw one. And they also usually carry little flasks of liqueur de genépi, a liqueur made from an Alpine flower.

    Gerard, above, is eating lunch Sunday at one of  the Lacs de Millefonts, a gorgeous Alpine lake high above the treeline, reached from a point between two valleys, Vésubie and Tinée. The cherry tomatoes are from his garden and you can see the red wine he’s got poured into a little water bottle and next to him his flask of genépi. He carries with him, like all the French hikers, two little cups – one for wine and one for the coffee that someone brings in a thermos and offers to everyone else.

    The high point of a group hiking lunch for me is when someone brings around the big tablet of dark chocolate and we all take a piece.  Yesterday, sadly, I had to refuse.

    Two things I really love about this older French group.  Some of them tell me stories about their fathers who fought in the trenches in World War One and how they joked with the enemy German soldiers in the opposite trenches at night. And how lots of the fathers died in their 50s from the poison gas they inhaled as teenage soldiers.

    Memorials to those killed in the two World Wars are everywhere in the small villages in the Alpes-Maritimes. Eleven percent of France’s entire population was killed or wounded in World War I, more than any other European country.

    When I first starting hiking with this group, I always marveled at how they’d often stop hiking and gaze at even the smallest memorial for a few moments before continuing on.  The one I noticed Sunday on our way down from the mountaintop lakes was a little different, it was in memory of a hiker, a doctor named Henri Notari, killed in 1946 by an unseen live grenade left over from the war.

    The tombstone reads in part:

    When you pass by, give a little thought to the memory of someone who loved the mountains as you do.