Scenery Binge

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Flag of France  , Rhône-Alpes,
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Woke up the next day at 12:52 p.m., after turning off my alarm at 10 a.m. I was pretty nervous to strike out on my own, given the previous day's disasters.  Luckily, Chamonix town turned out to be small and easy to navigate.  My map easily brought me to the tiny train station behind the regular Chamonix train station.  There, I hopped a red train resembling an oversized children’s toy and we slowly chugged up the mountain to Montevers, enjoying stunning views of the Chamonix valley the whole way.












 



 
At the top, the Mer du Glace glacier swept down the valley in a dramatic curve, framed by dark pines.  The moment was slightly less entrancing for the fact that the train station was blasting MJ’s "Thriller" from its speakers.

Once I’d had my fill of the views, I rode a red cable car from Montevers down towards the ice caves.  A British man in my car, clearly dressed for a good hike in a tan suit and polished leather shoes, said, “I hope this thing doesn’t break” as we moved down the mountain.  Turning to him, I admonished him not to say such things.  He answered, “Well, it is French steel,” but shut up after that. 

The cable cars only go so far, and then everyone has to hoof it the rest of the way down, taking 350 somewhat slippery metal steps.  During this chilly descent (and later, return climb back up) I noticed: 1) Hikers in otherwise appropriate attire (fleeces, hiking boots) in shorts.  With snow on the ground.  2) A lady carrying a terrier the whole way.  3) A woman in a snazzy outfit and, most striking of all, pointy-toe patent leather flats.  4) A good number of elderly people.  One woman in particular had on stockings and flats.  I give them a lot of credit.  The way back up, especially, was exhausting and the altitude didn’t help.
 
Finally reaching the ice caves, I observed that the entrance was steadily dripping on my head and hoped the cave would hold for the 10 minutes I needed to explore it.  The smooth ice walls were mesmerizing and the artificial purple and blue light otherworldy.  Shattering the illusion was yet another sucko soundtrack.
 
At the end of the tunnel, I stepped into a front hall, decorated with an impressive ice fireplace and mantle.  There, I met a moderately cute French guy who worked there with his totally cute St. Bernard, named Alaska.  Once I realized that the French guy thought my fawning over his dog was an attempt to make further conversation with him, I gave Alaska a final pat on the head and moved on.

Following the ice hallway, I found carved ice rooms, such as a living room and bedrooms, complete with basic ice furniture, such as tables and chairs.  A little museum inside was fairly boring except for the tidbit that the glacier moves 1 cm per day, which means they regularly re-dig the caves.
 
Back in Chamonix, I visited the Super U to grab some groceries for the next day and save on food costs.  Embracing the spirit of risk-taking that had paid off so far during the trip, I made myself put back the pre-packaged meat and cheese that were so temptingly ready to go without a word on my part.  “You’re in France,” I told myself.  “Go get some decent food.”
 
At the deli counter, I stumbled through the choosing of some fresh ham and cheese.  I had no idea which cheese to pick, since there were approximately 100 varieties, all with names that meant absolutely nothing to me.  The girl behind the counter was nice enough to recommend a good cheese to go with the ham, although she seemed thoroughly confused that I didn’t know which cheese I wanted.  French people tend to know their food.  In any case, it turned out to be tasty, even if she did refuse to slice it, which left me prying it apart with my hands back in the hotel room as I made sandwiches for the next day.  No clue what it was, so don’t even ask.
 
That night, I splurged on a fondue dinner with the British girls I’d met the night before.  We just kind of wandered until we found somewhere cute (dark wood, traditional chalet-style building with those charming window boxes of red geraniums).  Inside, the décor included cow bells and metal milk jugs, and everyone was speaking French.  Definitely a good sign.  Savoring a bottle of their cheapest white wine, the three of us enjoyed the glorious views of the mountains.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the food came.  We split a fondue feast that was everything I’ve ever wanted in a meal.  The fondue came with bread cubes and potatoes for dipping, charcuterie and salad.  For dessert, we split panna cotta with fresh berry compote and a baseball-sized profiterole heaped with ice-cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. 
 
While the food was absolutely perfect, the company made the whole experience.  Bridget and Lindy were really nice, down-to-earth girls.  We talked about everything from our college majors to the complexity of feeling comfortable but somewhat stuck living at home.  We wondered what we’re going to do with our lives.  Not one of the three of us had a clue.

It was kind of sad to leave my new friends at the end of the night, it was also comforting to know I could easily make friends on the road.  Before I left, the potential for loneliness was one of my biggest concerns.  Now, I’m thinking it might not be a problem at all.  They key is getting up the guts to ask people to do things with you.  The whole cab share thing happened because I eavesdropped on the girls, then said, “Excuse me, do you speak English?  And are you trying to get to Chamonix?”  
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