Monthly Archives: July 2007

Life: Bon Voyage!

Greetings from “Down and Out.”  Be back in a few days…am crossing an ocean, landing in NYC, renting a car, driving to Baltimore.  Au revoir, Chamonix…

Bon Voyage!

Life: The Countdown

Jams and CroissantsI leave Chamonix in 6 days.  Maybe there will be another 4 or 5 good days of climbing.  In the next 24 hours, I will eat some croissants, drink some wine, and eat some cheese. My health insurance expires in 7 days. 

Next week’s flight back to NYC from Geneva will have 1 layover in London; I will check 2 massive bags (right at the 25-kilo limit) and carry-on 1 heavy bag full of books. 

Around $1,000 will remain in my checking account when I return to the U.S.  This means that I will need to get a job within 4 weeks, or I will have to start buying groceries on Visa.  Perhaps I will stay with my parents for 3 weeks, but if I stay longer, I’ll feel like a sponger. 

Last week, I went climbing 6 days in a row.  The best climb was the Bérard Valley’s L’été Indien:  7 pitches.  Easiest grade: French 5b.  Hardest grade: 6a+.  I led 4 pitches; Andy led 3.   

Andy Parkin at Le ChapeauThen it rained for 2 days.  I drank 4 rounds of espresso on the first morning while I worked, and for those 2 nights, I stayed up past midnight finishing a proposal.  In the process, I ate 2 chocolate bars, a pot of 1/2 chocolate, 1/2 coffee-flavored ice cream.  I drank 1 bottle of red wine. 

Right now, it’s 9:39 a.m., and I am still drinking my first round of espresso.  I purchased 1 baguette and 1 croissant at the bakery.  At 11:07, I will board the train.  At 11:17, I will meet Andy in Les Tines.  We will climb. 

Literature: Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind

“What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans—a mountain of the mind.”-Robert Macfarlane, in Mountains of the Mind (2003)

Mt. Earnslaw summit ridgeI’m juggling three books at the moment; however, I feel like one of them in particular deserves mention on “Down and Out” because it offers some context to this blog’s latest (and my longstanding) obsessions:  mountains and British Romantics.  That book?  Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003).  

Macfarlane sets out in this book to explain how the “ways of imagining mountains have altered over time.”  He looks at how—three centuries ago—climbing mountains was once akin to lunacy but is now an acceptable pursuit, and he traces changing attitudes towards mountain landscapes, which were once regarded as both dangerous and unattractive.  With climbers and skiers dying in the Alps like flies, I can’t say that the danger in these parts has decreased, but the load of tourists hanging about with cameras dangling from their necks has me thinking that Macfarlane’s right:  we are fascinated by the world’s high places, and there’s something about them today that we find beautiful.  Macfarlane says that his book “tries to explain how this is possible; how a mountain can come to ‘possess’ a human being so utterly; how such an extraordinary force of attachment to what is, after all, just a mass of rock and ice, can be generated.”  He does it by telling us a bit of his own attraction to the mountains as a climber, but he also gives us a good dose of cultural and literary history to go along with it.   

Mt. Aspiring descentMacfarlane’s history includes characters such as Charles Darwin, Thomas Burnet, John Ruskin—and of course Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley.  These poets and others were particularly important in bringing the Alps into British consciousness, and their works added to a culture’s fascination with the area.  Macfarlane looks at how fascination turns into possession, and then obsession.  Climbers eventually focus on obtaining higher and higher peaks, until the world’s highest summit, Everest, is obtained. 

Mountains of the Mind is interesting and well researched, a recommended read for those harboring their own mountain fascinations or just interested in learning more about the history of a place.    

(Photos from the New Zealand Alps: view from Mt. Earnslaw’s summit ridge at top; and, below, view from Mt. Aspiring descent.)

Landscape: Night Light

Twin PeaksI’m a sucker for good night light. Here in the Alps, the evenings draw on; the sun sets slowly, and mountain shadows stay silhouetted against the sky until around 10:30 at night. When the sun dips behind the Aiguilles Rouges, the opposite side of the valley—the Mont Blanc massif—lights up in the colors of a soft fire: pinks, salmons, golds. Once the alpenglow has crawled up and disappeared over the snowy peaks, the cool colors come out: the hazy blues, the purples, and then the blacks.

Sometimes the glow is so magical that the peaks look like they’re blazing. From the balcony of my chalet, I caught this light as the sun’s final rays skirted over the Aiguille du Midi, its needle-summit covered in clouds:

Aiguille du Midi on Fire

And sometimes the night light makes you realize the shape of a place. When the jagged peaks are set against a cool evening sky, every spike and tower seems to be a distinct feature. In the day, so many can blur together.

Dusky Aiguilles Rouges Peaks

Sleeping outside, of course, is the best way to appreciate this kind of thing. You get a real feel for the night when you’re sitting on a rock outside of your tent, drinking your last cup of tea. A photograph can’t recapture the experience, but I took this one on Monday night from a camp in the Aiguilles Rouges. Our tent is in the foreground, facing the Dru:

Dru at Night

You watch the night fall from a place like this, and you’ll see it come slowly, like a black velvet curtain dropping from ceiling to floor.

Life: Happy Bastille Day!

Snap!I love it when French people start fires in the streets.  It happens more than you might think (World Cup finals, political protests, family gatherings).  Whenever there’s a proper reason for it, the displays can get pretty fantastic.  Chamonix celebrated Bastille Day last evening by setting off fireworks near the town centre, and the result was—as my Brit friend Hutch called it—“proper bling-bling.”  

Just about everyone in town was there, oohing and ahhing in front of the Micro Brasserie Chamonix, plus a load of tourists and climbers in the area for the sport climbing world championships.  MBC was serving up microbrews and burgers, and a DJ mixed up good crowd-vibe tunes late into the night.    


Bastille Day officially celebrates the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, which was held on the first anniversary of the 1789 storming of the Bastille.  The Bastille was a prison that held a number of political prisoners on suspect terms, and on July 14, a crowd of Parisians stormed it.  The Bastille’s gates were opened, and over 100 people were killed in the fighting and its aftermath.  The act was an important people’s uprising and is upheld as a symbol of rebellion and independence.


 Just a wee bit of history there, but the point is that this holiday is a celebration of freedom—and that’s a beautiful thing. 

Literature: Trailing Kerouac

Roadtrippin in Style“Down and Out” tends to be an original content kinda blog, but every once in a while, I see something out there that deserves mention because it’s just so down-and-out, as in it’s just so much of an adventure in literature, landscape, and life. Right now, as I write this and as you read what I’m writing, there’s this French guy named Pierre-Olivier Labbe hot on the heels of Jack Kerouac. He’s probably in a Greyhound bus right now, streaking west through Colorado. Labbe is a photojournalist taking a road trip from New York to San Francisco in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kerouac’s On the Road. He’s using Kerouac’s book as a guide, and he’s taking photographs along the way to document the places that were important to Kerouac and the Beat Generation. I started following the journey a few days ago when I noticed his blog link on the Le Monde (major French newspaper) Internet site. It’s titled “Mais où est donc passé Jack Kerouac?” That translates, roughly, as: “But, hey—where is Jack Kerouac/So—what has happened to this guy?”—something like that. Anyhow, my limited translation skills do sometimes cause me problems here in France, and unless you’re fluent in French, you might have some problems reading Labbe’s blog, but he’s a photographer, and a picture is worth a thousand words, eh?

To read “Down and Out” on Kerouac’s On the Road, click here.

Landscape: Lake Geneva

Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls:
A thousand feet in depth below
Its massy waters meet and flow…

-Lord Byron, from “The Prisoner of Chillon” (1816)

Lake Geneva Grays and Blues

Switzerland’s Lake Geneva (a.k.a. “Lac Leman”) is an impressive body of water.  It seems more like a landlocked sea than a lake.  If you’re looking down on it from the surrounding hills, you’ll get a hollow feeling in your gut—the kind that comes when the landscape opens up from city to sea.  Tall buildings and ring roads give way to a smooth palette of grays and blues.  Parking lots disappear.  Vineyard rows stand out in the evening sun, and a white sail looks gold on the water. 

Lake Geneva Sundown

Last week, I wandered off from a chateau overlooking Lake Geneva in Dully, Switzerland.  I was there to celebrate a friend’s artwork, but I wanted to take in the view.  I knew of the British Romantic fascination with the area, and was glad to enjoy it myself.  Lord Byron, for example, spent some time on Lake Geneva’s banks.  He is said to have challenged his guests at Lake Geneva—including Percy and Mary Shelley—to write the scariest story.  In response to the dare, Mary Shelley supposedly wrote Frankenstein, her super-successful first novel.  She was nineteen at the time.  I don’t know whether or not that literary legend is true, but after spending some time looking out over Lake Geneva, I can understand its inspiration.    


Literature: Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty…

Traci J. Macnamara: No Talk Pretty“I got to the point where I’d see a baby in the bakery or grocery store and instinctively ball up my fists, jealous over how easy he had it. I wanted to lie in a French crib and start from scratch, learning the language from the ground floor up. I wanted to be a baby, but instead, I was an adult who talked like one…”

-David Sedaris, in Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)

Just as I had been feeling better about my French, I had to go and cross a border. In Liechtenstein, I ordered a Bavarian cream horn “to-go” by pointing at what I wanted in the pastry case and then pointing towards the door. In Germany, I winked to say “Hey, thanks!” after using hand signals to fine-tune a complicated coffee and sandwich order. Defeated after an afternoon of this in Stuttgart, I returned to the hotel and finished reading David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day. The book proved to be a tremendous laugh and made me feel more confident about going out in public with the German vocabulary of a two-year-old.

This collection of Sedaris essays is as artful as it is amusing; I often found myself reading with a huge grin on my face or laughing out loud. The essays in the first half of the book vary in subject matter, starting with “Go Carolina,” which is a story about the author’s work overcoming a childhood lisp, to “The Youth in Asia,” which is about his family’s Great Danes, to “The Great Leap Forward,” in which Sedaris hilariously recounts his odd-job experiences in New York. The essays in the second half all somehow relate to Sedaris’ forays into France with his new boyfriend Hugh. The title essay, “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” for instance, is about Sedaris’ experiences as a forty-one year-old in a Paris language school.

A theme does emerge. This book is a collection of stories about an author’s audacious attempt to build something beautiful of words. Sometimes, for Sedaris, that ends up on the page as these right-on/off-beat phrases such as “a pair of pot roasts the size of Duraflame logs.” And at other times, we see him struggling in French to explain the Easter bunny: “‘He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have a basket and foods.’” I didn’t want to put the book down when it ended; instead, I wanted to say, as Sedaris does at the end of the book’s title essay, “‘I know the thing that you speak exact now. Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus.’”

Life: Notes from the Autobahn

I am writing this, literally, in the front seat of a rental car speeding south on Germany’s Autobahn. I just clocked us going 200km/hr, so all you cars out there in front of us, be forewarned: we’re fast, and we’re furious, and we’re on our third cups of coffee.

I’m currently road-tripping with The Sister (pictured below), who is here in Europe from NYC. When she gave me a draft of the itinerary, I noticed that it was basically an attack-style expedition that would lead us through parts of these five countries: Switzerland, Luxembourg, Germany, Liechtenstein, and France. Um, OK.

200km, baby

While traveling with her, I’ve learned that speed is more important than stopping to use the restroom and that food is a destination. Two years ago, I resisted these concepts on our whirlwind wine tour of northern Italy; I wallowed in misery while she tried a new flavor of gelato. Since then, I’ve learned to embrace her travel ethic and even enjoy it on other adventures such as driving a circuit with her around the entire country of Iceland in less than 48-hours.

The Sister

Saturday afternoon, we had a coffee stop in Luxembourg. Today it’s lunch in Liechtenstein. In between, we’ve spent two nights in Stuttgart, Germany. Tonight, we’re back in France. Love it: this is life on the road.