Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Years in France

As soon as I entered the roped-off area at Ankara International Airport for those leaving the country, a rush of excitement overtook me to be leaving Turkey for the first time since I moved here in August.
When I arrived in Nice, FR, my observational eye was heightened; I couldn't stop noticing all these differences between Nice and Ankara, between the French and the Turkish, etc.. I think when I moved to Turkey, everything was so overwhelmingly new and different, I couldn't take in any of the subtleties. But traveling westwards to a country a tad more like my own made everything stand out: the faucet water was clear and drinkable, the hotel restaurant was arranged with aesthetics in mind, my hotel room walls weren't crumbling and flaking away, there was no sewage smell coming from the drain...all reminders that Turkey is not quite the West nor of EU potential yet.
I had 24 hours to kill in Nice before I was to catch a bus up into the mountains where my guides would pick me up. I spent the day walking around, visiting an outdoor Xmas market, drinking tea, observing people, and eating. Nice is on the Mediterranean Sea and used to be a part of Italy at one time. Corsica is not too far off the coast.

After a day of taking in the differences, these are some observations I jotted down in my journal:

France: Mother loudly yelling at son; Father violently scolding child.
Turkey: Parents letting children cry, scream, and bother strangers in public; men and women cooing over strangers' babies; 11th graders acting entitled after years of being treated as little angels who can do no wrong

France: cars stopping for pedestrians
Turkey: cars speeding up as non verbal communication to pedestrians to not even think of crossing

France: store owners saying "Bonjour" then leaving you to your shopping
Turkey: Store workers totally invading your personal space following you around the store as you shop until you feel like even though they are trying to be helpful you should try to steal something right in front of them and then act stupid about it..."Oh, what is this doing in my pocket?"

France: grey, black, and brown wardrobes
Turkey: mismatching brightly colored garments, loud styles and patterns

France: impossible to eat dairy free; it needed constant clarification at the chalet where I was staying; I am used to the "Can you eat eggs?" question, but my French host even asked at one point, "Can you eat PORK?" Not only is pork the most unconnected thing to dairy products, but OH, MAN, can I eat pork!!!
Turkey: possible to eat dairy free; they cook with LOTS of oil, not butter. However, PORK, "the other dairy product," is extremely hard to come by in a Muslim country.

France: Easy to figure out how to get around, reliable public transportation, posted fares and schedules, lots of signs
Turkey: No signs, no fixed fares posted, strange men ushering you onto mini-buses until magically you arrive in your destination city for quite a cheap price

France: tidy appearances of buildings, artful architecture, sound structures, quality and appearance thought of during construction
Turkey: One architect designed every single new building in Turkey and painted them different shades of pastel; everything is made of chipped, cracking cement; building parts break and fall apart easily

Gosh, this list sounds quite negative on Turkey's part, but really it's a comparison of rich, clean, tidy, efficient Europe to a not-quite-Westernized poorer country. And the latter is the adventure I moved abroad for.

Moving on to Mercantour National Park and the guiding company, Space Between... After 24 hours in Nice, I hopped on a bus that took me 90km north up a mountain valley twisty-turny road out of the Mediterranean and into snow. Liz, of Liz and Mel, the couple that is the guiding company, Space Between, picked me up and brought me to Le Grand Chalet where 9 other guests were staying. People came and went during the 6 days that I was there so that other than our guide, Mel, and a UK couple, Neil and Judith, I met and hiked/skied with different people each day. However, upon arriving that first night to 8 of the 9 people being over 50 years old, my heart sank as I thought my fear had been realized: I had accidentally joined an Elderhostel group. Whoopee! Happy New Year! However, as you will see, I met a variety of cool people over the course of the week from all over and of all different ages, and had a great time.
Here are some pics of Le Grand Chalet where I stayed the entire time.

Day 1 Hike: The Vesubie Valley is known for 345 days of sunshine, but this day happened to be quite dreary. Rather than shoot for the views, we hiked at the base of the valley, and I was happy with a flat hike to warm up the ol' hip flexers...snowshoeing is hard work! This day, all ten of us hiked, and there was such a mix of ability (ah hem, age) level that there was lots of stopping and starting. Urg. At one point, someone explained as we waited for some guests, "Well, you see Agnes only has one lung." Oh God, did I sign up for the wrong trip??

That night, after a sit in the sauna, I enjoyed the first of Christine and Luke's (the Chalet owners) amazing 5 course French meals. Apparently, there is a type of chalet/pensyon you can stay at in France which when translated into English means "At the host's table." This means they cook you amazing multi-course meals and then sit at the table with you. Everything is home made or locally made/bought. We started off with homemade citrus or cherry sweet wine, then moved to the table and had some kind of pureed vegetable soup, then had an appetizer like a piece of quiche, then a green salad, followed by the main dish ie. ratatouille and lamb, followed by slices of all different kinds of cheese to clean your pallet, followed by the 5th course, dessert, and then tea or coffee and a digestive liquor. The meal would take at least 3 hours every night, and included homemade red and rose wine that kept magically refilling itself. Even though it seems like a massive amount of eating, all the courses are small and eaten over such a long period of time that you don't feel nasty and bloated at the end of it, unless they slipped cream into the soup and forgot to tell you. Whoops.

Day 2 New Years Eve: Six of the guests left that morning, so it was a small hike of Neil, Judith, Mel and I. A very rainy day, so we travelled down the valley a ways and started our hike in a medieval village.

We worked our way, snow-free, up to a peak that has a Spanish-looking church on it, Madonne de'Utelle. It was snowing and foggy and so when we reached it, it was quite eerie to see this church slowly becoming visible through the fog. The story: Two Spanish sailors were in a storm at sea near Nice and thought they were about to die, so they prayed to God and said if he saved them, they would dedicate their lives to Him. In that instant, the storm ceased, and a ray of light shone on the top of this mountain, so they decided to build this church here, and it was known for being able to heal cripples. I am unable to think of a smartass comment at this time.

The plan that night was to spend New Years Eve at Mel and Liz's house with their other guests from South Africa. It was a really wonderful evening, especially meeting the South Africans, one of which worked in Ankara teaching English 10 years ago. It was great to sit with him and swap stories about Turkey. At this point in the day, the snow had created a hazardous condition on the mountain road leading to the pass where our chalet was, so Mel called the gendarme to see if the road was open, and in fact it was advised we were not to travel that night. So four of us slept on their family room floor, an impromptu row of sardines.

Day 3 New Years Day: Since I brought my tele skis with me, I had to leave the group this day to take advantage of the fresh powder and ski at the little resort within walking distance from my chalet. It was a crystal clear day, the first since I arrived, and at the top of the lift, you could see miles into the Alps. I wish I had my camera up there. Fun day, first ski of the year, jelly legs, but the powder was hoppy fun. Since my legs couldn't handle a whole ski day, after skiing, I took a walk down to Valdeblore, an old medieval town and strolled around taking pictures. Sounds like something out of Harry Potter, doesn't it? Apparently, you can tell the church is of a certain order of knights because of the rounded back.

Day 4- This day was GORGEOUS! We drove high into Mercantour National Park and began our snowshoe with a full panorama of the Maritime-Alps. As we crested a snowfield, we caught sight of old Napoleanic forts (this used to be the border of Italy); it was one of the most striking images I have seen, castle remnants half buried in the snow with the blue-blue sky off-setting them. We could also see all the way to the sea in the other direction, and even make out the outline of Corsica. This day, we were joined by Scott, a Canadian yacht engineer working off the shore of Nice. Please excuse my 70,000 pictures of the forts; it was just so cool!

Complete with old shell holes...

Day 5- One last telemark ski day. The legs held out for much longer, and I soaked in all the beautiful mountains and sunshine one last time before we had to head back into Nice. The resort was never terribly crowded, and it was super cheap (17 Euros for a day pass). This whole area is off the beaten path. Most tourists stay in Nice to be near the Med, but this amazing area is so close by and has so much to offer. This is why Mel and Liz, originally from the UK, moved to France 5 years ago to start this guiding company and call it Space Between; it really is between places in the sense that not many people know about it. Except, now, for you all, my faithful blog readers.
Upon returning to Nice and checking into my hotel, I visited an Asian Art Museum next to my hotel and made up stories for all the pieces as all the placards were in French. Then Scott invited me out to dinner in the old part of Nice with some of his "yachties" as he called them. We had a really nice meal, and they introduced me to the world of people that travel and see the world by working on rich people's yachts. A niche I never even knew existed. Then off to bed, and up early to catch a flight home to Ankara. I really understand why people fall in love with the south of France. I have returned to Ankara with a mission to find the snowy Turkish slopes...

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