February 25, 2017
On the border of the French/Italian Alps
We are just a couple of hours from great skiing here in Aix. So, we made a plan this year to rent a little chalet and head into the mountains near Briançon. The tiny cluster of chalets called our village (Le Laus near Cervières) was out of a picture book with a great pyrenee dog and lots of untouched snow. It is just under the Col d’Izoard (the famous cycling route through the French Alps in the tour de France) and on the Italian/French border of the Alps. We signed the girls up for the ski school of France (pretty amazing national program) the l’Ecole du Ski Français.
Xavier took the initiative each morning to get the girls up early and drive them to the ski resort not far from (but not just next to) where we were staying. I must say, this is an example of where his parenting style really outshines mine. I would have pulled them out the first day. He is determined to let them do hard things and to struggle. It was hard. They had snow in their masks and tears in their eyes and they felt immobile in their huge ski boots. But Xavier, knowing the end result, would consistently drop them off in the morning, tell them they could do it and wouldn’t stick around to allow their doubts to sink in. By the end of the week, little Colette was propelling herself down the mountain and couldn’t get enough. Romy has her snowplow down and glides down a slope easily. I was terrified when I saw where Colette’s instructor took them - down slopes that had huge drop-offs on either side. The instructor told Xavier that if he warned them of the danger, they would get scared and freeze up. Better just to let them follow him in his turns down. Eight little four-year olds in a line, down the mountain, following the ski instructor way up ahead. Marguerite was already a pro, having experienced 6 years of ski school herself. She followed Xavier down the hardest pistes, only occasionally provoking a “hurry up” from her Papa below. Xavier is a phenomenal skier, setting the bar high for his girls to follow. I imagine the 4 of them darting down the mountains in a few years, racing each other all the way.
I loved snowshoeing on wild paths, finding fresh snow and feeling my heart beat pound. We had brilliant sun for half the week. Snow sun dispatches a special sort of warmth. I’ve always loved the contradiction of freezing snow and blinding, warm sun.
We signed up for a dogsled ride. The girls caressed the dogs for 30 minutes before we took off. They rolled over and offered their bellies for a rub, licked their faces, and howled a little when they moved on to pet another dog in the line. They were so powerful. I sat in the sled with all three girls, plus their owner standing at the back and they tugged us up a mountain pass and bounded with spirit back down. Romy felt their tug and the sway of the sled and went right to sleep.
On a different day, we hiked about 2 hours up the mountain pass to a refuge near the Col d’Izoard where they serve warm, hearty meals and pints of cervoise. After a great meal, we borrowed sleds to glide all the way back down into the valley - a 30 minute continuous ride! It was so fun and alone worth a trip into the mountains.
Marguerite with some of her Joly cousins
We also visited a traditional sheep farm in the little village Cervières. 300 sheep (including a few 10-day old lambs), chickens and roosters, bunnies, a live shearing…the girls were pretty impressed. The barn was full of a thick, reassuring smell. We didn’t want to leave.
We didn't just mingle with the live animals, we also ate lamb - a very traditional meal called 'gigot d'agneau' - cooked by fire, voilà. It was served in the small inn near our chalet and the whole experience was uniquely French. We walked in and the owner of the restaurant was miffed because we had reserved for 5 adults, but one of the adults was actually a teenager who wouldn't eat a full portion of lamb. On top of that, about midway through the meal, Xavier requested more gratin (he couldn't get enough - it was so delicious). She looked exasperated and explained it was certainly not possible given that the table next to ours had four additional people show up and that they had consumed any extra gratin she might have had that evening. Xavier put up a fuss, in a funny and charming way. By the end of the night, she had a special gift for him: a little personalized carton of gratin - just right to bring back to the chalet with him. She gave it to him ceremoniously and with a kiss on each cheek, of course. The whole thing was so particular to France. I loved it.