France. Now there’s another country I never really pictured myself in. I had heard about France, read about it, knew about Paris, but beyond that, I didn’t give it much consideration. I think so many stereotypical snooty French images had been fed into my brain that I some point I just thought all French people sat outside cafes with wine and baguettes talking all day about art. Ok, not ALL French people, but really, because of those kinds of thoughts and images I never took time to learn more about the rest of the country.
Based on the recommendation of a friend, I booked us a ski trip to a place up in the French Alps, near the borders of Switzerland and Italy. Compared to a US map, Sainte Foy-Terentaise is basically North Carolina’ish on the French eastern border. In the summer, the village is home to a whopping 13 year-round residents. It’s a beautiful village in an idyllic setting. A certain song from a certain musical comes to mind, but I won’t go there…
The day after Christmas we flew from Dublin a short hour-and-forty-minute plane ride to Lyon. The flight was easy as usual and we got in around 3:30. We picked up our bags and went to meet the transfer company that was shuttling us up to the resort. It’s the equivalent of driving from DIA to Vail, CO, about two-and-a-half hours in good weather. The weather was on our side for driving, but not really for skiing. The last big snow they had had was in November. And though the weather meant easy driving, a traffic accident that happened somewhere about an hour-and-a-half into our journey doubled our journey time. Fortunately, the driver made a couple key stops along the way to help break things up.
Sometime after 9pm we rolled in and got checked into our place, which was a 2-bedroom condo at the base of the slopes and just above a bar on the main level of the village. It was newly renovated and we were the first people to stay there as guests. The location was beautiful, with postcard vistas from either of two balconies. We unpacked, grabbed a little something to eat, then crashed for the night, eager to ski in the morning.
The next morning Lisa informed me of the bar noise she heard until the wee hours of the morning. Apparently I was oblivious, but she heard it and it kept her awake some. Not a great way to start the vacation, but she let it go. We got geared up and headed up the hill. The girls were signed up for ski school for a couple hours a day in the mornings. They were nervously excited and quickly found their instructors. Jayli happened to be the only kid in her class who did not speak French. The French instructor went the path of least resistance and did most of her instructing in her native tongue. Jayli rallied and did well by just figuring out what she was trying to say and working through the obvious language barrier.
We saw them off to the lift and then Lisa and I grabbed our gear and headed up the mountain. We decided to just go straight to the top and start there. As we rode up the first chairlift, the ground below us was definitely more dirt than snow. We had been told already about the conditions and were assured that the trails were open with good coverage. So ignoring the painful lack of snow below us, we turned our gaze to the rising peaks around us, soon followed by the valley falling below as we made our way to about 1500 meters. The third chairlift takes you up to 2600 meters, past a couple of false peaks to the final climb. This area of the resort sits in the shadow of the mountain for the morning and most of the day. As you ascend the very steep last section and begin to crest the ridge, the sun greets you in blinding glory. And as it rises in the sky and you near the summit, the distant peaks of the next chain begin to rise into view.
As the chair slows and you exit the lift, your eyes are treated to an amazing panorama of snow-covered peaks as far as you can see. 360 degrees of world-class views spread out before you under bluebird skies and enough natural snow underfoot to make for a really good time. With gaping mouths we pulled out the phones to snap the obligatory panos, pics and selfies. I swear we did that every single time we went up there for the rest of the week. And it never got old.
After soaking it all in, we started the first of many descents that day and every day after that for a week. We did several laps on that chair and enjoyed every run. We played around for the next couple hours and then headed down to collect the girls from ski school. They had a wonderful day and were excited to tell us about it. We walked a few steps to a restaurant with a nearly empty deck overlooking the incredible valley below. We were most definitely not in Ireland any more, and more than once we commented on how much it reminded us of Colorado. (Secretly, we were wishing we had had the same kind of snowfall CO is enjoying this year.)
We had intentions of going back out to ski that afternoon but the lunch was so good and our bodies just getting used to using muscles that hadn’t been used in a while, we ended up just mucking around for the rest of the afternoon. The girls were happy to play Xbox (which they never get to do) and just chill. Our place was self-catered which means they give you a kitchen and some equipment and you make your own food, which we were more than happy to do.
We made dinner, watched some movies, crashed, slept the whole night and got up the next day to do it all over again. It was nearly a carbon copy of the day with a few different runs and a slightly different lunchtime view. We did manage to go out in the afternoon and get in a couple family runs, then it was back to the place to eat and crash. The previous night was quiet and had given us hope that we would not have to contend with too much bar noise until NYE, which we already knew would be loud.
On this night, though, I woke up to a heavy bass line and kick drum keeping time in the bar below. I looked at my watch and it read 1:33. I knew the bar closed at 2am, so I figured if I couldn’t go back to sleep I’d just wait it out and it would be quiet soon enough. 1:45 rolls around and the band has ended and things are wrapping up. Then I hear voices getting louder followed by several crashes below us. A few more intense exchanges and weird noises later and Lisa was awake. Our back deck served as the roof that partially covered the back patio of the bar below us and we both walked down to look out the window. Cracking open the curtains we could see a few people spilling out from the bar.
I could make out one guy with a camera watching another guy who was on top of a third guy in a very threatening way. Obviously the two guys were in a fight and the third guy really had no idea what to do, but his friend was the guy on bottom and he wasn’t about to jump in the fight. After a few minutes things died down and people went their separate ways, but those few minutes were pretty tense and it took us a long time to settle down long enough to fall asleep again.
The next morning a talk with the resort was in order. We conveyed our concerns to our hosts who listened and set off to consider what options we had. We skied the rest of the day and by the time we were done, we still had not heard back from them, so we decided to walk over there again. Spencer, the Operations Manager, told us that the fight was actually between the owner and a disgruntled employee. Everyone in the village had either heard the fight or heard about it before noon that day. It was kind of a “big thing” that happened in a village where usually a whole lot of nothing happens. Regardless that it was a single-occurrence, Spencer informed us that would could move into another chalet they had open. This one had 5 bedrooms over 4 floors with a hot tub and fireplace. We looked at each other with our best poker faces and said that would work. As soon as we were out of eyesight we were high-fiving each other for the sweet upgrade coming our way.
Within two hours, up 86 stairs (literally…I counted) we were settled into our new digs and donning the swimsuits to get in the hot tub. Life was pretty darn good! From the hot tub we watched the sun dip behind the mountains just across the valley from us. Any stiffness in our muscles after three straight days of skiing and riding soon melted away in 104-degree jets of water blasting over them. We stayed in as long as we could stand it then moved inside for dinner by the fire and movie.
I get pure enjoyment from cooking dinner in a great kitchen with a cold drink and some good tunes playing. I mean, that really does it for me. And usually, in a setting like that, the food is tasty reflection of the good vibes. This night was no exception. The four of us eagerly enjoyed a well-earned meal after another great day of outdoor recreating. When we could no longer keep our eyes open, we retired to our rooms for quiet and restful night’s sleep.
The snow the next day started to show the wear and tear it had suffered over the past few days of the first real ski traffic of their year. The snow team had done an outstanding job in grooming and building and maintaining the snow on the trails, but there is only so much they can do under the beautiful 50-degree blue skies. We skied a bit, but weren’t too concerned with making a full day of it and, after a few runs, Lisa and I locked up the gear and chilled for a few until we collected the girls from ski school.
No one was super interested in going back skiing that afternoon and we ended up taking a hike up a really cool trail just outside the resort. It was a rather steep dirt (not snow, dirt) trail through a beautiful forest with amazing evergreens and mossy rocks all around. Looking to hiker’s right, through the trees you view the valley and mountains off in the distance. We hiked for an hour or so with the girls bounding up and down the trail. We snapped a few family pics and then headed back down, hot tub bound.
On Friday, the girls finished their last day of ski school by passing their exams and getting a cool pin for their efforts. They were happy they passed, happy to have made a couple friends along the way, and happy to be able to ski with Lisa and I. We grabbed an outside table at a restaurant just steps away and sat and enjoyed the sun and the mountains for at least an hour. Ahhhh…just like heaven.
That afternoon was a family ski session followed by an après ski beverage at a mid-mountain chalet with the now-typical amazing view of the mountains and valley. We made our way back to the chalet and, to no one’s amazement, we enjoyed another hot tub/dinner/fire/movie installment. Nope. Still not bored of that routine.
The next day was Saturday. New Year’s Eve. By this time, the snow conditions were less than stellar but we still got a few family runs in that morning. Actually, just one. And I was glad to be done with that one by the time we got back. There were some pretty icy sections on the mountain and I was just glad to get everyone back with no falls along the way. God knows Lisa has enough head trauma for one lifetime. We did not need another incident and so she turned her skis in that afternoon. Jayli was done, too, so she turned hers in as well.
Back at the place we made lunch and chilled until it was time to head over to the base of the mountain for fireworks, sledding and festivities. They served spiced wine and held a Moon Boot Zumba session for people to dance and get warmed up to. The fireworks display was short but impressive. Afterwards, we grabbed a couple sleds and the girls did a few laps on the kiddie slopes under the moonlight. We played and had fun for a while then headed back to our chalet. New Year’s Eve at our age does not hold the same appeal as when we were younger and what had now become our normal routine was going to be just fine.
Lisa and I both fell asleep to some movie the girls made us watch, but we managed to wake up in time for midnight. We couldn’t find anything on TV showing us a countdown, so we did our own and at midnight we cheers’ed each other, gave kisses and then listened as the sound of fireworks filled the air for the next 30 minutes. All around the valley you could hear booms and crackles. Occasionally we could get a glimpse of some of the theatrics off in the distance. With a nice little nap under our belts, we managed to stay up for another hour watching another movie and just chilling, but then it was off to bed.
The next day was my chance to ski with just Adi. I was excited to have her by herself and just get to hang out with her. We tend to do things as a family group so when I get the chance to have some alone time with just one girl it’s really special. The same can be said about Jayli, but Adi by herself is a different person than when she is with her sister. The competition between those two is ceaseless, but by themselves, without having to compete for any attention, they morph from fighting cubs into sweet little girls.
Adi and I made our way across the mountain and did a few laps on the far end. She has really come a long way as a skier and it was great to follow her down the mountain watching her make big turns, with the occasional carve around a trail marker on the side of the run. She would lead and show me her skills, then we would switch and I would lead us down to the chairlift. We’d ride back up and do it all over again. We did that a few times then headed back feeling glad to have gotten some nice runs in on our last day of skiing.
We turned in our equipment and headed back to the chalet to do a whole lotta nothing the rest of the day. Doing nothing felt so right that day. We had thought about doing another hike, but we really didn’t have the energy. So, we didn’t. And we were ok with that.
For our last night in France we planned to go out for dinner and enjoy some delicious French wine and cheese fondue at Le Coeur restaurant in the village. It is a quaint little place with a couple high tops, a 5-person bar and maybe a half-dozen tables. We had made reservations for 6:30 but something got lost in translation and they didn’t have us down when we showed up on time. Their kitchen didn’t even open until 7, but they sat us anyway. We ordered a couple glasses of red wine and our fondue and enjoyed a very rich dinner over the next hour or so. If you’ve never had cheese fondue in France, it is very thick and very rich and very cheesy. Fair warning if you are lactose-intolerant.
Despite the gastro-intestinal disruption that followed the meal it was still a nice night out and a fun way to cap off an amazing week. We chilled that night, slept, and got up early to pack for the airport the following morning. Other than a minor disagreement with the shuttle driver, our trip back to Dublin was smooth and uneventful, as it should be. Overall, it had been one of the most enjoyable family vacations we had ever had and it could not have come at a better time.
I think that old saying “you can’t take it with you” is not 100% accurate. When you have an experience in life that lovingly sears itself into your mind, so much that it becomes part of your soul, it stays with you for eternity. They are like little souvenirs from this life that shape our souls, and wherever our souls go after this life, this little part stays with it. And the kind of incident that makes its mark on your soul is not as important as having the mark made.
Not all people are travelers, but we are. We like going places and exploring and learning about different people and cultures. Each new trip, each new adventure, adds in some way to the tapestry of our souls as we continue to weave in new patches and stitching. Since our move to Dublin, our tapestries seem to be growing faster than ever.
Oh, and for the record, France is pretty spectacular and the French people we met were extremely nice and none of them were sipping wine with a baguette discussing art…it was wine and pizza and discussing art 😉