~Sunset over the wing of the plane somewhere over the Atlantic~
This could be any morning in my normal life. Kids are waking up, getting breakfast, and packing backpacks for school. Laundry needs to be done and dishes are scattered all over the table. But instead of my suburban cul-de-sac outside the window the Alps preside like proud mothers with hands on wide hips, lush with green fertility, over the town of Albertville. France, that is.
~Alps in Albertville~
Anticipating a semester of life wrangling that will leave my soul frayed around the edges, I have preemptively planned a getaway to recharge. As the cruise director and ever present gatekeeper charged with the weighty task of protecting a great many little lives, I have learned the danger of pushing myself to the point of unraveling. Wisdom dictates that I take a break well before the power is completely drained and I am forced to fire up the dark generator fueled by resentment and exhaustion. This kind of rejuvenation can only partial be met by beautiful scenery and leisurely pursuits. This kind of need is met best by a true friend, like my friend Lori.
I met Lori in my first year of classroom teaching. She was an experienced teacher, someone to look up to, and I was a novice in every sense of the word. We might have initial bonded over our similar employment and stations in life as young married women, but we were more accurately drawn together by a magnetic attraction that nestled our two souls together in a way that fit for life. To be with this heart-friend is a combination of being welcomed home to the smell of turkey and pumpkin pie while gently applying a cooling salve to a burning wound. She is the kind of friend that no matter how much time has passed, we pick back up quickly. Whether we are chatting incessantly or sitting in silence, we are at ease together- the kind of ease that comes with the comfort of being yourself while all the while knowing that the other party expects nothing less.
~In Annecy, France~
She is also the kind of friend- a true friend-who reads the lines I ramble in this space regularly, so I have to add a few more words that aren’t the kind that are fit to be spoken face to face. She embodies an unending beauty that cannot be erased by time, a beauty that derives from an internal well of joy and peace. When I look into this beauty, I see mirrored back the ways that I want to be a better person.
With such a friend as this, it is a natural choice to visit her to knit my soul back into usable pieces. While I have lived in the same five mile radius since we met, Lori has had a rambling life. In fact, perhaps as a further testament to the strength of our friendship, we have only lived in the same city for six months of our entire friendship. In the past, she has lived in Deep South Texas, Arkansas, and Virginia. She and her family now reside in France. This is how I have come to the charming city of Albertville for my retreat d’sanity. It is not based on the recommendations of any guidebook, but because it is the home of my friend.
With uncharacteristic abandon, I board the plane to Albertville with absolutely no preplanning or requisite expectations. Typically, I arrive in any new city with a long list to conquer and a solid plan to adequately complete my task. My penchant for detailed pre-planning is not just a power play. I draw the most enjoyment out of the planning, drooling over online guidebooks and crafting perfectly formed itineraries. For this trip, I have an unyielding desire to actively un-plan. Whether this comes from a divine inspiration or exhausted desperation, I am drawn to simply let it be and accept what comes.
Though I am determined to let it be, I am also determined to make it count. I only have seven days to store up enough reserve in my soul. Whatever experiences are to morph into reality, I need them to be good ones.
~A View of Albertville from Above~
The trip to Albertville is a long one. As a country town nestled between the French Alps, one does not just arrive directly. It is a four plane, 36 hour, three layover ordeal that finally spits me out at Geneva International Airport where my ride and my friend are waiting. I am equal parts drunk on jet lag and high on anticipation as we set out for the final leg of the journey-a 1 ½ hour drive from Geneva to Albertville. Though my bleary eyes want to drift closed, my excitement for the newness of the moment wins out. In moments, the press of industry around the airport clears and there is nothing but the panorama of the Alps. There are jagged peaks on every side. Mountains covered in the lush green burst of spring fold into higher peaks that are still hanging desperately to the white of winter. I have always been enraptured by mountains, but these mountains seem to have a beauty capable of making all other mountains crumble in envy.
It has been a holiday weekend in France, so the stop and go traffic makes the drive even slower. More time to study the mountains for me, but it runs weary for the three kids in the car. It is suggested that we stop at the next bakery and pick up some bread for dinner and a treat. There is a bakery-a boulangerie-on the next corner. Of course there is. There is one on every corner. I am skipping with happiness to be eating a chocolate macaroon from a French bakery, but it is old hat for everyone else, even the children. I don’t realize it at that moment, but the rhythm of my internal metronome has been reset with that first crisp, chocolate bite.
The apartment is two floors above a kebab shop on a major street in town. Before we are even up the stairs, my friends are apologizing about the modesty of their apartment. As foreign language students, they are carefully watching their budget. “It’s a three dollar apartment with a million dollar view,” I am told.
~The view from the balcony~
Million dollar view might be underselling it. Looking out of every window in the house produces another view of the stunning mountain range, while into each window streams the warmth of lemon yellow sunlight. The family gets right to work with the minutiae of the evening. Dinner must be prepared. The windows are opened wide to let in the fresh, cool air. The laundry from the morning must be brought in from the drying racks on the terrace and limp, wet laundry must be hung in its place. To me, hanging laundry in the shadow of the Alps makes it an infinitely more romantic chore, but I wonder if the young people tasked with the job agree.
The rhythm of daily life continues the next morning around 8. I am awake for the entire processional thanks to the magic of jetlag. The kids are breakfasted, dressed and hurry out the door just before 9 am. I tagalong as a willing voyeur into the process of life in provincial France. Once the kids are in school, the parents continue towards their classes and I am left alone to explore the city. Without a plan, I decide to make my way towards the city center.
~Side street view of Downtown Albertville~
Downtown Albertville is everything you would expect if the village from Beauty and Beast aged into the 20th century. As I stroll on my early morning (not to be confused with the late morning) trip to the boulangerie, I have a privileged front row seat to watch the city awaken. Every door on the street swings open with a yawn of anticipation for the day. On the corner a flower vendors sets out blooming plants on quaint wire baskets, as a housewife in the flat above thrusts open the shutters and shakes out the dust from an oversized comforter. From every brightly shuttered window and stone cut portal, the city is singing its morning prayers. In my mind it sounds like the opening from the Disney classic.
Little town, it’s a quiet village. Every day like the one before. Little town full of little people waking up to say: Bonjour!
Of course, I recognize with semi-embarrassment the absurdity that I am enchanted by the most mundane details of a typical Monday morning in Albertville, but that is the gift of travel. In a novel city, even the mundane can be viewed as a source of intrigue.
This comfortable, yet foreign cadence beats out with insistence day after day. I quickly become accustomed to a pan au chocolate from the boulangerie in the morning, and a treat of some chocolate concoction in the afternoon. At dinner someone picks up a baguette to complete the evening meal, which is always concluded with a few squares of good quality chocolate.
~View from the Cemetery~
Of course, not every moment is spent on the doorstep of the bakery, although that certainly wouldn’t be a tragedy. We also sit for drawn out meals at tables for one or two in a variety of street cafes overlooked by striped canopies. While my friend and I share the trials and triumphs of the past year, our fellow diners act out a show of improvisational theatre. We in turn, are a part of the performance for them, as well. Cafés are nothing if not a three act masterpiece for the people watcher. In every café and street corner, whether wandering aimlessly or walking with purpose, I have my friend-an expert guide to show me the way. She shares her local knowledge and takes me through the back streets that are only discovered through familiarity. And we talk. Oh, how we talk. With our words, we guide each other on a parallel journey through each of our deepest wishes and desperate fears.
~The most beautiful strawberries I have ever seen anywhere~
There are also the necessary tasks-like visiting the Thursday market to pick up fresh produce and the occasional trip to the grocery to store to get ingredients other than bread for dinner. Following the routine of my local friends performs a similar function, I imagine, to that of a rosary. Each step is predictable, orderly, and contemplative. In between the average, trips to the nearby medieval city or cheese factory in the next town knit the days into a mélange of vacation and reality. Throughout there is the typicality of constant laundry, homework, and errands. Only I am in France, in the valley below the Alps. There is nothing typical about that for me.
As we are walking back from touring a medieval city, we stop at the grocery store to prepare for the evening meal. On the march towards home, I realize I am carrying ingredients in a language I cannot read surrounded by beauty I cannot describe. The juxtaposition of those two facts is wholly laughable and completely introspective. I have achieved the Holy Grail of travel-the opportunity to see a new locale through the eyes and practice of a local. It is a rare and precious gift, one that is sought by many. It is an almost unachievable goal, but despite my lack of planning-or perhaps because of it-I have been gifted with this most exceptional experience.
~Pastries. Everyday there are pastries!~
Although the rhythm of life has been steadily working on my soul throughout the week, it is on this day walking back from the grocery store that I can see the transformation. Not only have I knit back together the raw edges beaten down by my daily grind, but I have also cleared out the musty, grime that had accumulated in the corners. All at once my soul’s shutters are flung open and I am able to shake out the dust. It is a sort of satire that I have found a relief from the weight of my humdrum by stepping into the regular beat of someone else’s shoes. The irony is not lost on me.
This time of year, the light stays in the sky until almost nine o’clock and on this last night before I return to reality refreshed I am happy to sit and watch the laundry ruffle predictably in the wind. Looking back over my week in France, I am reminded of my desperate need to squeeze something valuable out of these seven days. My modis operidi would have me checking my days like banker studying his ledger. These days cannot be so simply quantified. Some days count, and some days must be weighed by the fullness of emotion in them. These days-though short in number and ordinary in practice-have carried great weight in my weary soul- equal, in fact, to the weight of the steady Alps that stand as the stalwart backdrop to the laundry that blows carelessly in the breeze.