Archive for the ‘sledding’ Category

La tempête de neige

January 10, 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

We’re snowed in!

View from la tour

On Thursday, the cold weather that has been wreaking havoc in England (remember, we get about fifty British television stations on the satellite t.v., so we know more about British news than French) blows a cold wind down from the northeast. The clouds lower as I tie up the still-blooming roses on the south wall of the chateau. By the time Susan picks up the kids at school at 5, snowflakes dance in a purple-dark sky. The drivers of the two vans that serve as schoolbuses tell the parents that the buses are cancelled for the next day. The teachers, however, are firm: no decision has been made about cancelling school; we should call in the morning. The other parents call out, “à lundi!” (‘til Monday!) as they leave. The children, holding the big bags of holiday chocolates the teachers have given them, are delirious with the possibility that there might be a snow day.

Ice on the roses

Snow in the South of France is like snow in the U.S. Deep South. It happens only a few times each year, and everything completely stops for a few inches. They have no equipment for snow removal, and drivers are basically inexperienced with snow-driving. It’s also very hilly here. This is all very quaint to us veterans of Vermont’s six-month snow-up-to-the-windows winters. We already had one snow day—the Friday before the Christmas holidays—when about three inches fell just at dawn, barely covering the ground. It wasn’t even enough snow to sled. It melted by noon that day. So when Friday school is cancelled on the basis of another few centimeters on the ground, we’re not surprised. What does surprise us is that the snow keeps falling. Rather, the snow keeps blasting on a horizontal wind out of the northeast… for 56 hours.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Tower of London? Maybe you remember Arcite and Palamon of “The Knights Tale” in The Canturbury Tales, imprisoned in a tower. How about Rapunzel? Believe me, three days snowbound in our tower apartment with two six-year-olds makes me wish for long hair and a charming Prince. The rescue would be worth the hair-pulling.

We play cards. We watch movies. We haul wood up the stairs from the stable. We let the dogs out and in and out and in. We dress the kids in their snowpants and force them outdoors for thirty minutes at a time, then spend the next hour inside trying to warm them up. We do laundry. We play cards, Monopoly, Scrabble. We all sit down to do the kids’ homework—weather vocabulary, naturally:  le printemps, l’été, l’automne, l’hiver. We force the children to write out postcards to be mailed when (if) the storm stops. We bake cookies, cake, bread. We walk down the hill to the mailbox, but French postal carriers apparently don’t take that vow to deliver despite “snow, sleet or freezing rain.” We make hot chocolate until we’re out of milk. Time goes very slowly. The snow screams sideways past the windows. The wind finds little cracks between the stones of the walls. We keep the woodstove cranked high. On Saturday night, we push back the furniture and do Yoga T.V. in the living room.

Sunday dawns clear and white, about eight inches of snow on the ground, including all of the roads. The Toulouse news reports that a seventeen-year snow record has been broken. Avalanche danger is high in the Pyrenees, pink in the sunrise. The temperatures finally rise above freezing at about noon, but no cars pass on the road below. We go outside and look at animal tracks—stone martin, deer, mice, birds—throw a few snowballs, and try to ride the snowboard down the hill though the snow is mostly drifted to the edges. The roads slowly melt. I am a little sunburned. La neige will all be gone by Tuesday evening, and the temperatures are predicted to be back at 50˚ (F) by next weekend. Like prisoners released, we thaw, we move, we let down our hair.

Sledding From the Top of the Pyrénées

December 31, 2009

December 30 dawns foggy with warm air streaming across the snow-capped Pyrénées mountains to our south. One of James and Izzy’s main goals for vacances d’école is to go sledding. Downhill skiing is not within our budget, but we can see the snows on the Pyrénées seemingly right out our windows. It seems we should be able to get there to slide without too much trouble, especially on a day when the weather is predicted to be mild and clear. We do a little research on the Internet and find a cross-country skiing place that has a rental shop and luge hill for children and adults. Google Maps claims we can drive there in an hour and eleven minutes. James watches the sunrise, pink and orange, on the mountains, with some concern. “That looks really high,” James says. “I might be scared to sled all the way down from the top of the Pyrénées.”

We’re packed with snacks and snow pants and extra socks and in the car by 9:30. As we enter the A64 (expressway) heading south, the sun breaks through to burn off the fog. When we exit at Montréjeau about forty minutes later, we’ve got the car windows open, the sky is blue, and the temperature is over 50ºF. The Pyrénées break clear of the clouds, sparkling white over the green meadows and rolling hills. We begin to wind our way south and up through the villages of Nestier, Bize, Nistos-Bas, and Haut-Nistos, and Nistos, following the sign for Nistos Station de Ski at Nistos Cap de Neste. At one hour and eleven minutes, more or less, we’re in the village of Bize. Thank you, Google maps. We continue up. The road is tiny, steep, and winding. Up up up. The grass is still bright green on the sides of the road. No snow, though there are tantalizing peeks through the evergreens of the top of the Pyrénées against blue sky above. Forty-five minutes (and some very white knuckles) later, the tiny road dead-ends in a parking lot above the tree-line. There are perhaps fifteen cars, a chalet-style house with bar/café and rental shop, a small skating rink, and the top of the Pyrénées mountains ringing the bowl. It’s still at least fifty, and the snow is icy and melting, but it’s snow. And it’s gorgeous. The kids change into their snow pants and gloves. We rent two plastic luge sleds (with hand brakes) for €8 and start up the hill.

Picnic in the Snow in the Pyrénées

It’s glorious—absolutely clear, warm, and peaceful. The kids make a couple of runs—though they don’t use the brakes at all and it seems possible that they will, indeed, sled all the way to the bottom of the mountains—and then we have a picnic in on the mountain. There are a few other families with kids sledding, plus a few intrepid snow-hikers and cross-country skiers. A long, very icy trail snakes back and forth across the bowl with a low grade of descent, so after eating, we climb up there and take a few runs with a mom and kid in each sled—moms controlling the brakes. It’s a rush, even with the brakes almost totally engaged. By 2:30, the kids are wet and cold and tired, so we return our sleds, change into dry things, and head back down the mountain.

Drop off at edge of road to Nistos Cap de Neste

At Nestier, we turn north and follow the signs to the Grottes de Gargas, only a short detour from our route home, in the foothills of the Pyrénées near Saint Bertrand de Comminges. At 3, the tour guide herds us all (a group of about twenty, including many children, like ours, on school vacation) up the steps of a hill to the cave entry, guarded by a locked steel door. The grottes consist of two very different main caves, connected in more modern times by a passage. The whole thing has been well-preserved, and the new managers have laid a narrow concrete sidewalk for the tour and installed lights to highlight the most important paintings and etchings. In the first cave we see etchings of ibex, horses, and other animals carved into the walls about 15,000 years ago. The guide speaks some English and is very solicitous of all of the children, inviting them to the front, close to where she uses her red laser pointer to identify the parts of the creatures’ outlines.

The second cave is very different and the art here is much older, dated to around 25,000 years old. Here are at least 192 negative prints of hands made by blowing ground charcoal or manganese oxides and red iron oxides mixed with ocher yellow goethite across hands of men, women, and children so that an outline relief was created. No one knows, of course, why these were made, though theories abound. Some of the hands seem deformed or are positioned into what might be a kind of sign language. Susan supports the theory that fingers were lost to frost bite (this was during the Ice Age, of course) or cut off to avoid gangrene. Maybe the hands were printed as a form of ritual—marking a connection to the spirits within the rock or stone—or as play or entertainment. The guide tells us that these inner caves were not inhabited but seemed to have been reserved for special events like this art making or other rituals.

It’s drippy and spooky in there under ground, so close to the hands of humans—art-makers—who lived 25,000 years ago. Someone touched this wall. A human with a hand like mine. We are breathing, in some way, the same cool damp air they breathed, connected through this touch to stone. It’s humbling.

This day of contrasts—from the thin blue air atop the Pyrénées to touching the long-distant past buried under the rock of the Earth—seems to be a complete moment, a full life experience in some ways. The white moon in the deep blue sky is nearly full as we drive home to the château. We are far from home but also completely at home, here on the small blue planet at the outskirts of the universe, sledding all the way down from the top of the mountains, braking on the ice, enjoying the ride.