How to be French pt. 7: Thursdays are for mountains

Every morning my host mom, Marie-Jo, gets up around 7 and does her Sudoku while sipping some coffee. I usually stumble down around 7:45 after the coffee smell has wafted up to my room and I have hit snooze about four times. She always greets me so cheerfully, as if she has been up for hours. I greatly admire this about her and wish I could be this stoked about early mornings.

Thursday mornings are a little different. I didn’t know it was possible for Marie-Jo to be even more cheerful, but she always is on Thursday mornings. Why? It’s simple.

Thursdays are for mountains.

I praise God all the time for Marie-Jo because she loves the mountains just as much as I do. It’s one the thing I can also really talk about in French without stumbling into English because I truly want to be able to connect with her on this topic.

On Wednesday nights Marie-Jo turns up the volume extra loud when le meteo comes on so she can see what the mountains will be like the next day. As I write this now actually, she is just now getting home from an excursion because it’s Thursday. I love the way she sweeps in through the front door, backpack halfway off and sunhat askew, as she exclaims with much vigor, C’etait magnifique!

On Saturday and Sunday of last weekend, it was my turn to take on the mountains. To say I was in need of some alpine air was an understatement and I could not wait to feel the crunch of my shoes on some trail.

Gavarnie was our destination that Saturday, and let me tell you, to call it grand would not do it justice.

Gavarnie lies in the southern border of Pyrenees National Park. Spain was just over the tips of the mountains that soared far above our heads. Hopping off the bus for the first time, I was happily surprised to find myself pulling my windbreaker tighter around my neck and shoulders. It was nippy.

One of my favorite feelings is being chilly (like really chilly) even when the sun is out. I love the briskness of the wind that turns my nose red and makes for a great excuse to cozy up with some coffee and a book. Brisk is a great way to describe the weather that day. It was the first time in years I truly felt like l was walking through the right season at the right time. In California, October tends to be our summer since the months of June and July are fogged in and strangely cold on the coast. October can be gorgeously (and sometimes uncomfortably) hot, and we give up the feelings of Fall for an extended summer.

But walking through the meadows of Gavarnie, Fall was apparent in the air and the mountains were capped with fresh snow. Bernard, our mountain guide, talked enthusiastically of the horses that roamed in the fields here and how he used to be in charge of corralling them in at the end of the day when he was our age. He walked patiently and did not seem least bit stressed about guiding 40 people on a hike. He smiled and waited for all of us to clumsily make our way, our eyes constantly tilted up to gaze at the towering cliffs. I loved watching the snow being dusted off the peaks, forming quick swirls and patterns that danced in the wind.

We came to the highest waterfall in Europe. It was situated what seemed to be perfectly below the middle of the cliffs and fell without a sound. It looked like a white ribbon that wound it’s way off the mountain, letting its falls be whipped by the wind. Everyone pulled their beanies tighter over their ears and noses turned pink in the cold as we stood in the shade of the mountains.

Sunday was a little different. I went on a (real) hike with a group of French, German, and a handful of students from the U.S., also in Pyrenees National Park. Bernard was our guide once again, and since some of us had been on the hike the day before, I think he wanted to up the difficulty. Our destination was Pic d’Ossau that sat high above Vallee d’Aspe. We set off at a quicker pace, all of us surprised again by the cold.

I couldn’t get over how much I loved the cold. I couldn’t believe how much I adored having my nose run and drip from the chilliness. The cold made me feel alive and the wind was there to remind me of who truly towered over us with those peaks.

As the valley grew small far below us and we continued to climb up and up, I was beginning to wonder if Bernard was secretly carrying krampons for thirty people with him because at this rate, we would be dancing in the snow. The minute I thought we were at the top, we kept getting higher. The grass grew longer and waved in the wind, the peaks that rose up around us sang. They are always singing to me and I was tempted to sing back like Julie Andrews.  

Reaching the top of Pic d’Ossau, I felt the strongest wind I have ever felt. I almost lost my hat, as we ascended. Bernard held up his hands above him at the top as if he were being welcomed back by some old (mountainous) friends. We spotted a mountain goat dashing off nervously over the hills at the sound of us coming. It was one of the most dramatic sites I have ever been a part of---the peaks in the distance looking ominous and craggy, capped with tons of snow. It was cloudy and the wind howled. I wanted to howl back.

Feeling the wind toss us around at the top and being so cold, but not even noticing because we couldn’t get over how incredible it felt to be apart of something so grand, now THAT was being alive. Sometimes I need reminding that  I am small, but I can be a part of something magnificent. I also need to be reminded of what it means to truly be alive. This could explain my love for the freezing ocean water at home---even on foggy days, you better believe we’ll be paddling out. That shock to the system, when embraced with a good attitude, can act the best reminder of what we are meant to feel.

We sat down in the long grass at the top to eat our snacks. I watched Bernard and the way he didn’t seem the least bit cold. It wasn’t until I sat down and tore my gaze from the peaks that I realized I was cold and shivering. But for once, I wasn’t going to let my being uncomfortable, put a damper on the experience. In fact, it was a part of the experience, and I was going to feel every moment with it: freezing hands, pink cheeks from the wind, and hysterical laughter at the constant reminder that I was alive in such a grand place.