Thursday 28 November 2013

out before the lifts open

It’s been snowing heavily over the last fortnight out here in the Pyrenees. It's still only a few days until the ski stations open this coming weekend, but some people just can’t wait that long!

Last weekend we dusted off the ski touring equipment and went out for our first outing of the season up above the ski station at Luz Ardiden.

It was gloriously sunny lower down but as we climbed higher up the slope, the wind picked up and the sky gradually became overcast.

At the top of the ridge, we were greeted with a freezing wind as we hurried to get our skins off and ready for the descent, through half a metre of powder.

Whether we are out on snow shoes, skis or simply a sledge, the first time out in the snow is always magical.

Tuesday 26 November 2013


Having been hunted for so long, isards on this side of the watershed are notoriously secretive and discreet creatures.

Which makes any encounter, no matter how brief, with one of these gracious animals even more magical.

Spotting an isard on our way up the col des mulets earlier in the month.

Saturday 23 November 2013

autumn falls, winter snows

Wake early. Throw back the shutters. Lying in bed watching the snowflakes softly tumble from the slate grey sky.  

Early morning snow on the Eglise des Templiers
No secret what it all means. I've heard the storks overhead in the night, flying south to sunnier climbs. I've felt the chill in the morning air. But with the appearance of the first snows on the mountain tops and down here in the valley this past week, it's made it all that bit more official.

Autumn leaves, snowy peaks

The clocks went back a month ago this weekend. Summer is a distant memory. Autumn came, but it appears Winter was not far behind. We are nearing the end of  November and the scale is already tipping. Darkness is starting to win out as night falls sooner and the sun lingers less and less.

Defiant oak leaves at the Napoléon monument

Winter has arrived earlier than expected, already got her feet under the table. Not that I'm complaining. Not yet, anyway...

Quick stroll before lunch to Solférino chapel

Tuesday 19 November 2013

la braderie d'hiver, le pull d'automne

Ça se passe toujours beaucoup plus vite qu'on ne pense. En retrouvant la neige sur les cimes samedi matin, on se disait "Voilà l'automne, bientôt l'hiver."

J'aime l'automne, cette parenthèse avant l'hiver. J'aime novembre, sa variété. Dans la journée, de la brume le matin, suivi souvent de cieux bleus sur les feuilles jaunes. Le premier sur-poudrage de neige qui fait parler tout le monde. Les vrais nuits de gel.

Alors, il fallait un nouveau pull. Samedi matin, tout le village est venu fouiller parmi les fringues et les skis de la braderie d'hiver. Sur une table de pulls d'hommes, j'y ai trouvé mon bonheur: un magnifique pull en laine. Ample. Bien chaud. 

Vert, bleu, écru, orange. Porter sur moi l'automne: les potirons, les châtaignes, les sous-bois. Refléter la saison dans la douceur de laine. C'est bien, un nouveau pull...d'occasion.


me: only sun, 
clouds, the wide azure 
arc of the sky. Below me: snow, 
mountain, the Earth. All that needs knowing 
is that with every step, I am moving ever forward, 
ever upward. All that needs knowing is that the law of
 altitude dictates that which goes up, must surely come back down.

First back country ski of this Winter season

Saturday 16 November 2013

first snows

The first cold of the season blew in Thursday night. I couldn't sleep, so I snuggled up by the fire with my book, listening to the gentle flic-floc of sleet falling onto our chimney top and migrating storks fly due south overhead. 

The snow continued all the next day, making my drive down to work quite exhilarating. When I got back later in the evening, we ate steaming veggie curry by the fire, listening to the satisfying sound of snow sliding off the roofs.

This morning, we awoke to blue skies and white peaks: the first snows of autumn.

Our village, Luz-Saint-Sauveur, beneath the first snows of autumn

This will be my fifth Pyrenean winter. But I'm never quite ready for this, the abruptness of the seasons. What happened to balmy nights, sleeping with the doors and windows open? What happened to foraging for chestnuts and walnuts and mushrooms? What happened to our autumnal rambles in autumnal knitwear?

This being the Pyreneans of course, it only takes the wind to turn and we may well be eating lunches out on the balcony again by next week. That's the way our weather goes down here. But even if it warms up tomorrow, it's too late now. The cold has happened. A new pair of mittens has been cast on. The first fire has been lit.

And we've had our first ski of the season. More on that later...

Thursday 14 November 2013

a school

Story time in English with the Infant class
At the breakfast table a week or so ago, I was asked by a curious couch-surfer what brought me to the Pyrenees. So early in the morning and with a busy day of teaching ahead of me, I was initially stumped. As I drove to a neighbouring valley for my first lesson, I shifted through the layers of reasons, trying to pinpoint the exact reason: university, necessity, university...

Later in the week, I was invited to an evening of poetry in Esquièze, and I stumbled upon the real reason I came here: une ecole.

It is so long since I last set foot in that school as a visiting English Language Teacher that I had almost forgotten...

It was only a couple of years ago that I hang up my coat for the last time, but every time I walk past I feel I could reach out and open the door to that school, finding my seat and guiding the children through the basics of the English language. Change is inevitable and is of course hard. But were there not a constant stream of comings and goings in that little school, it wouldn't be such a wonderfully rich and dynamic place of learning and exchange.

This valley has been a place of so many firsts for me, sometimes it seems as if every gushing stream, jagged peak and rounded stone has been instrumental in shaping the course of my life.

And here, a school. My first as a teacher. Here in this hallway we helped the little ones out of their ski boots each morning in the winter. Here in the garden, we planted daffodil bulbs in the Spring. We lit candles in December and I taught the children to sing English Christmas carols. They scuttled in with their new pencils and school bags in the first week of September.

All so long ago now as to have been a dream. But it wasn't a dream. I have the evidence right here: "Oh Fran, tu venais nous voir quand on étais petit..."

I walk past that school, bump into pupils and parents almost every day. Perhaps that was the reason for the inexplicable deep sadness that filled my days since moving back here last year and until very recently.

I am no longer in my beloved school, but the memories will stay forever fresh.

Life has moved on and the children are growing up. But then if I take a moment to think about it, I realise that so am I, in both ways...

Tuesday 5 November 2013

around the table

Around the table this evening we are two gardiens, four mountaineers, one walking guide, and me, a linguist.

There is plenty of good food, good wine and goodwill. Moments such as these make staying the night in a réfuge worth the hard slog up the hill.

When the soup and wine inevitably run dry, the words continue to flow. The conversation, as is often the case in a refuge, is excitingly multilingual and diverse, flowing effortlessly from French to English and back to French. No need to be formal in situations like this, a friendly tu is enough to do away with any shyness.

Where have you come from? What are you doing tomorrow?

The mountaineers continue to talk as the tables are cleared and wiped clean. They form small groups, huddling around maps and guidebooks, or warming themselves by the stove, sharing stories and advice.

We leave the mountaineers to it, joining Boris and Pauline in the kitchen as we help them attack the mountain of washing up the others have left in their wake.

Saturday 2 November 2013

autumn in the Gaube Valley

Last weekend, we were invited by our friends Boris and Pauline to join them up at their Mountain hut for their last weekend of the season. 

High winds and rain were forecast. We went anyway, making sure to pack our waterproofs and down jackets. 

In the early morning light, we climb through the woods from Pont d'Espagne to the Lac de Gaube. We've been expecting the leaves to change for weeks. Now they seem to have done it overnight. In the lower part of the trail, we walk through tunnels of red and gold towards the turquoise lake. We slide through piles of dried leaves, shrivelled and crisp under foot. 

It is a Saturday, in the middle of the holidays, so there are plenty of other walkers out on the trail. We pause briefly by the shimmering waters of the Lac du Gaube. From here, the north face of the Vignemale is usually visible, but this morning, he's wearing a cloudy hat, pulled down low over his eyes. Leaving the crowds behind, we continue the trail along the eastern side of the lake, being careful not to twist an ankle as we hop from boulder to boulder. Next time we come here it will be winter, and we'll be able to ski straight across the frozen lake.

Above the lake, the path rises slowly as the valley opens out into a series of long water meadows. Beyond, the lower part of the vertical cliffs and glacier of the Vignemale are always in sight as we edge our way southwards, blocking the head of the valley and the way to Spain.

At the final plateau, we overtake a French couple. "Is it far to the réfuge?" they ask us. "Oh, only about another twenty minutes or so," we reply. The wife is clearly exhausted. The husband looks crestfallen. They decide to turn back, and leave us to continue alone.  
When we arrive at the hut, Boris is outside chopping wood ready for the winter. Pauline is inside, finishing off this evening's desert: chocolate mousse for thirty ravenous mountaineers. N stays out to give Boris a hand. I'm happy to get out of the biting wind, take off my pack and find a place beside the wood-burner with my book before we lend a hand with the evening service at 7pm.