July 16: Climbing Alpe D'Huez and Tour Start at Romans

Today was about crossing things off our list. We woke up with a domestic and a foreign agenda, and we managed to wipe out all entries on each front. All around us, St. Antoine was gearing up for a weekend-long medieval festival. We couldn’t decide whether we were glad to be missing it because of congestion and noise, or sad because the kids would have loved all the pirate and wench action. We later found that the medieval festival means loud pop music all night long throughout the village, and that many of the locals actually leave for the duration.

First we needed to find a banque automatique that would dispense enough money to pay what we owed on the house. We had attempted at several different machines. Without knowing what all the symbols mean, and which machines will and won’t recognize your card, and which can only dispense 10 Euro bills and which can dispense 50s, it’s hard to stay in funds. I have no advice, having no clue what it all means, except that when you can get money out of a machine you should get a lot. We drove into St. Marcellin and found a machine attached to an actual bank – a good sign – and it gave us all the bills we needed.

Our next job was to find the market in St. Marcellin. We had been told that the market specialized in flowers, both cut and potted, and I wanted to buy some flowers to fill the pots outside our house in St. Antoine. Our host had not been able to break away from commitments in England to be able to come down and plant flowers this year, so I thought it would be nice if the house were spruced up for the medieval festival. The market was usually on Wednesdays, we knew, but had been moved due to Bastille Day. After driving around St. Marcellin fruitlessly, asking several women who were carrying empty baskets (and looking purposeful) and listening to streams of incomprehensible directions, we gave up and went to a garden store outside town. I bought geraniums and impatiens. Everybody likes those, right?

Back in St. Antoine, Dan went to check in with the neighbors who take care of the house, and I stuck the plants into the planters and gave them a drink. Then we were back into the car and on the road to Romans to see the start of the Tour de France.

One of the difficulties in following the tour is knowing exactly where, in a modern town the size of Romans, the race will be going through. If we had solid internet and an understanding of French, or if we could pick up the phone and ask the authorities, “Um, excuse me, on which road is the Tour de France travelling today?” then we would have a better chance of driving and parking intelligently. As it is, we knew in general that the tour was starting in Bourg de Peage, a suburb of Romans, so we put that into the GPS, drove as close to it as the local gendarmes would allow, and when we got stopped at a barricade, we got out and walked in the general direction that the other people were walking.

Turns out we were on the opposite side of the bridge from the start, but we found the race route and traced it back, a long long way toward the actual starting gate. We knew we had arrived when we heard the announcer over the loudspeaker, and saw the MASS of people. There was definitely a festival atmosphere, people walking around wearing tanks of frappucino and dispensing it with little nozzles into sample cups, balloons, banners, flags, and tons of TDF fans. As we learned yesterday, TDF fans are bloodthirsty, cutthroat individuals who will butcher their sainted grandmother to get a good spot on the railing. But in the absence of visible riders, they seemed to be just milling around having a nice time.

This lady had a bag on her head because it was hot:

Here's the Ricorre guy. Ricorre is like instant coffee but more milky:

We got as close as we could to the big stage, so that when the riders started signing in (they have to officially sign in to race at the beginning of each day, and it’s become a big ritual) we could sort of almost see. Each rider that signed in, the unintelligible announcer said his name, so we would hear the equivalent of this: “Oogly boogly woogly woggly ANDY SCHLECK! Boogly woogly!” And then the crowd would go nuts. At last the riders began to fill in the road behind the starting gate, and Benny (in typical Benny form) wormed his way to the front of the rail (sometimes on hands and knees) where we were standing, ending up next to a Cofidis rider. I passed him a Sharpie and my international driver’s license, and he (grudgingly) got the guy’s autograph. He wasn’t impressed with this rider because he wasn’t an American. I made myself a little pile of rocks to stand on, and as the riders filed in I saw Andy Schleck in yellow, Contador (not in yellow) and Mark Cavendish.

Then the riders moved up to the actual starting gate, and I lost all ability to see anything, being admittedly short, and the crowd on the rail was five deep. The last thing I heard was Benny saying “Wave your flag, mom, wave it like crazy!” So I stepped back, waved the American flag, and just tried not to get trampled. Dan had Sadie on his shoulders, so I could see her and knew where he was, but we both completely lost track of Benny. The riders stayed in this position for a while and then they were off, rolling off toward the city of Romans and the rest of the stage, and the crowd began to urgently mill about.

When we finally found Benny, he had an amazing tale to tell. He had poked his head over and seen Lance by the railing, then wormed and squirmed his way over to Lance Armstrong and had a conversation! According to Benny, he said, “I’m from America” and Lance said, “That’s cool,” and then they had a little chat about cycling. That’s all we could get out of him – I don’t know if he doesn’t remember or if it didn’t process accurately at the time, or what, but when we found him in the end he was very pumped! He’s very happy to have now met Barack Obama and Lance Armstrong. I told him Lance is probably more famous – after all, forty odd people have been President of the United States, but only one person has won the Tour de France seven times.

Back in the car, we got on the road to Grenoble and Alpe D’Huez. I had such a good time playing O Fortuna for Dan while he was climbing Mt. Ventoux that I wanted to find just the right song for the brutal, soul-crushing switchbacks of Alpe D’Huez. We considered trying to find the song that’s played by the band in the gazebo on Bugs Bunny when Yosemite Sam goes up the alp and back down and up and down. Then I had the idea to use the yodeling goatherd song from The Sound of Music, and MIRACULOUSLY Dan had the Gwen Stefani song that samples it on his iPod. Trust Dan to anticipate a good joke and get out in front of it.

We went back to Bourg d’Oisans and Dan got kitted out, ready to roll. After stopping by the DEPART sign to start his clock, he headed up to switchback 21. The turns are all numbered, and each named after a cyclist who won a stage on the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong’s turn is 19. We saw lots of people on the way up taking their pictures with the signs next to various turns. It was particularly poignant to me to see one pair of guys looking absolutely worn to a frazzle, taking their pictures next to turn 14. Having been up and down the mountain a couple of times now (in the car) I know that it really does seem like you’ve come an enormously long way, at turn 14. But I also know that it is still a long long way to the top!

Dan and I did the now familiar dance where I’d get ahead of him, he’d pass me, I’d get ahead of me, he’d pass me, etc. on up the mountain. At the last turn, I followed him up and tried to get video of him reaching the summit. Up on the top, there’s a charming little village with bike shops (in the winter they’re ski shops), restaurants, a post office and Mairie and everything, just a real little city way up in the sky. As Dan and the kids had some drinks in a restaurant with the Tour de France playing on a flatscreen, I snuck off to buy Dan an Alpe D’Huez jersey and shorts. His birthday is tomorrow, and I found one that’s skeletal and ironic enough that he might even wear it around town.

The kid were wearing their Celerity Cycling jerseys so we took a family picture by the summit. I have to say it was pretty fun to sit up there at an outdoor table and watch the people struggling up the mountain. A supreme effort, this climb, psychologically and physically. I’m impressed with anyone who even attempts it, but I’m particularly impressed with Dan who made it up in just under an hour. The world record is 36 minutes – I think he did awesome! For a guy who’s about to turn 38.

Back at home, we ate Friday night “clean out the fridge” dinner, and Sadie and I watered the flowers. Sadie had her turn to play her violin out in the street, with lots and lots of foot and car traffic as the medieval festival turned up the volume in preparation for the next day. She played all her favorite songs from book 1, sounding fantastic and huge. The acoustics just outside Maison St. Georges are so fantastic, with the sound echoing off the stone walls on each side. I think she really enjoyed playing, getting applause from the passersby and rocking out her tunes.

A fan, leaning out the kitchen window:

Dan walked the children up to the glacier by the abbey for ice cream, and when they got home it was time for bed. I spent the time packing and cleaning up the house, taking a quiet bath upstairs, hanging laundry, and getting ready to leave our awesome home in the mountains.


July 15: Climbing Mt. Ventoux and a Tour de France Finish

I told Dan I could hear it whispering to him… Mt. Ventoux. The most sinister of all the Alpen climbs. Come to me, Dan, it was saying, and bring me a baguette. Speaking of baguettes, I sent Benny on an errand this morning to the boulangerie in the village. It was the second morning he’s had this responsibility – getting our morning bread from the baker. I give him two euro coins, send him out the door, and he trots down the little street, past the mairie, the hostellier, the pub, and on to the edge of town where the bakery is. There he asks for deux baguettes, and we are in bread for the day. I can almost see him all the way there by leaning out the kitchen window, but not quite. He is very very pleased with himself that he has this intense responsibility, and he takes it very seriously. The sight of his brisk, important little orange head bopping along through the village is so cute it almost tears my heart:

But today, we were on our way to bring a baguette to Mt. Ventoux, so we packed up our supplies and got on the road to Provence. We could see it in the distance, from the freeway even, with its antenna on top, shrouded in clouds. Ventoux is by itself, not in a range like the other big Alps – it’s solitary. Driving along in Provence on our way to the mountain, there were lots of vineyards, fruit orchards, and roadside stands selling melons and tomatoes. Every little village was planning a festival of something – apricots, watermelons, or some other resident of the produce aisle. It looks like what I imagine Tuscany looks like – clay roofs, Italian-looking churches, wine tastings everywhere.

Malaucene was the city from which we departed on our climb. It was a mad hubbub of cyclists, with lots of shops spilling out onto the sidewalks of the main area – flowers, dresses, postcards, drinks, cycling jerseys that said “Ventoux Finisher.” I tried to get Dan interested in one of those jerseys but he wasn’t having it. It’s a hilarious difference between France and Virginia: in France, people wear the cycling kits of their favorite team all the time. In Virginia, that would be considered simultaneously presumptuous and lame. You wouldn’t show up to a training ride wearing a Saxobank jersey, or a RadioShack jersey – and you definitely wouldn’t race in one. Here, cyclists wear jerseys in support of their favorite team, or even their favorite cyclist – we saw a Tom Boonen jersey for example: QuickStep team jersey with the Belgian National Champion colors. No one thinks anything of it. It’s like in the US if someone went to the mall in a Brett Favre jersey. Same thing.

We got Dan into his gear, and after a quick stop for the socks he forgot, he was off on his way up the mountain.

Mont Ventoux is a thousand times nicer for motorists (and photographers) than Alpe d’Huez! There were many many places for us to pull off and wait for Dan to come up the mountain. We did this many, many times, with the kids waving their flags and running beside him, and me taking pictures.

Then we’d get in the car and chase him down, and I was playing Carmina Burana out the window at top volume. The best thing about the climb was that Dan was motoring up at an amazing speed – he was owning everyone on the road and I had a lot of “That’s my boyfriend!” moments as I would pull over thinking I had lots of time to set up my shot, only to see Dan boiling around the corner far before I expected him, looking fresh as a daisy. He was talking to the kids, laughing, and pounding the mountain into paste at the same time. After all that ominous whispering from the mountain, Dan ended up eating his own baguette after all.

My weakness, on the other hand, was multiplied with every passing kilometer. At first I was interested in the vistas in the context of taking pictures, but when it gets to the point that the signs say you are actually on Mont Ventoux and no longer climbing to it, and you start peeking over the side of the road and seeing about a mile down to the valley, and the guard rails stop, and then you stop being able to look over the side at all. Because your mind goes a little vacant, and you feel like you’ll hurl yourself over the side, just to have it over. OF course if you actually hurled yourself over the side in most places you would fall on your face about 10 feet down. But in some places you could imagine yourself drifting on the air currents all the way down to the rocks below. Or at least, you could if you were me.

The scope is impossible to communicate, but you can smell clouds, and you can no longer make out individual things on the ground below. It is so high, it’s really like looking out an airplane. Except you’re just standing there, in only your skin. When you turn to the left, and look beside you, there’s a very ordinary bush or tree, or a piece of concrete, or your car. Then when you turn to the right, and look beside you, there’s a precipice that takes your breath away. Having been on Ventoux, I will no longer be scared of bell towers or manmade monuments of any kind. It was just in another dimension. I felt like I was on Mt. Olympus, tiny and huge at once.

We made one last stop before the summit, above the tree line to take Dan’s picture on the part that’s been compared to the surface of the moon. One last place to cheer and yell and wave flags, and then he was at the summit and we drove up to meet him.

At the very top is some kind of tower, and also an observatory, and a lot of ground up rocks. It almost looks like sand dunes. Creepy. After we met up with the triumphant Dan at the summit for some photos, and explored around the little cluster of vendors and shops up there, we continued on to the other side of the mountain. The road up goes up and over – while we were up there, a guy driving a small car misjudged where the road was and ended up dumping his car over a bit of an incline, and crashing into some bicycles. There was an audible gasp from the entire group at the top.

Here they are at the official summit:

Dan descended, I descended, and we met up at the bike shop in Bedoin, where I convinced Dan he really needed a Ventoux jersey, and he submitted to me purchasing one on his behalf. I want to watch him ride around Virginia with a Ventoux jersey, and everyone that thinks he’s bragging can suck it, they’re just jealous.

Collecting ourselves and our thoughts, we pointed the car for Valence and drove like hell. According to the schedule we had, the tour would be finishing there at 5pm, and we had just a couple of hours to get into place. When we got off the autoroute, the road into Beorg de Valence was closed, where we knew the Tour was coming, so we parked on the side of the road like all the other schlubs, and started hoofing it. We got within the final kilometer and stopped to watch the caravan drive by. We caught some madeleines, and Sadie caught a slap bracelet. I saw a grown woman mauling a child Benny’s age over a t-shirt thrown from one of the vehicles. These people take their caravan swag very very seriously. It’s also very hazardous standing there by the side of the road when people are hurling out bottles and newspapers and whatnot – they can whack you right in the side of the head and no one cares.

Benny went up and down the railing chatting with other Americans while we held his spot on the barricade. People will stomp you, push you, elbow and sit on you to get your spot. Only Benny has the completely insensate attitude that allows him to motor through a crowd like that and get to the front.

We waited and waited for the riders to come through, then finally spotted the camera helicopter and the crowd got even more intense. Then they were upon us! The lead group came through the S turn very fast, setting up for the sprint, and then lots of following riders and groups came through.

We were trying to get a good picture of the “You Got Dropped” t-shirt next to a dropped rider, but it was hit and miss with the shot and I didn’t know who was dropped and who was in that first group – I didn’t want my great shot to be Lance or Levi getting dropped!

So, after all the riders came through we walked down all the way to the finish line, just to see it. We saw the VIP lounge and trucks, and all the décor – picked up a blue parking sign off a telephone poll, and listened to them doing the podium presentation. We even got to see some guy in the Livestrong tent putting his hand in his pants:

Finally satisfied that we had seen it all, we hiked the mile back to the car, boiling hot, happy, dehydrated.

The children had been so excellent and were so hot and hungry, and we so needed air conditioning and Wifi, that we had dinner at McDonald’s. After they ate, the children played in the playground and we Wifi-ed to our hearts’ content.

Pulling ourselves away from news of the world, of the Tour, of our friends, and of work, we stopped at the grocery store next door – I needed milk and we needed Coca Light. We had ten minutes until the store was going to close – plenty of time, I thought. The security guard greeted me with his hands up showing “ten minutes” and I agreed. Sadie, with me, picked up a little cart to push, and followed me as we rushed through the bakery, rushed through the store on our way to the milk. Another security guard. “C’est ferme” he said. It’s closed. “Je besoin lait et ouefs” I pleaded. He escorted me to the milk aisle (unrefrigerated – also unrefrigerated eggs) and I got my stuff, then he escorted me to the check-out, where the lights were being turned off. When they say closing at 9:30, they mean they are actually closing at 9:30, and not just the doors.

Home, wine, Umberto Eco, children to bed, me in the bath, then sliding into bed myself. Couldn’t even bring myself to look at the pictures, I was so tired. I know this: when we get home from France I am definitely going to need a vacation!


July 14: That Orange is a Carrot

Happy Bastille Day! Bastille Day seems to be a bit like memorial day and the Fourth of July combined. Last night as we were driving home from the Alps we saw lots of fireworks in various cities we were passing in the dark. This morning we decided to take it easy and catch our collective breath for a bit, do some laundry, catch up the scrapbooks, and meander around the town. The kids had met one of our neighbors a few days ago… her name is Anne Marie Giroud and she is a watercolor artist. I bought a couple of her postcards and as she spoke a bit of English we chatted for a while. This morning as I stuck my head out the window she was passing by, and told us we should come up to the Abbaye, where they were going to have “music and flower for the dead people.” We set down our breakfast things and, hearing drums, followed the sound up to the church yard. Near the memorial for the children of the country who had died for France, there was a brass band playing, and a small crowd had gathered. The band played and sang, the band and some firemen marched around. We found our friend, who invited us to stay up in the yard there for wine and food, but we remembered our breakfast coffee and excused ourselves back to the house.

I had this crazy idea that we’d be able to find a local river or stream for the children to play around in, and seeing on the map that there was a stream at the bottom of the village, we strolled down the hill to investigate. The bank was steep, the stream was small, and the aroma left something to be desired. The water was at the bottom of the village, and it also may have been what was washing the bottoms in the village, if you know what I mean. Undaunted, we set off down the main street, ducked into a terraced bar/pizzeria to ask directions. The waitress rattled out something about a “lac” and gave us directions we did not understand, with hand motions that we kind of did. It was too late to leave, however, because a flatscreen on the wall was showing the Tour de France, and we also encountered the owner of the establishment, a wild character from Marseilles, who accused Dan of being Scottish because of his compression socks, and accused me of being a fan of soccer… don’t know why. He talked about Mark Cavendish, showed us some risqué placemats picturing Mont Ventoux and a woman in a very uncomfortable cycling outfit, and brought us drinks and ice cream so we could watch the Tour.

After a bit, we went out in search of the lake, in the car. We wandered about in this direction and that before deciding to check with the Office of Tourism in town, and the girl there was able to tell us exactly where it was, complete with a map. We found it. The lake itself was basically a clay bowl, full of light green water, very pretty. The children and I played in the lake, next to a charming pair of old ladies playing cards on a portable picnic table. Here's a link to camping at Lac Roybon.

You know how I appreciate good clay – we found some very sticky, firm deposits of grey and red clay on the lake bed, which we dug up and made into a little family of fishermen. It was kind of weird swimming in the clay bowl, but the water was cool and fresh, the wind made gentle little ripples on the face of the water, and the place was very quiet. If you’re feeling incredulous about Dan swimming in a lake, you are right – Dan left us there for a couple of hours and drove into town to find Wifi, answer email, and do some work.

Back at home in the village, we saw our friend Anne Marie selling her art in a doorway by the Pharmacie, and she asked Benny to come and play the violin for her. He ran and got his violin, and began to play, right out on the street. Lots of people came to listen from around the village, and people even stopped in cars, blocking the street, to hear him. He played great, perhaps better than I have ever heard him play, and with great expression and dynamics and facial acrobatics and whatnot – quite a performance! He played Hungarian Dance at the end, and I know Mrs. V would have been shocked (and pleased) at how well he performed all the tempo changes and pauses and stuff – it was a miracle! Everyone loved it, applauded, praised him. It was a fantastic experience for him. Anne Marie gave him a postcard, and one for his sister, and I bought one of her larger prints to hang in our house.

Having asked for a restaurant recommendation from our friend the artist, we wanted to try Auberge de Abbaye which was described as pricey yet wonderful. It was both, but the wonderfulness was worth the price.

Dan and I both ordered pretty much randomly – I ordered the menu du jour, having no idea what was coming, and Dan ordered veal. The kids had the kid menu, which represented itself as viande du jour, ravioli and ice cream. That was close enough to acceptable that they both agreed to eat it.

The first thing to arrive was my salad: crisp baby greens, peas, cold green beans, carrots, grapefruit and orange chunks, vinegary sauce, and a big square of toasted cheese in the middle – toasted that it had a sort of crust. I ate half, Dan ate half, and we both pronounced it awesome. The second thing to arrive was Dan’s little pots of something or other. One was a mushroom crème brulee, and the other was a crème of something else, and you had to drink it with a straw. Dan was not over the moon about that. The kids’ food came and they commenced pushing it around. The raviolis were the same as Benny had the other day – green in the middle and small and soft, but this time in a creamy sauce. The viande du jour was rosemary chicken. Very nice. Both ate it.

The next thing to come out was Dan’s beef and my fish. I am not a friend of fish usually, but this was a majestic fish, beautifully cooked, with a creamy orange sauce. It came with my own helping of ravioli. Between the fish and the ravioli was a squiggly line of some tart raspberry sauce which ended up being awesome with both the ravioli and the fish. Dan’s veal plate was super complicated, with little spoons of this and that lying around on it, and it was accompanied by a little crock of potatoes and cheese. In between each course the waitress came and scraped off the table with a kind of squeegee thinger, to get rid of the crumbs.

As we sat there eating, we examined the abbey, the gargoyles, heard the bells ringing the hours and halfhours, and saw the sun going down. Finally it was time for dessert. Dan’s was kind of a fudge brownie duo with chocolate sauce, and the kids had their glace. My dessert was the most interesting thing of the night it was a perfect ball of frozen orange something or other with a little sprig of mint stuck in the top, nestled in a bed of creamy fluff. This was sitting on top of a layer of clear orange gelatin stuff with herbs in it, and on the bottom was kind of an eggy creamy bit. The whole thing was served in a martini glass. I ate it, expecting it all to be orange flavor, but the iced part in the middle was definitely not orange. It was spicy, almost, like it had basil in it, and I was equally confused and fascinated by it – it was so good but so weird! I couldn’t figure it out. But it was AWESOME. Dan and I experimented with getting all four flavors on the spoon at the same time and eating it – definitely the best taste of the night.

When the waitress came to clear that away I asked her what it was, and was able to make out in her French explanation that the ice cream was carrot. Hearing that made a lot of sense! Carrot ice cream – aha, that’s why it had that strange savory flavor! But it was so creamy, not what you’d expect from carrot ice cream at all. It was as if you took really fancy carrot soup, froze it, told it that it was an orange, gave it a little bed of magical frothy sugar and cream, and then put a minty little hat on it. With basil.

At the end of the night, I had a new understanding of how eating out can be an entertaining experience – waiting to see what comes out with each course, trying new things and seeing how different chefs prepare your favorite things. It’s not that I’m planning to become a foodie – I’m not that interested. But I can better grasp now why someone would drop a sizeable hunk of cash on a dinner out. It is entertaining. And they do treat you with superb graciousness. Experts at cooking, experts at serving with flourish, experts at tolerating our broken French. Bonne soiree!


July 13: Losing Dan in the Alps is Surprisingly Easy

This morning the plan was to get on the road early, but we only managed to emerge from our maison at about 11am. Coffee in the coffee press was so distracting, and somehow this renovated but still ancient kitchen begs to be lingered in. I love it.

Our first stop was at E.Leclerc to buy various power cables and also a Netbook. Dan can't go without reading email and accessing the internet, and his new laptop isn't holding a charge at all, not even for one minute. So, Dan now works from this tiny laptop the size of a journal -- pretty awesome actually! The one twist is that it has a French keyboard. Instead of QWERTY, it has AZERTY, and lots of other strange mix-ups. Takes a bit of getting used to -- fortunately you can switch back and forth from English to French keyboard input, depending on whether you're going to look at the keys or just blithely type on the wrong things and have the right things show up.

This day's itinerary included cycling high holy places like Alpe D'Huez, Col Gabilier, Col de le Croix de Fer, and Col Telegraph. The idea was to start from L'Bourg d'Oisans and go around in a big circle, ending in Alpe D'Huez, the mother of all alpen climbs, frequently featured in the Tour de France, and terrifyingly high and long -- a 11 kilometer climb that's basically straight up, with 21 switchbacks. OF course this was planned right after he'd gone over Gol Cabilier, which is even worse. We drove through Grenoble and up into the Alps.

Words cannot express how big the Alps are. I think that what I was expecting was mountains that ended at some far point, high in the distance, in the clouds. There would be inclines upon inclines, ending in distant slopes and hazy snowy peaks. What I did not expect was the steepness of the mountains, so that the summit was almost so close you could count the trees, and yet so far it makes you feel a little sick. The Alps are very high and very abrupt -- there is no gentle slope, there is no steady climb, it's valley and river and flat respite, and then it's straight up. And a lot of times it's just bare rock, thousands of feet up, layers and layers of rock. You can almost see how it was shot up out of the earth as the tectonic plates collided -- Benny says they are still colliding and the Alps are still growing. He says he has done his research.

The Alps are astonishing and sobering and beautiful, but they also made me feel sick, not just because of my nervousness of heights (I won't call it fear, it's not that, it's almost just an involuntary pain that goes up the back of my legs and through my feet) but just because of the sheer enormity and unfamiliarity of it. It was like being dumped into an alien world -- there were no reference points for the scope of those mountains. I'm telling you, whatever I had seen on TV or in pictures or read about in books or novels, or thought about, there was nothing that prepared me for how the Alps actually were. They are huge. Terrifyingly, earth-rendingly, neck-wrenchingly huge. They are something else, some other part of life, some harder, slower part, and the sight of the little elecrical wires traipsing over the summits, with the steel men holding them up so purposefully, tirelessly, kind of made me sad for humankind. So businesslike, so efficient, and so tiny and frail.

We arrived at Bourg D'Oisans, Dan put his bike together, and just like that, he was off, not to return for at least five hours. We planned that he would text me and I would meet him at the foot of Alpe D'Huez, camera in hand. I had terrible nerves that something would go wrong, but what can we do? We have to just press onward and deal with the difficulties that arise as they arise. No one can actually fall over a precipice and be dashed against the rocks because that just doesn't happen in this movie of my life, of which I am the star. And that's what I kept telling myself.

After we dropped off Dan, I drove us into Grenoble, which is actually a really big city with lots of skyscrapers and scientific complexes and apartment buildings and whatnot. Thanks to GPS, I was able to find what I was looking for: Telepherique, a cable car that would take us across the river to the old side of Grenoble, and on up to the Fort de la Bastille, where we could get a good view of the Alps and Grenoble and look deep into our own souls and see if we had the fortitude to let our children meander around against horrific drops with only these puny, half-rusted iron bars keeping them from certain death. The answer: Yes, we did. But we screeched at them a lot while up at the Fort.

The place was buzzing with preparations for a rock show, and also the fort was decorated in some strange mural art. Here's an example:

When the children had had enough of the Fort and its environs, and we'd sniffed up enough alpen flowers to give a monk a headache, we stopped by the gift shop to buy postcards (and a French flag which Benny dearly loves and a small grey and white rabbit imprinted with the somber word: Grenoble: which Sadie dearly loves) and bundled back into the cable car.

More on the Telepherique in another post -- for now I'll just say I've probably been more terrified but not that I can remember. There were multiple times during the day when I ruminated, was childbirth worse than this? I'm sure it was, but... being up really high with seemingly nothing between you and the abyss is pretty rough. For me. The children can't get enough of it.

Speaking of insane drops, we did a recon drive up Alpe D'Huez, to spot good places for photography when Dan goes up it. The thing about this climb is that the way it looked to me on TV and the way it really was were two completely different things. This is a monumental climb -- there's no "Wow that was hard!" It's like, I was this person before I climbed Alpe D'Huez and now I'm another person, after I did it. I saw many, many cyclists grinding up that hill, and the 21 switchbacks around three faces of a huge mountain.

By the time we had got to the top I was gasping in fear, the children were delighted with the view, and I was scared for Dan. IT is a huge climb, words cannot express how huge, how much it goes on and on, how winding and irregular those switchbacks really are, how the mountain looks like, oh, here's a populated area, I am near the top, and then puts you back out in no man's land for another five miles, almost straight up. Anyone who can get up that thing has my profound respect. I do not want to try it, ever. I think it might take what's left of my soul. Fortunately Dan doesn't have to worry about that, having eaten his soul accidentally years ago, and not missed it since.

Here's a picture of the pastures / ski slopes / snow up at the very top:

We drove back go Bourg D'Oisans, hoping for word from Dan. I had charged the Netbook and now found a quiet spot beside a little mountain stream that the city has corralled into a little channel, where it flows crystal clear under little bridges and through a park. There is a huge log over it, for running back and forth, and that's what the children did for two hours while I updated the blog and posted pictures.

We had one message from Dan from the summit of Col de Telegraph, and then nothing. I began to panic that he was on Alpe D'Huez and I was missing it, so we went back again and climbed straight up to the top... and back down again, clinging to the side of the mountain desperately, fighting the urge to vomit. The thing is... why abandon guard rails near the top of the mountain? Isn't that where you need guard rails the MOST? Think!

At the summit, we got a text from Dan that he was descending Col Galibier and had been taken 30KM outside his intended path by a wrong turn. The light was fading and we decided to pack it in with the four climbs he had done, to come back and do Alpe D'Huez another day. I drove a hideous route on D1091 (if you've been there, you know) toward Col Gabilier and finally, after crying to some random old guys sitting at an outdoor cafe somewhere in the mountains (they were leathery and looked angry on approach, but actually spoke English enthusiastically and were very kind to me as I was trying to figure out where to go. "DRIVE SLOW. HAVE A GREAT DAY," intoned one as I drove away, his accent sounding like something between a drunk lunatic and Stephen Hawking.

Finally, after several signs that indicated we should stop if the light was flashing, because an avalanche was imminent, we ran into Dan. With him safe in the car and eating a ham sandwich, I felt so relieved I cried. The children were really great today, helping me overcome my many uncertainties. They impress me with always finding something to enjoy, like the log in the stream that was too cold to swim in, or a game they made up with the flag and rabbit on the way home. Today they saw things they may never see again -- those Alps, that cable car, that view of Grenoble, that insane climb. I wonder if they will remember the site of the Alps soaring in brown rock overhead, or the fish they saw in the stream, under the log they lay down on, trailing a stick in that crystal clear water.