Spring Break: The Final Chapter

27 Apr

It’s been ten days since I returned from my month-long European adventure, but I didn’t have time to write a new post upon returning to the busy world of schoolwork, until now. So prepare yourself for a long update, chronicling my adventure through the amazing, beautiful Alps, and my return to a blossoming England.

We left off in Grenoble, at the edge of the French Alps. While the scenery was quite cool, Grenoble was a rather uninteresting sprawl of modern buildings…and it was a pain to have to take the tram back and forth between the city centre and the youth hostel in Echriolles, a southern suburb. The main attraction in the city was the Bastille, which in itself wasn’t much to see, but it provided a great view of the city in the Isère Valley:

The above photograph is facing south; to the west lie the high peaks of the Alps, and it was in front of them that a woman from Quebec asked me to take her picture. It was instantly obvious that she was Québécoise, as soon as she approached me and said, “Dites…” (or, rather, “dzit”). I also overheard two girls from Quebec at the Internet cafe. They had to ask for help in finding the period on the French keyboard (and it’s pretty obvious that you’re not French if you pronounce “le point” like a Quebecer does). It was just great to hear their accents…a little reminder of North America.

Anyway, two days in Grenoble was far more than enough. I met a couple of weird older French guys at the hostel, as well a younger Portuguese guy named Filipe, who was living in Paris. We were both heading to Annecy next but didn’t end up seeing each other there. It’s strange making friends at hostels, because you’ll talk to them for a couple of hours and then never see them again.

While I was waiting at the station in Grenoble for my train to Annecy, I was (unfortunately) approached by a gypsy. This wasn’t the first time — at the Gare de Lyon in Paris I got caught by one of the ones who ask people, “Do you speak English?”…although I had avoided them earlier, this one caught me off guard because I answered before I realised she was a gypsy. Upon answering affirmatively, the woman hands you a piece of paper that indicates that she’s been in a Bosnian prison for several years, both her parents are dead, and she needs money for food.

Now, I have no aversion to charity, but it really angers me when these people lie to get money. Of course, what could I do? Shun her completely? A Euro or two got her away from me.

Unfortunately, the gypsy at the train station in Annecy was a bit more…aggressive. At first, I could barely understand her, because she was speaking broken French, with strange pronunciations and mixing in a bit of Italian. I eventually realised that she was offering change for 10 Euros…which of course is highly suspicious, since most people want to be *given* change. I told her that I didn’t have a 10 bill, only a 20, but naturally she persisted in annoying me, and offered a 10-Euro bill and 10 Euros worth of coins for the 20.

Oddly enough, I actually did need the change, but I was still hesitant. However, she wasn’t about to leave me alone, so I eventually handed her my 20, cautiously, while she handed me the 10.

Of course, she kept her coins. She then proceeded to lower her head and thank me for my charity, saying that she needed the money to eat.

Like I said, charity is one thing, but thievery is something else entirely. But here’s the kicker — she tried to pull the same trick AGAIN, by offering me her coins for the 10 Euro bill she’d given me. At this point I was simply pissed, so I got rid of her as best I could (she was incredibly persistent). Then she came back a second time! By that point, I was ready to rip her a new one (…O.T.: what does that expression even *mean*?), and so I refused her stupid tricks and instead demanded that she give me my 20 back, saying that I would give her a few Euros.

At that point, she slapped my hand (lightly, mind you), insisted that she needed the money to eat and left, surely to prey on someone else.

And that’s the story of how my soul was cursed by a gypsy. 🙂

Well, hopefully that’s not the case. I watched the film version of Stephen King’s “Thinner”… 😦

To see all of my pictures from Grenoble, click here.

Fortunately, Annecy was gypsy-free, and a lovely little city. I was incredibly glad that the warm, sunny weather kept up during my voyage through the Alps … it was around 75 degrees just about everywhere (except on the 12,600 ft. summit of L’Aiguille du Midi, but we’ll come to that in a bit).

In Annecy I stayed at my first real quality hotel, which was an incredible luxury after all the hostels. The whole town was great…situated on the edge of the beautiful Lake Annecy, reputably the cleanest lake in Europe, with lovely blue-green water. Some photos:

(I’m not sure what those little dwarf statues in the river are…)

There were also ice cream places everywhere in Annecy…I’ll admit that I indulged once after seeing everyone walking around with ice cream cones, but it was worth it. I did not however see Pierre, Jerome, or Mireille from the old French class videos. 😦

I also took a 1-hour ride around the lake on one of the sightseeing boats, which was cool. Honestly, though, two days was probably too much time for Annecy, given its small size — so what did I end up doing? Going to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the cinema, of course. Unfortunately, there were no subtitled films playing that interested me, so I figured that the dubbing for TMNT would be high quality, easily understandable, and not that distracting. And I was exactly right. I loved the movie, even if most of the audience members were 7 and under. 🙂 (I would, however, like to see the movie again in English)

To see all of my photos from Annecy, click here.

After Annecy, it was on to Chamonix, at the base of Mont Blanc in the heart of the French Alps. The train ride through the narrow Chamonix Valley was very cool…and the architecture became noticeably Alpine-looking. My hostel was a true chalet, with an amazing view of Mont Blanc outside the window:

Chamonix is, first and foremost, a ski resort, and thus attracts a lot of visitors…mostly British. It was amazing how many English speakers there were, not only British but also American, Irish, Australian, etc. If you don’t speak French, though, it’s a good place to visit because nearly everyone working there speaks English as well.

Another peculiarity of Chamonix is an apparent lack of any kind of leash law…in the centre of town you’ll find packs of dogs chasing each other, peeing on posts, barking away and so forth…you would think they were strays except for their collars, and the occasional master who will call one of them. It’s just very odd that they let their dogs run around town like that.

The two main attractions in Chamonix that I wanted to go to were the Mer de Glace glacier and the summit of L’Aiguille du Midi, and had allotted myself two days to make sure that I’d have time to do so. Unfortunately, I was unaware of something called “le fœhn”, a high wind that blows through the higher elevations. Due to this high wind, the cable cars to both attractions were closed during both days.

So, what did I do to kill the time? Go to he cinema, of course. Admittedly, it was stupid…I’d spent too much money, and the movies aren’t exactly the best value…but there was really nothing else to do. On the first day, I ended up seeing “Les Comtes de Terremer” (Tales from Earthsea), a Japanese anime film based on the Earthsea fantasy novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. I was hesitant, because I’m not exactly a big anime fan, but the movie did have the Miyazaki name attached to it — granted, not Hayao, but his son, Goro (…Mortal Kombat, lol). But the movie turned out to be quite good…the French voice actress for the villain was awesome, too. Anime / manga / comics seem to be very big in France.

On the second day, I killed time by going to see “Les Vacances de Mr. Bean” (Mr. Bean’s Holiday), which was actually playing at the cinema before its French premiere for some reason. There was some dubbing (mostly Willem Dafoe’s lines), but not a lot…after all, it’s a Mr. Bean film (and when Mr. Bean did talk, he was never dubbed, thank God)…plus, it takes place in France. It was funny seeing places that I had just been to in Paris, and the train stations…of course, Bean’s destination was the Riveria, which I will also (hopefully) be returning to in June. If I have enough money left…

The movie wasn’t extremely funny, but it had its moments and above all it was charming and heart-warming. My favourite part was the “La Mer” number at the end of the film, which has made its way onto youtube:

Mr. Bean’s Holiday – La Mer

To see all of my photos from Chamonix, click here.

After my second night in Chamonix, I was supposed to make an early start the next day and head for Switzerland, but the fœhn had subsided and the cable cars were finally open, so I headed for L’Aiguille du Midi first thing.

Unfortunately, the pass that allowed me to go to L’Aiguille du Midi and La Mer de Glace was a whopping 49 Euros. The only reason I bought it is because I had waited so long and had specifically come for those attractions. However, I soon realised *why* it cost 49 Euros…

It was, basically, a ski pass. The cable car was absolutely crammed full with skiiers…only a couple of other sightseers. The two-stage ascent was actually a bit frightening, given the incredible height of the cable car above the snow-capped mountain, but the views from the top were well worth it:

It was only about 30 degrees at the top…certainly not bad considering the height of the summit…but my hands weren’t very happy about being exposed up there. I spent as much time as I felt my overpriced pass entitled me to, before leaving in time to catch the mountain train for La Mer de Glace.

The glacier itself was a bit of a disappointment…I had seen pictures of it, but apparently they were taken before the thing started melting like crazy. To quote some other observers: “C’est incroyable…incroyable comme ça a fondu”, “C’est pas la Mer de Glace, ça!” Global warming ftl. The ice grotto, a cave inside the glacier, was very cool (no pun intended), despite the dripping water.

To see all of my photos from L’Aiguille du Midi and La Mer de Glace, click here.

After spending a ridiculous amount of money in Chamonix, I hopped on a train heading for Switzerland. Oddly enough, I was never asked for my passport when entering the country. Not once. Switzerland just doesn’t give a damn.

The scenery was marvelous…and when I arrived in Montreux, on the eastern end of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), I was simply blown away by the beauty. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting — the area is known as the “Swiss Rivieria”, and so you can see all kinds of big, colourful hotels and palm trees (!) along the lake. With the 75 degree temperature and sunshine, it really did feel like the Riveria…except that across the lake were the Alps!

My youth hostel was located a bit south of the city centre, a very pleasant walk down the aptly-named Quai des Fleurs which follows the edge of the lake. It was ridiculously beautiful, with all the colourful flowers in front of the lake and the mountains…a small sample:

To see all of my pictures from Montreux, click here.

At the hostel, I shared a room with a young couple from New York who had been driving across Spain and France, and who were heading to a film festival in Paris, where a movie that the guy made was being shown….we had a good time but I can’t for the life of me remember the guy’s name, although I think it was Brook, or something like that. The girl’s name was definitely Erin.

The following morning, I walked to the Château de Chillon, which was a short stroll from the hostel along the Quai des Fleurs. The castle is in easily one of the most beautiful settings in the world, and the castle itself was awesome. I loved the mixture of stone and wood, and its incredibly well-preserved state…so much of it dates from the 12th century, and a good deal from even before that. I would have to say that it outranks Caernarfon as my favourite castle so far…definitely.

To see all of my pictures from the Château de Chillon, click here.

Since I had lost some of my intended time for Switzerland due to the fœhn, I had to decide whether to stay in Montreux all day, or whether to take the Golden Pass scenic rail line to Interlaken and back, which was my original plan. Although I didn’t have a reservation for the train (I wasn’t sure what time to reserve), there were so-called “non-panoramic” trains on the same route, which didn’t require a reservation, so I took one of those. Honestly, I don’t think it was that different from one of the “panoramic” trains, and I got plenty of good pictures anyway.

The ride was absolutely superb…Switzerland is certainly one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, and I unfortunately only got to see a fragment of it. I intended to do some quick sightseeing in Interlaken before heading back to Montreux, but I didn’t know where to go and didn’t really have enough time, anyway. It was also a little frightening being in a place where I didn’t speak the language. There was a reason that I booked my hostels in French-speaking Switzerland.

I barely spent half a day in German-speaking Switzerland, but it was enough to confirm my hypothesis that traveling to countries where I didn’t speak the language would be a bad idea. It increases the stress level dramatically. If I had traveled with someone else, we probably could’ve managed it…but certainly not alone. Even if I had a friend who spoke German, it wouldn’t be much use, as Swiss German is very different from standard German. (They even roll their ‘r’s. How quaint.)

It was funny, though — as soon as we crossed the French/German isogloss, the conductor immediately changed the language in which they called out the stops.

At any rate, the scenery from the train was breathtaking…and here’s but a very small sample:

To see all of my photos from the Golden Pass, click here.

Upon my return in Montreux, I was meant to catch a connection for Geneva, but our train was late so I barely missed it. I had to wait another hour, but fortunately the reception at the Geneva youth hostel was open until 1am! I got a few hours of sleep before I had to get up and head to the airport. Not enough time to do any sightseeing in Geneva, but…there isn’t much to see. 🙂

Imagine my joy upon discovering that all flights from Geneva to London Gatwick had been delayed 4 hours. 😐

Oh, don’t shed tears for me yet! Since all flights were delayed, it meant that an earlier flight would actually leave around the same time as my scheduled flight (10 minutes earlier, in fact) — and there was still space available. I landed in London 10 minutes early.

Ah, the familiar sight of the English countryside from the air…lots of green…enclosed fields…tons of sheep… those characteristic chimneys. Also — trees with leaves. They were bare in March when I left, but now they are mostly all blossoming and so forth. It really is springtime now, and it’s amazing how much nicer it feels. :p I’m due for a good walk around the area soon…once I get new shoes, that is.

Now, since I know it is nearly impossible for anyone to look through all of my photo albums from Spring Break (I still don’t know when or if I’ll have time to caption all those pictures…), I did you all a favour and put some of my favourite photos together in two 10-minute videos on youtube. You can watch them here:

Spring Break: Part I

Spring Break: Part II

I hope that’s more manageable. 😉

The return to schoolwork was a little rough at first. Since I’d been on vacation for an entire month, I was completely out of “work mode,” and I feel that my work might have suffered as a result. I know that I shouldn’t be *too* concerned, because I think I only need to pass these courses in order to earn USC credit (and they don’t affect my GPA there), *but* I do feel ashamed of my performance on some assignments, especially since they are worth such a large portion of my final grade. I hope to God that I don’t fail Historical Linguistics because of this. I don’t think I could live with the shame.

While I love the extra free time here, it really does prevent me from getting into 100% working mode…consequently, I have a harder time with the few assignments we do get, which in turn affects my grade (negatively) to a greater extent. I’m really trying to kick it up a notch for the home stretch, now. I had planned two weekend outings before the exam period started, but I realised that I simply didn’t have the time (besides…I was pooped from traveling for a whole month, and I can’t exactly afford much more at the moment).

There are a couple of International Student day trips in the region (Isle of Wight, Canterbury, and Hastings) coming up, which should provide some respite from the exam period. My remaining travels will wait until after exams are over.

Seeing four movies in the cinema while in France has re-ignited my passion for the movies, and so yesterday I decided to go the Odeon in Brighton for the first time in order to catch the last screening of 300. Unfortunately, since it was the last showing, it was on the smallest screen in the cinema… (although the room was surprisingly packed). The movie was awesome, though.

At £4.80 for a student ticket, it isn’t outrageously expensive. If I can, I’d like to go back to see Blades of Glory, but I could probably wait for the DVD. I definitely want to see PotC and 28 Weeks Later when they come out, though. And while I don’t think it’s playing in the Odeon, a Kiwi film called Black Sheep has intrigued me… 🙂

Oh, and I finally saw Pan’s Labyrinth, thanks to dailymotion. Great film. I love it.

To wrap up this interminable post, something very odd that I found on youtube: a song about the small town of Abergavenny, Wales (the first place I went to on my break), sung by a French-Canadian singer in 1969. Weird…

Abergavenny

Et sur la route de Abergavenny

Sous le soleil de l’été

Je cueillirai des lilas pour ceux qui n’ont pas pu y aller

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