I Want to See Mountains Again, Gandalf, Mountains! (and Finding Irish People on Facebook)
Prelude to Mountains- Exams, Beer and Revolution!
I return from another long gap in blogging, which can only be excused by the abrupt return to Erasmus reality after the Christmas period. Abrupt in that my Erasmus life was hauled from the dead (“Clear!”), jump-started and turned up a notch (“dun-dun, dun-dun”). And in our glee of being reunited, the Erasmus students ran off into the sunset and drank lots of beer. And then they were forced to take exams.
I swore to take this year as an academic holiday. So this was more a minor inconvenience than the source of much stress. Even where Université Le Mirail’s organisation was involved.
After an accidental night out with Gandalf on Coke* (one of my Idiots Abroad with quite a talent for forgetting where he’s been, making conversation with strangers and picking up phallic beer tokens), I took my Modern Greek written paper at 8AM one Saturday, having come to the conclusion that even the Greeks couldn’t learn their language in a day, so it was pointless me trying. Gandalf and I had been refused entry to a club “because the bouncer didn’t know us” at 3.30AM and had come away with two stolen flagons that had contained a litre of beer each… and inexplicably, some salt and a piece of wood shaped like a penis. This was quite a conversation starter on the way home.- three French people wanted to offer their opinion on where Gandalf might have picked up his “staff”.
And to be fair, there was hardly any point preparing for my exams… There is no preparing for what Mirail throws at you… An exam with no paper, no invigilator and nothing that remotely resembles an exam, for example.
The Exam that Never Was really brought the French out of the French. I’ve come to the conclusion that the desire for a good revolution is hard-wired into their genetic code. Put a group of French students into an exam room with an AWOL invigilator and there’s soon talk of democracy and a Popular Movement to Toss Off this Exam.
With exams over (excluding the replacement exam for The Exam That Almost Never Was), half the Erasmus students had to prepare to say goodbye to the second half, who were moving on to warmer climates, such as Spain and Argentina- apart from Nemo (who is a ginger Fin(n). And by way of goodbye, there was much frolicking around in Toulouse by night (in animal costumes or otherwise).
To stifle my grief at my friends’ departure, I watched three hours of fascist-bashing (Django), coming away with the (probably mistaken) impression that it is okay to shoot ignorant people in the face (or crotch). And then I took off to the mountains.
*I should add that the Coke Gandalf is so frequently on is in liquid form and comes out of a red can. Although we should perhaps stop him drinking as much, since when we ended up in the St des Seins for the second time, he turned to me dramatically and said “… I have no memory of this place…”
I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains!
Here, I have to admit that this is not the first time I’ve gone galavanting in the Pyrenees. A chalet in a tiny place called Latour de Carole, right on the Spanish border, was the venue for Erastmas. My Idiots Abroad and I took a train through the Pyrenees (and a blizzard), with stacks of food, drink and presents for Secret Santa.
Latour de Carole is so close to the Spanish border that we were greeted with “Hola bonjour”. As well as the French and European Union flags, we spotted a few Catalan flags dotted around houses and squares. The buildings had a Swiss feel about them. Next to the only supermarket (and sign of civilisation) was a ski and surf shop. And the mountains were tremendous. Snowy and grassy at the same time. Cold and sunny.
We hadn’t been there five minutes before a snowball fight broke out.
After a spot of lunch (Peter Kay family Christmas style, since there were nine of us and three different heights of chair) we headed straight out to conquer the nearest mountain. And we declared it Lord of the Rings-esque and promptly gave each other nicknames. I’m not sure how I ended up with Gimli- I may be ginger, but I am not short.
After quite a lot of running through snow and across mountain tops, in a LOTR-themed relay race (“Rohan will answer!”), whilst singing the film soundtrack and rehydrating with fresh, untouched snow, Kettle and I set about trying to find the very highest point we could make it to (I gave up before Kettle did). But soon this little adventure had to end, since light was fading and we were still halfway up a mountain. Kettle and I having made it higher than the others, we had some catching up to do. And to misquote the song, the only way is down.
I probably haven’t been scrambling before this day during my adult life. But there’s nothing makes you feel more youthful than throwing yourself feet-first down the side of a mountain, like tobogganing without the toboggan, with extra rocks to jump over.
I think I made it down in just over a minute. Just in time to witness Kettle’s dramatic entrance.
The evening was one of merriment. The Meerkat and Pirate of Cari-bean managed to rustle up ratatouille and pasta for nine… And we got through nine bottles of wine, whilst exchanging gifts (mine could not have been more perfect- a novelty Santa hat) and playing games. It was like something out of a Wham music video…
Return of the Mountain Queen
So yes, just nicely in time to distract me from the departure of half my Idiots Abroad, I headed off to the mountains again, this time in the company of a big ol’ group of Erasmus students, of which there are many Italians who I like hanging out with. Especially when there’s pizza.
There was no pizza this time (there has been, on occasion, pizza).
But there was a hell of a lot of snow.
Sure, you need a few jumpers when you’re used to warmer climes and you’re heading to the Haute-Pyrenees. But there was more (Italian) luggage on that coach than on your average Easyjet flight (and not just because they have an inexplicable talent for losing your baggage). And Italians never seem content that you are wearing enough layers to survive. I insisted that seven was enough. Much love for the Italians, with more layers than an onion, having bought out half of Decathlon between them.
I took a small rucksack and have never felt more obviously British in my life.
To all the folks in Blighty who pissed and moaned at the inconvenience a few centimetres of snow brought them, the hardy old folks of the Haute-Pyrenees laugh in your faces, with their four varieties of snow plow, front rooms converted into coffee houses and Carrefour Montagne.
It was three days of being often a bit chilly, often wet through and for those who wear glasses, often utterly blind. I loved every minute.
The first day saw us braving a blizzard wearing raquettes, or snow shoes. Simply put, these are contraptions designed to make even the most graceful person (which I am not) walk like a drunken toddler. In my case, they made me spend more time on my tiny hiney than anything else (although on one occasion I ended up falling on a Frenchman’s chest after a playful scuffle). At one point the snow was so deep, the blizzard so angry and the bit of mountain we were climbing so steep, that to get down our guide insisted “Servez-vous de vos culs !” For those who don’t speak French: “Use your arses!”
I had never worked up more of an appetite for something warm in my belly or a good glass of wine. I ended up getting both, thanks to my new Irish acquaintances. I’m fighting the urge to nickname them with typically Irish things, like rainbows, leprechauns, drinking and swearing… And excellent sense of humour (hopefully)!
All I know is that so far I’ve had to ask for eleven Irish translations and that Irish people are impossible to find on Facebook. Irish logic follows that if you think you know how to pronounce a letter, you definitely don’t. And there are seemingly at least three variations of every name.
The next day was devoted to tobogganing, walking to the next village (an hour on foot) to take some spectacular pictures of the frozen lake, to raid the Carrefour Montagne for its supplies of wine and chocolate and to drink hot chocolate and mulled wine in a French couple’s sitting room.
Finding myself in English-speaking company once more (which was admittedly a nice break), I watched some classic French comedy and had a giggle at the expense of the French music channel. And then drank far too much wine and danced with a charming German fellow, who may or may not have been too chuffed about this.
The next morning was devoted to soothing our heads, wrapped up in blankets like a big ol’ Erasmus midday sleepover. We managed to drag ourselves out to attempt to see some cheese-making in action. Admittedly, the half hour walk through slush, snow and up- and downhill climbs proved too much for mine and Suffering** Hippy’s aching joints and we took refuge in a mountain top Mairie with the rest of the Irish folk, the Frenchman whose chest I fell on and another new acquaintance. The Mairie, the town hall, was sort of shut, but huddled up on the staircase, or dancing along to some banging tunes, we managed to stave off the cold.
The Frenchman, who I will call The Count, provided bilingual entertainment with the aid of a banana. Holding the thing up like a gun, he bursts through the door, shouting to the wintery wasteland outside “Ze English! I ‘ave found zem- send reinforcements!” There was a sudden, loud chorus of “We’re Irish!”
The Count earned his nickname with his second bout of bilingual entertainment. Although quite the writer in French, his adaptation of an English novel proved hysterical. He stumbled somewhat over “The Count, in all his anxiety…”. If I tell you he pronounced that last word “ang-shitty”, I’m sure you can imagine, Reader, how he pronounced “Count”.
**”Suffering”, to the Irish, is an intensifier for almost any given swear word, or “Jesus”. Suffering Hippy’s favourite suffering combinations seem to be those which rhyme with “kite” and… Oh there’s no English word that rhymes with “bollocks”, sorry.