“Umbrellas” – by Debbie Ambrous

IMG_5905October, 2016 – Drizzling rain fell like it was pouring from a sweet, old granny’s garden watering bucket on our neighborhood in Samoëns.  Low flying clouds scudded past like big boats trawling for chimneys instead of fish, although puddles large enough to support a school of fish were forming at our front door.  None of this was stopping me from seeing the countryside after I had traveled thousands of miles crammed in an airline seat like a chicken in a crate.  Husband Jim was settling into the warm and dry interior of our cozy rental house too much to suit my plans for the day.  I dropped heavy hints that he needed to get moving, or the day would be gone before we knew it.  I wanted to drive over to Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, a beautiful village a few miles away.   Jim rumbled noises about the rainy weather and nested deeper into the couch upholstery and soft cushions at La Ruche, our charming rental house.

Before I go much further with this rainy travel story, I must explain that apparently Jim’s mother never taught him to wear a rain coat, waterproof shoes, or that he should use an umbrella in bad weather.  His intelligent and patient wife has not improved upon this situation either.  Jim seems to think that he can rush through the rain fast enough that he will not get wet.  If his theory doesn’t work, surprising as it is, he shakes it off like a frisky puppy while I’m embarrassed and fuming rays in his direction, hot enough to dry through to his underwear.

I insisted that we should buy an umbrella for him in case the rain didn’t stop like he predicted with his suddenly acquired meteorology degree.  A quick stop at the grocery store, and I grabbed the only umbrella design on the shelf, a black little number tucked into a plastic sleeve, discreet and masculine enough for any man.  Jim unfurled the sedate little black number so we could walk to the car.  Cute flowery designs and flirty French wording encircled the umbrella cancelling any discreet, don’t-notice-me style.  I stayed quiet hoping he wouldn’t notice and knowing he wouldn’t exchange for my feminine-colored umbrella.  Oh, he noticed alright, and asked: “Do you expect me to slosh around with a teenager’s umbrella?  Why didn’t you buy a matching purse?”  I retorted: “Well, I’m sorry we couldn’t find an umbrella with huge letters saying you are a honcho, he-man capable of leaping buildings in a single bound.” Sounding like a whining teenager he asked, “What do these French words in the flowers say, anyway?”   I didn’t answer.IMG_5907

We left Samoëns behind, traveling prepared for the weather and anxious to see the little village with a population of 800 and bearing an unusual name.  Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval is one of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France which usually stamps a guarantee, seal of approval, for a truly beautiful site with atmosphere and exceptional character.  A short distance before we reached our destination we stopped at the car park to investigate the Gorges des Tines.  IMG_5198A pathway crossing a bridge leads to trails for exploration of the gorges, carved deep into the calcareous rocks by the Giffre River.  The gorges are very narrow, with the narrowest point being only 2 meters (6.5 feet) and the widest at 30 meters (98.4 feet).  The view of the deep gorge from the bridge was difficult to capture since it was very narrow. IMG_5204 We met a family on the bridge with a muddy dog which reminded me of Jim who still didn’t take his umbrella along to explore the gorges. IMG_5886

There was a gorgeous view of the mountains and hamlets toward Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval from the car park despite the clouds smothering some of the vista.

IMG_5195Sixt is a haven for mountain lovers, adventurers, walkers, skiers and mountain bikers.  We knew that we didn’t fit into any of those groups except for a bit of slow-walking.  A large board at the car park posted maps of trails and a few reminders on safety.  I could visualize which category we would land in, literally.

Sixt had enough to draw us with plentiful trails and paths among glorious alpine meadows, abundant waterfalls and a village of picturesque architecture.  The historic village is surrounded by seventeen hamlets including Salvagny, Passy, Le Fay and others which we explored in the sunshine during the following days.

IMG_5226Sixt is named for the Cirque du Fer à Cheval east of the village which, from above, looks like a horseshoe.  Cirque du Fer à Cheval is classified as a Grand Site de France and has more than five hundred thousand visitors each year.  If you are fortunate enough to visit after the snow melts, or during a time of heavy rainfall, remarkable waterfalls cascade from the cliff walls and mountains with an altitude of 3000 meters (9,800 feet).  Clouds and fog covered our view on the first day, but we returned to the Sixt area several times during our stay in Samoens for better views. IMG_5898Cacade du Rouget is a large waterfall found near the end of a road at the south of the village.  The view of the waterfall was far from perfect at the lower position since a natural wall of stone obscured the perfect picture.  Just to the right I saw a pathway that others had taken up to a higher level.  IMG_5196 No notices were posted saying that women eligible for senior discount and the athletic ability of the old lady in a Carol Burnett comedy sketch should not climb to the waterfall.  Rain wasn’t falling, so I took this as a signal of all-clear.  I didn’t have the mountain climbing gear like the couple we met at Aiguille du Midi.  I wore my nylon raincoat with a hood and had my camera underneath the coat, bulging at my middle, appearing like a miracle pregnancy.  IMG_4922 Jim refused to be my Sherpa guide and pack mule saying that he had to stay ready to drive me to the hospital when I fell and slid down the mountain and landed at his feet like a muddy hog, and furthermore it was almost his lunchtime!     All in the name of capturing a magnificent waterfall photo, I cautiously made my way uphill, hoping that each area where I placed my foot was not too slippery.  Reaching the upper level was not extremely difficult, but coming down was a different story with gravity not being on my side.  I finally went down more or less by the seat of my pants, bracing with my arms and lifting to the next position.  I knew a well-padded posterior would be helpful one day!  Jim was watching and shaking his head in his safe and dry position down by the car.  I got back in time for his lunch with no side excursions to the hospital.  Score one for me!  My waterfall photos are merely mediocre and I won’t bore you with the reasons. IMG_5911Back in the village of Sixt we saw a plaque honoring Jacques Balmat, who died nearby while prospecting for gold in 1834.IMG_4885 Balmat, called le Mont Blanc, was a mountaineer, a Savoyard mountain guide and hunter.  His most notable accomplishment is the first ascent of Mont Blanc with the physician Michel-Gabriel Paccard on August 8, 1786.  For this amazing feat, King Victor Amadeus III gave Balmat the honorary title le Mont Blanc.

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Jim was walking along the wet streets under a slight drizzle of rain in moderate comfort with the umbrella which he detested.  I pointed out the rooster on the church tower and on a statue in the square and explained the meaning in my abbreviated version.IMG_4880The Embassy of France published this explanation: “One of the national emblems of France, the Coq Gaulois (the Gallic Rooster) decorated French flags during the Revolution.  It is the symbol of the French people because of the play on words of the Latin gallus meaning Gaul and gallus meaning coq, or rooster.  The rooster has been used as an ornament on church bell towers in France since the early Middle Ages, but at that time it was probably used to symbolize vigilance as roosters are known to crow at the expectation of the sunrise.  The Gallic Rooster has been used for centuries by folk artists as a decorative motif on ceramics or carved and veneered wooden furniture…”

I found another comment in my search saying the rooster is seen as a symbol of gallantry in France, saying if the rooster in the poultry kingdom finds a food source he will always call his hens over to eat before having any himself.

I asked my Alabama Rooster under the flowery umbrella if he was ready for lunch with his favorite hen.

Please come back to see us.  In future posts we will visit the small hamlets around Sixt and share more of this area in the sunlight most of the time.IMG_5915

I love hearing from you.  Just leave a comment below so I can read it along with others.IMG_5229The French word for umbrella is parapluie.  Perhaps you would like to read another rainy story, just CLICK on “Parapluie

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” – by Debbie Ambrous

img_5071October, 2016 – Our theme song for the drive to Morillon could have been Foggy Mountain Breakdown, the music written by the best known banjo-picker in the world, Earl Scruggs, when I was in diapers.  Whether you know his name or not, you are likely to remember the song as the background for the movie Bonnie and Clyde.  Now, mind you, husband Jim and I were not roving gangsters, but the bluegrass music fit our rambling up, down and around the curving road in the fog with cows appearing in the mist. Bright-colored shutters at windows with trailing red geraniums glowed in the murky fog. img_5073 We could have been in the mountains of North Carolina with our car radio tuned to a country music station, but our true location in fog banks and low clouds was France.  On the road again, like Willie Nelson, we were honing in on Morillon, a one-hour drive from Chamonix, Geneva and Annecy.  Allowing for pit-stops, meandering country music memories and sightings of pastoral beauty, we could be there for a morning visit and return to our rental holiday house in Samoëns for lunch.  That was our plan.

Morillon is in the heart of the Haut Giffre Valley, an authentic village preserved with charm and populated with wooden houses and chalets surrounding the village’s historic church which dates back to the 16th century.  The village consists also of the smaller hamlets, Les Champs and Le Verney.img_5082Jim found a parking place only steps away from the ancient church situated in the center of the village, a much better position for parking compared to our many breathless hikes uphill after parking near the city dump, or something similar in our travels.  The foggy refrain blanketed the mountain views, blocking any pretty backdrops for my photography, except the hazy outlines of distant tiny houses. img_5078 I started at the notice board, the bulletin board outside the church, which posted the going-rates for baptism (free), weddings and funerals.

Since I was already baptized and married at no cost for the services, and surely didn’t want to plan a funeral, I just filed the info for future reference.  Did you know that in France, the legally recognized wedding must take place at the Mairie?

Following the left side of the main street, I walked downhill with Jim on the side with the most colorful buildings.  Jim was up-close and personal with the Alpine traditional buildings painted sunflower-yellow and edged with eye-catching gingerbread trim.  Hearts and flowers decorated the woodwork and windows. img_5097 My camera eyes romanced the scene and found cows painted on a wooden plank over a doorway on my side of the street.  Jim didn’t have all of the good stuff!  While I was busy with my search for the photogenic, on the other side of the street the set-up for a scene suitable for our Foggy Mountain Breakdown theme song was unfolding.  A nice, unsuspecting lady with a long, black ponytail and a hot- pink scarf wrapped around her neck was approaching Jim casually on the sidewalk.  Now, what do you do when you meet a stranger on a narrow sidewalk, especially if the stranger is a lady and you are a gentleman?  Usually, both of the strangers will move aside, keeping eyes averted and avoid bumping into each other.  Perhaps they will say “Pardon”, or “Excuse me”.   Well, that’s ordinary folks, not Jim.  Jim met the lovely lady who was wearing pretty, wedge-heeled shoes.  Of course, I had to check out her shoes even from a distance!  Jim bumbled back and forth in his Sketchers as the two decided which would go right, or left.   He raised his arms and swayed back and forth like he was launching into a do-si-do right there on the sidewalk, and he belted out his personal rendition of the Foggy Mountain Breakdown in a noisy, off-beat performance.  With a face that matched her hot-pink scarf, the good-natured lady burst into laughter. img_5091-1 They both went away chuckling while I kept my face cast down to the sidewalk, quietly walking away, pretending I didn’t know him.  Would you follow the path of non-personal, typical and less colorful conformance?  Or, would you walk on the side with vivid color, silliness, a beat from the norm? img_5094When the lady was safely down the hill, away from her potential do-si-do partner and out of sight, I asked Jim to cross to my quiet side of the street.  We strolled hand-in-hand to a tourist shop and found a gift for our granddaughter Hanna, a small sign perfect for her bedroom, with the wording: Debutante Place.img_5128

Jim bought a postcard that he had promised to send to his buddy Ricky. We found a walking cane with a compass at the top, a perfect souvenir for Jim since I accuse him of having no sense of direction!  The post office and Mairie were just across the street, the colorful side of the road; so we crossed over together.

An ancient fountain was gurgling there near the sidewalk.  I was lured in that direction while Jim was mailing Ricky’s postcard. An elderly gentleman was filling several plastic bottles with the water from the fountain. img_5131 I remember drinking water from a fountain when I was young.  Green moss grew at the edge of my childhood fountain, but the water bubbling up was clear, cold and the sweetest tasting.img_5103  I did not drink any of the water from the beautiful fountain in Morilles since the gentleman was busy.  I didn’t want to interrupt him.  I should have taken my stride from Jim and asked for a taste of that sweet water.  (Earlier, when I first brushed my teeth at the holiday house I noticed that the water actually tasted good!  Incredible!  Ours has so many chemicals added that it tastes awful.)

Before I could think further on the ways of water in France and Alabama, I glanced up into the tree that spread its graceful branches above the ancient fountain.

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There among the golden leaves and attached to the bark of the tall tree trunk was a shocking-pink lizard with indigo polka-dots, sizing up to a few feet in length.   No, it wasn’t a live lizard!  Let’s not go too crazy here.  But why was this neon-colored creature in the tree?  Do they have a party with piñatas and a mariachi band?  Are margaritas with salt and salsa with chips served there under the tree?  This is not Mexico!  What is wrong with this picture?

Truly, I love this whimsy and I love Mexico!

I never knew why the lizard was up the tree.  I didn’t have the nerve to march into the Mairie and ask.  I took the chicken-way out and sent an e-mail to the tourism office.  To this date, I haven’t received a reply.img_5102Hunger pangs signaled time to find the car and head on to our lunch at La Ruche, our holiday rental home.  A short distance from the village of Morillon is one of the hamlets I mentioned earlier.  The front of a large, beautiful rustic home is covered with colorful decoration.  My imagination sees the lady in the vivid pink scarf, who Jim invited to do-si-do, dancing to her own beat in the house with the colorful bric-a-brac. img_6861Ya’ll come back and visit with us again.  Later, I plan to find lots of bric-a-brac, stroll on the colorful side of a few lakes, soak up atmosphere in more villages and follow my heart to Burgundy.  Thanks for your lovely comments of encouragement!  img_6859

Jim loves his old orange Senor Frog’s sweatshirt that we bought in Mexico, but I will not let him pack it for France.  I’ve always said it was too brash for village life in France, but now I stand corrected!

Jim – 1   and Debbie – 0

I was coerced to wear Jim’s loud and proud sweatshirt which I had censored for his trips to France. (The photo was taken today in our backyard with some of my souvenirs from Mexico in the background.)

img_7676-1 In the future, you may see Jim proudly wearing his bright orange sweatshirt on the streets and in the castles of France.  Enjoy reading more of these adventures by checking out (CLICK the link.) the book A French Opportunity.  A big “Merci” and “Thank Ya’ll” to those who purchased a copy!.

img_7693-1 Perhaps you would enjoy reading about some of our adventures in Mexico.  The photo shows Jim with binoculars checking out Lake Chapala with our youngest daughter who is now the Mom of our grandson Daniel.  Daniel would probably like the koala back-back she is wearing.  For the blog story,(if you missed it or want to re-read) Just CLICK to “Mexico from A to Z”