Last summer, I came up against a wall. A wall I could see through and touch through, but could hear nothing on the other side. This wall was between me, and the old friends of my flatmate Alec. It was between me and his world. The Francosphere.
We sat around a garden table in the hot sun, eating barbecued meat and drinking beer. They were laughing and joking among themselves and with Alec. But I couldn’t get a word in or out. I sat there smiling, and laughing when they laughed. Occasionally, Alec would look through the wall and render some of the sounds from the other side into English, but not often enough to get me in.
And oh how I wanted to be in it to be among them. Here were the characters from the countless stories he told of his life in France. Here was a history of friendship at least as rich or richer as the four years I’ve known Alec, which I could not participate, which I was simply locked out of.
It’s the fall now. I’ve moved to France for Grad school, and I see an opportunity. This is my shot to make myself a set of keys to another planet, and to step cleanly out of the Anglosphere for a while.
“I want to meet them on their own turf one day”
My relationship to German is a little different. If French is a world to be explored, then German is a world into which I feel invited I lived in Zurich this summer and I felt as if I was being pulled into saying a few more words each time.
I’m lucky to have some amazing friends there. Friends who had no problem stepping out of their comfortable mother tongue to talk to me in my English. I want to meet them on their own turf one day and speak their language. To make things as comfortable for them as they made it for me.
I also feel that learning German also allows me to step outside of the Anglophone world into another domain, different to the one I’ve lived in, and feel a little trapped in sometimes.
This is a story with a happy ending. In fact, this story is
an entirely happy one. It is the story of the 5 friends. Brian Cunningham, Mel
Vincent Dela Cruz, Conall de Paor Greg Downes and the native Alec Byrne
embarking on a tour of the ancient mountains around Grenoble, France.
There is good wine good cheese and good company throughout.
Challenges met, expectations exceeded, and spectacular views of the country
hitherto thought to be known only to the sun and the moon.
Here is the story of this expedition.
Friday Lyon Airport. Conall, Greg and Mel wait patiently for Alec and Brian to
arrive. They wander around and test the air outside. It is cold, although not
as cold as they had expected. Brian and Alec arrive soon after. There is
jubilant reunion, efficient packing and we get going straight away to Chateau
Byrne which is about 45 minutes away. We pass by the castle and the toll plaza
which only 30 minutes before, we had seen from the air.
Brian had arrived in the south of France a week before. He stayed
with his brother in Val Thorens Ski Resort. He told us of the place, of his
brother, and of his skiing with Alec the day before.
We Reached our destination that evening. Greeting Alec’s
Parents, Jacqueline, and Rob. And his younger brother Luke, who, that very day
had turned eighteen years old. There was a party for him. We deposited our
baggage in the spare bedroom. Moving a second mattress in so that we could all
Over the next hour, Luke’s friends arrived, as did some of
Alec’s. Namely Pierre who is a champion skier and talented musician, Lukasz who
swam with Alec and is half polish, and Alexandre who is Alexandre. All are
wonderful characters. We cracked open some beer and attacked the pizza on the
kitchen table. “Brian iz in ze Kitchen.” And “T’a fait tombé ta carte de pédé”
were the ‘phrase utiles’ for the French and Irish respectively.
We all slept in the spare room, mattresses on the floor.
Alec slept apart from his troops, which the next morning we would protest, but
the next night we would request on account of his awful flatulence.
Brian Wakes up to Conall’s
camera in his face. doesn’t he look hot
without his glasses on?
It is on this second day that Alec resolved to take us on a
tour of Grenoble. We would get there by train, and by jove what an impressive
train it was. Two stories, completely electric and so silent. It zipped us from
Voiron station to Grenoble in 20 minutes.
In Grenoble, it was
strange to us Irishmen for half or more of the sky to be obscured by mountains.
It was in Grenoble, from this mere appetizer of mountain views that it dawned
on us that there are no mountains in Ireland.
Ravioli swimming in a local cheese called St. Marcelin was
declared delicious by Conall and Mel. And a burger with several cheese inside
was declared the same by Alec, Brian and Greg.
After dinner, we walked into a large crowd of yellow vests.
Conall grabbed a leaflet off one, it has since been lost, however.
That evening we took the train back
to Voiron, where outside the station, Alec engaged in that disgracable and
distinctly continental habit of les bises
with a female friend of his. The non-natives stood by some meters away as Alec
caught up with this person. An ex-girlfriend of Lukasz’s he told us afterward
in the car on the way back to Chateau Byrne.
Our second dinner of that day was cheese fondue with
baguette, salad and with some white wine. Five cheeses all melted down in a pot
in the middle of the table and a huge pile of bread chunks. The power of cheese
and bread to feed 7 young men.
Sunday At 6:30 am, we rose out of bed bleary eyed, got into our underclothes for
skiing and lumbered into the car. Lunch and breakfast consisting of rolls and
croissants respectively was bought along the way. The mountainous vistas which
amazed us in Grenoble, were outdone by the stupendous rocks on the way to
Vaujany. The long valley up which we had to drive, was perfectly flat on its
bottom and was flanked on both sides by great walls of snow and stone. One
could get claustrophobic. And the sun only seems to touch the valley floor for
half the day.
At the resort, Greg and Conall got ski lessons from Gilles
on the kindergarten slopes, while Mel, Brian and Alec made their way up to the
more advanced slopes. The two beginners progressed quickly, and at lunch time, after
sandwiches and beer with the three experienced skiers of the group, and with
Luke, Pierre, Lukasz and Rob Greg and Conall attacked the green slopes again.
All day they slipped down the kids slopes with glee and with Greg sometimes
losing control of his speed and being unable to stop himself careering past the
ski lift and down the next slope. Conall was able to stop before this happened
to him, but he fell on his arse 28 times instead.
Alec, Brian, Mel, Lukasz, Pierre and Rob came down of the
red and black slopes and everyone went for a well-earned lunch in the
restaurant on the slopes. We opened our packed lunches ate them heartily with
chips from the bar.
Coming down from the slopes on the cable car, we were
exhausted and slept most of the way back. Except Alec who was driving of
course. Dinner that night was risotto rice and more bread. Another delicious
meal made by Jacqueline and enjoyed by the 7 men in her house.
We got to bed early, planning on getting up to go skiing the
Monday had something else to say about our plans. The
weather was poor. 7⁰C in Voiron meant it would still be above zero at the
resort, which means slippery wet snow which is shit for skiing according to
Alec. We also got stuck in traffic in Grenoble. We turned the car around and
headed home after an hour on the road.
Instead of skiing, we went on this mild sunny day to some of
the local peaks around Voiron. The sandwiches which we got for lunch with us.
The walk to these places was peaceful, and ripe for chatter about the profound
things in our lives. The cover photograph for this report, is of that day.
These views of us in the forest are nothing when compared to the views from the top of the mountain we were on. At the top, there was a cross, and a view of the landscape something like what the Gods of Olympus had over Greece.
We remained up on
that peak for quite some time just looking down at the land splayed out below
us, as if it were just a map. The photograph of the day was taken by Brian and
is shown below.
Later, we went to see a paragliding launch area which had
similar views, but in the fading light, and our saturated eyes, they could not
be so spectacular as the one’s we saw in these photographs.
On the way home, we bought the funkiest cheese and saucisson
in the supermarket, along with the freshest baguettes in the bakery next door.
Dinner that night was Tartiflette with Leffe blonde beer. We went to bed early
again that night, to really go skiing in the morning.
To the slopes of Vaujany, through the valleys of the Rhone Alpes again. Greg
and Conall had a hearty breakfast of Weetabix, and porridge and bananas
respectively. The others bought their breakfast
en-route. The BSW(Byrne Space Wagon) Enterprise took us too our
destination in good time. Brian and Mel and Alec commenced a second assault on
the blues reds and blacks. Greg and Conall vowed to follow them in the
afternoon and bought the appropriate ski-passes.
After a good morning of
technical lessons from Gilles, Mel, Alec and Brian met Greg and Conall at
the training ground. They broke for
lunch and were met by Alec’s father Rob. Although he had been working that
morning, he told us the following: “Yeah, I was working at home and I looked
out the window at the blue sky and thought of you guys out here skiing. And
then I looked at my laptop again and thought…[with his face he expressed what
he felt] So I filled the calendar for the afternoon with some random text so
they wouldn’t book me for anything and came up here.” ‘What a work life balance that
man has’ we all observed. We’ll do well to get where he is. After beers and
lunch and anecdotes from Rob we made our way to the ski lifts to take us up to
the blue slopes.
This was a day filled with challenges faced and overcome. The satisfaction felt
at the bottom of a difficult slope was a unique and memorable feeling.
Especially for Conall and Greg, the two who found even the simplest of slopes
There were two styles of attack employed by these two
beginners. Greg favoured speed at the expense of control, whereas Conall
favoured control at the expense of speed. Both resulted in the same number of
Alec and Brian
entertained themselves by going off-piste, taking shortcuts through the thicker
snow between the trees.
Mel and Greg in the foreground. A view like that of the
Gods of Olympus in the background. Above is the infinite blue expanse of the
On our last run, we sped down the long final slope in formation.
Each skier no more than a few feet the another. Conall scraped his ski-poles in
the slope, throwing up a cloud of snow into the fellows behind him as he went.
The speed was exhilarating. The falls harmless. And the comradery and spirit of
adventure were admirable.
Dinner That evening was well earned Tartiflette cooked by
Jacqueline again. The hunger from a hard days skiing on top of that meal, and
some Leffe Blonde made it heavenly. After dinner we took over the living room
and decided to watch a movie. The Big Lebowski. Brian, Alec and Greg all fell
asleep during the opening 10 minutes. Only Conall and Mel actually saw the
Wednesday We awoke late from our deep sleep. Our bodies tired and bruised from
skiing. Breakfast was had, and the five set off for a short walk around
Coublevie in the late morning sun. The air was crystal clear, and the mountains
loomed large and beautiful in the distance.
Later on, we got into the Byrne space wagon to go to the
museum of French Resistance in Vercors. An absolutely fascinating place raised
and walled off by mountains from the surrounding countryside. The drive there
wove through gorges between high cliffs and through picturesque mountain towns.
A most interesting landmark was spotted along the way. A giant bicycle simply
plonked there on the side of the road. Below is a photograph with Conall for
It took us about 90
minutes to reach the remote museum. It looked like a concrete bunker which was
part of the mountain it was in. The content was fascinating. It told the story
of the resistance in France but in particular it focused on The Republic of
Vercors. An enclave of resistance to the German occupation on the Vercors
plateau. Declared when the Allies landed at Normandie, they had been promised
paratrooper support and supplies by the Free French government, but it never
arrived. they kept the Germans out for some weeks but were overrun by a glider
borne invasion of the plateau. The Germans then proceeded to massacre the
inhabitants of the four small towns of Vercors. A tragic event, The museum
recount of it was very engaging.
Outside the museum part, there was a viewing area from which
the whole Vercors plateau could be seen.
As we drove back to Chateau Byrne the sun set in the plateau but still covered the surrounding mountain tops in a sunset orange. Vercors seems like an isolated but peaceful place to live.
Dinner on our final evening in France was cheese, and bread
and soisison followed by chili
complimented by Blonde beer and wine. Another delicious meal cooked by
The next when we were having breakfast and preparing to
leave there was a green bird sitting in Alec’s front garden. Possibly a cuckoo.
It remained in the grass going about its business there for over an hour.
After breakfast we
spent our final morning in France walking in the hills above Voiron to reach
the prominent statue of Mary perched on top of a mountain overlooking the whole
region. Although the day was overcast, the views from the top were spectacular.
Mary stands on a snake atop a tower, and
when the clouds rolled in over the valley below it was as if we were on an
island in a sea of cloud and the mountains yonder were other islands too. A
good way to spend the last morning.
Brian and Alec survey the sea of clouds
Soon after this we said our
goodbyes and thank you to Jacqueline and Rob for hosting us and feeding us, and
they thanked us for coming and insisted that we were a pleasure to host. We
wrote a thank you card in all of the languages that we knew for them and
according to Alec, it is still on display in his house. Alec kindly drove us to
the Airport in the Byrne Space Wagon he sent us of with Bijoux and good wishes.
We got on our flight and left France at half past 2. We arrived in Dublin
Airport after dark. Mel was the first to break from the party and head home.
Then Conall was discharged and got the bus back to Waterford. Brian and Greg
waited in Dublin Airport for another hour and got the bus back to Limerick.
And so ended our glorious tour of
Grenoble. With a walk in the mountains, affectionate goodbye’s and expressions
of gratitude, a flight and a bus home. I hope we get to go again.