Mostly for the misery of it, partly for the simplicity and beauty of it. Running for me is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s a good way to manage pain, to visit the more emotional corners of my brain, to connect with people and to explore my immediate surroundings without getting in a car.
Pain and running go hand in hand. Running hurts and if you’re going to get into running, you’ll have to embrace that. Miles before your first runner’s high you’ll go through blisters, cramps, aches, stiffness, and nausea. Getting into running builds a certain resilience to pain. A resilience that gets stronger the more you test it. I find that after a particularly tough run, where I’ve pushed through physical pain, and come out and finished on the other end of it, I feel empowered to take on other challenges, and to be a bit braver in my day to day. I feel less controlled by the fear of the pain that life can throw at me.
You can use this pain resilience in all areas of your life to push through things which are painful but necessary, and then spring back to your normal self once the hard thing is done. You can also bring pain from other parts of your life into running and beat them out on the road. When I’m stressed, or upset about something, running more is my first line of defence.
The second reason I run is to keep in touch with my inner self. The rhythm of running regulates the speed of my thoughts, slowing them to a steady beat. And the music I’m listening to is like scaffolding on which I hang the canvas of my mind, and examine it. Different songs, draw attention to different thoughts. I especially love connecting with the sad side of myself in this way. I’ve found that sad songs with added heavy rain makes me run the fastest. Tom Odell’s Another Love and Girl in Red’s 4am will get me every time. I usually feel much better about things after a good run in the rain.
For the same reason that running is a good thinking activity, I find that running with other people is a great way to have profound conversations and to connect with them. The act of running distracts you from what your talking about, and what you’re talking about distracts you from the running. I hardly feel the miles going by when I’m with someone else. I’m also a lot more likely to show up happy to a 6am run if my buddy is waiting for me in the crisp twilit morning.
The last reason I like to run is how simple and beautiful it is. I don’t need a gym or any equipment, I don’t need good weather, some people don’t even need shoes to do it. Running gives you the power to move through the world and explore your surroundings under your own steam. There’s a beautiful run in Tramore, Ireland, which goes down the length of the beach there. Because the beach is a one dimensional spit of land sticking out into the bay for about 4km, with the town of Tramore on a hill at it’s root, and a wide head of sandunes at the tip, it feels like you’re running away from civilization to the end of the world. Getting lost in the sandunes, the sound of the sea disappears and there’s only sand, beach grass and sky. On the tallest dunes in the long summer evenings, you can see the sun go going down behind the silhouette of the town and the whole bay is bathed in golden light. You can’t see this from a car, or a bike, only running can take you there and back in time for tea.
So I run because it helps me deal with pain, and because it allows me to keep in touch with myself and to connect with others, and I get to take in views I never could have seen any other way. I highly recommend running to everyone.
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.
It was something unexpected. An invitation to join a road trip after only three weeks at Georgia Tech, with people I didn’t quite know yet and to a town I knew just one thing about. Where to begin the story of that great journey to place far away? A journey out of Georgia and across Tennessee on MLK weekend, to Nashville with 9 wonderful people who I would call my friends forever after. The best place to start dear reader, is in the middle.
The Air-BnB was huge. Just right for a party of ten who didn’t mind sleeping on the sofas. Alec was making his famous chili in the kitchen as the sun went down on the rooftop decking and the back garden. We milled around exploring the house and the garden, chatting, and taking pictures of each other in the golden light and drinking beer. There was an air of contentment and excitement in this new place among new friends.
I went to the off-license several times that first evening on resupply missions. One shop was across the road from an old grain storage building. A tall concrete thing with a giant mural of an old man looking up towards the sky. We wondered who was so important. He looked a bit like Jimmy Carter to me.
When the sun went down and it got cold outside, dinner was ready, and Alec instructed us on how to best serve ourselves his chili in burrito wraps. It was imperative that after you added the chili, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and doritos (in that order) that your burrito was de-juiced over the chili pot and that further seasoning was added on top before wrapping it all up whatever way you liked. The chef was roundly complimented by all at the table. (and by table, I mean in the kitchen/open plan living space. There was no big dining table.)
After we had filled ourselves up with that delicious meal and with more beer, we ubered into town. The Broadway Strip was our destination. I didn’t expect every bar in Nashville to have a live country music act, but it was so. Every bar did have a live country music act. Our bar was ‘The Ol’ Red.’ Because it was the only place letting people under 21 inside before 9pm. We managed to stay there for the evening to hear Skylar Anderson sing Tennessee Whiskey and Can’t drink you away girl. I don’t know why, but those two songs in particular became the anthems of the trip after that. I listened to those songs standing beside Mel, and maybe that was the reason that they had such an effect on me. We had some common experiences with women at that time which those two songs spoke to. I tried to ask him about that and about our lives with some stupidly cryptic question that only annoyed him briefly before he returned to cheering over the balcony.
I saw Linda was standing further along the bannister I went to her for some company. I asked her what I had asked Mel. “Where are you, and where are you going?” We had some fun discussing that while Skylar Anderson went around with the tip bucket, singing and talking with the wireless microphone. “I’ve been doing the for 5 years and I call it a job!” At the end of the night when he was finished up and getting ready to leave. Linda, Mel and I saw fit to go down and talk with the man himself. “You sang how I was feeling!” I said to him as I shook his hand, Mel and Linda made similar acclamations. We even got a picture with him.
We left the Ol’ Red soon after he did and walked up and down Broadway looking for bars that would let us all in. We found none, but we did find a cowboy boots and hats shop. A cultural experience. You could walk in at 11pm as we did and try on all of the party boots that you wanted for free. Many of them were very flamboyant indeed. $400 for a pair though. No thanks. We just took pictures
On Sunday, after a good breakfast of Danish style porridge, we went to see some of the sights in Nashville. The super bowl semi final was playing on screens in the city center. Nashville vs. Kansas I think. But it was cold outside and we had another plan for the early afternoon. Line dancing. We were in the capital of country music after all. Classes were on every half an hour in a bar off Broadway, given by a teacher who had to stop waiting tables and give us tourists a class in what she must have thought was the most boring dance in the world. Once we got to know the dance, we found that its 4-beat rhythm makes it fit into just about any song you can think of. For the rest of the semester, at every big party in Atlanta, a line dance could break out at any time to almost any song.
On our second night, after a day of seeing some sights and going to the grocery and liqueur store for more supplies, Hannah made a delicious congee for ten with spring onion, crushed nuts and a lime on top. We taste tested whiskey from a taster’s kit that Julien had bought. There were three varieties. It seemed to me that each was more bitter than the last. We talked over beer and Jack Daniels until quite late at night.
We played a wonderful game then when we were all sitting on the couches and brought the chairs over. The game was to tell your life story in sixty seconds. The ten of us had known each other for just three weeks at this early stage, but this was a great way to get a proper introduction to how everyone viewed their lives. The conversation continued down several veins and got quite intimate at times. I think when you’re in a confined space with like-minded people, you tend to get very close very quickly. And so, it was a pleasantly long night in.
The next morning, I woke up to Viggy shouting, ‘It’s Christmas!’ Sure enough, it was snowing outside. Viggy had brought his frisbee and Mel and I played outside in the snow. Linda came out and played too. It was cold and we got hungry and no one else had gotten up yet so the four of us decided that the most marvellous thing to do when we got back inside was to play Christmas songs throughout the house, while we made ‘Christmas pancakes.’ That roused the troops well enough.
As we prepared to leave, Viggy continued frisbeeing outside with Alec. Of course, it had to land on our neighbours’ roof and Viggy had to knock on the door to ask for it back. Our neighbours were an elderly couple. The man came out and lent Viggy a ladder to retrieve his frisbee. How the conversation turned in the direction it did, I do not know, but the man revealed to Alec and Viggy that the huge mural of an old man on the side of a tall concrete grain store just down the street was in fact an image of him! Viggy and Alec were dumbfounded, and they told the rest of us when they got inside. We didn’t believe them at first but they were adamant. They were too polite to ask for a picture, so here’s Mel standing in front of the mural instead.
We came home in the two cars via Lynchburg Tennessee where, upon Julien’s suggestion we visited the Jack Daniels distillery. The place was not visually impressive, but the different smells that were in each room and the scale of the production of whiskey going on there (every bottle of JD in the world is made there) and the connection it seems to maintain with its history were striking.
The trees around the factory were covered in a strange jet-black coat of what looked like paint or ink. When asked, the tour guide explained that ‘the black stuff on the trees is a kind of micro-flora which feeds on the alcohol vapours that’s in the air around here. In fact, during prohibition times, one of the ways that a bootleggers forest distillery could be found out was the police looking for the tell-tale “black frost” which was growing on the trees around their distilleries.’ Fascinating.
It was on the factory tour that the perfect snowflake landed in Viggy’s hair. I didn’t thing that they really existed, but there one was in front of me. A fitting omen for the outstanding weekend that was just coming to a close.
In Lynchburg, after the tour, we had our lunch in a quiet, just-about-to-close-at-5pm diner. The food wasn’t great and the interior over-decorated, but it was something to keep us going and I spotted some local honey for sale at the register. (I’ve an interest in honeys like that because there is a beekeeper around where I’m from in Portlaw who makes honey from just a few hives so you know that the honey is from the flowers around my hometown. There’s something in that that appeals to me. )
The food was sorely needed, for the car ride home was long. 3 hours through rural Tennessee past Chattanooga and into north Georgia. On the way, I was delighted when we decided to read a short story aloud in the car. The story was ‘The Lady and the Dog’ by Anton Chekhov. It was on my kindle and I had read it last year. We took turns voicing the characters. We finished it in an hour, and then talked about it for some more time after that. A rare pleasure with friends, to talk at length about obscure books that you have all just heard read aloud.
Before we knew it, we were parked outside the I-house helping everyone carry their luggage in from the rental car before we returned it that evening. Linda, my star navigator throughout the trip came with me for the last mile of the journey. I was glad she did, or else I may have fallen asleep or gotten lost more than twice as I did anyway. I was sad turning in the keys at the hotel that it had all so soon glided by. That marvellous time with those marvellous people already a memory.
But I was so glad that it had happened. It showed me what was possible. You don’t have to know anything about where you’re going, or what you’ll do there. It’s the people you go with that count, and you don’t even have to know them very well. What made this trip to Nashville the perfect snowflake, was the unexpected bond we formed together over food, whiskey, beer and country music.
This first week in Atlanta had four parties in it. I will remember these nights for a long time. Each one was bigger, more extravagant, and more fun than the last. Unfortunately for the readers, but I think fortunately for myself when I was in these stories, I didn’t take so many photos, and I didn’t risk bringing my camera out on nights like these. Word pictures will have to do.
* * *
The First Party on the 5th We started small at the I-House. On my second night in America, I had a beer (or was it Korean vodka) in my hand and was talking happily in the dorm corridor outside Akib’s room to Australians, Italians, Kiwis, Koreans, and many people from all over the world with whom I had the good fortune to be living with for the next four months. Everyone was in a cracking mood Mel, Alec, Ellen, and I were well introduced. Alec left the party early to meet Shauna at the airport.
* * *
The Second Partyon the 8th Hosted by Skylar and Piers and supplied by a trip to Mac’s Liquor Store was the craziest I-house party night. At Mac’s, while I was picking a drink for myself carrying a box of Alec’s craft beer request in my hand, Piers – the honourable and mischievous Kiwi studying engineering design – came up to me and calmly said: “Conall. You are having a Four Loco with me tonight.” I looked down at the multicoloured half-litre can of beer in his outstretched hand. Between the jigs and the reels and his explanation of what Four Loco was, I obliged him. It was the best mistake I’d made on exchange thus far. Four Loco is blue sugar beer with the caffeine of red bull and the alcohol concentration of wine. A downer and an upper in one.
The night proceeded splendidly. Skylar’s room was lit with fairy lights, and the bathroom between the two rooms was a great dark space where the music was loudest. Someone had put the speakers in the shower. Since we were all roaring drunk, a select few of us decided that getting into the shower and pulling the curtain closed for an intimate chat was the perfect thing to do.
Two Four Locos and many normal beers later, we all danced in Piers’ room to Abba and Viggy was giving Orange Justice Lessons in the hall, I was his most enthusiastic student. I even taught Linda how to do the famous dance. After a little while though, Shauna and I became concerned with the whereabouts of Mel. Some more conversationally inclined persons, who I would later come to know very well, had spirited him away to an unknown location in the building and were surely interrogating him. It became our mission to find him. We shamelessly knocked on doors, woke people up to ask them “Have you seen Mel?” (Very sorry about that Katie.)
In the end, we found him. Talking to Akib, Cheryl and some others in Cheryl’s room. I don’t understand to this day why we were so determined to find him, but we had fun along the way.
The night ended with me unable to get my room key in my door and someone laughing hysterically with me at my predicament.
The Third Partyon the 9th was our first foray out into the wider Gatech social scene. Skylar – the well-connected native of excellent character – was our guide on this night. We went to a block of apartments on the west side of campus past the C.R.C. Huge high-rise things more than ten stories tall. On the walk there, he told me that he was from California.
Inside, the party was on a floor halfway up the building in a plush apartment with a balcony and a view of the massive Mercedes stadium. There were drinks and snacks for all the guests and the thirty or so I-House residents who Skylar brought with him to this party. I couldn’t believe the amount of people who were crammed into that place. We circulated around the kitchen to the balcony and back into the kitchen again. talking at length with Julien, Juan, Javier, Alec, Shauna, Mel, Ellen, Piers and Skylar.
After a few hours there, we ubered to the Spanish club. It was not nearby. 20 minutes later, we got there in several taxis. It was like a nightclub in the middle of nowhere. Inside, the music was sometimes Hispanic I suppose. Drinks were extraordinarily expensive but the fun on the dancefloor was outrageous. I’m not a dancer at clubs but on that night, I danced with enthusiasm until I was so thirsty that I paid the five dollars for a bottle of water at the bar.
I got tired then and looked for some fellow tired souls to go home with. Mel was the only one. We got garlic fries and bacon from the food truck outside at 2am where we met Linda and Maggie who were also quite tired and we shared food while sitting on the asphalt outside the club waited for an uber in the cold early January morning.
* * *
The Fourth Party on the 11thwas the one that took the biscuit. The tour de force of Atlantan undergrad life. The casus belli was Hannah The Dane’s and Yeseo’s 21st birthdays. I have never been to a party with a pool before. Nor have I ever heard of student accommodation having a huge lounge and pool halfway up the city skyline. But on this night, Skylar with his excellent connections once again had some friends in ‘The Standard’ apartment block. And boy did this party set the bar high for all parties that came after.
First, the size of the communal lounge was immense. There was a huge high ceiling with a mezzanine area half the size of the main floor again. There were pool tables, sofas, and even a bar (with no alcohol but we brought plenty of our own.)
Then the pool. I have never wanted to jump into a pool as much as I did on that night. Partly it was because of the stories that the Spanish, and especially Javier, had told me about the last semester when impromptu pool parties were a whale of time, and because I had never seen a pool like it before.
There must have been over a hundred people in attendance. I played stack cups or whatever the game is called with over a dozen people. It involved bouncing a ping pong ball into cups of beer. If you miss – You drink. You had to drink for many other reasons too which I didn’t understand and perhaps for that very reason it was tremendous fun. Later, I remember the Irish gang had run out of beer and Shauna and I, the only 21-year olds of the group were commissioned to carry out a resupply mission. I remember simply searching ‘alcohol’ in google maps to figure out where the nearest source was. A service station, half a mile away. Someone else came with me and Shauna but I’m afraid I don’t remember who it was. It was raining and we were in awe of the city lights and that we were drunk and at huge party three thousand miles and a week removed from home.
We returned with beer. There were more people than when we left. Mel was down dancing outside in the cold and rain by the pool. Some fellows had gotten into the small hot tub closest to the door. I needed a leader to jump into that pool. Someone to do it with. I was scared of getting thrown out. The volunteer was Beaux. A fellow with a history of getting thrown out of parties (he told us himself) and so he had no qualms about it. He told Mel. “Ok we’re jumping in the pool now.” Mel said ‘OK.’ But he didn’t want to take his bracelet in with him, so he came and gave it to me for safe keeping. I held it in my hand, hesitating, this was the moment.
I ran down to the pool bank after him, but Beaux and Mel were in their boxers and already airborne. Into the pool they jumped, and straight out they came. It didn’t look it. But the pool was freezing cold. I had to do it then. I stripped down to my boxers, and left Mel’s bracelet in my pile of clothes and ran to the pool. I tried to do a backflip and I landed gloriously and ungracefully on my back.
I think when I was in the air, falling towards the water and looking up into the rainclouds illuminated by the orange city lights, was the peak moment of that party for me. I hit the water. It was very cold. I got straight out like my predecessors. I got dressed quick, but I couldn’t find Mel’s bracelet. This scared me because it was of extreme sentimental value to him and he had given it to me for safe keeping. Thankfully, I found it and we returned to the party a little chilly but satisfied with our swim.
On the way home at two in the morning, we all went to Waffle House. A 24-hour…waffle house. It was exactly what it said on the tin. We ate like kings in that place. Pancakes with maple syrup and bacon. Waffles with chocolate honey and cream. Onion hash browns all washed down with sprite and coca cola.
And that was the first week. I’ve never partied like that before, but I’m delighted that I did. Putting in the hard miles at the start with people who you know you will spend a lot of time with during the semester was well worth it. It really set a great tone for the rest of the term.
Saturday the 16th of November 2019. The snow settled softly on the pine trees and the rock high above the valley floor. Down there, the rain poured across the train window as it snaked between the mountains of Ticino.
Pedro and Giacomo were to greet me at Varenna at 14:30. I didn’t have such a big breakfast and drank no coffee that morning, so my mood should have been foul. But I was excited to meet them again. especially Pedro. It had been five months since I had seen him last, with just one letter in between. His girlfriend would be there too. Caterina was her name.
It was a chilly but wonderfully calm day in Varenna. The rain had stopped, the breeze was gentle, and the town was dead quiet. I smiled when I spotted Pedro waiting for me across the tracks. He was smiling as well. I walked over to him, crossing the tracks and we were jovially reunited. He introduced me to the lovely Caterina but there occurred the terrible awkwardness when an Irishman is confronted with les bises. But all was laughed off and forgotten about when we spotted Giacomo coming up the platform as the green train slipped away through the pitch-black tunnel into the soaked rock of the cliff face. He waved to us from far off with something in his hand.
How can I explain Giacomo? Kind and honest are not sufficient. He is especially kind and especially honest in all things he does and says. He brought mini pizzas for us to eat in case we were hungry. I was famished and so were Pedro and Caterina. He gave us an apology that they were cold, but we refused to accept it. I could have eaten a horse after the long journey.
We walked down into town towards the lake. Taking a flurry of photographs of each other in front of the beautiful scenery while we still had the daylight. The weather was temperate and grey, and the mountains seemed to shoot straight up out of the lake. Up and up until the green of the trees and speckling of houses were replaced by a white blanket of snow and obscured by cloud. It looked so mysterious from down where we were. The tops of the mountains were another world of white. Seeming so near to the eye but being impossibly far away and different at the same time. I took some nice photographs with my film camera.
We ate at a regular Italian pizza place. One of the only open restaurants in town. We talked about our pasts presents and futures. About Belgium, about exams and about where to do a masters. About speeches, and friendship and political trivialities. We noticed the brazen sparrows and the outsized swans walking among the outside tables of the restaurant begging for food.
The walk back to the train station at the top of the town was a lovely stroll through a town which has an air about it that says it has not changed in hundreds of years. Slim staircases and narrow streets where the buildings lean across to each other over your head which in the summer would have been thronged with tourists, were on that day, deserted and we were alone. Giacomo told us some local folklore about a house on this side of Lake Como with a large balcony which the owner used to look out across the lake to their lover’s house on the other side. They were forbidden from marrying by their families or something. Sounds like Romeo and Juliet to me.
We took the train towards Milan back to a town about the size of Waterford called Lecco. Gaia, Giacomo’s girlfriend met us there, and were six at the café to which Giacomo took us for some hot chocolate. I didn’t know this, but hot chocolate has a more literal meaning in Italy than it does in Ireland. A cup of melted chocolate was handed to me and everyone else. Pedro and Caterina underestimated the richness of the chocolate they were about to drink and had ordered a Belgian waffle covered in cream and more chocolate as well. It went unfinished. Over this delicious chocolate we got to know Gaia and Giacomo’s story. Well the start of it anyway. They met in high school 5 years ago. We tried to call Simone. Another esa Alumni in the area who I had met with Giacomo over the summer and was great craic. Alas, he was refereeing a soccer game for his club.
The more I saw of Lecco the more it reminded me of Waterford. Same size, same middle town issues and middle-sized monuments. One thing I’m assured that Lecco has going for it is the view, although I could only see the outline of the mountains against the dark sky from the lake shore. I’ll have to return to Lecco and to Varenna to fully appreciate those places.
In Lecco was where we had to leave Giacomo and Gaia. He walked with us to the train station where we bought our tickets, but then he took us on one last walk to the city walls of Lecco. When I saw them, I was reminded again of Waterford. They looked just like the walls of the Viking triangle and Reginald’s Tower. Gaia said to me that there is a public library on top of and inside the walls which really impressed me. That sounds like a lovely place to read.
Giacomo was holding back tears when we were on the platform. “I’m so glad I got to see you again.” he said. It was a sad goodbye. We knew we would not see each other again for a long time. Perhaps never. He even ran next to the train waving to us as we pulled out of the station. He will be friend of mine for a long time that Giacomo. He has a heart of gold and I’d love to see him again.
In Milan, Pedro, Caterina and I found that the bar in my hostel, the Ostello Bello Grande was the best place for us to go. It was packed and some musically minded fellows had taken the hostel’s guitars down from the wall and were playing some lively folk tunes. There, I was amazed to see that the bar had not only Guinness but Tuborg on tap. Tuborg. I’ve never seen that outside of Tramore. For me, Tuborg has a golden nostalgic taste to it which simply overpowers the otherwise bitter flavour. Seeing my surprise and thirst for Tuborg, Caterina decided to have one too. And for the sake of Ireland, Pedro got a Guinness.
Over these beers, I found out that Caterina is studying journalism and wants to become a television reporter or news anchor. She certainly has the face and voice for it. I said this and Pedro chimed in that she had even done face modelling for some ads in Portugal. I did not believe him until he showed me the photos. I told Pedro he was a lucky man. The talk swung around the table, from politics, to plans later in the night, to more reminiscing about Belgium. A second round was bought and Tuborg number 2 for me tasted even better than the first. Eventually, Pedro said something wise. Very wise in fact. We were on the subject of how happy we were in Belgium and how we wished we could relive that week, when he said: “We have a phrase in Portuguese. You shouldn’t return to the places where you were happy.” Caterina and I agreed that happy memories of a place are about so much more than the place. It’s about the people. It’s about the time. And that return to the place without the people or the context will only disappoint you.
It was pushing on midnight and the metro shut down at 12:30. I walked with Pedro and Caterina through the drizzle and said farewell to them at the underground in Milano. As we were leaving Pedro told me how much he enjoyed reading my letter that I sent him. Caterina also said she loved it and that my English is lovely. Pedro makes me happy to have chanced upon a person so much like myself. And I hope that he and Caterina remain together. From what I saw that day, how they smiled at each other and sat next to one another. Comfortable but excited at the same time in one another’s company.
I retreated in the rain back to the hostel and went to bed happy with the day I spent with the new old friends I had made.
The next morning, it was still raining softly and incessantly when I got up. I ate my breakfast at the hostel, left my bag behind the desk and took my camera out to Duomo cathedral. I bought an umbrella and took some nice photos of the life sized statues which are perched high above the ground on the Cathedral’s spires against the sky. It occurred to me then that no one has gotten a close look at the faces of these figures for a long time. Perhaps for centuries. They are as inaccessible up there as if they were buried underground. I also caught the last song of a beautiful choir in the Galleries Vittorio Emanuel where the Christmas markets were being set up to open the next week. I took in this small slice of the city and savoured it. The rain was nice.
At 1pm, Milano Centrale swallowed me up, placed me on a long slender train which slipped out of the rainy city. Heading north through the mountains to Zurich. I don’t know when, but I will return to this city and to Lake Como and I will meet these wonderful people again.
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.