On the path of a meaningful life

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30 October 2018

An autumn in the mountains

Return to France and start of a new adventure in Chamonix in the heart of the French Alps.
Mont-Blanc massif, Chamonix, France © Claire Blumenfeld
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Here I am, back in France. After more than three years abroad, I am back. I left Australia at the end of September and I have been back for ten days. Strange. I find it hard to know how I feel, between the joy of seeing my parents again, the excitement of starting a new job and a slight aftertaste of failure at not being able to continue my stay in Australia. But it is like that. The last few months in Australia have been difficult and after 15 months spent on this island continent, I decided to return to Europe. For a few months. I found a job as an Assistant manager in Chamonix Mont-Blanc starting in early October and here I am, embarking on a new adventure. I barely had time to rest that I am leaving again!

The idea of coming to work during the winter season in Chamonix at the foot of Mont-Blanc delights me. I think back to the many discussions I had with Gregorio, one of the ski instructors at Mount Buller, who kept praising the charms of the valley. He is from Courmayeur, on the other side, Italian side. He works there during the winter but comes regularly to Chamonix. I love mountains. I love these giants of rocks and snow-capped peaks. These steep valleys and these hikes in altitude. I love the beauty of the landscape and this impression of power. The feeling of being very small in the environment, lost in the middle of nature. So coming to live in Chamonix seems to me to be the right decision.

The Alpina hotel stands proudly in the center of Chamonix. A large modern style building with a huge bay window on the seventh floor. On one side flows the Arve, which descends from Mont-Blanc. And on the other the picturesque center of Chamonix. Mix of modern and traditional. Despite the large buildings of recent construction, Chamonix retains a certain charm. I already came to Chamonix years ago. On a school trip and with my parents. But I do not remember. The city has probably changed a lot. The hotel was recently renovated and the interior is very beautiful. Mountaineering ropes, large bells, old skis, drawings of mountaineers or local writers, all in colorful tones, light up the place. The restaurant, on the seventh floor has the most beautiful view of Chamonix. The Mont-Blanc massif proudly spreads out before my dazzled eyes. This is where I will work for seven months.

My room does not have quite the same view. A building is right in front of my window. By reaching out I could almost touch it. It is the back of a Japanese restaurant. But I can’t complain too much, the job comes with accommodation and food and it is very beneficial for me. Finding accommodation in Chamonix is mission impossible and the price of food shopping is too high. So here I am, housed in Beaulieu, an old building behind the Alpina which has been converted into an employee accommodation. The vast majority of the staff live here. The rooms are small but I am lucky to have one for myself. Most are shared by two. A bed, a shower, a sink, a table and a wardrobe. White walls and dark brown carpet. It is not luxury but it is much better than many places I have lived in during my three years of travel.

The atmosphere in the team is a bit tense. A lot of staff has just left and a lot has just arrived. Everyone needs to adapt and the atmosphere is affected. It is early October, the start of the winter season. The vast majority of the summer team have left and those who have stayed are a little overworked. Newcomers like me, take their bearings and swallow the amount of information spilled by others. As often in the field of tourism, we find ourselves parachuted in the middle of a “fight” without much time to master the basics. In times of war we have to make do, as they say.  I learn what I need to know to do my job as an assistant, try to tidy up the bar and the back room as well as possible, they seem to have faced a hurricane and familiarize myself with the management of groups and buffets.

The days pass similar and different. After three years abroad, the return to the French working world is not an easy one. Unlike Japan, New Zealand and Australia, people are much less friendly here. France is also not famous for its hospitality in the world of tourism and I have a little trouble understanding why the reception of customers can be done in a rude way. I try to counterbalance all this by welcoming customers with a big smile and good humor. There are a lot of things to do and the pace is not slow. Several large groups come to seminars, including the ICAR group dedicated to mountain rescue. 300 huge and starving men. The food in the buffets did not last very long and we had to reload several times.

The sun has been shining in the cloudless sky of the valley since I arrived in early October. The weather is magnificent since almost three weeks and I can hardly believe it. I have rarely had such good weather for several weeks straight during my travels. But here, at the foot of Mont-Banc, the weather is bright. The trees are thirsty and their leaves turn yellow and red, coating the valley with superb fall colors. I took advantage of my rest days to explore the surroundings. The Chamonix valley, surrounded on one side by the Mont-Blanc massif and the other by the Aiguilles Rouges massif, is filled with hiking trails. It is the low season and the places are empty of tourists. The best time to go and enjoy nature. In a few minutes, I was out of the small town and on the slope. All the hikes in the area start with a good big climb of almost 1000 meters to reach the first mountain pastures. It is hard but how beautiful it is!

Paragliders dance in the blue sky, suspended in the air by a frail arched sail. There are plenty here. They climb by cable car to the Plan de l’Aiguille at 2310m or on the Brévent side to launch themselves into the air and fly over the valley. 360° of magnificence. Attracted by the experience, I decide to try an accompanied jump. So I find myself at the foot of the Aiguille du Midi cable car with my guide loaded with a huge bag containing the sail and the equipment. The cable car goes up quickly taking me to the heights and I overlook the valley for the first time. From the air, I realize how small the valley is, between the two large massifs. It stretches to the north, dotted with villages and plains and I can see in the distance the border between France and Switzerland. We exit at Plan de l’AIguille, the stop halfway between Chamonix and Aiguille du Midi. The needle is 1500m higher and proudly assumes its status as the highest needle in the valley. I can see in the distance the small terraces and the observatory, improbable constructions hanging on the side of the mountain. The cable cars seem to climb with an 90° angle along the rocky peak.

My guide, a guy in his fifties, takes me to an open, gently sloping place where a good dozen people are setting up their veils. This is the paraglider’s corner. I watch them wait for the right draft and throw themselves into the void. Some people have to stop before the void, their veil having lost the gale. Suddenly, I no longer feel very motivated to test paragliding. The prospect of losing the wind when we take off scares me a little. But my guide has already installed everything and attaches me bluntly to the harness. He straps behind me and tells me to run to the edge at his signal. Despite my panic-stricken mind, I run to the edge. And here we are in the air, making circles to take to the heights. My heart is banging violently in my chest but the landscape is so beautiful that I allow myself to be absorbed by the experience. We fly over the valley and the Bossons Glacier, an ice monster above Chamonix, which melts a little more each year with the warming climate. I feel the air currents rushing into the sail stretched over me. My guide hands me the handles so that I can test how to steer the sail. It is a great experience and I feel very happy. And a little scared all the same. The multiple movements in circles turn on my stomach and it is with relief that I welcome the return to the ground.

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Chapter IV. Home spleen home

The Vallée Blanche, Chamonix, France © Claire Blumenfeld

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The autumn season in the Chamonix Mont-Blanc valley is a festival of beautiful colors.

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