When I think back on it, it was amazing how much more magical the region where I’d lived for almost a year became with Francis. Even though I had been adventurous about exploring on my own, I suddenly realized I’d only scratched the surface. He was peeling away layers of an onion to which I’d been blind. I had thought French culture was something like an orange… and that I had peeled it and found the sweet juicy center… but there was so much more hidden beneath the surface than I would have imagined!
Falling in love with a local offered me chance to plunge deeper into the local traditions and customs and it opened doors that are closed to outsiders.
France had been breathtaking and enchanting on my own… but once I feel in love with a Frenchman it was suddenly a captivating new world. Francis gave me priceless intangible gifts like an understanding of the rich historic significance of places and things I’d been seeing. Foods I had once found delicious and places I had once found stunning suddenly became meaningful too, as the cultural background and historic significance enabled me to see them in a new light. Francis was offering me entry to the local’s favorite spots. He was expanding my experience of France beyond the superficial tourist contact by giving me entry to authentic encounters, events and places. He was letting me live like a local: it was like being given keys to hidden doors I hadn’t known existed and never would have found on my own.
With my study abroad program, I’d gone wine tasting amidst the hill covered vines and ochre-stoned buildings of the local wine capital, I’d gone up to the mountains to see the local version of gruyere cheese being made by hand in a tiny local dairy. I’d even been to see a fascinating architectural structure by Claude Ledoux, it was an 18th century saltworks which was a peculiar factory where the employees worked and lived in what was called a “utopian village” but it sounded more like a prison with everyone spending their salary in the company store. I really had wanted to make the most of my year and tried to see the major sights. One of my favorite was a stunning castle-fort perched on the top of a precipice like an “eagle’s nest” near the Swiss border: it was stunningly beautiful seen from below, and once inside the austere cool stone structure I learned the heart wrenching fact that one of the world’s most extraordinary revolutionaries, Tousant Louverture, had been imprisoned and died there. Before meeting Francis, I’d gained an appreciation for the breadth and depth of region’s history, an understanding of the local culture and an appreciation for the unique flavors that distinguished the traditional cuisine.
But, Francis wanted me to discover the places that were meaningful to him. With each excursion I felt like he was inviting me into his world and sharing the places where he had spent special childhood moments: places tourists don’t know about or think to go. It felt like finding the door to the secret garden.
With Francis, I suddenly had entry to the real France.
I have a lot of favorite memories from that period in May when Francis and I first met and were madly in love, memories that rank right up there with our biking trip. Another one of my best memories is the day Francis borrowed his mother’s old, dying Volvo station wagon to take me to the subalpine mountains where he’d skied as a kid.
It was late spring. The snow was long melted and gone. So, we could drive right to the top of the mountain.
As the car strained up toward the summit, I gazed out the window. We’d been driving through a dense fairy-tale pine forest: imposing trees with sweeping branches draped in delicate needles. The trees ended abruptly and we drove out into meadows dotted with grazing brown and white local cows were. The local, montbelliarde, cows seemed to be wandering about freely in the alpine meadows filling the air with an arrhythmic melody of tinny clanging. The number and variety of flowers was delightful. Pink, yellow, purple. And green. Luscious, voluptuous verdant fields undulated into the distance as far as I could see. The cows were oblivious to us. Some wandered lazily across the road forcing us to idle several minutes. They turned their heads to take long uninterested looks at our car and moseyed along. Each slow step seemed to invite a pleasant flat clank to rise from the large and small copper bells they wore as necklaces. I loved it! It was so charming, so quaint, so outlandish. Have you seen a Ricola cough drop commercial? I was exuberant. This was… wow. I looked at Francis with glee, he looked, well… bored.
Cow traffic jam. Clearly an everyday occurrence in the mountains.
Our destination was the top. Our objective, a hike. Our journey was every bit a part the experience.
We passed a chalet designed to welcome hikers and skiers.
Francis and I eventually reached the end of our road. He parked and we hiked a very short distance to the edge of a limestone escarpment. From the edge where we were standing the earth just dropped straight down opening up a panoramic view over Switzerland. The sheer cliff was breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Beautiful. And the best part was that he didn’t tell me what to expect so it was a total surprise for me…. Like when they open the curtains at the theater and you see the set for the first time, like when the waiter reveals your meal from beneath a big silver domed plate cover with a flourish, like when you open the wrapping paper on a present and discover it was exactly what you wanted.
There was no safety rail, just a sheer drop of several hundred feet along a perpendicular limestone precipice… and then Switzerland. It was breathtaking. The sky was so blue. The air was so fresh.
Francis and I were precariously close to the fall, our arms intertwined and clinging gently to each other’s waist. With his free hand, he gently brushed my long hair away from my neck. He leaned in and with his soft lips and kissed my tenderly sending ripples of sensation over my skin. A kiss in the crook of my neck, on my collar bone. He pulled me toward him and pressed his body against mine in a warm engulfing embrace. My abdomen fluttered with delight as a thrill rushed over me and he took me in a long loving kiss.
Still holding me in his arms, he pointed with his chin to make sure I notice the vague silhouette of the Alps and the Mont Blanc in the distance.
I tore my eyes away from his face briefly but all I wanted to do was stand and look deep into his eyes. And so we did.
This was my first time one the GR5: Grande Rondonner hiking path.
The number and variety of flowers was delightful. Little gold ones. Bigger violet ones. Huge green leafy ones. Lots of tiny white ones. The local variety of brown and white cows, called montbéliarde, seemed to be wandering about freely in the alpine meadows near the summit grazing on the flowers and grasses.
That cow is probably more sacred than the cows in India: the locals revere it because it produces the milk used to make France’s number 1 artisanal cheese called “Comté”. Laws lavish pasture land on the hallowed montbéliarde to ensure they produce the highest quality milk. Owners bedeck them with the bells so they can wander and graze freely yet still be found easily.
We hiked along the length of the cliff and found a spot to just sit. We just sat holding each other in our arms. Just looked out over the beauty. Looked out and savored the moment. Savored the warmth of the sun, the crisp air… It was close to heaven as you can get in life.
Time rolled by unnoticed by us.
Sometimes doing nothing, in just the right spot with just the right person, feels like the most significant thing you could possibly do. That was the case for me that day.
And then it was time to go. Reluctantly, we strolled back to the car.
We needed to eat.
We stopped at the chalet. The meal was as rustic as the wood-hewn furniture: a hearty cheese-potato-ham dish called “tartiflette”. Francis explained that it was made with locally smoked bacon and a roblochon cheese. He loved it. I loved watching him enjoy it.
We then rolled back down the mountain. In neutral. To save gas… and the breaks.