Thursday, August 23, 2012

One month in: Some reflections

Have you wondered what it's like to live in France? Today is the last day of my intensive French classes, so I figured I'd share some wisdom before I disappear for a week.

On learning French

As rumor has it, most Frenchmen are very reluctant to speak English. This has been good, because mostly they won't switch to English if you speak French to them.

On the first day of classes, I remember having to concentrate very hard to understand what the teacher was saying, whereas now this is fairly automatic. So I've really gotten used to hearing French a lot every day, as well as brushing off my dusty grammar and learning tons of knew words.

In conversation, I still don't know a bunch of the words I'd like to use. This is really frustrating at times, but one thing I've gotten better at is explaining around words I don't know. I can understand most of what people say to me. The test of this was when I went to visit an apartment (that I didn't get, different story) and spoke French with a girl my age for over an hour. I came out of the visit elated - she spoke really fast, and didn't seem to mind my slow French.

The big challenge remains to become truly articulate, but I believe that will come when I have classes all day in French and meet more French students.

On the weather

Having lived in Norway for 10 years, I can talk about the weather almost endlessly. Suffice to say that it has been EXTREMELY hot here for the last month. It's also only rained twice, which I find beyond comprehension. If it doesn't cool down soon I may drown in a pool of my own sweat...

On the food

The food in France is better. Period. Coming from Norway, the produce is incredible. I think I eat a lot more vegetables here, because I can basically live on eggplant and salads. The French also can't make 'normal' bread, although baguettes are amazing. The only irritating thing about baguettes is that they get stale really quickly.

I'm also really warming up to French cheese. I don't eat a lot of cheese normally, but not eating cheese would be blasphemous. My personal favorite is Boursin, a spreadable herb cheese. Can you say 'garlic on everything'?

On Grenoble

I am absolutely in love with Grenoble. As some of you might have guessed, this is mostly because of its proximity to the mountains. It's also a very charming city with lots of culture, although it has been rather dead for the past month because everyone is on vacation for the month of vacation.

I've found the University rather unhelpful; I think they all must be on vacation to. I expect things to liven up as school starts. Maybe professors will start answering my emails then?

Anything else you want to know?

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


"Molly, what are you doing this weekend," Nikki asked early last week.
"I'm going hiking," I answered, with a silent duh.
"Can I come?"

Of course I had no idea where I wanted to go at this point, and since Grenoble is surrounded by mountains, just saying you are going hiking is vague to say the least. We enlisted another Canadian, Kevin, who also appreciates neature, and agreed we would do an overnighter. Then I sat down with my maps and had a good thunk, followed by an epiphany. We could start hiking from the center of Grenoble!

Just take a moment to reflect on how brilliant that is. The center. Of the city. No car, no problem. We would start there, and continue on into the mountains.

So bright and early Saturday morning, we started up the aftermentioned Bastille. It was a hard start, and we could already tell the day was going to be hot. Our efforts, however, were rewarded with a view after about 30 minutes.

Nikki enjoying the view from the Bastille
From the top of the Bastille we continued upward, thankfully in the tree, towards Mt Rachais. On the way, we these cool caves dug into the hill that were apparently part of the fortress - so that guards could switch posts without being seen. The cave turned into a flight of stairs headed downward towards Grenoble, but not wanting to waste precious vertical meters we didn't find out how far it went.

Kevin checks out the entrance to the caves 

Kevin found a cave to meditate in, and decided to stay there and become a hermit instead of hiking. (NOT!)
 We followed the trail upward, mercifully in the trees, and drew further and further away from Grenoble.
Looking back at Grenoble, the Bastille is on the edge of the ridge, looking pitifully small from the height we already had reached.
Nikki and Kevin enjoy the shade of the trees on the way down from Mt Rachais.
The trail continued down the ridge of Mt Rachais to the tiny village of Col de Vence where we bought ice creams from a woman who would clearly rather be enjoying her lunch than helping us. From there the trail zigzagged steeply upward towards Fort St. Eynard. The whole climb was in the trees, so it seemed to go on forever and the day got hotter and hotter. The panoramic view from the top was worth the sweat of the climb, although, ironically, there is a road to the top.

Panorama from Fort St. Eynard
We ate second lunch and explored the fort for a bit, scoffing at the fools who had driven up. Because what is more wonderful than climbing on your own two legs up to a view like that.
Nikki welcomes all the cars to the fort
The rest of the afternoon saw us following the trail across the top of the cliff the fort is located on and down to Sappy-en-Chartreuse. There we meet two jolly Frenchmen who were also headed for Chamchaude the next day, but were staying further up on the mountain. Around seven we finally reached the picturesque Auberge de Sarcenas where we spent the night. We made food on my camp stove just below the auberge, hungrily watching guests devouring salads and fois gras at the fancy restaurant. Later on we split a bottle of wine, watching the sunset and ponder the next day's goal: Chamchaude.

Mt. Chamchaude from just above Sappey-en-Chartreuse
The next morning started with two quiet kilometers to Col de Porte. After that we were surrounded by hikers - clearly Chamchaude is a popular goal. Most people seem to start from the parking lot a Col de Porte, but I like to think of our ascent as more hardcore since we actually started from Grenoble center!

From the parking lot the trail climbed steeply until, all of a sudden, we were above the trees and could see all the way back to Grenoble and across Vercors.

This mountain is too big... I guess we'll have to go and eat thistles
The rock formations on the mountain were incredible:

Cool looking rock
Towards the top, Nikki started to get nervous.

"What if I fall and die, guys?"

We were climbing pretty steeply, and the trail was loose and gravely. I told her I guessed it would probably hurt if you fell down the hill, but as long as you watched your footing you'd be fine.

Sometimes fears aren't that rational though.

A flock of crazy ravens above the trees. They were squaking and diving and circling for who knows what.
Nikki and the valley floor below. 
Although fear was clearly written across Nikki's face for the last hour of the climb, every time we asked if she wanted to turn or stop, she would just say, "No, I'm going to the top!". And she did :)

Nikki enjoying a well-earned lunch on top
The last few vertical to the top were reached by hand-over-handing up a small cliff. To our surprise, as we clambered over the edge of the cliff, we were greeted by the baa-baa of three sheep who clearly found this a wonderful place to graze.

Baa-baa? Baa-baa!
Like any good mountain in the alps, there was a cross on top:
Me on the mountain!
Nikki found the descent difficult. Basically she was really, really scared, and it took some coaxing to get her down. She really conquered her fear though, and deserves a lot of creds for going through with it.
Headed down through the forest.

We hiked down through the forest and out to the town of St. Pierre, where we had time for a stop at the boulangerie before the bus took us back to Grenoble.

In other news, it's 35 degrees and muggy as hell here. Oh, and I also bought a harmonica. And Kevin bought a ukelele. We're starting a band!

My sweet Blues harp
- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, August 20, 2012

Communal kitchens

Dear Residence Berlioz,

I am aware that in Africa, many people are without running water and cooking facilities, and so I am of course extremely grateful that you have provided us with both sinks and stoves (no oven) in the communal kitchens.

I am, however, at a loss has to how it is possible for only 3 of the 8 burners to work most of the time. And I say most of the time, because this morning, none of them did.

So I sincerely hope you can forgive me for cooking my eggs over an open flame. Nobody has told me this is against the rules (yet).
Exhibit 1
Exhibit 2
- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, August 17, 2012

Le Moucherotte

The catch 22 of blogging: I do things that I want to blog about, but I am busy doing more things so I don't have time to blog. In attempt to start sharing my adventures again, here is the story of my trip up Le Moucherotte (1901 m) last Saturday.

Le Moucherotte is a characteristic as seen from Grenoble. It frames many buildings in the downtown and its wall of white rock is slightly formidable. Luckily, my map showed me the easy way up.
Le Moucherotte as seen from downtown Grenoble.
The accessibility of the mountains near Grenoble is the city's true beauty; not only are they close by, but there are lots of buses that go up into them. Five euros got me from the train station to the petite, bucolic mountain village of St Nizier. From there the yellow brick road - err, signs - guided be towards Le Moucherotte.

The hike itself was fairly easy. It was an hour and 10 minute long grind to gain the 800 meters to top from St Nizier.

Catching my breath on the way up
There were lots of people near the top. I guess this is a popular hike! Trying to learn French as I am, lots of people means lots of people to practice my French on. Anyone who was on a bicycle was guaranteed to be quizzed in bad French - I'm desperate for good tips!

The popularity of the hike is understandable, as the view from the top is absolutely amazing. You could see all the way to Mount Blanc that day, which is over 100 kms as the crow flies.
The city of Grenoble and suburbs stretched out in the valley bottom, the mountains of Chartreuse to the left and the mountains of Belledonne to the right. In the middle, the snowy Mont Blanc massive reigns supreme.
Grenoble is surrounded by three mountain ranges: Vercors, Belledonne and Chartreuse, all three of which are very different looking. Le Mouchrotte is in Vercors, which is more like a giant plateau that the other two. The plateau drops off dramatically to the valley floor, created the ridge line seen from Grenoble.

From the top the ridge line was spectacular as well.

A view to the south from the top of Le Moucherotte. Doesn't this scenery look like a fairytale?
From the top I descended down a different path to the village of Lans-en-Vercors, where all the bakeries where closed. No eclairs for Molly!

There were, however, cows.
Inquisitive cow.
Tommorrow I'm off to the mountains of Chartreuse for an overnighter. Look for more posts from that, as well as a couple other I've got up my sleeve, next week!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Storming the Bastille

The Bastille, or Fortress of Grenoble lies on final promontory of mount Rachais, towering over 200 vertical meters above the city proper. The fact that the city center is almost completely flat makes this all the more dramatic. The walls of the fortress are built into the hillside, winding their way upward to the top which hosts a museum and restaurant.

Like any self-respecting French viewpoint, the Bastille has a 'téléphérique', or cableway, to the top. After an excellent dinner at the hilarious Ontarian Restaurant with my Ontarian friends on Tuesday, we took the cableway to the top. Here is the view of the city by night:

The next morning I decided to storm the Bastille on foot. I ran a road up and a trail down. The trail was gorgeous, it zigzags down through the forest and occasionally goes through arches and stairs of the fortress.

Almost on top! The last stretch of road up to the Bastille
The climb up had a fairly descent grade, although all the cars that pasted me were going pretty fast.
View of western Grenoble and the Vercors mountains from the summit of the Bastille
I think this is going to become my favorite run here because it's about 12 km round trip from my dorm, the view is great, and the trail up is nice. Plus I'm a fan of big hills!

On a complete different note, I just discovered the useful side of living with a mountain bike in my dorm room:
Improvised dorm room clothes line
C'est tout pour l'instant (That's all folks)!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Trail magic and injury

Yesterday I took the train to the beautiful village of Vizille, just outside of Grenoble. Unlike the many of my language peers, who were there for the whole day to sightsee, my main goal was to bike back to the Grenoble - through the mountains. What follows is the story of how I failed miserably at this, and also sprained my wrist.

The day started with a little sightseeing at Vizille Château.
Kevin and Sav are ready to start a revolution on the balcony of the Château.
The gardens were stunning.
Square of hedge filled with either flowers or crushed, colored glass. I've never seen colored glass in a garden before, I thought is was pretty cool!

Sleeping beauty is probably somewhere in there...
Leona with the Château in the background
I unfortunately didn't have time to check out the museum; I decided to head out of Vizille around noon to have plenty of time for my ride. Thankfully, the climb up to Montjean started in the shade. It was still boiling hot, and although the going was technically easy, the grade was sufficient to force me to take frequent breaks.

A road through the forest in France
As it grew steeper and steeper and the going got slower and slower, I thought about turning back. The sweat rolled off me and I drank endless amounts of water. It seemed unlikely that I would be able to complete my ride as planned, although the map showed that these first kilometers up to Mont Sec where likely to be the most grueling.

Along the road, I met a trough of cold water. Whoever decided to put that water in the middle of the hiking route was a genius; I was so refreshed I decided to keep going. I wanted to spend the day biking - so I would.

Awesome water spring trough.

Wet hair - I'm lovin' it!
I kept going and finally met the farm of Montjean. It looked like someone lives there, because there were farm animals near the house and the fields looked tended too. It seemed like a really interesting place to live anyway...
Cute donkey at Montjean

The view from just below Montjean - imaging waking up to this every morning!
From Montjean the dirt road turned into a trail, and the going got steeper. The bike ride turned into an exhausting hike-a-bike ride. At this point I was wishing a examined the map a little closer and thought a bit more before I set out. Idiot.
The trail between Montjean and Mont Sec
I finally reached Mont Sec, were the trail mercifully flattened out. I pedaled out of the trees and into the broiling sunlight.
Mont Sec. Apparently Sec is a dialect form of 'Seche' which means this top is called - you guessed it - Dry Mountain.
The view from Mont Sec. There are really mountains as far as the eye can see here!
Although I had thought about biking down from Mont Sec, I decided to continue a bit further to see how it went. I just hate to give up easily. The water in my reservoir was getting warm, and I suspected I was close to emptying it. The signs pointed to some sort of 'source', or spring, in a kilometer. Hoping for another trough to dunk my head in, I picked that as my next go.

The trail continued upward from Mont Sec, not as steeply, but there were more rocks and so the biking was technically more difficult. And equally exhausting.
Casper is totally loving life.
I was getting pretty closed to breaking point. I was so hot, tired, fed up with my stupid idea to bike up this gigantic hill. And the water never turned up!

Suddenly, a teenager on a Commencal downhill bike came flying by me. "Downhill," I thought, "That is seriously the only direction this trail should be biked." Then two more bikers came into sight - an man and a younger boy. I said 'Bonjour', and asked if they knew if there was any water up the trail. They didn't, but we got to talking and it turned out they were on their way down Vizille.

Screw this.

"Can I follow you?"

François, Timon and Provence were my trail magic yesterday. They helped me find more water from some farmers at Mont Sec, and showed me a great downhill route towards Vizille. And I got to practice my bad French on them!

Although I was pretty tired, the downhill was great fun. I had really earned those meters in sweat, blood and tears. I put my camera in my backpack for the descent, and so didn't really take any pictures (sorry, folks, but come to France and I'll bike the trail again with you!)

The trails here is very different. It's very dry, and there were a lot of loose rocks covered in the leaves. The effect of this is that you can't see the rocks, but you feel them move around under you, and it's hard to compensate for them. This, combined with my slightly dazed stated and the steepness of the trail, caused me to fly over my handlebars not once, but twice. The first time was the most traumatic; I flew a couple of meters and one of pedals didn't click out properly so I was stuck to my bike at a weird angle. The second time I didn't fly quite so far, but I got a good mouthful of dirt, bruised my forward, and landed hard on my outstretched left arm.

And so the disc-burning descent continued, 1200 meters down to Péage de Vizille. We biked back to Vizille, and I snapped a photo of my companions.
Provence, Timon and François: Thanks for all the help! The forested top in the background is the one I climbed. 
When we discovered that the next train back to Grenoble wasn't for two hours, François offered to help get me home. We biked a few kilometers on fairly flat dirt roads to the nearby village of Uriage, and were François had left his car earlier in the day, and then he drove me the last couple of kilometers. I can't express how awesome this was - I was tired, dusty and the offended left hand was growing more and more tender. I also feel really good for having practiced my French so much!

Unfortunately, my left wrist, which seemed OK at first, kept getting more and more painful. Finally, this morning, I decided to brave my way to the emergency room to make sure it wasn't broken. After two hours, a lot of waiting and stumbling to answer questions in French, the verdict of the X-ray arrived:

Left wrist: sprained
Here's a picture of my wrist; it's not broken!

My wrist. It's awesome.

They gave me a prescription for some painkillers, anti-inflammatory meds and a wrist brace. Also they gave me codeine, so I took a good two hours nap before I went and filled my prescription.

Good-looking wrist brace on the streets of Grenoble.

I feel I've learned a couple things this weekend (besides the words for various bike parts in French):

A) Think twice about taking on an 1000+ vertical meter climb in 30 degrees and sun.
B) When biking downhill, always keep you weight over the back wheel. (Actually I knew this, but since I went over my handlebars, that's totally not what I was doing).

Good times! I think I have to take a week or two off biking, but there will be more adventures.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, August 3, 2012

Bienvenue à Grenoble!

I moved to France! Actually, I moved last Sunday, but since the entire university is on vacation, I haven't had Internet. Does the fact that I feel my quality of life has increased significantly as soon as I got Internet make me a horrible product of the 21st century?

Anywho, I've been taking an intensive French course for a week now, and I still feel like a toddler every time I open my mouth. Fortunately, French is the common language for many people who take the course, so we can all stutter and not know words together! I've mostly met Canadians and Brazilians here so far - there are large groups of both, and they tend to gravitate together. 

The day I arrived the weather was a perfect, cloudless 30 degrees C, and it has remained so ever since with the exception of a 10 minute rain storm. I find this very hot - but luckily my Canadian friends live in a residence with a pool!

Cool clouds in the airplane over France.
The thing I love most about Grenoble so far is that there are mountains in every direction. I don't even know where to start, but I know I have to get exploring! I've bought some maps and will probably go out this weekend.
A tram stop - and big mountains in the background.
I live right near a Casino Géant, which is a giant grocery store comparable to Walmart. I've been there probably 3 or 4 times this week to get food and lots of small household things that I didn't bring, and I still feel like I haven't seen the whole store. They even sell cat insurance!

Cat insurance at the local grocery store.
As well as extensive buses and trams, Grenoble has a good bicycle rental service called MetroVelo that rents out simple yellow city bikes for short or extended periods of time. Grenoble is a very flat city, even though there are mountains all around, so you don't really need more than three gears to bike around campus and the center of the city. The bikes are pretty heavy and slow though, so I think I might invest in a road bike before my one-month rental is over.

One day I took a spin around the outer areas of Grenoble just to check it out. It was so hot, you could practically see the asphalt melting. But I came across this hilarious sign:

Yield for Mary Poppins!
I've also final discovered the market downtown. This is totally where the serious fruit and vegetable action goes down, even though there is a sizable produce isle in the Casino Géant. Today I bought chanterelles, avocados, and eggplant. Yumyumyum!
You are allowed to drool... chanterelles at the local market.
Today, instead of regular French class, we had a scavenger hunt in downtown Grenoble. Here are me and three of my Brazilian friends on a bridge of the Isere river. (Note the mountains in the background!!!)
Do a piece sign like you're Japanese. Me, Andre, Fabio and one more Brazilian on a bridge in the old city of Grenoble.
That's all for now - I'm going to go cook my chanterelles!

- The Wild Bazilchuk