A winter in France

I spent the winter of my 27th year in a small town in the Vosges Mountains of northeastern France.  Months earlier, while traveling through Java, I had befriended a young Frenchman who was returning home after completing his military service in the Pacific island territory of New Caledonia.  He hadn’t seen snow in nearly three years … but Claude Remy’s parents owned a small ski area and resort hotel, Les Vallees de la Bresse.  Naturally, he said there would be a job waiting for me when I arrived.

The job that awaited me was “debarrasseur des tables.”  That sounds a lot better than its English equivalent: busboy.  But it came with free lodging in the Remy home, free meals in the hotel restaurant, and free skiing on the Col du Hohneck.  The wine was cheap and good.  And as the winter wore on and I proved my ability as a skier, I was occasionally recruited to give lessons to novice British visitors.  An American ski instructor in France!  The fringe benefits followed … Ooh la la!  There’s a reason French is called the language of love.

On free days, I’d travel to Strasbourg or Nancy, or occasionally join Claude and his friend Philippe at the casino discotheque in Gerardmer.   But some of my favorite memories took place on the winding mountain road between La Bresse and Gerardmer.  I flashed back to that time this afternoon as I drove around the north side of Crater Lake National Park en route from Bend to Ashland, with plowed snow piled at least a dozen feet high on both sides of Highway 138.

“On va heluier?” Philippe suggested one evening as we sipped glasses of vin rouge in his apartment.  My French was far from perfect, but one word bore no resemblance to any other that I recalled hearing.  I’ve never found it in any dictionary, but I think it may be a derivative of “hellraising” or “halleluja.” 

“We go to do what?” I asked.  “Heluier,” Claude inserted.  “We go make zee bobsleigh in zee baignole.”

Claude’s “baignole” was his old car, a scarred and dented Renault that probably had been manufactured in the 1950s. Although packed snow and ice covered the roads, the jalopy was traveling without snow tires, and we never gave a thought to chains as we skidded around turn after turn en route to the highway’s crest.  At the summit, Claude twisted the wheel into a frightening 540-degree skid … and Philippe shrieked, “Laisse-moi conduire!” (“Let me drive!”)

I’m now convinced that Philippe was in training for Grand Prix race driving.  As I prayed that no traffic be coming uphill, we careened at high speed down the twisting roadway, bouncing off opposite snowbanks whenever the turn was too sharp for the speed we were traveling.  “Sacre bleu!” Claude shouted on one particularly sharp curve.  Then he exploded into hysterical laughter.  I cringed.  I think I was paralyzed.

I don’t know how much time passed before the Renault skidded to a stop in front of Les Vallees.  But I do remember how much better the wine tasted after staring certain death in the face.  And I remember that at least once a week, for the rest of the winter, I proposed to my friends: “On va heluier?”


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