Sunday, 4 November 2012

La dolce vita

We have spent a lot of time at airports and on airplanes, these past couple of years. As a transnational couple living in a third country, we have to get on a plane whenever we want to visit our families. We also have to take the plane for work (research and conferences) and holidays, as travelling overland from Norway to other European countries is generally much more expensive and time-consuming than flying. As a result, travelling by plane has long lost its appeal, as have airports. I prefer travelling by train, not only for environmental reasons, but also because I find it much less stressful. But alas, there are no fast trains connecting our current home city with other cities, so if we want to travel abroad we have little choice but to fly.

We could of course spend more time travelling in Norway. It is a beautiful country, after all, and we still have not seen much of it. But for all the good things of Norway, there are some important things we miss there: fresh and tasty vegetables, affordable restaurants and bars, hot and sunny weather, and, of course, our friends living in other countries. Hence, we do want to travel abroad every now and then.

In contrast to most other airports, the coffee at Florence International Airport tastes good and is fairly cheap. I enjoy a last cup of cappuccino. The café is noisy and crowded, but we have a great view of the planes, landing and departing against the background of the Tuscan mountains. We have just spent a wonderful autumn holiday in Italy, and are now waiting for our plane back to Oslo. After ten days of soft sunlight, fresh pasta, rolling hills with vineyards, impressive renaissance art and delicious gelato, our batteries are charged, and we are ready for Norway’s dark season.

Our trip started in Rome, where we attended a friends’ wedding. We had been to Rome before, and have many good memories of the place. It was good to come back. The wedding was great – the mass took place in a lovely little church in Ostia Antica, followed by a dinner party somewhere in the countryside – and we were happy to see our old friends. We also spent a relaxed day in Rome, visiting the Colosseum and strolling around the Palatine (where I got a spontaneous eureka-moment, and decided to change the structure of my dissertation), and enjoying some nice food.

After three nights in Rome, we took the train to Tuscany. We had rented an apartment near the town of Empoli, halfway between Pisa and Florence, at a place called Villa Somelli. The apartment was basic, but fine, and wonderfully quiet (it was low season, after all). The surrounding landscape was magnificent: rolling hills with vineyards, olive trees, patches of woodland and blue skies. It was sunny most of the time, and around twenty degrees, so we could still enjoy the outside swimming pool. Here we spent a long week with my family, to celebrate my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary.

Boarding time. In addition to my backpack, I carry two transparent plastic bags, each filled with three bottles of wine. I get many strange looks. "If you need help with that, just let me know," a Canadian tourist jokes. I try to explain that I am not allowed to open the sealed bags because of security reasons, but he does not seem to understand what I am saying. Thinking that he has found a fellow alcohol-lover, he starts talking about the great port wine he had the other night. I try to explain the reality of life in Norway: how we can’t buy wine in the supermarket, as only state-owned liquor stores are allowed to sell it; how these stores are closed on evenings, on Saturday afternoons, Sundays and Saturdays preceding religious holidays; how the cheapest bottle there costs about twelve euros. He looks at me pityingly, then tells me that, in his country, one can buy delicious local wine for less than five dollars a bottle. Canadian wine…?

He is not the only one interested in my bottles, though. When we get off the airplane in Frankfurt, the stewardesses look at my bottles eagerly. "Was hast du heute Abend vor...?" one of them asks me, somewhat inappropriately. Apparently, for some people the mere suggestion of alcoholic overconsumption is enough to forget decorum. I cannot help smiling. Importing a few bottles of chianti turns out to be quite an ordeal.

We could have easily spent a week at the swimming pool and in the kitchen, enjoying the landscape, autumn sun and fresh food, not really doing anything. But this was the first time we were in Tuscany, and we had rented cars, so we made a lot of day trips. We spent two days in crowded Florence, where we visited the Galleria Uffizi, walked in the historical city centre and the not-so-touristy-yet-very-pretty neighbourhoods south of the river, and bought nice clothes. We went to the lovely walled town of Lucca, where we climbed a tower and visited an excavation site. We also went to the mysterious hilltop town of Volterra, the strange medieval skycrapers of San Gimignano, and of course the tower of Pisa. We had a delicious dinner in Greve in Chianti, and explored beautiful Sienna, with its extraordinarily richly decorated cathedral. And we ate lots of ice cream.

When we arrive in Oslo, it is already dark. It is about twenty degrees colder than Tuscany. Before long, the year’s first snow will fall, and we will struggle to stay awake during long, dark afternoons. The contrast is striking. But then, the grass is always greener on the other side. And we only have to endure the darkness for about two months – in January, we will take an extended ‘working holiday’, spend a couple of months in a faraway country, and continue writing our dissertation (respectively thesis) there. Thus, for the time being, we will keep on travelling, moving from place to place, and dividing our time between different countries. More planes, more airports, and more passport stamps. But I am not complaining. I am grateful I can travel, and get to know many different places. I am glad I am one of those people with multiple homes.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Rotsblog walking GR 5 (5): The last story

Sadly, now that several months have passed, I have to admit that my plan to keep a serious walking blog about our last GR5 trip, combining route descriptions with accommodation reviews and philosophical reflections, was too ambitious. I did write stories about the first, second and third day, but then I got busy writing other things (a conference paper on notions of ‘sacred space’ in Japanese academic discourse, a book chapter on Shinto responses to last year’s natural disasters, and of course my dissertation), so I did not have time to write more walking stories – or any blog post, for that matter. As the trip is about four months ago, I do not remember details of the path, landscape or accommodation well anymore, so I have decided not to continue this series. Tant pis; I will try again next time. For now, there is one last, not yet posted route description and hostel review I would like to share (see below). It has been in my drafts folder for months, waiting for me to finish and post it. It is a description of our fourth day in the Jura, and a sequel to the story of day three. 

As for the subsequent days, let me summarise them by saying that:

a) Geneva is one of the worst cities I have ever been to, filled with rude people, top-notch scams and commodity fetishism, living testimony to the lingering validity of Marx’ observations regarding power and capital;

b) The UN are not part of the solution to the world’s problems (inequality, exploitation, environmental destruction, violence), but part of the problem, as they reify and legitimise the very power structures that (co)produce those problems;

c) The area of the French Alps immediately south of Lac Léman is stunningly beautiful, offering magnificent mountain landscapes, and is one of the most fantastic (if challenging) walking destinations I have ever been to – highly recommended, but not for the unexperienced (in any case, bring a walking stick);

d) Meeting wild ibexes on top of a mountain is a pretty cool experience;

e) Many mountain refuges do not open until the end of June or beginning of July, so if you go walking in June (as we did) call ahead to check whether they are open or not (booking accommodation ahead is generally a good idea, as some places only have a few beds – but don’t leave your credit card details, as injuries or bad weather may cause delays);

f) My dad and I have now walked all the way from Pieterburen to Samoëns, and are gradually getting closer to the Mediterranean Sea;


View Larger Map

g) If you fly back from Geneva airport, do not stay in one of those ridiculously overpriced Genevan hotels, but in a cheap hotel in the neighbouring French city of Annemasse, from where you can go to the airport in an hour and a half or so by taking a bus, tram and trolleybus.

Well then, apropos day 4:

Day 4: Chapelle-des-Bois - Le Bief de la Chaille 

June 17, 2012
24 km  

Fortunately, the fever does not stay very long. On the next day, I feel much better, and we can continue our journey. My carefully designed walking schedule needs to be revised, but so be it - if your body gives you clear orders to take a day off, you have no choice but to obey.  Sadly, though, the delay will have some other unpleasant consequences; the hostel in Geneva that replied to my email by saying I could cancel will later change its mind, and end up charging my credit card for a night we are not spending there. But today, as I have only seen their first email ("so kind of them," I thought naively, not knowing that one day later I will be yelled at and lied to) we are not aware of this yet - had we been, we could have walked to the French-Swiss border and taken a train in the evening. Anyway, we continue our walk, happily and healthily. Today is our last day in the French Jura; we are rapidly approaching Lac Léman, the lake that divides the GR5 into a northern and a southern half. One more day in French forests, before we cross the lake and face our next challenge: the Alps.
Chapelle-des-Bois is located next to a high rocky plateau that rises up from behind the village. We choose not to climb the plateau immediately, but continue south for a while, through the village and a lovely green valley. We pass several gîtes and chambres d’hôtes – apparently, this is a popular tourist destination, but as French summer holidays have not started yet it is still fairly quiet. Eventually, we do have to climb the plateau. After a short but steep climb, we enjoy a beautiful view of the valley below. This is the Roche Bernard (1290 metres).

The rest of the day, we walk through forest. Dense, mixed forest. It is getting hot, so we are happy to get a bit of shade. The roads are wide; in the winter, they double as cross country tracks. We have lunch – no dry bread, the leftovers from yesterday’s dinner, yummy – near a cottage in the forest. In winter, it provides shelter for skiers, but today it is closed. We play quiz games, chat, and try to ignore the pain in our feet. Then we descend to the border town of Les Rousses. It is an ugly place, that seems to attract the wrong kind of tourists; after an overpriced glass of ice tea, we are happy to leave the place. We pass an old fortress with blatantly nationalistic information panels, then walk for a couple of kilometres on a quiet country road. Finally, we arrive at the youth hostel of Le Bief de la Chaille, peacefully located in between a forest and rolling grassy hills. The border is around the corner, yet nowhere to be seen.
Bief de la Chaille youth hostel

Auberge de jeunesse de Bief de la Chaille
*** (3/5)
€25,- p.p., including breakfast 

Fairly basic youth hostel, on a quiet an beautiful location. There are drinks for sale (if you book ahead, they may provide dinner as well, but as we did not do this I am not sure). There is a small kitchen for guests, which is very convenient. The bunk beds and showers are basic but OK (bring your own sleeping bag). Lots of stairs – the room for shoes and skis is inconveniently located two floors below the bedrooms – which can be a bit of a pain after a long day of walking. Nice garden. The breakfast was basic, the bread not very fresh. Not particularly good value, but the place earns extra points for its sustainability: recycling is strongly encouraged, and lights switch off automatically.