Hello, old friend.

Blatiere
Grépon and Blaitiére, five-minute left-handed sketch

Returning to Chamonix is like visiting an old friend who you know so well, you can finish their sentence. In French. It’s a busy, touristy, Brit-filled place and must have more cheese per square metre than anywhere else on earth.

This time of year, the streets vibrate under the impact of ski boots and the sound of clattering skis is only just audible above the clink of beer glasses hitting the bars, waiting for refills.

For skiers and boarders, Chamonix is a Mecca of gnarliness. The easiest pistes in the resort would be intermediate anywhere else and the hardest, well, they’re off the scale, certainly off my scale anyway. For the brave and well-equipped, the mountains offer a massive playground, for the foolhardy and ill-equipped, they can be an icy tomb.

After a very stressful year, we were mentally exhausted. Even booking a ski trip was too difficult, so we opted to return to the town dubbed the home of alpinism and our honeymoon destination 18 years ago. Where else do you go when you need comfort than to see an old friend?

Everything was wonderfully familiar, so much so that we felt like locals, speaking French to everyone, whether they were French or not, then shrugging in that Gallic way when they replied in loud English that they didn’t understand. How we laughed! We had some fabulous conversations in French with people from all over the world. The solo skier, born in Brazil, but living in Geneva, over for the weekend, the two Spaniards who asked us which bus to catch,  then got on the wrong one, and the two French lads, off to do something brave, we agreed they had ‘les couilles d’acier’ (balls of steel). I even got to practice my French vernacular after a rather spectacular face plant ‘putain de merde!’ (f#cking sh!t). I don’t think anyone heard…

But the best exchange of all was with the waiter at our regular patisserie. I’d taken my sketch book to try and draw the impressive mountains dominating the Chamonix skyline. It was just a sketch, with my left (non-dominant) hand, an inspiration from the 64 Million Artists January Challenge I took part in, but the waiter was so complimentary, and our conversation so animated, I felt like I was a local, at home with my friends.

The snow will be gone from the lower levels soon, but we’ll be back in the summer to see our old friend, run the rocky trails, climb the crags, walk around the town, eat our own body weight in cheese, drink beer at the micro brasserie, sketch a bit and speak more French, though not swear as much.

Let’s talk about customer service..

runcham
Running in Chamonix – no ski boots required!

Call me old-fashioned, call me old, you’d be right on both counts, but I do like good customer service, no, actually, I like excellent customer service. Being self-employed, I make sure that’s what I give, if I didn’t, my reputation would suffer.

Let’s look at two scenarios to test out the principles of good customer service, you decide what actually happened.

It was the last day of a snow-packed slippy-slidey no-fall ski holiday (that’s no falls on the downhill, the cross-country had obligatory falling over). The snow just kept coming down and we were happy.

Our Chamonix hotel, the Faucigny was a favourite place to stay, we’d been there many times, welcomed warmly by the couple who ran it as a family business. They had since retired, but we went back as we loved it there.

It’s usual for ski boots and skis to be kept in the bowels of a hotel, usually in a room heady with the scent of 100 sweaty feet. We have our own boots, moulded to our feet and fitted with customised footbeds, so comfortable, like having your feet kissed…

As we opened the door that last morning, instead of our two pairs of boots, there was one. Mine. Noel’s had gone.

In scenario one, we speak to the reception staff, in French of course, who sympathise and offer to cover the cost of hiring boots for the day, and promise they will do their utmost to track them down. We leave re-assured and head out to ski our little legs off, trusting our hotel will sort everything out for us. On returning, we are presented with the missing boots, a guest had accidentally taken them, apologised profusely for the inconvenience, leaving a gift, a generous gift, we’re overwhelmed, we shed a tear or two, embrace the hotel staff, who hand us a warming cuppa and huge slice of gateau then bid them a fond farewell, promising to return. Soon.

Scenario two and we’re met with a shrug, there’s an offer of a discount voucher to hire replacements, the same voucher offered when we arrived. Definitely the least they could do. The hire boots fit like gloves, boxing gloves. It’s not a good day. We return to the same shrugging and decide to report it to the police as a theft, that way we can claim on the insurance. We spend the penultimate hour of our holiday in the Gendarmarie explaining everything in our best French. On returning to the hotel, to pick up the airport taxi, Noel checks the boot room one last time. The boots are back, still warm, and wet through, the reception staff shrug, saying one guest returned, but they didn’t see who, yeah, right. Noel explains in his best French that he’s not happy and would very much like to discuss reimbursement of the hire cost of the boots with the person responsible. More shrugs. We’re hungry, thirsty and angry and already composing our Trip Adviser review.

Once when we were there before, we’d returned to the room to find it hadn’t been cleaned. Monsieur was mortified, he called the cleaner back, apologised profusely and gave us a bottle of champagne and sacked the cleaner. That was customer service.

So, which scenario was it, dear reader?

To the rescue

parapent.CR2

‘The parapent has crashed through the window?’ Noel’s French is usually very good, but the hotel receptionist couldn’t understand his exclamations as he pointed to the window across the yard where, to her relief, there was no-one dangling from the balcony. But there was a problem.

I’d been reclining on my day bed after further adventures in Chamonix, every hotel room should have  a spare bed next to the picture window. I may have shut my eyes, there could have been snoring, but the storm woke me, they are always spectacular in the mountains and well worth watching. The old gentleman in the apartment opposite had the same idea as he watched from his balcony.

As I turned to inform Noel that there was thunder in the air, a statement of the blindingly obvious, I heard a crash from across the yard and saw the gentleman had fallen backwards into his room. He was sprawled on the floor, conscious, but unable to get up, I could see into his apartment and there was a walking frame and a stick, neither within reach. He was clearly alone.

Noel dashed down to our hotel reception where his French failed him, but the urgency and pointing, along with me calling from the window because I could see what they couldn’t, soon brought help. While the manager tried to find the apartment keys, Noel had a go at scaling the wall to the first floor balcony. His sandals weren’t as good as his rock shoes and I was just about to throw them down to him when another guest came to the rescue.

It can only have been ten minutes or so, but it must have been an age for the gentleman on the floor, helpless and alone. The hotel manager, who knows him and keeps apartment keys just in case, helped him to his bed and contacted his daughter. All is well, we checked. Thank goodness for day beds. Thank goodness for Noel.

Pantra mantra chanter

More than one thousand metres above sea level, higher than anywhere in England and the air’s a bit thicker. Well, that’s my excuse for sounding like Thomas the Tank Engine as I make my way up a slope that has no right to be that steep. And did I mention it’s warm? Boy is it warm, 35C, thank goodness for the shade.

Noel’s doing his usual thing of running ahead, then running back to round me up, making sure I’m still physically moving, though at times I feel I’m going backwards. Boy is this hard. And to think, I’m doing this voluntarily.

“Are you OK?”, he asks as I huff and puff. “You sound like you’re struggling to breathe.” Not as such, I tell him, it’s just my way of getting up the hill, my mantra, or rather my pantra, as I pant out the words. ‘Up the hill, up the hill, not much further, not much further, coffee and cake, coffee and cake’. It definitely works for me, though anyone within earshot thinks I’m dying.

We’ve driven to Chamonix, in the French Alps,  with a fine selection of running shoes and climbing gear. Well, why go on holiday to rest when there are so many mountains to run/walk/climb or, when we’re exhausted, just look at as we drink our coffee and eat our cake?

Not a tame mountain

Storm warning!
Storm warning!

We’re 2,400m above sea level, our heads are in the clouds, our feet are hitting the high mountain trails. The summer air is thick with the scent of honeysuckle, my fillings are singing and my hair is standing on end.That can only mean one thing, there’s a storm a-coming.

One minute it’s bright and sunny and the clouds are white and fluffy. The next, the clouds have turned an angry shade of grey and, if I’m not mistaken, look rather peeved. I definitely wouldn’t want to mess with them. In the distance there’s a sinister rumble, and it’s not just Noel’s stomach.

A white curtain is being drawn across the valley, everything in its wake is very shiny and very wet. I want to stop and watch, the live weather show is an amazing spectacle, and it’s free! But hanging around isn’t wise, the mountain isn’t tame.

We head for low ground, the storm following, poking us with flashes of lightening and cracks of thunder. Do you know how much thunder echoes around a valley? A lot, bloody hell a lot. Do you know how much water a cloud can empty in just five minutes? Enough to fill a rucksack left open, that’s how much. Thank goodness these storms never last for long. Thank goodness for Gore Tex and Smart Wool and glory be for the safety of the valley with its many coffee and cake establishments where we can laugh and pretend we weren’t really scared.

An economist took our photo

Running in Chamonix, before it started cracking the flags.
Running in Chamonix, before it started cracking the flags. The photo our economist took is here

It’s early Sunday morning in the shadow of Le Mont Blanc and we want to get our run in before it starts cracking the flags here in Chamonix. They don’t have a direct French translation for that Yorkshireism, but the papers are full of stories about La Canicule – the heatwave.

Meeting up with our mate Helen, we head upriver, knowing that the return will be downhill. At an altitude of 1000m, it’s good to start steady. The shadows are long and lazy, perfect for a photostop, especially as Europe’s highest mountain looms obligingly behind us.

As we faff around, an affable chap appears and offers take our photo. He didn’t look like the kind to sprint off with our phones – and if he did, I was pretty certain Noel could rugby tackle him to the ground while I screamed blue murder in my best vernacular French. I’ve been reading a book on French slang and have learned a number of new words, which I won’t repeat here. Suffice to say, variations on the word for ‘willy’ appear many times.

Our photographer’s accent is American, so I ask him where he is from before launching into full journalist mode. It turns out he’s an economist from Washington DC, and I suspect a highly respected one at that as he’s just just spent a year with the OECD, in Paris. They are kind of like the Thunderbirds of the economics world, with international rescue of currencies everywhere, as well as fighting The Hood.

The obvious question to ask is about the Grexit, the potential exit of Greece from the Euro and possibly the EU. A discussion follows, he is clearly very clever. No, he says, Greece should stay, it wasn’t their fault in the first place. Not only that, the Germans should stop being so damned efficient so the other countries can get a look-in with their imports and we’ll all be better off. I wonder how that will work out, I ask him.

We thank him and head back downhill where we are greeted by Helen’s five-year-old who is massively impressed that we have run up Le Mont Blanc – and so quickly too. We don’t correct her, everyone should have a bit of fantasy in their lives. Reality, particularly economics, can be just too serious.

Eat in Chamonix – this is the view!

I'm heading for the Biggest Chamonix Bore of All Time award by writing about my favourite place again. But, hey, it's my blog!

There's a zillion places to eat in Cham, but I have to warn you, there's a strong cheese theme. The first time you go, you'll savour the traditional fondue (liquid cheese mixed with wine), raclette (cheese melted right before your eyes with the help of a one-bar electric fire) and tartiflette (cheese with potatoes). So there's a lot of cheese then. And it's good. But you do need a bit of variety, but probably not pizza.

So for something a bit different. Some good places to eat and drink.

Chamonix Micro Brasserie for good beer, non-cheese-based food and, ahead of the clamp-down, smoke-free. Yaaaaay! Live music can be a plus….

www.mbchx.com

Creperie Gentiane, Rue du Lyret – tucked away on the backstreet down from the casino, tasty crepes, some cheese influence, but can be avoided. Good value, lovely setting, overlooking the Arve good value and friendly service.

Munchie, 87 Rue des Moulins for a more up-market night out. Eclectic menu influence by Japanese cuisine. Hardly any cheese in sight. www.munchie.eu

Grand Central Cafe and Juice Bar – boasts the best coffee in Chamonix, and I'm in no position to disagree. Snacks and fresh-made smoothies, home-made muffins and cakes. Very friendly service.  A virtual cheese-free zone. Well worth a visit.

The photo was taken from the town centre, it shows Plan, Blaitere Grepon and Charmoz. Wish you were there? I do!

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