Victoria Jelinek


The Alpine Museum Chamonix

“O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Percy Bysshe Shelley

Alpine MuseeI went to the Musee Alpine in Chamonix yesterday. I had been reluctant to go, given that I don’t like the cold nor winter sports and figured this is what the museum is composed of. But, I went, and it’s good that I did.

The guide enunciated throughout her tour, was charming, informed, and a bonafide Chamonard to boot. What I discovered is that the name of Chamonix had changed perpetually due to boundaries being re drawn and small disputes between nearby communes. For example, St. Gervais had attempted to ‘claim’ Mont Blanc rather than Chamonix, despite its being miles away. And Turin had been a part of the Haute Savoie.

What is particularly interesting to me is how the village evolved over the last two hundred years. It was once solely inhabited by a very rural, agricultural people who were afraid of the mountains, believing them “cursed” by demons. I understand this – at the top of the mountains in the winter the howling of the wind is akin to what monsters might sound like. The residents scratched out a living during the six months of temperate weather with agricultural pursuits, then spent six months making garments out of wool, fur and wood. Now, it’s a place in which most of the residents capitalize on tourism, making it their primary source of income, from becoming mountain guides, ski instructors, and certified sportsmen, to the many shops and restaurants (only really) open during the winter and summer seasons. Additionally, many of the Chamonards have sold homes that have been in their families for generations to the wealthy French, Italians and Swiss who like to holiday in Chamonix.

Indeed, during the turn of the 18th and 19th century, Chamonix was much like Biarritz in that European aristocrats visited in droves, and as a consequence huge, grand hotels were built to accommodate them. These were later destroyed or turned into something else when the same aristocrats went elsewhere and France passed laws to give all French people the opportunity to go on holidays themselves.

From the late 18th century, Chamonix’s mountains also became a site for scientific study during a type of ‘enlightenment’ age. The stories of climbing Mont Blanc are astounding in their arduousness and danger. It’s no wonder the grumpy Jacques Balmat, who made the first ascent of Mont Blanc in the mid 1700’s, wearing wool and leather, is so famous around the valley. This eventually led to the arrival in droves of Victorians to Chamonix for ‘the mountain cure’ and glorious retreat for alpine sports, further cementing its designation as a tourism hot spot.

The culmination of the museum visit is a room that holds a series of paintings of the Mer de Glace, created by various visiting painters over the epochs. What one observes while looking at all of these paintings of the same subject, is that despite each of the paintings being almost identical in their vantage point, each of them looks slightly different. This is arguably not only a matter of perception, but also a metaphor for the dynamic aspects of the mountains and nature itself.

 

 

 

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Denmark: Copenhagen, the suburbs and beyond

Narrow 17th century apartment buildings, white-paned, in yellow, green, pink. Boats and ships. A stone mermaid. 1960’s suburban houses. White, low, thatch-roofed houses with tiny, narrow windows throughout the countryside. Churches with steeples dotting city and country. The Royal Guards, barracks, crown jewels, monarchy. A noble, honest history. Niels Bohr. Bikes, bike paths, lanes. Ponds, lakes and ocean. People swimming in cold seas. Jellyfish. Strong winds. Chill. Flat. Forests of Birch and Beech. Simple, elegant design. Bang & Olufsen, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen. High-concept boutiques and toy stores. Driving the speed limit. Mostly white. Mostly good-looking. Tall. Clean. Dull. New-looking cars. The happiest people in Europe. Julefrokost or Christmas lunch. Smørrebrød. Herring. Schnapps. Rice pudding. Tiborg’s yearly TV commercial. Food, services, clothes, expensive. Incomes high. Smoking indoors. Shoes off in the house. House-proud. Wood floors and good use of space. Fur coats. Tall. Large WWII style prams used by all. Strange letter combinations (Nyhavn?). Dogme 95. Great film directors. Movies subtitled, not dubbed.



Grenoble
September 27, 2010, 8:59 am
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A gorgeous autumn day – 20c, 70f – a drive in a southeasterly direction through green fields, grand mountains, classical French farmhouses with red roofs, concrete walks, flat-fronts and long shutter windows. As we get nearer to Grenoble, the “Capital of the Alps,” there are the intermittent Roman ruins one can see in the hills and scattered across the countryside.

The city, itself, is lovely – reminiscent of Paris, Madrid, or any continental city with its winding cobblestone streets that seem like a labyrinth. Friendlier though, and artistic in ‘vibe.’ Less dirty. Large, pedestrians-only areas full of small shops selling everything from stationary to hardware to accessories. Too many shoe stores and tobacco sellers to count. Many little coffee shops and restaurants with lots of outdoor seating.  Peppered steak and frites at a bistro that promptly closes at 2pm. Bars with people standing out front smoking and having small beers. Hidden little squares and parks with fountains. A river runs down one side of the city. Flat-fronted buildings with small turrets and gardens atop them, small terraces and long, shuttered windows on the river. Above are gondolas going into the Alps that border the city and that look like little balls (and are, in fact, called balls in French). A Roman castle sits overlooking the center of town, evidence of  the passing of time.



Los Angeles
September 16, 2010, 12:39 pm
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A sense of liberty, beauty, light and sordidness. Dusty hills. Pine trees. Palm trees that one never tires looking at because they’re usually on a beach and yet here they are in a functioning city. The smell of skunk. Stucco houses. Craftsman houses. Pseudo-Roman-pillared mansions. Yellow, pink, white, turquoise colors. Art deco buildings. Signs for Scientology, help and salvation. Murals. Steeples in East LA. Olvera Street and churros. Strip malls. Lounges. Cinemas. Museums. Outdoor Ampitheaters.The sweep of the ocean as one descends on Pico Boulevard. Parks and picnicking Mexican families. Turquoise-colored pools. Broad roads. Super highways and super traffic with Oleander growing profusely, and without encouragement. Helicopters overhead at all hours. Hanging flowers in pink, white and red abound. Cactus, succulents. Coyotes. Street cafes with folks hanging around with notebooks and pens and laptops writing their magnum opus. Great bookstores, upmarket diners in every neighborhood from Los Feliz to Larchmont to Santa Monica and Venice. Sunset Boulevard’s music stores and drinking joints. Headshots, six-minute conversations. Hummers, Range Rovers and BMW’s. Desolate, spacious and clean underground system. Sparkling buildings downtown. A gorgeous main train station that conjures up the Silver Screen Era. Dirty, crazy, hippie, colourful, violent Venice Beach bordering more upscale Santa Monica and its pristinely clean sidewalks. The arid canyons, coastline and Tahitian vegetation of Malibu. Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Rumania. The best Mexican from fine dining to under tents in parking lots, seated at benches. Warm nights. Valet parking. Manicure and pedicure shops everywhere.



Seattle, WA
September 13, 2010, 12:17 pm
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Maritime. Navigating water and hills to find your way along winding roads between neighborhoods that sit atop hills or at their base, called Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, Belltown, Madison Park, Ravenna, the U District, Fremont, Phinney Ridge…boats, barges, ferries, sailboats, sea planes over head, draw bridges, the smell of the sea. The homeless fishing off of the piers for their food. Crisp, wet air. Oak trees, fir trees, wet asphalt. Skies an oppressive, low-hanging grey for most of the year, erupting in a veritable Garden of Eden for the summer. Families, animals, water, parks. Native American names on suburbs and Chief Seattle. Hip cafes, restaurants, barber shops and music shops. Recycling everywhere. Cooperative food markets. Earnest, well-meaning people with hippie delusions even as they are living the lives of Yuppies. Political correctness that often borders on fascism. Amazing beer and coffee. Great Japanese and Thai restaurants. Fine dining meaning that you wear your good fleece out for dinner. Rules abound for swimming, kayaking, canoeing in the various lakes. Live music in small and large revues. The best outdoor store in the world with a climbing wall and lifetime guarantee on its products. A huge pink elephant on Denny Street. Hanging underground gardens. The space needle slowing rotating.



New York City, NY
September 11, 2010, 11:51 am
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Being able on a Monday night to hear a Japanese band do Hawaiian surf music on Houston at 2am, just after watching an amazing Blue Grass band in Alphabet City while drinking Dixie beer. Anonymity giving you freedom. Every color and kind of person. Noise. Sirens. Yellow cabs, buses. Long cross-town blocks. Every street looking like it could be a set for a film. The smell of urine in the subway in the summer. Insects you never see biting ones ankles in the heat. Amazing pizza – even when the pizza is mediocre, it’s still pretty good. Bagels and coffee from corner carts in midtown that hit the spot. High glass buildings and so much concrete. Chinese delivery in the wee hours of the night. Huge, low moons that lie close to the tops of the buildings. Bridges and rivers. Busy sounds and dirty sidewalks in Chinatown with perpetual traffic down Canal Street. Emptiness and quiet in Lower Manhattan on the weekends. Hipster bars and restaurants in Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Basketball in any of the city parks that are everywhere. Huge museums with the best collections. Shopping, commerce and convenience of any kind imaginable. The smell of rotting fruit and damp in the city grocery stores. Parades seemingly every other month with cops and paddy wagons on every corner for 50 blocks. Neighborhood garden plots. Pirate radio. High fashion. Superstars decked out in casual NYC attire and tennis shoes. Strip joints where the girls wipe down the pole with a paper towel and the servers bring you watered down all-you-can-drink well drinks. Corner stores open all night with flowers of every kind on sale. Hardware stores open 24 hours a day. Pure energy that makes you want to wander the city for days simply looking and feeling.



Tulum, Yucatan, MX
September 10, 2010, 10:30 am
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When I stepped off of the plane in Cancun, the air felt heavy and hot. I remember that that as the little plane opened up directly onto the tarmac, that my husband and I stopped at the top of the stairs of the plane, took a quick look around, and smiled widely at eachother. The pervasive colors were the pale blue of the sky, taupe for the earth, green and pink of the succulents and flowers.

After taking a bus just outside the little airport to a rental car company, we were given a newly manufactured VW bug in the old style of the 1960’s VW bugs – it was light grey with a white interior. We buzzed noisily down the highway towards the place deeper on the Yucatan peninsula, Tulum, where my friends from New York had bought land and were building a house.

Our little wooden shack nearby was on stilts about 20 meters from the ocean, which was a luminescent turquoise color – so clear and so blue that it looked unreal. The shack had a lovely wooden bathroom with a strong shower, and a bed with a mosquito net over it, a bureau, a few hooks, and nothing else. There was a little deck outside this main room, with two rocking chairs to sit in the shade and while the days away, looking at the dense foliage of palms, the aqua-colored ocean, and the white, white sand of the beach, which we did many a morning and evening. The mosquito net proved rather useless, my husband having counted 43 bites on my body after we’d been in Tulum two days. I tried not to get too freaked out about whether it had, in fact, been mosquitoes that had bitten me, when we marveled at all the strange and multi-colored instincts everywhere each day.

We snorkeled along the coral reef just slightly out from where the waves broke, and took walks along the sandy beach, careful not to step on the hundreds of little ‘Tortugas,’ hatching in the sand and making their way, against the slapping of the waves that would fling their little bodies back to shore. We considered that Cuba was a mere 35 km away and how great it’d be to visit there together, too.

We’d read old newspapers, and eat fruit from the little store across from our shack. In the evening, we’d swim with the setting sun, making love in the shallow water, careful not to leave the beach when the sun went down because it would get so dark you couldn’t even see where the break in the trees were.

Every night was spent in the cheerful little café near our shack that had open walls, rather than windows. The Argentinean man who owned the ‘resort’ with his wife, who had been a school ‘principal’ and therefore was feared by all the local police, was a dashing older gentleman who wore a fedora most of the time and drove an old British Land Rover. He’d sing in the evening, and encourage us to drink a lot. On our host’s birthday, they’d cooked a pig in the traditional Mayan way – deep in the earth for days – and we ate, drank, sang and danced, my husband and I wandering away at some point in the evening to dance under the stars on the dirt road, still within ear shot of our party’s gathering.

Because of my husband’s inability to be still, we did wander into the local village, buying toothpaste and other luxury items at a little bodega, looking at the garish multi-colored clothes, and happened upon a local soccer game one day in the central square, where we drank beer and sat on the grass to watch it, walking down the quiet dirt road home that evening, happy and exhausted. Another day we travelled in our little VW bug to Chichen Itza – a local Mayan ruin –arriving early in the morning to have the place to ourselves – it was so quiet and beautiful. When we were leaving, tourists with sun visors, white tennis shoes and cameras were arriving and noisily talking. We hiked down the rocks to the shores nearby and swam in the water, falling asleep directly on the sand afterwards.