Victoria Jelinek

The Baby Diaries 22

“It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in the our air and water that are doing it.” Dan Quayle

Mont Blanc TunnelLa Vallee de l’Arve, which is the region that encompasses the village I live in, has very polluted air. I believe that Paris and Marseille are the only other French places that have worse air (and they have a few more people). This is ironic, given that the area became a tourist destination – its primary source of income – in the late 19th century when the Victorians would come here for ‘the mountain cure’ of fresh air. The problem is primarily the result of transit through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, home heating (bad wood, fireplaces and chimneys that aren’t energy efficient), and the fact that the valley is so deep that it traps the air in it. All the expats complain about the air and attest that this will be the reason they leave the valley, ‘Poor little Junior can’t breathe and always has a cough.’ It’s true. My infant son often has a cough and after several visits to the doctor because of it, we’ve been told ‘C’est comme ca…c’est le Chamonix toux…” (It’s like that…it’s the Chamonix cough…). I, myself, am always congested here, and I find it odd when I return to London that my nose becomes clear again.

Recently, my husband and I received a letter home from the crèche (nursery) letting us know that they would no longer be going outdoors with the kids on days in which the pollution index was too high. Mon Dieu. Then, almost all of the doctors in the region signed a petition addressed to President Francois Hollande, stating that the air pollution in La Vallee de l’Arve is a health issue, particularly for the vulnerable, such as infants, children, and the elderly. I signed and sent this petition to everyone I know globally in the hope that by having folks of other nations sign it, maybe the powers-that-be would think that the tourist money will dry up if they don’t do something (god forbid they do it for the inhabitants).

Now there’s the proposal for a second Mont Blanc Tunnel, or, alternatively, the expansion of the current one, to increase the amount of transit and goods through the tunnel. As an aside, those that own the tunnel – a 50/50 partnership between ATMB France and SITMB Italy–pay for its upkeep and all of the overhead/salaries associated with the running of the tunnel, in the first six days of every month, so the rest of the month is pure profit. A second tunnel, or the widening of the existing tunnel, would be dire in terms of air quality. Ten years ago there was fierce opposition by local residents against plans to widen the tunnel, but it seems it’s back on the table again. The Swiss are busy building tunnels for trains through their country in the hope of increasing efficiency and not destroying the environment. But the French, and Italians on the other side, are extremely reluctant and claim it will cost too much money.

So, this last weekend there was a demonstration in Chamonix against the pollution, in which the highway, La Route Blanche (The White Highway), leading up to the Mont Blanc Tunnel, was closed so that protestors could walk it. I sent emails and text messages to all the expats in the valley I know (not many, granted, but a couple of dozen), many of whom are regularly complaining about this situation. But on the day, there were five expats I recognized there. The rest of the crowd of, perhaps, 150-200 people, were French, and included Chamonix’s mayor and various council folks. A disappointing turnout for the valley of 10,000 regular inhabitants and 90,000 saissonaires, but, then again, it was a good snow day. I did receive numerous text messages from my pals with various excuses about why they couldn’t participate, but they reflected their hypocrisy. At the march, I carried a HUGE sign with about 13 other people for the entire demonstration. It was very heavy and awkward to carry, but the spirit of the crowd was one of camaraderie, and the line of us carrying the sign joked together, often as a result of the French ‘lovey’ next to me calling out to folks passing in cars or on foot ‘cause she seemed to know everyone and was really charming. We marched down the highway and into town, then to the Mayor’s office where there were a bunch of speeches (of course). Yesterday, the Mayor travelled down to Paris to meet with someone in Hollande’s cabinet about the situation. I look forward to discovering what’s next. I’m still hopeful, despite my instinct telling me that apathy and commerce will rule the day…

The Baby Diaries 20

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” Albert Camus

pussy willow in winterClear, crisp air that feels like it’s cleaning your pores. The squeak of your shoes in the snow. Mountains on all sides rising so high against blue skies that they look false. Glacial run-off creating rivers that you can feel the cold emanating from when you walk near them and can hear in the quiet of the night. Little crosses and chapels dotting the hills. Chalets with snow logs on their roofs to keep the snow from falling on their inhabitants. Red shutters. Copper roofs. Darkened and aged wood on the older homes. Sunshine that tans the face even as you wear several downy layers. Pussy willow trees. Skiing and waffles and chocolat chaud. Beaufort and Tomme cheese made by special cows in the Alps and local farmers, sold at the market each Saturday. Men in thick wool sweaters smoking while driving their snow plows and tractors. Mountain lakes so clear that the colors range from dark blue to aqua. Population explosion in the winter and summer bringing big, fancy 4wd BMW’s, huge tourist buses and queues for the gondolas. Paragliders, climbers, skiers, hikers, bikers, snowboarders. Helicopters overhead. The sound of avalanches and the explosion of dynamite to set off controlled avalanches. The smell of pine and wood- burning stoves. Nights so brightened by the moon that you don’t need artificial light and your body casts a shadow. The single light on the mountains indicating the snow machine levelling the pistes (ski areas). Tartiflette, fondue, and cremeaux in the evening as Haute Savoie fare. Quiet nights. Starry skies. Snow and ice.

The Pregnancy Diaries – 9

‘Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities…because it is the quality which guarantees all others.’ Winston Churchill

Most of the women I’ve met in Chamonix are here because of their husbands. Sure, they may like it here and have some semblance of a community, but it’s because their husbands are keen outdoorsman, or simply want to be here, that they live and remain in Chamonix, away from their families. My circumstances are the same. Within this breed of women in the Chamonix valley, are the alpine guides’ wives. The guides work very hard throughout the winter and the summer. Their primary work is hauling ‘punters’ up and down the Mont Blanc. They’ll be gone for several days at a time for a given tour, sleeping in huts and climbing by day. Then they’ll return home, unpack, rest a little (though many of them are so avid they go out and cycle or ski, depending on the season), re pack, and do it again. What this means is that these women are, for all intents and purposes, single mothers.

Not my bag at all. An apartment dweller throughout my adulthood, I still feel that I live on some sort of farm by living in a house in the middle of nowhere, with necessary ‘chores’ to be performed each day to keep the house going. But my chores are nothing compared to these women. They’re chopping wood with an axe, changing gas for their hobs, fixing fuses, shovelling snow, on top of all the daily things. They’re the ones collecting and dropping their kids at school always, organising their children in the morning, shopping for groceries, carrying groceries, cooking, getting their kids to bed, day after day, alone. Most of them say, “it isn’t nice…but what can you do but get on with it?” A typical English ‘chin up’ thing to say. One woman has a quote from Churchill on a postcard prominently displayed on her fridge that reads, “Keep calm and carry on.”

On top of these daily trials, there are the perils that a guide faces: death, skin cancer, injury before an already early retirement (then what?!). I saw a study online conducted by German doctors. It states that ‘for reasons of their outdoor work, mountain guides are heavily exposed to ultraviolet radiation.’  In their study of 283 men, precancerous lesions were more frequent in guides than in the general population (25% vs. 7%). I then tried to find some statistics on death by climbing in various places, but the information online is disparate – there doesn’t seem to be one central information source, an organisation that oversees such matters. What I did find is that according to the American Alpine Club, there are only 25 climbing deaths on average a year throughout the U.S.A. When I asked a guide here about this, he snorted and said, “Humph. Amateurs. That many die in a winter here. Mostly in avalanches.” Of course he was joking, but it’s not far off. I’ve read in the local newspapers over the last couple of winters in Chamonix repeated reports of folks dying up on the mountain. I’ve seen the rescue helicopters carrying a body on the outside, in a flat plastic gurney, which isn’t a good sign. That said, one of the ‘8000’ers, (mountains above 8k meters), Annapurna in Asia, a desirable mountain for climbers to try out, has a death rate of 38%! That means 38% of those who climb it die. But that’s not Mont Blanc. And most of those who die here are not guides, though the general consensus is that it’s about three or four a year who do lose their lives.

But then I saw something that put all this danger into perspective again – the British government assembled these statistics when comparing various activities:

* Maternal death in pregnancy 1 in 8,200 maternities
* Surgical anaesthesia 1 in 185,000 operations
* Hang-gliding 1 in 116,000 flights
* Scuba Diving 1 in 200,000 dives
* Rock climbing 1 in 320,000 climbs
* Canoeing 1 in 750,000 outings
* Fairground rides 1 in 834,000,000 rides
* Rail travel accidents 1 in 43,000,000 passenger journeys
* Aircraft accidents 1 in 125,000,000 passenger journeys

Mountain climbing isn’t even on the list! And note what IS the highest rate of casualty – and with a huge frequency! Geez, here I thought I’m lazy, giving all these sports and dangers that those around me encounter,  and yet I’m being courageous by trying to bring a life into this world!