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Sometimes the most amazing things happen when you are lost in the Alps.

In late June, early July of 2005, I had the amazing opportunity to spend time driving through France and Italy.  (As long as the driving rules are the same as the US, I am comfortable thinking I can survive the road – silly me.)  We were on our way from Geneva to the Lake Como district in Italy, (via the Mont Blanc Tunnel)  when the road was suddenly posted with a “deviation” sign.

Mont Blanc

The start of our deviation.

Now I had two years of French in high school, so I felt totally prepared to understand any and all direction we may receive during our time in France.  So, being the good, law-abiding-no-matter-where-I-am adult, we took the deviation.

For those of you who are not adept at French (if you were not privileged to have two years of high school French classes), let me explain what deviation means… it’s a detour.  Simple? Right? Not so much.

Somewhere in my life I managed to embrace in a great big bear hug the idea of taking the road less traveled – and not just less traveled, but make-your-own-goat-track-and-get-yourself-totally-lost road.  Fortunately I married a man that has that same exact theory.  During the last 29 years together we have managed to make some pretty amazing discoveries via those goat tracks.  If I live to 127 I might be able to share them all with you (especially the one where twilight fly fishing caught us bats instead of fish – but I digress.)  This is the story of getting lost in the Alps and the amazing things that happened along the way.

Our deviation from the deviation

Our deviation from the deviation

Back to the less traveled road in the French Alps…  Somewhere along the way we deviated from the deviation and ended up in a little old French guy’s back yard. 

Sitting in a rickety old chair was the (very surprised) owner of the home, next to him a very French looking cat (yes, a cat can look French – just Google French cat you will see what I mean), and his daughter overlooking all of us from the porch.  I felt like I had stepped into a French masters landscape painting.  In my fabulous 2 years of high school French, I managed to explain that we were lost.  With a “well duh -you’re in our backyard” look on her face, she suggested we should turn around and head back to the town we drove through and ask them for help. (Apparently, my 2 years of French and her presumably same 2 years of English weren’t enough for relating complex directions – I can’t imagine why.) So we backed out, turned around, and headed down the mountain.

View from the little French guy's back yard.

End of the road.  View from the French guy’s back yard.

In the little town on the side of the mountain, we were wonderfully surprised to find an “Office de Tourisme” which I correctly interpreted as the tourist information office. Voila!  They can help us.  Right?  Wrong.  

Help at last! Right! Non.

Help at last! Right! Non.

No English. By now my 2 years of high school French vocabulary has been completely depleted, and I mean really… what tourist information office in the back woods of the Alps doesn’t have an English speaking employee.  I’m sure the tourist information office in a small town in Montana has at least one French speaking employee – they don’t?  Hmmm.  With the same sort of gesticulating as the girl on the stoop, it was suggested that we try across the street – or maybe she suggested some physically impossible action I should do with myself – I’m not really sure.

So across the road we went to the cheese and sausage shop – where once more we are stumped by being able to communicate only with gestures, loud voices, and now pictographs (our communication skills were definitely taking a turn for the worst.)  Fortunately we were saved by a lovely young lady who – wait for it – was American!  Tada!  What marvelous luck. (I have to wonder how long we could have gone on gesturing and shouting words that neither of us understood?)

Now that we had an interpreter of exquisite skill, we could finally find out where we deviated from the assigned deviation and how we could get back to deviating properly.  All the right questions asked, we were informed the deviation was only for trucks and since we were not a truck we just needed to go back down the road to the main highway and deviate no more.  However… we weren’t going to be allowed to leave just yet.

(cue the ominous music)

The shops close from noon until 2 and we were fast approaching 12:15. We had not eaten anything since an early breakfast and it must have been obvious to our both our English speaking and non-English speaking new friends as they immediately suggested we purchase some food.  The fact that we were both drooling and making smacking noises with our mouths might have helped them come to this conclusion.  The lovely translator ran across the street the boulangerie (this being a new French word for the most amazing-remarkable-fantastic-yummy-delicious-mind blowing-yeasty-carb-overloaded loaf of bread we have ever had the pleasure of eating) and returned with two of these heavenly items.  We then were handed sausage and cheese to go with the ambrosia bread.  I’m not sure there are enough adjectives to describe the sausage and cheese. Both were local (as in right off the side of the mountain where we were lost), both smelled beyond amazing, and when added to the bread the combination might possibly be the greatest meal we have ever eaten.  (I know – sounds like an exaggeration, but I swear!!!! I have never enjoyed food quite so much as the simple sandwiches made as we drove back down the mountain.)

Finally, our new best English-speaking friend asked that in return for their help, we would have to do one thing for them.  (More ominous music running through my mind.)  Now, I am a very trusting person – to the point where I worry my husband and friends around me sometimes.  Fortunately, I have avoided the typical horror movie scenario that includes kidnapping, being tied up in a cave filled with bats and crawly things, being covered in wax, mummified, hung upside down, walled up in a wine cellar, buried up to my neck in sand at low tide, staked out over an ant hill and covered with honey, or any of the other movie concepts that usually included Vincent Price as a lead.  But, just because I am trusting, doesn’t mean I don’t have flashes of danger passing before my eyes – it just means I ignore the warnings – seems logical to me.

She asked that we stop in their church on our way out of town.  It had some very interesting features that we might like to see.  (Deep sigh of relief – this was not going to be a horror movie after all – oh ye of little faith.) 

While we were there, we were to find the painting of Jesus in the boat that is part of the  “feeding the multitude”  bible story. We didn’t know why this particular painting was important, but we thought “why not?”  So bread, cheese, sausage, and directions back to the highway in hand, we headed to the little Catholic church sitting in the middle of the square.

Here is the story our translator told us about their beautiful little church…

St. Gervais Les Bains

St. Gervais Les Bains

It was built sometime in the late 1600’s.  During the French Renaissance Italian painters came up over the alps looking for work in exchange for food and housing.  They agreed to paint the inside of the church in exchange for what they needed.  (Sounds a little like artists and musicians now – will work for food and booze and all that…)  So to reach the ceiling, they filled the church with dirt and proceeded to paint.  As they worked their way down the walls, the removed the dirt little by little , thus lowering slowly, until they were done.  Simple and brilliant!

So we entered the little church and were in awe of what we saw.  Such beauty and artistry.  You could feel the passion the painters had for their project.  It was no Sistine chapel, but then it didn’t need to be.  It was its own true work of art.  We stood there looking at the different scenes, taking in the beauty and artistry, finally finding the image of Jesus in the boat.  And there he was – in glorious color, wearing a floppy 17th century style Italian chapeau.  Gotta love a sense of humor.

The artist had a great sense of humor!

The artist had a great sense of humor!

This particular make-your-own-goat-track-and-get-yourself-totally-lost road provided one of the most memorable experiences we have had in our lives traveling together.  When I need a smile, or to be reminded that it’s okay to be my own quirky self,  I just have to think of the artist and what was going through his mind when he decided to paint that particular hat on the head of Jesus. 

Chemin à parcourir l’homme! Être différent. (Way to go man! Be different.)

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