Giving up life in the UK and moving to the Middle of Nowhere, Lost in the French Alps (my official address), was supposed to result in a healthier, more outdoors-y life, away from the smog and grime and roads and cars and traffic that is London life.
That has half worked.
The great outdoors is so much closer to our great indoors now – we can walk and ski and cycle mountains galore without needing to ever drive for more than four and a half minutes (I’ve timed it).
But recently, I have spent a LOT of my time sitting in a car – and it makes me wonder if we can ever leave the world of traffic behind us…
Commuting hell is frozen over – just about
We spent a very stressful time moving house in the middle of winter, just after Christmas, with three kids and a LOT of stuff (we’re hoarders, it has to be said), all with the aim of me spending less than four hours a day travelling to work and back.
Well that plan so far seems generally to have worked, thank goodness (I was slightly worried that I would discover only after the epic move that the commute was in fact worse thanks to ridiculous traffic jams I hadn’t predicted…).
I now spend less than two hours a day commuting (including finding a parking space in the Park and Ride, and then taking the bus to the office). This for me is fine, especially as it means we can live in a real house surrounded by ‘proper’ mountains with a to-die-for view of Mont Blanc. Everyone in the office thinks I’m totally crazy, coming “that far” to work – but then I think they’re crazy spending over 1500 Euros a month on a 35-metre-square studio flat in Geneva (I do not exaggerate), even one with a five minute walk to work.
The move means I no longer have to lie about my commute to colleagues (who would have had me certified if they had known I actually travelled nearly two hours each way to get to work). And if I ever start doubting my own sanity, I just remind myself that I was commuting an hour each way in London, but without the mountains or the view to compensate.
It’s not all plain sailing though – winter has arrived. Properly arrived. After a worrying few months of literally no snow (ski resorts with grass everywhere right up until mid-January, everyone blathering on about global warming and how “it wasn’t like that in my day”…) the white stuff has landed with a vengeance. And we’ve just moved to a house which is over 900m above sea-level. So we have a lot of said white stuff. A LOT.
Which means of course that my hour-long commute isn’t really an hour long on snow days. First I have to dig the car out of the 50cm of snow that has fallen overnight. Then I have to defrost the car so I can open the door. Then I have to put the snow chains on so I can get out the driveway. Then I have to crawl down the mountain, without skidding off the side of the road or crashing into a snowdrift. Then when I get into the valley I have to find somewhere to stop to take the chains off (easier said than done, as all the car parks are still covered in 50cm of snow). Then I have to take the chains off, without getting dirt all over my work clothes, or falling on my arse, or chopping my fingers off in the process (I’ve given up on having nice nails for work. In fact, I’ve given up having clean nails for work). Then I have to get back in the car and continue to drive at a snail’s pace towards the motorway. Then, as I arrive in Geneva, where there is a whole CENTIMETRE of snow dusting the roads, I have to sit in standstill traffic for what feels like FOREVER because everyone in Geneva who usually gets the bus or walks to work seems to have a nervous breakdown at the thought of having to get to work through a WHOLE CENTIMETRE of snow and feels the sudden need to get their car out and drive to work, even though it will take them a WHOLE HOUR to travel the THREE KILOMETRES into the town centre. This crazy panic adds a good half hour onto my commute. Cheers.
There’s a concept in cycling (which brought unprecedented success to British Olympic riders and Team Sky in the Tour de France) known as the “aggregation of marginal gains”. The idea is that by breaking your challenge down into areas, and making even miniscule improvements in each area, the cumulative effect will be a significant improvement overall. Well, I thought (never one to shy away from comparing myself to elite athletes), if it can win Team Sky the Tour de France, I’m sure it can get me to work on time….
So the car has gone in the garage (which was previously full of boxes from the move; boxes which I am sure we will never open…): ten minutes of de-frosting and de-snowing saved right there. The snow chains are put on the night before: another ten minutes gone. Coffee is drunk in the car (thanks to the new thermal mug from my sis): four minutes saved, albeit at a slight risk of crashing or of spilling hot coffee down myself as I slither down tiny mountain roads; short-cuts to the motorway have been researched and programmed into the GPS (one minute each); and my bank card is kept on the dashboard overnight (rather than in my wallet at the bottom of my handbag under lipsticks and dirty tissues like it used to be), saving at least 35 seconds at the tolls. Each minute saved is an extra minute in bed – a major priority for me.
In fact, I am starting to wonder if it is worth sleeping in my clothes. Or going to work in my pyjamas…
Skid marks, everywhere
Three winters here and I’ve still not quite got used to the scary snow-driving. Our new house is about 1.5km above the main village, on a tiny road that goes nowhere, and so we seem to be the last priority for the snow plough each morning. Or indeed each evening. I often come home when it’s been snowing ALL day, and the road looks more like a ski piste than, well, a road. If I’m lucky then there isn’t a thick layer of slippy ice hidden by that snow (like there was last weekend: coming home very tired after a hard day of skiing and crêpe-eating and hot-chocolate drinking with my friends, I was overjoyed to nearly break my neck getting out the car to put my snow chains on a mere 50m from the house on the ice rink outside).
It’s not unusual for me to arrive home literally shaking, white-knuckled and white-faced, having seen cars bumped and battered on the motorway, having myself nearly spun off the road (despite driving at an annoyingly sedate 20km per hour all the way from Geneva), and having struggled to see the road, or indeed anything, through the freezing blizzard lashing at my windscreen.
I might need to invest in some more pants if this weather keeps up: the skid-marks aren’t just on the road…
Just a quick trip down the road…
Having waited a whole month for the snow to arrive and the ski resorts to finally open, what better way to celebrate the first snow fall at the end of December than jump in the car with my boy and make use of our half-price tickets at Courchevel, a mere 90 minutes’ drive away?
Ten hours later we arrived back home, having made it about 30km down the road. I.e. nowhere near Courchevel.
A combination of heavy, unexpected snow, and thousands of tourists driving to and from the Alps for the holidays, and STUPID people trying to get up to the resorts without snow chains or winter tyres, meant that 15,000 people were blocked on the roads in Haute Savoie for hours. And hours. It took me and Alpine Boy six and a half hours to travel just one junction along the motorway, at which point we could finally turn around and come back again. Most people had it worse – my friends took 19 hours to drive to Belgium, ten hours longer than usual. It was a civic emergency; with shelters being set up in schools, and people offering their homes to weary travellers. It made the news. Worldwide I’m told. (Admittedly it might have been a slow news day in global politics.) It would all have been very exciting had I not been stuck in the middle of it. Desperate for the loo. And with the Frozen soundtrack on repeat. For TEN HOURS.
Luckily I also had this (though Alpine Boy was less than impressed that I preferred the teenage reminiscences associated with “Cotton Eye Joe” to Disney’s “Let it Go” on loop. No taste, that boy):
So the “moving into the mountains and off the roads” plan failed a little bit. But even with the significant number of driving-hours I’ve put in this winter, not to the mention the raised blood pressure and stomach-churning fear the roads round here hand out each time I get in the car, I still think it’s worth it. Crazy, I know, but you never expected anything else from Alpine Mummy, I hope.
It’s worth it to live next to a ski resort, next to the best cycling in the world (in my humble opinion. Having never cycled anywhere else…), and next to walks and mountains and fresh air and cow poo galore (OK, maybe not so much the latter…). It’s worth it for my kids to grow up learning first-hand about nature and wildlife and community. And it’s worth it for the view.
And when I arrive back home in the evening, to the silence and the stars and the snow, away from the chaos that is Geneva and lights and motorways and crowds, I know we made the right decision.
Remind me of that, please, next time I mistake my road for a ski-piste…