Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Grenoble, France

We had originally not planned on stopping in Grenoble but some months ago Jacob posted our itinerary on the "Family Welcome" message board on Couchsurfing and Greg replied with an enthusiastic invitation to come to visit. The beauty of having six full months is being able to go to places that weren't necessarily on our "must see" list so we said 'Merci! We'll be there!"

It was raining in Paris when we left and it was raining when we reached Grenoble six hours later in the rental car we're going to have for the next four months. Grenoble is a little city of just around 200,000 that sits on an alluvial plain right at the base of the French Alps.

Greg and Isabelle have three children: two girls Lina (14) and Nais (12) and a boy, Yael (9). Four years ago they also took a year off to home school their children and travel around. Greg works for HP in Grenoble where, ironically, he says he only speaks French about 10% of the time. Isabelle makes jewelry and does massage and she lets me select one of her rings as a gift. The children are very sweet and mellow and despite the fact that only Lina speaks any English, they whisk Vaughn away to play board games and Hide And Seek at a park around the corner.

We're staying three nights with them and like our other hosts, they give us housing, homemade meals, laundry and shower access and vibrant conversation. And like our other hosts, they are genuinely interested in spending time with us - a whole other level of hospitality. We eat dinner on the roof of their flat five stories up, sample their homemade fruit alcohol and wines and drink giant bowls of coffee.

Despite the on-again/off-again rain yesterday, we packed up a picnic and drove up into the mountains to visit a monastery that has been there since the 12th century. Only about 10 monks still reside there and visitors aren't allowed to enter but the setting is peaceful and it is fun to just walk around up in the hills surrounding the perimeters and contemplate just how long I might last with a vow of silence (I generously give myself one month).

On the way back down the mountain we stopped off at the Church Saint-Hugues-de-Chartreuse where the artist Arcabas has renovated the church as his personal gallery, filling the walls and even the stained glass windows with his "contemporary sacred art." Just outside the church is a small, ancient graveyard and I'm temporarily confused by all the plaques on the graves that say "souvenir" (I went to the afterlife and all I got was this lousy t-shirt!) until Greg explains it is actually the French word for "remember."

Today we took the sky tram up to La Bastille high above the city and wandered around for hours enjoying the sunshine and the view below. We descended down into the adjacent passage tunnels known as the "Mandrin caves" (after Louis Mandrin despite the fact that the French Robin Hood-type figure, died 90 years prior to their construction) which were dark and wet and kind of precarious.

Tonight we take them all out to dinner as a thank you for their hospitality. Isabelle speaks perfect English but accents and my propensity to hear things incorrectly don't mix well and when she asks me if I think her daughter looks like a "cool girl" in her funky sleeveless top, I have to ask her to repeat herself twice before confessing I thought she was asking me to confirm that her 14 year old looked like a "call girl." At dinner they humble us further by presenting us with parting gifts of a coffee table book of Grenoble and a bottle of Chartreuse, a green alcohol made by the monks they had told us about while visiting the monastery.

Tomorrow we head to Marseille for three nights and then it is off to Barcelona.

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