Amuse-Bouche: Là-haut sur la montagne, l’était un vieux chalet . I learned that song in Girl Scouts.

I learned that song in Girl Scouts. The reality is somewhat different.…

You know how all of France vacations at the beach in August? Not Auguste (my husband). We go to the mountains—hors saison (off-season). As a germanopratine (n., denizen of St-Germain-des-Prés in Paris), the only montagne I know well is the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. So we’ve rented a gîte rural (literally, rural shelter, a self-catering cottage). Originally gîtes ruraux were inexpensive and extremely primitive. Nowadays, they come in all sizes and levels of luxury. Our “vieux chalet” even includes un crapaud—literally, a toad, here meaning the smallest size of grand piano, so called because of its squat shape. Lucky. Auguste’s violon d’Ingres (hobby) is the piano. (The painter Ingres was a serious amateur violinist.)

Our gîte is in an alpage (summer pasture), and this pré (meadow) is definitely not St-Germain. At twilight, farmers drive a snappy red cat’cat’ (quatre quatre, i.e., 4×4) to the fil électrifié (electric fence), open it, and honk discreetly to a herd of vaches Abondance (the local breed). The cows, rising gently from their ruminations, obediently follow the motorized cowherd down the hill to be milked.
Digression: vache seems to have a meaning for any occasion, from “Ah, la vache ! ” (said admiringly), to vachement (adv., very), to the expression “elle parle français comme une vache espagnole” (her French is incomprehensible). Most common isvache (adj., vindictive, mean). During the May,1968, student revolts, demonstrators carried signs reading “Mort aux vaches”—“death to cops,” although in the United States, “off the pigs” was the consecrated insult.
But retournons à nos moutons (let’s get back to the subject). Looking up from piano practice, Auguste announces, “On va faire une ballade.” A ballad? I’m no composer. The dictionary bails me out—ballade: (homonyme) balade. “Faire une balade: se promener sans but” (to take a walk without a goal). Sometimes the t in but is not pronounced, so watch your u. Don’t say sans bout, meaning without end, and a homonym for sans boue (without mud).
When Auguste says balade, it’s un euphémisme. He means une randonnée (hike), as in promenade longue et ininterrompue, not to mention exténuante (exhausting). “Mountain climbing is serious,” warns Auguste. He uses Cartes IGN (Institut Géographique National), official French hiking maps, which identify trails like the nationwide complex of GR (zhay-AIR) orsentiers de grande randonnéeGR is masculine, from sentier, even if randonnée is feminine. Mapped trails are balisé (blazed) with metal markers or blazes. But cutting balises into the bark is anti-écolo. Now they’re tacked or painted on posts, trees and rocks.
Auguste’s maps are full of mysteries. How do you tell a sentier (path) from a chemin (path) from a piste (path)? Even the French wonder. A sentier is a footpath, a chemin can be wider, a piste might be anything from drivable to skiable. Seriousalpinistes (mountaineers) often want more: une escalade (rock climbing), de la Varappe (scrambling), or una via ferrata (Italian—a cliff-front with pitons for roped climbing). Anxious about linguistic and geological pitfalls, I look up nants (streams), plans(small plateaux), and lapiaz (flat limestone with narrow, eroded crevices). Then I assemble my “ten essentials” for the hike:boussole (compass), chapeauanorak (foul weather gear), casse-croûte (emergency rations) eau (water), first-aid kit, lunettes solaires (sunglasses), écran solaire (sunscreen), lampe de poche (flashlight) and cell phone. On ne sait jamais… (you never know). Just in case, I bring GPS, insect repellent, a Mylar blanket, matches, bâtons de marche (hiking poles), une flasque of Cognac.
At the trailhead, Auguste gapes at me. “You want me to carry all that?” he says, “I may be your vache à lait [milk cow: i.e., moneybags], but I’m not a bourricot [burro].” He canters up the nearest slope, whinnying. I trudge behind, sweating, swearing and swatting flies, my essentiels dangling from my belt and backpack. Ce n’est pas joli (I’m not a pretty sight). Still, climbing through fields of alpine flowers, even I love the wind, sunshine and spectacular belvédères.
Auguste awaits me at the top, catching rays. “C’etait une montagne à vaches,” he says—an easy climb. And joy! At the peak there’s more than just the usual cairn with the names of other hikers who survived the climb. We have a civilized lunch in arefuge-restaurant, surrounded by groups of schoolchildren who intelligently came up on the chemin de fer à crémaillère (cog railway).