Amuse-Bouche No. 23: Là-haut sur la montagne, l’était un vieux chalet. I learned that song in Girl Scouts.

Amuse-Bouche No. 23: Là-haut sur la montagne, l’était un vieux chalet
by Julia Frey (

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., 4x4) 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 is vache (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) or sentiers de grande randonnée. GR 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. Serious alpinistes (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), chapeau, anorak (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 a refuge-restaurant, surrounded by groups of schoolchildren who intelligently came up on the chemin de fer à crémaillère (cog railway).

© 2010 Julia Frey

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Tags: France, French, GR, Mountains, cows, culture, hiking, homonyms, language, pronunciation, More…randonnée, songs


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Guest Editor
Comment by Julia Frey on June 9, 2010 at 9:33am
Hi Armelle,
Tho your comment on my Blog was addressed to "Anne", I think you meant it for me. Almost all the blog entries are in English to 'explain French to Americans'. Feel free to use any or all. I hope they're good for something!
Comment by Armelle Gloaguen on June 9, 2010 at 8:17am
Hi Anne, i am a French Teacher and Children's entertainer in different languages and i just got a kick of your story!! Well narrated and so funny with the analysis of these weird French expressions that we have, lol!
Please write again!!
Comment by Anne Griffin on June 7, 2010 at 11:33am ce n'est pas que les humains qui se baladent...

Guest Editor
Comment by Julia Frey on June 7, 2010 at 5:13am
Hi Anne,

Thank YOU for the memory! I actually flunked Girl Scouts, or I would have, had it been possible...
Comment by Anne Griffin on June 6, 2010 at 7:17pm
"La-haut sur la montagne," we'd sing in Girl Scouts. We were in sixth grade then, and our leader had just announced an amazing project: We'd each save up $400, and in five years we'd join other Girl Scouts and Guides at the international chalet in Switzerland. By the summer following tenth grade, four girls from the troop actually did make the trip, but it was several more decades before a balade would leave me essoufflée. The cartes IGN are works of art--pleasant to contemplate from a terasse while sipping a Perrier-menthe, and contemplating the Chemin du Nant d'Enfer (which really does exist) in the Haute Savoie. Thanks for the memory, Julia!. Anne
Comment by sirenblake on June 1, 2010 at 1:48pm
Thanks for the laughs (and learning!). I can just see you ready with your pack!

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