Wednesday, May 30, 2012

La Frère Fête Française à Ferney

Before moving to Ferney-Voltaire, I fantasized having a reunion in France of my coterie of high school girlfriends (and their spouses).  Decades ago our circle of seven young women of different religious and racial backgrounds hung out together before classes started, ate lunch together in our rural school’s cafeteria, and in spite of living miles away from each other, got together once in a while on weekends.  By our senior year we had become a congenial clique, although we didn’t allude to ourselves that way.  Our self-reference signified our social ideals: after an assembly during National Brotherhood Week in February of our senior year, we decided that the 7 of us were a Brotherhood.  From then on we called ourselves “Brothers.”

For over twenty years we’ve had Brotherhood reunions, most of which have taken place in the East Coast.  But as the Brother who lived so far away from all the others (California), and who was the oldest mom with the youngest child, I missed out on most Brofests, as we call our gatherings.  So I decided to host a Brofest in France, la Frère Fête Française.  

Although only two of the Brothers, Donna (whom I’ve known since kindergarten) and Jan (whom I met in high school), were able to make it to Ferney, our six-day Frère Fête introduced them to “my” part of France and neighboring Switzerland.  I prepared food for them from Picard, cooked meals from scratch, took them on trips to other towns and to stores I like (food stores, of course), and drove them through the undulating landscape of fields and farms, grazing cows and nibbling sheep, espaliered fruit trees and budding vineyards.  Sharing this part of the world with some of my oldest and dearest friends, and listening to their expressions of joy and wonder (not a Christmas cliché here) delighted me and vindicated me: yes, there are valid reasons why I enjoy living here.

CERNwife, Donna, and Jan

The Six-Day Frère Fête Française Whirlwind Tour

Day One:  Donna and Jan took the high speed TGV train (why don’t we have such trains in the US?) from Paris to Geneva.  After I picked them up and took them to the motel in Ferney-Voltaire to register and drop off their luggage, we headed up the Jura to a lookout point so that they could see the valley surrounding Lac Léman, Geneva, the Alps, and the part of France that has been my home since September.  Then we went to CERN to pick up my physicist Spouse (spouses, in the language of the Brothers, are referred to as “spice” – rhymes with mouses and mice).  And we did what many CERN scientists do in the late afternoon: sat around a patio table and sipped beer (Coke for Jan).

Having a drink at CERN

Day Two:  During the relaxing 45-minute drive to Annecy on a 2-lane country road, we passed through picture-postcard vistas of villages, rolling hills, farmland.  Annecy is an alluring city with canals, flowers, Renaissance buildings, boutiques and gelato stores, a chateau overlooking the town, a romantic botanical park that borders the clean and serene Lac d’Annecy (France’s second largest lake), and mountains that jut out from across the lake, where hand-gliders jump off cliffs and risk their lives for the views. The old town’s buildings and boutiques amazed Jan and Donna, who would have spent more time shopping if I didn’t complain about being hungry.  We bought lunch at a boulangerie/patisserie (a “formule” it’s called: one sandwich or pizza slice or quiche, a drink, and a dessert of choice for around 6 euros), and sat in the park near the lake to eat our picnic.  By late afternoon we returned to the Ferney area via the 20-minute autoroute drive because, as the spouse-chauffeur, I had to rush to CERN.  

Jan, CERNwife, and Donna at Annecy
(Jan's photo)
Crooked door of an old Annecy store

Lily of the Valley decorated chocolates (from May 1)
at one of Annecy's gourmet chocolateries

Day Three:  This day we relaxed in Ferney-Voltaire.  In the morning we walked to Ferney’s marché (yes, Jan and Donna were sufficiently awed), did a tour of Voltaire’s chateau in the afternoon, and ate dinner at a captivating country inn located in Echenevex, a village nestled in the Jura foothills. 

The three Brothers at the Ferney market

Jan and CERNwife in front of Voltaire's chateau

Dinner at Auberge des Chasseurs, Echenevex

Day Four:  Lac Léman, the largest lake in Switzerland (known as “Lake Geneva” to many Americans), is so picturesque that describing the lake and the towns, mountains, terraced vineyards and villages that surround it is impossible without seeming platitudinous and vapid. Some scenery is better just to experience. That’s what we did on Day Four by taking the 2-lane lake route (rather than the 4-lane autoroute) to the captivating Swiss town of Morges, where we strolled through a somewhat boring crafts fair that was held in Morges’ 13th-century chateau.  Then we drove to one of Switzerland’s spectacular tourist venues, the medieval Chateau de Chillon, built on a rocky promontory that juts into Lac Léman within site of snow-covered Alps.  Walking through the cobblestone courtyards, climbing up and down stairs, examining various rooms of the chateau, and exploring the dungeon, where Lord Byron’s graffiti signature on one of the columns is marked by a frame (remember, he wrote “The Prisoner of Chillon”), we were like children playing make-believe.  Chateau de Chillon casts that spell.

The moat at Chateau de Chillon

Lord Byron's carved graffiti (framed)

In the world of make-believe

Day Five:  The salad bar at CERN’s cafeteria awed Jan and Donna as it had me.  My CERN Spouse just doesn’t understand how the three of us could get so excited by a salad bar, but we can.  After lunch he put on his tour guide cap and took them to the Microcosm, the museum that explains the kind of physics experiments that occur at CERN.  We headed to a model of the detector used in the ALICE experiment, which, considering Spouse works on ALICE, formed the framework for his explanation of CERN physics.  From the Microcosm we drove to the ALICE experimental site, but we couldn’t go down 100 meters into the tunnel to see the real detector because the site has been closed to visitors and employees since March: the experiment’s collisions of particles are occurring down there.  I think that by the end of the day, Donna and Jan were more impressed with CERN physics – whether or not they understood it is another story – than they had been with the CERN cafeteria.

Model of the ALICE detector at the Microcosm

Spouse, Donna and Jan at ALICE display

Day Six: Yvoire, regarded as one of the most beautiful villages in France, fills with tourists during vacations and holidays.  Although Yvoire is said to be a medieval village, in fact, most of its gray stone buildings hail from the early Renaissance, although its chateau (it seems as if every village I’ve written about here is dominated by a chateau) began its life during the 14th century.  From Ferney-Voltaire, one can get to Yvoire by taking a boat across Lac Léman from Nyon, Switzerland, or one can partially circumnavigate the lake by skirting Geneva (our way of getting there).  We walked around its cobblestoned streets, admired the colorful potted flowering plants that decorate the gray buildings, peeked into Yvoire’s shops, and ate a leisurely lunch of “filets de perche” – tiny perch filets fried in butter and served with pommes frites – the specialty of French and Swiss restaurants bordering Lac Léman.  Walking fast and not going into stores, tourists could see Yvoire in 20 minutes or less.  It’s a small treasure.  But we went in and out of boutiques and tried on clothes, walked into galleries and tourist shops, and relaxed at a restaurant by the harbor – with a view of Switzerland across the lake - for our midday meal of perch filets.  We stayed in Yvoire at least 3 hours.  Maybe more.

A street in Yvoire

CERNwife and Donna eating dessert, Jan with spoon

Day Seven:  I picked up Jan and Donna from their hotel at 7 AM and drove them to the Geneva Airport for their flight back to Washington, DC.   After our usual emotional Brotherhood good-byes, I left them in the departure section of the airport and walked downstairs to the arrivals.  My 89-year-old mother was coming for a two-week visit.

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