My old friend Pat had invited me to spend a weekend with the assistants of L’Arche Grenoble with the instructions “bring your guitar and your wife”! I happily obliged on both counts.
When Pat made his first trip to France as an eighteen year old he didn’t speak a word of French; his motivation being to learn enough to get him through the language part of his Leaving Cert. back in his native Cork. Now after living in in the country for over thirty-five years people think he’s French and he’s currently leader of L’Arche Grenoble. We first met one another thirty years ago on a silent retreat for new L’Arche assistants, at which time he was at L’Arche in Paris, and for several years we were both on the team that organises in June a retreat for new L’Arche assistants in the Alps.
So Yim Soon and I (and the guitar!) duly arrived in the South of France and stayed the first night in the L’Arche house where I’d given a little impromptu concert last year. There was a large gathering of people on that first evening (and lots of delicious cheese) and I was pleased to see some familiar faces. I was touched when one woman said that she remembered me playing guitar at an event in France that I’d helped organise eight years ago. After a good night’s sleep in the wooden-ceilinged house that the architect had designed to resemble a ski lodge, and with fantastic views of the mountains that surround Grenoble, we departed with a group of about thirty assistants to Chamrousse, a ski resort at an altitude of 1,700m (5,800 ft: nearly twice the height of Snowdon!). I could really feel that the air was a bit thinner than I’m used to and when we hiked up a very rocky piste to a height of over 2,000m (and with a wind that was so strong it was almost blowing us off the mountain) I remarked to Pat that it didn’t make me want to climb Everest! (and we were at less than a quarter of the height of the tallest mountain).
The highlight of the weekend was a musical session on the Saturday night (and that’s one of the main reasons, I think, that Pat had enlisted my services: he and I having shared some mighty sessions over the years). You never really know, when doing the first one or two songs, how well it’s going to take off. This one was still going strong at 1.30 AM, and we’d worked our way though a very international and very eclectic mix of numbers. A young German woman also had a guitar and sang an Amy Winehouse song just like Amy Winehouse, following that up with some of her own songs in German which were simply beautiful. Then a young woman from Vietnam announced “I like Christmas songs”, so I launched into ‘Fairytale of New York’ and that led somehow to George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’, which must have been a big hit in France because everyone was belting out the words with gusto. When Pat produced a large bottle of Chartreuse (the strong green liqueur produced by the Carthusian monks in their monastery nearby and which I associate with my times in the Alps) it was the cherry on the icing on the cake.
At the end of the weekend Pat drove Yim Soon and I to a massif on the other side of Grenoble, to the village of St Pierre de Chartreuse where the Alps retreat takes place each June. We had rented a studio apartment (i.e. bedsit!) for five nights and I planned to show Yim Soon some of the walks that we do on the retreat. I was bitterly disappointed to arrive there and find that the studio was tiny (I was sure it had looked quite big in the picture on the internet!), and the weather wasn’t great either, with almost non-stop rain for the first two days, so that some of the walks could have been too dangerous in the wet and slippy conditions. There were a few books in the apartment, one of which was ‘The Art of Happiness’ by the Dalai Lama. I read a bit of it and I think it helped me to view the situation in a different way. I decided that the studio was plenty big enough for us, and besides, it had a nice little balcony from which I could see (when it wasn’t raining or misty!) the impressive Chamechaude, the highest peak in the Chartreuse mountain range and which resembles the mountain at the start of Paramount films! And even in the rain we did some nice walks, although I must admit that it was a welcome treat when the weather cleared on the third day and the sun appeared and I could take in the incredible scenery around us.
We managed to walk up La Scia which has a peak of 1,800m (having started at 900m down in the village). That was my favourite walk of the week and it was rounded off in a very special way by an encounter on the way down with a man called Jean-Pierre and his lovely six year-old daughter Rose. They were from Lyon and were spending two weeks in the area, being joined for the second week by his wife and their baby son. “Is there much to do here for children?” I asked, having been struck by how few people there were outside of the summer or the ski season. “Not really,” he replied “but it’s nice to be out in the nature, and to pick mushrooms”. And Rose looked so content to be out walking with her dad. Jean-Pierre showed me the bag of mushrooms they’d picked and Rose proudly announced that she’d found two of them (her dad later explained to me that those two were probably poisonous!). Back in the village we had drinks at the bakery and Yim Soon and I were presented with a few mushrooms (not the ones Rose had found!) and given instructions about what to do with them: clean well, and fry in butter. They were truly delicious, as we discovered later.
Happiness can come in very simple ways. And being in a beautiful place with someone you love; that doesn’t do any harm either!