Briançon, the Highest City



“Briançon. That’s where we want to go.” I put my finger decidedly on the tiny dot near the crease of pages 69 and 70 of a thick European road atlas. It was just over the French border on the way from Torino and it seemed a perfect place to part ways.

Brad seemed skeptical as he pushed the accelerator with a slippered foot and reached his hand into a bag of pistachios. Having just finished leading a week-long trip in the Italian Dolomites that afternoon, we were nearly out of decision making power as we sped toward the French Alps.

The official purpose of this odyssey was for Brad to transport a van, trailer and a dozen bikes back to our company warehouse in France, but it was mostly an excuse for Brad to get to the Mt Ventoux stage of the Tour de France and perhaps bike around Alpe d’Huez along the way. I, on the hand, was merely a stowaway trying to make my way to Marseille, paying for my passage in driving shifts and good company.

Marseille promised nothing in particular except the warmth of a certain person who happened to be making their first pilgrimage all the way to the European continent to find nothing in particular except, well, me. The effect of the strong gravitational pull of such a promise, however, is a myopia that blinds one to the insanity of successive planes, trains and automobiles. Not to mention the blindness, to a certain degree, to the presence of other perfectly well-formed and well-behaved persons within physical reach and not a flight, two trains and a bus ride away.

Brad seemed to be experiencing a similar shortsightedness, but his was spurred, instead by the desire to conquer a new climb – the familiarity of the pain and doubt, perhaps, and the excitement of the climactic victory. Separate interests maybe, but both of us blinded to all rational thought outside our goals.

Bastille Day fireworks in Marseille

Bastille Day fireworks in Marseille

Our vague plan was to drive as far into France as we could before we ran out of gas or snacks or started falling asleep at the wheel, or both. Choosing Briançon was an executive decision we were too weary to refute. Not long after passing the French border we started switchbacking our way through the fog, up a mountain; fireworks exploded in a nearby horizon – it was Friday and Bastille Day was Sunday.

As we entered the town of Briançon, we found a large parking lot full of camper vans right in front of the historic citadel, the genesis of the fireworks we had seen. Serendipitous, it seemed that this tiny dot between pages 69 and 70 would turn out to be a picturesque historic city (the highest in the European Union, in fact) with a train station and a well-lit parking lot large enough to accommodate our load. As soon as Brad killed the ignition, we instinctively, sleep-walkingly began rearranging the packed van so we could sleep inside.

A week ago, Brad had been a stranger. A hand-rolled cigarette dangling on his lips, he was the first person to greet me when I pulled up to the house in Pontives. Still shaken from a confrontation with a guardrail (instead of an 18 wheeler), he had soothed me with a hug and his own harrowing collision tales. A few short days later, halfway into our trip in the Dolomites, we were going halfsies on pizzas and hanging out in the hotel hammam, naked (in accordance with spa rules, not our own). Now, in Briançon, where locals stared at me slack-jawed as I ordered, in imperfect French, a large bottle of water with two plastic cups at one of the few bar type establishments still open at that late hour, Brad was the most familiar person around. We brushed our teeth in the parking lot, rinsing with the bottled water in the little plastic cups, spitting directly onto the pavement (there is no level of “roughing it” that should compromise oral hygiene, after all).

We slept that night, each of us, lying across a row of van seats, bundled against the alpine chill, deeply ensconced in our preconceived notions of what the next day would bring.

My eyeshade was no match for the July sunrise beaming through the windshield and so I slid, quietly, out of the van and joined the early birds at the boulangerie across the street for breakfast pastries and a small quiche aux poireaux for lunch. I gently roused Brad, plying him with a still-warm pain au chocolat which he ate, glassy-eyed, with his hair and handlebar moustache comically awry.  Minutes later he was dropping me off at the train station, waiting outside just long enough to make sure I was able to obtain my desired ticket.  Ticket in hand, we wished each other adieu and bonne chance on our respective journeys.

And then I was alone, for four plus hours, with the reality of an odyssey to seek out a singular fish in the great sea of humanity. The unfamiliar faces around me were lit up as they boarded, waving emphatically to faces on the other side of the smeared glass. Their smiles slowing, achingly fading as a regional train creeping-ly pulled them apart, setting them on disparate paths.

A man slumped in his seat not far from me. Wearing soft, loose blue jeans, an unbuttoned denim shirt revealing a blue shirt beneath, a navy cap and a fanny pack, he spoke softly to those around him, apparently asking a question no one could or wanted to answer. He unpacked a plastic container from a blue plastic bag and began to shovel pieces of fish, small beets and couscous into his mouth. I watched him pick bones from the fish, putting pieces in and out of his mouth as he discovered more spines. He must have felt my gaze as he looked up, even raising his hand, to catch my gaze, but I averted mine. Embarrassed, perhaps, by the possibility of my lack of comprehension of his inevitable question or just to be associated with what had clearly become the saddest spectacle on this train car.

I remembered a play where a turn of the century character claims that one could tell whether or not a man’s wife still loved him by inspecting the state of his hat. If the man’s hat had fallen into disrepair, then so too had the man’s marriage. I wondered who had let this grown man depart in beaten up, double knotted sneakers and an ill-fitting cap. Whoever it was loved him enough to pack his lunch, but had forgotten to put a pen in his knapsack, causing him to pitifully solicit the kindness of strangers. His hands looked small and soft as he completed a soduko puzzle with a borrowed pen. When the kind pen-lender stood to exit at Aix-en-Provence, he held the pen out to her, but she shook her head and he beamed up at her, genuinely grateful for the paltry gift. His smile fading, slowly, painfully as she descended the stairs and disappeared into a great, throbbing school of train-taking fish.

A young couple had boarded the train and had sat directly across from me. They littered the small table that divided us with train time tables and pamphlets, clearly concerned about scheduling a successful return trip. The woman wore a kelly green polyester dress cinched at the waist by a tan faux leather belt and large, yellow, carved wooden earrings. She had large green eyes offset by thick, dark eyebrows, topped off by an incongruous head of Carrot Top curly red hair. As she whispered to her mate, she picked at her face and a cold sore above her lip. I wanted to smack her hand and chastise her as my mother does when she catches me biting the inside of my cheek. She tried to compensate with a garish swipe of red lipstick. Her mate didn’t seem to notice her cold sore, the lipstick or her nervous picking, but his shirt looked clean and freshly pressed. He calmly studied a document entitled “The Blue Ocean Strategy” while she read the last few pages of an Elie Wiesel paperback; they took turns stroking each other’s thighs and hands. When the pen-gifting woman vacated her seat, the couple moved away from me, across the aisle, sensing, perhaps, my scrutiny.

The view of Marseille from the entrance of the Saint-Charles train station

The view of Marseille from the entrance of the Saint-Charles train station

When I had purchased the ticket in Briançon, I had asked if I would need to change trains in order to reach Marseille. “J’ai besoin de changer train?” I had asked, “non, c’est le terminus” the attendant had replied. Marseille was the end of the line, the final destination. And so it was. For all of us. The man with the ill-fitting cap and the ill-matched young couple and I descended the stairs together and ebbed and flowed with the waves that each successive train delivered. Each of us swirling into the flotsam and jetsam of the sea of humanity that was the Marseille Saint-Charles station that day.

Without a working French phone, I sat in the station, waiting to recognize the face I had come to find. As he approached me, unwittingly, his head bobbing on the surface, I felt a familiar flush in my cheeks. As we emerged from the station, hand in hand, into the blinding afternoon sun, I held my smile, not wanting to let it visibly fade, slowly and achingly.

2 thoughts on “Briançon, the Highest City

  1. Enjoying the blog, which I was steered to by your latest tweet. Food and bikes: what a great combination, and the two symbiotically dependent on each other (given that you need to eat well to ride well but you need to ride well if you eat well!).

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