After two weeks of winter vacation, it's back to school here in Auch.
However, I feel I definitely got the most out of my time off. I spent the first week with my friends (watching movies; cooking up crpes, tarte au citron (lemon tart), and pain perdu (French toast); and visiting farms and castles) and relaxing with my second host family.
The second week I left with my original host family for the Alps. The latter was definitely a typically European experience, and tons of fun to boot. European families (especially French ones, whose children benefit from the third most vacation days in Europe, behind Spain and Greece), often go on a ski week or weekend at least once a year. Therefore, skiing is very much a family event. During this time of year, the roads leading east to the Alps and south to the Pyrenees are full of trunks bursting with ski equipment.
For someone who grew up snowboarding on Mont Ripley, the Alps presented an entirely different scale. The station de ski was more like a small village, consisting of apartments, restaurants, winter gear stores, and cheese and sausage shops. Chairlifts and T-bars slithered up one after the other, leading higher and higher into the series of peaks.
What surprised me the most, however, wasn't the disorientingly immense mountains or the seemingly infinite number of runs, but the number of people: skiers, snowboarders, monoskiers, hordes of elementary-schoolers playing follow-the-leader behind their instructors, and even a few daredevils brave enough to face the parapante (parachute) and tyrolienne (zip line).
I also loved discovering the typical "mountain food" during my week's stay: a very hearty, heavily cheesy cuisine. Some examples include cheese fondue, la tartiflette, (sliced potatoes covered with a creamy cheese sauce), and la raclette (whole, peeled potatoes and sliced meats on which you pour cheese heated by a special machine).
Unfortunately, we had bad weather for two days out of our week; there was intense fog and a danger of avalanches (another non-problem at Mont Ripley). We benefitted from these days to cozy up in my host family's woodsy apartment, watch movies, go ice skating, play card games and peruse the marketplace. While hitting the slopes, however, I was surprised by how long the runs took: often a half-hour to go to the very top and 45 minutes to get back down!
In actuality, the fact that a day's drive gets you to the Alps is a good example of how Europe's experience of distance, culture, and geography is different from ours. I find it fascinating that there are actual cultural repercussions of the small country size in Europe.
For example, students study at least two languages starting in middle school, and have generally visited several foreign countries by high school. Many aspire to study abroad in the United Kingdom or the United States, as speaking English fluently considerably boosts their chances of getting a good job. School trips take students to Poland or Italy, or they might spend their summers in Spain with their family. They listen to Spanish, English (British and American), and Italian music, and are very familiar with foreign cultures in general. Unfortunately, the breadth and geographic isolation of the US makes it difficult for us to experience a similar cultural exchange.