Monday, September 14, 2015

Europe, Culture, and Wilderness

I spent 12 days in Europe and saw an intriguing contrast of how things are done across the pond versus America. Because the race was such a big deal in Chamonix, the words "immersive experience" will have to do even though I'd like to describe it in stronger terms. My race report will follow in a couple days to allow for a digestible and segmented recap.

I met Katie outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX at 1PM on Wednesday the 19th, and we hurried inside the massive terminal to escape the cigarette smoke of international travelers. Most people don't smoke in California (or aren't allowed to in public places), and most people in Europe do smoke, all the time, everywhere, in synchronized succession, until they have to reload, which is a momentary pause.

A380, rich people on top, everyone else on the bottom

Though most of LAX is still undergoing small updates, the international terminal is essentially an brand new mall complete with 3 story LCD displays and hip boutiques. We enjoyed a snack and boarded the GIGANTIC A380 in less time it takes to board a 737 half the size, and flew for 10 hours (with only a 3 hour night) over the arctic. It was complete with two tasty meals, wine, beer, Irish whiskey, and more beer along the way. The plane itself is huge and has plenty of room to stretch your legs and stand about (giant relief because I hate being cooped up). Additionally, Lufthansa lived up to hype as one of the best airlines for in-flight service/movies/food/drinks/snacks.

Arriving in Frankfurt, we found out we needed to go through security again, and chase down an elusive gate that kept changing. We finally made it on board another Lufthansa flight for Geneva, and finally arrived 14 hours since we left LA. The feeling of jetlag in a foreign country is a unique and overwhelming one, as we got lost walking to the rental counter, driving out of Geneva, and finding our first hotel in Chamonix. We were like the tourists that come to LA that act like every detail of life is bewilderingly confusing*.

*We were operating at 25% brain power and didn't speak French.

When we made it finally to our hostel in Chamonix, we checked in and collapsed into a coma as our heads hit the bed. After 14 hours of sleep, we awoke the next morning to fully realize we were in a mountain paradise.

Welcome to France
In France, there are a few things you have to be able to do to be happy:

1) Pain is Bread, but bread is not painful. We ended up eating a lot of bread - which is impressive because we did get caught up in a gluten-avoidance lifestyle that had spread through the US. I actually consciously tried to work it back into my diet before the trip, but the amount of quality/quantity is totally different from the US. Essentially, everywhere you turn, there are baguettes of really fresh French bread that doesn't have more than a few ingredients in it. So, for us during our refugio hoping days, we ate a ton of it, but miraculously were not bound to the toilets.

2) Cheese, butter, and milk are farm fresh - you can run by the cows that make it, and (surprise) it tastes great and works as pretty decent fuel with bread.
Hi, cows.
3) European meat products are really, really, good. You can buy a pack of dried salami or prosciutto and snack on it without indigestion from preservatives or excessive fat. I ran a good amount of UTMB snacking on salami at aid stations, through all sorts of conditions. I'm sure part of it is that hiking steep hills at a slower pace makes it more digestible, but I'd still recommend it (with a glass of coke) to Americans looking for readily available on course fuel solutions.

4) In general, my diet got to be very consistent because this is what refugios offer:
Mornings: coffee, bread, marmalade, and butter
Lunch: bread, cheese, butter, and salami or ham sandwiches
Dinner: bread and butter with some meat and veggies

5) We learned to drive a stick shift like we knew exactly where we were going. There is no patience for cars that aren't moving up and down hills at the maximum speed limit or not using the #1 lane to pass. Most cars have tiny engines that are always in a low gear to push through the steep parts, so we had to get used to pushing our go-cart rental hard and focusing on shifting and navigating much more than in America (land of automatics and cell phone addiction).

Ski lifts! Everywhere!

We learned all of this in the first few days and slowly got our bearings driving to Le Chapieux, the southern most part of the course. The Mont Blanc Massif ripples outward for thousands of acres, in an unusually small but huge way. The tree line varies greatly across from region to region, but one constant is that man is allowed to develop almost every and any part of the massif. Chairlifts criss-cross the road which criss-crosses giant, steep passes. I'm speaking of these remarkable man made developments in contrast to the Californian Sierra Club model, which champions large swaths of mountain wilderness that have zero roads or private developments. In the Mont Blanc region, refugios and roads were built centuries before John Muir started crawling around the Sierras. Even after the Sierra Club became a force in conservation, Europeans still continued to champion great engineering projects like the tram up Aiguille du Midi and more expansive ski resorts.

Refugio Bertone perched above Courmayeur was finishing another remodel (it might be Hotel Bertone when we return)
There are a few wilderness areas today on and around the massif, but they're generally in less desirable terrain to develop, i.e. windswept ridges and less-ski-able terrain. I gathered that Europeans' approach to nature, is that man is smart and caring enough to not ruin nature.. Then again there are counter-examples (toilet paper and trash on the side of the trail) of imperfections of this ideal. The overall truth is that there's examples of animals still finding ways to thrive and co-exist and also animals going extinct (I've researched this for 30 minutes, there's examples both ways). In general though, the amount of people in the mountains is impressively less detrimental to the environment than in the U.S.

The overall trend with humans is that demand for places to hike/run/climb/ski/explore is higher per capita in Europe. As one might expect, those that wander out into this steep terrain on their own accord are generally more eco-conscious about what they're doing, but there's always an occasional fool. In the U.S. there's less demand per capita, so those that do go out into the wilderness are less eco-conscious and tend to do more foolish things per capita. In the end, the balancing act is that Europeans over develop trails compared to Americans, but the same amount of trash gets left in popular areas. Meanwhile, there are more places in America to escape everyone and be completely alone. I'm not afraid to say that I would love to see more funding for conservation in the form of education and cultural immersion in the U.S. with less red tape around wilderness areas, but I do respect the work that our environmentalists do to protect the land from the armies of fools.

Another way to contrast America and Europe is in terms of quality and quantity. America has higher quality wilderness and service industries, where Europe has higher quality trails/access and food. America has higher quantity (cheaper) food, fuel, and services where Europe has a much higher quantity of trail use and land use (hikers and farms are everywhere). Personal freedom is more monetary in the US where as in Europe it's more time based. The main take away is that both continents have much to learn from each other, but both look at each other with impulsive disdain for "stupid Americans" or "Creepy Euros". I understand the knee jerk reaction when someone walks into a restaurant and speaks the wrong language, but there's a greater opportunity to learn and make changes for the better. Heck, globalization and global warming mean we're all in it together, so cultural differences aside, we're slowly becoming one big happy family.


ralph rupert said...

Nice observations. There is more wilderness to be found in Europe, try Carpathian Mountains (Transylvania trail race) or Norway. The sins in the alps have been done a long time ago (deforestation, ski craze). The food though might nowhere be as good as in France and Italy.

Martin Urbaník said...

High Tatra mountains in Slovakia, Dom... Check them out the next time ;) Seems like you were happy in Alps. I'm happy for you and Katie.

François said...

Agree on most accounts except on "more services in America" if you are referring to what your tax money (pretty similar income tax rates between France and California) gets you in Europe: better road conditions, better infrastructure, virtually free education and healthcare, etc... (Admittedly less armies to fund and less fear of government intervention over there).

Also the cheap food in the US is probably an illusion as for same quality (I.e produce) at least in the Bay Area I really feel the food budget takes a huge hit vs France. What's cheap here is also often scary processed stuff.

The wilderness and variety in the US is better, although possibly a bit less accessible - yet not spoiled.

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