It was a Tuesday, just another day travelling across towns in France. Here I was, alone, sitting in a small cafe somewhere in Valence killing time before my next train to Gap. A nice traditional French Cafe supplied red weaved chairs, some pot plants in flower baskets placed around the outdoor sitting area marking the cafe’s territory. There was a strong textured smell of Lucky Strike cigarettes and Espresso floating in the air. A young waiter approached towards me, she had dark brown hair tied back and on her black apron was a grey badge with her name ‘Bella’ on. She reminded me of the actress Audrey Tautou from one of those French flicks. She darted her eyes towards me giving me the ready-to-take-your-order signal. This was a special moment for me, a moment where I could practice my French. In fact show off my French. I was definitely going to use ‘the moment’. Perhaps I should introduce myself first? She may be impressed that I have a French name. Actually no, this is stupid; people don’t do that back in London. People don’t go in restaurants and say ‘Hi my name is John’ with a long pause just waiting for the waiter’s response. That’s creepy and pathetic. I am just going to take the order.
‘Bonjour, je veux avoir un sandwich, Jambon au fromage SVP’
I was dead pleased to have some knowledge in another language rather than just BSL until Bella frowned at me, sending me the message that she hadn’t got a clue what I’ve just said. Perhaps I was nervous and talking too fast. Perhaps I wasn’t speaking loud enough. Maybe I should speak up a bit?
‘BONJOUR, JE VEUX AVOIR UN SANDWHICH JAMBON AU FROMAGE SVP’
Bella frowned even more, the whole Espresso addictions turned around to observe what was going on, possibly to their curiosity that some madman is unhappy with the service and some exciting drama was about to happen that they see regularly in French soaps. I was not going to look like an idiot three times in a row, so, by saving myself from this mess I decided to just point at the menu. Bella leaned forward to have a closer look at what my tummy was after. She leaned back to where she was standing and tilted her head back slightly giving the ‘Ah’ sound. She then disappeared back inside to sort out my order whilst I could then loosen my shoulders. Some of the Espresso addictions were still staring at me. I felt like shouting back ‘Oi, what ya looking at’ which, what most Chavs would do back in the Northern areas of Britain. Meanwhile later, my order has finally arrived after the hassle. Hallelujah. Bella places the dish on my table with no smile whatsoever. It’s not quite what I ordered, in fact, it’s different. I surfed my eyes around the Panini as if I was a food critic writing a review for Good Health or something. I looked up at Bella and for once, It was my turn to frown.
‘Jambon and Fromage?’ I said quietly with my frown revenge.
She suddenly began to throw out French at me with quite a tune; she’d definitely didn’t approve of my frown. Her words were meaningless and foggy. Jesus Christ, more people in the Cafe tuned around to see the pantomime. I had assumed the French soap narrative hadn’t been very satisfying recently for the locals and this was ‘their moment’ to gain pleasure from me and Bella. The whole drama was going off script therefore it was best to give up and raise the innocent hand saying ‘okay, okay, it’s fine’. My words were probably foggy too to her too but she read my body language and raised her eyes before turning away from me. That’s quite a French chic attitude. The audience sensed the end of the Episode and turned back to their tables. I realised that the Panini was chicken and grilled vegetables; it was the next option down from the Ham and Cheese on the menu. I must have been pointing a few cm’s off the Ham and Cheese option.
Before dark, after a few hundred kilometres more travelling I stood below one of the worlds best crags, Ceuse. This is the most unique rock that provides real king lines and attracts many of the worlds best climbers. But to get to the base of any route requires an hour’s walk up hill. For me, an unfit part time punter, it takes closer to two hours. Pathetic I know. Once a Rock Chic from Germany approached towards me at Demi Lune sector as I was reading some book, asking me how many books I brought up to the crag with me in my rucksack.
‘Excuse me’ I said confusingly
‘Did you fill you pack up with novels’ she said with a smirk.
I frowned with confusion hoping she would continue explaining herself which she did.
‘You were really panting up the hill as I overtook you, your bag must be full of those books’ she said as she made a panting face expression that looked like one of those dogs at the crags.
This was towards the end of my trip, I thought I was getting fitter walking up as the days went by. But she was right, I was panting all the way, just like the crag dogs. I was simply getting weaker and slower. I have vowed not to return to Ceuse until they build a cable car. I pulled the ‘ah’ face as I slowly worked out her joke.
‘No, only this book, but, it’s a very heavy book.’ I responded.
The campsite reminds me of Camp 4 in Yosemite, it’s cheap, and all nationalities hang out together like one big family. Everyone is one of you, came a long way just to climb the best they can possibly perform. It was nice to see some old friends of mine from Finland and Austria. I met many other nationalities who I later hanged out with from Singapore, Denmark, Italy, Mexico etc. You can meet some of the coolest dudes here and some of the strangest weirdo’s. There was a Mormon from Utah who once followed me up the hill; she had previously been trying to fill my friend in some ideas about god. She was the only person to wear a helmet at the crag that had a sticker on saying ‘Just Wear It’. I knew I had to play the deaf card to escape which I certainly did. After half way up the hill, I decided to adapt into my ultra slow walking speed. But that didn’t work. She was still right behind me, like a bicycle and a trailer. Near the top, I stopped for some water. She used her ‘moment’ to talk to me about her philosophy in climbing. She said ‘climbing’s addictive’ with real passion. She must have felt a genius coming up with something so profound as ‘climbing’s addictive’. I bet one day she will see it on a bumper sticker thinking someone’s probably ripped her off. But as soon as we got to the top, I was suddenly picked off the ground on some route on some rope by someone.
I was going well this trip and managed to send a few 8a+’s quickly. I never worked on anything hard simply because I lost time with having to return back to London for an important interview then back out to Ceuse, then the storm arrived which threw more precious climbing days into the bin. So, it was a moral to focus on routes I could send in a day rather than over several days.
Evening conversations are great out in Ceuse, everyone just talks about climbing, this is something completely forbidden in my family, and even my own girlfriend would only ask the usual question ‘How many grade 8’s this trip Andre’ before she starts going on about fashion and festivals. And of course; at work, in the staff room I don’t think anyone knows I Rock Climb apart from one teacher who choked over her coffee when I told her my hobby as if she had never heard the word ‘climbing’ before. It is totally the opposite of the staff room conversations at work. They are usually something about The Vic in Eastenders or who-does-she-think-she-is gossip of people I have never heard of.
Having visit the crag several times before, the escalade in Ceuse is definitely my favourite sport-climbing venue.
La Femme Blanche, 8a+, Photo by Eddie Gianelloni www.eddiegianelloni.com