The Claws of Time Traders in Human Flesh


The Claws of Time

Traders in Human Flesh

Outrage au Drapeau

Sliding around France on a kilo of cheese a day

March, 2003

I look up. The sky is a perfect, ivory white. I look down. The ground is a perfect, ivory white.

I can't see the join.

All around, the air is filled with blowing snow, also white. I flap my glove in front of my snow goggles for a moment of colour contrast, then shrug and start to lean forwards. Down the hill. I start to slip forwards. My feet report bumps, changes to the surface plane, white on white, that I cannot see below me. All around me flit darkened, ghostly shapes barely human in form. They whip furiously down the hill accompanied by groans of effort, and sometimes, screams.

I'm sliding forwards, down a steep, icy alpine mountain, unable to see more than four feet ahead, and what's more, I'm doing it on purpose. There are a hundred other people on this slope, in this subzero blizzard. They, too, are doing this on purpose. We might be a a strange Alpine death cult, met together for a suicide pact in our cermonial GoreTex robes. Instead, we're on holiday. We're skiiing in Chamonix, in the French Alps, and we love it.

Fromage au Gratin

We come for the skiing. But we stay for the cheese. In Chamonix everything is served with a good, solid, artery cracking layer of cheese to lard the ribs against the mountain cold. We ordered a healthy vegetable soup for lunch. The waitress wasn't satisfied with bringing the soup, itself spiced with the local cheese, but brought a side plate of grated emmental to sprinkle over it. Just in case the blood/cheese concentration just drop to a dangerously low level for a moment.

But everything in Chamonix tasted great, and those were just a few regional specialties. Every part of France has its own array of flavours and ideas for the table. Every French person forced to live abroad goes away loaded with as much potted foodstuffs as his baggage allowance will carry to see him through the bleak winter of foreign cuisine.

So the food is the best. The wine is the best. The language is rich and melodious. From the right cafe terrasse you can see some of the most beautiful women in the world wander by. And they know it. Almost all French people manage to carry themselves with the outrageous cockiness of a people that eat the best, look the best and speak the best in the world. It's a constant frustation to such a great civilisation, that everyone else in the world wants to copy the Americans, and not them.

There's France and also France

France has centered around Paris since the revolution. All law, all government centre here. Here are the grandes ecoles, the great companies, the heart of fashion, of culture, of elegance, and few French people can resist the impulse to come and live here, for at least a while. In the French language, you monte á Paris as if climbing the celestial mountain, and on returning to the murky depths of world outside, you descend en province.

So the French gravitate to Paris from the rough, accented countryside. The English go the other way. A modern, sophisticated haute-bourgeious English family with two cars, a pad in the city and a charming retreat in Somerset can't set foot in France without running off to the roughest spots imaginable. A hillside in Provence, a skip in the Dordogne, it doesn't matter as long as noone has ever heard of it. No Nice, Cannes or, God forbid, Calais, no, it must be an out of the way, ill served, and in-bred a rough-house as possible. "Lovely spot, the locals all share the same squint, and have the most wonderful natural sense of suspicion, self-loathing and bouts of sporadic violence. We're converting a disused public pissoir into a summer pied á terre. Tiled with hand-hewn goats' turds, of course. Hard to get hold of, but so atmospheric."

Every English visitor to France is also desperate to 1) try the six words of French he remembers from twenty years ago, and having done that 2) continue with all conversations in English from that point on. This lends one a certain air of sophistication, aided by a suggestion that one knows one's cheese. "This is an elegant, musky goat's cheese - a tomme de chevre, my dear - I discovered it in a outdoor privy in the Auvergne. You'll note the subtle nutty flavour. At least I think that it's cheese."

How to become a Spiv

You can't spend time in France without wanting to become a little French yourself. The power of the civilisation overwhelms you. Within days you start pretending to understand the wine menu, choosing unpronounceable appellations at random and going through the motions of tasting it as if you can tell the difference between a Chateau Robinet and a the chef's cooking oil.

You want to command the native irrascibility, and follow the national hobby of passionate debate, arguing and railing about politics, art, what it is to be French, what it is not to be French, all through the nght and depart good friends.

You want to gain some of that famous Gallic charm. "Quelle charmante! Mais... you are sisters! Non, c'est impossible! You are so young, I took you to be each other's daughters!"

It's no good of course. You can't go from indistinguishable English vowels, six pints of bitter and a chip butty to swaggering in tight trousers, smoking more than a midlands factory and holding an angry opinion on every single subject on earth in a two week holiday. And the girls with think you a frou-frou for trying. They'll likely think you one anyway.

But be careful if you think that that being in the home of liberté means doing as you please. France has for decades laboured under a bureaucratic, centrist administration that likes people to stay where they are put, and do nothing to cause trouble. Once you choose a career path, teaching say, it's almost impossible to change to something else afterwards. The French government has passed a series of measures to stamp on regressive elements in society. Begging in the streets? Six months. Being an itinerant? Six months. Hanging around stairwells with your homeys? Two months. And if you want to want to seek out a French tickler for a bit of naughty Parisian fun as seen on TV? Racolage passif: six months.

By the way, if you feel this is state oppression and you want to fight back, and decide to demonstrate against the injustice of the system? Insulting the French flag: six months and a 7500 euro fine.

Blaming the Emigrés

While the English are blundering around the south of France pretending to know something about wine, many of the young French are sneaking off the other way, to live in London and pretend to know everything about everything. You might suppose the main reason for doing this is to complain about the English weather and insult the local food, two activities no doubt satisfying in themselves: "Call that a paté, foouf, I could dig a better paté from under my fingernails. And to live under these clouds all day, this sky must be made out their insipid sliced bread." But then you ask them, you must long to go back to France?

"France? France? That country of narrow minded parochials and petty bureaucrats? Where everyone thinks they're so clever and posh? My God, no, who'd want to live there..."

La Prochaine Télésiege

Even below me now, the mists are clearing. The mountain tops all around are a brilliant, searing white, the sky the shining blue of daydreams and children's paintings. I look across to the Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc swaggering, French-style, in their timeless perfection. There's eighteen inches of pure, fresh snow on the hillsides today and we're going to leave our tracks as much of it as possible. No time to waste on the manicured pistes, we'll take our chances on the rocks and trees, and bounce down the snow drifts and soft rivulets between the runs, burying ourselves just for the fun of it.

All aound us charge the French, skiing in perfect style in their spotless outfits, eating the best, drinking the best, arguing fluently. This is their country. Cocky bastards.



Black Run




Aiguille du Midi



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The Facts

Where I stayed

How I got around:
Easyjet to Geneva, then two hours by car hire to Chamonix.