Looking over, it was all scowls; French scowls which are among the worst kind. There were three of them, all in kit like ours – Goggles and hats and ski jackets – which made the scowls quite comical. It was hard to take them seriously – the French, with their goggles and scowls – here in the glass bubble of a cable-car whisking us up the broad white side of the highest peak of Les Arcs. We were in the Alps, skiing – skiing damn hard, and we were hungry, so why were these French insistent on making sure we understood their disapproval of our eating our sandwiches, there, in the lift, washed down with a plastic bottle of icy rose? What were they going to have for lunch that was so superior?
Now don’t get me wrong, I love taking the time to stop for a good meal as much as the next guy, probably more, heck I suppose my whole writing career is dedicated to the very notion. But there, in the cable car, high in the alps, with a blanket of soft fresh snow laid over the sloping pistes underneath, and a crystal-clear, bluebird sky sprawling out above, the taste of a sandwich – made back at the chalet, eaten standing and staring out the glass windows, rocking as the cable car rumbled past the platform towers – was about the best taste I could imagine.
The sandwich was simple: a crusty half of a baguette from the bakery just below the chalet that opens up at six in the morning smelling warm and light when you walk in. The baguette was proper French – there is no denying that they do that one right – chewy and cool on the inside and glossy and crusty on the outside. The baguette was split and the inside was smeared with grainy mustard with the dark and light mustard seeds and that hint of white wine and vinegar. Laid into it were thin slices of smoked ham, chewy and salty. And occasionally, you came across a wedge of brutally ripe camembert that was nearly liquid and whose smell had been chasing me across the pistes all day. It was the best thing I can imagine eating right now and no scowl was going to keep me from enjoying it and taking long sips of the tart, cold rose with its subtle precipitation of backwashed baguette crumbs.
When the cable car rattled past the last of the towers high on the peak and slowed to a hum in the lift station and the door opened, the French scowls of got scowlier and the situation became a standoff to see who would exit the cable car last, apparently in some defiant display of disregard for safety and hurriedness. I gave the scowlers a wink, and chewed down the last bite of the ham and camembert baguette and knocked back the last drops of the rose and I wiped my mouth with a scratchy woollen mitten that picked up many more crumbs and I stepped out of the cable car and grabbed my skis from the rack.
Later, I did stop for a proper moment in the high-Alpine sun outside the lunch chalet by the wooden bar where the big magnum bottles of rose sit in a bucket with snow to keep them cool. I spread my kit out on one of the long wooden benches and I propped the cushions under my tired legs. I drank two glasses of the rose, and I ate a packet of mustard flavoured potato crisps that I had bought at the market the previous night. The French scowled at this too. But I was in good company, and I was ready to go ski the rest of the day on the fine, smooth, groomed pistes and the undisturbed fresh snow on the crags of the high cols. The scowlers could smoke their thick cigarettes and eat their molten bowls of gooey cheese covered potatoes on the timber deck in while they argued and drank. Maybe their lunch tasted very good to them. But I will say that the smoked ham and ripe camembert filled baguette eaten on the lift with the cold rose was one of the best meals of my life.