1.  Some Unflattering Acknowledgements

Let’s start with the worst: this trip, and essentially all others I’ve taken in the past three years, was undertaken in the shadow of a November 2003 trip to Yurp which was effectively the antithesis of the successful one I’d had in February/March of the same year—a trip which lasted a little over a week, was ended a week early by my choice, and is still known among my friends and family as The Stinky-Cheese-Butt Pants Trip. I’ve still not compelled myself to write out that tale, although I certainly recorded its developments well enough in my journal to provide me with the necessary details even now, but suffice it to say for the moment that I cockily returned to Yurp anticipating a breezy continuation of the previous trip and instead was confronted with obstacles that completely destroyed my sangfroid and foreshortened my vision when a big-picture outlook perhaps could have resulted in a more character-building and positive experience.

I’d been hesitant to cross the Atlantic since that trip, partly because of the way I’d felt I was hemorrhaging money as things had grown less and less enjoyable and partly because I’d decided to forego such far-flung destinations and focus instead on places in North America where I might have a chance at getting employment without the copious E.U. restrictions (or, worse, the seemingly impenetrable wall of Swiss labor/residence blocks). So I’d visited Montréal, Québec, and Halifax, and I’d shut Yurp out of my mind…Paris too, even though I considered it where I should be living and where I wanted to live and work; but if Yurp wasn’t going to let me in, to hell with it, I figured, at least for the short term.

A second relevant prefatory note is that I failed one important challenge the Good 2003 Trip gave me—that of learning German so I could travel further into Central Europe and the darker forests and mightier alps of German-speaking Switzerland, Bohemia, Austria, and so on. This challenge had come to me in Sion (in the Valais canton, on the Rhône just west of the linguistic frontier), both as I sat in a German-speaking church there and marvelled at how Germanic the aspects of the Christmas season I longed for truly were and as I slowly made my way back from a dangerous and uncertain walk and passed through snowy pine branches and hungered for more of that world.

Alas, German has continued to elude me: it remains a magic book in a bulletproof-glass display case with no evident access point, something maddeningly familiar in a cultural and logical sense but that remains denied. I tried. I didn’t try the right things, apparently, but I did try. And right up to about a month before this trip I was trying, frantically transcribing present-tense German verb conjugations just to learn even the most rudimentary of language tools, to very little effect. Why I stopped brings us to the third unfortunate consideration in advance of this trip, although in this case it wasn’t so much my own fault.

As I was mulling over possible scenarios and geographical contexts for this vacation some months ahead of time, I returned again and again to the astute observation my friend Rob had made upon hearing my tale of the Stinky-Cheese-Butt Pants Trip—that I’d been unconsciously trying to go to Switzerland but forcing myself to turn away at the last minute. And I decided that this time I’d be sure to get there, and to spend as much time there as I felt I really wished to once I was there; memories of my enchanting time in and around Sion were on my mind, as was the impression of the Alps and the Rhône River and the knowledge that the glacial source of the Rhône was just a ways further up the railway line into the German-speaking part of Switzerland. So I bought a Eurail pass that would let me go there easily, and I began looking at accommodation options.

Further research and browsing reminded me that a very tempting option for exploration of that region was that of renting a “holiday apartment” for a week and walking and/or travelling by train throughout the Goms valley with nothing more than a light rucksack (or less) to encumber me each day. The idea’s appeal grew, gradually, in the unhurried approach to the trip, until one weekend I was getting serious about making travel plans and got down to the question of not just which city to base myself in for a week but which holiday apartment in that city.

I was literally within a few mouse-clicks of irreversibly committing to staying at my final selection of these when I happened to consult my Eurail map of Swiss rail connections to see if one other nearby city would be better. And that’s when I saw, for the first time, that the Goms valley (and the little bit continuing up to Zermatt) is the one place in the entire Swiss rail network where Eurail passes are NOT valid. (From Zermatt to Disentis/Mustér, to be exact.)

POOF. The only definite plans I’d had for this trip were suddenly revealed to be a mirage, and I was back to Square One—except that in anticipation of this Swiss scenario I’d bought a Eurail pass valid in three countries: France, Switzerland, and, because I had to choose a third regardless of my intention to stay only in the first two, Austria, just in case I lost my head and went on an insane quest for Sound-of-Music alps overload.

After that special little surprise I stopped trying to plan any aspect of my trip, and I also stopped trying to force German to teach itself to me so quickly. Instead I spent my trip-prep time reading about various regions of France in The Rough Guide to France (my copy dating from 1997, more on that later) and establishing which cities listed in it had Étap-Hôtel branches (which I’d found in 2003 saved me considerable lodging expenses, as hotels for me are nothing more than places to sleep, shower, and stow my bags while I explore a place). I booked a hotel room in advance for a kickoff destination, just to give myself a first foothold, and I left all other issues to be decided on the spot (with the exception of my bank and credit card companies, whom I’ve learned to notify in advance of such travel).

There was one other significant misstep, but that will have to wait for the tale of the trip’s beginning.

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