At this point in the trip, I’d begun to get used to the staples of French breakfast. Bread (in the form of baguette, toast, or croissant), milk (dairy, full fat), corn flakes (or cocoa puffs), soft cheese (whose virtues are lost on me), and coffee (which I don’t drink). Carb city, and nary a protein in sight. And so, it was a rude awakening to find that our first Italian breakfast was, in fact, more of the same (Courtney, for the record, had no such qualms).
If I sound salty, it’s because I was getting sick – sore throat, runny nose, pounding stuffiness in my ears. Evidently, the last few weeks were catching up with me. And unfortunately, we were in for a long travel day. There were only two ways back to Chamonix, where we started the Tour four days ago – hiking another six days to complete the circuit or cutting through the middle by taking a cable car over the top of Mont Blanc. We chose the latter.
Little did I know, however, that the cable car option entailed no less than six separate transfers: two on the Italian side, one spanning the length of Géant Glacier – home to the highest peaks in the French Alps – and three more once we were in France. The longest was the 45-minute stretch over Géant Glacier, with only two pylons holding up the steel infrastructure; by all accounts, a remarkable feat of engineering. And the views were remarkable, too. I felt like I’d been airlifted directly into an alpine vista, complete with snow, icy rock cliffs, and glistening mountain passes.
But the whole time, my head was like a hot air balloon, floating above the rest of my body. Each trip on the cable car felt like taking off and landing in a jet; my ears felt like they had a thousand pounds of pressure on them waiting to burst through. The midway station at Pointe Helbronner was so remote it could have passed for a research center on Mars or the villain hideout in a Bond movie. Outside, there was a ticket counter to an arctic garden right beside people sunbathing in beach chairs. Was I dreaming? Courtney ordered me a chicken sandwich from the Skyway Café.
“You should eat something,” Courtney said. And then, staring into my still-vacant eyes: “You don’t know how to be sick.”
I very rarely get sick; when I do, it’s usually for no more than 24 hours. As a result, I’m basically clueless on all matters self-care. The sandwich was perhaps the blandest thing I’d ever tasted, but it was enough to bring me back to Earth. When I looked out over the glacier, I saw more feats of superhuman ability: alpinists gamely bounding over crevasses, rock climbers dangling from sheer cliffsides. People were doing truly incredible things; meanwhile, all I could seem to muster the energy for was keeping myself alert enough to stand upright on a cable car.
We eventually made it back to Chamonix, caught a bus to Geneva, and took the Metro to the train station, where it would still be another four-hour train to Paris. In our one-hour dinner window, Courtney suggested something spicy for my cold. In a city not well-known for its cuisine, it was no small achievement for her to find a Sichuan restaurant, just minutes from the train station. When we walked in, the owner – a middle-aged man from Fujian – said something in French that I didn’t understand. I asked, in Mandarin, if we could sit on the patio outside and if he could make us the spiciest dish on the menu. He nodded and led us to our seats. It was nice to feel like there was something I still knew how to do.