Often, if I'm quick enough, I can grab my camera and obtain interesting images from my bathroom window or the front yard of my house, as the attached shots show.
This morning, as soon as I noticed spectacular ground-level cloud formations nestled against the cliffs at the end of the valley, I dashed out with my camera and headed up the slopes on foot, with Sophia jogging along beside me. On the way, we ran into the small white Choranche van driven by Pierrot, the municipal employee who looks after all the practical aspects of the commune. Pierrot knows almost everything about almost everybody in Choranche, so I never fail to ask questions whenever I meet up with him. I'm a curious citizen, in all the senses of that adjective.
Me: "Sold your house yet?" After his wife moved on to greener pastures, Pierrot decided to change residences.
Pierrot: "No." I've often told Pierrot that I might be able to help him sell his ideally-located village house through the Internet, but I have the impression that he's in no hurry to find a buyer.
Me: "Has the hotel been sold?"
Pierrot (grinning): "No, we would have heard of any such deal. Whenever they sell their place, they throw a party." That's Pierrot's wry sense of humor. Apparently, when I was out in Australia, the owners of the local hotel-restaurant thought they'd found a buyer. Rashly, they immediately sold a lot of their equipment and invited the village folk along for a farewell drink. Then they learnt that the would-be buyer couldn't get a bank loan. So, the deal fell through.
Me: "I'm on my way up to the top of the ridge to take photos of those fabulous low-lying clouds at the end of the valley. Before I moved here to the mountains, I always imagined that clouds float high in the sky. But here the clouds are often in the wrong place. You can even find them, like today, at ground level. Tell me, Pierrot: Is there a special expression in French for those low-lying clouds?"
Pierrot: "Yes. They're called low clouds." There's no doubt about it: You learn new stuff when you're least expecting it.
Meanwhile, I had lost time through this lofty discussion with Pierrot, and the low clouds had dissolved into the atmosphere, like steam escaping from an oven when you take out a pizza or a cake. So, not wishing to return home empty-handed, I turned my gaze towards my isolated house, which I love so dearly, and took yet another photo of it.
Years ago, when my son and I first discovered the magnificent cloud phenomena at Choranche, we developed a trivial comic routine, inventing remarks as if we were seasoned travelers who had appreciated every square kilometer of China.
Me: "I remember seeing fabulous clouds like that back in the province of Kuang-tung."
François: "No, I would have said that the clouds of Choranche look more like those around Fu-kien."
These days, of course, China has become such an ordinary place for visitors that our cloud jokes would fall flat. François himself went there a month or so ago, merely to take photos for his next book. At present, there's another French visitor in China: presidential candidate Ségolène Royal. Seeing all the media accounts of her trip and encounters with Chinese politicians, one of Ségolène's French opponents made a sour-grapes comment yesterday: "I've never seen so many media people trailing after a tourist."
On Xmas Day, friends in the village of Pont-en-Royans invited me down for a family dinner, followed by the presentation of a video made by two of their children who had recently visited China. Today, faced with images of Ségolène in the context of the Great Wall and the imperial compounds, it's true that I feel I'm watching the same touristic shots I saw at my friends' place the other day. But I'm convinced that this vision of the charming Socialist candidate provides a powerful media message, which will be received perfectly by many French voters. Ségolène is indeed—as her sour-grapes opponent suggested—an ordinary tourist, a normal woman, rather than a baby-kissing vote-collecting political monster. And that image combines with her alacrity, intelligence and political intuition to make her exceptionally attractive... to her Chinese hosts as well as French voters.
In any case, I'm convinced that, for Ségolène Royal, the clouds are floating in exactly the right place. And she too is floating up on them.