Sunday, March 22, 2020

Les soeurs Meunier

Rene, Nany, Peggy, Josiane and Titoune at the Immel rancho with the Sangre de Cristos beyond.

Two weeks ago, we had visitors from France. Well, three who live in France and one who has lived in the States for nearly fifty years, Nicknamed Titoune, I’m pretty sure that’s slang for breasts like tit, tete and teton, Marie Meunier hails from Chamonix the adventure mecca in the French Alps and who came to our shores for the first time as a camp counsellor when she was 16. She lived in Tahoe and Taos, of all things, with her former partner and wound up in New England’s outdoor capitol, North Conway, New Hampshire. That’s where she lives but her heart remains in France. Or so it seems to me.

Titoune, Nany and Josiane

That may be because she comes from a family of twelve siblings, eight girls and four brothers. One brother has passed. With the visit I have now met at least four of the sisters. Titoune, of course, Josiane whose house in Baudinard sur Verdon we inhabited for a month in 2011. I know that because I turned 70 there. Then a few years ago Titoune and her sister Laure, also from Chamonix, stayed with us for a couple of nights. And this time Nany and her husband Rene from Provence joined Titoune and Josiane on a grand three-week tour of the Southwest that Titoune had planned for two years. She took the group on a sampling of our National Parks punctuated by visits with a long list of friends she’s made over nearly fifty years in outdoor adventure world.

Chimney Rocks at Ghost Ranch.

Rene and Josiane. She called it "Superb."

Nany scrambling for a shot of the valley of the Chama below.

It was in North Conway that Titoune started Wild Things, the high-end manufacturer of rock and ice climbing clothing and accessories with her former husband, John Bouchard. When they divorced, she operated the company on her own. We met her when Peggy was a climbing guide at International Mountain Climbing School. The climbing community is small and very interconnected. Friendships forged in that adrenalin drenched world have proven to be lasting ones. 

Today Wild Things concentrates on high tech clothing for the military. We learned that every part of the garment must be made in the USA, zippers, buttons, cloth. Literally everything. And while Titoune has phased out of the day to day operations of the company, she told us that she still does the occasional trade show and, in her words, “I can be as involved as I want to be."

John Bouchard was a specimen, a wild man with a perfect though atypical physique. Wild Things garments were cut for his ideal body. It was like designing a little black dress for Barbie. Whatever the perfect measurements are, John had them. The standing joke was the Wild Things a one-piece ice climbing suit would fit Bouchard but not an actual human being. Peggy and I each have one stowed in the garage. Let’s just say that mine tugs at the waist and bags at the chest.

Titoune remains unapologetically French despite half a century in the US. She is most proud of her roots in the Haut Savoie and of France in general. She tells an apocryphal creation story that goes something like this.

“When God made France, he made it indescribably beautiful. Then he created its unparalleled cuisine. He added the best wine in the world. The finest cheese. He created the lyrical French language. When he realized he’s bestowed France with such an embarrassment of riches he made up for it by creating the French people.” I paraphrase liberally.

Amazingly, Titoune lived in Taos from 1971-73 when she and her then partner operated an art supplies store on Kit Carson Road in the historic district. We didn’t know that till her March visit. When she searched for her old location, she discovered that the space is now a high-end contemporary art gallery, DAFA, or David Anthony Fine Art. DAFA is owned by our acquaintance David Mapes and is managed on weekends by our dear friend Thea Swengel. That’s yet another small world story to add to your journal. Alas, Titoune’s abode in nearby Talpa has turned to rubble. It’s the house where, upon returning from Tahoe on one occasion, she discovered a pack of hippy squatters. That she let them stay is a mystery to me. Though I guess that it shouldn’t baffle me since she’s famous for taking in strays.  

Titoune turned 70 in February. Nany is 76 and Josiane is 80 though you’d never guess it. Each sister is trim and can wear clothes like a 40-year-old. They were as lithe as cats on our hike to Chimney Rocks at Ghost Ranch.

During dinner at our house the first night Titoune told us that Josiane remembers seeing German soldiers in Chamonix and that despite their ominous presence she had her friends frolicked outdoors at the farm as toddlers will do. And speaking of Germans, in 2000 my friend Ian Cruickshank stayed at the Hotel Richmond in Chamonix during one of our annual ski safaris. We learned that the Richmond, the cheapest hotel in the town, had been Gestapo headquarters during the occupation. It was a chilling discovery, one made even colder by its granite walls and brooding lobby. One could hear the echo of glistening jack boots clacking on the tile floor. On one occasion Ian and I were drinking beer in the salon. A blustering troop of Brown Shirts entered the space and ordered us to get out.

Duly dispatched, Ian and I took the stairs to the basement and turned right to ski storage and found ourselves imagining the dank space as a dungeon or worse.

The next year we booked the modest but charming Hotel L'Arve, instead. In those pre-Euro days a ski package including round trip airfare on Swiss Air from Boston to Geneva by way of Zurich, transfers to and from Chamonix and a two star hotel with breakfast and dinner was $865. Those were the days my friends. Those were the days.


Blacks Crossing said...

Another beautiful piece of writing, Steve. Like Titoune, it seems you have a real affinity for France. Love the paraphrased story about the country with the end zinger about the people! Glad they were able to visit before COVID-19 hit in earnest, and you could take them to Chimney Rock and O'Keefe country.

I find myself still enchanted with the first photograph from last week's blog. All in all, a lovely way to start the day, way late after the publication, but better late, as they say.

Steve Immel said...

Late shmate. I'm delighted that you liked it. More and more I recognize a growing affinity for France. It may be that it's because we have more connections there than any other country. Who knows? We hope you and Fred are well.