A Month of Simple Living in the French Alps

We wanted to take the month of September to travel somewhere within driving distance, but of course, given the current global situation we weren’t sure if we would be able to, or if we should. But at the end of August, once everyone was coming back from their summer vacations, we booked an apartment in the small city of Saint-Gervais Les Bains, France. Fernando had just been in this area, Haute-Savoy in the French Alps, a week or two before with a friend and he had fallen in love with the area and knew I would too. He was right.
We booked the apartment through AirBnB (a platform than can lead to gentrification and affordable housing problems in some places, but I hoped it wasn’t the case here). We were able to reduce the total cost by more than 100 euros simply by asking for a discount. I think the fact that it’s now low season and there’s less tourism due to the pandemic helped us. We paid a total of 1,037 Euros for a modest, but comfortable one bedroom apartment with gorgeous views. This apartment is about half the size of ours, which isn’t big too start with. I didn’t know if I’d find it too small, but it was actually quite comfortable and it made me realize that I could comfortably live in a small space, granted it also has nice views and easy access to nature. One of the perks was that it took no time to all to do the daily sweeping.

The apartment


Working Vacation
This wasn’t a vacation per se because we would still be working. Fernando and I have both been working with VIPKID, teaching English online to Chinese students, for the last two years. It’s been a great job so far, and something I’m happy to continue to do while I pursue my career in sustainability. It was something I could do while studying my master’s degree, we both love our students, and due to our frugal lifestyle and the overall lower living costs of Spain, we’re able to get by just fine and still save while only working about 25 hours a week each. Plus, we can work from anywhere as long as there’s a strong internet connection.
We decided we would work on this trip but we would reduce our available teaching hours to 4 hours a day 5 days a week. We would be working from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm, which is 5:00pm to 9:00 pm in China. Some days we would get booked for all 4 hours, other days we didn’t. This would give us the mornings and afternoons free to go on hikes, explore towns, or just read a book, drink tea, and relax. We would also have two full days off a week. Since we were there a whole month, that gave us plenty of time to explore. And we did make the most of it! Most days, if it wasn’t raining, we got up early and went on hike. Some days, we got up early, saw that it was raining, and stayed in the warm bed. On hiking mornings we’d be out of the door by 7:15 am and back in the apartment by 10:15 am to shower, have breakfast, and be ready for our 11 am class. After work we’d usually either prepare lunch and then go off somewhere, or eat something quick and be out the door by 3:30 to go on a hike.

On our full days off we did a couple of really great hikes. We hiked to La Jonction which was a strenuous hike that took us about 7 hours, but was more than worth it. We also hiked to Mer de Glace, which was also wonderful. We visited the Sixt Fer de Cheval region which has stunning views and more traditional and authentic towns compared to the more developed area of Chamonix. We also went on a day trip to Geneva and then on another day trip to the beautiful and authentic Valais Valley in Switzerland.

La Jonction Hike


Zero Waste While Traveling
Going on trips like this can challenge anyone’s zero waste habits. It’s not easy not knowing where to shop and how and where to sort your waste. I used to be very demanding with myself in this regard but I’ve become more lenient with myself and don’t strive for perfection, but instead try to do the best I can. My current way of thinking is much better.
On Thursday mornings we walked to the outdoor market that sets up in the downtown area of the village to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. We noticed a stall that sold produce with a bit of dirt still on it and the potatoes and carrots in imperfect shape. I had an inkling it would be organic, even if not certified, and according to the woman vendor it was! We ended up going back to that same vendor for 4 weeks straight. There we were able to buy seasonal and local produce without any plastic bags. Not only was I very happy with my produce purchases, it also felt great to be able to support these kinds of businesses.
Unfortunately, there weren’t any sustainable stores or supermarkets in our town, like there are in other towns, that would have been the cherry on top. But it was great to find a handful of stores nearby that sold bulk goods, local vegan products, and organic items. We visited a few of them and found our favorite to be Satoriz in Sallanches. It has a huge bulk section, organic produce, and other items like eco cleaning products. I also loved that their paper bags were printed with a message encouraging shoppers to reuse them up to 6 or more times. I used my cloth bags there without issue.
Also in Sallanches is a wonderful little zero waste shop, Le Repere Des Z’Heros. I visited it once and bought bulk dish soap, 3 blocks of Marseille soap, and packaging free beeswax which I intend to use for lotion. They also sold produce and lots of dry bulk goods.
The most challenging part of reducing our waste was figuring out what do with the organics. There are bins for recyclables like paper, carton, PET, and glass, but no organic waste bins. After doing an Ecosia search I found the Zero Dechet Mont Blanc Facebook Page. I wrote them and they suggested I ask in the Zero Waste Chamonix Facebook group, which was a wonderful idea. I joined the group and explained my situation -I was here for a month and wanted to know where to take my compostables. Soon after I received responses from locals with the locations of some community compost bins in Chamonix, a city about 25 minutes away, but I also received a response from a woman living in Saint Gervais, where we stayed, offering to take my compost in her home bins. So that’s what I did! I kept the organic waste in a reused bag in the balcony and dropped it off twice. She even gave me large kale bouquet from her beautiful home garden!
As the zero waste lifestyle grows in popularity, it’s getting easier to find these resources. It was also a great opportunity to get to know a local with similar values as myself.
Ideally, the city would provide compost bins for the general public, but I was very happy to see city posters advertising subsidized home compost bins for only 15 euros. I noticed many of the homes, which also have gardens, have them. Our AirBnb hosts mentioned they have a compost pile, but I was never able to find it.

Refilling dish soap at the zero waste shop


Transportation
Public transportation is available there. There is a bus stop just a few steps from our rental apartment and a train station in the next town over that connects to cities like Chamonix. I was also surprised to see a few people, all men, with their thumbs up on the side of the road asking for rides. It’s definitely not something you see everywhere, but it’s a tradition that seems to still be alive in this part of the world. However, we didn’t use any of the sustainable public transportation options on this trip, although I would have liked that to be the case. Instead we used a car. Some of you might remember that we have a van in which we traveled in for 5 months in 2018. However, we didn’t bring the van because it’s simply too big to use solely as a transportation vehicle. Instead, our friend and neighbor graciously offered to lend us his SUV, which he himself would not be using. It was an incredibly kind offer which we’re very grateful for!
Our daily lives are lived without a car, so coming here and using the car almost every day was quite a difference, one I didn’t like much. It made me appreciate living in a pedestrian friendly city even more. But of course, having a car provided us with a lot of comfort and convenience on this trip. This is a large area with a big elevation difference and walking anywhere other than the downtown was not a viable option.
However, if anyone is thinking of coming here without a car, I would still highly recommend it. Having a car is not essential. You can stay in the main city, Chamonix, where many great hikes and lifts depart from. It also has a bus and a beautiful mountain train station that connects to many other places.

Frugalness and Sustainability
On this trip we managed to keep our expenses low by practicing our frugal and sustainable habits. Although we kept it frugal, neither of us felt like we missed out on anything. On the contrary! We were able to have this amazing, month-long trip, precisely because of our frugal and sustainably lifestyle. By this I mean we usually don’t spend money on unnecessary purchases. While other people may travel to these and other places to shop and eat at restaurants, that wasn’t our goal. We went there to spend time in nature and explore mountain towns, all of which are free, or almost free. These experiences also carry a lower footprint than shopping or eating meat-heavy meals, which is important for me.
It was easy for me to avoid the temptation of eating at restaurants. Most of the restaurants served dishes with a lot of cheese and meat, which I don’t eat. The plant based options didn’t seem too appetizing, and I knew I would eat better at home anyway. So all but 1 meal was prepared at home, saving us a lot of money. However, had we gone to a destination known for its organic and vegan restaurants, I’d probably have eaten out more.
Even though I make an effort to reduce spending, I did buy a few things other than food. These were mindful purchases that I’m very happy with. They will remind me of our time there and some of them are quite useful. I bought an artisan ceramic mug, 5 blocks of Marseille soap, 3 bars of chocolate for my family, a GuppyFriend bag at the Patagonia Store, a large mason jar, and a poster to hang on our wall.

This was a very special trip we both enjoyed so much. I feel immensely grateful and privileged that we were able to spend a whole month in such a beautiful, natural part of the world.

Fernando and me in Chamonix


Thank you for reading!


Monica

5 thoughts on “A Month of Simple Living in the French Alps

  1. Hola Moni, que gusto leerte. Suena que se la pasaron padrisimo. Haute-Savoy es un area divina. Recuerdo ese encanto de estar en la montaña que para mí fue toda una sorpresa el estilo de vida local, yo siendo de una ciudad de playa. Les mando muchos saludos! Que tengan un buen viaje de regreso. 😘

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  2. Wow great article ! Thank you for sharing with us your 1 month in France. It push us to keep doing what we do when we travel (zerowaste, frugal and simple things)

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  3. Great post! Sounds like a wonderful getaway. Beautiful and majestic scenery! Trying my best to consume less and find ways of creating less waste when I make purchases. Hoping to find a zero water store in our area.

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