There is an expression in French—chair à vif—which loosely translates to “flesh exposed.” It is the notion of being laid bare to life and light, to uncover a wound to the sun in order to be healed. It is raw, with oxygenated blood still running through—it is alive in the deepest sense. Tender and sensitive, chair à vif denotes feeling everything deeply and does not discriminate between the lovely and the afflicted. While raw and searing, chair à vif is life-giving; the exposure a cure. It is, perhaps, when you feel the most alive.

(Holly Swafford/Contributed)


I’ve been here before, and all of my senses know it. 

My shoes crunch into the gravel as I step off the bus, gaze lifted, gaping at the horizon. A young twenty-something girl gaped at these mountains over a decade ago—jaw open and eyes wide, without knowing if she’d ever return. My glance catches Ignacio, our tour guide, as he smiles, understanding what this moment means to me. You made it back, I whisper to myself.

It was 2010 and I was attending a school in Grenoble for the study abroad portion of my French degree. Grenoble lies at the foothills of the French Alps, a mesmerizing backdrop for an Alabama girl who had only seen the Smokies a handful of times. Snow-capped and powdery white year round, I took the opportunity to experience them up close when my school offered a weekend excursion to Chamonix and Mont Blanc. For reference, Mont Blanc has the highest elevation in western Europe, its peak a staggering 15,000 feet above the town of Chamonix. I never knew if I would have the opportunity to be overwhelmed by its beauty again.

(Holly Swafford/Contributed)

Fourteen years later, I drop my bags in my hotel room and make my way to dinner with my French students, teary-eyed and already completely entranced once again by the mountains. We crowd around our table, dipping our spoons into steaming-hot cocottes of croziflette, a dish made with Savoie pasta, rich cream, cured ham, and Reblochon cheese. We savor its buttery warmth, exchanging bites and laughter and giddy smiles, all while stealing glances at the Alps just outside our window, perhaps to make sure they were still there.

In the morning, we rifle through our suitcases for our warmest layers and head to the base of Aiguille du Midi, the closest point to Mont Blanc’s summit you can reach without hiking. The journey is in two parts: first, a black cable car up seven thousand feet, and then, a small, bright red cable car for the rest of the passage—balancing on air, through snow and white-hot anticipation, thirteen thousand feet on a steel cable that stretches into the clouds and mist above.

We spill out of the cable car. I hear students gasp and gawk as they clutch the railings to steady themselves, but in my heart, all the world is strangely silent. Percy Bysshe Shelley once described the sight in this way, some two hundred years ago—that winds contend silently here, heaping the snow with rapid and strong breath. Peaks compete for my gaze in a dizzying painted landscape, like a portrait whose frame has been yanked from its canvas. Ivory brushstrokes scatter across the void, bone-hued crests and spikes softened with dabs of smoke-white haze. 

Through the thin air, I choke back tears and catch my breath, pressing my palm to my fast-beating heart. The memories and the beauty crash over me like a deluge, pricking my skin. I whisper a prayer of thanks as I steady myself on the icy railing, gripping tightly to its rough edge, praying that if this is in fact a dream, I can stay a little longer.


We sit on the third-floor balcony of our Chamonix hotel, glasses in hand, resting under the comforting weight of the mountains behind us, like a blanket.

“Have you heard of this expression, chair à vif?” Ignacio asks my friend and me, crossing his legs and taking another sip of Côte du Rhône.

(Holly Swafford/Contributed)

I try to remember this phrase through the catalog of French in my head. He looks at me. “You feel things deeply, I can see that. It’s obvious. You’re here, again, after so many years. It left the dream stage—you made it reality. And look around us.” 

He looks over his shoulder, to the grayed-out peak of Mont Blanc in the distance, slipping into the deep violet night.

Chair à vif? I don’t know, it sounds familiar,” I say. “Vif comes from vivre, to be alive.” 

He nods and smiles as if he’s known me for years– and in a strange way, he has. He’s known the heart of someone who wants to live deeply, to suck the marrow from life, as Thoreau once said. This small-town Alabama girl, diving into the great big world with all of its splendor, its jaw-dropping peaks, its stunning views—and yet, this evening conversation has me just as captivated as that afternoon summit view.

He takes one more look over his shoulder, signaling the mountains again. As I peer over the balcony railing and their view sharpens, like focusing the lens of a camera. I inhale it all in—the scent of the Côte du Rhône, the crisp breeze biting my cheeks, the warmth of my friend’s presence.

He motions in a circle with his glass, its crimson contents nearly spilling out.
Chair à vif? It’s us, here, now.”