In two days, the eyes of the world will focus on this small town nestled beneath the French Alps. There's an air of anticipation, a feeling of national pride - and a quiet which makes one wonder if this is the right place.
The Olympic torch arrives Saturday, but it's tough to tell by strolling the streets. The natives said this week it's busy, crowded and hectic here, but that's only by local standards."There is very much work, very much excitement," said Muriel Devaux, an Albertville resident working in the local tourist bureau.
She then chased two visitors out. It was noon, and they were closing for lunch. Not even the local Olympic pin exchange - always a hot spot at the games - could draw a crowd Monday; only a half-dozen people were scoping out the selection there.
There's not much of a buzz in town, but there is among the town fathers. Albertville has carefully merged the quaint and the corporate in anticipation of the Games.
Walk down a narrow cobblestone street and see a beautiful church, its steeple reaching up toward the snow-capped mountains. Turn the corner, and take in the endless "Albertville '92" signs, all bearing the names of Coca Cola, M&Ms, Kodak or - get this - Uncle Ben.
This doesn't bother the people from the Savoy region, who are eagerly awaiting their guests.
"The people are more motivated now that the Games are closer," said Jean Lucot, an Albertville shopkeeper. "As we say in France, the pressure is rising."
Pressure? Well, not in the sense of the Super Bowl, the Final Four or any of the overkill events which are U.S. specialties. How are things different in this postcard pretty place? Let us count the ways:
- Free parking. Slip your car into a nice garage adjoining the local police station, and it won't cost one franc.
- Lunch time. The world is arriving Saturday, but downtown Albertville closes at noon and re-opens after the locals enjoy their repast. Only the restaurants, where the locals drink espresso and smoke cigarettes, keep the doors open.
- Traffic. There's only a four-lane main drag, but there's no hint of any gridlock.
There are some things the upcoming winter games share with Olympiads past. There are souvenirs and knick-knacks galore; the official Olympic mascot, dubbed "Magique" (don't they know he's waiting for Barcelona?), is ubiquitious.
Just as obvious are the media. Packs of Japanese journalists, all in matching attire, wandered downtown Monday, mingling with CBS camera crews and less conspicuous reporters.
There's also some price-gouging: a deck of Olympic playing cards costs $5.50, a small, stuffed "Magique" goes for about $11, and an "Albertville '92" sweatshirt brings about $40.
Manuel Dos Santos came to Albertville with his girlfriend in September; she is a native of the town. The former Denver resident said the pending Olympics turned his trip into a non-stop holiday.
"It started with the Christmas season, and it's carried over," the 30-year-old said of the local cheer. "The lights have stayed on, and it's pretty much stayed that way."
For a few others, the 16th Winter Games meant only work.
"I have no interest. . . . We're setting up our restaurant, and then I'm getting back to Normandy," said an employee at the L'Ecailler du Palais, bidding adieu and ducking back inside.