French Trip Report

Cypress Trees.jpg

Trees Down The Hill


Nice Place To Live...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005:

We spent most of the morning packing, then unpacking -- because we had first started to take a HUGE check-in bag, and then mutually decided that something the size of a VW bug was too heavy and unwieldy to deal with -- and then re-packing everything two smaller check-in bags.  Megen drove us to the airport; probably far too early by a frequent flyer’s timetable, but neither Denise nor I fly often enough (especially internationally) to be able to judge the routines.  Better early than late, we decided.

Which meant, of course, that everything went too smoothly.  There was almost no traffic, and so we got to the airport in 25 minutes instead of the usual 35 - 40.  There were no lines at check-in, so we walked right up to an agent.  There were no lines at security; so it took us, oh, five minutes to go through that silly routine.  We were at the gate way too early.  It was the “B” Delta concourse, the biggest one, so Denise went to peruse the shops.  I sat and watched our Air France plane getting ready through the window -- one of the Airbuses, so it was a big puppy.  One thing that struck me was that the rotors on the two engines on the wing were spinning lazily, and on the center post of each rotor there was painted  either a “6” or a “9”, depending on your point of view.  “69” the plane kept saying.  “96-69-96-69”  Occasionally, because the rotors were spinning at slightly different speeds, it said “66” or “99.”  I’m sure there was some coded message the plane was trying to send, and I pondered it while watching the crew bringing supplies on the plane get wanded on the tarmac by security folk.  Of course, it was a French plane and we know how the French are renowned for being lovers, so maybe there was some significance to this.  

We boarded, and they sent us back to the cheap seats.  We’d chosen Air France (Delta’s service partner into France) because we’d heard that the planes were a bit roomier and the food was better.  I thought initially that the planes were going to be a lot roomier, but then we passed a bulkhead looking for our seat assignments and realized we’d been walking through Business Class, which isn’t anywhere near as vast and lovely as First Class but still has more elbow and leg room than Coach.  Still, this was better than the plane I’d taken over to Ireland several years before.  I could actually manage to halfway straighten my legs under the set...

And the food was better.   Coq au vin , chicken in wine sauce.  Not the best meal I’ve ever had, but the chicken was somewhere on the correct side of rubber, the sauce didn’t taste like it came from a Chef Boyardee can, and there were spices other than salt involved.  This was certainly better than the faux chicken that usually gets served, and there was lots of other stuff:  yogurt, cheese (uh, that is, fromage ), crusty bread, real butter.  Lots of food, almost too much food.  It would have been enough all on its own, but then they served us breakfast about three hours after that huge meal -- way too much food for an eight hour plane flight.

We tried sleeping after dinner... I don’t think either of us managed more than an hour total napping, though.  Sleeping in the Coach section of a plane requires the ability to sleep while sitting up, and to manage that while your head is placed at an uncomfortable angle that the toy pillow the airline provides can’t support.  Besides, there’s always the Great Line of the Lavatory parading past.  Luckily we were at the side of the plane so there wasn’t an additional passenger who had to get past us for restroom stops.  There were small TV screens on the back of each seat, with GPS units to tell you where you are, as well as music, movies, and really old and bad television shows.  I opted for my iPod and the Shure noise-reduction headphones (though the jet noise was less than many jets I’d been on).  Eight hours later, we were on final approach to Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris -- far faster than any other commercial method of getting across the Atlantic for previous generations.  I suppose we really can’t complain too much.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005:

It was 6:30 AM for France, but our bodies insisted it was 12:30 at night.  (They also insisted that we find a restroom, but that’s another matter.…)   Ignoring the weariness, we disembarked, stood in a line for forty minutes so that a bored-looking customs office could stamp our passport without asking us any questions, and picked up our luggage.  We were in France!

Charles de Gaulle airport had always struck me as a monument to the 70s, with its retro glass tubes and bare concrete look, but in all the images I’d seen of it, it also looked pristine and clean.  Not in reality.  Perhaps we just hit a remodeling sequence, but the portions of the airport through which we passed looked somewhat shabby and rundown.  We walked, and walked, and walked until we hit the train station.  (“The Gare,” I told Denise.  “No doubt it rhymes with ‘Hair.’”  Yes, I was kidding.  Yes, I knew it didn’t.).  The schedule was pretty well-marked, even for some reason it was in French.  Our train would be coming in on Platform 6.  We double-checked with someone in an Information booth who could also speak a bit of English -- communicating with us through our bad French and her mediocre English.  She also told us something we wouldn’t have known: the reservation card must be punched in an orange machine before you get on the train -- that wasn’t mentioned anywhere on the ticket or by the agent who’d sold it to us.  It’s a pretty strange system in general, actually:  you buy tickets, which means you’re holding two seats, but there’s not information on those as to what seats.  The tickets are like purchasing stock futures.  You have to purchase a separate reservation for the day you want to use those tickets -- which in turn get you your travel times and seat numbers.

Denise saved our butts when, in looking at the tickets, umm, that is, the reservation card, I couldn’t see where our reserved seats might be, or which car to get on.  I, being male, would have taken the “this is the right platform so we’ll just get on” approach, but Denise went up to one of the platform attendants and asked.  Again communicating with pidgin French (on her part) and pidgin English (on the attendant’s part), she managed to determine that we need to be on platform “Duh,” which we also managed to decipher as the Letter “D.”

The train came in a few minutes after we scrambled down a quarter mile on Platform 6 to the “Duh” section.  We sat down...

We’d been told by Hania that someone would probably come around to check our tickets.  No one did.  The train pulled out of the station, we headed southwest from Paris toward St. Pierre des Corps, a suburb of Tours where Hania planned meet us.  We stopped once or twice, but no one came to check the tickets.  Ever.  We realized that France has an entirely different attitude toward such things...

We also realized that France also has a much better train system than the US.  The ride was nearly glass smooth, and at times exhilaratingly fast.  I was impressed.  There were two middle-aged men sitting across the aisle from us.  They had a huge bottle of coke open between them, and one of them surreptitiously reached into his bag and pulled out a double-shot glass and a large bottle of Vodka.  He poured a couple fingers of Vodka, drained the glass, and chased it with a swallow of Coke.  His companion did the same.  Then they offered me the Vodka, and wouldn’t take no for an answer... oh, okay, I didn’t give them no for an answer.   They offered the glass to Denise next, but she demurred and they let her.  “Merci!” I said.

They followed this routine about every half hour -- three shots worth.  We realized that their “French” sounded odd; when we tried to converse, we managed to ascertain that they weren’t French, but Polish, and speak no English and about as much French as we did, so communication between us consisted of mutually unintelligible noises accompanied by hand gestures.  It worked as well as it needed to -- alcohol is the universal language.

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Polish Drinking Buddies

I’ll admit that I worried about whether we were on the right train, or that we’d be able to figure out when to get off, because the announcements were in fast, blurred, and faint French that neither of us could understand.  “We just get off at 10:35,” Denise said.  “Hania says these trains are always on time.”  Me, I had vision of ending up in Le Mans or Troyes or Euro Disney or London or some other place other than where we were supposed to be.  But promptly at 10:25, we heard an announcement that definitely contained the words “St. Pierre...”  We collected our bags from the overhead rack, shook hands with our Polish drinking companions, and left the train.

Hania was there, as promised, and we drove back St. Pierre des Corps southwest toward Azay-le-Rideau, where we were staying, with a stop at a local Champion Supermarket to pick up supplies.  It was great to see Hania, and going to Champion with her wasn’t all that different from the times we’ve gone grocery shopping with her in the past in Toronto.  The signs were in French, but hey, they’re half in French in Toronto too.  There were a lot more and different cheeses than I was used to (and gee, no American Cheese Food Slices at all...), and a much larger and slightly cheaper wine section, but we managed to get what we needed.

Ah, and France -- like Ireland -- has roundabouts, the perfectly sensible way to deal with intersections of roads that, sadly, the US has ignored (except in parts of New England).

Half an hour later, we were in Azay-le-Rideau, a small town that still bears many of the marks of its medieval past:  narrow, twisting streets and ancient houses.  I immediately loved it, and loved it even more when we first saw Le Plessis, where we’d be staying.  This was a gorgeous, walled-off plot of land with two large houses on it, one belonging to the owner/proprietors, and the other a former stone barn now divided into residences for guests.  Bruce and Karen had rented “Le Gite” -- the residence to the side with a more private courtyard -- for a few months last year.  This year, Hania had rented the other half for two weeks, and had invited friends to come over and spend time with her.  Ginmar -- who, like us, Hania knew only from LiveJournal -- was already there, Don Wenzel would be arriving on Sunday.  Ginmar is a interesting person, a military translator and interrogator who served in Iraq and who has probably seen more countries than I’ll ever get to in my life.  She’s also, judging from her LJ journal, which I’ve been reading for awhile, an excellent writer.  She has strong opinions, which she defends just as strongly...

Denise and I had decided that the best way to acclimate ourselves for the stay was to simply remain awake as long as we possibly could and crash sometime that night, at which point, when we woke up in the morning, we should be about set for the local time.  So rather than falling asleep at noon, local time, we had lunch:  cheese, bread, strawberries, and wine.  It was a wonderful lunch, sitting around the table on the patio in the sun, chatting and comparing notes and marveling at the fact that food simply seemed to taste better here.

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The Gates

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The View Toward The Houses

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Where We Stayed

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Still Life With Fraises et Fromage

After lunch, we walked into town, about a kilometer or so away.  Azay-le-Rideau bears all the hallmarks of an old village:  narrow, twisting streets that aren’t really wide enough for two cars to pass by easily (or sometimes at all), and certainly not wide enough for two cars and pedestrians as well.   Luckily, there wasn’t much traffic.  We wandered slowly, taking lots of pictures, and going “Ooh! Look at that!” about every fifteens seconds or so.  I was damned glad I wasn’t using film...  

We saw the “good” butcher and the “good” bakery and wandered into a few shops.  We saw the closed door to the internet café, and Hania and I sat outside the post office while Gin and Denise wandered in some stores and just talked and people-watched for a bit.  In some ways, the town reminds me of some of the small towns I saw in the west of Ireland.  I’d decided while I was in Ireland that I could definitely live in Clifden there.  I think I could definitely live in Azay-le-Rideau, as well.  Maybe there’s a similarity to small towns like this everywhere in Europe...

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Lane Into Town

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Town from Chateau

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Azay-le-Rideau from Indres River

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Gargoyle Water Pump

Back at Le Plessis, Hania fixed a quick Beef Stroganoff which tasted particularly good served outside on the patio with more wine, more cheese, and more conversation.  All in all, it was a lovely supper, and then we relaxed with some chocolate, some tea and coffee, and more conversation.  I downloaded pictures from the Canon, gave Denise, Hania, and Gin a slideshow of the trip so far, and even managed to stay up until about 11, at which point I realized that I was drifting in and out of the conversation.  I went upstairs.  I’d been up for about forty hours at that point.  I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.  Denise, who’d taken a nap in the afternoon for a few hours, managed to remain awake for another half an hour or so, or so she tells me.  I certainly didn’t remember her coming to bed...