Our French Adventure
Harrison had proposed that we solicit donations for our “mission to ‘descover’ new food,” at home before we left. He even drew a poster (look on the inside my kitchen door!). Of course we reveled in food but the real mission to me was to have a heck of a good time and to fulfill my promise of a trip to Paris, to two world-shy/adventure-eager ten year olds.
I promised to send messages home to all of you, whenever I found a computer. Well, that was just about never and when I did, the keyboard is different than ours. Who would have thought that the French use the letter “q” often enough to boot out the “a?!” Yep, those letters were switched and so were the “m,” the comma and period, and the “w.” Holy cow. It was hard to type a coherent sentence and when Harrison sent a short message to his Mom, she wondered if he had had a spelling-regression! Instead, I wrote as I went along, day by day, and will share the days with you here, one region at a time.
As some of you already know, the food knocked me out. Not because it was fancy or impressive in any way like that, but for the extravagance and luxury of it, so taken for granted. I wrote a parallel about the food as we travelled to new regions, so I’ll add that at the end. Viva la France!
Wednesday, December 2. Flying out of here!
Today is the day. I’m sitting in sleepy Reno Tahoe Airport, on a dark icy morning. Waiting for a flight to Los Angeles. I’m picking Emma and Harrison up there.
The airport is full of men wearing new felt hats. It’s kind of funny and I wonder if the hats are hard to pack?! Where the heck are they going?!
One guy---not wearing a hat---decides to sit directly across from me in a narrow aisle. I am not kidding---. This is an early morning flight…big plane, few people. There are DOZENS of empty seats to pick from and he decides to sit knee to knee with me. He proceeds---I’m not kidding again---to read the Wall Street Journal out loud to me!! This is a day I promised many years ago, to Emma and Harrison, my oldest grandchildren. I just want to stare out into the dark and embrace this day, to savor this moment as the very beginning of a fantastically romantic adventure!
The Wall Street Journal guy asks where I’m going and I am surprised to hear myself answer “Paris.” He’s clearly surprised too. The hat-wearing men stare in surprise; stern businesswomen with scarves that perfectly match their suits jerk up from their texting to stare at me. Once I’ve said it out loud, my answer rings true to me suddenly and my day-embrace begins!
I struggle to control the beating of my heart and my urge to weep with joy as we speed into the air. There is a full moon setting and the sun rising over the eastern peaks is making the Silver Legacy sparkle. I’m overjoyed to see Lake Tahoe so clearly today and I start to scan for Half Dome. I’ve got a bag of miniature apples and pears for Dylan-who’s-not-going-to-Paris-today. He’s a little brother and will have to wait four more years for his tenth-birthday-trip-of-a-lifetime. He’ll see us off this morning and I’ll be so sad that he’s so sad! Today is the day!
Thursday, December 3, Morning in Paris
We landed at 9:30am and were greeted at the airport by a hotel shuttle driver. He sped through the rain, HOLY COW, tailgating all the way, to our hotel on Ile St Louis. We stayed in a charming little boutique hotel, converted from an ancient timbered building. We were just steps from a boulangerie, fromagerie, a laundromat, a chocolate shop, and Notre Dame.
We decided to go to the Eiffel Tower, though our internal day was pretty much advanced to evening. As we turned a corner, we came face to face with Notre Dame…dear God. The bells started to peel and a fine mist started to fall. We stepped out of the mist and into the smoky depths of history. The place was full of tourists and the choir music was piped in but I couldn’t catch my breath. We were standing on the site of the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, of the coronation of Napoleon! Why the heck hadn’t I come here before?! I’d longed to see this since I was in grade school. I was dumbfounded, awkward, serene in this most beautiful of churches. I could totally approve---despite any circumstances of abuse---building for the glory of God!
Like good little tourists, the kids snapped pictures and we ventured out into the rain again. When it really started to pour, we took refuge under the awning of a sidewalk café along the river. Emma and Harrison ordered escargot and Orangina---they’re now very loyal fans of Orangina---and I had a cheese omelet. Not any omelet though, a fluffy, delicate, clean, simple, elegant omelet! Beautifully complimented with a frisee salad lightly dressed with just olive oil and salt---that the café felt no obligation to describe in detail on the menu, or charge extra for! The salad was silently there, beside the omelet because they belong together!
We walked on feeling energized and exuberant, taking a shortcut that wasn’t so short. We meandered through a fashion district; a pricey up-scale residential area supplied by shockingly beautiful cheese shops, chocolate shops, fruit markets. We walked through the center of the seat of government; parks, schools…it seemed we walked for miles before finally spotting the top of the Eiffel Tower. The drizzle had come again so when we got to the top, high winds whipped our faces with icy rain. Even so, we lingered to admire the view and embrace this moment we’d imagined for so many years.
Taking a train back to our hotel was a challenge. The walk back would take about two hours and it was getting dark. The Metro station below the street was empty and though we had a map, there was only one train that seemed to get where we wanted to go…and it wasn’t coming, according to a monitor screen I could only barely understand. People came and went, but only spoke French. Our introduction then, to the Paris Metro, was to take a different train going far south and pick up another one that angled north to Ile St Louis and Notre Dame. Ohboy. Everyone was dashing home from work right then and it was physically somewhere in the middle of the night for us. The trains were PACKED and Emma kept drifting off to sleep on her feet. We made it back to our hotel and had dinner in a cozy café with mustard-glazed walls. The place glowed through warm-steamy windows and we started to overcome our cold numbness with bowls of delicious hot pureed vegetable soup, crusty warm bread with sweet butter, and sweet hot chestnut crepes. The café was filled with lively people on their ways home, gossiping over coffee after work. Harrison fell asleep on the table. Goodnight Paris!
Friday, December 4. Paris---visiting the Louvre.
We rolled out of bed and headed for the Louvre across the river. We stopped at a boulangerie for breakfast and walked along with pain au chocolate and baguettes in hand, feeling so Parisian!
We toured the sculptures, the paintings, the antiquities, the Mona Lisa. I watched the kids swing between ecstasy and boredom. They delighted in recalling occasionally that the buildings we were in had once been someone’s “house.” They wrote postcards to mail from the Louvre and I lamented not bringing my Christmas cards HERE to mail! We sat in the mundane familiarity of the Starbucks in the museum’s basement, eating familiar pastry and drinking familiar drinks---I had to remind myself to marvel at where we were really sitting!
Out into the evening, we strolled through the Tuileries to the Place de la Concorde and the Ferris wheel. Emma bought our tickets with some of her birthday money, and we rode high into the sky for an incomparable view of the city at Christmastime. Montmarte was illuminated in a quiet, stately way. The Champs Elysees was jammed with traffic, the Eiffel Tower was sparkling and glittering with some special light show, and we were holding our breaths.
In the carnival at the bottom of the Ferris wheel, we watched two women giving a fencing demonstration, Emma got a soft pink wool beret to frame her angel face, and we bought hot creamy roasted chestnuts in scrap paper cones. We walked back through the dark misty garden to the Louvre. Dinner tonight was simple, spectacular mushroom crepes that I can’t wait to serve when I get home! On the menu, alongside cassoulet and mustard roasted snapper!
Saturday, December 5. Paris---visiting Versailles.
We woke to a drizzle but decided to go to Versailles anyway. I could imagine how lush the gardens must be in spring and summer but given that there were some dark days there, the starkness of winter seemed the perfect light. Like comparing a color photo to one that is black and white, the contrast of grey revealed detail without distraction. The bare trees, the wet pebble boulevards, even the swans drifting in the grey of the canals echoed sadness to me. The beauty of excess had a rustic quality of use, abandonment, and poor repair. My daughter said that the air in Paris is pink---I felt the air at Versailles to be a veil of black and blue.
On a light note, we had an early dinner in a charming, bright, busy café back in Paris. I let the kids have chocolate mousse and sweet foamed milk for dinner. The waiter sweetly used his little bit of English when he delivered the milk, calling it “hot milch.” The kids roared over that for the rest of our stay and I predict that they will call it “milch” to each other, for the rest of their days. Despite bitter drizzle, the streets outside our café were alive with people strolling. Families pushed strollers and small children rode along on tricycles. We were delighted to be part of Saturday night in Paris!
Sunday, December 6. Paris, Le Sacre Coeur.
The inspiration for our trip here was a post card of Le Sacre Coeur, sent by a family friend. Emma and Harrison were babies together in the tub when I showed them the card and in a flash of bright idea, blurted out my promise to take them to Paris for their tenth birthday celebration. At the time, Emma was a menace in the cheese section at Costco. I had to purchase many cheeses that she managed to grab and bite through the plastic. I’d told her of the infinite cheese opportunities she’d have in France---and so our trip was born.
Today, we made our pilgrimage to Le Sacre Coeur. We emerged from the Metro into a busy gypsy market and pouring rain. We rode a funicular to the top where the rain stopped long enough for us to thrill to a sweeping view of the just-washed Paris skyline. The kids picked out now-familiar landmarks to my delight, with references like “that tower where the guy tested the weight of air!” (Pascal, St. Jacque’s Tower)
The rain began again on our way down, so we took refuge in an Italian bistro where we ordered three kinds of pasta to share---penne with mascarpone and olives; fettuccini with pomodoro and basil; and bow tie pasta with truffle and mushroom cream sauce. Again, we were safe from the cold in a steamy heaven where the kids learned for the first time and forever, the fragrant unforgettable flavor of truffles!
We walked back through the gypsy market to the Metro, full of truffle pasta and cappuccino! The market vendors were selling marzipan, Matrushka dolls, roasted chestnuts, and winter scarves. I spotted our first phone booth since leaving home, so decided to touch base. Just as my daughter Skye (Harrison’s mom) was excitedly telling me how the family was tracking us through our debit card purchases and had even used Google Earth to look at the front of the little café where we had our first dinner---Father Christmas walked up with his entourage of a thirty-piece drum band! They stopped to perform right outside our phone booth! How inconvenient! How fantastically kooky! That just was not enough noise and chaos though, the church beside us started to ring their bells, playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy!” Emma and Harrison both played this piece for piano lessons, so they started to hum as loud as they could, and dance in the crowded phone booth! What a racket! What a blessing!
We came up out of the Metro into an enchanting bird and plant market on the Ile de la Cite. It was misty dark by now, so the plants and Christmas trees were filling the air with sweet Christmas fragrance. Cages were full of canaries, parakeets, and doves. There were some “circus” ducks and chickens performing on shelves beside birdseed and cage toys. We all wanted canaries, and imagined aviaries in sunny winter windows, if we were lucky enough to live here. Instead, we made a large purchase of very expensive chocolate and took our loot “home” to savor. Actually, we ate it up as fast as we could! Tomorrow we’re off to Strasbourg and the Christmas market.
Monday, December 7. Strasbourg.
Our train to Strasbourg was in a first class car so the kids were impressed and excited about their wide luxurious seats and leg-room, reading lamps and tables! They’re so easy to please! They’re not babies anymore, but so much is still out there for them to get excited about! Like anyplace where you pass enough distance, we saw a slow transformation from extravagant frilly Paris to rural charming Strasbourg. The buildings look like those of “Hansel and Gretel” while Paris has the solid stone monumental architecture of a long-standing seat of government. The streets here were filled with playful Christmas market vendors selling Christmas ornaments, spiced hot wine, every kind of candy---really giant chocolate bells. Emma is delighted by painted Matrushka, so the sight of hundreds of darling little dolls was breathtaking to her.
We happened on the ice rink beside the cathedral in the center of town---run by the Kiwanis! Emma and Harrison put on skates and skated around with the local kids to loud Sinatra Christmas tunes. The rink was lined with parent paparazzi---greeting friends, squeezing babies, sipping hot wine, and filming every awkward move on the ice.
A misty rain was coming down when we ducked into the cathedral. I loved the worn look of it. It is spectacularly intricately elegant but with the feeling of the well used, well loved center of the region for nearly 1,000 years. As the forever center of a community’s joys and sorrows, it seemed so natural for the Christmas market with carousels and Russian dancers to be swirling outside while a circle of middle aged women inside, joined hands and voices to sing “Silent Night” in French. Their voices lifted to the heights in a most private moment between them. They were completely alone together in the busy cathedral and I wanted to think that they have been doing this every Christmas since they were little schoolgirls. They ended their song and shared a smile.
I love the idea of fussy-cream-butter-city-food blending with country-butter and cream. The food was the contrast and blend of Paris and Strasbourg. A small heated tin trivet was set on our table to accommodate a large roasting dish piled high with several different kinds of sausage, sauerkraut, and boiled potatoes. I had roast boar with roasted potatoes that had been sautéed in sausage drippings….Wow. Wow! We ate in mindless, hushed ecstasy.
We ended the day with apple tarts and a pile of candy. We bought bags of marzipan fruits, gelee pears and berries, Orangette, glaceed chestnuts, and giant, extravagant layered chocolate balls called “angels eyes.” These balls had a cut-away exposing the many layers of soft and hard chocolate, dark and milk chocolate…I hated the name. Biting into it though, made me instantly forget. I love chocolate and “angel eyes” are what I hope they’re serving for dinner in heaven.
Tuesday, December 8. Strasbourg.
It was raining again, hard, and I’d been hoping for snow. We were in Strasbourg, for crying-out-loud! I think the word “cozy” was invented here. Our hotel room was so lush, so soft, so padded, so cocoon that I could barely hear the pouring rain. The kids slept in, under a cloud of down comforter. After the big sauerkraut/potato/sausage meal yesterday, it was no wonder they’d be sleepy. The presentation of that meal had made us gasp and the cold outside had made us dig in, so contentedly.
We spent the morning choosing Christmas ornaments, strolling past stalls piled high with Christmas cookies, stollen, and crèche figurines, candles, beautiful citrus scented soaps, incense, pretzels, and candied fruit. The streets were decorated with Baccarat crystal chandeliers! Three Santas played jazzy versions of familiar carols and schoolgirls sang a punk version of “O Tannenbaum” in a narrow street on their ways home to lunch.
We took a cruise on the River Ill, passing through a canal lock and viewing the notable and notorious buildings along the historic river. The river was full of swans and the banks were covered with ferns and tiny juicy little plants---the place had an enchanting fairytale quality with all of the timbered buildings and lush landscape. We hated to leave.
We took a late, fast train back to Paris, and then north to Normandy. Due to time---having to run through two train stations---, we were forced to eat train food for dinner---which was delicious! Of course! We had sandwiches on crunchy rolls stuffed with moist, flavorful roasted chicken, tomatoes, soft cheese, frisee and mache, and delicious mayonnaise---proof that “industrial food”--hospital/airline/cafeteria food doesn’t have to taste so weird!
In Rouen, we took a cab to a hotel recommended by a travel book. Oh-no. We were dropped off at the end of a dark alley in the rain, at 9pm. The old wooden doors were locked up tight and every window above was dark. The whole town was locked up tight! Our only light was from a spectacular cathedral at the end of the alley. Emma knocked timidly and Harrison peeked through the keyhole. The kids took charge! A man just happened to be leaving, so let us in. I found a key on the front desk, with my name on it…a self-serve hotel?! We clomped up the stairs of the very old building and spent a soft night in a charming room. Out of the cold, out of the rain, out of the dark…thank heaven.
Wednesday, December 9. Rouen, Normandy.
We dragged out of bed today---late night, comfortable room papered in blue toile, and had breakfast in an adorable tearoom where I finally got the coffee that had been eluding me. We rented a car that we could NOT find, and struggled out through a narrow multi-storied spiral exit, to the narrow scary cobblestoned streets. With two ten-year olds learning to navigate by map in the back seat, we were lost---driving through the streets of big-city-Rouen, driving rain, driving lost. We accidentally found the highway and proceeded…in the wrong direction. We got turned around finally, with lots of horn honking and French swearing.
The rain never let up, but it turned the countryside a misty delicious green. Fields of cows and sheep surrounded timbered farmhouses and barns. Church spires marked occasional villages, and then we were out in countryside again.
In Caen, we visited the D-Day Memorial Museum and came to a better appreciation of the countryside as sacred ground. We had a buttery sole meuniere dinner in tiny Port du Bessin, slept a dreamless sleep, cozy and safe in the harbor, and would pay our respects to the beach in the morning.
Thursday, December 10. Omaha Beach, Normandy.
I had no idea that France would be so melancholy for me. The thin cold light and bareness of late fall suited me perfectly as we moved from one place to the next. First Versailles moved me with sympathy; my heart bowed down at the crypt of Richard the Lion Heart. I was haunted on the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake; I think I always will be. It was ironic that we spent the night on the ocean, in warm comfort before visiting the beaches. The coast is sparsely populated now, as it likely was in 1944. I thought of the thousands of troops coming ashore here and how any comfort at all was unimaginable. How their coming here, and their sad adventure made these sleepy obscure villages a sentimental place for Americans to visit.
Walking to the entrance of the American Cemetery, I fought tears. With the heaviest heart, I led my sweet grandchildren through a sea of tombstones and realized with a stab, that we were standing in a “children’s cemetery.” So many innocents rest forever on a quiet field that had been battlefield, above a beach now innocent of the blood that was washed away so many winters ago. As we walked along the sand and the kids collected seashells for their classmates, I thought of the unearthly noise this peaceful beach had known. Driving through the countryside on our way to Mont St. Michel, we recognized the small towns that had been liberated one by one, after that long June day in 1944.
Mont St Michel presented welcome serenity for me in this day. Dense fog was swirling around the monastery creating a thrilling eeriness. Fog rolled through the great rooms and halls, damping the stone with icy cold. It was all a spooky contrast to our cozy rooms in an ancient stone building in the village.
Thick damask drapes covered the windows and when we threw them open, we could hear the waves crashing on the rock below. We ate dinner in a warm elegant dining room with a roaring fire that heated intensely fragrant fresh pine boughs. I realized tonight that the food here is vividly, intensely, and traditionally adhered to, regionally. I can’t stand to go home but I can’t wait to get back to my kitchen!
Friday, December 11. Mont St. Michel, Brittany/Normandy.
I woke up this morning before sunrise and enjoyed the luxury of our rooms. The carpets and drapes were so thick and the glow of deep yellow walls was so comforting in such a cold and stony place. I opened the windows wide to the fog and took in the fragrance of the air scented with salt, wet earth, and moss. I’d be happy to stay here forever. But we had to return the rental car…
We drove through 200 miles of dense fog with a big bag of bread and pastry. The kids were happy as clams---I was struggling to see, to figure out, to get back to that Rouen train station that I hadn’t even been able to figure out how to get out of! I missed a few turns so spent a few hours lost. By the time we turned the car in and went to buy train tickets, the trains from Paris to Avignon were full. Crumb. We decided to get to Paris, and then traipsed from packed Metro station to packed train station trying to make an alternative plan. I hoped we could take a sleeper car...and we could, but would be trapped three hours from Avignon till late afternoon the next day. It was Friday though, and it seemed that everyone was traveling to ancestral homes. There is a complete redistribution of the entire population of an entire country! We weren’t going to be here long enough to get these things figured out! We were stuck in Paris for the night…I couldn’t believe that I would ever think of having to stay in Paris to be a problem!
Actually we had been on the move all day too. We finally sat down to a dinner of spaghetti carbonara and mushroom omelet. I was miserable though---the table next to ours ordered big slabs of pate with cornichon pickles and slices of baguette! I was reminded that Julia Child had said that there were some pates that would “haunt you for the rest of your life.” I wished I’d ordered that!
Saturday, December 12. Traveling to Provence.
Our first Metro train was empty. We even got to sit down! We were feeling pretty sassy and it looked like we’d get to loll about with pastries, waiting for our train to Avignon. But…the second Metro train was JAMMED with people, and the grand line train station was too…crumb. We slogged through the crowds using up our pastry time and dropped into our seats with bare seconds to go. Instead of luscious almond and pear pastries, we were going to have to settle for train food. Ah, but this is France! Regular train breakfast is a delicious little roll with sweet butter and jam, orange juice, fresh fruit (REALLY fresh fruit…), a chocolate pastry---‘cause one piece of bread isn’t enough…and a shot of delicious espresso with cream.
We arrived in Avignon, the capital of Provence, during a Mistral…a wind so strong you can’t open or close doors! Or walk! A Mistral, apparently, is nothing like the Santa Anas I grew up with in southern California. It doesn’t gust---it just blows with one constant, punch-like blast.
We headed for the Luberon, in our tiny, light-as-a-leaf-in-the-wind rental car. We picked our way along through stone villages, stopping in larger Cavaillon to use a convenient ATM. When I looked beyond the ATM though, Cavaillon looked very appealing despite being a large city. A shockingly beautiful fruit market caught my eye but when we entered the store just to look, I started filling a basket in earnest. I grabbed cheeses, tiny dry finger-sized salamis bundled together with raffia, fat golden raisins, the shiniest dates I have ever seen, hazelnuts, juicy dried kadota figs, did I mention CHEESE?! We got a large bag of tiny tangerines, Rubinette apples, and little pears that looked like a still life painting in the Louvre.
The kids both said “no” to carrying along some food as we explored, but as soon as I began to eat what I brought for myself, they crowded around with their mouths wide open, like fat baby birds.
After so many cathedrals, when the church bells rang in Cavaillon, it stopped us still. The kids were hearing the sound of a rural church bell for the first time and I was thrilling to hear a sound so familiar, so precious to me---
Sunday, December 13. Cavaillon, Provence.
It’s supposed to snow tonight---hard to believe! Yesterday, we arrived to shocking sunlight and blue sky after nearly two weeks of dreary grey. The Mistral was howling and I thought we were going to have some sun. Today it rained.
We awoke to a lovely breakfast in the historic Hotel du Parc. On the same plaza as the Office of Tourisme, we were within walking distance to restaurants and markets. Our breakfast was a beautiful array of yogurt, several kinds of granola, camembert, shiny dates, croissants, French rolls, cakes, jams, fresh persimmons and homemade persimmon jam served in the orangerie. We were cozy inside, watching the rain spattering outside. The setting was so comfortable and the breakfast so lush that we lingered for quite a long time.
We drove off feeling so good. We visited several villages, castles, and citadels, weaving along through the Luberon Mountains. Fog drifted in and out, so the narrow country roads felt very intimate lined with trees still holding onto autumn leaves, cypress, oak, and pine. We happened on a Christmas fete at a winery where we bought truffle cheese that really stunk up our car---truffle oil, apricot bread, olive bread, and pastry. A man was scrambling eggs with fresh truffles over a wood fire in a huge fireplace and gave me a teacup to sample. The kids, now full of pastry, refused a taste…good! Because I wanted to lick the cup when I was done! We toured the wine cave and then were off again into the rain-sweet countryside with our stinky-delicious cheese. In yet another, heartbreakingly beautiful stone village, we admired Provencal quilted boutis---bedding and tablecloths, the kids bought batteries so that they could continue to videotape themselves being silly in the back seat, and stepped into, yes, another cozy café for café crème and chocolate chaud!
Another beautiful day in Provence! We got back to our hotel a little bit early because we had the drudge of all drudges to look forward to---Laundromat time. Our bag of dirty laundry was nowhere to be found and I started to panic that the maid had thrown it away. We searched high and low. I went to inquire and found that the owner of the hotel had taken it downstairs to wash it herself! It was all bleached, clean, and folded! She made a recommendation for dinner, made a reservation for us and we were off to another memorable dinner---a perfect end to a perfect day!
Monday, December 15. Provence.
Settling in comfortable Cavaillon, where some restaurants stay open on Sundays and the boulangeries and markets have great cheese, fruit, and salami, worked out very well for us in this cold season. Provence has been so smooth! Even in icy rainy autumn/winter. With the freedom of a rental car, we were able to roam.
We roamed to the Camargue region today, an immense marshland bordering the Mediterranean. We drove through miles of Luberon and then Alpilles, which are massive ranges of uplifted rock. The hills were covered with grey-green Mediterranean plants and lavender was growing wild everywhere. Closer to the coast, there were miles of flat grassland and large expanses of open water. We noticed the stocky white horses and black bulls that are famous to the region. Hundreds of them roam free to graze. There were also hundreds of shell pink flamingos that migrate to the area for the winter.
The town of Stes Marie de la Mer was mostly shuttered to shocking cold, strong winds. We spent just moments on the beach grabbing up spiraled conis shells for classmates and found one of the few open restaurants. All they had to serve was bull stew. It was appalling badly cooked, with red wine and carrots. The meat was very tough but the waiter was sweetly good-natured. We chewed through and got the heck out of there. I’d purchased some bull salami earlier at the market, and the lady helping me had been alarmed by my choice. I was wondering now if it was anything like the stew I had just suffered through? We hadn’t tasted it yet…she’d signified horns…but it was obviously meant to buy and eat…I wondered who she would consider a “bull salami” kind of customer?
While the food was appalling, the town church was charming. It had the utilitarian look of a small town church on the outside, but the stone was rough cut on the inside. It looked like a grotto and had many decorations and painting of boats. I guessed so close to the ocean, that boats and fishing would dominate the joys and tragedies of such a small community. The kids lit a candle for the fisherman and we headed “home.”
The sun was beginning to set into frozen icy crystal haze and harsh wind was whipping and the grass on either side of the road. We sped back to Cavaillon through St Remy, which was a sweet little version of Paris. I wished we’d had more time to spend there. The straight road from there to Cavaillon is miles long and lined with trees. As far as we could see down the road, the bare ancient trees reached up to mingle branches overhead. We felt like we were in a church.
For dinner, we had a hotel room picnic of truffle cheese, French breakfast radishes, camembert, figs, pears….and bull salami…which was completely delicious…then we had a deep and dreamless sleep.
Tuesday, December 15. Avignon, Provence.
My rule is that if we’re anywhere even near a UNESCO site, we get there and take a look. The site of Pont du Gard lies west of Avignon, so we spent the morning travelling there. The kids have been enjoying French news and game shows so it didn’t seem so odd when Emma blithely used the word “fromage” instead of “cheese. How delightful that despite their occasional nagging and bickering, they once in awhile burst out with something so sweet!
We passed through miles of vineyard. Most of the vines had been pruned for winter with piles of cuttings at the end of the rows, waiting to be burned. We’d passed through the sweet smoke of those smoldering fires, so I craved that smell one more time before we left Provence.
The wind was blasting and bitter icy cold. I can’t remember ever being so cold. We had trouble walking against the wind but we had a perfectly stunning section of Roman aqueduct spanning a wide, deep river valley---completely to ourselves. This is the section of aqueduct you see whenever there is a story of Roman aqueducts…oh.my.gosh. I could have lingered despite the cold but we hurried back to Avignon, to spend our last afternoon at the Pope’s Palace.
A French Pope abandoned Rome for Avignon, so the city is built around a glorious palace. We spent our afternoon moving from icy stony room to icy stony room. In warm seasons, when the gardens where in bloom and the air was scented with lavender, basil, and lemon, I would have envied the palace residents. On this day though, even with roaring fires in the enormous fireplaces---large enough to burn tree TRUNKS, oh. You couldn’t make me live in that palace!
We exited through a passage carved into a massive stone outcrop that reached at least two stories above our heads. A Christmas market filled the town square and featured the enchanting, familiar things common to the region. There were booths selling beeswax candles and honey, olive oil, quilted boutis tablecloths and bedding, Provencal fabrics, lace, baskets, soaps and lavender---Provence celebrates summer even on the coldest December afternoon!
When we couldn’t stand the cold, we blustered into a cozy patisserie and warmed up with marzipan and ganach, coffee with thick cream, and hot chocolate. The place was packed so we felt very appropriate and in-the-know on the luxurious way to spend a wintery French afternoon.
Wednesday, December 16. Almost headed for home.
We made our way back to Paris in a snowstorm. We were going home to California, early in the morning the next day. The kids were considering that we should extend our stay. We were only a few hours from Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Africa!…we could just travel on as we were doing! It wasn’t hard to distract them with the most distracting thing I’ve ever seen work on
kids---ah, the magic of souvenirs!
I wasn’t so easily distracted. I looked to Notre Dame beside us, one of the great cathedrals of the world, while the kids had their faces in baskets of baguette-shaped pens and Eiffel Tower key chains. We dropped everything off at the hotel and clumped back into the Metro to travel to the catacombs. After two train changes and a good hour of being jostled around, we emerged to find the catacombs closed due to vandalism. Crumb. The kids were undeterred, they bought chocolate crepes and we went back down into the Metro. This time, we came out at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe! It was growing dusky when we reached the top but the view at that time of day left me stunned. The kids busied themselves with identifying their landmarks and I tried to set the last two weeks in my heart so that I could believe that this had all really happened.
We had our last dinner in the café where the kids had enjoyed “hot milch,” and lingered, talking, until very late. The kids discussed which college they’d like to attend and I quietly hoped that the next eight years wouldn’t go as fast as the last ten had gone! I planned to talk Dylan and Carter into retracing this trip in four years, when it would be their turn. I’m going to buy a lot more cheese next time!
Thursday, December 17. Flight to LAX.
It’s dinnertime in Paris. We’re 35,000 feet above Newfoundland and I feel so sad as we speed away from Paris---seemingly suspended in space---I want to be going the other direction!
We got up in the dark and trudged to the train that would take us to Charles de Gaulle. We couldn’t stop to buy cheese and tangerines, or linger too long at the boulangerie. The streets were dark and quiet. Emma wondered where the accordion player had gone---the corner had been festive and sweet and alive where he’d been playing Christmas songs last night. Notre Dame was dark. The square was empty. We could have been walking through any slumbering city, anywhere. I’d hoped for snow. I’d wanted to see Paris sparkle through soft snow.
It did snow, alright, on the way to the airport. The worst storm in years was starting to hit. We waited. And we waited. Airports are the most antiseptic places in the world. They’re the same anywhere---you can use any kind of money, the shops are the same no matter where you are…this sameness and familiarity might be a comfort to some, but is very disturbing to me. I feel like we’re in a bottle. There is no sparkle or flavor of the country.
We were in the chute. We were being processed. After the scramble to get to the airport and the fear that the train would break down or some crazy plane-missing scenario, I’d settled into a seat with an airport pan au chocolate and waited. My heart started to feel heavy. Fantastic flashes were lighting up from fresh memory and I hoped I’d be able to hold onto all of it somehow.
I want to remember Emma and Harrison gasping as they stepped out on the top deck of the Eiffel Tower. I wanted to remember them hurrying through the cold along the Champs Elysees on our last night. I wanted to remember their sweet glowing faces at dinner in a cozy bistro on “our” cobbled street on the Ile St Louis. I wanted to remember the comedy of opening the car door in the morning to the smell of stinky truffle cheese!
The snow was falling heavily and I could see that snowplows were having trouble keeping up. Our flight was delayed indefinitely. We fell into the lull of waiting and finally boarded the plane like sheep. After a long wait on the plane at the terminal gate and then waiting for de-icing and clearance…we finally moved to a taxiway just short of the runway. We sat through a full engine power-up. Power down, we sat some more. I wasn’t thinking or feeling anything. We moved out onto the runway and accelerated…my heart was in my throat more than I’ve ever felt. I found the end of this beautiful trip to be unbearable. We lifted into the air, into soft snowfall, and headed home.
Friday, December 18. The Morning After.
I’ve watched the sky go from pitch black to rose gold. I’m in a sleeping bag on the second floor of my parents house with windows completely around. It feels like a tree house. I look once in awhile to see if it’s light enough to see the ocean. I’m in southern California and it’s 3pm in Paris. I realize with a twinge, that Emma and Harrison and I would be in a café right now, enjoying a pastry break. It has only been a two-week trip, but what a profound two weeks!
We were split up at the airport last night and it was a strange painful way to end such an intense time together. We’d been three little nothings out there swirling together in the deep of the world. Now we were on home ground.
We were so lucky to have an hour! A day! Two weeks! Today, I’m going home to Reno, back to where it all started, back to “real life.” As travel always does though, I won’t be the same…I’ve FELT, not just heard the difference again between cathedral bells and country bells. I’ve been reminded again of the deliciousness of living simply and embracing the unfamiliar.
I can’t wait to experiment with terrines and pates. I’m going to make marzipan from scratch and find out again, and remember this time, what UNESCO stands for. I’m going to grow Meyer lemon and olive topiaries that I’ll bring inside through the winter, like any soul-wealthy peasant would do! I’m going to remember to make limoncello in the dark and cold of February so that we can bask in the summer lemon-y-ness when there’s fresh basil and parmesan and raspberries to go with it!
I’m going to rely solidly on my milk man to find me some of the incredible, strange cheese I can’t get out of my mind---rinds rolled in ash, rinds that are a weepy salmon color, no rind at all! Cheese that’s goat-y, tangy, crunchy with salt crystals. Cheese that works! I want “working” cheese with cornichons and baguette slices beside a vinegar-y salad this spring! Just you wait!