Farewell to the Dombes!

On to Paris and then of course home to America. France is wonderful but there really is no place like home. I miss my friends, my kittehs, my OWN BED with my own pillows. Oh, and a good IPA would be really nice too–it doesn’t seem to exist here. They have some so-so beers and some pretty good beers, but none to write home about. Oh, but the wine and the food more than make up for it. After all, I’m here to absorb French culture, and part of that seems to be about making do with what you have and NO WHINING. Really, they seem to be such agreeable people and a lot of that has to do with just going with the flow and rolling with punches and such.

Speaking of which, THANK GOD I was able to nab a seat in first class on this train because mon Dieu, the unwashed masses in second… I have a Rail Pass for 1st class but could only get a reservation for a seat in second–know this, my friends, that you MUST have a reservation if you want to travel during Les Grandes Vacances. I kept asking at each train station if I might change my reservation to first class, but  no luck. One clerk suggested that I ask the conductor aboard the train. While they were making the rounds in the cafe car, where I had retreated to escape the–honestly, I had never encountered such horrific odors even during my week on the trail ride, INCLUDING THE HORSES, THANK YOU. My second class seat was next to this fine looking young man who smelled like every American’s stereotype of the Euro in the summer.

Fortunately, the conductor  said they did have a place for me in first, so HERE I AM, living large in France. It’s quiet except for a slightly fussy baby, but it doesn’t make me want to spend the entire three hours in the cafe car drinking wine. NO, that doesn’t mean I’m going to drink it at my seat instead, but I could if I wanted to. And the little ones here are really not bothering me at all. It’s nice to hear them prattling in French. So young, and speaking it perfectly 🙂

As for my French, you know, it’s often really quite dreadful. But no one seems to mind because apparently I speak bad French very well. People keep saying my French is good. They went from asking if I wanted them to speak English to asking where I was from, to asking IF I even spoke English. One of our German horse riders said she couldn’t tell where I was from when I first entered the minibus at the beginning of the trip. All she knew was that I didn’t sound French but my accent was unidentifiable.

I have heard that  one of the most important factors in sounding like a native speaker (or heading there at least) is to get the intonation down, along with the funny little verbal mannerisms and tics. So that’s what I work on when I do my podcasts and apparently it has paid off. I mean, I think back to some of my exchanges with people and I rush to my dictionary and go, “NOOOO, I USED THE WRONG GENDER!” but no one seems to care. This is what I mean by speaking bad French well: My grammar is often a bit off but I guess I sound good speaking it. They seem to really appreciate the effort, and I’m so glad.

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A refreshing Merlot Rose in the cafe car, enjoying the view and the escape from my smelly neighbor in second class

Oh, dear, I don’t even want to think about the horrors that lie ahead of me at Gare de Lyon, when I will have to navigate my way to my monstrous suitcase bag in steerage–it’s only a couple of cars down, but I MUST REMEMBER so I can find it. Fortunately, I found the one and only perfect little cheap wheeled suitcase at the Villars marche yesterday. A nice Senegalese couple were selling all sorts of bags and such, and when I saw that, it was like I had imagined it into being. 20 Euro, and I just couldn’t bring myself to haggle because it was so miraculous and the lady was so nice, with her beautiful Senegalese dress. I recognized the accent from my brief time there as a teen and asked if they were from there and it made me so happy to be able to make that connection. They were delighted too that I’d been to their country and thought to ask. There are quite a few Senegalese here. Even on the train, in the cafe car I heard this French guy saying “ca va? ca va quoi?” to this man who looked Senegalese. It reminded me of how they say that all the time, just a random greeting. Then I heard the Senegalese explaining that he was just saying “ca va,” which made me feel somehow very worldly, straddling the worlds in this manner.

Good grief this TGV is fast! I’ll be in Paris in just over half an hour, so I’d better prepare myself. Oh, like using the toilet on the train–already found out the hard way that you usually have to PAY in the stations.

My hobby of the day is freaking out over whether I’ll get to CDG on time. I checked in with my Android, so that’s done. But I have to take the bus from the train station to the airport. How long will that take? How long will I have to wait for the bus? Will I be able to find the place to check in? Will my bags be overweight? Will I remember to put my multitool in my suitcase so they don’t think I’m trying to kill anyone? And I would really like to have time to take advantage of the special lounge my Premium Economy ticket entitles me to–I believe it’s a 35 Euro fee to use it, but… this sort of thing is just so much fun. They have all sorts of nice things to eat and drink there, and I will be able to escape from the madness of CDG before my flight. Flying is stressful enough, travel too, so the little (and big) comforts count a lot.

I keep reminding myself that EVERYTHING IS FINE and to stop freaking out.

All aboard!

Although what to call it on an airplane… anyway, here I am, and feeling fairly well rested, thanks to Air France Business Lounge. I sprang for it, at 45 Euros, which is more worth it if you have a longer layover/WAIT. Or if you have a great thirst for GOOD BOOZE, which they have in store. After two weeks in Belle France, drinking the most delightful wines, it was nice to be able to enjoy some VODKA and brandies, also some good wines.

Apparently  this flight is mostly empty. How odd. Well, here I am, all alone in my little window seat. With a few beers and waters to go from the B-salon. Water, especially. You need that on these flights.

My trip to Paris… well, it was a relief to arrive at CDG, but then I had to navigate the checkin process. Silly me, trying to use the automated kiosks. PITA. Anyway, I did manage to print my luggage tags, and I had already put my boarding pass on my Android. BTW, thank GOD for the little cans of Perrier from the Business lounge, because it’s hot as  FUCK here on this plane and I need to hydrate after pounding that vodka, wine, and brandy. True, just a wee nip of each, but still.

So glad I did manage to nab the seat in first class. Jesus, second was disgusting, and not just from my neighbor (who seriously needed a fucking spanking on his hygiene, the pig). No, the entire car was gross, which was probably why the conductor was so amenable. There I was, obviously hiding from the stench in the cafe car, seeking refuge. People say the French stink, but did they check the passports? Because I spent a week with French horse people and NEVER notice a stink, not even from the animals.

I was quite pleased to have French people respond to me mostly in French, EVEN AT THE AIRPORT, until I felt over my head and had to say
“je ne comprends pas” with a 😦 in my voice and expression. But I tried, and even if we spoke a bit of English, I would always toss in a bit of French for good measure.

Gott in Himmel. This flight was delayed due to some connecting issue. WHATEVER, but I left my boozy comfort for THIS??? Anyway, get these peasants on board so I can get home.

It was awfully nice to have one of the AF people at the gate send his regards to Boston after I said to him (and all of France) “AU REVOIR A FRANCE.” I don’t tone it down, ever, and why should I.

Okay, they just brought some Evian water, which is a nice touch, but WHERE IS MY FUCKING CHAMPAGNE???

DESOLEE DE VOUS DERANGER!

My new stock phrase, especially for today as I make my way to the final leg of my journey aboard the TGV.  Of course it’s mad crowded with vacationers–I tried to switch my reservation to the 10:30 train when we got to the station early, but no luck there. At least I knew to reserve my seats in advance. Your Rail Pass is useless without a reservation.

Anyway, about my stock phrase, “sorry to disturb  you!” … it comes from my frantic efforts to actually board this train. Talk about “hurry up and wait,” after sitting at the station for about two hours, on the platform for the last 10 minutes or so, the train arrives but my coach is nowhere near where I was standing. Off I go through this crowd, “desolee,” etc.  Finally I see my coach and board. I breathed only a half a sigh of relief though, because where the hell was I supposed to put my RIDICULOUS valise? Well, I found my seat and there was a little luggage platform  nearby. Fortunately the people with bags there were also going to Lyon, where I change trains to make my destination to Villars-les-Dombes. Where hopefully my hotel room awaits. So I rearranged the luggage to put mine on the bottom–rather embarrassing to have this enormous suitcase, but no one told me how small the luggage storage was on these trains!

Hopefully I can find some sort of duffle  bag to put my overflow in, since my souvenirs and gifts are creating problems for  me. I am getting better at organizing everything though.

Have I mentioned the fact that I kind of look like hell? Not too bad, but my choice of attire was perhaps a bit regrettable considering my farmer’s tan from riding all week–I only noticed when I used the WC at the station and realized that a short-sleeved shirt might have looked a bit less ridiculous than this tank top. Not just the tan lines, but my numerous scratches and bruises from being smacked silly along some heavily wooded trails. Plenty of stickers (ATTENTION LES EPINES!) too. Oh, and my dear horse decided to leave me with a souvenir yesterday as I was putting him away: I turned my back on him for a second and he casually reached over and nipped the back of my arm! Now the opinion on this behavior is a bit mixed, whether they are being affectionate or attempting to express dominance. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but I figure if he wanted to hurt me he could have, but it  was just a harmless little nip that left a bruised bump.

OMG, people are boarding the train at the next stop from Aix–e-P and of course there is nowhere for them to put their things now that my suitcase is hogging all the room…

I knew it was only a matter of time before I learned why I don’t find the French to be as rude  as I was warned–I keep thinking it could be because I’m the rude one. Oh! this morning at breakfast I thought I might have encountered my first rudeness here, but it turned  out they were actually from another country in Europe. So… the jury’s still out. Besides, I am  awfully thick-skinned and pretty “live and let live” about things. And since I’m traveling, nothing is ever permanent. Good lessons in liminality and Buddhism both. How about humility too, since I feel like I’m incurring some sort of karmic debt with this luggage debacle on this train.

The countryside from the train is beautiful of course, past the countless farms of Provence. I’m torn between looking out the window and writing, but  since I have had almost no time to write all week, I’ll do my best to catch up a bit. At least I took plenty of photos so I have a journal of images that I can hopefully piece together eventually.

As for the trail ride… it was even more spectacular than I imagined it would be. The horse they had me ride was named Escudo, and he  was a strong, solid, very good-natured gelding. So capable, and thank God, because some of these trails were absolutely terrifying! Straight up or down, often with loose soil and/or stones, but he managed to carry me through all this without incident–I couldn’t care less about  the bruises and scrapes. Oh, but there was a time he sort of bolted through a section of trail and almost knocked me off when he went under a low hanging branch…  this was the first day I think, the “test” day, when he wanted to see who was boss (horses do this, test a new rider). I did hang on to the reins, fortunately, or I would have gone down. Instead I gave him quite a yank on the bit AND a talking to in English–this after I’d been speaking to him in French, using gentle words and tone. But when he suddenly heard me barking at him in an entirely different manner, it was like turning on a switch and he was much better after that. I forget what exactly I said, probably the usual, “listen, Mister, I’ve had about enough of your shit! KNOCK IT OFF!”

So yes, he was a very good boy for the rest of the week, unless you want to count the souvenir bite. Who knows, maybe he was saving that up for the last day, his last chance to be bossy. Anyway, with horses, you take the good with the bad. All the horses I have known have been wonderful creatures with good hearts and I’m convinced we don’t deserve them by half. If the average human were half as good as the average horse, we’d be living in a paradise here.
 
Well, I’ll be approaching Lyon shortly, with the dread moments of assembling my monstrous assortment of luggage in time to disembark. These windows don’t  open, so there will be no escape like that time in England when I got stuck on the train and climbed headfirst out the window–people in my group helped me down and it was quite the spectacle. BUT! ever since then I’ve always been scrupulous about schedules when I travel.

Meanwhile, many miles since I decided to enjoy the views from my seat on the train, I find myself settled in one of the most charming villages I have ever seen. Perhaps my enjoyment of this place is increased because I thought it would be bland and tired. But it’s lovely, and the people have been very kind so far: first at the Gare, where the lady was very helpful in giving me directions to my hotel, along with a little tourist map; then at my hotel where the desk clerk was very welcoming and kind. AND NO ONE EVEN BOTHERED SPEAKING ENGLISH! My assimilation is nearly complete. More to come, but now I must clean up and explore. A light rain just started but I am actually really happy about this because it means I did not pack full rain gear in vain–I have so much crap in my luggage, but much has turned out to be essential after all. IT’S RAINING AND I HAVE RAIN GEAR IN THIS ENORMOUS HEAP OF STUFF 😀

Au revoir, Marseille!

What a lovely place, so ancient and decayed and seedy, but with a vibrant energy that I found irresistible. “The people there were all so nice”… blah blah blah–really it seems to be the French temperament overall. But Marseille, of course, is one of those liminal spaces I find so fascination. People have been coming and going there for thousands of years, since the port is perfectly situated and well protected by the surroundings. This morning I took a walk out to King Rene’s fort at the entrance to the port. There are man  made jetties to protect the port further.

I saw a sign on a tour bus that referred to Marseille as the “capital of the world.” All the milling about from people from all over the world does lend to this between-places feel. Everyone speaks English, but only because it’s the lingua franca–most of the tourists I saw were not native speakers of the language. HOWEVER: this morning while eating breakfast some American ladies were checking out and it seemed rude to me the way they spoke to the desk clerk in English. Would it kill people to at least say “bonjour” and “merci?”

My French is improving daily, and with each interaction my confidence grows. With confidence comes proficiency. But first we must falter and fail and even feel a bit foolish at times. I do thrive on positive reinforcement though, so I am always so delighted to have people speak French back to me and compliment me on my usage. Besides, don’t forget, I have fun speaking foreign languages. To me, it’s like this elaborate game. You go to a foreign country armed with this magical tool, their language, and with it you can communicate in nearly infinite situations.

If it’s Saturday, it must be Marseille

I have been too busy exploring Paris and getting to Marseille to write anything. But here I am, in this ancient port that holds a special fascination for me because it’s in Provence but also because some folk traditions say that “ley lines,” running along energy grids all over the world, affect us in strange ways. And Marseille is supposedly on one of those lines. We shall see, but I will tell you that this place does have a very special, ancient energy.

My travels… I went for a “quick run” Friday morning and found myself back at the hotel about ten miles later. A bit farther than I meant! There were a lot of stops for pics and traffic lights though. After a bit of stretching and resting I headed out for more sightseeing, eventually ending up at the Tour Eiffel, despite the many reports of “les pickpockets!” I’m glad I made it there, because there’s a beautiful garden all around the structure. And I survived “les pickpockets.” In fact, I got to scold a couple of teenaged girls about leaving their purse on the grass whilst taking photos of each other: “Madame! Gardez le sac!” They thanked me and looked a bit sheepish and I felt like this was a sign of my further assimilation into Frenchiness.

I saw a report on the French news about this crime problem near le Tour, so they know it’s serious. THEN, on the TGV to Marseille today, as we were boarding, this little boy announced with some ardor: “ATTENTION! LES PICKPOCKETS!”

Unless those bastards have magical powers, I think I’m all set. I did WATCH out for them, but really, seeing those girls with their abandoned bag? Am I fussing?

Here I am in Marseille, and I shall try to write about this lovely little port city at some point tomorrow. It’s really lovely, a place of extremes, but I like that sort of thing.

My hotel has the loveliest rooftop terrace with a view of the entire harbor. It’s quite miraculous. At the moment I’m here all alone with my bottle of amazingly cheap rose, but I’m guessing that it gets a crowd later. The wine in France is all so cheap—obv they want us to drink it! Continue reading

One Day in Paris

I woke up at a leisurely hour for my first full day in France, lovely weather, perfect for a run. One of the reasons I took up running was so I would be able to explore places I visited faster than walking and yet more closely than biking or driving. For Paris, I had it in my head to run along the Seine, so I headed in that direction. My table neighbors at the Pig’s Head (I’ll always call it that because of the sign) suggested a route but… I’m terrible at directions and ended up meandering all over the city, nearly ten miles according to my app.

What a great way to see Paris, stopping to take plenty of photos along the way. I have a very bad habit of running much farther than I intend to at the beginning–I only meant to take a half hour jog, but became so mesmerized by PARIS that I kept going until suddenly I realized I was miles from the hotel. Without my prepurchased Metro ticket, sadly. This screen cap from my running app still amazes me, my “Paris crack run,” since being in Paris was as stimulating (or so I hear).

paris run map and stats

Place de la Republique was freshly graffitied with messages connected to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. I was surprised to see that this sort of thing was allowed–big difference between American monuments and French. On I went, in search of the Tuileries, the Seine, anything gorgeous to run along or through. But anywhere in Paris will do, or so it was on this the first full day of my first visit.

As for my garden run… well, it was not till much later that I looked at the map and realized it was the garden of the Palais Royale. The layout fooled me, from the little I knew of the Tuileries. Here’s my vid of the experience:

So many charming sidewalk cafes of course. But also such surprises everywhere I turned. It was just SO MUCH PARIS, all so French and very exciting for me to finally be able to take in after so many years of dreaming about this visit.

Beautiful old churches, majestic buildings, charming details…

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Finally I managed to find my hotel, picking up a baguette mixte and pain au chocolat along the way. I devoured them in my room as I rested, stretched, and cleaned up before headingwpid-wp-1443118710898.jpeg out for some leisurely sightseeing. This time I brought my prepurchased Metro day pass to cut down on the walking. It looks like a regular paper ticket, but it allows you to access the Metro and buses all over the city… unless you happen to get it anywhere near your cell phone, as I discovered the hard way. The second or third time I went to use it, the gate just buzzed at me instead of opening. Fortunately, most of the stations have humans working in them, so I turned toward the booth by the gate. For the first time I happened to notice a placard, asking the relevant question: “Votre billet est demagnetise?” with a jolly looking cartoon figure holding a ticket. There was more information written there, including something about not storing your ticket near a cell phone. No one tells you this! I thought I was out of luck, but the attendant didn’t seem too concerned. She said she couldn’t replace it, but she would open the gate for me.

What about the rest of the day though? I thought more about what she said, and realized that maybe she meant she was unable to replace it. The attendant in the next station was able to take care of it for me, and I was able to make my way all over the city for the rest of the day, my precious pass carefully stowed far away from my cell phone.

 

[pics, pics, pics]

All I could think about though was how badly I wanted to come back to this wonderful city, to explore it more at my leisure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paris, France

Somehow, in all my years of dreaming about a trip to France, I never heard that the country is mostly rural. As the plane approached our destination at Charles de Gaulle Airport I was amazed at all the farmland surrounding it. The various sizes and textures of the fields led me to believe that they were mostly small farms producing a variety of crops. This visit, for me, was about internalizing French culture, so the realization that this was a land of small, independent farms set the scene for the rest of my time there. (I have not researched this bit of information, but I did get this impression based on my observations.)

While I do remember showing my passport to someone who probably asked me the purpose of my visit, I do not remember ever seeing any sign of customs. I grabbed my suitcase from the belt and started walking, wheeling this ungainly beast along, in search of one of the ATMs I heard were plentiful there. MUST HAVE EUROCASH. Such focus. Cash in hand, I set out for the bus stop for the Air France coach that would take me to the city. Once out in the fresh air and sunshine, it hit me that no one ever asked me if I had anything to declare. Did I miss it or do they just not bother? All the hysteria about airport searches turned out to be a bit exaggerated, at least for France.

The bus ride to Paris was pleasant. All the excitement kept me from sleeping much on the plane and I was transfixed with the sights along the way, trying to absorb every detail. It’s quite a distance from the airport to the city center,perhaps a 40 minute drive. My stop was Gare de Lyon, not far from my hotel. It made it easier to buy the round trip ticket for that stop, especially since the last leg of my journey was to drop me off there. Why the TGV can’t just go directly to CDG is perhaps a question for greater minds or powers. For now, we have to deal with these transfers.

Paris. All of it so beautiful and amazing, on such a perfect sunny day too.  The bus dropped me off and suddenly there I was walking down the sidewalk feeling like I was in any city anywhere in the world. Actually, it reminded me a bit of Dakar, where I’d visited many years before. So many Senegalese or other Africans in their traditional attire. One of them asked me directions, which stunned me, having literally just set foot on French soil–well, concrete, to be exact. Quite a few people asked me directions during my brief time in Paris. Glad to find that I was able to blend in so thoroughly.

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My small but comfortable room, very nice bed!

My hotel, the Hotel Grand Francais, was lovely, perhaps a 20 minute walk from the station that took me longer for having such a load to carry*. I was pleased to almost manage to check in without having the desk clerk speak English, but when she had specific information to give me regarding keys and breakfast, she asked me if I would prefer English for clarity. Since my comprehension of French is rather limited and I didn’t want to waste her time, I said yes.

My room had such an inviting bathtub that I immediately settled in for a soak to revive myself. Whenever I travel, I refuse to succumb to “jet lag,” convinced that it’s in the mind. So I’ll stay awake no matter what the time is back home, forcing myself to acclimate. Somewhat… because I do believe I was a bit addled wandering the streets after my bath in search of dinner.

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Something more substantial than the snack or drink this sign suggests. I love the French custom of handwriting their signs and menus. The human element is essential here.

For some reason I was afraid to speak French, so worried I’d make a mistake or someone would laugh at me. I popped in to a bar/restaurant on Rue Chanzy called Le Chardenoux to see if I could get dinner, but they weren’t open yet. At least that’s what I thought the bartender said, and judging by the empty tables, that seemed to be an accurate conclusion–honestly, a lot of my apparent language skills are a bit of a guessing game. I ordered a Stella and drank it at the gorgeous old marble bar from the turn of the 19th century with my bag on the adjacent stool. Just the sort of place that I imagined my favorite American expatriates from the 1920s might frequent, basking in the court of Gertrude Stein and such. An old woman entered from where she’d been sitting outside and said something to me that sounded sarcastic, something about not wanting to disturb me–that word, “deranger,” I believe. So I picked up my bag in case she meant to sit there, but then the bartender told her I didn’t speak French and she shrugged. I had no idea what had just happened but I wanted to get out and get some food so I wouldn’t be quite so dazed.

 

Across the street I stumbled upon La Patisserie Cyril Lignac,  where I ordered a gorgeous little kouign amann to tide me over till I found the courage to order dinner somewhere. Again, the response of the clerk baffled me–why didn’t people sound like they did on my RFI broadcasts? The pastry fueled me up enough to get me to a restaurant that was actually open, La Ravigote (which is a sauce) on Rue de Montreuil. And perfect: it had a sign with a pig’s head outside and tables on the sidewalk too. Somehow I managed to order a fairly complicated meal from a waiter who didn’t seem to speak a word of English. Later in the evening a couple of men sat at the table next to me and we chatted a bit, first in French then in English then both, back and forth. They told me this was a local hangout, everything made on the premises and very popular in the neighborhood. What luck then! The prices were reasonable too. A man who seemed to be the proprietor would greet many of the guests with French cheek kisses, lending an air of hospitality to the place.

Cyclists rarely wear helmets in Paris.
Cyclists rarely wear helmets in Paris.
The
The “plat,” consisting of house-made assorted sausages.

Unfortunately, I misunderstood the waiter regarding the half bottle of wine–I thought he was telling me they didn’t serve half bottles (despite what the menu said), but in fact the way they did it there was to set the bottle on the table and charge you according to how much you drank from it. My neighbors explained this to me, but by then I was already well into the second half! But considering it was my first day in France, my very first dinner there, it somehow seemed fitting to drink an entire bottle of wine during the course of an evening. Oh, and of course there was lots of PIG to go with it: an assortment of sausages to begin with, then roast pig’s foot for dinner. Creme brulee for dessert–everything perfect of course. The bread goes without saying, perfect.

Roast pig's foot and some perfect
Roast pig’s foot and some perfect “frites,” so good that ketchup never occurred to me.
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Creme brulee and the rest of the wine.

Such a perfect finish to my first day in France! Back to my hotel where I fell into a well-earned sleep.

*Note: I DO NOT LIKE TAKING TAXIS, mostly due to a very bad experience with a taxi driver in Warsaw years ago. Yes, I know I need to get over it!