France 2016 - Sunday, October 16 - The Road Home

Day 17: Au Revoir Paris

Departure transfers arrive at Charles de Gaulle Airport at 08:00 & 11:00.  Buffet Breakfast

 

And then, it was time to leave.

We boarded the bus in the morning, expecting to be whisked away to the airport, but it didn’t really go down that way.  Jackie, the driver who we had been so delighted to see again when we arrived at the airport two weeks ago, let us down.  Jackie, is apparently the owner of this coach company, and that’s why he does the easy stuff like airport transfers and such now.  Well, our bus died and he scrambled around trying to move busses, looking like he was going to have a heart attack, until he was able to jump start our bus.  If you’ve never seen an old man maneuver two large busses and jump one with the other in the middle of a narrow Parisian street, you’re missing out.

Mark told us that he’d have already put us on cabs but without getting the bus started the luggage compartment doors couldn’t open.  I can see absolutely no way that this could possibly be true.  A, is it not just a mechanical key lock?  B, how is it in any way possible that a quarter million dollar tour bus is not equipped with a mechanical release for the luggage bay, for just such an occasion.  So after more than half an hour of watching other people from our group be loaded into cabs and sent on their way, they finally get our bus jumped and started.

People behind us kept saying that well the battery charges while we’re driving so as long as we don’t stop…  Yeah, I thought, unless the battery is dead because the alternator is dead, meaning the bus could be dead in the middle of nowhere with our luggage still locked in.  Someone suggested we bring our luggage up with us into the seats but Jackie waved us off it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine… 

So, we took off and for a time things seemed fine and everyone relaxed a bit.  However, twenty minutes or so into our trip down the highway, it became clear that Jackie was having trouble finding a gear into which the bus would accept being put, and Joyce and I being in the front seat could see all this, and knew there was a problem.  Joyce was concerned, and I was amused.  I was concerned of course, but things are more interesting when they go wrong.  Broken down bus, even missed flight seems catastrophic at the time, but they leave no permanent injury and are ultimately solvable problems that just lead to better stories later on. 

The best part was when Jackie said in oh too clear English: ‘Shit’, as he finally came to realize and accept that trying to keep the bus going was a lost cause.  He took an off ramp and the bus came to a stop and died in an out of the way place in the shadow of a Mirosoft building across the highway, and he jumped out and opened the luggage compartment.  I knew the not being able to open it thing was bull shit.

He started making frantic calls as people began pulling Joyce and my luggage out unsolicited, so I grabbed them and stepped to the curb with them.  I have some great pictures of Jackie with his hand to his head in disbelief, and our fellow travelers looking very angry and concerned at him while standing on the curb with their luggage.

Jackie claimed that another bus was on the way, but the time he said it would take was fifteen minutes, then ten minutes, then twenty minutes, and he’d already proven himself a bull shitter.  A cab drove by and we flagged it down, and although Joyce claimed that Jackie said he was going to take the cab to go get another bus, I never caught that.  It was clear that people who had international flights soonest should go first since only four of us could squeeze into the prius.  That meant us and another couple, but regardless the Calgary couple whom I never liked anyways went to the cab and started loading their stuff in.  They looked perfectly happy to leave without us as well, so I stepped up and got our stuff in as well, feeling bad for the other couple who should rightly be going instead of the Calgary pair.  Jackie pre-paid the driver, and we were off, though squeezed in very tightly.  It was from the car that I caught the best picture of the rest as we left.

It seemed to take quite a while to get to the airport, and it was a stressful ride for me, because it was a painful ride for Joyce who had a bathroom emergency that she just had to suffer through, and it clearly got increasingly painful as we went on and she had me put the navigation on my phone so she could keep clear about how long we had to go.  Eventually the cab got us to the wrong terminal, even though we had said clearly several times that we needed to go to the other terminal.  He had clearly only been paid to take us to the nearer one and I think he was irritated over that.  Anyways, as the airport is designed, we went on past it, then rounded around to our correct one and got out.  At least we made it there.  Inside we happily found a bathroom, and loaded our luggage into the check in counter.  Somehow I was half a kilogram over but I guess I was within a margin because she didn’t say anything about it.

No concerned about time we proceeded immediately through security which seemed to go fine at first, but my bag was flagged and I had to go stand with a woman as she went through it.  To save weight in my main luggage I’d put all of my coins and bottle openers together in the wallet Insight puts all of the tickets and such in for you, and when they found that, it was clear that this large unambiguous collection of metal is what had flagged concern for them.  Seeing this, they cleared me to pack it back up with a bit of a good natured chuckle.

Great.  Packed back up, and onward.  I stopped at a store for my standard Pringle chips and two bottles of Coke Light.  I was also looking for Paris bottle openers, one for myself and one for my boss for the wall of bottle openers behind the bar, and though she didn’t say anything, my suggestion that I might forgo this one and hope to find a better on distressed Joyce on account of how tight we were for time, but luckily nothing came of it because I decided the ones I found in that store were just fine.  We used up just about every last euro cent we had left between us at that store which is always nice when you can pull that off.  On previous trips I like to keep a collection of the money as a keepsake, but I already have a collection of Euro currency.

And then, brick wall.  We were stuck in a customs line and were instantly very concerned that we were going to miss our flight based on how many people were in front of us and how slowly the line was moving.  But, the person walking up and down the line checking people’s tickets who asked him to seemed unconcerned about us missing our flight so either we had nothing to worry about, or he just couldn’t care less if we did.  I figured the former based on how he spoke to the other travelers. 

Eventually we did in fact make it to the front.  We gave the guy our passports and he looked at me and said: ‘you have cookie for me?’  For a moment I was stunned.  I’m sorry, is that a thing?  Was I supposed to bring you a cookie?  I’m so confused…  Oh!  My shirt!  My travel shirt is one that says ‘Come to the dark side, we have cookies.’  I apologized with a smile and no, sorry, I don’t actually have any cookies.  He shrugged and stamped our passports and sent us on our way.  I made a mental note that next time if I travel with this shirt I must carry around cookies to hand out to people who ask.

When we got to our gate, the plane was already boarding, but nowhere near in a final boarding call situation, so we were safe.  We plodded through the line, and eventually made it on to the plane and then… we waited for almost an hour for the pilot to get there.  Apparently he or she was running late as well so we just sat there, and our nine and a half our flight became a ten and a half our seating.

I didn’t mind too much though, I had a lot with me to keep me entertained.  For a long time I listened to podcasts and played Paper Mario: Sticker Star on my N3DS, and eventually I switched to God of War on my Vita.  After that I’m not sure, I guess I watched stuff, I certainly brought more than enough to entertain myself.  Food was good, though I can’t remember exactly what we had since I didn’t take a picture.  The breakfast later on was… a ham and cheese pita fold over thing I think, and the dinner was some sort of chicken or pasta with an ingredient I wasn’t hot on but not so much that I couldn’t enjoy it.  That’s all I remember.

Sitting beside me (Joyce and I had opposing aisle seats again) was a dark skinned French woman who commented to me that ‘c’est froid’, and it was, but I appreciated that.  When we got our breakfast and it included yogurt and water and some other things I wasn’t interested in she had a toddler girl sitting in her lap, and she started pawing at something on my tray but the woman stopped her.  I told her in French that she could have it and the woman gestured to ask if I was sure and I nodded yes and she thanked me and took it.  Later she asked if the girl could have something else I wasn’t going to use and I told her she could.  Before they cleared away our trays I asked if they’d like the water too and they did and I felt good to have shared. 

There was another young child ahead of Joyce, who this time had a seat with nobody in front of half of her seat since she was the aisle of a triple seat with a double seat in front.  She found this very comfortable.  The child in front of her made a lot of noise on the trip but it didn’t bother me all that much.

At one point Joyce went back for some snacks and I asked if she could grab me some Diet Coke if she could get some.  She came back with an entire one litre from their tray and I was mortified.  I stuffed it into my bag and only took it out to drink from it when it felt safe.  She seemed to think it was perfectly fine, and from a certain point of view I’m sure it was, but I was afraid of being ‘caught’ with it nonetheless.

And then finally, we landed.  It was about one in the afternoon, about the same time we left.  Time stands still flying in that direction around the world.  We got out, went through the first customs check fine after using the automated kiosks and just showing it to a border services agent, and then waited for our luggage at the carousel.  Grabbing it we headed out, Joyce having contacted her cousin and him saying that he was on his way to pick us up.

Then, just when we thought it was all over, at the very last checkpoint a white woman and Chinese man border services agents looked at our customs card and told us to step aside into this room, that they wanted to ask us some questions.  Hunh?  Wha-what?  As we waited in a line with four Chinese people in front of us utterly loaded down with luggage, and nobody at the end of this short line doing anything, we waited in confusion.  Eventually Joyce hypothesized that it was related to how little we claimed in value of goods brought back given how long we were away, after she began wondering if this was the room in which they killed Robert Dziekański.

We watched as a fat border services agent who looked a little like Chris Hedges showed up and in black gloves at an agonizingly slow pace carefully deconstructed the luggage of the person at the head of the line.  We were increasingly concerned that the other three people ahead of us would get the same glacial examination before ours finally occurred.  He found a bunch of food in the guy’s luggage and was scolded that he was asked three times to declare and he lied, and that he could be given a big fine but was not going to be.

Then the woman ahead of us went ahead and the younger fitter agent confirmed that he needed a translator and disappeared in search of one.  We watched as he went through her luggage asking questions through the translator.

Then, a short relatively young female border services agent approached us.  I noticed her nametag said Hillier, same as General Rick Hillier but I assumed there was no relation.  She asked us what we had brought back and Joyce said her soaps and a couple other things.  I said I brought back about a dozen bottle openers and a bunch of souvenir coins.  She asked why and I said just for collecting, that one each trip I collect something different.  She said alright, well let’s just run your stuff through the big x-ray machine.  We did and I was a little alarmed at how little shielding there seemed to be on the entry and exit points of the machine.  She was clearly satisfied with what she saw, since she thanked us and sent us on our way.

Phew!!

Joyce’s brother had had to wait a bit, but still met us outside and we loaded into his pick up truck and he drove us to his place where we had parked the car, talking about our trip along the way.  We thanked him profusely, and then got into our own vehicle, happily started it, and headed home.  It was about ten o’clock at night Paris time by now but only two in the afternoon local time and we drove all the way to Kelowna.

We were concerned that we still had summer tires on and it was mid-October at this point.  There had clearly been snow in some parts but there was nothing on the road it was just cold, wet and foggy.  The scariest part was when we were almost at Merritt and Joyce told me that she nodded off, and then refused to pull over to let me drive.  I was between putting things on the stereo and in the absence of stimulus she bobbed her head.  I did my best to keep talking to her and keep her alert, but I was much relieved when we stopped at the tourist centre in Merritt and took over the driving.

I stopped for more beer in Westbank on the way home.  It being Sunday we just barely made it before their closing time at six.  It was surreal seeing the cashiers, odd that they have no idea all that I’m on my way from, the disparity in the universe in my head, and the one in theirs.

And then, we got home, finally.  We spent several hours puttering as we fought sleep, both having so much to do and also knowing we should wait as late as possible to finally fall asleep to try to reset our sleep schedule.  So for a few hours we fought the darkness valiantly but in the end happily collapsed into bed, exhausted, but brimming with memories we’d spend the next few weeks sorting and reliving.

France 2016 - Saturday, October 15 - Monet's Garden at Giverny, Paris Bus Tour, and Bateaux Parisiens

Day 16: Paris, Romantic Capital on the Seine

Sightseeing in the morning with a local expert shows you Notre Dame Cathedral and the façades of the Louvre.  Drive from the Place de la Concorde along the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe.  Paris has grown up on the banks of the Seine and its many landmarks, quays and bridges are best viewed from the comfort of a relaxing River Seine cruise.  Food is an obsession in France, so for your final night, enjoy a Champagne Celebration Dinner of seasonal produce at a typical Parisian restaurant with good wine and good company.  Hotel: Marriott Rive Gauche/Pullman Paris Bercy Centre, Paris.  Buffet Breakfast, Celebration Dinner.

 

The next morning, we went on an optional excursion to Monet’s garden at Giverny.  Along the way we passed a sign that said Les Mureau below a space scene with a rocket and satellites.  I looked it up and learned that Les Mureau was just the region we were passing there, but the space stuff was about Airbus having some sort of Space and Military facility there.

The actual gardens were obviously beautiful, but hard to write about because it’s all so visual.  There were all sorts of plants, and it was cool to be able to see with your own eyes the scene of some of Monet’s most famous painting.  The challenging part was getting pictures without other people in them, leading to amusing things like me putting my thumb up in one of Joyce’s pictures to block out the ugly Americans, and the having to crush them with my fingers.  Here I also discovered how much more creative I could get with the camera mode on our phone that superimposes the self facing camera onto the image of the rear facing camera leading to some amusing results.  There were also some really good ones too though.

One of the last things I was able to do with my phone before it died, my having forgotten both of my backup batteries on the bus, was take a remarkably clear videoclose up of a bee going after nectar in flowers.  That was really cool.  After that I had to rely on Joyce to take pictures, and I’d point out things or take her camera to take a specific picture the way I wanted to.  It’s really convenient that we have the exact same phone, and when we get home I just complete them all together so it really doesn’t matter which phone I use to take pictures in that sense.

So that side of the road was the pseudo-Japanese garden, Monet was apparently fascinated with Japanese art and that’s part of what led him in the artistically unorthodox direction he is known to have taken.  Crossing the road we came across the second more British garden with regular rows of interesting plants.  On the other side of this was Monet’s old house which we walked through.  It was loaded with reproductions of his own work, as well as a lot of the Japanese paintings which inspired him.  Leaving the house we passed by some chickens, which I was of course fascinated by.  I love chickens, especially big colored ones.  The one rooster strutted around all full of himself, and the rest made chicken sounds as the scratched at the ground here or there, pecked at the ground, found nothing, and tried somewhere else, over and over and over again.  Ah, chickens…

Then of course we exited through the gift shop.  I was open to getting something, but so much were things I could just buy online, and cheaper.  I thought about getting a set of coasters, but I already have Coca-Cola coasters, plus Joyce just made a bunch of fabric ones lately… I settled on a nice bookmark.  I believe Joyce got a notebook or two with the artwork on them.

We walked down the walkway where there was apparently an American garden which turned out to not be interesting at all, but there was another gift shop which a quick look revealed still no bottle openers or stickers.  We almost overshot where we were to turn to catch the bus, as those ahead of us did, but Mark corrected us in time, and we crossed the parking lot, then the street again, and were reunited with our bus, and the five other tour busses which had showed up behind us.  That’s one of the perks of travelling with Insight, it can suck always getting up so early, but it also means you usually show up before most other people.

After having just an hour or so after getting back to our hotel, we loaded back onto the coach for our driving tour of Paris, which would end in our river boat ride.  Onto the bus stepped a young redheaded man who assured us that despite his red hair he was indeed as Parisian as anyone else, and if nothing else his thick accent certainly testified to this.  Some things he said it was legitimately hard to tell what he was saying; some words you’d have to hear him say them several times before it dawned on you what he was saying. 

He made a big point of explaining that if you’re going to be Parisian, you have to make a very bid decision: whether you are left bank or right bank.  He explained that we were on the left bank, and that it was obviously superior, as he was left bank.  The left bank is for artists and students, and people with less money (though there’s a pretty high floor for how little money you can have and still live within the ring road of Paris).  The right bank is for people with money and is more focused on financial services and is where all the rich and snooty (graded on a curve here obviously) people live.  It is also of course, where all of the famous landmarks are.

As much as other parts of Paris may have been a little underwhelming, I do so love Paris.  From the building architecture to the little art installations everywhere for no other apparent reason than because we are French.  Our guide pointed out a café which is now just about the most expensive one in Paris, but which is know, being on the left side, as being the café where back in the day all of the mid twentieth century French existentialists hung out.  My people.  Oh I’d love to go there.  There are so many places in Paris I’d love to explore if I ever had the time.  I love London too, but after several days there, you start having to look for new and interesting things to do.  I don’t get that sense in Paris. 

For example, there are still several museums and art galleries Joyce wants to go to in Paris that we still haven’t gotten the chance to, and I still want to go up the Eiffel Tower on a clear day this time, and we only saw a little bit of the Louvre…  I tell you, on this trip, we really had a new appreciation for the first trip I went on, when we had four full day in Paris.  I kept lamenting for people who this one bus tour and the later boat ride would be all that they’d get to see of Paris, it’s just not enough.  Yes I really appreciated all the time we had the last time I was here, and to be able to remember being in and around in person these places and things were were now only driving past.

We saw a guy stopped in the middle of the street presumably with a broken down car.  He was talking on the phone and seemed remarkably unconcerned given his precarious position.

We drove past Notre Dame Cathedral.  We were told we were not in the Latin Quarter, and were told that this meant LATIN Latin, not Latin American or Iberian as it is sometimes misunderstood.  Latin was apparently widely spoken around the university there as it was the language of learning throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. In the Latin Quarter we also drove past the Parisian Panthéon.  I’ve never been inside, but we were told that it was originally constructed as a church, but its completion coincided with the French Revolution, and it was taken over and repurposed as a sort of national secular church, and is now a mausoleum in which many well-known French are buried. 

Each French president tries to get someone buried there as legacy project, but the estate of the dead has to agree to have their remains exhumed and reburied there.  We were told about how Sarkozi tried to get Albert Camus, my guy, reburied there.  Also of note, at one point on our trip we were quite near where he died and his true burial site, and if I’d been travelling more independently there is no chance I wouldn’t have made the pilgrimage to both sites.  Anyways, The plan was held up by his son who refused despite his sister being fine with it.  He said he didn’t want his father repurposed by the state, and to try to do such a thing was a complete misunderstanding of the man and what he stood for.  Whether the objection was on principle or just because the son loathed Sarkozi I don’t care.  I love that even in death my hero remains The Rebel.

There are Roman ruins in France, but they are truly ruins and are fenced off, but they are there.  We also drove past where I took that video the very first night of the people breakdancing in front of the fountain.  I also noticed that the bridge which last time we were here was totally encrusted with locks from people locking them on the bridge and throwing the key into the river as some romantic gesture symbolizing eternal love, romantic the first time, but sad, tacky, and unimaginative every successive time, had been cleared of them.  Now there was a fine grate over and through which no locks could be attached to the bars.

Before crossing over to the right side, we passed the Assemblée Nationale, their equivalent of Parliament I believe, and then drove down the Champs-Élysées as Joyce and I remembered walking all the way from the Louvre down the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, getting an amazing Nutella and banana crêpe from a street vendor and the guy being cross with me for trying to buy a three dollar crêpe with a fifty euro note.

We drove around the Egyptian Obelisk and our guide told us that it was his favourite feature of the city because it was so old, thousands of years and the oldest feature in Paris.  He also pointed out that engraved in the thing itself is instructions on how to get it upright.  It’s quite a sight to see with its gold cap shining in the sun.  He told us, and the weight of hearing this weighed heavily on me, that this square where the obelisk was, was the very spot where they had the guillotine set up during The Terror.  Right here, in the public square executing royalty and aristocrats and of course so many others.  A fun fact he also shared that instead of the Eiffel Tower, the runner up idea to welcome the world’s fair the Eiffel Tower was erected for, was a giant guillotine to celebrate the hundred year’s anniversary of the revolution, yay!

We then drove around the Arc de Triomphe and as I saw more soldiers with large machine guns patrolling near the eternal flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier, I was again glad that the last time I was here we had so much more time, and I remembered climbing the stairs, and looking out over the city on top of the structure.

After that we passed what I believe was some kind of university grounds.  We then drove right past the Eiffel Tower (after passing another merry go round), and down to the river front.

After waiting in line we boarded the Bateaux Parisiens (as opposed to the perpetually fun to say Bateaux Mouche we rode last time).  Joyce was concerned about being cold but we went up top anyways.  I was worried that the views out of the windows from inside would be frustratingly cloudy and scratched.  We sat at the back of the boat and waited, but before long we were off.  The river rides are nice.  So many of the main attractions of Paris are right along the river so you see a lot.  It’s also always fun to wave back and forth at people on the bank and on the bridges overhead as you pass underneath.

The bridges are cool.  The Pont Neuf translates to the new bridge, because although it is now the oldest bridge, when it was built it was ‘the new bridge’.  Why would we change the name?  We are French after all.

I never got a good shot of it, but there was a guy on what I can only describe as Segway shoes, not the inappropriately named hoverboard, but two independent shoe versions.  I’d never seen that before.  We then passed all of the museums Joyce wants to go to at some point.  We talk about next time we’re on our way somewhere else, we should stop over in Paris for a few days on the way.

It was also nice to see youtes out on a Sunday, just hanging out in public as opposed to being shut in at home.  I’m sure many were of course, but there were so many people who appeared to be locals and were just enjoying being by the river with friends.  That was nice to see.

We then rounded around the island which Notre Dame, known as Île de la Cité and the smaller island Île Saint-Louis with some of the most ridiculously priced real estate in the world for obvious reasons, and headed back the way we came.  The region in which Paris sits, since the city and thus country originated on these river islands, is know as the Île-de-France.  Passing by these river islands on the other side we then returned the way we came.  When we went on the boat ride the first time I was here, we did it at night.  It was nice to also see it all in the daytime, but it was something spectacular to see the city of lights really light up for us, especially timed as our trip was with the hourly sparkling explosion of light from the Eiffel Tower.

Getting off the boat we went back to the bus, then I went upstream against those exiting to quickly score a souvenir coin, the pièce de résistance, a city of Paris anniversary coin with the big three features of Paris on it.  Coin collection now complete.

We then bussed back to our hotel.  Right out front of it there was a scooter and motorcycle parking lot, and half it was oddly scorched right down.  It appeared that days earlier a fire had burned down half the lot.  When I first saw it at the beginning of the tour I wondered if it might be some odd art project, but when Joyce went to take closer look pictures, no it was clearly just a bunch of gated off burned out bones of once mopeds and scooters.  Bizarre sight to see, especially right beside other vehicles and buildings utterly untouched.

An hour and a bit later, it was time to leave again for our farewell dinner.  These trips all begin with a welcome dinner, and end with a farewell dinner.  Some are going on to a Normandy extension of this trip, some are off to another tour altogether all over again, but this trip has come to an end, and this dinner is the bookend.

We found ourselves at pig themed restaurant, complete with a placard out front with an animation of chefs wrangling a terrified looking pig, and hooves for handles on the front door.  It was called Au Pied de Cochon, or: Of Pig’s Feet.  We were in a very ornate looking room on the third floor, and we sat with the Calgary couple I believe and the siblings from Australia.  I showed them my goof pictures from Giverny and they were indeed quite amused.

We started with soup which was almost too much of a good thing.  I thought it was just enough, everyone else thought it was too much.  It was really an onion soup in my cheese kind of situation and I just ate it up with glee.  It was super good.

Since we were in our own room, after soup this gave Ronald the freedom to get us to sing one last time, and the amount of eye rolling and passive aggression from the Australian woman was positively seething, which amused me more than anything else of course.  I took a video of the whole scene as best as I could.  Then, on behalf of all of us non Hawaiians, Ronald gave Mark and Agostina our driver leis, which irritated Joyce since the rest of us were not Hawaiian.  He then made us sing another song for the last time and it really all fell apart. 

I then combined my new passions and took pictures of Ronald’s wife taking pictures with me picture in picture, then moved on to taking pictures of me superimposed on my food.  This entrée was for the record, a very good beef stew with roasted potato, carrot, and onion.  I will say this for French cuisine, they certainly at least have a mean, mean beef stew game.  Dessert, was an interesting assortment of desserts.  A small crème brulée, a chocolate mousse in a glass, a meringue cookie made up like a pig’s head, a cream filled puff pastry, and a coffee all on a plate, and they were all delicious.  Yummy yummy, and I really appreciated the assortment approach.

And then, it was over.  We drove to a bridge and with no chance it was an accident pretended to have a bus breakdown (haha.) on the bridge so we could get out and see the Eiffel Tower light up at ten o’clock exactly.  I’d seen it before of course, but it never fails to spectacularly impress.  The flash lights going off all over and the searchlights rotating about from the top, City of Lights indeed.  Astronomy nightmare for sure, but tourism marvel nonetheless.  Joyce and I took an obligatory selfie with it going off behind us.

On the way home I noticed a building which had been pointed out to us, one of the tallest in the city due to general height restrictions on buildings, but it had a purple perimeter and lights flashing across it.  No Eiffel Tower to be sure, but interesting to see nonetheless.

France 2016 - Friday, October 14 - Welcome Back to Paris by Train

Day 15: The TGV Back to Paris

Drive to historic Poitiers to board your sleek TGV train for the comfortable journey to Paris.  En route to your hotel, stop for a photo of the Eiffel Tower.  At night, why not try a French cabaret show?  Hotel: Marriott Rive Gauche/Pullman Paris Bercy Centre, Paris.  Buffet Breakfast.

 

So this day was largely just about taking the TGV high speed train back to Paris.  The day started though with us having to go back to the hotel after making it five or ten minutes down the road.  Mark made no comment of what had been forgotten and we were all speculating as we drove back.  It turned out to be his main satchel and yeah, certainly can’t leave without that.  First time in all my trips we’d had to turn back around after leaving a hotel, and it was certainly a surprise that it would be because the tour director forgot something!

At our first comfort stop at a truck stop, Joyce made a valiant effort to convey to Mark that the United States’ debt to GDP is even worse than France’s and that it’s not fair to so regularly and casually refer to France as broke.  He… just didn’t seem to get it, claiming that ‘yes, but the United States has more economic credibility.’  Excuse me?  Based on what?  Based on crashing the world economy eight years ago and running full steam into doing it all over again?  I couldn’t believe he said that, and his shrugging off the GDP fact.  I really don’t understand his disdain for this great country that he is supposed to be enlightening us about. 

Anyways.  At this stop I saw a candy pizza which was more interesting than appetizing (though I would have eaten it all eventually if it had been gifted to me), but I also experimented with potato chips as I’m want to do.  Earlier in the trip I had, uh… chips I can’t remember but they were interesting, and this day I got mustard and pickle flavoured chips and uh… another kind I can’t remember but which were less exotic.  There were other interesting flavours there, but dammit I just had to know what mustard and pickle chips tasted like.  And you know what they tasted like?  Mustard and pickles.  Not bad actually, neither flavour was too much as you could imagine they could be, since the flavouring was typically a little bland, but it was good in this context.

After that it was straight on to the train station.  Apparently their bathrooms were closed so the only option there was the bus station next door which Joyce decided was unacceptable.  Fortunately we were provided enough time for lunch and we availed ourselves, which also permitted a bathroom.  We looked at the restaurant in the train station where Mark claimed there would be ‘a kind of buffet situation’ but when we asked the person in the restaurant who spoke no English, it was clear it was just a restaurant.  So we went outside where he had also said there were several restaurants across the street.

We passed over a couple sit down restaurants and I asked how bout the counter kebab place?  We both found it a good idea, having seen kebab places all over but never eating in one.  I watched our stuff while Joyce went to the bathroom then went up to the counter to order.  I saw kefte, something I really like when Joyce makes it at home, and ordered a kefte sandwich with fries and a can of Coke Zero.  She asked a question I couldn’t understand, and then said ‘spicy or…’ and I said yeah sure, spicy.  She then asked me another question I didn’t understand and I said, well, not TOO spicy.  She crossed something out and then she informed me it would be brought out to me and to grab my pop out of the cooler.

When it came it was super good.  Thin kefte patties with lettuce and tomato and sauce in a ninety percent cut piece of bread… or possibly in some kind of unleven bread, I can’t remember because we didn’t take pictures but it was damn good.  So good Joyce went up and ordered another for herself after trying mine.  The dip was a spicy mayo dalloped on the tray for me to dip my fries in.  Good stuff.  For some reason Joyce got a less spicy dip and used the rest of mine while I used what she’d gotten, which was also good.  Joyce said she missed spice, and I reflected again that the best food I’d had in France was food from other cultures, Italian, Greek, not Middle Eastern.

Then it was time to board the train, and after waiting on the platform a bit, and after a train had rushed by us at a frightening speed, having been warned only by someone blowing a whistle, our train pulled up.  I accidentally zigged when I should have zagged, and wound up down human flow from the car I was supposed to be in.  There wasn’t enough space for me to go against the flow, so I had to wait until my being there was a sufficient jam to push my way back through several people and across the threshold between cars and into the proper one where Joyce and I were relieved to see each other again.  We wound up sitting opposite the ugly Americans again, yay.

It was hot on the train, and the seats opposed each other so we were facing the Americans.  The tables folded out in front of us, and Mark gave us our survey forms to fill out while on the train.  I did mine dutifully but halfheartedly, complaining mostly about the egg pudding but largely praising Mark, and was done with it after adding my contempt for the tipping situation out of solidarity with Joyce.  I then put on a podcast, let Joyce listen with the other earphone, and played God of War on my Vita. 

When Joyce got up to go to the bathroom, I pulled out my fan from my bag up top and set it in front of me to keep cool on the hot bus, and when Joyce came back we switched seats as she’d asked if I’d mind doing since there was little leg room against the window side.  There was however a little air coming out a vent, and a nice cool window.

We arrived, and Joyce swore it was where we had come into Paris when we’d taken the high speed train from London to Paris, but I was right, as I like to think I usually am, that this was in fact a different on.  This was a domestic TGV train terminal, whereas from London we had arrived at a different Eurostar international terminal where we got our passports stamped.

Mark took off to find the bus, and I mused about him just never coming back and how long we would stand here in the terminal waiting before deciding to do something.  But he did come back, and led us to the bus lot.  We saw another trio of soldiers with large machine guns, and Ruth made a comment about how it made her feel safer.  As I’ve described, it makes me feel the opposite of safe.  If something happened I’d be at most risk from cross fire, and their perception of the need of such security scares me more than the treat which makes them perceive this need.  Also, all shows of force like that are just for appearance, just to make people like Ruth FEEL safer, and that aspect of it kind of bothers me too.

So bus ride through Paris, stopping at the place where Napoleon is buried for our big group picture, even though it was billed that we’d have a group picture in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Joyce and I were at least able to take some nice selfies in front of this building.  After looking it up, ah yes, the building is ‘Les Invalides’, a military hospital for veterans established by Napoleon for his soldiers, but is now a military museum and has a church which is the burial site for some of France’s war heroes, most notably Bonaparte himself.  I of course, took a picture of the guy taking our group picture.

Driving by some other building, maybe a campus or museum or something, I saw more soldiers patrolling.  I heard on a podcast that anybody who goes to Paris now would really notice the difference from a few years ago as far as the security presence, and I do.

We then stopped in a place for a good view of the Eiffel Tower from a side we’d never seen it before.  Of course the structure itself is exactly the same from all sides, but this location to view it from was new to us, and that was cool.  Most of the trip we really lucked out with the weather, but now back in Paris it was rainy again.

Back at the same hotel, we were offered free drinks in the restaurant where we get our breakfast.  It’s just a breakfast and lunch place, so now it was empty aside from us.  It was nice and by now I was enjoying the wine and trying to taste the differences, but the people beside me kept sniping all the nuts put on the table.

We went up to our room, and settled in.  I liked the look of several things on the room service menu, but couldn’t figure out where the actual restaurant in the hotel was that had these things.  On my way out to the small grocery store where I’d figured out bonjour vs bonsoir, I stopped at the restaurant level of the hotel but only found the empty breakfast place and the fine dining place that didn’t open until seven.

Back in the room we waited until seven to go investigate, but eventually figured out that where we wanted to go was the bar on the ground floor that was also a restaurant, so we made our way there and sat down.  On the way I posed on what Joyce tells me is a ‘fainting couch’. 

I had onion soup which if I recall correctly also had the cheese on the bottom.  Score?  Now I can’t remember… and I had what looks like lamb with grilled vegetables.  Whatever it was I remember it being very good, and I’m also pretty sure that I just had water after seeing the astronomical prices for beer, having had some already in my room, and having plenty still when we went back.  Joyce had another croquet monsieur, apparently having quite enjoyed the one we had several days earlier.  We don’t appear to have had dessert.

Joyce came with me back to the grocery store, oh that’s right, we just got some chocolate there for dessert, stuff I love, bars of Lindt chocolate, but crème brûlée and mint dark chocolate flavour.  So good…  We went back to the hotel room, had some of that, relaxed, and called it a day.  We were only on the first floor, and earlier in the day I found that I could look down and see some youtes playing basketball in some kind of a gym

France 2016 - Thursday, October 13 - Lascaux II Cave, Sarlat, and Collonges

Day 14: Exploring Sarlat-la-Canéda & the Dordogne Valley

Start the day with a morning drive into the stunning Valley of the Dordogne to visit Lascaux II where the world-famous prehistoric cave paintings have been faithfully reproduced.  Later, make your way to the beautiful town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, its medieval core blessed with fine historic golden limestone houses.  Later, sample some of the local Dordogne specialties.  Hotel: La Truffe Noire, Brive-La-Gaillarde.  Buffet Breakfast.

 

Some time after leaving our hotel, we had an aborted comfort stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere, which included the bus parking essentially in the middle of the street, and then backing up somewhere, with Joyce commenting that they bus drivers seem to do stuff like that just cuz they’re bored.  After taking pictures with Joyce for a couple minutes, I saw a market across the street and I resolved to go in and check for more of that ham wrapped boursin, but found none.  Apparently Mark called us all back to the bus at the same instant I disappeared into the store, but I was only in there a couple minutes.

Next we arrived at Lascaux Cave, or at least that what I thought.  So, I didn’t even know that we were doing anything like this on the trip.  I didn’t read the itinerary before going, so it’s not like I’d been expecting to see the real thing for months and was only now disappointed.  It was really only this day that I was excited to see fourteen century old rock art, and immediately disappointed to learn that we were only going to be seeing a meticulous recreation called Lascaux II.

I absolutely understand that they just can’t have tourists in the original.  Apparently for quite some time a million people a year went through there and the moisture and bacterial they all brought with them began to degrade the site after centuries of being totally sealed up, which were irreversible moulding and calcification.  Now only trained academics for scientific analysis are allowed in the original in special suits and breathers.  I get all that, and I don’t begrudge in any way the necessity of this restriction.

This does not however, in any way mitigate the fundamental disappointment of seeing only a reproduction, meticulous as it may be.  They apparently carefully recreated the shape of the cave exactly with cross sectional ribbing and using the exact same techniques to paint it by hand with original paints they would have used.  It was still all so much simulacrum.  We could build this just as perfectly recreated in Kelowna, or Disney World Orlando.  No matter how close it was to the real site (apparently only a hundred meters) it was still just a reproduction which could have been constructed anywhere in the world.

(insert clip of data and picard) I’m sure I’m being too harsh, it’s just… well like when I was able to climb up onto the Roman ruin and feel it, to put my hand on the material which was worked and transported by men like me but so many centuries removed, there was magic, there was a connection there, I was feeling and touching the past instead of just seeing it.  No matter how good Lascaux II cave is a reproduction, it’s not something I can engage with any better than I could a picture, or a scale model.  Part of the magic of coming all this way out here is the physical reality of things, touching the Eiffel Tower, smelling the Seine, that sort of thing.  A recreation is… well, just that.

Anyway, with that being said.  The area was otherworldly, primordial even, the kind of place a Middle Ages movie would film a dream hunting sequence.  It was green woods but foggy, not thick fog such that you couldn’t see right in front of you, but that eerie fog which prevents you from seeing very far, and keeps you on the edge between needing to be primordially afraid and not.  Mark bought us tickets, and we were informed by signs that we were not allowed to take pictures.  Of the freaking reproduction.  Whatever man…

Our guide showed up, a younger tall woman whom Joyce later asked if she was an academic and had ever seen the original.  She lamented that no, she was just an enthusiastic amateur as a registered tour guide, and had never seen the original though it was a lifelong dream of hers.  I thought that sucked.  I think that for people like her, super enthusiasts who are boosters and celebrators for and of the real thing… special exceptions should be able to be made.

Anyways, after waiting in line a little bit for the preceding group, we descended down a stairway, and through an airlock.  The first room was artifacts in glass cages and maps of the original site.  She, in a delightfully thick French accent, told us the story of how the cave had been found.  Some teenaged boy in the forties fell into it chasing after his dog, then showed his two buddies and they explored it some before coming out and swearing a pact of secrecy which didn’t last twenty four hours.  They called in the local priest who we learned later just happened to be an expert in caving, and it was he who realized what a special thing they had just found, and the cave became a thing.

In the next chamber she described how they actually did the painting.  It was done by torch light for one which was remarkable.  The whole thing being lit up by artificial light it was difficult to keep in mind that the original artists never would have been able to see the whole thing at a time, just whatever individual torches could reveal.  She described how they would have made the individual colours, but of course I don’t remember these individual details.  She described the application techniques, which ranged from finger and palm painting, to using rudimentary brushes, to putting their hands to the wall and spitting paint at it.

She also pointed out how many symbols there were which are believed to be proto written language.  Soon after getting home, I happened to listen to a CBC Ideas podcast with a woman who is one of the few experts in the world on caves like this, with a particular focus on the language symbols.  She curates a database of thousands from all over the world, and this particular cave (well, the original anyways) was mentioned in passing.  That kind of serendipitous thing after you’ve come home is always cool.

We were then led into the actual ‘cave’.  And yeah, it was cool.  She pointed out with a flashlight to point things tout the skill of the artists, and the way (insert commercial pictures) one animal could form the part of a much larger animal.  She also pointed out their use of perspective and certain animals superimposed ontop of others.  Perspective wasn’t used again until the renaissance she pointed out.  In the main chamber the animals all seemed to be herding around in a clockwise direction, and the bulges of the rock served as the bodies of the animals and that kind of thing.  It was easy to imagine that the way they were painted, in flickering torch light, how they could appear to be moving the way they were superimposed on top of each other.  An interesting note that the guide told us, is that they only drew animals they didn’t eat.  Deer for example, their primary meat source, was conspicuously absent in the tableau.

I really tried to push aside my disappointment and have a magic moment, and a few times I was able to briefly.  For a moment I was able to forget the simulacrum, the artificial lighting, and the tourists with me and transport back fourteen centuries to be with the original artists.  In those brief moments, it was real and it was spectacular.  In them, I was the artist so long ago, working alone on my tribe’s great project by torchlight.

We were then all stuffed into the far end of the cave and shown some other stuff, and then we were led out.  I had been trying to take secret pictures with a spy camera app on my phone the same way I got the Sistine Chapel, and although I got a couple interesting pictures, didn’t have much luck.

This was apparently one of the things that really attracted Joyce to this trip, and she seemed to really enjoy it.  I’m really happy for her that she didn’t share my disappointment and got a lot out of it.  Maybe it was something to do with her knowing all along that it was a recreation, maybe there’s something different between us which makes that have less importance for her.  In any case, I’m really glad she wasn’t disappointed and got full effect from the outing.

We exited through the gift shop as usual, and Joyce got a very nice book about it with history and great pictures (the real reason we’re not allowed to take pictures), and I got a nice souvenir coin.  At some point I was horrified to realize that I didn’t have my wallet on me which included my credit cards and my passport, something which is always on my person when travelling.  I turned out to have left it in yesterday’s pants at the hotel and I retrieved it when we got back, but I was dependent on Joyce for buying things the rest of the day.

Then it was back on the bus.  I believe that the day we left Avignon we had another proper Insight bus.  It was not the same Insight bus, but it was indeed an Insight bus and we were relieved of all of the problems with the broke dick bus we’d been stuck with before.

We were told that in apology for all of the bus issues, instead of being free for lunch at our next stop in Sarlat-la-Canéda after sampling some local specialites, we would be provided more of a lunch thing.  So, this was… a place.  Uhhh… can you tell I was getting a little bored at this point?  It was a French town, and some guy met us where the bus dropped us off (I think there was another merry-go-round in the square where we were let off?) and led us with Mark through the old heritage society preserved Medieval downtown.  Not much was told to us about the place, and most of what was said I didn’t pay much attention to since I was listening to a podcast in one ear, far different from previous trips when I would meticulously record with my phone everything said on these walking tours.

Joyce took a lot of pictures as we went through the place, including big oddly out of place looking black doors on this one particular building.  I largely left the picture taking to her.  There was a small statue of three geese together, this is a real hot spot for foie gras.

Eventually we wound up at some sort of restaurant and were led upstairs.  Soon after I noticed a dead pigeon outside the window on top of the overhang above the entrance.  A joke was made regarding how tonight or the previous or next night somebody besides Mark would or had had the pigeon at dinner.  That is a thing you can have for dinner here.  Why not?

We were given plenty of wine, which I was able to drink.  Then, on pieces of bread we were given successively a sort of goose meat pâté, then foie gras itself also on bread, and then shavings of truffle on bread with a bit of truffle oil.  The goose meat pâté I was able to eat just fine, though it wasn’t something I ever would make a point of eating on purpose.  In fact I’d say the same thing about the truffle.  It was edible, but not something I’d eat on purpose, certainly not at astronomical prices.  The foie gras however… well, it didn’t taste like liver which I was concerned about since I don’t like liver, but it was a little nutty and a little melt in your mouth-y.  I really don’t know how to describe the taste, but I didn’t finish it.  I had two modest bites and felt like I had adequately tried it, and that was enough.

We were then given some sort of goat cheese I think on the same pieces of bread, and… well it tasted better than the dare based cheese at the winery earlier in the trip, but not so much better that I was able to eat it.  I had a bite and that was enough. 

I had Ruth, the woman who taught Justin Trudeau but wouldn’t vote for him on my left, the single younger American woman across from her, the couple from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania across from me, and on my right the couple who had been in that small restaurant with us when I had the steak frites.  Ruth was talking with that side of me how travel was getting hard for her with all the walking she was having to do with her issues, and when Susan suggested how wonderful Las Vegas is, Joyce rolled her eyes and I did a little too.  I’ve never been, but having done real travelling and not being a gambler it certainly doesn’t really appeal.  On my right though, I was asked more about my books.  I’m always reluctant to get into a conversation, but once I get going and sense I have a receptive audience I’m happy to talk about it. 

I argued several of the premises about my book, the problem with the idea of superior global intelligence, a world with very few jobs, artificial intelligence, space flight… that kind of thing.  At some point I became comfortable bringing up my military ambitions for the first time on the trip, which is funny because before the trip I was pleased to be able to say something more when asked what I do than I’m a line cook and failed writer.  For some reason I was more comfortable sticking to that most of the time.  But when I did talk about it they seemed interested, especially the woman on my right who apparently worked at the Australian equivalent of a royal military college as some sort of a civilian administrator and recounted how they had had some Canadian officer exchange student.  We tried to remember the name of the Canadian royal military college and after I looked it up we remembered that it at Kingston.  But I also looked up to be able to tell them where I would be going instead as a direct entry officer if I made it in, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Québec (which I really need to learn how to properly say by the way).  So I enjoyed that conversation, and being able to open up a bit more about my books and what greater ambitions I have.

Oh, and then we had dessert, which was, um… it looks like a bran muffin but it was something much better, with (lightly sweetened) whip cream and a sort of custard sauce.  We were asked to help out Mark and bring umbrellas back to the bus even though we didn’t need them anymore, so I grabbed two of the last few.  It took us a while to get out of the restaurant because there was only one bathroom, and Joyce had to wait for Carolinda.  The door didn’t latch so Joyce held the door closed for her, and afterwards I had to hold the door closed for Joyce, but eventually we were able to leave.

I have an uncanny sense of direction so in situations like this Joyce just lets me lead us back to the bus, but we did see some interesting things along the way.  I found a ‘Sarlat’ sticker with the three geese on it.  We went into a candy shop just long enough to be descended on by the sales woman and offered free samples of whatever.  It seemed a little sad.  We were obviously well past the full tourist season, and it had been a rough tourist season as we understand it.  A shop which advertised ‘Le Vrai Hot-Dog New-Yorkais’ amused me.

After this we took part in an optional excursion to a place called Collognes La Rouge, known for its red brick.  From what I understand this area was largely cleared out in the mass exodus to the cities from the farms, but more recently there have been subsidies to get people to move back out here, as well as it becoming a favourite place for wealthy people around Europe to buy up some land and build a getaway for themselves amongst all of the abandoned old buildings in fields.

The country side was hella picturesque, lush green rolling hills kilometer after kilometer.  If nothing else, France does rolling countryside with fields interspersed with patches of forest incredibly well.  We walked down this little town, ornate and picturesque as anything else we’d seen.  I love little details like the defibrillator in a classy wooden cabinet.  Why?  Because cause we are French.  If we have to have this here, let’s at least do it right.  There was a lot of plants growing over stone building and again, I just love that look.

After I’d gotten some ice cream (in a waffle cone this time, and just two scoops of mint chocolate), and getting bored again, I discovered my new favourite way of screwing with Joyce, casually inserting myself into her pictures.  The first was the best, she’d trying to take a picture of a building, and my face creeps into frame with a casual ‘hey there, what’s up’ expression.  When this got old I went back to taking pictures of her taking pictures.

We saw a little church and then were directed to a little café where Mark was buying us all cake and coffee.  The walnut cake or tarte aux noix is apparently a local specialty and hot damn was it ever so incredibly good, especially topped with a scoop of gingerbread ice cream as it was.  It was so good Joyce and I have resolved to learn how to make it for a dinner I’m going to put making some of the things we had in France.  It was so popular everyone wanted it and they ran out, so we all got as couples one tarte aux noix and some fruit flan which was also really good, but no comparison to the tarte aux noix.  We also both had cappuccinos, which had whip cream on them which is apparently a local flair.

The café had an outside seating area which had a small log roof covered in grape vines to provide a natural canopy.  This is another thing that I just think is the coolest thing.  I love plant life peacefully working with and decorating human built structure, it’s so harmonic.

Then we returned home.  After being amused again by our ‘no molestar’ door hangar, we had to go out to lunch, and we picked the easy option just down the street.  We wound up sitting beside Bob and Ruth again, and as we entered some couple from our group but which in particular I don’t remember warned us to be sure we ordered our burger well done if we had one, claiming that theirs was significantly undercooked.  Well I did really happen to want a burger so I got one and the server asked how I’d like it done and I said well done.  It came medium regardless.  That was fine, I ate it without complaint because we are in France, and in France this is apparently how a well done burger is cooked.  It was really good too, it was a bacon cheeseburger, and the fries were really good as was the dipping sauce I was given though dammit I just can’t remember what the flavour was.  I believe it was tangy, but… perhaps in a peppers kind of way?

At my suggestion Joyce had the four cheese stuffed gorgonzola pasta.  I really wanted to try it, and it was very good as I suspected, but I didn’t want just that for myself as I was committed to the burger.  It was a smallish portion which Joyce was quite happy with and enjoyed it very much.  We had beers with dinner, 50cl 1664 I believe.  We talked with Bob and Ruth a bit, but kept to ourselves a lot.  We did talk about what we do with all of our pictures, and Ruth suggested a picture book printing website and warned us off another.  I of course remember what neither of them were now.

After that we briefly went to the Carre-Four I’d seen the bags of wine just to poke around an alien grocery store, and then went back to the hotel and soon went to bed early to try to catch up on some sleep.  Actually… I believe it was this second night in Brive that I had to battle that shower now that I think about it.  Anyways, then bed.

France 2016 - Wednesday, October 12 - Cahors, Rocamadour, and Brive

(Relaxed Start) Stop in Cahors, famous for its ‘Black Wine', and see the Pont Valentré before heading to Rocamadour.  A resting place for pilgrims on their way to Spain, the medieval town is perched on a cliff side above the Alzou River.  After some time to explore, continue on to your hotel in the Dordogne.  Hotel: La Truffe Noire, Brive-La-Gaillarde.  Buffet Breakfast, Dinner.

 

We went to breakfast in the morning, and not only were there not only were there no cooked eggs, there was very little breakfast left at all.  I kept hoping they would bring out replacement product, but they never did.  So, again I skipped breakfast for the most part and hoped for good lunch prospects.  At breakfast though, I overhead one of the other travelers saying to another that the woman server was german originally, but was engaged to the son of the current owners, who were apparently fourth generation owners of the place.  Above the stairwell going back to the main floor from our first floor room, there was a painting of a man brandishing a riding crop which was apparently the very original owner of the hotel.

Our first stop after we hit the road was in a place called Cahors (YOU’re a CaHORs…) to go to the bathroom really, but the excuse was some sort of old bridge crossing a river.  Again, interesting to see, but not life changing.  Joyce seemed more interested in taking pictures of the street side garden flowers, and the odd metal devil climbing up the metal enclosure protecting a tree by the river.  I discovered a new fascination, deliberately casually inserting myself into Joyce’s pictures, adding to the ways I could playfully irritate her.

We then went into Cahors proper, and after getting off of the bus in the centre of the town, we were shown where we could get lunch after making our way back here.  Mark then took us on a walk deeper into the town.  He walked us through a very interesting open air market which had just about everything, and infinite variety of just about anything, complete with street musicians going off on a didgeridoo.  There were seafood stalls, all cheese, all meat and sausage, all vegetable, whole berry things, really just about anything.  We were then shown the outside of some old church, but more interesting was the very bizarre looking statue behind it which was either a winged Gollum perched on a tree stump, or an old woman with ratty clothes and breasts down to her knees.  Either way it had a really agonized look on its face, and I tried to emulate it for a picture as best I could.

Naturally by now Joyce needed a bathroom, and we first tried this one place which drew me in rather at random, but then I saw that there was no beer I recognized on tap, and there was no one else in there except one rather run down looking woman who said hello and then looked really sad when we turned and left.  The bartender and the man he was talking to didn’t seem to even notice we came in.  Joyce said that the sad woman reminded her of Patty from when I was working at Hangar 9 and I agreed.

After I popped into a tabac store and finding a sticker to buy, we made our way back to the main square where we were dropped off, where Mark ran into us and without prompting pointed out our two good options for places to eat.  We went left and went into this one café.  The man who served us, I can only presume the owner, seemed irritated that there were customers and was short.  I wouldn’t say rude, just a total absence of sucking up, as I’ve come to appreciate from the French.  I ordered a Coke Light and Joyce ordered a beer, or maybe the other way around, anyways the point is that Joyce’s drink came but mine never did.  I wasn’t too concerned though, because he (like everywhere else) also brought us water.  Bob and Ruth (I think) and the younger single woman from the states (I think) were sitting together beside us where we sat down to my left in the corner, and after we sat down soon after Annette sat down to my right.  She had a harder time communicating with the irritated server than us.

I ordered the lasagna, which looked good based on seeing the people at the other table having ordered it.  It came in a tilted round bowl with salad, and was really good.  Again, some of the best food I got in France was Italian food.  When we ordered more drinks I saw that on the hand written tab on our table, he crossed out the number one for each of our drinks, and wrote two.  When he brought us the drinks I told him in French that this was my first and I had never received the first.  He seemed really confused and uncertain, but in the end crossed out the two and wrote another one.

I saw that the food and dishes were being transported through a dumb waiter and I assumed that the kitchen was upstairs, but when I went to the bathroom it was downstairs, and I passed a doorway to the kitchen.  I had to wait for the men’s bathroom, and was a little irritated when a woman came out, but when I saw that there was no toilet seat I instead felt bad for her.

After we left, with the few minutes we had before we had to get on the bus, we screwed around a bit by the fountain centred on a statue of some guy.  I walked on past the bus a bit just to see what I could see, but it was soon time to get on the bus and we were off again.

After our next bit of driving, we seemed to be let out in the middle of nowhere, a place that looked like a town in the hills with only three or four buildings.  We were then led down the road a bit, until the big reveal.  What we saw across the valley was this remarkable town built into the side of a cliff, called Rocamadour.  We had the photo op, and then filed back onto the bus to actually make our way over there after seeing it in its entirety like that.  Before we got back on the bus I was drawn to a souvenir store, but not for anything I was typically looking for, but a rack of bookmarks on which I saw one with Alexia’s name.  Mark said something about it being a sin and ushered me onto the bus.  I was annoyed, not sure if I’d see that again.

So, this place Rocamadour was cool… probably the most interesting part was getting there, Augostino THAT was his name!!  Our bus driver squeezed the bus just barely through this rock tunnel to get there, and then did this amazing turning the bus around so that he could park faced in the direction in which we would leave again.  The question was whether or not we would walk up the many steps to the church up top or take the elevator for a small fee.  Mark told us that the original pilgrims on their way through were expected to climb up the steps on their knees so they were appropriately bloody before getting to the church.  Fucking religion…

Anyway we opted for the elevator, well I did.  I didn’t realized though that you had to pay for both ways, and we instead paid for the trip up but not back down.  We got into the elevator down at the end of this cave and ascended.  This place deserves more credit than I am probably giving it.  The way it comes out of the rock is amazing to see, it’s like that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where they’re screwing with phasing technology, and they come across that ship in the asteroid that rephrased while it was half inside rock.  It looked like that, as though it was travelling through the rock and got stuck.  It was a remarkable thing to see.  At the top of course was a church, with its typically garish golden death cult motif.  It was old and of interesting construction, especially the roof, but it was an old church.

Outside the church there was a short wooden post with a hammer and a bowl of nails, and the wood was entirely encrusted with nails.  I wondered… is this so you can figuratively drive the nails into Christ yourself?  I still don’t understand the meaning of what that was at all.  There was also a giant sword wedged into a crack in the cliff, with the hilt attached by a chain to the wall.  A woman, possibly the ‘he surrounds himself with good people’ woman, said to Joyce in wonderment ‘it’s a miracle…’  Sure it is.  OR… some dude put it there.  What is with people.  What’s with me right now?  I think I’m hungry…

After climbing down the stairs, I checked out this weird store which seemed kind of like a regular souvenir shop upstairs, but it had this vast downstairs that I checked out alone while Joyce waited outside upstairs.  I was dumbstruck by what I found down there, especially with how much religious paraphernalia there was upstairs.  I saw huge Coca-Cola section, a wrestling memorabilia section?  WTF??  Not to mention the plethora of buddhas and hindu idols, and… just no idea.

Outside I saw a cat hanging out by the dumpsters which looked decidedly more stray.  Joyce said it was, based if nothing else on the fact that it was hanging out by the dumpsters, that cats wouldn’t hang out there looking for scraps unless they had to.

I never found sticker or bottle opener there, but I did at least find a souvenir coin.

So we left Rocamadour, and then headed on to a place called Dordogne.  On the way Mark had gone on at length about how we should lower our expectations, and how it was the last year they were going to this hotel, but that we shouldn’t mention this to the staff because there was still one tour coming through after us, and where to complain to, etc, etc, etc.  In the past on previous trips, when we’ve been given this kind of ‘warning’ it usually was an ironic rouse to set us up for the nicest hotel we’d be staying at the whole trip.  This was not the case this time though.

It was not the nicest hotel, I mean… I don’t have very high expectations in this regard.  It was another place with physical keys, the ceilings seemed to bow down in the hallways like they’d been water damaged… but other than that, no big deal.  There were little things like there being no water kettle, only an odd Keurig like machine which never ran clear no matter how many times I put water through it, little pieces of coffee stain always came through, so eventually I gave up and went downstairs to get hot water for my cup of noodles. 

The real disappointment came when it was dinner time, but again I was not that disappointed, certainly not as much as Joyce was.  Sure it was a little odd that the menu put on the table didn’t exactly match.  Sure it was a challenge to get our drinks refilled and Carolinda after dinner waited a loooong time for them to figure out how to give her milk for her tea, but other than that it was fine.

Before dinner I walked the half block down to the Carre-Four.  I had ideas to buy all kinds of things but I forgot a bag so in the end I just got Coke Light or beer or something, I don’t really remember.  I do remember that yet again I was unable to find the ham wrapped boursin, and that I found not only boxed wine, but bagged wine.  Stay classy Dordogne.

So our dinner.  Our appetizer was printed as a cold soup gazpacho.  It was instead a hot pumpkin soup (well, warm) and it was quite good.  Bland of course, but good.  Then the entrée was listed as beef cooked with red wine sauce and mixed potatoes.  It was instead a sheppard’s pie with just beef and potato.  Again, I liked it but Joyce was disappointed.  Dessert was advertised as Apple pie, but it was this odd thing which was like three quarters something between dough and flan filling, and remarkably unsweetened slices of apple overtop.  It was topped with a gingerbread ice cream, something we’d had somewhere else already but exactly where… oh right, it was at the winery dinner.  Joyce found it extremely disappointing and didn’t even eat most of it.  I found it bland, but not too bland for me to not eat all of it, especially since I’d been happily drinking wine.

As mentioned there was a fiasco where Carolinda, who was sitting with us, ordered caffeine free coffee with milk to someone who didn’t seem to speak a word of English, and it took a good ten minutes for them to figure out how to give her milk, and seemed to have forgotten about her several times. 

After dinner I had to have a shower, and it was almost as bad as the one which wasn’t a shower, but at least this time I was prepared for it and knew what to expect.  It at least had a mount for the shower head, about nipple high, and when I thought aiming it into the corner where the glass met the tub would be safe, it leaked out onto the plastic mat floor and it took me some time to realize this before I redeployed it.  I really missed my home shower.

France 2016 - Tuesday, October 11 - Albi by way of Carcassonne

Day 12: Journey to the Citadel of Carcassonne and to Albi

Cross the fertile Languedoc region, before heading inland to the fortified town of Carcassonne.  Travellers are often amazed at their first sight of this medieval gem. The city has a complete set of ramparts and a medieval keep.  Enjoy an orientation tour of Albi, known for its amazing cathedral and the birthplace of Toulouse Lautrec.  Hotel: Hostellerie Saint Antoine, Albi.  Buffet Breakfast, Dinner.

 

            Well I’ll be honest.  It was at this point that I stopped writing while on my trip.  I think I was getting tired of the trip at some point, and it became mentally exhausting to continue to write so much, and to find the time to while still out there.  So anyways, what preceded this point was written during the trip and cleaned up afterwards.  What follows is written approximately two weeks after the fact to the best of my recollection.

So we left Avignon this morning.  It was where we spent the most time on the whole trip, three whole nights.  It was nice, as I said earlier, I could see myself making a getaway for myself in my magical fantasyland.

After getting on the road, we eventually came to a comfort stop, after a period where the bus was way too hot.  I had a fan with me, which Joyce bought for me at once point but I didn’t think too much about, but it’s portable and USB powered, meaning that I can plug it into my big twenty thousand milliamp USB battery pack for just such occasions.  I just sit it up on the tray in front of my seat and stay quite comfortable while the rest of the bus suffers.  I brought it for the plane and although I didn’t use it going either way, the psychological value of knowing it was there if I needed it was immense.

At the first comfort stop I saw a military fuel truck which looked kind of funny for some reason.  I had Joyce take a picture of me with it.  It was also here while looking for snacks inside that I showed Carolinda the video of Ben Carson forgetting his luggage and she thought it was hilarious too.  I overheard the younger single traveler American woman say something to the effect of ‘so I just don’t talk to them anymore’ and wondered if it had anything to do with me but assured myself I was just paranoid.

Whether it was this day or the night before that we first saw it, at some point in Avignon Ronald and Irene bought matching loud button up shirts and now frequently wore them together.  They’re cute like that, I guess he’s a good sport.  Or she is…  Joyce told him about the John Lennon collection at the Bay and he seemed very interested.

Back on the road we saw an amazing number of wind turbines, they seemed to go off into the distance and some seemed to be really moving.  It was quite a sight to see, and a sight that made me very happy and encouraged for them, and kind of woeful for the rest of the world.

Our lunch stop was at a place called Carcassonne.  Not only was this definitively the point at which old walled cities officially became old, to the point that five minutes in we passed the Australian siblings who commented that they didn’t know how they were going to spend the time there, but it was to see this place that we bypassed the Millau Viaduct.  Man, fuck Carcassonne.  It was a little neat and different from the rest though.  It had a distinct renaissance fair feel to the buildings, it really looked like a castle with the pointed rooves and corrugated wall tops.  It also helped that right at the front drawbridge gate there was a fiddler dude who really created a mood.  I gave him some change and he said merci.

This place was big on the whole knights and jousting motif, to the point that I actually saw a full suit of armour for sale, as well as all kinds of swords and stuff.  We kept joking yeah, good luck getting that through airport security.  We wandered around for a bit, and I surveyed my coin, sticker, and bottle opener options.  Stickers I found right away, coins I quickly rushed over to where I saw the one which was the best of the three I saw around, and finally I bought a bottle opener which was one of the shitty ones again, and to top it all of it was overpriced.  And then, just to torture myself, I went into the shop immediately next door to see if I could find a better one, and of course I did, and for several euros cheaper.  Naturally.

After this, Joyce needed the bathroom, and I was keen for lunch though time was getting tight, so after some arguing we sat down somewhere.  I mentioned a wish to get a beer, but I ended up just getting a Coke Light and I think Joyce did as well.  She didn’t eat anything, but I had a breakfast Crêpe which was delish, it had white cheese and ham inside, and a fully cooked egg on top (well, fully cooked whites which is certainly enough).  I noticed again here that the server ordered directly onto an electronic device at the table, meaning that it went directly to the kitchen, meaning it wasn’t a thing there for servers to take several table’s orders and then ring them all in at the same time.  As a cook I like this of course, it seems like a great system.  In fact I’m pretty sure I’d seen them use those devices a number of times while we were over there.

After boarding the bus again we were on the road again.  It was on our way to our next stop that I had my next big lament after the viaduct over what we would be passing and not stopping at.  There was something l’espace, looking it up then and now later on, it was actually called ‘La Cité de l'espace’ and is a French national space centre.  Off the side of the road I saw a full scale model of an Arianne 5 rocket, and looking it up after we passed it I saw that it also had a full size model of the Mir space station which you could crawl around in as well as a Soyuz capsule, and a mock mission control in which one could oversee the simulated launch of an Arianne 5.  Oh man, I wished we could have stopped and checked that out.  Guess not thought to be of interest to our kind of crowd.  Très désolé…

Next we got into our hotel in Albi, and although in the write up above clearly says ‘enjoy an orientation tour of Albi’, none ever occurred.  Instead we were given maps and told what direction to head in if we wanted to see apparently the only thing interesting about Albi.  The hotel was interesting, if a little quirky.  For one we had physical keys that took some finesse to make work in the locks, and which we handed in at the front desk when we headed out because they were too bulky to carry around with us and had our hotel name and room number on them, meaning that if they were stolen the thief could use the key to get into our room since they knew exactly which one it was.  There was also an interesting garden in a sort of central courtyard to the building.  The hotel room itself was another with two twin beds lashed together to serve as a queen, which is fine but not ideal, had no fridge for me to put beer or pop in, however the window had the mechanical slats which came down to fully black out the window which I hadn’t seen since way back in Isle of Capri.  I think they’re great and that we should get them at home.  There’s a button by the bed to roll them up and down like a garage door and when they get to the bottom they then clack down more firmly on each other.  It’s strangely satisfying.

Anyways after getting our luggage we left the key at the front door and headed out.  In this situation a big part of you wants to just hang out, put your feet up, and wait for dinner time, and I think Joyce thought about doing just that, but you’ve got to just suck it up and get out there anyways.  I’ll probably never be in Albi again, and we leave in the morning, so I’m going to take the couple hours I have to see it to see as much as I can in a couple hours.  So we headed out.

Outside our hotel we found a town square with these really interesting fountains flanking a nice tree shaded areas.  These Europeans really like their fountains and I approve.  They really class up the joint.  Also, a merry go round.  We saw one in Avignon too… and Nice, apparently they’re everywhere and we’re not sure why other than… kids like em?  I guess?  I stopped in to a corner store looking for stickers and bottle openers, but no luck.  Porno mags though… I kept that noted.  We then walked down this side street with innumerable pink umbrellas hanging overhead.  The banner translated as October Pink.  Ah, breast cancer.  Sein, is apparently breast.  You’d think I’d know that. 

Walking down that alley we got the impression that this part of France saw tourists a lot less frequently.  Although we eventually came across tourist shops beside the city’s main draw, the cathedral, otherwise we didn’t see any.  I did however see a cardboard cutout of a rugby player begging to have his picture taken with me pretending to be kicking him in the nuts, and I obliged.  We also passed the elderly single Australian lady Annette along the way, I believe she was buying something from a street vendor.  Hearing her say French words is funny in that there is zero attempt at accent whatsoever.

When we rounded the corner and saw the cathedral, it took my breath away.  The Cathedral Sainte-Cécile for the record.  In my travels, I’ve seen a lot of churches, and quite a few cathedrals, but this was extraordinarily imposing.  It was made entirely of red brick and was so big!  It was another one of those experiences where your mind keeps trying to reject the notion that something could be that bid and still be that far away.  I walked up to it and took a picture looking up the side of it like I did with the skyscrapers in Manhattan, and Joyce took a picture of me (and a couple from our group we ran into) at its base for a scale comparison.  There’s no way to make the pictures convey just how imposing a structure like that is to see, especially when you’re not really expecting it.

We went inside, and it was… a church.  It was impressive and all, but still all seemed so wasteful and silly.  Absolutely the last place I would ever want to hang out if I was the master of all space, time, and matter.  Joyce is still very irritated with me taking pictures of her taking pictures, I still find it immensely amusing.  We also took note of the severe contamination and transmission hazard that is the ‘holy’ water.

Outside we wandered the back streets for a bit, thinking we’d be able to loop back around but we came to a dead end and had to retrace our steps.  The area was remarkably run down, but relatively well to do people still passed on their way to and from their homes there.  We saw an interesting mural painted onto the side of one building, which included a recreation of the creation of Adam, two old men sitting outside a café and a French soldier watching on, and a woman leaning out of a window near the top of the building.

 At one point I heard a cat meowing from overhead but we never saw it.  Joyce also took pictures of me in front of doors which barely came up to my shoulders.  We also passed by a museum of… somebody, who is apparently supposed to be the other big draw of Albi.  We came across another fountain, a sort of long reflecting pool with arches at the end which we couldn’t figure out if they were genuine Roman ruins or a recreation.  Behind that we found a switchback path through a park down to the river.  We went down a few rungs, but then decided to head back.  We also noticed that some of the brick work by that reflecting poos was roman style, wide flat bricks.

Coming back around the cathedral I went into the gift shop and found my bottle opener and stickers.  I can’t remember if I thought it a good idea to get a souvenir coin from the cathedral.  I could check right now, but I won’t.  On our way back to the hotel, I informed Joyce that I was going to buy that porno magazine and she was half confused and half amused, but that was about it, not that I really expected her to have a problem with it, it’s just embarrassing.  I’d explained why I wanted to earlier though, the curiosity.  So I went into the shop alone and bought it, tucking it under my arm until we got back to the hotel.

We had a bit of time, so I convinced Joyce to go to a very nearby small grocery store, and along the way we saw a big red dog, the third inexplicable large red creature I’d seen in Europe.  I referred to it as Clifford naturally and had Joyce take a picture of me with it scratching it’s head between its ears.

We went on to the grocery store, and I was primarily looking for that ham wrapped boursin again, but no luck!  Oh!  That was the other thing!  I had found it in the small Carre-Four in Avignon, but I’d forgotten it in our bar fridge!  At one point Joyce asked me where it was and I immediately remembered that I’d forgotten it there.  Idiot!  So we looked again for it here and found none.  We thought about getting prosciutto and these odd cubes of boursin but in the end we got the cubes and some crackers and made do in the hotel room.  Joyce also got some remarkably cheap rose wine (it wasn’t a cheap wine, I just mean that all the wine was remarkably inexpensive compared to prices at home), one of the few screw tops we could find, because of course we now had ten bottle openers but not a single cork screw.  I also saw giant sacs of escargot, ready to bake!  I guess, or whatever you do with escargot…

When we got back to the hotel we broke into the wine, cheese, and crackers, and I tore off the plastic on the magazine.  It certainly was interesting, it seemed focused on the ‘Dear Penthouse’ letters format, with a remarkable amount of ads for sex phone lines, and unbelievably expensive DVDs of really bad looking pornography.  It made me wonder how such a thing still existed, the same curiosity that led me have to investigate what could be inside, I mean have these people never heard of the internet?

Now already a little full from cheese and crackers (not usually a problem due to smaller portion sizes for our dinners) we made our way down to the included hotel dinner.  Our appetizer was what was billed as a Salade Albigeoise, an Albi salad, and it was green apple slices and what we believe was pork over spring mix and drizzled with some sort of salad dressing.  A lot of people didn’t finish it or even eat much of it.  I quite liked it though, and I ate every last bit on my plate.

Our entrée was a chicken leg, smothered in mushrooms and gravy which was really good, but I hate eating bony things like that when I don’t feel free to pick it up and eat it with my hands.  Trying to tease meat of a leg like that I find not only incredibly tedious, but dangerous as well.  It seems far too easy to accidentally fling something towards others or onto oneself.  Served with it were French fries and a baked tomato.  I liked the fries of course, the tomato… not so much.  I’m never very hot on cooked tomato.  Hot tomato sauce, yes.  Whole baked tomato, no.  Dessert was a dark chocolate tart in some sort of custard cream sauce.  It was very good, but not anything extraordinary.

Having had some wine and some more alcohol at dinner, I was getting overheated by the end when they directed us to where we could get ourselves some coffee or tea, something which is ALWAYS following a dinner her, possibly by law with how insistent they are about it.  I sat out in the glassed in patio which was nice and cool, and listened through the windows as Joyce and the other travelers talked inside.  I only caught bits and pieces, but Joyce told me later that they talked about the tipping of the tour director and driver, as is expected, though not required, and something Joyce is increasingly frustrated with.  She stopped doing so on our last trip, and in talking with the other travelers found out that many of them do not as well, particularly the Australians.

The Australians are so well known not to tip, that Insight offers the option to pay a tip beforehand as part of the cost of the trip.  Well that’s not really a tip then is it?  Like all tipping it’s just a way to offload the company’s financial risk of operating to its employees, a way to lie about the price of the trip, list it as cheaper than its true cost, and pay the employees a depressed wage and make them risk and bear the burden of tips not being paid.  Joyce doesn’t pay on principle and rages at them about it on the how did we do form we fill out at the end of the trip.  I relay a similar sentiment on mine because I agree.

After that it was off to bed, leaving the cheese on the windowsill to stay cool.

France 2016 - Monday, October 10 - Olive Mill and Les Baux

Day 11:  Free Time in Avignon

(Relaxed Start) This day is at leisure for you to relax and soak up the atmosphere of Avignon.  Why not take an optional experience to Les Baux-de-Provence, one of the most picturesque villages in France with its superb stone fortress and Renaissance facades?  Visit an Olive Mill and sample some of the finest olive oil in France.  Hotel: Avignon Grand Hotel, Avignon.  Buffet Breakfast.

 

Day 3 in Avignon.

 

Today we started out by going to an olive oil farm, but on the way we stopped by a bit of ruins on the way.  Unlike the aqueduct, these ones I was actually able to climb up and move around on and really feel.  They date back to the first century A.D.  Who knows what they were originally for, no doubt just a point of prestige out in the provinces, a sign of strength and comfort far from home.  But damn I love seeing these things, even more when I can get up real close and touch it with both hands, close my eyes and try to fathom the scope of what is in my hands, the amount of years and people who have passed between us, the permanence of it, and the impermanence of so much else.  I mused to Mark about how not much of what we build will be around as long, wondering just how long this would outlast just how much of what we build. 

The depictions of Roman soldiers on it were like self-portraits left to us from the past; this is how men two thousand years ago saw themselves.  Every one of them had hopes and dreams and fears, each lived and died, each existed, and each had a whole rich and diverse universe in their minds as vibrantly rich and real as my own.  And now they are all gone, as are countless generations in between, and as I too will be, and all too soon.  The cosmos laughs at us all in our imagined self-importance.  If we’re lucky, some piece of us remains just a little longer, like these ruins.  I’d like to think my books might.  As these structures say of their builders, I hope my books say for me even when I’m gone: I existed.  I hoped and I dreamed.  I thought and I believed.  Remember that you are mortal, and although your time is brief, it is real and it is now, and it will soon all be gone.  Make it count as I have tried to.  It’s a lot to hope for, but I hope for a lot.

Then, the olive farm.  It was interesting.  It certainly didn’t change my life, but it was interesting.  They harvest the olives from the trees with mechanical shakers, they then go through several sorting and washing machines until they have just the olives left.  They then grind them up into a paste, and use a two stage centrifuge process to extract all of the oil.  The oil then goes into vats until they are bottled and canned.  There is no aging like wine, in fact even sealed it doesn’t last longer than 2 years.  We tried a bunch of different things, different flavoured olive oil, lemon, herb, a special oil which was black olive-y that I liked.  Joyce tried some olive oil based hand lotion.  We tried, and Joyce bought, some olive paste or paté or whatever, good stuff. 

I walked out of the sales room outside first.  It was an absolutely perfectly clear blue sky.  We were still in the grips of The Nistral; a cold wind blows…  I marveled at the clarity of the sky and took a picture of blue nothing.  A fellow Canadian male traveler followed me out, a man with a severe hump which makes me try to stand and sit up straighter at the sight, and who always wears a Canadian flag pin.  At an earlier dinner, possibly our first night in Avignon, the happy idiot ugly American asked me about my Canada wrist band.  I bought it before we left, and since Nice I’ve sported a white one which says Nice and has the French flag.  It’s kind of a solidarity thing now, plus I wanted a thinner band than my Canada one, but now I’m just wearing both. 

He asked me about my Canada one, and if I got it there in France or before I left and asked why I wore it.  I was stumped.  I didn’t know what to say to him.  The reason is so people don’t think I’m one of YOU, so they don’t think I’m American you idiot.  Instead I just muttered something about how I was just showing that I was Canadian, trying to avoid having to explain any further.  Joyce believed the other Canadians at the table understood without me having to say anything.  In any case, when I was alone outside with the other Canadian guy wearing a flag pin, I retold this happening and was able to say the real reason, and he of course completely understood with his flag pin.  He said that there had been clear experiences when people treated him distinctly differently when they realized he was Canadian and not American.  That morning Joyce told me that when she first started travelling the Americans wore a lot more gaudy American paraphernalia but that this had largely ceased the more they feel like they might be targeted overseas for everything from mugging to terrorism.  They should reflect on that more.

We then went to yet another walled city.  Les Beaux apparently.  Apparently it was once a place where they mined bauxite.  Apparently it was originally occupied by a people who referred to themselves as Eagles, as in untamable.  They held onto their independence through determination and brutality through everything since the Romans, until some Louis finally conquered them.  The remains of the true fortress were apparently at the very top, but we declined to pay to go all the way to the top to find out.  Joyce tells me she’d been up there last time we were here and that we weren’t missing anything.

Instead we got some lunch.  I wanted to as I was increasingly disillusioned with the breakfasts at our hotel in Avignon, to the point that I just gave up on it altogether and resolved to have lunch when the opportunity came up.  The absolute worst egg pudding yet, utterly undercooked bacon, and sausages soaking in grease.  

In Arles we’d seen a flea market which was very interesting; it was one massive garage sale put on by twenty or thirty families.  There were twenty year old DVDs in French, children’s clothes of various ages… that kind of thing.  Anyways, at the end of market there was a sort of food truck style permanent shack where a large older French woman with pale straw coloured hair, and lip liner which looked like it may have been tattooed onto her lips, was making food.  I was fascinated by the total absence of food safe sense and I got it in my mind that I wanted to try the food.  I stood and watched with Joyce as she made somebody steak frites, which turned out to be a baguette with what at first appeared to be steak cooked in a panini press, but must have been ground beef based on how easily she pushed it apart with her tongs.  Along with the beef, she also stuffed into the baguette French fries which she cooked in a tiny little fryer while her little dog ran back and forth in the shack underneath her feet. 

I’m not sure if she put it in this particular ‘dish’ but she was also cutting up tomato and tearing apart lettuce in little plastic containers.  She used the same knife to cut the tomato as she did to cut the baguette, as well as to plunge deeply into the giant mayonnaise container which was sitting at room temperature (at the coolest) all day, and we considered that when she was done with that jar, however many days it took her to get through it, she no doubt plunged the same knife just as deeply into the next jar immediately after without washing it. 

It was about this point that Joyce pointed out to me the quite shabby looking (though not quite homeless looking) elderly French man drinking wine out of a bottle and joking with her.  No paper bag or anything, just swigging out of his own wine bottle for lunch.  Why?  Because this is France, and because we are French.  Anyways, I stood in line for five minutes hoping to get one which my phone translated to Moroccan sausage, but at that point it was clear that there was no chance that we would be able to get served before the bus left, and I had to give up. 

As I mentioned, in Les Beaux I wanted lunch after giving up on the breakfast at the hotel.  I was pretty sure that I wanted some kind of sandwich, and we found an appropriate place, which had about four small tables and about eight chairs.  The place looked sparse and iffy, and the guy looked like he was serving what was left from the summer season.  Perfect.  I ordered the steak frites and Joyce ordered a croque monsieur out of a similar morbid fascination.  She was sure it wouldn’t be the dried out one under the glass, but as I figured, he indeed pulled it out of the cabinet and took it into the back with him.   The second frying sound she heard was not him throwing the essentially a ham and cheese grilled sandwich with cheese melted overtop (a croquet madame is the same but with a grilled egg overtop) into the deep fryer as she thought, but was instead him throwing my fries into the fryer.  The first sound we concluded must have been him first throwing on the meat for my sandwich.  He asked if I wanted mayo or ketchup and I said yes.  He asked ‘both’?  Yes, I nodded.  He told me it would take ‘deux minutes’, and I told him I wanted a Leffe blonde beer with it.  This was one of the three brands Mark suggested I try while I was there.  Mark suggested beers called Pel Porth and Chimays as well, but I never had the chance to try those.  I paid for it all in cash (and he wound up having to rummage through his pockets to give me change), and then I went to go sit down with Joyce.

We sat by a couple who I later sat with and talked to a couple days later, but at that point we hadn’t really spoken together so we kept to ourselves.  I can’t remember which names they were, but they were a nice older Australian couple.

The man brought us our food.  Mine was in a long paper envelope which if memory serves had some sort of beer log on it.  It was yellow.  It was a baguette cut lengthwise, with burger meat cooked approximately seventy percent and mashed up into it, French fries pressed into that, and ketchup run over it.  I didn’t notice any mayo on it, though I concede that it may have been there without my noticing.  It was pretty good actually, perhaps something to experiment with at work back home.  I’d fully cook the meat thought.  Joyce’s Croque monsieur was exactly as described and actually pretty tasty, and not as greasy as Mark had warned us it might be. 

The Leffe beer Mark suggested and which I tried I found to be quite good actually, though the more random beer I try here, the more I can tell that they clearly have a taste for a fruity taste to their beer (no tasteless jokes there please).  When I want to be sure to enjoy my beer I make sure that they have regular 1664 or Heineken or something.  I confirmed with Mark that you say seize-soixante-quatre when you order a 1664 as opposed to mille-six-cent-soixante-quatre as I learned to say the year formally in school.

The last night in Avignon we went to a nice dinner across the river.  Not on the island itself where another pope’s palace was (no wonder God always needs money), but on the far side of the other leg of the river.  Supposedly though, under where the bridge would have been if it was still standing going all the way from one side to the other and carried on, was where the restaurant was located.  It was nice.  I wore my nicest shirt, the one that’s uncomfortably tight and which I was fidgeted with it all night long.  Joyce thought I looked nice thought. 

We sat with Carolinda, a different, much sweeter couple from California, and a couple from Australia.  As for the Australian couple, Rajani Srinivasan and Lynton Ireland, he was quite quiet, and we’re pretty sure his wife is originally Indian as she is quite dark skinned and had an appropriate accent though it was muddied a little with Australian.  She was the one who spoke about doing this trip for the sake of doing something normal in the face of the terrorist attacks. 

Soon into the night, politics came up and the California couple didn’t want to talk politics and it soon became evident why.  She said neither one should be there (as in the party’s nominees) and we all agreed.  She said one is a crook and the other is a liar.  I said yeah, but which one’s which and she gave me an odd look like as though it wasn’t a perfectly reasonable response to what she had said.  Soon after that she said that Trump may be terrible but he at least surrounds himself with good people… like Guiliani and Ben Carson.  Oh Jesus. 

My reflexive though which I avoided actually saying was ‘yeah like George W. Bush surrounded himself with good people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz.  This is apparently what Joyce’s evangelical ex said in defence of ol’ G. Dubs when it was pointed out what an utter irredeemable moron HE was.  Carolinda, who I like more and more, nearly figuratively chocked at hearing this and started hyperventilating about what a batty loon Ben Carson was with all his portraits of himself, and Jesus, and himself with Klingon Jesus all around his home, and at this point we all essentially joined hands and reiterated that this is why we shouldn’t talk politics.  We stopped doing so, and congratulated ourselves on our ability to do just that, and to go on to be civil to each other and enjoy a nice meal together.

Of the sweet couple, I never caught what she did or had done professionally if anything, but he said he was a civil engineer (or had been before retiring), and she had kids with a previous husband though the two of them had now been together longer than she’d been with him.  She’s from Minnesota while he’s a California native.  He avoided the Vietnam War but just barely as a student.  He seemed a little too jubilant about that to me, telling stories about how his buddies who were in the navy would get in to San Diego and visit him on campus with all the hot university chicks and threaten him that he’d better not screw up his good thing and their place to visit.  I suppose I hoped for a bit more of a reverent thankfulness at not having had to go than such a celebratory spirit… but whatever. 

She is originally from Minnesota and you can still hear it in her voice, and she commented to Joyce back at Hôtel-Dieu about hearing a Midwestern note in her accent with how she said something as a Canadian earlier in our tour.  Again, she’s sweet, but clearly a republican.  It was interesting to meet a republican out in the wild who isn’t a raving lunatic truther Alex Jones Brightbart type.  I knew they had to be out there, hell I’ll even go so far as to say there are probably as many well-meaning but misinformed ones out there as the ill-intending, but you sure don’t meet them often when you keep in your own circles, especially living in Canada.

As I said, I like Carolinda more and more, and she had an interesting story.  I believe she said she originally grew up in Indiana as a German speaker, and back then (she’s pretty old, as in mid-sixties-ish) Germans weren’t taken to very kindly.  She wound up going to university in Virginia and studying French, then went to graduate school for English but didn’t finish, wound up in Washington, D.C., and has lived there ever since.  She’s travelling by herself (a remarkable total of three are travelling by themselves on this trip) and soon after we started Joyce observed that Carolinda was like she herself was when Joyce had travelled alone, always with her head up and looking around, trying to absorb as much as she could and always going forth into the wild as much as possible.  I keep trying to get around to asking her if she’s religious since I figure she’s not.  She’s on the list of half a dozen or so people on this trip with me who I’ll see if I can find on Facebook when I get home.  The next day I showed her the Ben Carson losing his luggage video and she thought it was as funny as Joyce and I did.  Moron…

Anyway the actual dinner!  We had two choices, and as Joyce and I like to do we got the different ones so we could try each other’s and switch if we wanted to.  For the appetizer, I got a cold eggplant purée cake which really I didn’t enjoy at all.  Joyce had zucchini blossoms stuffed with soft cheese and fresh mushrooms with a wonderful mushroom cream sauce.  I ate half of mine and switched with Joyce after she’d eaten half of hers. 

Entrée was a lamb cake with something like an eggplant scalloped potatoes and a sweetened carrot purée.  I’d joked that I was hoping it would be a regular cake in the shape of a lamb, and the Sacramento guy, whose wife likes to say that people always say he looks like Ed Harris (but he really doesn’t) said that he used to get that for his birthdays, that his sister actually has a lamb cake mould.  When I looked up what a lamb cake was on the bus several days earlier, the only pictures that came up were of lamb shaped dessert cakes.  What it actually was however, was pieces of lamb meat, mushrooms, and tomato paste/sauce all pressed into a tall puck shape placed in a pool of gravy, and it was SUPER good.  Joyce had the same kind of gilthead brean bream fish which we both had a couple night before, again in a basil cream sauce but this time with crushed Kalamata like olives.  Dessert for me was a three layer desert, chocolate brownie bottom, chocolate mousse in the middle, and white chocolate mousse on top with triangular shapes bruléed into the top.  Joyce had a very pretty strawberry cake.

France 2016 - Sunday, October 09 - Arles Amphitheatre, Pont du Gard

Day 10: City of the Popes, Arles, and Avignon

Head to the beautiful town of Arles, ancient capital of Gaul and follow in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh during an orientation tour.  Next, see the greatest of the Roman remains, the incredible three-tiered Pont du Gard.  See the remaining arches of the 12th century Pont Saint-Bénézet, the Pont d'Avignon of the famous song and walk through the medieval battlements to the town centre, dominated by the fortified Papal Palace.  The rest of your day is at leisure.  Hotel: Avignon Grand Hotel, Avignon.  Buffet Breakfast.

 

We went on an optional day trip excursion to Arles today.  We mustered at the Jules Cesar hotel.  There was a story to the city with regards to Cesar but I don’t remember it.  It was the ancient capital of Gaul.  Maybe this was where Cesar garrisoned troops.  Here in this part of France there is something called ‘The Mistral’, a strong wind which essentially blows constantly from the snowy Alps to the warm Mediterranean.  People were bundled up like they were going on an arctic expedition, but I wore pants and a t-shirt.  Sure it was cold, sure the wind was severe but again, I can observe the cold without really feeling it in a way that I just can’t with heat.  I was fine and others marveled at it.  Apparently The Mistral always comes in threes, be it three hours, three days, three months… three years, apparently in olden times The Mistral could be considered a mitigating factor in crimes of passion.  I could see that.  

Today was a good day, a day when I posted on Facebook that I’d ‘walked with the ancients today’.  The highlight for me in Arles was the Roman amphitheater which is still used today for (among other things) bull fights in either the traditional Spanish style where they kill the bull, or in the Course Camarguaise style where they try to pluck a gold tassel from between the bull’s horn.  I prefer this way.  I was offended at the red fence around the interior of the arena where the matadors could retreat too if they got into trouble.  Unfair.  If you’re going to fight an animal to the death, at least have the decency to do it on fair terms where the bull has as much chance of killing the matador as the other way around.  Otherwise you’re just torturing a defenseless animal for the amusement of a crowd and pretending to be any more enlightened than when Roman gladiators battled to the death for the blood lusting entertainment of the crowd thousands of years earlier in the very same arena.  

I touched the cold stone, closed my eyes and lowered my head in reverence.  Two hundred centuries before I was born this structure had been standing and in use.  How many centuries after I am gone will it persist in amusement at my impermanence?  There’s something magical about touching ancience.  It makes me think of a scene in Star Trek: First Contact when Data and Picard have a conversation about how different an experience it is to actually touch a thing than to just see it in a picture or from any distance.  It’s magical to be able to actually touch something that’s been around for so long, and that has seen so many people like me come and go.

In the amphitheatre I followed a cat.  I saw it and I approached it to take pictures, but then when it left it did so slowly, and I followed it as long as I could through tunnels and doorways.  It merowed at me several times as it walked away, and I missed my cats.  I am always wary of them possibly being strays so I don’t want to actually try to touch them, but based on the pictures I took Joyce assured me that it surely appeared well fed enough to be a kept cat as opposed to a stray.  I see a lot of cats.  I like cats.  I want a dog as well.  There were other ruins there was well near the amphitheatre, but they were fenced off and were no longer used for anything.  It was still interesting to see what was left behind after the ‘recycling’ of the materials for other things over the centuries.  

A building which is now the town hall, had an amazing multi-arch ceiling which gave it an amazing amount of open space inside.  The guide told us that it still wasn’t known exactly which stone was the true keystone, so they had to be sure to repair ones that failed and fell out as soon as they did.

We then had a tour focused on Van Gogh.  I’m generally not big into artists, but Van Gogh is famous enough that it was an interesting tour.  Our local guide told us that he spent a bunch of time here and died there in the end.  Apparently he was something of an undesirable in Provence at the time, and when his art started becoming a bit desirable people came back to Arles to collect all of the artwork which had been left there.  Some were portraits of their relative which they didn’t like, in other cases they were sketches he’d left in payment for his bar or restaurant tab.  

We saw the mental hospital garden which he painted, though it was in the middle of being pulled up for winter planting.  We also saw a restaurant which he painted.  The guide we had was fine, she was an older woman and was typically adequate and knowledgeable, but nothing special.  She made a point of telling us that the café depicted in Van Gogh’s painting was expensive and of low quality, that they rested on that notoriety alone.  I appreciated that.  She also pointed out that it was only now painted yellow since it appeared yellow in the painting, but was not originally.  She explained that it only appeared yellow in the painting due to it being lit by streetlights and was originally a different colour.  

I like taking pictures of statues and paintings with exposed breasts.  I’m a man-child.

Joyce and I got a little lost after the tour ended as we tried to find our way back to the old mental hospital where we knew public bathrooms were.  In the end we gave up and made our way out to the main street and pottied and dashed again.  The place where we sat down we only then noticed Ronald and his wife sitting behind me, and they reported that the salads were very big.  As we left after Joyce had used the bathroom, I saw Mark eating Daube bull stew either at the same restaurant or the one beside it, I’m not sure.  If it was the same one he must have been right behind Ronald and Irene.  He made the obligatory joke about it being the bull that lost.  We went into another store where I found the a sticker, having found a bottle opener at a side street souvenir shop earlier, and I again saw the same either the sticker or bottle opener I was still looking for, and I saw those same porno magazines.   I’m not going to go out of my way to look for them, but I think I’m resolved to my intention of buying one out of curiosity next chance I see them, Joyce or no Joyce.  If nothing else it would certainly be an interesting souvenir.

Next after Arles was a big deal.  We went to the Pont du Gard, a three level roman aqueduct, and the second largest surviving aqueduct structure in Europe.   It was truly an amazing site to see, definitely something worth coming out all this way for.  It looked basically straight, but it had something like an eighteenth of a degree gradient, with a meter by meter wide tube which carried something thousands of litres a second over fifty kilometers from the mountains down into their garrison at Nimes.  Twenty centuries old, and the capacity of that structure wasn’t duplicated by more modern engineers until the fifties.  Absolutely amazing.  

We walked along a parallel bridge right beside it which was more like a hundred years old and we were able to look up at it in amazement.  I asked Mark how they fed it at the source, what structure you’d find if you went to the very end of it, which is something I’ve always wondered about these aqueducts.  He told me that at the end there would have been a large holding tank that fed directly into it, and that many smaller streams would be redirected into that holding tank to allow for a constant supply.  Amazing.  My best guess had been that you’d just run the aqueduct directly into the flow of a large river, but of course I realized after I learned the truth that there would be no large rivers up in the mountains to feed into it, rivers all start out an innumerable small streams up in the mountains and only aggregate into larger rivers as they get lower and lower.   Apparently the original structure still exists up in the mountains.  I’d love to see it someday.  

It was a real treat to see that, a real walk with the ancients moment, or ‘#insightmoment’ as Mark kept urging us to post online, which I never did.  Joyce had apparently already seen the Pont du Gard and figured I’d really enjoy it.  She was right.  She’s seen a lot of what we’re doing on this trip, but from different sides and in different seasons, and shown different thing altogether in the same places.  From now on however, we’re moving on to places she’s never seen before.  Maybe it’s being from a place where there are no structures left around from more than a few hundred years ago, but it’s something so special to see.  It’s… humbling.  It gives sympathy for those from previous eras who had to look at the aqueducts or the pyramids and wonder what gods among men created these marvels far beyond anything they could even dream of doing.  It makes me wonder what we’ll leave behind for future humans to marvel at if they’re lucky enough to survive the catastrophe we are creating to leave for them.  Plastic, I suppose.

Apparently, long before the aqueduct stopped working altogether, the flow was severely compromised by communities along the way tapping into it, you know since it was there and all.  Also, I always figured that it was just a sort of open topped sluiceway, but it was in fact completely covered over and made watertight with some sort of fat and grease concoction.  Absolutely amazing.  Mark pointed out the stones which jutted out for maintenance, as well as that there was no mortar, that it was all just well fitted stone.  I felt good about how in ‘Arrival’ I wrote that the only surviving structures of the Squiddies was their unmortared stone tunnels.

There were a number of very old cars there on the side we arrived to first, around ten or so, and not too long after the Model T era.  They must have been having some sort of owner’s club gathering.

We saw olive trees whose trunks looked like twisted up licorice.  Apparently sometime in the recent past there was a severe frost which killed off all the olive trees.  Was it the fifties Mark said?  Olive trees don’t die outright when they’re cut apparently, instead they grow back from the roots and all the smaller new trunks converge and twist around each other, creating a remarkable looking tree like I described later on with enough time.  The one we saw and which I had Joyce take a picture of me with had a plaque stating that this particular one was known to be over four hundred years old.

We walked on to the visitor centre on the other side of the bridge, and by now I was feeling remarkably nauseous.  I was worried that I’d eaten something which was poisoning me.  I bought a giant water when Joyce got a chocolate covered strawberry ice cream bar, and as soon as we got back on the bus I had my anti-nausea pills, and eventually I felt okay again.  At this point I had to start rationing my anti-nausea pills.  I’d been using them too liberally to allow me to read and write while travelling in the bus.  With all the beer and cream I’d been drinking and eating, I’d likewise begun to need to ration my tums supply.

I felt better after my pills and getting back on the bus.  Before going back to the hotel, we got off of the bus on the other side of the Avignon central walled city from our hotel, and our bus went on to wait for us there while Mark walked us through it back to the hotel.  That way we could leave most of our stuff on the bus and pick it up on our way back up to our room after the walk through town.  Avignon was apparently the centre of that pope schism I remember hearing about in my audio history courses in the middle ages.  Avignon is apparently where the other popes went.  The word Avignon makes me think of Shakespeare, but I’m pretty sure I’m thinking of something else I can’t quite come up with as long as Avignon is still in the front of my mind.  

We saw the pope’s residence, a fortress really.  Avignon exists where the river Rhone divides into two legs around a large island before rejoining.  There’s a remnant of a bridge spanning the island that only goes halfway across the river on the walled city side.  Apparently at some point this past year the river was so high that they had to cancel river cruises and reimburse would be passengers.  I found Avignon remarkably peaceful and pleasant.  I could see myself living here.  It was of course again just another walled city, but they do all have their uniqueties.  I could see myself having a modest getaway in this part of the world and thoroughly enjoying it.  In my dream life where I’m a successful and respected writer, I’d have a home here where I retreated to for two or three months when I needed to put the finishing touches on the latest novel I’d been working on.

After showing us the pope’s palace, Mark led us through the old town (which is always the touristy part), and back through to our hotel.  We asked him to recommend a place to eat.  Joyce and I hadn’t had much sleep the night before, and we planned on having a relatively early dinner after getting back to the hotel, and then turning in early afterwards.  He recommended one place, and not only was it too expensive, but it didn’t open until 730.  He recommended another for us.  We wanted to go to a place that had the local specialty ‘daube’, a beef stew cooked for 24 hours, and he assured us this other place he recommended would have it.

We went back to our hotel, freshened up, and headed back out.  I led us back to where Joyce saw some tablecloths she wanted to buy on the far side of the old town, and on the way back we stopped in several places looking for stickers and bottle openers for me, and oddly never found any.  This city where we spent three nights, no luck anywhere.  There were certainly a plethora of tourist shops, but I couldn’t find anywhere the particular things I was looking for.  Giving up, we proceeded to the suggested restaurant, and I wanted to sit outside.  

Joyce thought it would be too cold to sit outside, but decided not to mention this when I’d said back at the hotel that I intended to sit outside.  Restaurants are always so hot inside, especially after you’ve eaten and drank some, and they crank the heat because everyone else things it’s cold out.

One server came out and gave us a menus, a young woman with short white hair.  We were the only ones sitting outside.  At one point a guy walking by said something rather aggressively in French, and when we clearly didn’t understand he said ‘give me money?’ quite abruptly.  We said we didn’t have any.  He then proceeded to make the same demand of everyone he passed on the street as he went on.  He acted as though everyone owed him money and he was trying to collect.  

Eventually a male server came out to take our order.  Having believed I’d figured out the beer thing, I ordered the blonde of a beer brand I wasn’t familiar with, as well as onion soup to start (still chasing the cheese on the bottom dragon), and the daube.  I must have gotten one of the last ones, one or two other people form our group were able to get it at that restaurant, but we learned the next day that they had run out of it.  Joyce ordered warm goat cheese salad and penne with tomato basil and olive sauce, as well as wine for herself.  Although the onion soup did not have cheese on the bottom, it was very good nonetheless.  It was thicker and more like a stew, and came in a bread bowl.  The only chees which came with it was grated parmesan or something in a ramekin on the side.  I ate the soup, scooped out all of the soft bread with the spoon, and then wound up eating the entire soup bowl while I waited for the next thing to come.  

The beer was not what I hoped, it was also quite fruity.  It wasn’t so much as the 1664 Blanc, but still too fruity for my taste.  Joyce tried it and she liked it enough, so I let her drink it and ordered a standard 1664 and Joyce had another wine.  My daube was quite exquisite, big hunks of smoky beef in a thick stew broth with carrots and potato and salty black olives which tasted kind of kalamata-y, with a side of pesto sauce over a thick egg noodle.  

Every interaction we had with the staff was with a different person.  I ordered a crème brulée and that was the last we heard from them, the very last time anyone came out.  They were obviously busy inside, but I made eye contact with staff several times and for like half an hour, none of them ever came out.  Joyce was cold and frustrated, and eventually we resolved to just leave if they couldn’t be bothered enough to attend to us and get paid.  So we dined and dashed on a one hundred euro bill.  Joyce figures the restaurant culture is sufficiently different here that the servers probably didn’t have to eat the cost, and that they all probably thought we were someone else’s problem, but still.  I really didn’t feel great about it.  I wouldn’t say I outright regret it per se, but it’s something I’ve never done before and I certainly don’t feel great about it.

France 2016 - Saturday, October 08 - Avignon by way of St. Paul De Vence, Aix en Provence, and Chateauneuf Du Pape

Day 9: Journey Through Picturesque Provence to Avignon

Visit the medieval village of St-Paul-de-Vence, perched high above the Riviera beaches.  A walk through its winding streets reveals elegant fountains, vine-covered stone walls and views of mountains and sea.  Continue to Aix-en-Provence to see the sumptuous mansions lining the Cours Mirabeau, before continuing to the pretty village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Enjoy a wonderful introduction to the famous wine, taste the difference for yourself and learn about the various grape varieties that are allowed in the final blend of the prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine.  Journey on to Avignon for the next three nights.  Hotel: Avignon Grand Hotel, Avignon.  Buffet Breakfast, Dinner.

 

There was a remarkably pretty sunset over the water at breakfast in Nice today.  Everyone got out their cameras to take pictures of the sun rising over the water.

After we let Nice on our way to our next destination, we stopped at another walled city, St-Paul-de-Vence.  It was yet another walled city, and which is now a super expensive artist community, a getaway in the mountains for the rich of Nice.  It was fine, but not especially any more remarkable than any other walled city.  By this point it was getting well and truly old, though each was supposed to have some claim to interest.  For this town in particular it was the cemetery at the top of it with Mark Chagal, some artist I’ve heard of but don’t care about and couldn’t pick a piece of his art out of a line up or now for that matter be entirely certain what media he worked in if pressed to answer the question.  It was here at the garish tomb studded cemetery, the kind in which it seems they’re worried about vampires rising from the dead, requiring them to put heavy stones over the bodies with big stone crosses, or little stone houses to house whole families of dead, that Joyce and I talked about burial.  

She likes my idea of being buried in a cardboard box with a tree planted over top of me, so I nourish the tree and have it serve as a living monument to me.  Both embalming and a heavy casket are ridiculous.  You’re dead.  Accept it.  Also, Neil degrasse Tyson clued me in that with cremation, through combustion, most of the energy of your matter is released into the atmosphere, when then largely bleeds out into space.  Therefore, I would prefer to rot in the ground, happily returning the matter of my body back to the earth from which it came.  That is of course, assuming that having my body shot out into the interstellar void and free of the sun’s gravity forever like the Voyager spacecrafts, to possibly be someday cloned by an advanced alien race eons from now, is not an option.  As for the more practical burial, I’ll have to find out where you can do this.  I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of it at some point so it must be a thing somewhere, though I also mused about starting the company myself, finding the land, getting permits and whatnot, and have that be the thing I do with my life.  The burial ceremony itself would be people actually planting the tree together and remembering the person.  Sounds nice to me, and that’s what I’d like.  Joyce agrees.

It was here that I gave up on finding perfectly matching bottle openers.  All I could find was a keychain bottle opener which I later discovered doesn’t even work, though more recently I got another one anyways.  After all I’m really not getting them to be useful tools.  

Walking the streets of the town we saw a guy with an electric street vacuum cleaner wandering around sucking up garbage.  It was funny to see, but also the kind of thing you’re surprised you’ve never seen before.

There were a lot of the plants growing over the old stone buildings.  I really like that look.  I want a stone house with vine-y plants growing all over the exterior for myself when I grow up.

There was this one sculpture in particular in one of the galleries which I found very moving.  It was a poor boy in a sort of sailor suit with a ragged luggage looking so incredibly sad and longing.  He looked like he was waiting for someone or something that had never and would never come.  I identified with it and I wished I could have it.

We also saw a figure of a red cow which was larger than me, complete with a giant head, gun, large pointy breast, and even a vagina even though it appeared to be wearing some sort of pants.  It was obviously some sort of long lost relative of the red man I had Joyce take a picture of me with while we were in Venice.

From there we went to Aix-en-Provence, which was… uneventful.  There was a large fountain in the middle of a roundabout where we were dropped off in front of a very out of place looking apple store.  We didn’t really do a lot of exploring; it was really a glorified lunch stop.  We walked up the restaurant row.  We were told that it was a big student town, and we sure did see a lot of students about.  It was curiously interesting and amusing to see groups of boys and girls do the triple cheek kiss one after another after another when a whole group met up together.  Sometimes it was the full kiss on the cheek, but usually it was more that they’d touch each other’s cheeks and make a kissing sound.  

Apparently all of the original courts of appeal in France were once in Aix, and now law is the primary faculty at the university there, and secondarily arts and language studies.  Pretty much everywhere we go Mark says is a university town, which makes sense given that university is free.  This is poo-pooed a lot, but the thing is that they still have to pay for their own room and board, and a third of them drop out in the first year, and another third in the second year.  It’s good I think that everyone at least has the chance to try though.  

It was in Aix that I accidentally ordered the 1664 Blanc, which was super fruity and I didn’t like at all.  We were at a place which claimed to be an Irish bar.  We finally settled on going there for lunch after we pottied and dashed at another restaurant (well Joyce did), and I had found a bottle opener at a gift shop store.  Joyce had a Guinness and enjoyed it far more than I did my beer.  I had a bruschetta pizza they called it, and it was good.  Mushroom and ham on a pretty crispy yet doughy bread.  I mused again about how here you’re given a knife and fork to eat pizza and it’s rarely cut for you, but in North America you’re some sort of barbarian if you eat it with a knife and fork.  

Afterwards, back in the main square by the large fountain and the out of place glass encased Apple store, I tried to use a toilet which was supposed to be self-cleaning, an oval shaped chamber which fully sprays itself down between uses.  I watched as other people before me put money into it.  It laughed at them indifferently and they finally gave up.  I immediately approached after they had left, plopped my fifty euro cents in, and it laughed at me as well.  I tried everything I could think of, but there were no buttons or coin return handles or anything, and eventually I gave up as well.  We met back up with the group and took off again on the coach.

After some more driving after leaving Aix-en-Provence, we were brought to a wine tasting at Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  This winery seemed much more industrial as opposed to the artisanal feel I got from Phillipe.  Phillipe foot stomped his wine and stored it in regular French oak barrels, while Châteauneuf-du-Pape had huge industrial (though still wood) barrels and I doubt anything was personally stomped.  We were explained wine tasting by a good man named Jean-Daniel.  He was very soft spoken and seemed like a sweet guy; Joyce said she just wanted to give him a hug.  He explained the super basics of wine tasting and I found that extremely helpful.  I’m getting more and more used to wine, and although I still don’t know if I’ll ever actually enjoy it, I appreciate knowing more about it and how those who appreciate it do and why.  

It’s like how since I’m a cook, I still want to know how to cook and use ingredients well even if I don’t like them myself; I still want to know about them and how they ARE enjoyed by those who enjoy them.  Apparently this region uses up to 18 varieties of grapes, but they are all blends based around the primary use of one particular variety.  Jena-Daniel taught us about legs and how in France they’re referred to as ‘tears’ because they’re romantics.  Joyce and I both agree that this is much better than legs.  We learned how to gently roll the wine around the glass without agitating it to look for the tears which spoke to the viscosity which showed the alcohol content.  We then took a deep smell, and then another after swirling and agitating it.  Since, a couple times I have done this I have actually been able to tell the difference in the smell before and after the agitation.  I was pleased to learn that I can pick out the different notes in the scent pretty effectively.  We were also told about the colour at the perimeter of red wine, when held against a white background.  I don’t really remember what we’re supposed to look for, but apparently this is a way to gauge the approximate age of a wine.  The wine was okay, though again I preferred the white to the red.  Of course my liking it is still just a comment on how badly it doesn’t taste as opposed to actually finding that it tastes good in any way.  Regardless, the more I drink, the more I learn about it, the more I have an appreciation for it all, and the more easily I can drink it.  So that was that.

After that we got into Avignon and had a dinner at the hotel.  We had some time between arriving at our hotel and what time dinner was, so I took the opportunity to go out alone in search of a grocery store for some more supplies, namely beer, Coke Light, and more of those cups of noodles.  I walked down the exterior of the city wall for a bit hoping to happen across one, but when I didn’t I looked in Google Maps on my phone for a nearby grocery store.  A Carre-Four conveniently showed up pretty nearby (a brand I’d learned to trust at this point), and I headed off there.  It was convenience store sized, Carre-Four apparently has these little ones as well as the giant full sized stores like the one I’d been in a couple days earlier.  I got two six packs of beer bottles, one 1664 the other Heineken, two one-point-five litre Coke Lights (they didn’t have caffeine free at this one), 2 cup of soups, and I found another garlic and herb ham wrapped bourson.  Score.  Got it all, put it in the Carre-Four fabric bag I’d remembered to bring with me this time (all bags are pay here), and although it was heavy, I figured it would be fine since I wasn’t going that far after all.  

I set the navigation on my phone back to our hotel, thinking it would show me how to get back there by a more direct route than I’d come.  However, when I neared my destination it became ever clearer that this was not the ‘Grand’ hotel I was looking for.  So now I was lost.  Great.  Although I turned out to be wrong, I believed that the hotel key card was totally blank.  In reality it just had the writing with the address and everything hidden given how I had slid it in my passport wallet.  I texted Joyce ‘So… I’m lost.’ and asked her to provide the address of the hotel.   By the time I’d heard back from her I’d already found the proper hotel in Google Maps (having double checked it was where it should be on the larger map) and headed there.  I passed another closer Carre-Four on the way back.  When I got home Joyce hugged me and was very happy to see me.  I was the hunter come home.  It seemed a much bigger deal to her that I’d gotten lost than it did to me.  I would have found my way home eventually, but having a world map in my pocket with an on foot navigation function allowed me to make it back in time for our dinner.

We had a goat cheese and cherry tomato tart (YOU’RE a… TARTE.), topped with spring mix which they call rocket.  Well, actually I’ve come to believe that rocket is one of the constituents of spring mix.  Anyways, it was really good, somewhat like the tart Joyce had had days earlier.  We then had filet of gilthead bream with ratatouille and basil cream sauce.  Very good.  The fish was very mild and the basil cream sauce was a nice soft flavor which complimented it quite nicely.  It was deboned though I got one bone, no big deal though.  It was also still skin on, also not a big deal though, since it came off so easily. 

At this dinner Ronald got us to sing again, but at least I knew the songs we sang this time.  New York, New York turned out pretty well given the general lack of enthusiasm towards the singing, and it was the second song we sung.  The first song we sung however, was All You Need is Love, and it was absolutely atrocious.  Everyone knew the chorus but were completely lost on the verses.  After that Ronald collected the songbooks.  I suspect there was an alarming attrition of people ‘forgetting’ or ‘losing’ their sheets.  

For dessert, oh man the desert.  AMAZING, like best of the trip amazing.  It was a sort of hard chocolate shell pyramid embedded with sugar over a thin brownie base, and inside were three different kinds of chocolate mousse, one white, one milk, and the third dark.  Quite simply the best dessert I had over there, possibly ever.

Also, my foot still hurts.  A lot.

France 2016 - Friday, October 07 - The Perfumery Evasion, Monaco, Eze, and a Nice Run

Day 8:  Exploring Nice, Monaco, and the Côte d'Azur

Wake up ready to rub shoulders with the jet-set on the glamorous Côte d'Azur.  Unlock the secrets of the French perfume industry with a visit to a perfumery, where fragrance experts waft exclusive scents from stoppered bottles.  Then drive along part of the Grand Prix circuit in Monaco and walk with your Tour Director through the old town to visit the Royal Palace, yacht-filled harbour and the cathedral, housing the tomb of Princess Grace.  The rest of the day is set aside for you to enjoy the French Riviera at your own pace.  Hotel: Radisson Blu Hotel, Nice.  Buffet Breakfast.

 

Breakfast was pretty shitty here, totally uncooked eggs, no hard boiled options, way over cooked bacon which could very possibly just have all been deep fried, dubious looking sausage, dangerously luke warm tasting quiche, and cold little pancakes.  However it was here that I got acquainted with the espresso machines they have, first with café o’lait, and then the automatic cappuccinos.  It had the perfect amount of foam.  Although our room had no view, at least our breakfast was behind a glass wall looking out over the water.

After breakfast, we went to a perfumery.  Well, Joyce did.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Joyce had been there before and was looking forward to going back to get a soap she really liked.  I would have just stayed at the hotel or walked about Nice by myself, but I was held hostage by the bus was going directly to Monaco after the perfumery. 

However, I chose not to go the perfumery after discovering this was an option, and instead climbed back up the switch back hill driveway down to the perfumery, and walked along the highway listening to the Jimmy Dore show. 

I passed on the way back up the driveway a Ferrari which was 120 euros to drive for 15 min, 60 to be a passenger, with prices going up from there.  I wasn’t tempted. 

Eventually I turned around and found my way to a souvenir store and hit a treasure trove of stickers, and got a Nice pin.  I haven’t been collecting pins this trip, but I liked this one.  I liked Nice, and it had some cool kind of bird on it which reminded me of the Albanian flag.  I then wandered back down to the bus and met up with the rest of the group, and it was off to Monaco.

I had very mixed feelings about Monaco.  It’s known for the casino which the Catholic Church overlooked because it was for rich people, for the grand prix race which takes place there, and for being a hot spot for the uber rich.  Well I’m not big on casinos and we didn’t even go to the famous Monte Carlo Casino anyways.  I’m not big on racing either, but it was nevertheless interesting to see the incredibly narrow streets, and to imagining these high performance open wheel F1 cars zipping around and finding it nearly impossible to pass each other.  The obscene wealth offended me though, the same way the rows upon rows of private jets offended me in Nice.  It just seems so fundamentally unfair.  No human life is a billion times more valuable than another human life, especially when (as is usually the case (especially in Europe)) that wealth is inherited from generations back.  Maybe it’s all this time in France, in the shadow of the great and continuing revolutionary spirit, with the words Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité etched into stone all over the country, words which have been and are still taken so seriously here, and yet thrown around so casually in the United States now only ironically.  I kept joking to Joyce about sharpening pitchforks and lighting torches.

Still, it was nice to see these places regardless of how you feel about them, and the irony of complaining about extreme privilege while I am enjoying the privilege of being on this trip at all is not lost on me.  The thing about these places thought, is that you really have to go and be there, see how it looks and sounds and smells, and feels to really see how you genuinely feel about these places.  Before we left I did a lot of offline area downloading on Google Maps, so you can use it without Wi-Fi or data, and going places in real life is a lot like that, they go from being a vague idea to a vibrant reality.  When these places are discussed in the future you can orient yourself in the space in your imagination like dropping the street view figure down onto the map and looking around.  When I hear about or see Monaco in movies or books or on the news in the future I will remember a vivid reality, a real place, as opposed to having only a vague notion attached to the words.  That is the invaluable value of travel. 

We parked in a coach parking lot which was several levels and could fit several dozen on each level thought it was nowhere near full. 

We then proceeded up these elevators that only had two stops, and despite the crowding were assured this was a pale shadow of the crowding at the height of tourist season.  At the top there was a maritime museum we didn’t go into,

but out front there was the yellow submarine which supposedly actually inspired the Beatles song, and we saw this just a couple days after Ronald made us all sing along to ‘Yellow Submarine’.  That kind of thing is always cool. 

From there we went walked over to a hundred year old church made to look like a six hundred years old gothic cathedral (rich people…) in which was the tomb of Grace Kelly who was apparently once a thing? 

I learned a bit about the Grace Kelly story, and shook my head at the American fascination with wealth, celebrity, and royalty while claiming to be all about whatever the opposite is supposed to be.

We proceeded to the far end of the plateau we had been brought up to and found out that there would be no changing of the guard ceremony that day and were only minorly disappointed.  We did come to the wonderful lookout point we were promised where we could see the bowl which was the entire ‘country’ of Monaco.  It was indeed quite a sight, but some of the massive yachts bothered me for reasons already discussed. 

We killed time, I found a Monaco bottle opener and souvenir coin.  The souvenir coins come in three different brands or so, but are two euros at every town or church or monument of significance and I like to get them all.  Often the challenge is choosing between the two or three available, and not knowing whether to get the first one I see when I have the chance or hold out for one that may be better and risk missing out altogether.  After killing some time which included Joyce getting a Coke Light and me getting a can of Heineken to drink while we walked through the narrow streets, we started working out way back to the meeting place in front of the museum. 

We went through a garden perched precariously on the cliff, in a series of very narrow terraces with stairs and walkways which went much further down towards the water than we cared to go, and we were quite high up.

After we went back to the coach and were driving out of ‘country’, when we went through tunnels under the massive buildings, it was pointed out to us that the roadways sparkled because they ha crushed up diamonds mixed into the pavement. 

Fucking rich people…

We then went to a place called Saint Paul,

which turned out to be right above the perfumery Joyce went to, and the clock tower was something I’d taken pictures of on my solo walk, and which Joyce had pointed out and said that if she was solo walking she’d have run up to the top of it.  It was at this point I started getting bored with old walled cities.  At this point in the trip, an old walled city starts to become just another walled city.  It was a remarkable hike all the way to the top, through another garden at the very top, but it at least provided a pretty spectacular view while we were up there.

On the way back down we stopped at sweets vendor and I got some almond brittle and Joyce some nougat which I ate while working our way back down to the bus.  On the way I scored a bottle opener from here as well, which I wasn’t expecting.  I also posed very casually with a statue while I ate my almond brittle and had Joyce take a picture.

They drove us up into the hills (below Elton John's house apparently) for a view of Nice from above

Because we are French

Then it was back to Nice, and I had a mission at this point.  I hadn’t run since several days before we left, and I had been scheming for a couple of days to go for a run on the promenade.  As soon as I came home, I put my shoes on, my running shorts and shirt, donned my bandana, and I headed out.  Earlier in the day when I was on my solo walk, I decided against having a beer because I was planning on running later.  It is so tempting seeing beers in practically every fridge in stores, often cheaper than Coke Light.  Of course alcoholism is seemingly less of a problem here, but that’s a whole other thing.  I kicked myself after the beer in Monaco because I forgot that this had been my intention, but it was earlier enough that it wasn’t a problem.  Anyways, I headed out onto the promenade, and at first I felt super goofy about the way I looked, especially since at first I had to walk down the street a bit on the hostel side and wait for quite a while before being able to cross the road to the sea side and start running. 

Also, before I left the hotel I had a hell of a time trying to get on my phone both the music I wanted to listen to while running, as well as appropriate podcasts for when I was just walking.  They were both on different SD cards, and I couldn’t just copy the songs I wanted to listen to over to the other, or just the podcasts I wanted to listen to over without copying everything which would have taken hours.  In the end I just copied a few long podcasts over to the one with music on them, and then had to do a LOT of skipping to next song while running.  However, once I started running, and I found a good song to run to, it was a positively magical experience.  It was late in the day but the sun was still out.  There were tons of people, some just walking along, lots of cyclists going back and forth on the separated bikeway, a ton of other runners running past me going the other way past me, or passing me going the same direction…  There were super interesting signs on the side of the road, a guy with a bubble rope with like, eight apertures all blowing bubbles out with the wind, words like PAIX, LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ painted on the sidewalk in big letters, people on the beach below me… I went three kilometers before I started to feel any fatigue.

I thought later on about what I’d been hearing on the news about cities in southern France, particularly Nice instituting a ban on the so called Burkini.  First of all I of course find it very amusing that a country would at once say that you’re not allowed to be naked, and at the very same time say that you’re not allowed to be covered up.  It sounds kind of Kafkaesque on the face of it, and beneath the face of it it’s pretty unusual to say the least for a state to order women to show more skin by law.  In any case, I certainly didn’t see anything to do with that at this time; it certainly wasn’t the season.  However, I was struck throughout my time in France how much Arab and Muslim influence and presence I noticed without it seeming to be a problem, to the point of even seeing Halal sections of grocery stores at least once.

I came across the memorial on the promenade where the attacks happened.  I felt a lot. 

When one of the attacks in France happened I put an Iraqi flag over my profile picture on Facebook while everyone was putting a French flag on theirs, because far more people had died in a terrorist attack in Iraq around the same time, but no one cared about them.  It bothered me that the loss of white European lives seemed so much more tragic for people than far more brown lives lost in some Middle Eastern hell hole which the world gave up on a long time ago.  To me lives are lives, and the lives of Iraqi men, women, and children senselessly slaughtered are worth no less than white European lives.  I get it that we’re humans and that the more another people’s culture overlaps with our own, the more of an emotional resonance we have with them, but it’s still a bias that bothers me. 

My feelings about this haven’t changed, but when I saw the memorials in Nice, I was moved.  Men, women, and children were celebrating their independence day, just waiting for the fireworks to start when they were mowed down by a truck.  Eighty something were killed, with three hundred something injured, many of whom were still in the hospital when I was there.  That day I was French, that day I felt solidarité, and while I resisted posting it on Facebook because it’s so insufferable a things to say, I kept thinking #notlettingtheterroristswin.  They want us to be too afraid to live our lives normally, too afraid to visit places like France. 

The geopolitics are obviously very complicated, but you defeat the intent of terrorism by living life, laughing, and soaking in a place like Nice.  It is defeated by not letting it scare you out of enjoying your life however you can.  It is defeated by flying to France and running the Promenade Anglais instead of being too afraid to travel at all.  I was thinking about it because two nights before one of our fellow travelers, an Indian Australian woman named Rajani Srinivasa, when we were all asked to say why we chose this trip, said she came because she wanted to support normalcy in the wake of the attacks, and to support the French people.  I liked her answer very much and had it on my mind as I ran that day.

Anyways, I ran around the bend at the far end of the promenade and basically came to the end of it and had only gone four and a half kilometers.  I usually run six though, and I thought that distance would be at least that.  So, I turned around a post and kept running.  I stopped at the massive World War One and Two memorial carved into the mountain face and took some pictures, as well as taking the required moments to reflect on the reverence I felt for the loss and struggle the memorial represented.

I still felt really good so I kept running, stopping to take pictures along the way of things I’d wanted to take a closer look at as we drove by them earlier that day. 

The Avant Garde

I'm a child

By now I was thinking I should see just how far I could go, and I started thinking that it must be about ten kilometers back to the hotel based on where I’d turned around.  The sun was in my eyes on the way back but it was still great to be running there.  I passed several people who I’d already passed when I was going the other way, they had obviously also run a certain distance and turned around.  

Soon after I started running after leaving the hotel I saw a guy who must have been in his sixties running with no shirt, and thinking ‘when a guy in his sixties is clearly in far better shape than you are…’.  Seven kilometers later he passed me again, seemingly still going casually strong, while I was in a very challenged state.  I found it so funny that I’d thought that of him originally, and then to so long afterwards see the same guy. 

There was one part on the promenade where small cones that looked like upside down solo beer cups had been laid out and there were people inline skating the slalom, but there were also long board guys, a guy with roller skates which just had two laterally mounted wheels, all kinds of things.  Joyce and I came across this same area later that night, and there were still people at it, including a long board guy who had plastic balled gloves which he’d go down on and swirl around on the ground between his long board and his palms. 

There was also a girl doing amazing things with her skateboard, she seemed to be dancing on and off of it as it rolled down the promenade.  I didn’t manage to get video of her doing it but it was truly amazing to see.

On the return trip I also passed three soldiers with large machine guns (from my Call of Duty playing I’d guess a SAW?  But I’m probably wrong).  It is a relatively common sight in France these days, as they are still under a continuing official state of emergency since the first large attack in Paris a year ago.  Pretty much every other place we stopped we saw three soldiers with machine guns walking around and keeping an eye on things.  Later in the trip the woman who said she’d taught Justin Trudeau commented that it made her feel safe.  It didn’t make me feel safe.  Quite the opposite really.  For one thing there’s this thing called crossfire.  Also, them feeling like they needed that kind of extra security pointedly made me feel unsafe.  Lastly, I know enough to know that a show of force like that doesn’t actually make things safer, it’s just to make people feel safer.

At some point on my way back, I spotted Joyce, who was walking down the promenade to greet me and she took some pictures. 

Several kilometers back she had texted me to ask how much longer I would be, and she had come out to walk along to meet me.  At first I walked with her, but then I told her I wanted to do the full ten kilometers to see how it went for me.  So I ran on, but understand that at this point I was certainly quite regularly alternating between walking and running, though I was still doing both.  I was only at nine and a half kilometers-ish when I got to our hotel, so I turned around again and kept going until I had completed the full ten kilometers in one hour and sixteen minutes, and very proud of myself.  I decided to walk on and meet up with Joyce again, and when I did we walked back to the hotel together.

As soon as we got home I grabbed a beer from the fridge and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I had posted on Facebook when we first arrived in that hotel room about  the sweetness of when there’s an exact same beer in the minibar fridge as you brought with you, allowing you to have a cold beer as soon as you get in without having to pay minibar prices.  After that I had a second beer, and then had a shower.  FINALLY a good shower.  The side was still only half built, but it actually had a shower head situated up high which had reasonable water pressure positioned at an appropriate angle. 

I can’t remember where it was exactly, but the previous time I tried to take a show, it was singularly the worst shower ever in the history of showers.  It literally was even a shower at all!  It had a handheld shower head on a hose, but no mount to put it up into a shower position.  I had to hold it up the entire time I was up there.  UGH.  Miserable.  And don’t even come at me with the first world problems bullshit.

This shower was pretty okay though, and- oh right, my wound.  I knew there was something wrong with my foot two thirds into my run, I wondered if there would be pooled blood in my shoe when I took it off.  Nope, just an unfortunate blister already shorn off on the outside bottom of the arch on my left foot.  I avoided as much as possible letting my bare wounded foot touch the always questionable floor of the hotel room.

What I didn’t really notice until the next day, was a significant pain in my left foot on the left side shooting up the ankle.  It still hurts today several days later, and not insignificantly.  I strongly suspect I may have bruised the bone or something.  I’m sure it will get better gradually, but it certainly is happening gradually.  I keep saying ‘ow my foot hurts…’  I’ve also been randomly saying to Joyce ‘YOU’RE a (whatever sounds funny)’ from South Park’s ‘YOU’RE a towel…’.  It’s like ‘that’s what she said,’ but a lot broader in its application.  YOU’RE a tart…  YOU’RE a Cahors…  Its fun.  Well… it amuses me at least.

After my shower, it was time to go to dinner.  We took a cab to the old town of Nice, to the same area where we’d had dinner the other night.  The cab driver turned out to be from Chamonix and we talked about how much we liked Chamonix as well as Nice.  He seemed impressed that I’d gotten into the box up on Mont Blanc.  He as an odd Frenchman though, he told us that he didn’t really like soccer but was big into hockey, and that after he dropped us off he was going to go watch ‘the’ hockey game with his buddy.  I’ve also noticed that here in French it’s always monsieur, not hey guy, buddy, chief, big guy… monsieur.  Always.  I like that.  We also talked about all the problems with uber and our disdain for it.  Joyce observed that she looked into it and that it would have cost the same, but of course there is no extra insurance for the passengers, no taxes being paid for the road infrastructure, no taxes going to local governments, and all of the profits going back to the United States, where the would no doubt be routed through Ireland or something to avoid paying taxes on it even there.  When he dropped us off Joyce asked him if she was supposed to tip him as she pulled out 25 euros and he said it was 20 euros.  He said ‘er….. you can if you feel like, but….’  She then dug into her purse for a single euro.  I told her afterwards I would have just given him the 25 euros, especially since we liked him so much and talked with him.

After stopping at a souvenir shop to get me a bottle opener and souvenir coin, we then found a nice place for dinner (again, no pun intended).  My priority was onion soup, as had been my priority since that first night, trying to find an onion soup as good as we had then.  We sat down in front of a vacant band set up but the server assured us that they wouldn’t be playing for over an hour, and then five minutes later they started playing.  I enjoyed it though, and we found that we could still talk and decided to stay where we were. 

Because we are French

The onion soup was very good, but it was just bread with melted cheese on top, none of the mythical cheese on the bottom I loved so much that first night.  Joyce had a warm goat cheese salad, which confused me at first because it was listed as chèvre which I thought was horse, but horse of course I soon realized is cheval while chèvre is goat. 

Anyways she really liked it and when I tried it I also thought it was quite good.  For an entrée I had a lasagna which was also very good, though more creamy than I had expected. 

Joyce had a ravioli which she really liked and again, I found very delicious as well.

We then decided to walk home.  This was not our original intent, but we never came across a taxi and at some point it just became apparent that we were walking the whole three kilometers back.  It felt like a long walk, but it was a good one nonetheless, despite how complain-y as Joyce was, which perfectly understandably given how much and how far we’d already walked that day.  Still, it gave us the chance to spend even more time seeing the city and in a differently light from the other side of the street and I appreciated that. 

 This is the  fourth  Statue of Liberty I've seen

This is the fourth Statue of Liberty I've seen

 I'm a child

I'm a child

We looked through the fences to another monument for the attack, and got closer to other permanent monuments we’d only driven past before, and it was great. 

Yes, I definitely like Nice.  

France 2016 - Thursday, October 06 - Nice by way of Route Napoleon

Day 7: The French Riviera and Nice

Glorious mountain scenery will be yours to enjoy as you travel along a spectacular route, used by the Emperor Napoleon when he returned from his first exile to try to take the throne of France once more.  Continue to the French Riviera and the elegant resort of Nice.  Hotel: Radisson Blu Hotel, Nice.  Buffet Breakfast.

 

Thrusday was all about making our way from Grenobles to Nice, which we learned along the way was originally Nike, as in the Greek goddess of victory.  As had been promised the night before, Mark and our coach driver who’s name I’ve already forgotten but he was Italian, took several of the seats out of our coach and stored them at the hotel so that we could get the legroom we are promised on Insight coaches.  This was nice, but everything else about the bus was still broke dick.  At this point we were beginning to fear that this was just going to be our coach for the rest of the trip.

Along the way we had a brief stop at café in the middle of nowhere along one of the vast alpine gorges we drove through. 

It was very high up in the mountains, and what was so interesting was that although it went from super high mountains to super high mountains, there were broad slopes up from the bottom with vegetation and trees and grazing land up the sides, as opposed to the rockies where the gorges are much narrower and there isn’t much opportunity for use of the steeper slopes.  Joyce and I went off on an umarked road which was obviously used, but was just gravel tracks for wheels with grass growing in between. 

Off in the distance we heard cow bells which sounded to me like a cow bell wind chime, but which Joyce swore was just cows moving about normally as cows do.  At one point we did see some cows off in the distance through some trees though.  We followed the path until it forked,

and was a lot less maintained but still clearly in use, then we came to another fork,

and at this point we gave up and had to turn back around to get back on the bus.  On the way back the sight of the opposing mountain was so stark

(picturesque as fuck), it was so far away and so large, and the brain just does not like it.  It wants to believe that something that large can’t possibly be that large while being so far away.  It keeps insisting that it is either closer than is seems or just not as large as it must be.

It was a big driving day, and the next stop where we had lunch was a small town called Dignes les Baines,

which is apparently only half the size of Westbank small.  We were let out at a small mall because there was nothing else open in town and we had to stop somewhere.  There was a cafeteria kind of place as well as a sit down restaurant, but Joyce and I don’t usually need lunch after stuffing ourselves at the buffet breakfast, so we headed to the large store at the mall called Carre-Four.  This was by far the largest Carre-Four I was in in France, but they range from quite small little corner stores, to massive ones like this which rivalled a substantial Wal-Mart in size.  It was a little like Wal-Mart, but if Wal-Mart was classy and had quality products. 

On the way there through the mall though, we looked into a tabacco/lotto/magazine place for my stickers and bottle openers but didn’t find any.  What I did see were porno magazines up on the top shelf of the magazine rack, complete with naked breasts right there for everyone to see.  Why?  Because we are French.  It reminded me that you hardly ever see those sorts of magazines for sale in North America anymore.  It made me want to get one out of sheer curiosity for what one that is still being made would be like, let alone a French one, as well as one which was smaller than full magazine size and didn’t look like that was all that it was.  I wasn’t curious enough to actually get it while Joyce was with me though. 

The supermarket was quite remarkable.  The small baskets were a meter tall and rolled, and the full carts were plastic on four swiveling wheels so you could move it sideways as easily as forwards.  Genius.  It was interesting seeing different brands for things, as well as the different region games and movies I’d usually only see on ebay, and have to judiciously avoid.  They also had all kinds of electronics, cleaning supplies, clothing, and books.  I got my niece Alexia, who is in French immersion and likes anime/manga, a French language manga.  It was pretty difficult to figure out what they were about, and I don’t even know what she’s into really, so I took a bit of a stab in the dark.  I thought she’d at least appreciate the novelty.  There were whole aisles of pastries,

an odd seeming taco section,

an insane amount of cheese,

stuff like canned rabbit pâté, it’s remarkable how common rabbit is to eat here, you see it for sale everywhere you see any other kind meat. 

They had mickey’s of booze in cardboard backed plastic packages like we get batteries and other electronics which I found interesting,

whole pallets of canned duck pâté,

seafood laid out on crushed ice with full fish and crustaceans,

a seemingly endless deli meat and cheese by the slice section, interestingly also a halal section, as well as a full cake of my beloved mille feuille pastry. 

For lunch I wound up getting a quarter of a flan in two pieces (YOU’RE a tart…), two packages of smoked ham wrapped boursin cheese, one tomato and onion flavor

and the other onion and herb

(which were soooooo good, we ate them as soon as we got on the bus and spent the rest of the trip looking for them.  I found them in Avignon again and then left them in the hotel fridge when we left!  Très désolé!!).  I was also happy to find some more Ricola at the front cashiers since my throat was still bothering me, as well as some chips and some more Coke Light while I still have the chance.  Mark had warned us that we wouldn’t necessarily find a convenient convenience store nearby our hotel in Nice.

From there we drove on.  We saw an automated flag person which was a street light on a timer to allow two ways of traffic to use one lane without a human flag person,

a dam lake

and found ourselves stopped briefly for an aborted comfort stop in front of yet another walled city across the gorge on the top of a hill,

but the washrooms were closed so we had to drive on for a bit.  Where we did stop was relatively unremarkable aside from the standard degree of these ancient towns always being quite remarkable and so beautifully quaint. 

Stand anywhere in these places and look in any direction and your breath is taken away by the postcard picture in front of you.  While Joyce went to the bathroom I explored a bit and took some pictures.  

I saw a cat that reminded me of Coal and had my first real pang of homesickness. 

It happens sometimes but it passes.  The more I miss home, the happier I’ll be to get back, and the more I’ll appreciate home when I do.  That’s how it works.  Going away makes you appreciate home, home makes you appreciate being away.

From there it was straight on to Nice. 

I kept waiting for someone to say “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the French Riviera,’ the way Hugh said ‘Welcome to the Adriatic on our Balkans trip, but no one did.  It was of course beautiful.  We got to our hotel after driving past the vast parking lot of private jets which made me a little angry.  Seeing such opulent wealth on display gets my revolutionary ire up.  It’s one thing to be first class rich, it’s another thing entirely to be private jet rich.  Anyway, more on that in Monaco.  The hotel room was quite nice (no pun intended), but it didn’t get cool enough at night and the view out our windows was of the building behind us rather than the bay in front of us.  There was a pool up top on the roof which we thought about going for a swim in, but we never did. 

When I looked in it I saw floaties which turned me off.  I’m leary of public pools at the best of times anyways.

That night we had a walking tour with a local guide of the old town of Nice, and then were left on our own to have dinner. 

We’re expected to tip the local guides a euro a piece and I learned on previous trips Joyce really hates this so I take care of it now.  I like Nice.  The old town was exactly the same as all the old towns we’ve seen, but the water front area had a wonderful feel to it. 

There were palm trees, lots of all kinds of people doing all kinds of different things on the promenade… it had a tropical and cosmopolitan vibe to it, what’s not to like!? 

If anything it reminded me of Venice Beach except not American, meaning cultured and dignified as opposed to thuggy, super fake, and weird for the sake of being weird… but both tropical adjacent waterfront.  It was the Mediterranean, and there’s really nothing like it in the world. 

Having been to Italy, I could feel the Italian influence here, the same way the Swiss influence was so clear when we were in Chamonix, and the German influence was evident when we were further north.  The modern borders in places like these are modern constructions; the culture on the ground is rooted much deeper and older, it bleeds from one area to the next and the next and the next as opposed to being entirely distinct along national borders.

Joyce and I had dinner at a place recommended by our tour guide, a place where English was spoken, but I rather successfully spoke English to our waiter who spoke English to me in turn, and Joyce felt it was a very mutually respectful exchange in that we both spoke the language best understandable to the other person.  He told us he was ‘very manic’ as he rearranged the things on our table from how we had arranged them, because the salad had to go where the salad had to go, so whatever was in the salad’s spot had to be somewhere else.  I ordered the triple mozzarella appetizer.  That was all the information about it I had to go on, but I had to order it. 

It turned out to be a dry shaved mozzarella, a smoked egg shaped mozzarella cut in half, and the elusive Bourassa cheese Joyce and I first had at Mama Rosa’s in Kelowna, a very soft cheese inside a firmer outer cheese shell.  Soooo good.  The cheeses all came on a salad which all turned out very good. 

Joyce and I both had 50cl Kronnenbourg beer.  I finally figured out how half a liter could be 50 centiliters.  I was confused because there’s 100 cm in a meter, but it eluded me for a bit that 1000 ml go into a liter and not 100.  It just required thinking about it, much like the construction of bonjour.  I thought cl was French for ml somehow but no, I was just confused. 

As I said there is a strong Italian influence here.  I had a wonderful mushroom and ham pizza,

and mused about how in North America you’re some kind of animal if you use a knife and fork on a slice of pizza, while here you get the whole pizza uncut and are set to work with a fork and knife.  Joyce had a seafood pasta in some kind of white wine sauce.  Her prawns were complete with tentacles and eyes looking up at us.  Gross.

Joyce is getting ever more irritated with me taking pictures of her taking pictures, but I just think it’s too funny to stop.  After dinner we assembled at the designated meeting place in front of the opera house right nearby where we had dinner and were brought back to our hotel on the coach.

France 2016 - Wednesday, October 05 - Grenoble by way of Annecy

Day 6: Lakeside Annecy and on to Grenoble

(Relaxed Start) In the morning, embark on a breathtaking drive to the lakeside town of Annecy.  Enjoy free time for lunch in the Little Venice area or perhaps take a boat trip.  Then it's off to Grenoble, the ancient capital of the Dauphiné region.  Hotel: Mercure Grenoble President, Grenoble.  Buffet Breakfast, Dinner.

 

Today was the beginning of a glorified two day’s trip from Chamonix to Nice.  There was no air conditioning in last night’s hotel so we left the door open all night to the small patio and the room was quite cold overnight which we liked.  In the morning I took more pictures of the glacier out my window. 

That never gets old.  This morning I actually slept, from ten last night to seven this morning, so it seems as though I was finally switching over my sleep schedule.

We had one of the better hotel breakfasts on this trip.  They had a fresh crêpe station and the guy clearly didn’t speak a word of English, which I liked. 

Why should he?  This part of the world it’s French, German, Italian, or get the fuck out.  Anyway I had a few crêpes, and posted on Facebook that they had a strong crêpe game here with a picture of the crêpe station, and a drunk Chris (my kitchen manager back home) drunk late at night started commenting on the post how much he wanted crêpes now.  They also had good sausages and individual lemon cakes with sugar baked into the bread on top and lemon filling inside. 

They still had the egg pudding which is a chronic hotel buffet breakfast thing here.  For some reason they had a serious aversion to finishing building showers, and finishing cooking eggs.  Some places they don’t even seem to start cooking the eggs and there is an untouched perfectly flat pan of egg pudding there all morning.  Some people love it?  I guess?  Me I gag when I open the top of the insert and see it.  I always hope for eggs, but all I ever find is egg pudding.  Oh well, they usually have cold hard boiled eggs and I go for that instead.

On the road again there was a lot of mountain driving today, still on the broke dick bus.  We kept running across this stone arch railway line,

whether going right beside it, under it, or seeing it from the other side of the gorge.  I asked Mark how old it was, I knew it couldn’t be ancient but it certainly didn’t look particularly recent.  He told me they were from the late nineteenth century.

This territory reminds me so much of the Rockies but there are significant differences.  For one the forests are much denser, and mostly deciduous as opposed to evergreens, which leave the forested mountainsides with the look of one vast flattened out head of broccoli.

The roadway has a lot of these bridges over land, very cool. 

I remembered that there was this really cool land bridge in France called the Milau Viaduct which is taller than the Eiffel Tower and just about one of the most impressive things humans have ever built, the tallest pier bridge in the world.  I wondered even before the trip if I’d get to see it, but the more familiar I got with the route we were taking and would likely be taking, the move convinced I was that we would be bypassing it entirely, and this made me entirely sad.  I got excited every time I saw a mini version of it thinking that maybe, MAYBE I’d get to see the big one. 

At least today we got to sit in the front of the coach, the only time we could on a regular travel day. 

While on optional excursions seating was a free for all, despite the dirty looks we got from people who didn’t understand this after we sat in the front, seating was formally rotated on travel days and included excursions.  We move two rows of seats clockwise around the bus so everyone gets to sit at the very front at least once.  On a trip which is not full such as this one, once everyone has seated, more favourable empty seats can be moved to if you’re willing to brave the dirty looks.

So people could get a sense for what it was like travelling with Mark, and so I could better remember as well, as we arrived in Annecy I took a full five minute video of Mark describing the place in the coach’s side view mirror. 

He really does remind me of Gustavo Fring, even the way he talks, though I haven’t watched Breaking Bad in quite some time.

We were promised a boat ride around the lake in Annecy, but this never happened.  Apparently by the time we got there they had changed to the winter schedule, and the next one wouldn’t be leaving for a couple hours later, and would then be at least an hour trip.  I was game since I love boat trips, but the group decided instead to have a couple hours in Annecy for lunch and then take off again without the boat ride.

It was chilly out today and all the less hearty were bundled up like they were mounting an arctic expedition.  I was wearing sandals and shorts with a t-shirt and hoodie.  It was cold, but I take cold so much better than heat.  I observe the cold more than I suffer it, so I did just fine.  In the water there were a ton of swans, that was cool.  There were also some odd looking black ducks, though they were definitely ducks.

Joyce and I have the same phone, and we’re learning a lot about how to better use the camera on this trip.  I have shown her how to do the panorama pictures, and the Note 4 does it even better than my Note 2 does.  We also learned that touching a place on the picture just white balances, but if you hold your finger somewhere for half a second, it manually adjusts the brightness and focus.  Once we figured this out we were able to take even better pictures.  The pictures we’re able to take with our phones are just stunning.  Better than what people are able to take on much more expensive cameras.  It’s all about the software.  There’s no optical zoom on our phones, but with a 4K camera, you can zoom in a remarkable amount without losing a lot of quality.

Annecy was really pretty and reminded me a lot of Kelowna, with the obvious exception of the canals and very old buildings and all the way back to medieval stone buildings. 

We were directed into the tourist trap old town, and took a lot of pictures of the canals.  I found my souvenir coins and bottle opener and sticker pretty easily and we continued to wander around.  One of the things we found was a chocolate shop, and up in the corner was a chocolate Kama Sutra, with about six elaborate sexual positions depicted in chocolate.  I said to Joyce I should get it for my sister Rachel.  She found it odd that my first instinct would be to think of getting it for Rachel and not nod nod wink wink to her about it, but my thought was that Rachel would appreciate the humour of it.  It struck me as an item of comedy as opposed to sexual instructions.

We went to an ice cream shop, a gelateria, they sure love their gelato in this part of the world.  In Annecy alone we must have run across five, even in tiny ancient walled cities they’ve got two or three.  I had mint chocolate and caramel, and I realized after I left that it wouldn’t have been any extra charge to get it in a waffle cone as opposed to the waxed little cup I got it in instead.  He asked if I wanted cream and I said sure!  The guy had something which looked like a soft serve ice cream machine, but instead it delivered thick whipped cream, barely sweetened at all.  Why?  Because we are French.

As we ate our ice cream we wandered up a steep back road to the top of the hill where an old… something was located.  Some kind of castle.  Whatever it used to be it was a museum now, and it looked over the rest of the town from above now.

We wandered back down a different way, and then made our way into a more modern (by European standards) downtown in search of a bathroom for Joyce.  We stopped at a little place where they had an appropriate beer on tap, and I ordered two while Joyce disappeared.  When the guy tried to pour the first one it blew up in the glass in a mess of foam.  He apologized and said it would be a couple minutes as he went off to change the keg.  I sat down and perused the papers at the table and observed the two very French guys out the window. 

It was here that I saw the paper which reported that the wing suit guy had died on Mont Blanc a few days ago.

We wandered back to the lake where we were to meet up with the rest of the group, past the City Hall and into the central park which reminded me a lot again of Kelowna’s lake front and City Park. 

What was interesting is they had all different kinds of plants and trees, but they were all labelled and Joyce had a lot of fun taking pictures of them all and seeing what they were.  I was having fun by this point with my new fascination, taking pictures of Joyce taking pictures. 

She hates it, I think its meta.  The best is when you can get a picture from behind with what she’s taking a picture of in the viewfinder.  I also liked to think that when we got home and compiled all the pictures, I’d be able to put together the pictures she was taking with the pictures I took of her taking them.  I amuse myself.

They also had a totem pole, kind of,

a small exhibit on invasive species, a large open field for sports and stuff across a Pont des Amours which we could only look out over due to our time being up, but we really wanted to keep exploring on here.

We quickly realized that we’d wished we’d been directed here from the beginning instead of into the touristy old town.  It was a far more real place where real local people hang out, take their kids, walk their dogs… tourists too of course, but it was very nice.  We saw a sign post showing the way to various places around the world.  One was Los Angeles, and another was… Kimberley? 

I thought it could NOT be the modest and out of the way Kimberley in BC, but try as I might, I could not find another Kimberley in the rest of the world which was more or even as significant as ours, so… really?  There MUST be an interesting story there.  The whole time we were in Annecy I couldn’t get over how ridiculously clean the lake water was. 

Lake Annecy is the second largest lake in France, and the cleanest in Europe.  Apparently fifty years ago it was nasty due to industry and dumping and whatever, but since they have set up a cleaning regime, and now have pumping and cleaning stations all around the lake which perpetually keeps it clean today.  The view of the impressive mountains across the lake was… beautiful.  

As much as this part of the world can sometimes remind you of the Rockies, the Rockies are so much more compressed, and the valleys all so narrow it seems.  These mountains are so much larger and so broad and stark.  You can never really forget that you’re somewhere else.

From Annace we drove on to Grenobles.  On this trip there were too many places where we’d get in for the night, have dinner at the hotel and leave again in the morning.  I feel like on the other trips, even at just stop over places we’d either have a local guide walk us through the downtown, or at least a relatively thorough bus tour through the city. 

Here in Grenobles, like too many other places, we get in on the bus, the tour guide tells us about the place as we make our way to the not centrally located hotel with nothing to do around and no time to transit somewhere interesting, have dinner at the hotel, go to sleep and pack off again in the morning.  And that was my only knowledge of Grenoble.  For example there is apparently a relatively well know bubble cable car which takes you up to an eighteenth century fortress overlooking the valley.  It would have been nice to have the chance to do that, but… limitations of the trip I suppose.

The view from our hotel room in Grenobles

With nothing else to do, Joyce and I took the time between arriving at the hotel and our included hotel dinner to go to a local grocery store which was fairly close by.  Google Maps helped a lot here, and before long I was familiar with the chains like ‘Carre-Four’ and ‘Casino’ and just looked for the nearest one of these.  It was neat to see one of their everyday basic run of the mill around town grocery stores which rarely saw tourists.  I found two 1.5 liter caffeine free Coke Lights, the only caffeine free I’d seen so far, a six pack of 1664, a cold small bottle of regular Coke Light, and three styrophoam cup of noodles.  I realized when I saw them that they can serve as a hot snack in our hotel rooms since they all have kettles for tea and coffee.  I stole a fork from dinner that night for when I need it.  Beer (minus one), one 1.5 litre of caffeine free Coke Light, and three cup of soups are all in my luggage.  Other bottle of coke came with me on the bus today. 

Without having the boat trip in Annecy or any kind of opportunity to see Grenoble, it felt kind of like a wasted day.  I looked up the place on the bus, and Grenoble was apparently occupied by the Italians during the second world war, and being more focused on imperial expansion they had a somewhat lighter touch on all of the genocide stuff.  It was therefore a place people migrated to since it was considered better to live under Italian occupation than Nazi.  Mark also relayed to us some story about an English princess or queen coming there thought something about a dolphin which is why there’s an association with the region and dauphin and why French princes are called Dauphin.  Didn’t pick up enough of that to piece it back together.

I believe it was on the way into Grenoble that Mark made a comment about how the students all wanted to stay in their own home town, made me think of how important roots are to them, and the cultural difference with us being far less tied to the ground we come from.  After all, some people did leave Europe, and some people stayed.  There was a natural divergence there.  Students not only feel they have a right to higher education, they feel they have a right to go to school where they live, and get a job after school where they live and never have to go anywhere else.  In North America we feel lucky and privileged if we get to go far away to go to school.  Interesting to contrast.

As an apology for our continued use of the broke dick bus,  with air vents that don’t work, shitty back of the seat trays, and seat pockets secured by button snaps so loose they fly off if you try to put anything at all in the pockets, we were provided with drinks at the hotel before dinner in apology. 

There’s a Japanese descent guy from Hawaii named Ronald Takamoto (who was with his wife Irene Blincoe) who kept saying he has a thing for ‘candid shots’, which means he’d always putting his camcorder in people’s faces

all trip and handing out song sheets for sing alongs.  I don’t know the words to Waltzing Matilda and only the chorus to Yellow Submarine. 

Kind of annoying but I appreciate that his heart’s in the right place and it’s good to have someone along on the trip with that kind of attitude. 

This night we sat with a couple who are from literally down the street from us in Kelowna, Hugh and Joan Carmichael.  That’s never happened before.  The closest we’ve ever come was a couple from Vancouver.  We also sat with a very nice couple from Australia, Gavin and Maree Powell.  He mentioned AC/DC a couple times, and later in the trip when I looked at his phone he was listening to Black Sabbath, and laughed when he overheard Joyce telling me that everything that ends in Kirk means church and I asked James Kirk?  She, reminds me of my mother, in a good way, just the look of her and what not.

The hotel dinner was quite good.  We started with a green onion infused ravioli stuffed with local cheese in a cream sauce. 

Super good, yummy yummy, for my tummy.  Entrée was roast pork in a goulash kind of sauce, with scalloped potatoes on the side and something Joyce describes as a ratatouille included largely as garnish it seemed.  We were so eager to eat it that neither of us remembered to take a picture.  I’ll have to remember to take a picture of the menus when we have dinners like that as well.  Dessert was a cream pear thing on chocolate sauce, chunks of pear suspended in some kind of thick whipped cream surrounded in pastry crust. 

Joyce claims pastry crust was tiramisu style lady finger stuff.  Either way it was very good, but again just not sweet enough for me.  While I’ve noticed that whipped cream and such is hardly sweetened if at all here, I’ve also really not noticed any fat people here at all either.

France 2016 - Tuesday, October 04 - Chamonix and Mont Blanc

Day 5: The Mountaineering Mecca of Chamonix

Head towards the Mâconnais and Beaujolais before turning east into the Alps.  A scenic symphony awaits you as you ascend into the high Alps and climb towards Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest mountain.  Your destination is the fashionable ski resort of Chamonix.  Why not take a spectacular drive into the mountains in the evening for a traditional Savoyard style dinner?  Hotel: Le Prieuré, Chamonix.  Buffet Breakfast.

  

I woke up at five am again this day.  It was unfortunate, but it did give me the chance to write a lot and post pictures to Facebook at least.  This was the day we drove up into the alps.  I was surprised how much this area reminded me of BC and I kept thinking that if I was transported here from home I wouldn’t realize that I was half a world away, except for the signs and roads themselves and everything.

It's a region known for its free range chicken, which makes sense that I found a giant pipe chicken in the centre of a roundabout by a highway overpass.  I found that if I stood in the right place and took a picture with the sun behind one of the pipes, I could get a great silhouette picture.

Somehow at this point I had lost the sunglasses I’d brought with me.  So, at our first rest stop I took the chance to buy some more at the convenience store.  The rest stop again by the way, ridiculously nice being in Europe. 

I was open to getting ones which were more garish than I would ever get at home, being in France and all.  In the end I settled with Joyce’s input, on black and red ones that I liked more and more as I wore them.  I like my new sunglasses. They are French.

This was the day we began our adventures with the broke dick bus.  The day before at some point we all started smelling a particular burning smell, the smell of burning plastic.  This was at the same time the transmission got all jerky and our bus got way too hot on the inside since they couldn’t get the air conditioning to work.  There was a lot of speculation as to what was actually burning that we smelled.  The leading idea was that it was the burning of insulation on electrical wiring.  We were later informed though that it was a fan belt on the motor slipping and getting hot to the point of smoking.  This seemed absolutely plausible to me.

So anyways, the next day we had a shittier older bus.  Insight usually has really spacious seats busses no older than four years old, with seats which slide out into the aisle, wi-fi, and all of the other bells and whistles.  So today we had a far less less posh bus and we were informed that the other one will be repaired after parts arrive from Paris, and that another driver will meet us today or the next day with the repaired bus. Mark claimed that we were going to use this bus instead because he didn't want to risk the dysfunctional bus breaking down as we drove through the mountain passes.  I wouldn’t like that either.

There are some experiences, some moments which you never forget. Plitvice National Park in Croatia was one of those for me, something completely unexpected and which I'll never forget. I've been waiting for another Plitvice moment on this trip and I got it this day.  We went up to the top of Mont Blanc, yes MY mountain. We saw it off in the distance from the winery the day before, then it was the backdrop for pictures during a brief rest stop on the way into the mountains,

and then we got to Chamonix which is a kind of ski town at the base of the mountain like Whistler or something but you know, in the French Alps.

We arrived at the hotel mid-day, and we had a dinner later on with free time in between.  There was apparently a train which would take us up into the mountains, or a cable car a short walk away which would take us all the way up to the top of Mont Blanc, eighth highest peak in the world.  Okay not the top peak, but pretty damn near.  We elected to pursue the latter, and walked across the small town to the base of the mountain.  Fifty-nine euros each later, we were stuffed into a cable car and it began its ascent.

We took the first up to a mid-way platform, and then a second one up to the very top.  I kept thinking they must have filmed a Bond scene here... or that they needed to if they hadn’t yet.

I got a lot more anxious as we went up the second one than I was expecting. We saw flowing glaciers and lamented how much smaller and less extensive they must be now than even 20 years ago.  Later that night Mark told us that when he first started coming here the glaciers came down much further this time of year, halfway to the ground in fact or about twice as far down as we saw them today.  Before long they’ll be gone altogether along with all of the others.

Once actually up on the mountain top I felt remarkably uncomfortable and precarious, even indoors. I kept thinking that the building or mountain was swaying.  It wasn’t of course, this was just the product of acute altitude sickness.  We were forty-eight hundred meters above sea level, and it was doing weird things to our bodies.  Joyce tells me that at that altitude oxygen concentration is twelve point seven as opposed to the regular twenty point nine at sea level, about sixty percent. 

We breathed heavy and there was an anxious tightness in my chest, something I'd never experienced before. 

Oxygen deprived grinning idiots

We saw about a dozen rescue people who we later learned are just always stationed there. 

We could see from our safe positions people all over the mountain climbing, hiking through the snow, parasailing off near the mountain…

we learned the next day that the day before we got a wingsuit guy died jumping off the mountain.  Apparently a surprising amount of people die on that mountain just as a result of how popular and accessible it is (average of a hundred a year), hence the dozen rescue patrol people permanently hanging out up there.

It didn’t help that I wanted to run around up there, from the gift shop, to all the varied look out points… oh, and it was freezing cold up there, like zero degrees cold. It was nice after feeling hot on the bus all day, and it was the only time I actually needed to bundle up a bit on the trip. 

Me touching a glacier?  Probably not, but let's go with that.

We made our way about, taking a ton of pictures, and then before we were ready to go back down we realized that we could go even higher without further charge, a place we’d looked up to from lower down and wondered if we could get up there. 

There was a glass box out the side of the building in this highest section, and I had to go in.  I certainly couldn’t come all this way and not go in the glass box could I?  They pushed black slippers towards me to step into with my shoes, and I walked over to the box.  It was the same thing as when I stepped onto the glass in the CN Tower, you conscious brain thinks no big deal, but your deep brain says ‘Wait.  Think it over.  Are you doing something stupid?’  But you answer no and press through, feeling altogether uncomfortable in that exciting way.

After the box we made our way back down with some worry about getting down in time to make it for dinner.  We were stuffed in on the way down even tighter than the way up, and we caught one of the last cable cars back down.  I took an amazing 4K video of the entire second descent.

We made our way out of the cable car and back across town to our hotel, bumping into the Calgary couple along the way who were out to find dinner on their own since they were skipping out of the group dinner we were going to.  Along the way I also ducked into a souvenir shop and found my stickers and bottle opener.  Score.  Back at the hotel we situated ourselves in our room and then went down to the hotel for drinks before dinner.  I had to try the local brews when I saw they were available. 

The Brasserie Du Mont Blanc Blanche tasted fruity and orangey and while interesting to have tried I wouldn't have ordered another. Instead I ordered the Blonde from the same brewery, in a degree of well-spoken French which seemed to quite impress the Australian couple who had since sat down beside us as we all gathered downstairs to be taken to dinner. 

The Blonde was very good, very crisp, and I would definitely order again.  I was amused that the rest of the trip Joyce kept reminding me that I liked the blondes.  She didn’t seem in on my private amusement thought.

On the way to dinner we went up to highway summit for some reason for picture taking.

I saw Switzerland for the second time in my life from a distance without actually going there.  It's becoming a thing. 

Now maybe I should never actually set foot in Switzerland and just make a point of seeing if from different places on a variety of sides.

The restaurant was Le Labrador for some reason and had a log cabin vibe with all kinds of fake bears and cows and moose.  Odd choice. 

Joyce asked what bear was in French and I answered ‘ourson.’  Mark corrected me that ‘ourson’ was bear cub but just a regular bear was ‘ours.’  Like how I’ll never forget that shark is ‘raquin’ because I couldn’t cough it up in an oral exam in grade nine, I’ll never forget the difference between ours and ‘ourson.’

Our appetizer at this restaurant was our choice of either a salad or a cheese and tomato tart.  It was about this point I started saying to Joyce: ‘YOU’RE a tart…’  I started with the salad and Joyce with the tart, and we switched halfway through.  We do this often so we can have the chance to try both things.  We both agreed the tart was much better than the salad.  Before the appetizer they started us off with some champagne with cherry brandy in it, vaguely reminiscent of the flavoured champagne we had the first night, but clearly a different flavour.  Whatever it was it was a total win and we were sad we only got the one glass.  Then it was all rotten grape juice even though we were asked ahead of time what we wanted to drink and I'd said beer. Whatever.  I had white wine and when I'd drank it they put more in the glass so I drank more. It’s a vicious cycle but I've had far bigger and far worse wine nights. 

Entree was unseasoned and unmarinated beef, pork, and chicken which we had to cook on a just warm electric stone. Mmmkay.

With it was a pretty good scalloped potatoes. 

The meat was okay but bland as I described.  Anette was sitting across from me and I cooked her meat for her, all of which she wanted completely well done.  Dessert was a quite good crème brulée.

It's funny.  So far all of the optional and included dinners so far have had one really good thing about them and everything else that went with it either merely pedestrian or outright gross. There are other benefits to participating in these outings, especially things like the winery dinner, but on balance on a night such as this I suspect we could have made out much better finding a restaurant for ourselves which we really like the look of and ordering what we actually want from the menu.

France 2016 - Monday, October 03 - Hospices de Beaune and Clos St. Louis Winery Dinner

Day 4: Free Time in Dijon

(Relaxed Start) Enjoy the Burgundian capital of Dijon, its many handsome buildings recall the time when the Duchy of Burgundy was more powerful than the Kings of France.  Perhaps take the opportunity to visit the wine capital of Burgundy, Beaune.  Don't miss the chance in the evening of an optional Burgundy wine tasting and traditional dinner in the Grand Cru village of Fixin.  Hotel: Grand Hotel La Cloche/Mercure Dijon Clemenceau, Dijon.  Buffet Breakfast.

 

Relaxed start means we get going around nine in the morning instead of having to have our bags out in the hallway at some ungodly hour like seven.

Today, I wrote at the time, a day trip walking tour of Bones or something, hoping it's an archaeological thing, then tonight a wine tasting and 'Be Our Guest' thing where we go to a local's house and are served the local specialties. This is always one of the highlights of the trip.

First I had to suffer the shower first.  For some unknown reason, they have a real aversion to actually finishing the showers in Europe.  

They only have a glass panel which covers half of the shower space, and you inevitable get a ton of water out onto the floor.  I still haven’t figured this one out.  When I took a shower that morning I also discovered that it had one of those shower heads which streams from right overhead.  This always seems like a neat idea, but it’s never a good one when you actually go to use it.  To wash shampoo out of your hair without it all going in your face, you have to tilt your head so far back you get water rushing into your nose.  Ugh.  Trying to shower effectively is one of the biggest hassles on these trips.  At least I learned on earlier trips that there are some things you can use what you find away from home, other things you’ve just got to bring your own.  I bring my own soaps, shampoo, conditioner in little travel bottles., it’s just what my body and I are used to, and it can really throw you off not having very particular familiar things like that.  I knew I’d have to shave a few times so I brought supplies for that, but as for my beard I just trimmed it down really low and let it grow while I was away.  I’m still growing it now for no particular reason in fact, just need to trim back the mustache as it all grows.

I also on this trip decided that I was going to throw out socks and underwear as I went to make room in my luggage for other things.  It was all at the end of their lives anyways, and I just got new when I got home.  The little things are what make the trips more pleasant, like not accumulating ever stinkier wads of socks in your luggage right beside your clean clothes.

On the way to Beaune (not Bone), we drove along the Côte d'Or vineyards, what is referred to as the Champs-Élysées of wine, where some of the most expensive vineyards in the world are located.

This area is apparently the wine capital of Burgundy.  We pulled the coach over for pictures at a particularly picturesque vineyard along the way. 

Picturesque as shit I like to say (or worse), enjoying the odd conjuction of the beautiful and the vulgar in the expression.  Going through Beaune I was struck yet again by how amazing it is for these buses to get around on such tight streets and never hit anything, with the exception of the incident in Troyes of course.

We wound up in Beaune, at the Hôtel-Dieu.  

This was more interesting to Joyce I imagine as a nurse in an old hospital, but it was interesting to see nonetheless.  It can be sometimes quite sad to see how pitifully little they could actually do for people before the germ theory of disease.  It makes the religious aspect of it all forgivable, certainly more forgivable then when they didn’t know any better than now when we do.  I was perpetually amused at the idea of all of the morbid catholic death cult artwork supposedly being therapeutically positive, the idea that ubiquitous depictions of a man being tortured to death on a cross would be comforting in any way when facing one’s own imminent death.  Whatever, it doesn’t make any more sense in any other context either. 

The town centre outside the hospital was interesting.  It was a lot like I've seen in other places before, with marble walkways and cobblestone roads.  

We walked around and I looked for stickers and bottle openers. I found some French cookbooks and though it would be interesting to buy one and try some recipes. In the end I just resolved to look up how to make Beef Borguingnon on the internet when we got home.   

Joyce and I kept walking and came to a small triangular park at the nexus of three roads meeting.  There are a lot of little parks like this in Europe, the room is there, why not make it a nice place for people.  We sat on the bench and watched the world go by near some remarkably old vintage cars. 

I saw some pastry in a shop I had to try.  It was like one of my favourite way overpriced treats at Safeway back home.  I asked for 'un' and immediately wished I'd trusted myself to ask for the ‘mille feuille’ since it was listed as ‘1000 feuille’ and she said mille feuille after I pointed to it.  As the name implies, it is many layers of thin flat pastry with two layers of custard and icing on top.  She put it in a box and I asked if she had a fork. She said no and held up a tiny plastic spoon which would never do. She was in her twenties and had glasses with red streaked dark short hair. I said 'je veut mange ici' as I pointed to the tables outside, later wishing I'd remembered that I should have said 'je veut manger ici'. I am certainly getting the chance to practice my French here.  It does come back, but you have to make a lot of mistakes along the way.

She said something that included the word 'porte' and I headed for the door and held it open for her as she brought my pastry to a table outside. I took pictures of it and Joyce met me there with a bottle of coke light. Earlier she had found an ice cream parlour and got two scoops, one of black currant and the other lime sorbet, which was listed in the shop as limon vert, green lemon.  I liked that.  I tasted my pastry and determined that in fact I preferred the one at Safeway back home due to it being less nutty. That's why I had to try it though, to know. Joyce though maybe it's more Italian style at home since maybe it was listed as Vienna something on the packaging?  I still haven’t had the chance to go find out since getting home.

And then it was the time to go.  We saw a dead pigeon on the road and I thought again about when I saw a seagull kill and eat a pigeon in the main square in Vienna. Never has a blood faced seagull looked more like the descendant of dinosaurs it is.

Bus ride back was uneventful, Joyce needed a nap. I could use one too but that would only screw up my sleeping trouble even worse than it already is.  So I left the hotel alone and walked about the main square of Dijon.  

I like to think I passed for not being a tourist when I wasn't pulling out my phone and taking pictures.

It's a nice place, nice, and classy, and proud in a way very typical of so many European city I’ve seen.  I found myself intermittently reminded of different cities by different features I saw as I walked.  

I was happy to find Bourgogne and Dijon coat of arms stickers for my luggage.  I then found my way to a local grocery store where I found more of that mille feuille pastry.  I wanted to know if it all tasted the same way it did in Beaune or if the nutty element was just a local flair.  While I was there I also got two pint cans of Heineken and a bottle of Coke Light.  The pastry was very good, not nutty and more like the one I liked so much back home.  I ate one of the two with my bare hands and drank one of the beers.  

This was a mistake.  I immediately felt heavy and groggy, and was falling asleep an hour later on the coach on the way to the dinner.

We then came to the Picard family vineyard for the Be Our Guest dinner.  Wait, no!

I mean the BERNARD family vineyard.

Phillipe is fourth generation himself, and his daughter Virginie

will take over some day.  They have had the same sixteen vine fields in the family the whole time, and they are spread out all over the region to spread out the risk of weather or other catastrophy to the vines, he explained.  

Dijon can be seen in the distance

He was a very amusing fellow, very proud of his heritage, his vines and their terroire.  He made a point of stopping for us to take photos in front of all of the plaques on the outside wall of all the awards he’d won as a wine producer.  We were shown all around the fermentation vats and aging barrels. 

All this wine education was making me really wish I tasted anything other than rotten grapes.

We were then led into another building on the property for dinner.  It was a local speciality of course (as Mark always said instead of specialty), cooked by his wife Martine.

Phillipe joked that he had to do the dishes, therefore we needed to keep our cutlery between courses. They have four children together, and apparently by convention (and law) the family vineyards must be divided equally between all of the children. Phillipe himself was required to engage in a long term rent seven eights of his family vineyard from the rest of his siblings and share equity in the company with them.  He didn’t seem to mind about as much as one could be expected to not mind such a thing.

The only thing I actively dislike about these tours quite consistently, is that we are forced to interact with people whom in any other context I’d have no interest in interacting with.  Nevertheless you always wind up sitting with them for breakfast and at dinner.  Yes I’m sure it’s good for me to have to interact with strangers and people who are different from me ideologically and all that.  I can believe and appreciate that without liking it though.  And the question I always dread is always inevitably asked, whether immediately or later, but always inevitably... so what do you do?

We sat with the ugly American couple that night.  She is apparently a retired lawyer.  She is a very round woman, and tends to start wheezing at the slightest exertion.  He is a retired navy ophthalmologist, and the best words I was able to come up with to describe him was a happy idiot.  He didn’t seem to mind how condescending and sharp his wife was with him, and he always had this goofy grin on his face like he was choosing to ignore all the problems with the world and forgot decades ago that it was something he was actively doing.  Perhaps I am being unfair with both of them, but perhaps not.

Our dinner was quite good, though with some horrifying details.  The appetizer was a nice salad of sliced smoked duck breast with cucumber, cherry tomato, spring mix, and balsamic vinegar. 

Entrée was free run chicken (local speciality) topped with a very nice cheese, white wine, (theirs of course), and cream.  This was all super good.  The entrée plate also had broccoli (two florets, no more, no less), wild rice, and a baked tomato half with a nice crunchy top on the cut side. 

We were then served three pieces of cheese, two of which were somewhat edible, but one which literally tasted like it was made and consumed strictly on a dare.  Everyone else ate it without much comment other than it was 'salty'.  Sweet zombie Jesus no, it was positively revolting.  Wow am I out of my element here.  But I guess if you like the taste of rotten grapes...  Joyce commented you can really taste the cow.  She later told me she meant the piss flavour, but I nodded at the time believing she was referring to the shit flavour.  Dessert was a wine soaked pear with black currant and chocolate coulis and a very good gingerbread ice cream.  

I really liked the ice cream, though the pear and black currant I was not so hot on.  On the way home I realized we were a forty four minute drive from where the Picard family vineyard is supposed to be in the Star Trek universe, in LaBoche.  It made me want to rewatch the Next Generation episode ‘Family’ where Picard returns to his home vineyard after being rescued from assimilation by the Borg.  I then looked up where David Sedaris had lived with Hugh in France, and apparently it was somewhere in Normandy and in the middle of nowhere, quite some ways west of Paris.

France 2016 - Sunday, October 03 - Dijon by way of Troyes and Chablis

Day 3: Troyes, Chablis, and on to Dijon

Troyes, in the Champagne region - its magnificent core of medieval buildings is appropriately shaped like a champagne cork.  Continue to Burgundy, once a powerful duchy and synonymous with fine wine.  Stop in the quiet village of Chablis which gives its name to one of the most famous French wines.  Join an expert vintner for a taste and introduction to these refreshing, steely whites.  Move on to your hotel in Dijon.  Hotel: Grand Hotel La Cloche/Mercure Dijon Clemenceau, Dijon.  Buffet Breakfast, Dinner.

 

I woke up very early the next morning, my body utterly confused about what time it was.  Reviewing the itinerary for the day I was resolved once again to the fact that this was fundamentally a wine tour, and that today would be the first of many tastings.  No matter how much wine I try to drink, it still just all tastes like rotten grapes to me.  With the odd exception of sparkling wine, rose more than white but both are good.  They are sweet and bubbly, like classy coolers with more alcohol content. Oh well, I always taste the wine given to me to confirm that yes, this too tastes of rotten grapes, and quietly pass my glass along to Joyce. The exception is those nights when something inside me decides to get wine drunk despite it tasting like rotten grapes. That never works out in the end for me but it does happen.  Most memorably on the Isle of Capri with the miserably hung over boat ride around the island the next day.

The night before I realized something about the word ‘bonjour.’  I was taught the word so early in my education that I literally never thought of the construction of the word.  I had to come all the way to Paris, a second time, to realize that it literally means 'good day', and only fully realizing this the night before when people kept telling me 'bon soir' or, good evening. That was never a single word in my head so as soon as I thought about it I realized that bonjour is not 'hello' as I’d always associated it in my head, but rather is 'good day' as opposed to 'good evening' or 'good night'. It's funny how such obvious things can elude you for so long until you actually think about them…

So our first stop after leaving Paris was a 'comfort stop' which is a glorified bathroom break at a truck stop.  These are partly for convenience, and partly due to regulations about how long a driver is allowed to be on the road without a break themselves.  Of course they do truck stops right in Europe though, a nice diner/cafe with a general purpose convenience store. I still had a lingering sore throat since before the plane over and I still wasn't sure if it was just a lingering or if I had the beginnings of an infection again.  I had a particularly nasty strep throat a few months ago and it wasn’t the first time either.  The first leg of the bus trip I had no drink and only one halls left so I was happy for the stop where I found a big bottle of water, a big bottle of Coke Light, and more importantly some angry original flavour Fisherman's Friend as well as orange Ricola. I spent 5 minutes deciding which Ricola I wanted as there were 20 different kinds and only half of which I really understood what they were.  Many seemed to be flower flavour, which didn’t appeal.  I settled on orange which tasted quite good, and they both worked very well.  When I went to the till to pay for them, the girl at the counter put a metal Fisherman’s Friend tin with my stuff.  Apparently it was a promotional item you got if you got the lozenges themselves, and this was a handy thing to have carrying lozenges around France.  I tried to use my primary credit card to pay for everything but it was declined. Fortunately my other card worked though.  I resolved not to panic until I found I couldn’t pull cash from my credit card and my card was declined elsewhere, but finding that out would have to wait since I couldn't find a cash machine anywhere at this particular stop.  While I went in to look for supplies, Joyce went exploring as she likes to do at these stops instead of being herded into the stores.

With water, Coke Light and lozenges in hand I immediately felt much better just knowing I had them with me.  I felt even better after settling in and using them all.  We saw dozens of wind turbines as we drove along the highway which are always so stark and otherworldly, especially when there are a great many of them.  I read a bunch of ‘Childhood's End’ on the drive, it is so much better than the SyFy mini-series.  There's a lot I recognized in it of my own book Launch, specifically the commentary on the idea of Utopia, which is central to Launch.  The idea that Utopia is fundamentally boring, and that in the absence of strife and suffering, new art and science grows ever rarer… it was interesting to read someone else thinking the same thing decades before I was even born.  I resolved long ago that no brilliant idea I could ever have hasn’t been had by someone else already; no ideas come out of nowhere.

We next stopped in Troyes, a city with a similar population to that of Kelowna, though much denser.  

There was some kind of marathon race going on so the bus couldn't get directly into town as it had planned. We drove around and at one point backed into a road side bannister as the relief driver turned around in the middle of a side street, ripping it right out of the concrete. I was mortified as we simply drove on afterwards.  At least we didn't back into a person. Eventually we were let off and were given an hour and a half for lunch there, much to the disgust of the woman who has become the marquee ugly American.  She seemed offended when she was informed that lunch would never provided on this trip and that we’d always be responsible for ourselves.  Joyce and I had sat in front of her and had to listen to her insult and berate her husband quite loudly in front of everyone on the bus.

The touristy interest in Troyes is the so-called 'half-timber' buildings, wood planks filled in with all kinds of fill like material from wood shavings, mud, and horse hair, and often quite distressingly tilted and leaning over, to the point that some of the buildings have bracing between them to prevent them from leaning over towards each other any more. 

At some points it reminded me of the old town in Ochrid, Macedonia and other times of Dubrovnik in Croatia. Joyce needed the bathroom, and I appreciate them saying here toilette.  Yes, we want a toilet, not a bath thank you. With half an hour to go we stopped at a brasserie for a beer to accomplish this toilet hunt.  Here I started wondering how you’d order a 1664 beer here.  I figured it must be seize-soixante-quatre as opposed to the full mille-six-cent-soixante-quatre.  Later on the trip Mark assured me that I’d been correct in this.

Before we went exploring, I went over to a cash machine to test if I could get cash or not, and it turned out that yes, I could.  I pulled two hundred euros (which was three hundred Canadian), which proved to be the perfect amount.  I did most spending on credit card, and I ran out of cash the day we left, so I estimated correctly.  I was pleased to know that my card wasn’t frozen, it just happened to not work at the truck stop for some reason.  The same thing happened one other time on the trip but otherwise it always worked fine.  In fact after my card was put in, on most machines it automatically switched to English.  Still, it was important to have backup cash.  We saw one souvenir shop in the Troyes old town, and I got a fridge magnet Troyes bottle opener.  I like to get a different kind of thing on each trip.  My first London/Paris trip it was mugs, Italy it was... something else I can't remember.  Why can't I remember?  Is it possible it was nothing?  It was mugs again on our east coast trip and shirts and pins on our Balkan trip.  I've also the last two trips liked getting stickers for my luggage of the places we've been and at the same shop at the till I saw some Troyes stickers and I was happy to get one and it now adorns my luggage. Looks like it's going to be a bottle opener and stickers trip.

Walking through Troyes I saw a menu with the raw hamburger with and raw egg on top I’d mentioned to my kitchen manager Chris having seen on my last trip to Paris.  I took a picture, posted it to Facebook and tagged him so he could see.  

For a hundred dollars I’d bought four hundred megabytes of data which much like the cash worked out perfectly as I ran out just as we left at the end of the trip.  He claimed it wasn’t what it looked like and suggested something else on the menu, but this was long after and we didn’t eat there.  Technically we had internet on the coach and in our hotels, but it was spotty at best so I was happy to have bought some of my own roaming data ahead of time.

After Troys things went south for me.  After the beer I had in Troyes and the bit of wine in Chablis, the lack of sleep really caught up with me and I was unconscious most of the rest of the day, miserably vaguely conscious at our last comfort stop between Chablis and our ultimate destination Dijon, and at the hotel waiting to go up to our room and to dinner at the hotel.

However, the wine tasting in Chablis did happen. We were explained to for twenty minutes what makes Chablis Chablis and why all Chablis is chardonnay but most chardonnay is not Chablis.  

Right on cue, the ugly American Californian then immediately asked what the difference was.  Were you not listening to his twenty minute explanation or are you just thick? Anyways, we were given three progressively better wines, and though they all tasted like rotten grapes to me, I did find them progressively more drinkable.  Interesting.  I gave Joyce most of the first one, but drank the second two myself.  She was disappointed.  She was also disappointed that she seemed to be poured less wine than everyone else.  Consistently.  Our entire trip.  Sometimes it was her imagination, but often it was not and for seemingly no reason whatsoever, she would be poured less than me or anyone else it seemed.

So that was cool, learned all about ‘terroire’, and how the quality of the wine depends on where it's grow, what side the hill is facing vs the top of the hill, the soil, humidity, all that stuff.  The man giving the presentation seemed to be spending a disproportionate amount of time speaking to me particularly.  Joyce said later it was because I looked more French than the rest with my nice blue fine print button up shirt and ponytail.

After a significant amount of incoherent blur, 

I found myself at the hotel in Dijon. 

The view from our hotel room in Dijon

We apparently had a significantly bigger room than other travelers but that how it works, some places you get the big rooms, other places you get the shitty one, I’m sure they balance deliberately.

We had dinner at the hotel in what seemed to be a brick cellar in the hotel basement and this time we sat with much more interesting and pleasant people. 

Taken the next morning

 One couple named Bob and Ruth Douglas were from Ottawa.  He was a retired journalist who used to cover parliament hill.  His being a journalist made a lol of sense with the kinds of questions he asked about us.  Not the typical easy questions, the better probing questions which demanded a much more insightful answer.  He seemed to keep digging for 'the rest of the story'.  His wife was a retired teacher who said that she taught Justin Trudeau when he was a child, and then immediately, almost reflexively volunteered that she would never vote for him, though he was a sweet kid. There was an elderly woman from Sydney named Annette Roach who was hard to hear in the echo-y stone cellar but she talked about real estate a lot.  She turned out to be a rather fun old woman, severe hump, travelling alone, and up for anything.  She was the type who thought the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was too left wing, but was the type whom you just hope you have her spirit and energy when you’re her age. The other couple we sat with were Thomas and Barbara Bryer.  He was a retired civil engineer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but I never heard if she’d had a career herself.  We had good discussions about the future of technology, what it would do to the economy, and of course what and hot mess the US Federal election is.  Bob asked a lot about my books, and I’d wished I’d brought a copy along to show.  I thought I’d bring up my military ambitions when people asked what I do, the question I always loathe but is always asked, but for some reason I stuck with I’m a science fiction novelist and cook.  No I’m not a chef, no I haven’t been traditionally published, leave me alone.

Then blessedly, bed.

France 2016 - Saturday, October 01 - Welcome to Paris

Day 2: Welcome to Paris

Airport transfers depart from Charles de Gaulle Airport for your hotel at 08:30, 11:00 & 13:30.  Relax and settle in, or start exploring this great capital.  Later, join your Tour Director for a Welcome Reception and the opportunity to mingle and get to know each other over a pleasant evening of dinner and wine.  Hotel: Pullman Montparnasse, Paris.  Welcome Reception and Dinner.

 

When we landed it was eleven o’clock or something BC time but it was already morning in Paris and we had to stay up as late as possible.  We were cranky and bleary eyed and in the arrivals section of Charles de Gualle and I got my first look at how France had changed since I was there four years ago.  The first of many trios of military with very large machine guns around their necks and looking very severe I came across here as we tried to figure out where to go.  Eventually we figured out to read our actual hotel bus transfer ticket and saw that our meeting place was way at the other side of the airport.  We gave up on catching the earlier transport and resolved that we now had a comfortable hour and a half to figure out where to catch the next one.  We had to walk all the way down to the far end of the terminal we were in, then get in something like a skytrain which took us to the next terminal, a parking lot, then the next terminal, then another parking lot, then finally the correct terminal.  We had to walk a ways before getting frustrated again and Joyce asked one of the customer service people for help, but he couldn’t.  We then decided to read the REST of our hotel bus transfer ticket, and it told us exactly where to go and be.  We went there and sat down and while Joyce went to the bathroom, I saw a woman with a familiar clipboard and lanyards for Insight (our company) as well as their sister companies Trafalgar and Grand European Vacations.  She was a young and attractive Arab French woman (I guessed by her brown skin and accent), and dressed vaguely like a flight attendant.  She marked us down and continued looking around for others, and when I saw people with the company tags on the luggage they were carrying around I did my best to direct them to her or her to them.  When Joyce came back I told her all was well and that we were accounted for, and I went to a kiosk nearby and bought a Coke Light, not a Diet Coke mind you, a Coke Light which tastes a lot more like Coke Zero than Diet Coke, yet they also still have Coke Zero.  Go figure.  Anyway as much as I wanted a drink I was also eager to test that my credit card would work and it did.  Good.

We eventually were all led outside, and several busses pulled up and we were put on specific busses based on where we were going and what group we were with.  We were put on a bus with a Jackie!  The bus driver who had been our driver when I was first in Paris for four days four years ago.  My opinion of Jaquie changed by the end of the trip, but we’ll get to that.  It was cool though to recognize the driver like that.  We went to another terminal to pick up some other people, and from that point I don’t remember much.  It was well after midnight by this point back home.  We were told that it was law in France that we had to wear seatbelts on the bus, so we belted up, but we never did so on the trip again. 

The hotel was very snazzy, and we wound up back at the same hotel when we returned to Paris two weeks later.  Later that day after a chunk of time I have no memory of (though Joyce tells me we had a two hour nap), we go to our welcome dinner at a place called Chez Clements.  I took a brief mood video just outside while we were waiting to cross the street.

  What I wasn’t able to catch in the video due to people in the way and having to get moving again was that the guys appeared to be breakdancing in a group on the street there.  Dinner was hit and miss.  We started off with a glass of champagne which was amazing, very sweet and fruity, made me think of thinned down carbonated ice wine.  We asked our tour director Mark de Cote (whose first name is much fancier, and who looks frighteningly like Gustavo Frank from Breaking Bad) later on what was different about it and it was mixed with some kind of violet syrup.  Whatever it was, super tasty.  We were then given French Onion soup, which apparently here is just Cheese Onion Soup.  So unbelievably flavorful, but what I really wasn't expecting was the finely grated cheese at the bottom of the bowl, the bottom! GENIUS!!

Then we were served escargot and beet salad.  I know I don't like pickled beets so I didn't make myself try any, but the escargot was a new thing for me.  I didn't want to eat any at all what with my whole aversion to eating an entire organism in one bite thing.  Plus, you know, it’s a snail.  However in the last few years I've been trying to push myself to be more open to trying new things, being willing to at least try things and even be able to eat and drink things I don’t necessarily like, so I ate one.  I kept thinking about an antenna stretching out probingly in my mouth while I chewed it... it was very garlicky and pesto-y, and chewy, almost like mushroom but with a much thicker and tougher consistency.  Anyway I tried one, was pleased with myself, and felt no need to eat any more.

Main course was fine, but a little disappointing in how familiar it was, roast quarter chicken with gravy, roast potatoes, and I swear mixed frozen vegetables boiled up (and overcooked).  Okay, fine, just nothing magical.  The highlight of the night remained the soup.  Dessert was a crepe with some sort of semisweet pale yellow sauce on it, something fruity. It was good, but something about it was just lacking... more sugar maybe? I don't know.  Over the course of the trip I realized that in general French cuisine is just quite bland to a North American palette.  Nothing is too sweet, nothing too flavourful, everything is much more delicate and subtle for better or worse.

When we’d arrived, I went right for the table for four with big comfy red Mr. Burns looking chairs, and only after sitting down did I realize that this would leave us face to face with only one other couple we'd have to engage with all evening. I forgot it's better to sit in larger groups, especially at first.  I was thrown by how appealing the chairs looked.  The other couple was from Calgary. He was a retired Telus guy, she was a retired French immersion teacher. I hated her a little for speaking French to the waiter and bus driver so well, making my better than nothing French seem like effectively nothing. It's petty, but hey, I can be petty sometimes right?

The décor in the room we were put in was interesting.  Old books and pamphlets of all kinds, very old letters and maps, big wads of rolled up newspaper… when you didn’t want to look at or engage with your dinner companions there sure was a lot on the walls around you to look at instead, and comment on as a way of keeping the conversation going.

I was having this sick deja vu, like I already knew all the other passengers from other trips...  There was a greater Canadian contingent with this group.  Usually it’s most Australians with several Canadians and a few Americans, but on this trip there seemed to be about as many Canadians as Australians and that was interesting.  It was gratifying to have the chance to sit down and have meals with people from all over my own country in France, even if I liked some more than others.  The Australians are crazy travelers, and they’re usually the most fun.  Very few have ever been unpleasant.  They have to come so far that when they do travel they frequently go on two or three trips in a row, it’s crazy.

We hadn’t seen everyone yet on this 33 person tour (of a 40 capacity) but so far the average age is 70. There's usually a handful of younger people, friends travelling, a couple young adult children travelling with their parents, but so far the over/under on how much younger I am than the next younger person on this trip besides Joyce I'd put at 25. It's not a problem, it's just something I notice.  Eventually though, we met an Australian brother and sister who Joyce and I figure were in their forties probably, and I felt a little better.  They were super fun and in fact they were among those at the top of the list I’d be hoping to find on Facebook after the trip but so far I haven’t had any luck with that.

France 2016 - Friday, September 30 - Pre-Flight

In the weeks before, I wasn’t nearly as excited as Joyce was.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t excited or looking forward to the trip, I’m just more zen.  It wasn’t something to get worked up about until it was something to get worked up about.  The last week it became real though.  When I had to start doing timelines and figuring out how many items of what kind of clothing I would need, making lists of all of the things I couldn’t forget, making a list of things to do and not forget for Alexia my niece who would be stopping by every day to take care of all the pets, when I pulled the luggage down from the storage room, then it became real.  

Maybe I was a bit more relaxed than Joyce as well because I had more free time in the days leading up to our departure than her, she was running a workshop at the hospital and had colleagues from out of town she was expected to entertain.

The day we left I woke up and had a to do list.  I cleaned the guinea pig cage, emptied and refilled the cat’s litter box, gave the cats their last meal, showered, and stuffed my last things into my luggage, weighing it carefully since the luggage could only be fifty-pounds and in the end I was forty-nine-point-four.  I had to have a contingency plan for what I would put in my carry on if they told me I was overweight.  I waited while Joyce made her final preparations as well, and when she was done we hugged and marveled that such a thing was actually happening and that it was actually time to leave.  We went out front and wheeled our heavy luggage down the winding wheelchair ramp and loaded them into the car.

We stopped at WacArnold’s on the way through Westbank for a bite for me and large diet cokes for the road, one of the last few I would get for two weeks.  

On the way through the 97C connector we saw windmills for the first time and marveled.  We were both very happy to see that we were finally doing something like this, agreed that it was a very appropriate chronically windy spot to put them up, and I remembered that sometime somewhat recently I had wind turbine components somewhere but can’t remember where now…  Of course some time on the trip I listened to a podcast where I learned that BC Hydro’s energy demand had been flat for the last ten years though their assets had gone up fifty percent and they were building capacity for political reasons with no business demand, including Site C itself, and paying private energy producers way over market value because of bad politically motivated deals, but still.  It was nice to see BC step into the nineties in 2016 with a few windmills.

We drove to Joyce’s cousin’s place in Burnaby where we were parking the car while away, and his wife very kindly gave us a ride to the airport, which was much faster and more convenient than Joyce’s original plan to transit with our luggage.  We arrived at Vancouver airport and checked into the on-site Fairmont hotel.

I had bought a twelve pack of beer in Merritt and drank a few on the way down.  I brought the rest with me to the hotel, preferring to have to leave some behind than run out.  I connected my phone to the suite TV and watched The Young Turks into the evening as we watched planes take off and land out the window. 

In the end I had to leave four beers behind, and I only hope they went to a good home.  

I thought about drinking them before boarding the plane, but this is an idea which always seems like a good one but never is.  Drinking on a long haul flight is especially bad when you find it difficult to sleep on a plane as I do.  You think it’ll make the trip go by faster, but it only makes you hot and sluggish and unable to concentrate on things which would otherwise distract you for long stretches of the flight.  

We got all packed up again and first went to the Air France kiosk to hand over our luggage.  I was just under, but just under is under enough and there was no problem.  We then headed through security a bit after eleven for our two o’clock flight.  I was ‘randomly’ flagged to get the chemical drug and bomb testing, where they put a padded wand all around the inside of my hand luggage and over my hands and then ran an analysis.  Nothing turned up of course, but this additional screening also streams you to the front of the security line which was nice.  By now I know the routine.  Tablet, keyboard, phone, passport in one tub with jacket overtop, carry-on bag in the other, nothing whatsoever in my comfy shorts with plastic buttons and my t-shirt.  No problem.

Once we found our gate we had a not insignificant wait for boarding.  I started reading one of the books I brought along, ‘Childhood’s End’ by Arthur C. Clarke.  It’s the book of the month in my sci-fi book club which I nominated after seeing the iffy SyFy miniseries ‘based’ on it, and it won.  I also brought along ‘The Plague’ by Camus in case I finished ‘Childhood’s End’ and because I had to bring a Camus book to France, even if it was in English.  At one point I went to a store and bought two bottles of diet coke for the trip, another thing I’d learned about long flights, don’t wait for them to give you all the drinks and snacks you’ll need or you’ll ultimately go wanting.  I also got a pack of Halls since my throat was tickling and it’s best to be prepared when locked in an aluminum tube for ten hours.

We boarded and everything was fine.  Joyce and I have learned that the ideal arrangement is for us to both have aisle seats across the aisle from each other, this way we both get leg room on one side, and we can switch halfway if we wish to give our other legs the room.  I don’t remember the first flight very well at this point.  I don’t think I tried to read… I played God of War: Chains of Olympus on my Vita, one of the two God of War PSP games I downloaded for the trip, and watched the entire latest season of the show Episodes, which is awesome by the way, very dry, very witty, very self-aware, and Matt LeBlanc playing himself and making fun is great.  

France 2016 - Introduction

So, this kind of writing is new for me and I haven’t really done it before so I’m not entirely sure how to proceed.  When I went on the trip I didn’t have a clear intention of writing a comprehensive travelogue, but along the way I started typing up a sort of stream of consciousness recollection of everything that came to mind as I posted pictures to Facebook along the way.  I intend to incorporate those passages and clean them up in structure and flow as well as adding antecedents such as this and completing the parts of the trip after I became too overwhelmed and exhausted to finish posting in the same way. 

 

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I am privileged enough to have taken multiple trips such as this and to be able to compare them against each other, privileged enough to rank them according to how much I liked them.  I suspected going into this trip that it would be my least favourite amongst all of the trips I’ve been lucky enough to be able to go on, and I was correct.  However, the language ‘least favourite’ I do mean quite literally.  It’s like my least favourite version of Star Trek, or my least favourite kind of M&M.  The conversation starts with that I like them all, and then the ranking amongst all of the kinds I like begins.  So it is with these trips.  I also went in with an open mind though.  I had similar reticence about our Italy trip, yet I was wholly surprised at how amazing it was.  That was only my second trip though, and the first one where we really covered ground.

The thing about this trip as I became able to articulate at some point, was that it was at once both too familiar, and not familiar enough.  It was too familiar in that after ending our last trip in Istanbul and loving how fascinating the alien culture was to see and get even the most casual feel for, to personalize the idea of a culture, I was ready for another much deeper dive.  A tour of Turkey itself, or go straight to China, or Africa, or elsewhere in Europe even Scandanavia or Eastern Europe.  I was ready to experience something even more alien than I’d already experienced, and France was about as far from this as possible.  And yet, France certainly wasn’t as absolutely far from this as possible.  Great Britain for example, or even Australia or New Zealand, would all be far more culturally similar to what I know, very familiar indeed.  But in Great Britain it would be familiar enough that it would be relevant to my own culture, to my own ancestral history and the same could be said for other commonwealth countries in their being cousin or sibling countries as Great Britain is paternal.  To go deeper into the cultural wilderness than France would be to learn about the alien, to go deeper into the ancestral home of the commonwealth would be to learn about myself and my own country.  France was in a sort of cultural uncanny valley for me in this way.

That critique given, it is a personal issue, and not to reflect on what a wonderful trip it was, merely an explanation for why at this point in my travelling life I would describe it as my least favourite, yet still a favourite as they all are.  So, that being said…

The Greyhound Incident

I almost died that day…  Well, not really.  Actually, overall it went about as well as anyone could have hoped for, if it had to happen at all.

The Coquihalla highway was closed due to severe avalanche risk so Greyhound had been taking the longer but very scenic Hope-Princeton Highway to Kelowna.  The extra time it took created a passenger backlog though, and by the time of my scheduled trip, they’d had to charter a second bus.

I made the mistake of choosing to ride on the charter bus because it was supposed to arrive earlier than the regular bus since it wasn’t making most of the stops along the way.  Since I’d loaded up with snacks and drinks ahead of time, fewer stops wouldn’t be a problem for me.

Once in the snowy mountains, we were coming around a bend, and a semi-truck travelling in the opposite direction came over the centre line, and forced our driver to veer to the right to avoid a collision, and we wound up in the ditch.  As we ran over the rumble strips at the side of the road and started going over, I thought: ‘oh, okay… well THIS is happening.’

We landed on a 45 degree angle, with me on the high side and sitting on the arm rest.  A number of bags had flown out of overhead compartments and one wanged a woman on the head pretty good.  ‘Ok,’ I thought, ‘well THAT just happened.’  I resigned myself to the reality that my day was ruined.

We were on the outside of a bend in the road on a wide curve to the right, and we’d gone into the ditch at the base of a tall hill.  The scariest parts were the cars and trucks coming up over the hill ahead of us, and finding it very difficult to stop.  We watched several near misses until a different semi-truck stopped beside us and offered to help.  Before cluing in to using road salt and tire chains, he very nearly slid into us as he tried to get moving again.  Even with chains his tires idly spun around and around as he inched over the next hill. People who stopped to help were sent on their way to call in the accident when they could since we had no cellular signal.

Our driver tried backing up onto the road again which worried me, since all that was behind us was oncoming traffic blindly coming around the bend.  He only succeeded in backing up in the ditch and created a bus shaped trench ahead of us.

We’d effectively rolled over onto our exit door.  We could have broken a window, but then we’d be exposed to the cold.  Instead we stayed inside risking carbon monoxide poisoning as the bus kept us warm by idling and exhausting into the solid snow bank behind us.  Aside from the smokers it was remarkable how calm we all were.  Yes we went off the road, but we’d landed on a large snow pillow and nobody had been seriously hurt.  If it had to happen at all, it really couldn’t have gone any better.

Around this time a Shriner hospital bus happened by, and the driver offered us a lift since he was empty and already headed that way.  It was such a kind offer; I have no idea how we would have carried on once we were rescued if that bus hadn’t stopped and offered to help us.

When the first paramedic arrived, the brown haired woman squeezed her way through the pinned front door while joking about how she shouldn’t have had that ice cream earlier.  She assessed the woman who’d been hit on the head and a couple others who had concerns.  Not long after the ambulance showed up, so did everyone else.  One of the good natured rescue guys came onboard to figure out how they were going to get us out, and when someone complimented him on his solo mustache, which he proudly proclaimed “oh yeah, 70s porn ‘stache.”

It had now been two hours since the crash, and it was dark outside.  They decided they were going to break the already cracked right front window and file us out through it.  They easily smashed the window out, removed the rubber stripping, and placed a matt over the bottom for us to safely climb over onto a step ladder on the outside.

Since I was sitting near the front, I was one of the first out after those with medical concerns.  After hopping through and having my bag handed to me, I thanked the crews profusely, and then climbed out of the bus-shaped trench onto the highway.  I could see a long snaking line of lights from the vehicles stopped behind us.  The scene was absorbing, the flashing lights, the fresh snow piled a meter high, and a series of people being helped out of a bus through a smashed front window were mesmerizing.  After a little playful sliding on the icy roadway, I helped some of the others transfer our baggage from the crashed bus onto the Shriner one.

My second big mistake of the day, was allowing most of the other passengers onto the new bus before me, despite being one of the first off of the last bus.  I figured there would be as much room on the new bus as there was on the old, but I was wrong.  After climbing aboard, I made my way past some very comfortable looking, but very occupied recliner chairs.  Further up the aisle were hospital beds with three people sitting on each and as I passed them it dawned on me that there was absolutely nowhere for me to sit.  I was one of the last people on the bus, and there was hardly even any floor left for me to sit on.

The best I could do was to find a square half meter of floor for myself between the coffee machine above my head, the bathroom ahead of me and its door frequently opening into my leg space, and a cabinet latch digging into my back.  Not long after I’d resigned myself to this bitter situation, an endless parade of inconsiderates stepped in my space to help themselves to the expensive single cup coffee maker and bottled water over my head.  The kindness of the bus driver giving us a ride, was being repaid with theft.

Twenty minutes after finally getting underway again, we were stopped for another two hours due to yet another accident further up the road.  Only now did I lose my sense of humour with the situation.  So far it was an easily bearable interesting adventure, but after we were stopped again for an unknown length of time, I was now fully embittered.

When we finally started moving again, after twenty minutes travel, we were stopped again for yet another hour.  After this, our three hour trip the rest of the way to Kelowna continued on uninterrupted.

At some point, we started getting phone service again, and as I coaxed my phone into sending a simple ‘I’m ok’ to Joyce, all at once I received increasingly concerned messages from her, ending with a desperate sounding: ‘I don’t know what to do…’  It was bittersweet to have someone worry about me like that.  It was comforting, but at the same time knowing she was worrying about me was the worst part of the ordeal since I couldn’t reassure her until the phones started working again.

My next fun adventure was dodging the feet of all the people trying to use their phones plugged into a power bar behind the coffee maker over my head, which didn’t stop other people from nearly scalding me as they still tried to use the coffee machine over my head which was now down to only having hot chocolate inserts.

Finally I saw Okanagan Lake, and I knew I was almost home.  People cheered as we finally pulled into the bus depot eleven hours after leaving Vancouver.  Some clueless management guy stood at the front of the bus, blocking our exit only to offer apologetic platitudes.  After everyone who’d had comfortable seating got off the bus I was finally able to exit, and I rushed through the terminal into a big hug with Joyce.

In retrospect, what really stands out for me is how well it all went.  Nobody flipped out or was hurt, and another bus was able to give us a lift.  Aside from irritation and discomfort on the second bus, the worst part was just the hours of my life the incident consumed.  I wasn’t left with a fear of bus travel; I was just the victim of a statistic; there was nothing I should have done to avoid it, and it’s nothing I should ever expect to happen again.  Like so much of life, it was just some stuff that happened.