“When you’re at a creperie in the French countryside, order. the. crepes.”
Also previously published under “A Lori Special in the Vendee, Or, The Low Point of France.”
Roy has amazingly good luck with things. He’s one of those people for whom planes and trains run on time, and if they don’t, he winds up with free meals, cash allowances, and upgrades. This is the polar opposite of my luck. He enjoys my travelogues from a distance, says he finds them amusing. I warned him that he might not find them as amusing when he winds up participating in them. It was his belief that his Good Travel Luck would prove superior to my Bad Travel Luck. It is an empirical debate, after all…the Immovable Object and the Irresistible Force.
When we arrived at Logan to take off for our trip to France, he started to understand that I never exaggerate these stories, if anything, understate them. It was a typical scene for me, a total disaster at the ticket counter exacerbated by ludicrously long wait lines. Airline personnel were canvassing the lines for people who needed to check in for [name your destination] flight, pulling them out, and taking them to Timbuktu so that they would make the flight. These are people who arrived an hour and more early, as recommended, not scoff-laws who are trying to arrive at the very last second. That is how long the lines were. This was all complicated by the mass confusion at Security Scene, with the result that people wound up standing in the ticket lines while believing that they were waiting for the security checkpoint. After standing in line for 1 (one) hour, I wagered Roy that just as we reached the ticketing counter, the line would be canvassed for people on our flight (and this was the line for the Gold-level frequent flyer travelers). He never believed it, and, as a result, when I stepped up to the ticket counter and opened my mouth only to be cut off by the call for travelers for Paris, I won a beer from him.
Roy said then that he understood what it was like to travel for me. I told him he didn’t understand Jack. At least not yet.
The day we left Paris for the countryside, he attained Enlightenment. We had tickets for the TGV (high-speed train) from Paris to Angers on Tuesday morning. We picked up the train at Montparnasse. Things went fine until we got on the train. We wrestled our anti-social luggage, all five (5) large bags of it, into the rack. Then waited, and waited and waited. An announcement came. My French is…passable…in many situations, but it is not up to the task of announcements made in rapid-fire over a tannoy. All I was able to understand was that there was a mechanical problem with the train. Roy was confident that we’d be taking off any time now. I knew, based on extensive personal experience, that once we heard that announcement, we could have disembarked and eaten a three-course gourmet meal at a nearby brasserie before re-boarding the train. I was more or less right, too. Eventually, we got another announcement, one that I could not understand at all. In a fit of Dark Humor I said to Roy “Ah. Doubtless we’re now being told that the train has been fixed, but the crew has been lost.” He said, “You’re kidding.” I addressed myself to a couple sitting behind us to see if they spoke English and could translate. To my Complete and Total lack of surprise, it transpired that there was going to be a delay of thirty or forty minutes because the conductor could not be found. I hate being right.
Roy started laughed in disbelief. I assured him that we were not done.
Finally, the train departed. It did, in fact, go at very high speeds. Something to the tune of 185 miles per hour. Very impressive. Very smooth ride, too. The countryside outside of Paris looked exactly like east Texas, including the round hay-bales, which it turns out that Roy always thought were some kind of special French Thing.
We arrive at Angers over 1 hour late, and into an extraordinarily potent heat wave. Normal high is around 75. This day, it is 97 and EXTREMELY humid, just like Houston in July. We commence the search for the Avis rental desk. It is decided that I will stand with the five (5) large bags on the sidewalk while Roy looks for the desk, which is either in the hotel across the street from the station, near the hotel across the street from the station, or across from the hotel across the street from the station, depending on the accuracy of Roy’s recollection of the instructions given at the Montparnasse station Avis desk. Roy’s French is limited to “Bonjour,” “Bon soir,” and “merci beaucoups” which he uses completely indiscriminately, including as a response to other people’s “Pardon” (“please move aside so I may pass”).
Finally, Roy locates the desk, which is in fact across the street from the hotel across the street – one wonders why the preposition “next to” never came into play. Probably the Avis clerk forgot how to say that. I know I perpetrated many of the same kinds of things, once referring to our innkeeper as the “wife of the brother of the man at the vineyard” (I did not know the word for “sister-in-law”). The desk is in a trailer (probably forgot that word, too) which is air-conditioned (an uncommon phenomenon in our travels), so we drag our five (5) large bags into it, completely filling the space. There is some inevitable confusion over where, exactly, the car is to be found. I finally decide that it will be easier to conduct the negotiations in French (very scary, given my French) and discern that it is parked on a nearby street and that we may identify it by the license plate. Which we do. Roy says with premature relief that he is glad that the Travel Drama is over. I laugh.
At this point, he sits down and discovers that he cannot put the car into reverse. It has a Euro transmission, so reverse is on the left side. No matter what he does, it stays stubbornly in first gear, and we inch precariously closer and closer to the car parked in front of us on the steep hill. I retrieve the manual from the glove box and attempt to discern what “transmission” “shift lever” and “put the car into reverse” are in French. Unfortunately, none of this was covered in any of my classes, nor in conversations with my grandmother, nor in my handbook of useful French phrases. Roy decides that the thing to do is to hike back to the desk and ask. Unfortunately, it is 5:02 at this point, so he must make speed through the heat wave. Five minutes later, I miraculously decipher the manual, and get the car into reverse. This was the High Point of my personal linguistic adventures, believe me!!
We congratulated ourselves extensively, pulled out on our way to the Autoroute, and immediately got lost. In a maze of one-way streets, closed avenues, and thoroughfares randomly and maliciously marked Interdit (restricted).
It is also Rush Hour.
Twenty-five minutes later, we are headed to B.F.E. Roy, a life-long inhabitant of the North East, is profoundly unfamiliar with the concept of B.F.E. I, a life-long resident of the Deep South and Texas, am intimately familiar with the concept of B.F.E. We are to stay three nights in a chateau, the kind that has evolved over the last thousand years from a giant stone keep. The chateau is in B.F.E. It is also quite gorgeous. It is owned by a Vicomte and his wife, who kept it as their Country Residence until the children left the nest, and now they run it part-time as a B&B.
Unfortunately, the Vicomte and his wife are not in town when we arrive. The only employee on the premises has been on the job for 8 (eight) hours. As in, This Is Her First Day. Thankfully, she’s a graduate student from Haiti, going to school in Nebraska, and speaks English perfectly. It takes a while to discern this, though, as I address her in French, thus delivering the impression that I am an imbecile, not a foreigner. My accent is…very good. Too good. Good enough to allow me to Pass, which only gets me in trouble.
Roy and I have had the equivalent of one (1) pastry each so far in the day and it is now 6PM. Since we are in B.F.E., we have to get a recommendation for a local restaurant from the woman who has been living in the area for eight (8) hours. This recommendation is based on a business card she found on a desk somewhere. The business card provides a small map. Unfortunately, the roads are shown but not labeled, and none of the villages on the card-map appear on my road-map, and the woman is unable to tell us where, on the card-map, the chateau is located. She attempts to telephone the owners. One hour later, we have directions: Turn right out of the chateau. Go to Pouzages. We think there are signs for the restaurant once you get to Pouzages. We are unsure of how far Pouzages is from where we are, and because where we are does not appear on my road-map, we can’t use that either.
The room, by the way, is exactly what one would expect from a well-maintained five-hundred year old Renaissance chateau. Quite gorgeous and completely devoid of air conditioning. We fling the 10-foot windows open to let in a cross-draft, and depart for Pouzages.
Pouzages turns out to be deeper into B.F.E., which sparks a debate as to whether you can be in the center of B.F.E. or whether, by definition, there is no center to B.F.E.
We find our way to the restaurant despite all this.
One quick piece of advice: When you come across a restaurant deep in the French countryside that calls itself a “creperie,” order. the. crepes.
Five minutes after arrival I have successfully determined two things: one, that the restaurant staff speaks little or no English. Two, that the local French accent is completely unlike the Parisian accent that I have and to which I am accustomed, which means that I can no longer understand what people are saying. Nor can they understand me.
We are seated on a patio and manage to acquire a couple of kirs (aperitif). We begin to unwind. Roy surveys the adjoining grassy yard and says “Is that a bull?” I consider the occupant, 30 feet away, and tell him that in Texas, at least, bulls do not come equipped with an udder. He’s from the Bronx. Who can blame him?
I survey the surroundings and observe that it feels like ten minutes ago I was on a Parisian metro car with 150 other close personal acquaintances, and now, suddenly, I find myself on the patio of the only open restaurant within 60 kilometers, right next to a cow pasture marked off with 12 pieces of rusting re-bar and 2 pieces of string. The pasture is occupied by a cow wearing an honest-to-God cow bell, the first I have ever actually seen, and there is a stray dog aggressively canvassing the restaurant tables for scraps.
“Culture Shock” only begins to cover it.
The waitress arrives, and with great effort and maximum inefficiency, I convey to her Roy’s desire for not one, but two, appetizers: fish soup and some kind of salad with beans that makes him smell nastily of onions for two days. I, thinking fondly of the foie gras I had two nights before, order the foie gras salad. And a house item, the “raclette”. I have no idea what this is, beyond the fact that it involves cheese, potatoes, and chunks of cooked pork.
The waitress delivers the appetizers. My foie gras is not a foie gras, but a perfectly circular slice of pate foie gras. The kind that in the states would be loaded with enough nitrites to have me sick in the bathroom for hours. I offer a prayer to the heavens that the French would not tolerate that kind of canned pate and fall to.
The waitress arrives again, and informs me at length and with some urgency, about something.
The only word I can understand from this litany is “probleme.” And “votre plat” (referring to my main course). We exchange mutually unintelligible comments three times at which point she says, in desperation, “changez les places” (you move your place). I inform Roy that we need to move, but do not know why. By this point, everyone else in the restaurant is laughing discreetly into their wine.
We move. Eventually, a nearby diner offers, in broken English, the explanation that the “hachette” required for my dinner does not have an electric cord long enough to reach our former table.
I ordered something that requires an extension cord?? I realize that I am shortly in for a Surprise. What an adventure!
At this point, the sky emits a low and threatening rumble. I am not making any of this up, I have a witness.
However, I am too delighted to not be in whatever passes for a toilette in this region, puking from the pate, to be very concerned with the rumble.
Dinner arrives. To my dismay, the “pieces of cooked pork” (menu translation) are not “chunks of pork” at all, but neatly rolled slices of ham, country bacon, and pastrami. All foods that have a history of making me barf. It’s like a Little Plate of Poison.
The “hachette” turns out to be a rather large portable broiler with a giant wedge of cheese. I stare at it in broad mystification. Our neighbors take pity on me and show me how to use it. The general idea is to broil the cheese and then scrape it off with a special spatula, put it on a potato and a Cold Cut, and eat it. How revolting.
However, I’m starving, it’s late, and I’m realizing that there is an electrical storm in the neighborhood and I am seated on an outdoor patio, under a metal awning, right next to a large electrical device, and that we’re not entirely sure we know how to get back to the chateau.
I eat the “raclette”. It is every bit as nasty as it sounds.
I plead with Roy to forego dessert in favor of an early (pre-midnight) return to the chateau. By the time we get to the car, the rain is starting. Big fat drops. Amazingly, we find our way back to the village. It is 10:45, pouring, and the village is darker than a crypt and locked up tighter than a vault full of gold. We are grateful for the lightning that periodically lights the road for us, as it is the sole source of illumination for the signposts…when there are signposts. It occurs to us simultaneously that this is scene directly from H.P. Lovecraft and every scary story we were ever told around a campfire, and we make a pact that if something happens to the car, no one will be leaving to get help. We will sleep in the car and stay there until morning. When the deranged felon with the hook for an arm shows up, he will get us both.
Miraculously, we find the chateau. It is completely dark. As we fumble for the door, the rain starts in earnest, soaking us both to the skin instantly. We cannot open the door. It is locked. Roy lunges about the courtyard trying to find the bell and pounding on doors. The only way I can track him is with the lighting and the noise. Eventually a door opens (the wrong door) and erupts with people, who usher us into an adjacent (but not connected) part of the keep and give us towels.
I address our unwitting host with a cheery “Bon Soir!” and attempt to explain our predicament in my crummy French. I do not know the words for “locked out” and resort to the all-purpose “interdit”. The man cuts me off with a protest that he does not speak French. I move the towel out of my eyes and realize, to my amazement, that he is sporting a 2003 NBA Championship t-shirt. I croak in disbelief and soon we have sorted out that he and his three buddies are from San Antonio and work or worked a block away from my old apartment. His wife, on the other hand, is from a town in Kentucky that is right near the town my grandfather is from.
Roy is staggered.
I inform him that NOW, and only now, he can fully understand the Lori Travel Twilight Zone.
He and one of the Texans take off into the downpour to try to rouse the innkeeper. It pours harder. Those of us left in the stone keep remark on the similarity of this experience to Dracula’s Castle.
Naturally, exactly at this moment, the lights go out.
Roy and the other fellow returned, even wetter, if possible, than before. He meets the news of the power failure with Complete Incredulity. I laugh, and remind him that we left our windows wide open. Eventually, we find a way into the chateau. The thunderstorm, straight from Central Casting, roars on. The floor is soaked, I am soaked, and all I can think is how grateful I am that we are not on the top floor – at least the bed is not soaked. I sit down to make notes so that you can all share this experience, and as I write, the lights try to go out three times, and a while ago, we heard nearby screams.
We do not investigate them.
Where sunflower seeds come from. The heat and the rains brought the fields into full bloom early, granting us a magnificent gift.