Of all the possible places to visit, I think I’ve been the least enthusiastic about le France. On Pam’s insistence however, I found myself behind the wheel of a fully loaded car barreling down le highways of France at 80 mph with scenes of NL’s European Vacation looping in my head:
On the 5-hour car ride to Tours, we desperately tried to teach the kids (and ourselves) basic French to not come across as typical American pigs. Words like “hello” (bonjour), “goodbye” (au revoir), “please” (si’l vous plaît), “thank you” (merci), and “I would like…” (je souhaite). Pam and I went on, above and beyond, to learn essentials like “red wine” and “beer.”
To ensure it all stuck, we quizzed each other…
Me: Marissa, how do you say thank you?
Marissa: um, I dunno.
Me: Yes you do… Brenden, can you help her out?
Brenden: Marissa, remember it starts with an M and ends in an eeeee?
Brenden: and it sounds like the play room when we play in it and Dad yells at us? It is…?!?!
Marissa: ummm… ummmm…
Me, baffled and unable to logically follow: Brenden, I don’t even know where you’re going with this… go ahead and tell Marissa the answer.
Brenden: It’s?!?!… MESSY!!!!
Marissa: oh yeah, ‘merci’!
Truth be told, I don’t have expectations that people from other tongues should auto-know English… it’s their country; I understand that. But damn it! I’m decently armed in Latin (to the point that I can get around… 4 years of schooling in Spanish, 3 years immersed in Italian), and French is impossible! In Spanish or Italian, I could at least read the word, then say it phonetically in a Latin-sounding manner, and people would understand what I’m getting at. Not so with the language of lovers.
In French, sounding out the word will shoot you in the foot and forever brand you a foreigner! What the hell is the use of writing a word if that same spoken word has nothing in common with its written form?! Some examples:
sounded out, as spelled: whores-doovres
Quatre (the number 4)
sounded out, as spelled: kwa-treh
spoken: cot (like what you sleep on… what the hell happened to the ‘tre’!)
Si’l vous plaît
sounded out, as spelled: sill-voos-plate
sounded out, as spelled: es-car-got
spoken: es-car-go (where’d the ‘t’ go?)
After three days, I think I’m catching on: take the last consonant (especially if it’s an ‘s’) of every word and just drop it. Anyway, enough on the language. Bottom line: I didn’t experience the nightmare in National Lampoon’s European Vacation (at least, like them, I didn’t think I experienced it…). The indigenous were rather polite and made an effort to communicate with me even if they didn’t know that much English. Like the Griswold’s, Google Translate and a 3G connection on my phone were my hero.
As for the rest, the country is just stunning. The roads and highway system rival the best I’ve ever driven on. There’s no pot-holes, there’s ample shoulders… and unlike New Mexico and Italy, there’s absolutely no litter or graffiti lining the fences, overpasses, and fields. Obviously, the $80 in tolls that we paid on the 300 miles went toward a little upkeep and national pride. I don’t mind that at all.
The food (the food that we found at random by walking around, ie: not looking it up on tripadvisor for scores) was excellent. It was simple, flavorful, and filling (provided you spent the European 2-hours enjoying it). I have to say, the stereotype that the French know how to cook and produce some of the best chefs is, in my opinion, true. Our “average” French meal rivaled some of the best British meals we’ve had living a year or so in Britain, and some of the meals even brought me back to the simplicity of Italy.
To the right is an example of the standard French faire that I’m talking about. Had this been British, the calamari would’ve been breaded and fried (or microwaved) and the sauce would’ve covered the entire meal in abundance, overpowering everything (à la Olive Garden).
I never saw frog legs on the menus, but we did order a dozen or so of the escargot. Of this, admittedly, I felt rather guilty. You see, the kids (Marissa, in particular) love snails. They find them out in the yard and build houses for them out of rocks. Marissa keeps them as pets and lets them slime all over her hands. And then I ordered them as an appetizer and told the kids we were eating snails. The initial reaction was that of forcing them to commit cannibalism. After a pep talk about the poor snails, how they’re already dead (so we might as well eat them), and how the garlic makes them delectable, the kids expanded their horizons and were actually anxious to try them.
Both Tours and Ambois had a medieval portion of the ‘old’ city that was pedestrian-only. We stuck to the restaurants with a view…
And speaking of the view, take a look at the architecture that we dined in front of in Tours (above)! Just look at these old, overhanging timber buildings. This was built in the 1400′s and 15oo’s, and they’re still standing and in use today! Note the square, stacked tower and how it leans one way on one floor, and then leans the other way on the next. I was truly impressed; this is the coolest old architecture I’ve seen in all my European travels.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice too that a lot of the timber framing has been intricately carved.
I’m used to this when I go into some old cathedral and there’s stone goblins and other artforms carved into the stone columns. But stone is forever… wood, unfortunately, rots. So I was amazed that 1) the French artisans actually took the time to carve the structural wooden beams that are exposed to weather, and 2) that they’ve lasted as many centuries as they’ve had! Being a woodworker and having carved, I’m duly impressed!
The castles are always my favorite part. I love medieval castles. There’s just something cool and manly about the simplicity and utility of the medieval castle. They’re basic, they did their job of protection, they were functional, they were utilitarian. And then the Renaissance came about and screwed it all up. Instead of being a symbol of might, the castle became a piece of distractingly busy artwork that just happened to house rich people. All the castles we visited in France (all two of them!) were built in the Rennaisance. Were they impressive? Yes. But after a room or two of cluttered paintwork and penisses, I quickly lost interest. I don’t care about the ultra-details, tchotchkes, and clutter of Renaissance art in castle design. I like the military history and sieges they’ve withstood. In that respect, I admire the English castles that I’ve been visited more.
Above is the second-most visited castle (the Palace of Versailles is #1) in France: Chenonceau. Again, impressive, but too busy and artsy-fartsy for me. The most action this particular castle has seen is a Mexican stand-off between acknowledged mistresses and knowing wives living in bedrooms attached to the master-suite, and a conversion into a hospital ward during the stalemated trench warfare of WWI. Of general interest, this river was actually the line of demarcation between occupied France and French France during WWII. So impressive? Yes. Medieval? No.
And of course, what trip to France is complete without a visit to Gay Parí. Truthfully, we almost skipped this (I could care less about big cities – countryside is where the true culture awaits to be explored). But because we talked it up so much, Brenden was hell-bent on seeing the Eiffel Tower. So Pam made it fun by packing a picnic to eat in front of the Tower. We were toying about going to the top of the Tower until we saw the amusement-park lines of tourists with that exact same thought on their minds. A few pictures and five hours of loiter in Paris, and it was time to go. Pam had a tinge of regret on not stopping by the Notre Dame Cathedral, but hey, after seeing one giant stone cathedral (like York Minster), they all start looking the same to me. Also, I didn’t feel like putting the kids on a 4-mile trek (one way) to see it.
With that, we spent the night in Amiens, a city demolished during both World Wars and rebuilt twice from the aftermath, and made our way to the tunnel and back into England.
Overall, France ranks up there in my top 5 vacation spots. That’s saying a lot, considering my low expectations going into this and how little I cared about going in the first place. I’m amending my attitude: Paris? Meh, it’s another big city with unique attractions (ok, so I have the same attitude on Paris). But the rest of France? A definite Snakeye fist-pump to visit.