Bienvenue en France

Julie and I are in the south of France. We flew to Paris October 12 from Toronto. We left Gaviidae in Sackets Harbor, New York, and drove to Toronto in the RV. The drive included two ferry crossings across the same stretches of Lake Ontario we sailed a couple weeks earlier. We joined Howard and Kerri-Ann, owners of our previous Gozzard sailboat, for Canadian Thanksgiving at their home. They produced a superb prime rib dinner for the holiday and took us to the Toronto airport the next day. We left the RV parked in their driveway while we’re in France. We have wonderful friends!

Karen, John, and Julie on the road above Lac de Sainte Croix in 2009

I love France and most things French—especially the food. The bread, the cheeses, the pates and sausages, sauces, wines: What’s not to love? Well, there are a couple of smelly cheeses and some stuffed intestinal sausage I can’t handle, but all-in-all, French food is amazing.

In the mid-‘70s, I went to French West Africa with the Peace Corps, where I developed some  proficiency at speaking French. I also took French language classes when I resumed college. Twenty years on, my rusty French came in handy when we did a barge trip on the Briare Canal in central France in 1998. The last time Julie and I were in France was September 2009 with our Groveland neighbors John and Karen. They invited us to join them at their timeshare condo overlooking the Mediterranean Sea to Nice.

Fourteen years later it was an easy decision to return to France when Julie turned up a couple of housesits: one near Limoges—some 400 kilometers south of Paris, the other 450 kilometers further south. The second housesit is closer to Spain less than an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean. As a bonus, Julie was able to organize a canal trip between housesits with our Briare Canal barge mates—Gene and Cricket! Coming to France was a no-brainer!

New Customs at Charles De Gaulle

The queue at Toronto Pearson

After being masked-up and strapped down for the seven-hour flight aboard an Air France wide-body aircraft, we landed at daybreak at Charles De Gaulle Airport northeast of Paris. We were ready to stretch our legs. Neither of us got any sleep on the plane, which is unusual for me. I’m often nodding off before a flight gets airborne. Consequently, our brains were both a little fogged in as we entered the airport.

It’s been a while since I flew international, but previous experiences at Charles De Gaulle suggested a bit of a hike to retrieve the two bags we checked, then waiting in line as Customs checked documents, questioned the purpose of our visit and searched bags for contraband. Things have changed since my last visit to this massive airport. We trekked through seemingly endless labyrinthine corridors and electric doors and escalators down, then up, then down. We were guided by signs in French—which my jet-lagged brain failed to process. I felt like we were stuck in some PacManesque video game hellscape.

After a mini-marathon length hike, we found ourselves at the end of a queue for nonresidents leading to customs and we had not yet collected our checked bags! Had we missed something important in our jet-lag fog? Wasn’t the procedure baggage retrieval then customs? Or were we misremembering things in our fatigue? Looking around we observed fellow travelers from our flight also had only smaller, carry-on bags as they inched through the zig-zagging maze of the post-and-webbing guideway to the still-distant bank of customs booths. Maybe baggage inspections followed initial customs clearance. Some things had changed since our last international travels; other things hadn’t. Customs protocols differ from country to country.

Equipment Glitch

After a mind-numbing crawl we were finally at the front of the line for customs. I produced my passport for an electronic scan, answered a few perfunctory questions by a customs agent and was checked through. I was officially back in France! Julie, however, was detained! Not by armed guards, but by the electronic scanner that repeatedly rejected her travel documents! The computer stubbornly refused to accept her U.S. passport. Perhaps its all-seeing brain expected to see her Canadian passport since we flew from Toronto. Finally, an official interceded and got the scanner to cooperate. A couple of perfunctory questions by another customs agent got her cleared through, and we were on our way to collect our bags.

Nothing clears fog from your brain like a glitch at customs when entering a foreign country. Or even re-entering your own country. We quickly found the baggage claim, retrieved our bags from the conveyor belt and grabbed a complimentary baggage cart. Then we made our way to the car rental area, which was out the doors and across the lanes of traffic waiting to pick up newly arrived travelers.

Driving 101

We were in store for a few surprises at the car rental agency. The first was that there was a fuel shortage in Paris. Gas stations throughout the capital were shut down; long waiting lines to gas stations with fuel were common. Consequently, the Renault auto we got had only half a tank of fuel! The second surprise was that our rental was a diesel. Diesel engines seem to dominate among European automobiles. Thirdly, we learned automatic transmissions are practically nonexistent in rental cars. I got to reacquaint myself with using a clutch!

I grew up on a ranch, and learned to drive with manual transmissions. Since then, I have driven mostly automatic transmissions. Relearning to drive with a clutch took a couple of days. Starting was the biggest problem. If the transmission is engaged—which it usually is—and you only have a foot on the brake, the damn car jumps every time you try to start it! Eventually I caught on that I needed to depress the clutch pedal. Fortunately, I never parked close to a wall or tree or another car, so I did not damage the rental.

The other learning curve involved engaging the lower gears—especially in traffic. Stalling out and grinding gears on entering a roundabout or at roadway stops is simultaneously irritating and embarrassing to someone who has been driving as long as me. It also irritates other drivers behind me. French drivers are quick on their horns.

Enchanting Chartres

Chartres Cathedral

Although I love the city of Paris, we did not spend time there after or arrival. We drove directly from the airport to Chartres, a small city an hour southwest of Paris, checked into a hotel, parked our car nearby and promptly took a nap. We woke up about dusk, showered and left the hotel on foot in search of dinner. Our hotel was a block or so from the old inner city.

Chartres dates back to the end of the Iron Age—at the dawn of civilization. It was a capital of sorts for pre-Roman Gallic tribes and center of Druidic religious and cultural activity until the rise of Christianity. The city’s chief religious and cultural attraction, the Notre Dame of Chartres, continues to draw religious pilgrims. They are attracted by a piece of cloth said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary. Non-religious visitors flock to the cathedral to gawk at its magnificent blend of Roman and French Gothic architecture with steepled towers, flying buttresses, rose windows and all. Built on the foundations of a previous church beginning in 1194, the Chartres cathedral took 250 years to complete.

Julie and I dined outside at a restaurant on the adjacent plaza with a view of the well-lit cathedral. After dinner, we watched an amazing light show projected on the front of the building that included historical, religious and cultural imagery including angels and hot air balloons and acrobats projected on the huge wood door, the ornately decorated wall and the steeples reaching for the sky all accompanied by recorded classical music punctuated with explosions and other sounds of battle during the war scenes. It is an sight to behold and remember..