Monday, May 22, 2006
What to Pack in your Sac
Okay, a sample of my travel writing for your reading amusement. A trip to France teaches a seasoned traveler about the most important of carry-ons, and it’s not what you might think. The clues were there right from the start. We were taking somebody else’s trip. But on our flight to France, Chevy Chase himself could have popped out of the airplane’s bathroom and I still wouldn’t have believed that we were embarking on that kind of vacation. My travel life is charmed. We were headed to the south of France during the off, off-season in January when a family of three can actually afford to spend the night two blocks from the beach in Nice or Cannes. What I couldn’t see, sleeping as I was across the aisle from my Hubby and my six-year-old daughter, Girlie, was that for the entire trans-Atlantic flight, the two-year-old on the other side of Hubby was kicking him, plucking his arm hairs, spilling her juice on him and I kid you not, wetting the end of her red licorice stick and writing on his arm. There was a language barrier so Hubby suffered in silence and I arrived relatively refreshed. Good thing, too because after our hop to Nice, we found out that none of our luggage had come along for the ride. Hmmm. Two bags arrived later that day but my suitcase, the one with the coats for Girlie and me, did not. And nobody knew where it was. I’ve bought every travel gizmo they make, read two books about packing for trips, and befriended a packing expert, Anne McAlpin, the author of Pack It Up. I have even drafted a know-it-all sort of article about packing for various kinds of trips. In it I opined about packing for who it is you want to be on any given vacation; a sort of philosophical view of packing. I eschew travel garments with hidden pockets and zip-off legs in favor of dressing the part or the culture. If I’m going to the Caribbean, I pack movie star sunglasses, a fancy cover-up and gauzy dresses. New York? Anything black. South of France? It appears that I wanted to be the person who wears the same clothes everyday for a week. I’d become complacent and failed to follow the most basic of packing advice. Spare underwear in my carry-on? There used to be. Even if my carry-on hadn’t been half full of electronic stuff for Girlie, I wouldn’t have been smart enough to tuck in a wrinkle-proof change of clothes. I guess that’s why Anne is the expert and I’m back to the drawing board. I had to buy a new coat for my daughter (on top of the one I’d just purchased for the trip) and a pack of underwear at Monoprix. In Florida we rarely need one coat, let alone two, so I made Girlie wear a new coat big enough to be worn again next year when we visit the Tundra and make the purchase worthwhile. Still I didn’t notice any dark clouds. We just went about our trip. Looking down the beach in Nice, the light colored buildings appear to be stacked on each other towards the west where the hills of the region kneel down to the sea. When the thin winter afternoon light hits the water, you see why it’s called the Côte d’Azur. This particular aqua blue isn’t replicated in the Gulf of Mexico near where I live. But Florida beaches do have better sand. Sand period. The beach in Nice is comprised of rocks the size of my fist. We took a stroll before napping a bit and returning to the airport to check on my bag. Nice bustles like any large city. We planned to stay only one night there, anxious as we were to move into the quieter Provence. The car rental company had nicely upgraded our car to a pseudo-station wagon the size of your average wheelbarrow. Okay, it was bigger than that but in France, big isn’t better and neither is diesel. Gas stations offering diesel were hard to come by and our little car was still too big for a lot of parking spaces. We also kept driving down narrow streets only to be thwarted by little poles marking the entrance of a pedestrian mall. Trying to turn our car completely around without scraping pole paint onto the rear end was, well, impossible. Sorry car. We also didn’t know how to put the stick shift into reverse. An annoyed man in a van finally showed us how you lift a little thing on the stick before putting it into reverse. Sorry car. It was getting late by the time we’d returned from the airport in fruitless search of my luggage and I’m going with that as my excuse for what happened next. Note to readers: just because the little door right next to the giant garage door says that it’s the entrance to the public parking garage (in fourteen languages) you are not necessarily safe to enter. Fate conspired to put a man in a little car behind us who clicked open the garage door. We thought that it had opened for us and drove right in. We snaked around a tight labyrinth worthy of Greek mythology down into the bowels of the earth until we passed through yet another door that had magically opened for us about six levels down. “Honey,” I said, “just pull over and let that car go by.” It was still behind us. After we pulled over, he pulled up next to us and perhaps seeing our daughter, decided that we weren’t car thieves or terrorists. Tate told him that we were just looking for the public parking. We hadn’t seen one empty space. “Is not here.” (Only it sounded like, “eez nut here.”) “Oh, well how do we get out of here?” He replied, “you can not.” (“You can nut.”) So for a few seconds, we stared and he stared and I wondered if we would be spending the night stuck in a private parking garage. Our French stranger nicely decided to park his own car, hop in ours with his garage door clicker and help us find our way out. “My mommy and daddy got confused,” Girlie said to the stranger. He provided us with an exit and we provided him with a stupid-tourist story for his buddies. He directed us around the corner for the proper entrance to our garage but when we turned the corner, we were faced with a down-ramp that disappeared into a dark hole marked as the “Tunnel to Monaco.” Either we’d missed the entrance again or that nice man had had a mean sense of humor. Eventually we found a different garage and wedged our car into a slot. Sorry car. I admit that we parked by Braille just a little too often but the car deserved a little payback for all the times it screamed at us. It was an Opel and on the dash there was this screen that kept yelling at us, in French, “Ouch, you morons, you just whammed my left rear tire.” We stopped once to put air in the tires but we had absolutely no idea if they needed it or not because we’d failed right along with the rest of the United States to understand metric. So every time the car cursed at us, we shut off the car and restarted it to see if it was serious and most of the time it wasn’t. Then, inexplicably, it tried a new tact. It yelled at us in Italian. “STRADA SCIVOLOSO!” Thanks to the multi-language translator gizmo I’d received for Christmas, I knew that it meant “slippery road.” But how did the car know that and since when did it speak Italian? I picked up the manual but my college French had taught me enough not to order horsemeat or snails; I never got to electronics and car repair. We ignored the screen for a while and then managed to poke enough buttons to get it to complain in English. On our way to Aix-en-Provence we stopped at a museum built to house the art collection of some famous French collectors, the Mæghts. The sculpture gardens stole the show, in my opinion, littered with Giacomettis, among others. Inside Fondation Mæght, Girlie liked the Calder mobiles and who doesn’t enjoy Chagall and Miro? Since we were so close, we tootled around St. Paul de Vence for a few minutes too. The streets were so narrow it’s evidence enough that people were much smaller a few hundred years ago. You have to park outside the town. Aix-en-Provence was next. The town of Aix isn’t particularly beautiful by European standards. However like Nice, Aix was still wearing some faded Christmas finery in January and the main drag, lined with winter-naked Plane trees, was lit up beautifully at night. By day we admired the Mossy fountain and appreciated the fact that without leaves on the trees, you can see right through to the mountains. When you’re from Florida, a mountain is more impressive than a leaf any day. Besides, a trip to Aix is all about food and atmosphere, both of which there is plenty of, even in January. We strode up the hill to tour Cezanne’s studio, left intact from his last days there. I studied art in college long enough to get a degree so I was fascinated by the studio. It has a wall of north-facing windows and a special device to lift giant canvases in and out of the second floor workspace. A little film tells you a bit about Cezanne’s fascination with the mountain, Sainte Victoire, and his general preoccupation with color and landscape. In the studio you find artifacts that he used for still-lifes (although I think that the apples had been replaced a time or two). On my fourth day of wearing the same pair of jeans since I’d left Tampa, we arrived in Avignon. My suitcase finally caught up with us at our little hotel in the heart of the walled city. Avignon has a giant palace that might have interested Girlie had it been the kind that princesses lived in. But the palace in Avignon is of the papal variety. The Christian history in Avignon is very interesting and at one time the palace had been very opulent, not just huge. It housed Popes and antipopes hundreds of years ago. Now it’s stripped down but the scale of it makes it worth seeing. In one room we decided that you could fit all of Girlie's favorite playground park. There’s a famous bridge in Avignon too but I warn you, turn off your audio tour device before they sing the famous little French ditty about the bridge. The way that tune worms itself into your brain, you swear that the French could have ruled the world had they only fought with school children singing that song over and over again rather than employing the crazy war devices we saw down the road on our tour of Les-Baux-de-Provence. Carved out of the top of a mountain are the remnants of this old fortress. Les Baux was our most interesting stop. The town itself exists inside of thick walls with narrow streets that lead ever up to the top where you can take a self-guided tour around the ruins. For Girlie there was a clever scavenger hunt for hidden letters so she stayed interested for as long as we wanted to imagine ourselves living in a time where they had secret tunnel entrances and windows cut out of the rock so you could spill hot oil on marauders. Even in winter, the countryside makes you wish you could stay forever. Especially on bright sunny days like we were experiencing (cold, but sunny). Pine trees and olive trees are evergreen so perhaps except for want of a few wildflowers and a whole lot of lavender, it looked much the same in winter as it might in high season. Hubby read that in the interest of preservation, those particular valleys weren’t permitting any more construction. That fact probably prices the cute little chateaus I’d seen out of my reach. We stayed one night in Arles and took a drive through France’s wetland area, La Camargue, a flat desolate place where they raise cattle. Story has it that the original cowboys came from there. We didn’t see any cowboys but we saw many of their shaggy white horses. Flamingoes reside in some areas of La Camargue but we didn’t see them either. But we’re from Florida. Flamingoes, ho hum. We decided to spend our last night in Cannes and Hubby found out that we could get there via a mountain road that takes you through some stunning red rock scenery. Maybe if I hadn’t told Hubby I would divorce him if even one wheel left the pavement while the miles-deep drop off was on my side of the car, we could have avoided our next problem. We could have pulled over and given Girlie a break. Poor thing. Note to self: when you are going to drive on a curvy road with nail-biting drop-offs, steal an airsick bag from the plane. So it was a good thing that we only had the car for one more day. Two more days with us and it would have immolated itself. Cannes is interesting to people who read People. Otherwise, it’s just a shopping town with slightly less dog poop on the sidewalks than most other towns. Of course, I’m a People reader so I’ve got my photo of Hubby putting his hands in Mel Gibson’s handprints on the Allée des Stars near the Palais des Festivals. I could picture the celebrities; I just couldn’t see them because the only festival going on while we were there was the Festival du Shopping (otherwise known as the January clearance sales). I know enough about French culture to know that it is slow to adopt foreign words and customs. If they are so protective of their language, imagine how deservedly snobbish they are about their bread. On our last morning, we freely chose to show our daughter the inside of a French MacDonald’s. I’ll never be sorry. On the paper placemat was a quiz to test your knowledge about “Les secrets du petit pain rond du hamburger.” The secrets of the round hamburger bread. The answers explained that it’s one, called “un bun,” two, it’s so swollen and yummy because of the nature of the wheat and the double fermentation (not air injection), and three, most importantly, the wheat is grown in France (whew!). After that breakfast in Cannes, we left for the airport where our flight was delayed just long enough for us to miss our connection back to the States. We were placed by the airline in a hotel near the airport where we watched a German version of The Simpsons while it poured rain outside. And the food was bad. And by the time we got home a day late, Girlie's pet fish Aleesheea had died. I couldn’t fail to notice, however, that when any one of us was asked in the days following the trip how it went, all three of us would reply, “It was great!” It just goes to show you that all you really must carry on to the plane with you is a good attitude and a modicum of resilience. Having remembered both, I believe my travel life is still charmed.