Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Logbook: L’Americain des Plantiers

LamericaindesplantiersDuring breakfast on Saturday morning, I took advantage of the hotel’s hi-speed internet connection to download a TV mini-series from the iTunes store that was gifted to me by my good friends Jeni and Ron (Thank you!) After that, I packed up, checked out and walked -- down hill! -- to the car rental office at the train station in Montpellier. (Note: If you ever want to rent a car in France, do it through one of the many European consolidators. It will be much, much cheaper than renting a car directly from a company in France and you are more likely to talk to someone speaks English... Just another pearl of wisdom from The Voyage of Macgellan!) After very little paperwork, I went to the parking lot and checked out my new ride: A pretty sweet little diesel Audi A3. I have to admit that preparing to drive in France -- plus the fact that I haven’t driven a car in over six months -- made me a little nervous. On top of this, I was told by everyone I talked to that getting out of the city was very complicated and would be, by far, the worst part of my drive. I had asked the guy at the hotel to draw a good route on my city map, but what he suggested was a series of twists and turns through tiny streets and, well, it looked a little too complex for me to follow while doing the driving too. So, I asked the guy at the car rental office for the easiest -- forget whether it was the shortest -- route to the road I wanted going to Les Plantiers. What he suggested was a simple route to the main highway, going a few kilometers out of town to the east and catching a main road back to the northwest to intersect the road I wanted. With that at hand, I fired up the Audi and was on my way. The first part of his plan worked fine, the A-9 was easy to find and it wasn’t long before I saw the signs for D-65...

Well, let me just jump ahead. I got out of Montpellier okay but got totally lost as soon as I tried to take the “main road back to the northwest.” I had a good laugh as I toured various suburban neighborhoods before finally seeing a sign that pointed toward a town I knew was on my way to Les Plantiers. Once on that road, it was a matter of minutes before I was happily and easily cruising on my way. I stopped at a supermarket and picked up something to eat along with a few staples that I figured I might want when I got to my “tiny village” then had a blast alternately zooming along fine country/mountain roads and creeping slowly through tiny towns along the way. In due course, I pulled into Les Plantiers and immediately fell in love with it. A really tiny, remote and very quite little town, Plantiers looks like every picture post card of rural France you have ever seen: Old stone homes with a narrow road twisting in between, a modest stream bisecting the town with a few ancient stone bridges crossing at various points and a small cafe at the town square, complete with awning and umbrellas. Perfect, just perfect! I promptly parked the car in the tiny square then parked myself at the cafe and ordered a coffee.

A few minutes later, a woman walked by and looked me over a couple of times then said something in French that included the word “American.” Thankfully, there was no hostility in her voice and I guessed she was Jean, my local travel advisor and French teacher. After a few minutes of reminiscing about how we met over a year ago in a coffee shop in Seattle, she led me to the home of Henri and Lisa Bonfils, a lovely older couple who own the gite I have rented. Translating furiously, Jean helped me negotiate the process of getting acquainted and checking into the gite. With a nice little salon and kitchenette downstairs, bedroom and bathroom upstairs, my gite is by far the biggest place in which I have lived so far on The Voyage! It has everything I need and I look forward to my time here. With that process completed, Jean introduced me to Katrine who runs a small hotel/restaurant in town and I made arrangements for dinner. I took a few minutes to unpack, take a walk around town and generally get my bearings. Dinner was fabulous, and I enjoyed enough local wine to be ready for a good night’s sleep!

Sunday morning I was up pretty early, made some coffee and walked to the local bakery for a fresh croissant. As I was walking back to my gite, I passed a distinguished older man to whom I said “Bonjour, monsieur!” and received in return a very warm and completely incomprehensible stream of French. Upon seeing my “deer in the headlights” look in return, the man smiled broadly and said “Ah, L’Americain del Plantiers!” In that moment I realized that overnight in the tiny, close knit world that is this little village, I had become known as “The American of Plantiers!” What an American is doing way out here must be a mystery to the handful of residents. I spent the rest of Sunday pretty much just chilling out and catching up with myself.

On Monday morning I made coffee and got a croissant then had my first French lesson with Jean. We got through some of the basics of hello and goodbye, please and thank you, where is this and what is that, etc. before my brain was fried. I drove “into town” -- that means I drove to St-Jean-du-Gard about twenty minutes away -- to drop off my laundry, get some groceries and check out what that bigger, but still very small, town has to offer. Back in Les Plantiers, I made a simple but tasty dinner and called it an early night.

Yesterday was pretty much a repeat: Coffee, croissant, French lesson, drive to town for lunch and chores then back to Plantiers to do my homework, make dinner and crash. The same was true for today. I know it may sound a bit boring and routine, but I like it. Plus, there are plenty of little ways that the days are different: I always drive a different route on narrow, twisty mountain roads through charming little towns; I have a different language debacle every time I try to use my new French language skills; and there are always priceless little moments that you couldn’t make up if you tried to.

For example, word has obviously gotten around the town’s grapevine that I am trying to learn French. This morning I greeted a man then said, “Il fait beau!” (“The weather is beautiful!”) He smiled warmly, repeated my words in proper pronunciation, then bid me farewell. It was really very sweet -- not at all mean -- and I thanked him. Similarly, yesterday I proudly greeted the woman at the bakery with “Aujourd’hui c’est mardi.” (“Today is tuesday.”) Unfortunately, “mardi” came out more like “merdi” and she only blanched for a moment at my implication that today is “shitty” before smiling warmly and offering me a correct pronunciation to go with my fresh croissant.

The best, however, happened when I left the bakery and met Jacques who, I had been told, is the village’s -- I kid you not -- crazy idiot. Spontaneously joining me for the walk back to my gite, Jacques spoke in a stream of semi-consciousness about I have no idea what. Unable to persuade him that I didn’t understand him -- or not caring a whit -- he persisted without pause. Unable to resist, I proceeded to speak back to him at length -- in English -- about the nuances of the designated hitter in baseball. We must have made quite a pair, because every person we passed obviously couldn’t help but smile and shake their head. When my landlord Henri saw us from his garden, he burst out laughing and shouted to Lisa to have a look. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. It all ended well when I bid Jacques farewell and went into my gite to hide until he had left. Such is the spice of life for “L’Americain des Plantiers” and I’m loving it. I’ll post another update when I’ve got more to report, probably some time next week. Until then, “Au revoir!” from The Voyage of Macgellan!

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