Monday, May 28, 2007

Lost In Translation: Nice, France

NicetrainlinesignWaiting Line Information Sign

Train Station

Nice, France

May 2007

Makes as much sense as the rest of France.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Logbook: Nice - Monaco Grand Prix

Nicemonaco1My drive from Agel to Nice last Tuesday was so easy that while I had “planned” to stop for a day or two along the way I wound up just driving straight through. The highways in France are so well marked and maintained that the only thing you really have to pay attention to are the toll booths. Actually, that one thing is pretty significant because there are a lot of them: If you drive the highways in France, get in the habit of keeping lots of cash -- especially coins -- handy! Anyway, the only downside of my pushing on to Nice is that I arrived two days ahead of my hotel arrangements, and this is the beginning of “the season.” I decided to try my luck with the place I had booked starting Thursday and -- with my usual paucity of directions -- drove into town and looked for “The (Two) Star Hotel.” I think I might have been okay if not for the vast amount of road construction that has caused practically as many closed streets and detours as you can have without actually shutting down the town. After a decent effort, I found a parking deck that I knew was in the area, left my car and navigated to the hotel. The very nice, very French “Madame” at the desk was very apologetic -- manifested in more or less bitching me out for not calling ahead! -- and phoned a friend of hers who has a similar budget hotel a few blocks away. No worries, there was room at the inn! So, I walked over and checked in, then went back to the car, grabbed my gear and returned to my slightly funky but clean little room for my dram!

Because my friend Kay will be flying into Nice in a few days to join The Voyage for a couple of weeks, I had promised her I wouldn’t do very much “pre-exploration” before her arrival. So, I spent Wednesday doing a bunch of chores and working out some logistics going forward. When I moved into “The (Two) Star Hotel” on Thursday morning, I did some iLife and even more logistics planning. (You would be surprised how long it takes to do “planning and maintenance” on The Voyage! I know I am continually astonished!)

Nicemonaco2On Friday, I got motivated pretty early, walked to the station and caught a train to Monaco. You see, I recently discovered that the famous Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco was being held this weekend and I just had to take advantage of this serendipitous scheduling! After a 20 minute ride, I got off the train and followed the signs -- and crowds -- into the heart of that exotic, sleepy little country. Because Friday was an “off” day for Formula One -- Thursday is “practice”, Saturday is “qualifying” and Sunday is “race day” -- all of the stands were open for viewing some other minor racing events. I made the most of it by walking all over the place, checking out each bleacher at every turn. To my surprise, the course -- and the country for that matter -- looks just like I have seen it on TV so many times over the years. After about five hours of climbing up and down the steep roads and steps in the sweltering heat and sun, I was completely exhausted and made my way to the station and on back to Nice. Now, while I had checked out the possibility of getting a ticket, I immediately opted against it when I found out that they cost €400... about $600! Instead, I decided I would experience the race “old school” by walking around town on race day, stopping at various overpasses and alleyways that afforded tiny glimpses of the track and dropping in at some of the cafes and bars offering TV coverage.

With that plan in mind, I spent yesterday recovering from my heat exhaustion (Okay, it wasn’t really that bad... I also did some chores, etc.) This morning I started putting my race day plan into action by going to the station to catch the train again, only to find a mass of humanity on the platform that defies description. As the train arrived, people pushed and shoved to get on until there was literally no space left. I’m not really a “push and shove” kind of guy, so as I saw the doors closing on people with their faces pressed up against the glass I listened to the little voice in my head that said, “Let it go.” I stepped back and let the train go. Funny how these things work out, I checked the schedule and saw that the next train in that direction was due to leave in about five minutes. According to the timetable, it wasn’t supposed to stop in Monaco but something told me today might be an exception. I asked the conductor if the train would stop at Monaco and he replied with something to the effect of “Today, all trains stop in Monaco!” So, I got onto a practically empty train car, took one of the many available seats and enjoyed a spacious, relaxing ride. Sure enough, the train stopped in Monaco... Only about ten minutes after the previous sardine can! (For those of you who are taking notes, this is a good one to add: “Let it go!”) From there, I went on to execute the rest of my race day plan with similarly fine results. The photos do a pretty good job of showing the story of how I once again walked all over town, joined other “no ticket” die-hards “looking in from the outside” and had a really, really great time. In fact, I can’t think of a better -- or cheaper! -- way of enjoying the Monaco Grand Prix!

Nicemonaco3One little highlight I’d like to share: Just as the race was starting, I called my good friend -- and fellow Formula One fanatic -- Ken. As he and his boys watched the race start on TV they were able to hear it “live” over the phone. (For those of you who don’t know, the “sound” of Formula One is at least half the experience.) It was a really sweet moment, but what happened next was even better. When I hung up the phone, a beautiful young woman asked me -- in French -- if I spoke English. I replied, “Uh... yeah.” She said she thought so because she overheard my phone call with Ken. I wondered for a second what was going on because, frankly, beautiful young women generally don’t engage me in chit chat unless... Well, you can figure it out. Anyway, it turned out that she is an American college girl studying for a semester in Nice. (Query: Do all American college girls come to France for a semester?) Her boyfriend is a huge Formula One fan so she decided to check it out and had a million questions which I tried to answer as best I could. I explained the “big picture” of Formula One and a little of the history of the Monaco GP. I showed her the track map and gave her some idea of what it’s all about. After a few minutes, I realized it was all pretty much going over her head. So, I handed her my phone and said: “Call your boyfriend. Tell him you are standing above Ste Devote, watching the cars climb up to Casino. Let him hear the sound and tell him you wish he was here. That’ll pretty much do it.” She did, and it was another memorable little moment in time on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lost In Translation: Narbonne, France

OctopussyRestaurant Menu

Restaurant du Gare

Narbonne, France

May 2007

Where's James Bond when we need him?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Logbook: Chateau d’Agel

Chateaudagel1_2Despite my early departure from Limoge last Tuesday -- I can’t believe how fast the week has flown by! -- I was unable to meet up with my good friend Mark en route as I had hoped. When I called him to say I was approaching Toulouse, he informed me that he was already well down the highway toward our mutual destination, getting ready to stop and do some shopping before going to the Chateau in Agel. I was a little disappointed about missing our connection, not just because I was looking forward to seeing him, but also because I was hoping to save him at least some of the grief I experienced when first trying to navigate French roads and French shopping. When I got to the Chateau before him, I knew my instincts had been right and could only shake my head in sympathy when he arrived three hours later and told me of his ordeal: Confusing road signs, badly posted detours, no bags at the supermarket, stores closed from twelve to two. Everything you need for getting lost, frustrated and exhausted! He was relieve he had survived it, and we were glad to see each other in person, a welcome change from our usual digital connection.

Our first order of business was to meet the owner of the Chateau and get the lay of the land. “Madame” gave us a tour of the spaces and facilities at our disposal, handed Mark “the keys to the castle” and left us to get settled in. It is impossible for me to fully describe Chateau d’Agel in words, and pictures don’t really help. Originally built in the 12th century, it was heavily damaged in one of the many “campaigns” in the region and substantially rebuilt in the 15th century. It was greatly “enhanced” in the 17th century when Madame’s family acquired it, and has been in her family ever since. The common areas on the main floor include a large sitting/living room -- lined with book shelves that contain untold numbers of volumes dating from the early 1700’s! -- a bright and comfortable salon, a formal dining room and a small but modern and very serviceable kitchen. The ceilings are at least 12 feet high, the decor and furniture are stunningly antique and there is the presence of heavy stone everywhere. One floor up the original stone spiral staircase in the main tower, you enter a huge sitting room that is surrounded by five large bedrooms and three updated bathrooms. Again, the size, volume, decor and furnishings are such that you feel like you have been transported back in time and are, in fact, in an ancient castle. Madame has done an exceptional job of retaining the “ancient atmosphere” while adding “contemporary comfort.”

When the tour was finished, Madame excused herself to her private apartment at the back of the castle then Mark and I each picked a bedroom, dumped our gear and met on the large patio for a glass of wine while waiting for others to arrive. You can imagine my delight when the very first to arrive was a big black dog! Bounding onto the patio, a beautiful, friendly, mostly Black Lab came right up to me and rolled over for a belly rub. Within seconds, Madame came running around the corner, calling her dog and apologizing for his intrusion. When she saw me on my hands and knees, smooching her dog she pretty quickly figured out that I was delighted to see him and that he was a very welcome addition to our party. Little did she know that Achilles and I would become almost inseparable over the course of the week!

Our days seemed to take on a spontaneous routine, so rather than give you a play-by-play of what happened day to day, I’ll just give you an overview of the pattern: Probably because I was the only one not jet-lagged, I was up first every morning, and enjoyed some time to have coffee and read on the patio. Shortly, “my” dog would bound around the corner of the castle and we would have a morning hug, a belly rub, a walk and a robust game of “fetch.” In due course, others would arise, get coffee and assemble on the patio where lively conversations would commence on all manner of topics. At some point, ideas for what to do that day would be put forth and groups of various sizes would head out for exploration, returning in time for wine and cheese followed by a full-group dinner at a restaurant in a near-by town. Full of food and wine, we would all return to the castle, have coffee and chat for a short while then proceed to our royal rooms at a surprisingly early hour. It goes without saying, of course, that I used every spare minute to play with Achilles!

Interwoven in this routine were a number of special, noteworthy experiences: One, of course, is the whole French dining ordeal. Even though none of us had any set schedule, place to be or things to do, we all noticed and commented on the extraordinarily slow pace of French dining. Enjoying a slower pace of life is one thing, but dining as an all day event is something else. Mark and I commented on this to some hungry new arrivals we picked around lunch time at the train station in nearby Narbonne, and we couldn’t have scripted our case better than the three hour ordeal our simple lunch turned out to be. By the time it was over, we had all laughed so hard we were crying. If you have ever dined in France, you know what I’m talking about. If you ever do, you will. Another “special” moment in the week was when Madame gave us a complete tour of the “closed” portions of the castle. It turns out that the public spaces and Madame’s apartment only comprise about half of the whole castle. The rest -- including the entire third floor, the wine cellar, the laboratory and the other towers -- are in a complete disarray, pending “rehab” as Madame’s time and money permit. She showed us artifacts from her family history, let me climb ladders up to the very top of the tower and let us look around all the nooks and crannies. It was a fabulous tour and the castle’s restoration is -- and will continue to be -- a huge undertaking. I have immense respect for her effort, stamina and commitment!

Chateaudagel2A third “moment” happened late one night after everyone had gone to bed. I was brushing my teeth when I looked out the window and saw Madame walking around outside with a flashlight. I opened the window and called down to see if she was okay. Obviously in a near-panic state, she told me that she was looking for Achilles! She had searched all over the grounds and been all over the town of Agel but couldn’t find him. I wasn’t about to go to bed when “my” dog was missing, so I went down to help her look. We decided that it was very unlikely he had wandered off because the gates were closed and he’s just not that kind of dog. We figured that he might be in one of the guest rooms and although Madame said she was okay with that and would wait until morning, I knew she wouldn’t sleep a wink with her dog missing. Since I wouldn’t sleep a wink either, I went to the second floor and cracked open bedroom doors until sure enough Achilles emerged from Inga’s room with a sleepy dog face and a wagging tail. I took him downstair to Madame who was very relieved to see him. She thanked me, apologized for the disruption and we bid each other good night. What do you think happened next? You’re right! As we parted ways, Achilles started to follow me to my room! I laughed, Achilles wagged his tail and Madame -- in a not too quiet voice -- said “Achilles!” Giving me an ever so sad puppy look, Achilles turned and walked away to join his mistress.

Such was my week at the “castle” Chateau d’Agel. It was really great to spend so much quality time with my good friend Mark and I thank him for his generous hospitality. I also very much enjoyed meeting his other guests and look forward to looking them up whenever I may be in their corner of the world. The Chateau is a wonderful place and I can strongly recommend it as an excellent place for a family reunion, business retreat or other special event. Considering how many people it can host, it also works out to be surprisingly inexpensive -- less, in fact, than hotels that aren’t nearly as nice. When you add in the benefit of having a really great dog, the experience is priceless. In a few minutes I will pack up and leave the castle, bound for Nice. I will say fond farewells to human friends and try not to cry when I bid Achilles “adieu” on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Logbook: French Road Trip III

FrenchroadtripiiiSaturday was indeed an “easy” day for me. In fact, it turned out to be a total “day off” -- no exploration, no chores, no web work. I did take a fairly lengthy walk around Blois in the afternoon, but beside that I totally chilled out. I watched a few episodes of TV that I had downloaded from iTunes and a movie that I had ripped ages ago, read a book and took a nap. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a day like that and it was really good for me. As a result of my “lazy” day, I was up pretty early -- very early by French norms -- on Sunday morning and decided to make the most of it by hitting the road for a day of “Castle Quest.”

I got my car and headed out of town, more or less directly finding my way to Chambord Castle which is a truly massive structure set on a huge estate. Pulling into a completely empty parking lot was my first clue that I had arrived too early to really check it out, and looking at the info board informed me that I would have to wait a few hours to go inside. So, I walked around a little bit, admired the incredible 15th century construction, took a few photos and got back in my car. My next stop at a much smaller castle also turned into a “drive by” because of my early arrival time, as did my intended visit to Cheverney. I wasn’t really too disappointed because I’m not all that into looking at “inside” stuff. Once you’ve seen a few tapestries, some huge fireplaces and a couple of small, short beds I think you’ve pretty much seen them all. What I find so fascinating is the sheer scale of the buildings in the context of when they were built, without the aid of building machinery as we know it. Trying to imagine how many people were involved in the construction is a fun game for me, as is trying to reconcile that they often took as long as a century to build. Another thing I personally enjoy is seeing how the castles are situated in the landscape, how long the “driveway” is and how imposing the structure is when viewed on approach. The rich and powerful have always emphasized their wealth and power, their buildings and sight lines are an important part of that.

I wanted to spend some quality time in at least one of the castles, so I decided to let the French clock catch up with me by stopping at a cafe/bakery for the usual bread and coffee. I find it very amusing, by the way, to watch the stream of people who work their way through such places in the morning. Most of them are obviously “regulars” -- who invariably give an “outsider” like me the odd look or two -- and they similarly have their “regular” drinks. Many of their drinks include some kind of alcohol, and whether that is a “Sunday morning” thing or an “everyday” thing I am still not sure. Apparently, man really can’t live by bread alone!

With the clocks somewhat more synchronized, I drove some lovely back roads to Chenonceau Castle. As it turned out, I’m glad I pretty much skipped the previous castles because this one was by far the best for making a full, proper visit. Built in the 16th century, the castled was constructed on the piers of a formerly fortified mill in the middle of a river. The surrounding gardens -- as you can see in a few of the photos -- are simply stunning and the entire setting just reeks of wealth and power. Although the castle is not as big on the inside as it looks from the outside, the quantity of stone work, art, furniture and architectural detail is very impressive. With that said, however, I have to admit my favorite aspect of the castle as it is presently managed is that they offer iPods for rent which have an audio-visual guide loaded onto them. There were literally hundreds of people walking around with iPods!

After spending a good couple of hours touring the castle, the gardens and the grounds, I got back in my car and worked my way back toward Blois, making brief stops or drive-bys at a handful of smaller castles along the way. All in all it was a very good and interesting day which I would recommend doing. After parking my car in Blois, I walked the few blocks to my little hotel along completely deserted streets. I dumped my pack in my room and immediately went back out to see what that was all about. After standing on a corner for about half an hour among various people who were obviously volunteers of some kind, a trickle of runners came down the main street. I realized immediately, of course, that this was some kind of road race. What I couldn’t figure out was exactly what kind of race it was. You see, the first few runners looked completely wrong to be leading a foot race. They were mostly old, obviously out of shape and clearly struggling. In due course, more and more runners came along, some of whom were very fit and very fast. I never did figure it out, but my best guess is that it must have been some kind of “handicapped” affair where the able bodied had a delayed start. Either that, or it is just “French.” Either way, I quickly lost interest, got my book and headed out for dinner.

Yesterday morning I packed up and checked out -- How many times have I written that in this Logbook? -- then got my car and headed out of town. A typical drive of several hours and a few stops later, I arrived here in Limoges where I easily found a place to park near my little hotel and checked in. I went out for a little walk, but it started pouring down rain so I stopped in a cafe and had coffee while I finished my book. When the rain let up, I went back to the parking deck to get a new book out of my car and was met by a young couple who asked if they could borrow my tire iron to change their tire. To make a long story short, by the time the ordeal was in full swing there were almost a dozen of us trying to figure out why the wheel wouldn’t come off their car even though the lug nuts had all been removed. After a great deal of confab, the car was lowered down off the jack -- with the lug nuts loosened but still in place -- and the driver turned the wheel sufficiently to put enough pressure on the rim to loosen the rust and corrosion that was holding it in place. I don’t know if you can visualize all that physics, but I’m sure you can enjoy the thought of a dozen strangers speaking several different languages, strategizing how to change a tire and doing an “international happy dance” upon success. Just another of the great little moments that makes The Voyage of Macgellan so special.

I finished off the day with dinner and an early bed time, and have gotten up early this morning to update this website, check various web stuff and hit the road. If all goes well, I will be meeting my good friend Mark somewhere along the road near Toulouse and we will caravan to the little town of Agel where he has rented a small chateau for a week long reunion of some friends. As usual, I don’t know what internet facilities will be like when I get there, but I will do my best as always to keep you up to date. With that, my ten day “French Road Trip” has come to an end, and I am the better for it. Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Lost In Translation: Blois, France

PhoneinfobloisTelephone Instructions

Hotel Guise et France

Blois, France

May 2007

Wait... Then just do it!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Logbook: French Road Trip II - Normandy

Frenchroadtripii1By the time I did my website update and got something to eat last Monday night I was feeling pretty wiped out. I think it was mostly the fact that I had spent three solid days on the road, including the stress of navigating and getting settled in large cities each night. It could also have been that I’m just not a “big city” guy -- I generally find them to be exhausting and not very interesting. This was especially true in the noise, crowds and bustle of Nantes last Monday, so I was happy to head back to my relatively quiet little room and crash. I got up pretty early on Tuesday morning and went out in search of coffee. Sadly, it seems that the French have not yet invented the “go cup” -- nor the simple, delicious “cup of coffee” many of us relish -- so all you can get is a tiny little espresso “shooter” if you are lucky enough to find an open cafe. Tuesday was yet another holiday here in France, so the whole city center was closed and virtually deserted. After walking around for a while without finding the elixir I love, I decided to get out of town and hit the road. I packed up, checked out and -- without too much difficulty -- retraced my steps back to where I had left my car. In almost eighteen hours I had seen practically none of Nantes and was perfectly happy to be leaving.

Back on the road I made good time heading north, stopping at a few of the really nice plazas along the way for fuel -- food, coffee and diesel. By mid afternoon I arrived in the lovely little city -- more like a town -- of Bayeux and checked into the Hotel Churchill, an excellent choice as my base of operations for exploration in Normandy. I spent the afternoon and early evening wandering around, making the requisite visit to the famous Bayeux Tapestry. I’m really not much of a “needlework” guy, but this one is truly amazing and definitely worth the hour it takes to do the audio tour. After a simple, quiet dinner, I hit the rack pretty early.

Frenchroadtripii2Early Wednesday morning I met up with a guide from Battlebus -- generally regarded as the best D-Day tour company -- and we headed west to St-Mere-Eglise where US Airborne troops were the first in action for the landings. (Note: For those of you who are already well-informed about the Normandy invasion, what I can say here will be redundant at best. For those of you who are not well-informed, my account would be trivial. So, I am mostly going to relate only where I went and what I did as a way of giving you all some idea of what you can cover -- and in how much time -- when you make your own, strongly advised visit to the area.) We spent about an hour in St-Mere-Eglise, checking out the Airborne Museum and the famous church, then drove around the area for about another hour, making brief stops at just a few important spots of the hedgerow battles. Our next stop was Utah Beach where we stood on the sand while our guide gave us an excellent explanation -- including pictures and maps drawn in the sand -- of what happened in this very successful and relatively low casualty landing -- due in large part to the extremely effective pre-invasion bombardment from sea and air. Thus, in a morning, we had “covered” the western flank of the invasion -- I would suggest making an entire day out of this same area. After a quick sandwich for lunch, we went to Pointe du Hoc where we toured the area, saw the incredible results of even more highly effective pre-invasion bombardment and heard the amazing story of the Ranger assault in context. Our next stop at Omaha Beach just a few minutes away, was very moving. The pictures and movies we have all seen of the landing at Omaha don’t do justice to the nightmare you can only barely imagine when standing there in person. The pre-invasion bombardment had been totally ineffective and the beach defenses up on the bluff were completely intact when the soldiers came ashore. With heavy fire ahead of them and a rapidly rising tide behind there was nowhere to go, and the story of their bloody progress off the beach is astonishing . With this in mind, we proceeded next to the American Cemetery near Omaha Beach. Standing amid the expanse of almost ten thousand perfectly aligned, identical grave markers was an emotionally powerful, almost overwhelming experience. Again, pictures just don’t convey the reality. After wandering around for a while, watching groups of various sizes look for and find particular graves then hearing taps, it was time to leave. The afternoon I spent around Omaha would easily warrant another entire day.

Physically tired, mentally full and emotionally drained, I had a bowl of soup for dinner and went to bed. Thursday morning I drove to the eastern flank of the invasion area where British Airborne seized the Pegasus Bridge. From there I worked my way back along the coast, stopping at various sites including the excellent Canadian museum at Juno Beach. A highlight for me was a lengthy stop at Arromanches to see the remains of the huge artificial “Mulberry” harbor and to tour the outstanding museum of the amazing “buildup” that proceeded from that harbor. Still more stops at a fairly well preserved German battery at Longues-sur-Mer and an exhibit of artifacts recovered from underwater at Port-en-Bessin finished out my day. On another trip I would extend this day into two.

Thus, in brief, I think my two days -- one west of Bayeux and one east -- would be well worth four days in total. I would also suggest three more days as follows: 1) Following the western route from Carentan into Cherbourg 2) Retracing Cobra south from Cherbourg to Avranches then east to Falaise 3) Following the British and Canadian route from Pegasus Bridge south through Caen then east to close the Falaise gap with Patton’s armor in Chambois. That adds up to a very worthwhile week in Normandy which I would strongly recommend and happily do on another trip.

For my present French Road Trip, however, it was time to start heading back south. So, I packed up this morning and hit the road, enjoying another pretty high speed drive here to the picturesque little city of Blois. Arriving mid-afternoon, I knew my little hotel was across the street from the Chateau in the center of town so I found and parked in the deck with the same name. A few minutes of walking around the central area later I saw my destination and checked in. I hit the streets and did a pretty extensive walkabout, found an internet connection and here I am. In a few minutes I will find some dinner then call it a day. I have been moving pretty much non-stop for a week, so I am going to take an easy, “in town” day tomorrow on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Logbook: French Road Trip I

Frenchroadtripi1I spent last Friday hanging around my gite and Les Plantiers, sorting and packing my gear, looking at my maps and generally getting myself ready to be on the move again after two weeks in one place. I had one more lovely dinner in Katrine’s little hotel/restaurant and hit the rack pretty early. Thus, I was awake pretty early to throw my gear in the car, double check I had collected everything from the gite, get one last croissant at the bakery and take a final walk around town. Just as I was all ready to go, I ran into my landlord who invited me to his house for coffee. I was very glad to do so because I really didn’t want to just disappear after spending two weeks in their gite. We had a grand time, with Lisa showing me family photos and Henri commending me on all the French I have learned. I could understand more of what they were saying than I can speak, but we had fun.

Frenchroadtripi2With that “closure” behind me, I fired up the car and headed out of town, taking an indirect route to the highway -- across the mountains and down the “Gorges de la Jonte.” What a drive! I cannot recall ever having so much fun driving a car and enjoying endless spectacular scenery. I made frequent stops to enjoy various views, wishing at times that I didn’t have to pay so much attention to the road along the way. I stopped for a quick lunch when I hit the highway, then it was a pretty quick sprint into Toulouse. I had arranged to meet Julia -- the daughter of my good friend Mark -- who has spent a semester of her junior year of college in Toulouse. She had very helpfully researched a little hotel for me to stay in, but for which I had little more in the way of directions than the name and address. You can imagine my delight when, after only a few minutes of driving around the city I saw a sign for the place and was able to navigate to a parking deck only two blocks away! I called Julia to tell her I was not only “in town” but “checked in” and met her on the street a few minutes later. We walked around for a good couple of hours, looking at a few sights -- including the really fancy hotel that her father is going to stay in during his visit in a few weeks -- and looking for a good place to have dinner. I have to admit that I didn’t really like the “feel” of Toulouse. Granted, I was there on a Saturday night when everybody was out and about, but I found it to be a big, noisy, crowded city. Not really my kind of place. In due course, we found a nice place for dinner and had a really delightful meal together. While I have know Julia for some years now, we have never really had a chance to talk about anything in depth. Her insights into living in France, French culture and social customs were very informing and I benefited greatly. By the time dinner was over -- pretty late as is the custom around here -- I was ready to crash, so we said our “au revoirs” and parted ways. Thanks, Julia, for a really nice evening in Toulouse!

In the morning I got going at a reasonable hour and was on the road by about ten. From Toulouse to Bordeaux, I took a “real” highway -- the A62 -- and enjoyed high speed cruising on a superb motor way. I made several stops at plazas along the way to have coffee, get “gazoil” and stretch my legs, making the most of my “French road trip” experience. By about three in the afternoon I was approaching the city, again with little more than the name and address of my intended hotel destination. Once again, I was extremely pleased to simply follow the signs to “Centre Ville” and see the parking deck that was mentioned on the hotel’s website. A few minutes later I had parked, walked the 50 meters to the hotel and checked in. I hit the streets almost immediately and enjoyed several hours of walking around. Bordeaux is obviously a very old city with a great deal of history and, even though I probably only barely scratched the surface of it, I liked it very much. It is also a large city -- and I was there on a Sunday afternoon -- but it didn’t seem to have the same “big city” gestalt as Toulouse. I happened to walk past a Thai restaurant during my walk about and found myself very interested in having some of that different cuisine, so I did. Yummy!

This morning I hit the road pretty early and took mostly “A” highways north, making only a small detour to drive through the seaside town of La Rochelle on my way here to Nantes. Once again, I had only the barest intel on my hotel’s location and this time it didn’t work out quite so well. After entering the city, I drove around for almost an hour looking for something that sounded familiar but to no avail. I finally decided to just park the car in the nearest parking deck and figure it out on foot. I found a minimalist map of the city center -- really showing only the various parking areas and a few major landmarks -- in the parking deck office and was able to figure out from the guy at the office that I was only about a ten minute walk from where I wanted to be. So, I hit the streets, followed my good old reliable sense of direction and made my way in a respectable straight path to my little hotel.

I am now checked into a typically funky -- but adequate -- little room, updating the website before hitting the streets to find some dinner. My only concern is that I now have only the vaguest idea of where my car is, so I may have a bit of a challenge finding it to start my day in the morning. If successful, I will hit the road and head still further north to Bayeux and the D-Day beaches where I will stay for three nights. All in all I am quite satisfied with my “French Road Trip” so far. I have covered a lot of distance, but I have paced myself well and taken a good number of breaks along the way. My car is good, the roads are good, the maps are good and my attitude is good. I have passed through a lot of terrain changes and sensed a subtle but noticeable shift in environment. Tomorrow night I will be in the northwest corner of the country, looking forward to finding out what that is all about on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Logbook: Une Tres Bonne Semaine

Unetresbonnesemaine1It has been a very good week on The Voyage. Most important, my strategy of “immersion” and daily French lessons has really paid off. In two short weeks I have learned basic greetings and courtesies, the days, weeks and months, how to ask for things, how to say thank you, how to apologize and say I don’t understand plus quite a bit more. I am certainly very far from “fluent” but I feel I can “function” and that is all I need for now. Frankly, I’ve learned about as much French in two weeks as I learned Spanish in six months. A little bit goes a long way on The Voyage. My confidence and comfort level are up and my culture shock is down, so chalk one up in the win column for successful experiments! Besides that, I have really enjoyed my time in and around Les Plantiers. The local folks have consistently been warm and embracing, continuing to help me with my French and enthusiastically acknowledging my daily improvement. Our “conversations” are clearly idiotic, but they are conducted in earnest and in good humor. I hope I have been able to convey my appreciation.

The rest of my time here has been equally rewarding. I have driven almost a thousand kilometers around the area, utilizing just about every little road to its full advantage and making a point of stopping for at least a few minutes in most of the charming little towns. The scenery is lovely and I also make a point of stopping at most viewpoints to take it all in. I really like this area and would recommend it to anyone who is thinking about visiting. So far, my experience of France and the French is vastly different from what I had been told by many to expect -- Yet another powerful reminder that you have to go find out for yourself. My days this past week have had a kind of “routine” to them, so I’m not going to do a day-by-day recap. Instead, I want to share just a few experiences and aspects that are noteworthy.

One, of course, is that it is election time in France. I have been unable to figure out much about how the system works around here, but the contest is clearly pretty heated. It seems that on one hand is a guy who is hailed as “conservative” but who many people are afraid is more of a fascist. On the other hand is a woman. I have been unable to ascertain much about her except that some people think she is great. My own opinion is that she is pretty hot and ought to be elected on that basis alone. I can’t understand much -- if any -- of the debates that seem to be on TV 24/7, but I can read the viewing audiences I see well enough to know that the election is going to be significant. I guess my point is that I’m here in the middle of an election I don’t understand -- and don’t really care about besides the “hot chick” factor -- yet it is still informative about the people.

A second experience is that Tuesday, May 1st was a holiday here. Some kind of “Labor Day” as far as I could tell. Everything, and I mean everything, was closed. I probably should have gotten a clue from the daily closing of businesses for at least two hours in the middle of the day for lunch that “commerce” is not “king” around here. Food, wine and time off are king. So, it doesn’t surprise me upon reflection that every store, restaurant and cafe was closed on the holiday. It was, however, kind of eerie. I come from a land where “holiday” equals “sale day” -- France is a land where “holiday” means “no sale day.” Keep that in mind if you’re ever here on a holiday.

Unetresbonnesemaine2Another experience has to do with livestock in the road. For the first week or so, I drove the roads virtually unimpeded by automotive traffic, let alone anything of the 4-hoof variety. Then, just the other day it seemed like the road was blocked at virtually every turn by some flock or other. Not just the tiny mountain roads mind you, but even the major roads. Mostly there were sheep, but there were also goats in good numbers and quite a few cows. Besides the obviously commonplace nature of this occurrence as depicted by the behavior of other drivers, I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed before: Dogs are used with sheep but not with goats. The dogs stay pretty busy keeping the sheep organized, but the goats seem to follow the shepherd in good order of their own free will. I know from personal experience that sheep are stupid, so I am inclined to draw the conclusion that they are dumber than goats and thus require more “guidance” in the form of dogs. On the other hand, how dumb must a goat be to willingly follow a shepherd down a paved road when there is so much tasty greenery available for leisurely foraging all around. Curious minds want to know!

Anyway, I hope I have given you a sense of what my week has been like. As I wrote at the top of this entry, it has been a very good week and I am in really good shape because of it. This weekend I will check out of my lovely little gite and say au revoir to Les Plantiers and my many friends here. I will be heading off on a ten-day road trip, driving west then north with the D-Day beaches or Normandy as my next significant way point. I’ve got my maps, I’ve got my trusty little car and I’ve got my French. As always, I’ve also got my Mac and my pack! All is well on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Musing: EgoTourists

My mission on The Voyage is to explore the world, live by my wits and report my findings.  Thus, my focus is outward, toward the world and toward the people and places in it.  Most of the time, I am a solo, independent traveler, immersed in local cultures and exclusively in the company of local people.  Although some of them -- from time to time -- ask me something about myself and/or The Voyage, the focus -- and certainly my focus -- is always on them and their culture.  I am an anonymous traveler who visits for a time then moves on, leaving very little -- if any -- wake in the process.  This affords me access and insights that are of extraordinary value, and it is a vastly rewarding mode of travel.  From time to time I am in the company of other outwardly focused travelers, and this is a similarly rewarding experience.  I benefit from the sharing of thoughtful insights, gain perspective through other eyes and enjoy the companionship of "similarly intended" people.

Unfortunately, I sometimes cross paths with people who do not have an outward focus.  Rather, they focus almost exclusively on themselves and their experiences.  Worse, they constantly tell everyone else about themselves and their experiences.  Often, it seems their primary interest in being wherever they are is to be able to tell those around them about where else they have been and, one must presume, being able at some future date to tell still others that they have been wherever they are at the moment.  Your role in their self-centered lives is to be an audience to tell about the past and to be part of their material to talk about in the future.  Always, of course, the focus will be on them.  I have come to call these people "EgoTourists."  My problem with these people is not just the annoying, self-centered noise they make.  I am pretty good at tuning that out and/or extricating myself from their presence when they get rolling.  No, my real problem with EgoTourists is that they frequently get in the way of my own mission.  Many times I have been just about to get some local person to open up and talk about himself, his culture, his concerns, etc., only to have some EcoTourist barge in and talk about herself.  My exploration is immediately shut down, my time and resources wasted.  Those of you who know me well can just imagine how well I handle that!  Over the past nine months, I have developed an "early warning" system, designed to identify EgoTourists before they can strike.  The point of this Musing is to "share my findings" with you so that, perhaps, you will be better prepared to deal with EgoTourists in your own travels.  Here, then, are the three primary ways you can identify EgoTourists:

1) "Have you been to...?" -- This is their primary "conversation starter" and your "yes/no" answer is guaranteed to be followed up immediately with, "Well, when we were in..." and then some long story about them and their experience, typically focused on some problem they had with the food, the hotel, the guide or the weather.  It will be all about them and -- if you don't quickly extricate yourself from the "conversation" -- it will be at least as boring as watching their slide show.  Note that they always use the term "we" because it is a certainty that they have never gone anywhere solo, never risked being a lone stranger in a strange land and never had to live by their wits.  Also, pay close attention to the last word they use in the question.  The larger the geographical area, the more of an EgoTourist they are certain to be.  If, for example, they ask "Have you been to South America?" be prepared to hear about their half-day port call in Valparaiso.  Not only will they extrapolate that to an intimate knowledge of Chile, they will further extrapolate it to include an in-depth understanding of South American culture and a recital of how many other continents they have "been to."  When you hear "Have you been to...?" I suggest you run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. 

Egotourists22) "This is just like..." -- This is their primary way of "making noise" and is most likely to be completed by filling in the blank the same way over and over again.  "This is just like New Zealand."  "This is just like New Zealand."  "This is just like New Zealand."  What they are really saying is "Look at me!  I've been to New Zealand!  Ask me about my trip to New Zealand!"  This will be followed immediately by their making even more noise about some highly convoluted similarity -- one that anyone who has been to the place being compared would have to be on mind-altering drugs to see the correlation -- or by the dreaded "Have you been to New Zealand?"  (See #1 above!)  Once again, this is all about them, feeding their ego about the places they've been and their needing an audience to validate how cool they are.  You will get nothing -- I repeat nothing -- out of their story except, perhaps, the opportunity to exercise your ability to get away from them as fast as possible.

3) "I got this in..." -- Watch out for the person who wears different t-shirts every day from far away places.  Bonus points if the shirts all have the words "World", "Global", "Trek" or "Expedition" somewhere on them.  Similarly, look out for the safari hat with a number of pins or buttons on it.  Bonus points if there are multiple pins from the same places noting different years.  When you see any of these -- and you will when you are in the presence of EgoTourists -- do not, under any circumstances, ask about any of them.  You will be sorry when you hear their self-centered story about not only the piece in question but about each and every piece of accoutrement.  It will be all about them and nothing of value about the place.  A subtle variation of this telltale, by the way, is the "travel vest" -- you know, like the ones you see journalists wearing while on location somewhere.  Even though it just screams "Look at me, I'm an EgoTourist!" you may find yourself almost irresistibly tempted to ask the really dumb question:  "Where did you get your vest?"  What you won't hear is "Oh, Eddie Bauer online."  What you will hear is everyplace the vest has been, what a life saver it has been and how anybody who "really travels" ought to have one.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

Finally, keep in mind that no matter how fully you adopt and practice my EgoTourist early warning system, they'll still sneak up on you from time to time.  Sooner or later, their need to talk about themselves will overwhelm your defenses.  If this happens, do as I do:  Just walk away.  This may strike you as rude, but that's only because you have the capacity to recognize and accommodate other people.  They don't.  Actually, you will be doing them a favor.  You'll be giving them an experience that they can talk about to their next victim.  Think of it as your "good deed" for the day.