Running with the Bulls from France to Spain and Back Again

“Where would you like to go for our 20th anniversary?”, Teresa said. “Someplace nice”, I said. So here we are on the way to Nice. France. On the rue again.

July 6, 2019

After sleeping for 20 minutes on the flights to Nice and spending an hour doing a walk around to document all the scratches and dents in our Super Sized SUV rental, Teresa and I headed to the north and bleary eyed up into the mountains. A couple of hundred round-abouts later, we decided to take a stop in a little village where absolutely nobody speaks English to have lunch. I think I just ordered pigs feet soup. Anticipation has perked me up.

We continued heading north into the mountains for a drive thru of what is referred to as the “French Grand Canyon”. Gorges du Verdon. The road winds along the edge of the canyon with steep rock walls, sometimes overhanging the road, and a sheer drop off without a guard rail on the other side. And narrow enough sometimes for only one vehicle. Apparently France must have a shortage of lawyers. The road finally climbs up out of the canyon into farm fields. Filled with tourists. Gawking at fields of lavender. I must say it is beautiful though. At least the lavender part is.

July 7, 2019

Spent the day visiting Provence. Visiting little villages built on hillsides and driving thru fields of sunflowers, lavender and wheat. Like being in a Van Gogh painting. And by “driving thru” I mean it. Literally. Since this is the 21st century, we use Google Maps to navigate. And by thru, I mean thru. Somehow Google prefers to direct you thru every 3 foot wide goat path and farm field to get you to your destination. Even when there is a major highway nearby. At least it makes for an interesting journey. And Google must get a kick out of this as well. But of course.

Lunch in Les Baux-de-Provence. Two shrimp, $40. Life in the good lane ain’t cheap.

July 8, 2019

So we finally made it to Millau, a center of manufacturing of leather goods in operation for 1,000 years. Located at the bottom of a large canyon/valley it is also home to one of the recent engineering wonders of the world, the Millau Viaduct completed in 2004. The surrounding terrain reminds me of central Texas … semi arid with scrub brush and cattle. Lots of cows and sheep. The home of French cowboys or in the lingua franca, “cou rouge”.

The city is filled with tourists seeking adventures like dirt bike riding, four wheeling, hang gliding, goofy golf, and, my favorite, zip lining on skate boards. I am not making that one up. Where Provence is all wine and cheese, Millau is beer and bread. At least it’s not Doritos. The only thing missing is gun shooting ranges and maybe we just haven’t stumbled across that yet.

After settling into our trailer (yes, we are in a trailer park) Teresa said we had to go to her favorite glove factory, Causse Gantier. After a little wallet lightening, we headed to the city center for libations at a sidewalk cafe. The oddballs that we are we ordered red wine. Everyone else, and I mean everyone, was drinking beer. We stood out like Provential Snobs. In the background could be heard the sounds of revving dirt bikes and squealing tires. I am on a mission now to learn how to say in French, “Hey y’all. Watch this!”

July 9, 2019

We left Millau and headed southwest towards our next destination, Andorra, the original chosen location for our European wedding vows one score of years ago. But, due to a number of un-annulleable Catholic crimes between us (both Teresa and I grew up Catholic), it turned out to be less than possible thus making Gibraltar, our number 3 pick, the lucky site of our blissful oaths.

The route took us out and over the viaduct and into verdant farm country filled with rolling fields of green and gold and camouflaged sheep pastures. This was clearly authentic French country and an area not frequented by tourists. Especially Catholic outlaw ones. After a couple of hours and an adventurous toilet break we made it to a freeway that would quickly take us the remaining distance. Wanting to avoid the customary two plus hour lunch ritual and in hopes of finding something other than duck and all of its associated parts to consume, we decided to give our familiar American chef, McDonald’s, a try after spotting a tiny army green sign with golden arches whiz by. We pulled over and parked with ease. They had a parking lot. A rare treat. Ordering was made easy by engaging with a wall sized touch sensitive flat screen menu filled with delicious looking pictographs. A quick swipe of a credit card and our order was placed. Printed instructions informed us we were number 34 and, after some mandatory confusion, figured out we were being instructed to sit at a booth where our order would be delivered. In a short amount of time (anything less than 2 hours in this country is considered brief) our familiar pictograph matching food arrived. The parent corporation would be happy to know that the food was consistent with our expectations and that the Big Mac (not actual French product name) did not taste like duck. However, the Coca-Cola did not at all taste like American Coke. It was way less sweet and almost bitter. Good for the French. Maybe they have rules limiting the amount of sugar that can be added. Nonetheless, the food was delicious, and let’s be honest, anytime your food is delivered with a French accent it’s just going to taste better anyways.

Back out on the freeway and up the mountains we continued our journey southward. We finally reached the border and were stopped, given a glance and waved on. One can never be too careful when Mexican illegal immigrants prowl our planet. We followed the heavy line of car and truck traffic further up the mountains of Andorra until, at a fork in the roundabout, Google commanded that we take the first exit. A road that no one else was on and that led to a brand new tunnel. We paid a toll, which must be steep since no one else was anywhere in sight, and entered the passage under the mountain. After several miles we emerged into a different landscape. Switzerland. Or at least what looked like it. A huge green valley with little chalets clutching the mountain sides. A surprising and stunning change of scenery. Now, to find the local Catholic constabulary and taunt them.

July 10, 2019

With only one night in Andorra, we headed out early towards Spain and our next destination, Pamplona, where the St. Fermin Festival and running of the bulls is taking place all week. The drive, at six hours, is our longest on this voyage.

At the Spanish border crossing Google commanded us to take the left lane. A little too late I realized we took the red lighted “frisk us” left lane and not the green lighted “just go” left lane. Google chuckled. The surly Spanish guard signaled us to roll down the window and step out of our vehicle with our hands up. From what I could tell he was telling me to open the trunk. “Where are you going?”, he asked. “Pamplona!”, I said while wildly gesticulating and making a running motion with the fingers of my right hand while forming bull horns with my left, crashing the two together and then making screaming sounds to add realism. Generally, I would characterize his reaction as “un-bemused”. “How much money are you carrying?”, he asked. Thinking he’s probably looking for a “donation” I said, “very little”. A few more questions about liquor and cigarettes and a quick grope thru our suitcases and he sent us on our way after muttering “stupido” which didn’t quite sound like “thank you”.

Down the mountains we wove into the dry and dusty plains north of Zaragoza. In a couple of hours we arrived at our freeway entrance and floored it, heading west thru landscapes that looked like American western movies with occasional rocky out croppings and ancient fortresses or churches atop.

By mid afternoon we arrived in Pamplona. It was easy driving. The streets were empty. Until two blocks from our hotel at the edge of the old city. Roadblocks. The roads were filled with people dressed in white with red sashes and neckerchiefs. They paid no attention to me and my giant Super Sized SUV. They may have escaped being gored by bulls but they would never fare as well with me. The only thing missing was a pair of bull horns strapped to the hood. Ole! After some creative maneuvering and cutting off two “filled to the brim with cops” police vans we made it to a security checkpoint. A quick review of our credentials and we were sent on our way sans the customary salutation of “stupido”. Tomorrow morning, at sunrise, we run.

July 11, 2019

The Saint Fermin Festival goes on all week in Pamplona. It’s the type of festival where drinking doesn’t start in the morning because drinking never stops. There is no beginning and there is no end. A combination of Mardi Gras and Carnivale that only the Spanish can perfect in all its chaos and fervor. The morning starts with the daily running of the bulls.

Followed by chaos and occasional light bouts of chaos. And of course drinking. Groups or clubs form spontaneously for all sorts of reasons and parade around the narrow streets. Singing groups. Tuba groups. Hopping trombone groups. Flag waving groups. Name it. I’m glad I don’t understand the language. To my ears it sounds like a bunch of sparrows chirping at the top of their lungs (do sparrows have lungs?) and being drunk on fermented berries. This goes on pretty much all day and night reaching its zenith near midnight. There seems to be no or little food available. Certainly no restaurants with table service. Tapas only. And very limited. Of course the Spaniards are notoriously rigid about their eating rituals and always seem to not be eating when I would like or expect to be eating. Same for sleeping which I am beginning to suspect is not done at all. They all seem to know the rules and for me it is endlessly baffling.

The afternoon activities, aka parading about like a bunch of drunk canaries, is highlighted by a bull fight to which Teresa managed to get tickets. I hear the toreador today is supposed to be one of their super stars. I am hoping for a Britney Spears on horseback.

July 12, 2019

We left the craziness of Pamplona this morning, or tried to, for Bilboa, home to the Guggenheim museum by architect Frank Gehry. A toll was required to enter the freeway. After paying the toll, everyone was required to pull over for a DUI check. Located just outside Spain’s largest drinking party it was easy pickings for our boys in green. Like bears in a salmon filled river. After several attempts (apparently I wasn’t blowing hard enough) we were sent on our way and given the DUI Blow Nipple as a lasting souvenir of our Pamplona partying.

As we got closer to Bilboa the scenery changed from the rolling yellow dry plains (where in Spain rain obviously DOESN’T fall mainly) to blue green fir tree covered mountains looking like somewhere west of Seattle. The freeway exited a few blocks from our hotel located on a large roundabout in the city center. And, true to form, Bilboa presented unique challenges for the foreign driver. In this case traffic lighted intersections. It turns out each intersection has two traffic lighted signals. One for entering the intersection and one for exiting the intersection. And these lights are timed only for mayhem. And as an inspiration for vigorous horn honking. Oh, and to make certain only the quick and nimble pedestrians survive. After several close calls of every kind, we arrived to the hotel only to find that there was no where to pull over for parking (even though reservations for parking were made and paid for in advance).

As we passed the hotel I spotted a no parking zone and converted it to one. I got out of the car, leaving Teresa on guard, and ran to the hotel entrance. “Wow. What a nice hotel lobby”, I said to myself. Quiet and mature. Classical wood paneling from floor to ceiling. Like a Ritz-Carlton without the Ritz. Smelling of magnolias and camellias. I caught the attention of one of the uniformed staff members and explained my situation. He seemed to indicate that I would have to circle around the block and drive up over a curb nearby, drive down the sidewalk (pedestrian filled of course) and squeeze the giant SUV between two columns at the lobby entrance slowly while preferably not yelling “Allahu Ackbar” whilst doing so. Upon the successful following of the directions and wedging the car into the hotel entrance blocking all passage, we checked in.

July 13, 2019

In the early morning we left Bilbao and headed out to the Basque coast straddled by the border of Spain and France. It is a short drive to San Sébastian, passing Guernica along the way. Guernica, the subject of one of Picasso’s most famous paintings, was the location of an aerial attack on civilians by the Fascists in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The painting served as inspiration for American liberals who volunteered to fight before the start of the world war.

The freeway wove down the mountains to the coast. When it wasn’t weaving it was turning. The speed limit changed every kilometer. One moment it was 120. The next 80. And signs everywhere indicated radar was used for enforcement. That seemed to have no effect on a subset of drivers who all passed me going easily 200. And mostly VWs and not the bug kind. Some sort of sleek and obnoxiously fast kind. Bugs with monster wheels.

We pulled off at the San Sébastian exit and headed to the city center where traffic at that hour of the morning was light. A sign for parking was spotted and we headed underground to find a spot. The giant SUV struggled to squeeze between the decks, easily only 6 feet tall, scraping it’s antenna along the way. We shoe-horned into the first parking space we found, accomplishing it with a graceful 20 point turn.

Popping up street side we headed out to find the local Le Waffle House. After a couple of donuts and coffee I was feeling like an American again. Chocolate covered and not a duck in sight. San Sébastian is supposed to be a hoity toity place but I found it to be a few shades short of chic. In need of a good street sweeping in the least. The city is built around an azure bay with hills on both sides of the harbor entrance looking like padded shoulders. A skulling race was underway. We stood on the seawall and watched.

In a while we decided to head on to our next seaside village, St. Jean de Luz, France’s answer to Panama City Beach. After 30 minutes of driving we came to a stop in bumper to bumper traffic. It’s the weekend. It’s vacation month for the entirety of France and it’s their 4th of July weekend, tomorrow being Bastille Day. We found an “above ground” parking lot but mercifully every spot was full. I did not want to reveal to Teresa that I have been lying to her all these years about my powers of levitation as that is the only way the SUV could have fit into an available space were one found. The idea of exploring the village was abandoned and we headed up the beach front road, our motel only 10 minutes away according to Google.

We arrived at our motel to find a parking LOT with a few open spaces. A short series of docking maneuvers later and we headed inside to check in. Outside in the back was a patio restaurant and a large beach, mildly inhabited. So, after a quick British lunch of fish and chips without the peas (everyone thinks we’re British because Americans never come here … or it could be our very white skin unblemished by sunlight) we prepare to head out to explore the beach and touch the water to see if it is above freezing. Tomorrow, heads roll.

July 14, 2019

It’s Bastille Day and we are heading to the large city of Bordeaux this morning. Happy July 4th, France! From my understanding (which is very limited … feel free to suggest revisions everywhere) this day is celebrated as the beginning of the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille Prison in Paris. Marie Antoinette stopped eating cake somewhere along this historic time frame. Remember, one must keep one’s head to eat one’s cake. Anyhoo, the French Revolution rolled along after this event and is the source of many wonders and a few terrible blow backs. Cults (atheists, aka the Cult of Reason, converted the Notre Dame cathedral to a Temple of Reason … ha ha, good luck with that), Calendars (and I always thought Thermador was just a refrigerator brand name) and Clocks (decimal time sounding so much like Star Trek) all resulted from the creative minds that brought you the Gillette brand 5 blade guillotine for a closer shave (I think that one’s made up but it’s always hard to tell when it comes to the French Revolution). There’s only so much French history you can explore before feeling the need to close the book, it’s just that wild. Eventually, the French settled down and became a stable republic after a few bad bouts of Napoleonitis. It seems that all social advancements must suffer extreme setbacks occasionally. I’m looking at you, America.

After a Bastille Day lunch in Bordeaux, and an exciting call from someone in Arles who found Teresa’s wallet which went gone after visiting the Van Gogh Museum, we headed to St. Emilion that lies at the heart of the wine vinting region.

As we drove thru a vineyard and pulled up to the hotel we could see this was no ordinary French HoJo but a castle or, as they call it around here, a chateau. Appearing like a scene out of the Beverly Hillbillies we pulled up to the entrance in our big and dusty SUV with suitcases strapped to the top sans Granny in a rocking chair. Stepping out as the uniformed attendant opened the door, I let out an audible “HooWheee” as I surveyed the scene. The only thing missing was banjo music.

After settling into our suite, Teresa announced she was heading to the cement pond while I prepared for a nap. As I glanced out of our balcony window I spotted a large truck rumbling down the pea gravel driveway with a sign that read, “Guillotines ‘R Us”. “Hmmm”, I said to myself. I wonder what that could be about.

Late in the afternoon we decided to drive into nearby St. Emilion for a quick dinner (quick?). Yellow orange setting sun, perfect lighting. In the village center plaza. Surrounded by tables of loud and obnoxious Scots. Loud.

July 15, 2019

Bastille Day night turned out to be a quiet affair. No fireworks or bottle rockets. Apparently celebrations for the holiday only happen in the big cities. In the morning we decided to drive around the area near St. Emilion to get an authentic taste of the French wine country. It was clear from the previous day’s visit that St. Emilion is a tourist trap. France’s imagining of Epcot’s imagining of France. Too idyllic and packed with tourists and trinket filled shops.

I laid out a route in Google Maps and let it do its thing, listening to the muted chuckles as Google calculated and schemed and found every deserted goat path for its plan. Soon we were sailing down rows of grape vines occasionally having to steer clear of the narrow farm tractors spraying the fields with fogs of chemicals. After passing a few villages we decided to try to find a place for coffee in the hope it would clear our heads from the Agent Orange haze we found ourselves in. We stopped at a deserted café and ordered a round. For me, espresso and for Teresa, Americano au lait.

Cafe au lait?

Soon we were on our way again. Google’s route eventually took us back to St. Emilion where we wedged the boat into an alley and, from our experiences in Arles, found our expertise at purchasing parking tickets from overly obtuse vending machines helpful in assisting some confused Brits in line from Norwich, one of whom when told of our visit years ago to my father’s WW2 airfield there, asked incredulously as to which side he fought for. “The winning side”, I said, and left it at that.

We spent the remainder of the day doing tourist things. Shopping, buying swizzle sticks, wine tasting and visiting the central church built underground in the 12th century. Serving as the entrance to over 200 acres of caves that lie under the entire city and are today (still) used as wine cellars due to their perfect temperature and humidity. I knew the priests loved their wine but, boy, this must have been a sweet gig when one got assigned here. But, alas, the French Revolution arrived and shut all that down and converted the underground church to a weapons factory due to the presence of saltpeter in the walls of the caves. Another victim of the Cult of Reason.

July 16, 2019

For our 20th anniversary lunch we have headed to the islands. The islands of France. Isle de Re. An easy drive but expensive. 40 bucks to cross the bridge. Our hotel, which is the only one I selected before hand for this trip, had appeared to be on the beach. At least that is what the website showed. In this case “beach” is apparently French for “mud flats” . Stinky, smelly mud flats. But, at least it is in keeping with the spirit of our honeymoon night where we found ourselves in a trailer on the beach in Spain near Gibraltar where we married. Nice place if you could somehow remove the 100 yards of cactus and cow filled pasture that separated the trailer from the beach. And from Life’s Lesson Learned, Chapter 27, it is ill advised to try to take a midnight swim bare footed.

After checking in, we headed to a nearby village where a farmer’s market was set up. Teresa shopped around while I spoke to one of the carnies. A young man from Argentina who spoke English since I don’t speak Argentinish. The conversation quickly turned to Trump when he learned I was from the US. I explained that all great countries have their down turns occasionally, comparing Trump to Napoleon, who I view as a dictator historically. “Ixnay on the Rumptay thing”, he said warning me that everyone in the area considers Napoleon to be a great general who would be much welcomed today. So, for the moment, I shall keep my pie hole shut.

In the afternoon we headed back to the mainland to visit nearby La Rochelle. A city noted for fishing and built around a medieval harbor. We wandered around the streets and eventually (as always) found ourselves sitting in the late afternoon sun in an outdoor cafe drinking some local libations. From an adjoining table we could distinctly hear a conversation in a distinctly clear American dialect. The couple, now residents of France for 20 years working as teachers, asked us about life in America especially under the reign of Donald Trump. “Quelle horreur”, I muttered. “Quelle horreur”.

What a meal. For Teresa’s birthday we went to a three star Michelin restaurant on the bay front of La Rochelle. 13 courses later. Most interesting: the course served on the backs of our hands (invariably described by moi as; “The Slurpee,” or the “The Back Hander” or “How Cheap Do You Have To Be To Not Have Enough Plates?”) . Most courses tiny but made from local foods and seafood. It was the first time I’ve ever seen tweezers as an eating implement. Quite incredible.

July 17, 2019

We left Isle de Re in the morning heading north towards Paris where we will depart in a couple of days. Google’s route took us off the freeway and onto a 2 lane highway for 20 miles. The road, packed with truck traffic, passed thru heavy industrial zones and farms. A roundabout every mile or so. At one of the roundabouts a semi tractor trailer failed to yield and cut me off. I tried to stand my ground since I had the right of way until I looked up and saw it was carrying a giant steel box, windowless and covered with steel supporting ribs. “After you”, I politely said and let it along with a yellow van with flags and flashing lights cut in line. The truck, box and van exited the roundabout in the direction we were heading. The box was enormous, at least 30 feet wide by 15 feet high, and stretched wider than the two lane highway. The driver of the truck took off and sped up reaching speeds of 30, 40 and 50 miles per hour. Traffic coming from the opposite direction had to pull off the road into the grass shoulder and ditches. Cars, semi-tractor trailer rigs, RVs, bicyclists. The truck’s driver careened down the highway flattening signs or anything within the wide box’s reach. The yellow van, lights flashing, trailing behind driving in the opposite lane shielded by the megabox and impossible to see from the oncoming traffic’s panicked point of view. It was the most amazing scene of highway mayhem I’ve seen since driving the Mombasa Highway. After 15 minutes of this chaos the truck, megabox and trailing van found a place to pull over for us and the traffic behind us to pass. I was just glad I wasn’t traveling in the opposite direction necessitating a dive onto the grassy shoulder. We made it back to the freeway finally and in a couple of hours reached our next stop, medieval Mont St. Michel where we will stay overnight.

July 18, 2019

We awoke on the island to the sound of silence. No, not the Simon and Garfunkel version, but the real thing except with about a thousand seagulls sqounking loudly so not so silent after all really. Still, much quieter than after 9 in the morning when the first tourist trams arrive flooding the island with thousands of tourists seeking swizzle sticks. As hotel guests we are one of a very few residents overnight as the last tourist trams depart at sunset and the fortress gates are closed and the surrounding mud flats are flooded.

We got up and headed out to explore the briefly quiet medieval city. From the hotel’s third floor, a restored fisherman’s house, we found a wooden foot bridge 30 feet high that connected directly to the top of the stone rampart overlooking the sea. A secret door closed behind us, locking electronically.

Outside it was gray and misty. The sky matching the stone architecture. We had purchased tickets the previous night for a tour of the Abby and decided to hoof it to the entry gates before the ensuing hordes arrived. After a few thousand stone steps we arrived to the still locked doors, first in line. Teresa remembered something Ibrahim Morgan said to us during our visit to the Giza Pyramid where he secured our first in line position. “You’re first in line today and no one can ever take that away from you.” Seemed so profound then but not so much so now. Maybe it was the power of the pyramids. I know I haven’t had to change my razor blades since then.

Out of nowhere three French Firefighters wearing black boots with reflecting strips passed us on the steps and pounded on the massive wooden abbey doors. “Oh mon Dieu”, I thought out loud! They knocked again but no response. I sniffed the air for hints of fragrant smoke. A third pounding and the sounds of clanking could be heard as one of the doors opened. Apparently the night guard was asleep. The three firefighters slipped into the darkened interior and the door closed again with a much expected thud. Resoundingly. The crowd now forming two lines looked nervously around with some muffled laughs. After 15 minutes both doors were opened. The right door for the visitors needing tickets and our left door for those who planned ahead, of which Teresa and I led.

We entered the now well lit space with no hints of smoke or firefighters. A soft rain started to fall.

Well, the island is now full bore ass to elbow with tourists. In an effort to escape the inescapable crowds, and probably as a result of too many crepes, Teresa suggested we visit a museum we were passing that, as far as our collective translation skills could carry us, was about the ecology of the Mont Saint Michel area. Of course, not thinking all the way thru our cunning plan and before you could say “sacre bleu”, we were whisked into a darkened movie theater where we realized too late that the narration was in French. Well, le duh! 30 minutes later and 20 bucks lighter the movie ended with neither of us wiser as to what the damned thing was about. It did have a nice paper mache model of the island that rose out of a bathtub and everything always sounds better in French but I have no idea what I just saw. I feel like a film critic at Cannes.

A final dinner on Mont Saint Michel before heading to Paris tomorrow to drop off the giant SUV and hopefully passing the dent/scratch inspection review. Football sized omelets at a local famous eatery (Michelin rated again) known for being a must stop for French presidential candidates was the plan. Apparently no one who has not eaten here has been elected since Napoleon. After looking at the size and cost of the omelets (a requirement for patrons to order) I decided to drop out of the race for the French presidency. “There’s still America”, I thought.

After dinner we wandered around in the fading light. We found a functioning chapel lit with devotional candles. We also found an ice cream store. Teresa got her favorite, chocolate, and for me, caramel. We headed to the ramparts to watch the sunset as the tide came in and the tourists went out. Having finished my ice cream cone Teresa made a comment that I ate it too quickly and that, since she loved chocolate more than life, she preferred to eat it slowly. It was just at that moment that I saw a suicidal sea gull dive between me and Teresa. In a split second nothing was left except for some gristle and a cloud of feathers. Teresa stood valient, blood dripping from her hand, chocolate ice cream cone still intact. Never get between a mama bear and her chocolate. I would have thought all seagulls knew that.

July 19, 2020

Having packed early, we caught the first tram off the island. Two days on Mont Saint Michel, we decided, was one day too much. The island is too small and easily seen and enjoyed in one day and night. (We thought maybe we should have spent an extra day or two at the Beverly Hillbillies Mansion in St. Emilion.) Our next destination, Paris. But on the way is Giverny, the village made famous by impressionistic painter Claude Monet located on the banks of the Seine River.

We arrived in the now hot mid day sun and found Giverny crowded with tourists. Lines were already formed with an hour long wait just to see some of the famed locations. Since we still had a few hours driving time ahead of us to get back to the airport to drop off the rental SUV, we decided to grab a quick lunch and walk around briefly to check out the sights.

In an hour we were back in the car heading eastward towards our drop off point. The route taking us from two lane roads to busy and crowded suburban freeways. Along the way we had to refuel and faced the difficulty of finding a gas station given the fact that France apparently does not allow billboards or advertisements along the highways. Taking an exit that seemed, by Google Maps at least, to have a gas station we found ourselves on the wrong side of the freeway with seemingly no way to get to the other side. With more guidance from Google Maps, we eventually found a route that wound us through several office parks and warehouse districts and finally thru a gauntlet of concrete bollards. Squeezing through with a millimeter to spare we reached our gas station, refueled and flew the rest of the way to De Gaulle Airport and the Hertz rental drop off. Relieved at successfully completing our mission, we only needed to find a taxi to take us into the city. Relax, I told myself. The worst of the driving experience is over.

Watch out for these bad boys when driving in France. This speed camera caught me flying back to the airport and, three months after our return, I got a “love letter” from the French government. They are serious about not exceeding the posted speed limit.

We arrived in Paris. The three of us cursing like drunken sailors. Me and the driver in French, Teresa in English. Visions of Princess Diana danced in our heads. As we entered the eye of the hurricane known as the Arc de Triomphe roundabout it was becoming less certain we would survive the final four blocks to our hotel, a half block north of the Champs-Elysees necessitating a left turn, illegal for sure, against four lanes of oncoming traffic quickly heading out of town on a late Friday afternoon. The previous 30 minutes of riding in the taxi, where we had just dropped off the giant SUV at the airport, was as harrowing a drive as it gets. Tires squeeling as breaks were slammed; horns furiously honking as our taxi darted out into fast oncoming traffic; drivers being cut off in adjacent lanes; Teresa and me being thrown side to side when not slamming face forward into the seatbacks in front of us. The driver, an old man (“old man” now becoming an increasingly compromised pejorative given what I see in the mirror these days), jerked the steering wheel hard to the left in front of the quickly moving cars. The oncoming traffic nearly t-boning us as the aggrieved drivers slammed on their brakes and honked their horns. Out of nowhere, another car suddenly appeared to our left taking advantage of our driver’s suicidal maneuver to enter the side street, OUR TAXI DRIVER’S side street, shielded by HIS taxi. With no hesitation, our driver cut him off (“justifiably for once”, I thought) and cursed and honked like a madman which both of us were certain of now. Pulling up in front of our hotel, and not double parking but blocking the entire street, our driver turned around to face us saying, “cash only no card” (likely the only English he knew even though he picked up “gawdammit” from Teresa pretty quickly I have to say). I started to say we didn’t have any cash left on us but Teresa made some magically appear. We wobbled out of the back with the assistance of the hotel doorman and grabbed our bags. “Adios amigo”, I yelled back to the driver. “Go gettem!”

July 20, 2019

Early morning in Paris and time to get up and explore. The night before, Algeria won the African World Cup. We watched the competition on our wall mounted TV cleverly disguised as a mirror. With Algeria being a former French colony, the locals came out to celebrate. We could hear the cheers in our hotel from two blocks away and evidence of the night long celebration was everywhere along the Champs-Élysées.

Walking 4 blocks we arrived at the Arc de Triomphe. It was early and the Arc was still closed. Dozens of large packed tour busses orbited the roundabout. Teresa surveyed the scene and suggested we skidaddle and purchase entry tickets online. Brilliant! A quick search on the phone and half a dozen clicks later an email arrived bearing two bar codes, our passes to the front of the line when we return.

We headed south looking for the coffee shop we found. A couple of cuppas later (why is a simple gallon sized cup of coffee so difficult to find?) we were on our way southward again heading towards the Eiffel Tower. Having been here a couple of times before in the last four decades it’s sad to see what it has become today. Now ringed by bullet proof glass and artfully done barbed wire you can no longer just wander up and under the tower and gaze up in amazement at the structure from its dirt base. A monument designed to herald a technologically promising future swallowed by a monument to evil insanity. Such is human nature.

Continuing on we headed southward into the adjacent linear park and took some pictures and decided to turn east to visit the Rodin Museum. Along the way we passed the Hotel des Invalides. From my understanding, a retirement home for injured soldiers from some of France’s adventurous days in the 17 and 1800s as it tried and failed to build an empire. Imagine, a country paying for and helping its citizens who fought for its benefit.

The Rodin Museum was nice and quiet. No tourist hordes. Rodin’s work is beautiful and textured, matching the painting styles of the day, Pointillism and Impressionism. We found his famous “The Thinker” outside in a garden. After exiting the museum we decided to hop on the subway to head back to the Arc de Triomphe. Entering the passageway under the roundabout we could see a line of at least one hundred people waiting to buy tickets. Bar codes in hand we sailed to the front of the line and started our climb to the top up the never ending spiral stairs. Reaching the terrace on the top we enjoyed the views of Paris, seemingly clean and safe despite the endless police and ambulance sirens wailing below in the background.

Now exhausted, we headed back to our hotel a short distance away. In our room on the bed lay a package. Teresa’s wallet found by strangers in Arles who called upon its discovery and offered to return it by mail. An act of kindness from strangers. Such is humanity.

As evening approached we decided to find a local restaurant with the help of our reliable friend, Google Maps. Les 110 de Taillevent Paris. Franco-American Fusion. First time I’ve had a dessert that had to be melted before your eyes to reveal the one and only TRUE dessert. A real religious experience, chocolately speaking. As the waiter said, “Just wait.” Oh, mon Dieu!

July 21, 2019

Our last morning in Paris, we headed out early again with a full itinerary. Our first destination a bakery to the northeast and a section of Paris that neither Teresa or I had been to. Our first selection a recommendation from Tracey Anderson. Sadly closed on Sundays. Teresa found our second in the hotel magazine. The French Bastard (the name of the bakery, not our taxi driver) was located near the Bastille.

We hailed an Uber and enjoyed a quiet Sunday morning ride with a driver possessing a full bag of marbles. The neighborhood was far from tourists and was calm with local middle class folks taking care of business in an ordinary way. We proficiently ordered coffees and eclairs, the best ever, and were on our way shortly heading south towards the Bastille where I hoped light crowds would make ticket purchasing an easy task.

The route took us down a wide boulevard that is built over an underground canal. In the middle, parks with gardens and playgrounds. I told Teresa on our next Paris visit we should stay in a real Paris neighborhood like this one so as to avoid all the tourist trappings. Maybe an AirBnB.

In a couple of blocks the park in the road median was replaced by a busy market. It was packed. Everything was for sale here. Foods, clothes, records, shoes, spoons. The smells were incredible and good; fresh olives, meats grilling, fragrant flowers. This is the way to shop. Local business owners and no corporate chains.

Up ahead past the market was the Bastille. In excitement I rushed forward only to discover that the Bastille Prison (and its tours) is the same as the Alamo Basement (and its tours). Nada. As the suddenly being read guide explained, the prison was torn down during the French Revolution and “nothing remains”. This was my “Peewee Herman Goes to Paris” moment. I began singing, “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. Quickly putting aside disappointment, we continued south and around the Bastille Monument, a column of stone with a gold statue on top that’s been closed for repairs since 1985. Just how long can it take to repair a stack of stones?

Continuing south of the Bastille, the road we were following opened to the underground canal filled with boats. I tried, successfully, to recover from my disappointment at not seeing the severed embalmed head of Marie Antoinette in a plastic cube. “There’s still the future and new opportunities”, I assured myself.

We continued to the river and crossed at a nearby bridge. At this point we decided to descend to the walkway that ran along the banks of the river. We headed west and followed the Seine to the Notre Dame Cathedral passing more open air markets along the way. Teresa bought spoons. 6 of them.

As we approached the cathedral, it was both sad and interesting to see it up close. Amazed that it stood, still, though now covered with plastic and braced by heavy timber supports as restoration starts and plans are made for its reconstruction. My hopes still in place that the French will provide a new layer of history that reflects our current time. Something maybe utilizing the latest technologies. From what I’ve read, though, it seems the conservatives of France will have their way and it will be rebuilt to the exact specifications from its last reincarnation following the French Revolution.

It was now early afternoon and time to find a Brasserie in the adjacent Latin Quarter. A grilled ham and cheese or at least the Parisienne’s interpretation of one. And a Coke with ice. 3 cubes. Following lunch we headed uphill to the Pantheon at the heart of the left bank and the University of Paris. A leftist’s dream come true. A quick reading of Trotsky and we headed back, via the (Socialist Funded) Metro, to our tourist arrondissement.

Such an amazing final event to the last two weeks of travels. At the Atelier des Lumieres, in my new favorite neighborhood … the 11th arrondissement, a 21st century exhibit of Van Gogh. Animated images of his artwork projected in various spaces on the walls, floors, mirrored rooms, water filled pools and bodies of hundreds of viewers (Parisiennes in this case … c’est bon!) accompanied by great soundtracks. Who knew Janice Joplin would be such a great paring with Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Sacre bleu et tres trippy!

Amazed by the experience of Atelier des Lumieres, we walked back to the Metro station taking the long route through the nearby neighborhoods. Spotting a few tables outside a corner bar, we sat down for a glass of wine and to reflect on all the incredible sights and experiences of the last two weeks. The 11th arrondissement is not a tourist zone. It was nice to feel the calm and natural flow of activities, authentic and not artificial.

Exiting the Metro station back at our destination, we walked a couple of blocks along the Champs-Élysées in the late afternoon, soft light reflecting off the sidewalk stone. Tomorrow, we return to Atlanta.

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