|Our trip - it went according to schedule this time.|
“I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. There was nobody calling me up for favors. And no one's future to decide.”
That’s Joni Mitchell’s song about her trip to Paris with the president of her record label. David Geffen didn’t like the way the words portrayed him, but he probably changed his mind when “Free Man in Paris” was released as a single and became one of Mitchell’s biggest hits.
We spent 16 days on a vacation that wound its way from Paris to Nice in France with a side trip to Monaco. About a week was spent cruising down the Rhone River in a group of about 40 other Americans. It have written up descriptions of the places we saw and posted them on my travel blog, buddroadtrips.blogspot.com. But as usual, I took notes about what we noticed about our trip along the way and asked our new friends who joined us on the tour for their thoughts too. I learn a lot about where I have been that way. Therefore, this admittedly lengthy report is not about what we saw, but about what we experienced.
* They really celebrate their holidays in France. On the morning of May 1 (Labor Day or May Day), the usually crowded streets were empty. Few businesses were open, except for some restaurants that probably catered to tourists. We missed a couple of planned visits to attractions because of that. A week later, we were in town for V-E Day, yet another holiday that closed many businesses.
* Meanwhile on May Day, thousands gathered to protest government policies. More than 100 were arrested. Some of the metro (subway) stops were closed for security reasons.We couldn’t get near the Arc de Triomphe; access was blocked by well-armed military troops. In fact, the nation is on its highest alert for security, and military types were very visible in almost all potentially crowded areas.
* If you are interested in fine dining, Paris obviously is the place to be. We saw not one, but two Five Guys hamburger places there. McDonald’s and Starbucks were everywhere, while Burger King had a small presence. More seriously, there are cafes and restaurants all over the place, with a few on almost every block. For an expensive city, food prices were actually quite reasonable. However, soft drinks were outrageous, unless you think a bottle of Coke Zero without ice cubes is worth as much as 4.50 Euros. Footnote - It is a tough place to buy a salad, for whatever reason.
|The roof of Lafayette Commons was spectacular.|
* Paris needs a little work on its cheap commercialism. You couldn’t find an original or interesting t-shirt in the city limits.
* Visitors hear about the problem of pickpockets almost everywhere in Paris, as well as in Lyon and Nice. Theft from tourists almost sounds like it provides a good-sized portion of the GDP. If you are planning a trip, take appropriate measures like the purchase of a money belt.
* My friend from another cruise, Gail Alderton, once said to me, "You must go to Paris." She was right.
Turning the tables
Jody’s knowledge of her high school French lessons paid off nicely throughout the trip, as she could understand a bit of what was going around us and point us in the proper directions. Meanwhile, my elective of Spanish in those school years was of no use. But then we ran into a family from Argentina at the shopping center in Paris, and my shaky knowledge of that language came back to life briefly.
After I explained that I spoke “muy, muy poco” (very, very little) Spanish after taking three years of it in school, we talked a little in a combination of Spanish and English. The three women were delighted. When they said they were leaving Paris that night, I said, “Que lastima!” (What a pity!), which I think I learned in my first month of lessons in seventh grade. And when we split up, I said, “Adios! Buena suerte (good luck)!”, putting a big smile on their faces.
You’d be surprised how much fun it was.
* Grand Circle sometimes brings in guest speakers to its event, and we had a couple of unusual ones. The first was Jean Nallit, a man who worked on the French Resistance during World War II. As a forger, he saved the lives of several Jews who were slated to go to the death camps. Yes, he’s 96 now, but he’s still doing OK. It was remarkable to hear a first-person account of experiences, which included a stay in a concentration camp. When he was released, he was so thin (76 pounds) that his mother didn’t even recognize him when they were reunited after the war. By any definition. Nallit is a hero. Also, two people from the “Yellow Vest” protest groups took time to talk with our group and answer questions about their activities. The protesters seem to have some energy, but no obvious place to direct it and no clear leadership. Apparently, they get on Facebook and say, “Where should we protest on Saturday?” Unless they set up a clear path for progress to a particular destination and find some leadership, it’s hard to believe they will do more than cause honked horns by drivers who can't get by them.
* Some of the boat tours through Grand Circle feature variety shows from the crew. We had such a small boat (13 crew members or so) that such a show was impossible, so they took questions for more than an hour instead one night. They were mostly Eastern Europeans (Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia) and in their 40s, so I asked how the end of Communism had changed their lives. That hit a nerve. The answer from about four crew members ran for about 20 minutes and had plenty of passion. It was clear that they didn’t miss Communism, where everyone you meet is a potential spy for the government. However, there was a sense that they miss the safety net of the old regime. Many people have realized that there’s not much opportunity for advancement in the Old Country, and the people there need to flee to the West for a better life. That "brain drain" has left those Eastern European countries behind economically. I also asked about influences on their culture: movies, television, music, sports, etc. They all quickly answered that everything in those areas came from America.
* A story: Jaroslav, the hotel manager, talked about how a woman came up to him at the front desk and asked, "How does the ship get its power when it is not in port?" He was feeling silly that day, so he said, "We have a long cord that is plugged in at the city of origin, and it unrolls as we go from city to city."
|Our traveling party visits a bull farm in Southern France.|
* Speaking of marketing, Grand Circle’s approach to touring apparently appeals to those in the 70-79 age-group, as we say in the running community. Some were older than that, and a few were well above that. Those most senior of senior citizens didn’t take part in all of the programs, but had a good time by all accounts. At the other end of the spectrum, we weren’t the youngest this time like we had been in 2018. A family reunion of nine was part of the group, and four of them were sons and their significant others. I told one of the young ladies that if they ever wanted to talk to someone who didn’t remember the Korean War, we were there to help. She laughed. Without them, though, we would have been the kids on board again.
* The food was quite good, with an emphasis on French cuisine. Remember, this is from America’s fussiest eater, so it’s high praise. I think I could come to like Crepes Suzette on a regular basis. We made sure to do plenty of walking during the day and not drink too much alcohol in order to be able to fit into our clothes upon returning. Others weren’t so, um, dedicated – but that’s part of the attraction for some. To each his or her own.
* Let’s salute our program director, Martin, for his effort throughout the trip. He worked extremely hard for all 16 days (plus a post-trip extension that we missed) without missing a beat, even when he was a bit sick for a while. Martin was always in good humor and full of enthusiasm, and knew the highlights of the visited cities forwards and backwards. He even put up with me when at one point I started to snore loudly when he started to sing a lullaby into the bus’ p-a system on a drive. (That got a surprisingly big laugh, by the way.) You couldn’t tip him enough for what he did; let’s hope he received enough to take a nice vacation of his own somewhere.
The rest of France
|One of the best war memorials is in Nice, near the waterfront.|
* It was mentioned along the way that there are three ingredients that are crucial to French booking: butter, butter and butter. You didn’t need to put any on your morning croissant to taste the stuff.
* As you’d guess, English is fairly common in the tourist areas of Paris. Most merchants can at least get by. It was less common for the other portions of the journey.
* You’d expect plenty of tributes to the heroes of World War II, and they were present throughout France. It’s interesting, though, that World War I is still well remembered in many places in the form of monuments, street names, heroes, etc. France obviously suffered incredible losses in the earlier conflict, but the tributes are noticeable for someone coming from an American perspective. World War I doesn't come up much on this side of the pond.
* Europe has much more smoking than the United States, and the French seem to be the leaders in that category. It’s a great country for walks as long as you can find some clean air to breathe along the way.
* As best as we could figure out from the road signs, the speed limit on the big highways goes down a bit when it rains. That’s not a bad idea. However, it is interesting – if not scary – to consider that wine is sold at Thruway rest stops. Driving is not cheap in France. We spent an afternoon with a French family, who said it costs about 75 Euros to fill the tank. Whew. Many cars are indeed tiny, particularly in urban areas where the streets are not exactly boulevards.
* Speaking of driving, the French certainly love their traffic circles. There are about 30,000 scattered around the country. The rotaries force drivers to pay attention - according to a book I once read on traffic - so the accident rate drops in such spots. However, the Arc de Triomphe features six roads coming into a circle without a yield sign in sight. We went through the area on the way to Versailles, and we needed a “discomfort bag” like they hand out on airplanes.
* You’d think France would be a little less stingy with the size and number of its napkins. There weren't many paper towels in the bathrooms either.
* When we were riding on the subway in Lyon, we were serenaded by a street musician who was playing an accordion. So much for the old saying, then, that a gentleman is “someone who knows how to play the accordion … and doesn’t.” The music seemed almost continental in that setting.
* Does every city in France have a carousel?
* While in Viviers, we were introduced to a French game called pétanque. It’s a great deal like bocce, as players have to get large balls next to a small target ball by throwing it a good-sized distance. As my friends have said, I’m a good athlete when my feet aren’t moving (which covers most sports, by the way). Therefore, I got the hang of the game quite quickly. I wonder if there is a professional league I can join.
* One key observation from Jody: She was surprised and disappointed that users of the hair dryers must hold the "on button" in order to prevent it from turning off.
* There’s one common problem in the cities of France: what my mother used to call “dog stuff.” One local tour guide said that residents often let their dogs run around the city streets, and – using a nice phrase – don’t monitor their “production.” Martin called the gifts from our four-footed friends “landmines,” and we all learned to look down frequently while walking.
* The French people say they don’t consider Jerry Lewis a god. So let’s put that one to rest right now.
* For those who like to count the countries they’ve visited, which covers almost all of us, the idea of a morning trip to Monaco was irresistible. It’s less than a square mile in size, a postage stamp in the world community. You don’t need a passport to enter the country. However, if you want to get that document stamped, you can do so. The Tourist Information booth at the train station will be happy to add a bright red color to your otherwise drab passport page.
|Another Saturday, another protest in Nice.|
* At one point, we got off the train in Nice after coming in from Monaco, and found ourselves in the midst of a Saturday protest by the Yellow Vests. There were drums and whistles by the few hundred people involved, not including the police presence. They marched several blocks to the big town square, and we never felt threatened walking behind the group. However, they sure messed up traffic patterns for a while.
* At the end of the trip, I had to use the business center of a hotel to check in for our flights home. When I started to use the computer, I quickly discovered that I was typing something close to gibberish. No remarks please – it was because it was a different keyboard. A few of the letters were in the “wrong” position (z was where the w usually is for us), and the numbers could only be typed by hitting the shift key.
When we got on the plane from London to Chicago, as part of the illogical trip home from Nice to Buffalo , we were happy to see that we had boarded a 747. I told a flight attendant that it was a first, and she said, “Rows and rows.” We sat in Row 52, and there were more people upstairs. That’s one big plane; I still don’t know how it gets off the ground.
And then it came to me: I had watched “The Front Runner,” featuring Simmons, on the way over.
Let’s hope all of the memories on such great trips in the future don’t disappear, but last a lifetime.