(road trip with the in-laws)
Catch-up time here on the Odyssey, as we attempt to process and distill the last – ahem – two months worth of hijinks into one neat package, suitable for rapid digestion, like a little Extreme Telecommuting power pellet.
I must warn you, however – things are about to get a bit addled heresabouts. Scattered, even. Today’s Odyssey forecast is calling for non-linear flows, unexplained narrative gaps, jarring transitions, and a face-melting pace, possibly not suitable for those with weak stomachs or a predisposition to vertigo. There’s also a strong chance of multiple forays into the downright nonsensical as we blaze a heroic swath through Italy and France with Kristanne’s parents, Calvin & Rosalie…who, frankly, should really have known better by now. More on that later. For now, lace ‘em up, strap ‘em on, and step into that not-at-all foreboding doorway there at the left – it’s time to hop on the Tilt-an-Odyssey with les beaux-parents!
hold on a cotton-picking second – what’s a “beaux-parent”?
“Beaux-parents” is French for “in-laws”, consisting of a belle-mère (beautiful mother/mother-in-law) and a beau-père (beautiful father/father-in-law). The rumors and insinuations that Calvin & Rosalie invented these translations and somehow hornswoggled me into using them are entirely false, by the way. But really how would I, the hornswogglee, even know that? Hmm.
you say it’s your birthday?
One of the things we’ve tried to do during our year abroad is to make each of our birthdays an opportunity to do a little exploring. So, for example, for Kristanne’s birthday, we went to Italy for the Palio d’Asti, a bareback horse race around Asti’s town square contested by representatives of each of the town’s major neighborhoods, complete with festive parades, medieval pageantry, and some glacially-paced meals, the duration of which made us seriously question the premises of the “Slow Food” movement. How does anyone in Italy get anything done when most people appear to spend six hours a day in restaurants growing rakishly attractive facial stubble and waiting for their oft-rumored secondi piatti to arrive?
Note to Self — Probably a good idea to avoid sweeping cultural stereotypes like these. Makes me look kinda shallow and small-minded, even though it’s really fun and stuff.
The actual horse racing at the Palio summed to about 3 minutes of action over the course of three hours in the stands. The real action was listening to the official starter trying to cajole the panicky horses into a successful start with his silvery tongue and soothing tone. “Buoni-buoni-buoni...” he’d whisper over and over in lilting Italian, as he encouraged the courageous-yet-possibly-drunk bareback riders to ease their steeds into line. No doubt, this would have been exactly what those horses needed to calm themselves down, except our would-be horse whisperer was doing his whispering over a 10,000 decibel sound system with dubious origins in Brezhnev-era Soviet Russia and a penchant for feeding back massively at inopportune moments. Then, in response to the predictable false start that ensued, he’d react by angrily firing off what appeared to be a six-inch howitzer, sending everyone human and equine into a topping tizzy, none moreso than the emcee himself, who would indulge himself in an epic bout of top-notch Italian cursing, excoriating the riders, their families, and their presumed children living and as-yet-unborn for their equestrian transgressions, after which everyone seemed to feel much better and ready to try again with a fresh round of buoni-buoni-buonis and a reloaded cannon.
Quinn and I were up next on the Birthday Blitz, so as the end of October drew near, it was the perfect time to lay in parkas, mukluks, sealskin mittens, sterno-powered socks, and a portable diesel generator before heading off to Denmark, Norway, and northern Germany. Timing has never really been my strong suit.
Quinn wanted to hit the original Legoland in Billund, Denmark, for his birthday, so that was first up. It was their last week of the season, something they celebrated by sanding the streets of the Lego Driving School, sending a wee Lego icebreaking barge through the Lego Boat Ride, thawing the mechanized animals on the Lego Safari with a blowtorch, and dispatching crews with pickaxes to chip away at the burgeoning permafrost threatening to submerge Mini Land in an icy tomb. We spent two days exploring the park by sled dog and were happy to make it out with only a mild case of frostbite from that one time I foolishly removed my hand from a glove long enough to eat a corndog. Sir Edmund Hilary, I ain’t.
what’d you do for your birthday? i mean, after you stopped your kvetching?
For my birthday, we decided to engage in a little competitive eating during our overnight crossing of the North Sea from Denmark to Bergen, Norway. The competition, in this case, was not of the traditional hot-dog gorging variety, but more of an endurance test, seeing who could last the longest at the “All the Pickled Fish You Can Eat Before You Yak…Suckah!” Captain’s Table buffet perched in the absolute prow of the lurching ship. Kristanne and the kids made it 10 minutes and I held on for 15 before we all headed back to the relative safety of our closet-sized cabin, tucked our gently moaning selves into bed and hung on until the morning, successfully staving off the last waves of impending nausea. Although not exactly Captains Courageous, we claimed this as a moral victory…Heatons 1, North Sea 0.
That’s a whole lot of back story to get you to our current predicament – Kinsey’s birthday! With the bar already set distressingly high with all these sundry forays into anniversaire awesomeness, we knew we really had to deliver the goods for our big girl’s eighth birthday. Could we somehow combine an Arctic amusement park with a seasick Scandinavian buffet, all punctuated by the odd blast of cannon-fire and cursing from our old buoni-buoni-buddy? Or, should we just cast our hard-won traditions to the winds and try to come up with something new?
It’s hard work recreating the magic of days gone by – just ask Britney Spears or the Tea Party – so we opted for an entirely new approach. Kinsey’s very favorite city in the whole world is Venice, Italy, so with the latest in a seemingly unending string of two-week French school holidays upon us, we lit out for the territory, Italian style.
In our case, “Italian style” translates to a rented Ford S-Max seven-seater stuffed full of in-laws, suitcases, and kids. It’s not exactly Dolce & Gabbana, but it works for us. And, to be fair, I did manage a few runway-quality heel turns as I flounced from gas station restrooms to driver’s seat and back again.
This is not at all meant to damn with faint praise, but one of the nicest things about living in the Rhone-Alpes region of France is how easy it is to get to Italy. Ninety minutes in the car (and 60 euros out of your pocketbook for the 13km/8.1m Frejus tunnel) takes you from G-Town (err, Grenoble) to Turin. That’s less time than it takes to drive from San Francisco to San Jose when the economy’s good and the SUVs are in bloom. Plus, when you get there, you’re not in, well, San Jose. Which is nice, too, though I do believe I possibly made some sort of resolution to eschew cheap shots at broad-brushed targets such as those. Whatever – it’s not like I wrote it down or anything.
when in Rome, do as the…wait – we didn’t go to rome
We started off with twelve days, a full tank of gas, and what turned out to be an optimistic sense of our ability to purchase Italian train tickets. More on that later. Let’s start with the “twelve days” part of the equation. We didn’t really know this before we set out on this adventure, but as it turns out, French kids go to school fewer days than any other industrialized nation. Now, before you break out your best French jokes about the 35-hour work week, Freedom Fries, and/or Jerry Lewis, let me hasten to add that they also go to school more hours than any industrialized nation.
“How,” you may ask, “how are they able to achieve this apparent contradiction in terms? Are they some sort of clever Gallic tricksters, playing cunning games with the very physical terms in which we experience time and space? Will they stop at nothing? What in the name of Jean-Jacques Rousseau are they playing at?”
Well, it’s actually quite a bit simpler than that, though I salute your faith in the time-bending powers of French philosophizing. Turns out, all they do is run the school day super-long (8:30-4:30), take tons of vacations, and don’t stop the school year until early July. Presto change-o, weirdo strange-o, as French philosophers actually rarely say. Oh, and they also take Wednesdays “off” which feels strange at first but ends up being a really nice break in the week. I put the “off” in quotation marks, because for French kids, being “off” means that you spend the day from dawn to way past dusk in a blurred frenzy of all manner of physical activity, stopping only long enough to wolf down fistfuls of chocolate, bread, and Haribo candies before going back for more. Being a French kid is a lot of work, though it also appears to be an awful lot of fun.
dude, it’s gonna take me longer to read about this trip than it took you to live it…
Duly noted, sarcastic headline-writing man. We’re gonna fire this bad boy up a little bit. Cinch up your harnesses. Also, pay no mind to what the neighbors might say when they espy you at the computer wearing a harness. They always suspected you were a bit off.
Our first stop was Genoa, mainly because I have a daughter who loves fish and they have what is reputed to be the “best aquarium in Europe,” though this appears to be one those lightly-considered and easily-bestowed honorifics that any tourist attraction with a website and an unimaginative approach to prospective slogans can throw at the wall and see if it sticks. Hmm. That seems unnecessarily bitter upon re-reading. What’d the Genoa Aquarium ever do to me? Geez. Lighten up, chief.
Putting aside this entertaining conversation between myself for the time being, I should point out that the Genoa Aquarium was actually quite nice, full of fish, as one tends to expect from their aquariums, and not at all a gridlocked mass of teeming humanity squinting at dimly illuminated pectoral fins as, perhaps, the Monaco Aquarium was, a bit later on in our itinerary. But I digress, mainly because, well, that’s what I do, even when I’ve expressly stated that I’m not.
the best exotic morali palace…
Genoa had much more than just its aquarium to sustain its touristical bona fides, including an old town with a tangled warren of pedestrian streets that made for entertaining exploring, numerous lavish palazzi, and pharmacists who, with some help from Kristanne, can diagnose and cure pinkeye in the time it takes me to order sandwiches for lunch. Long story. Let’s just focus on the handsome breakfast room at our hotel you see there, instead, shall we? Best Italian breakfast by way of Bangalore that money can buy.
This was one of the stranger hotels we’ve stayed at. It was a good hotel, it was just…strange. As if someone had taken the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and plopped it down on two floors of a business building in downtown Genoa. The weirdness starts when you arrive at that door at right and it’s, just, locked. You have to buzz the owner, who buzzes you in and instructs you to ferry your goods and selves up to the fifth floor by using the two-person elevator in shifts.
Pay no mind to the nursery school on the first floor, the lawyer’s office on the second, or the seemingly random assortment of people coming and going from other floors. These are all normal hotel things. Also, never mind that the doors to the “hotel” floors are not locked and that your “room key” opens every other room in the “hotel.” These things are all “fine” and “not to be worried about.” Alright then. I’m reassured. I’m also assuming that I’m going to be dispossessed of all my worldly goods, but I’m reassured.
Once you get to your room, it’s time to marvel at the decor. There are murals on the walls, lavish golden headboards for the beds, and layers upon layers of ornate decorations everywhere one turns. An extremely kind Indian family owned and ran the hotel and they’d taken their own more-is-better design aesthetic and implemented it with Italian bric-a-brac. The result was a sort of surreal array of overcooked Italian decor brought to you by Bollywood. I give the Morali Palace an A for effort and would definitely stay there again, just for its pleasing oddness (and great location!).
like cristoforo colombo, i’m straight outta genoa…
There’s really no use for a car in Venice other than as a handy means to lure clusters of “independent parking assistants” looking to make a buck off you as you approach the Tronchetto parking garage, so we opted to just leave it in a parking garage in Genoa and take the train to Venice instead. Smart move, right? Showing our veteran savvy, you might even say? Indeed. Heck, we might even have preserved that reputation had we not managed to pay for the same train tickets three times in the next 72 hours, summarily erasing whatever Rick Stevesian street-cred we might have established over the course of this trip. If you’re wondering how something as awe-inspiringly numb-nutted as this can be accomplished, let me give you the 10 lira summary, even though there’s no such thing as a lira anymore:
- Buy train tickets from Genoa to Venice but as two separate Internet transactions. Why? I can’t really remember. Let’s blame the website. Stupid website.
- Fail to notice that the web form has reset the date from the first transaction so that the return tickets from Venice are now on the wrong date. Pay the non-refundable economy fare.
- Display uncanny savvy on the ride from Genoa to Venice and notice that the return tickets for two of our travelers are on the wrong date. Overact resulting anguish in standard Italianate style with much wailing lament, impressive histrionics, and generalized angst. Earn respect and fear of fellow train passengers.
- Purchase replacement tickets for return trip to Genoa upon arrival in Venice. Once again wisely choose the non-refundable economy rate. Fool me once, shame on me…fool me twice…and, well, it’s probably gonna be pretty easy to do that.
- Enjoy Venice and all its many splendored charms, secure in the ironclad knowledge that the return tickets are safe in hand at a known, scheduled time.
- Fail to realize that it’s someone other than you who knows that scheduled time.
- Show up relaxed and sassy, ready to enjoy a pre-train cappuccino before heading back to Genoa.
Suffer the slow dawning of the painful realization that you’re a complete numbskull and have already missed your train. Tuck tail between legs and purchase tickets…again. Wonder if anyone has ever before paid three times for the same two tickets from Venice back to Genoa.
- Brazenly flout recent experience and purchase the economy fare again, displaying the solid logic of regular lottery players the world over by reasoning that, “Hey, the odds definitely gotta work out for us eventually.” Somehow get away with it and actually make it back to Genoa and our waiting car, resolutely whispering buoni-buoni-buoni to one another the whole time.
So, for those of you keeping score at home, please just stop. I really don’t want to know. And if you’re wondering how we restrained ourselves from methodically bludgeoning one another over the head with guidebooks to restore our lost senses, well, let me just show you our failsafe technique in the accompanying picture.
Good call, Kristanne.
so, other than that, how was the opera, mrs. lincoln?
When you experience a little run of bad luck like this, it’s important to “let bygones be bygones” and “not throw good money after bad,” or, importantly, “stop being such a #$%# idiot.” So, we took those cheery saws to heart and still managed to enjoy Venice in between our train ticket arrival and train ticket departure fiascoes.
This, of course, is not a terribly difficult thing to do, what with it being Venice, and all. With its surpassing fame and occasionally crushing crowds of tourists, Venice can occasionally feel somewhat hackneyed and overdone. But there’s a reason for that – it’s an amazing place that deserves to be seen. Plus, you know, Kinsey really loves it!
My favorite thing to do is simply to walk around the myriad labyrinthine streets, just get lost and find new things as you do. It’s easy to do and always rewarding. The same technique works wonders if you find yourself overdosing on tourist traps and crowds – just walk away. Take a left turn. Take a right turn. Just get off the main roads to the major sites and you’ll soon find peace. Or see the world’s best dressed family fishing trip there in the accompanying photo. Man, that dashing tangerine v-neck sweater is not going to look good covered in fish scales. Actually, who am I kidding – that dude’s Italian. He could probably wear burlap and make it work.
Venice was three days of good food and fun, followed by
an uneventful train ride the aforementioned complete clusterbungle of a return trip to Genoa. I’m putting it behind me now. Breathing easy. Happy spot and such. But, really, what the everloving hell?
maybe try the “breathing easy” thing again?
With Genoa receding in our rear-view mirror, we blazed up the coast to Nice and the Cote d’Azur, leaving our train woes safely behind us. Once we’d safely crossed the border back into France, Rosalie breathed a long sigh of relief and exclaimed, “I’m just glad that’s the last of our train travel for this trip. Trains are supposed to have terrible feng-shui this year.”
Now she tells us.
Our plan was to stay on the French Riviera for a luxurious six days, lounging by the pool in the Provencal sunshine, sniffing the lavender and nibbling on the simple, unpretentious cuisine. We’d rented a gorgeous farmhouse in the hills above Nice, which provided the double benefit of sweet digs and ample opportunities for me to make that, “Hey man, Nice house” joke that everyone loves so much and finds so clever, especially when I repeat it 15 times a day, chuckling gaily every time. God, I’m annoying.
We also planned to log plenty of beach time, taking advantage of the Cote d’Azur’s famous sunshine and ample coastline. Kinsey loves swimming more than just about anything, so the combination of good weather, a private pool, and easy access to miles of beach was just about an unbeatable birthday bonanza for her.
hmm…almost seems like you’re setting something up here…
It was an unbeatable birthday bonanza and it would have all been as-advertised, had we not run into the minor roadblock of endless unseasonable rain, pounding Mediterranean surf, and non-swimming temperatures. But did that stop us? Did we lay down and quit? Did we cry out in lament to the uncaring heavens, wailing, “Why, oh why, mon dieuuuu…whyyyyyyyyyy?”
Well, yeah. We kinda did. After all, we were still in our post-Italianate dramatic place and it was only natural to engage in a little bit of operatic bemoaning. Once we’d roamed the house with the requisite gnashing of teeth and beating of breast, though, it was more or less time to get on with it. So, Polly Get Your Parka On and let’s hit the beach. See how happy we look there in the picture? This is probably even better than it would have been with all that annoying sunshine and people in swimsuits enjoying the sunshine, and the sunshine possibly even giving us annoying sunburns.
Working for you? Feeling better? Yeah, it didn’t really do much for the kids, either, so I abandoned my standard Johnny Cheery-Pants routine in favor of busting out my surefire technique of a few dozen, “Wow, what a Nice beach!” jokes, confident that at last I’d found the key to restoring at least sunny dispositions in the absence of actual sunshine. Shockingly, that didn’t work at first, either. I say “at first” because it did eventually have the unforeseen side effect of unifying the rest of the family in a common cause – driving me into the sea under a hail of lobbed insults and pelted rocks. At this point, even the seagulls were fed up with the Nice jokes. Geez, buoni-buoni, y’all. Take a chill pill or something.
i scream, you scream, we all scream because we’re stuck in a minivan in Vieux nice
Clearly, I needed a way to get back in the good graces of the family. At this point, Rosalie’s transgression of conveniently forgetting the “bad feng shui for trains in 2013″ had been forgotten and her reputation completely rehabilitated. She was now as the driven snow; I had taken her spot as the convenient locus of ire, wrath, and scorn for all problems besetting us, real or imagined. My way out? Ice cream.
Turns out that the Vieille Ville (“Old Town”) of Nice boasts an extremely famous ice cream shop – Fenocchio. Would the family, perhaps, like to pay a visit and sample their wares? Would the family, perhaps, like to stop pelting me with flotsam and jetsam long enough to let me escape the sea and beat a hasty retreat to the vaunted Ford S-Max?
Success! I was granted a temporary stay of aggressions, a momentary ceasefire. A full-on reprieve was conditional upon the delivery of the actual ice cream. With this charter in mind, we fired up the iPhone’s GPS maps and set a course for Old Town Nice.
Old Town districts in Europe are almost universally charming affairs, chock-a-block with attractive shop windows, interesting architecture, and oodles of tortuous, semi-pedestrian (if not outright pedestrian) alleys. I’m not going to call them “roads” or “streets” or even “lanes” because most of them are no wider than a gnat’s whiskers. And gnats don’t even have whiskers, unless they’re, like, radioactive gnats, and those don’t really exist outside of Incredible Hulk comic books. I do believe this qualifies as “digressing.”
There’s usually no way to drive in an Old Town, unless you’re on a scooter or bicycle or happen to have the codes that residents use to lower the various hydraulic bollards that prevent unauthorized access to different alleys. Besides, with the byzantine maze of one-way streets, dead-end streets, and pedestrian-only streets, you usually don’t want to be in a car anywhere near these districts. You usually want to park outside of them and walk in. In fact, you usually have to do this. There are entire middle-class French families living out of cars now permanently parked in Vieux Nice because their residents gave up on trying to find an exit sometime in the late ’70s. The 1870s.
How do I know this? Well, let’s just say that mistakes were made. Let’s just say that an honest attempt to follow our normally infallible iPhone’s suggestions ended in a near international incident. We turned into the Old Town. We turned into the Old Town and once you do that, well, you can’t turn back. The sea of humanity closes behind your car and seals you in, like those clever bushes in the maze of that one Harry Potter movie where he’s searching for the Tri-Wizard Cup, only to end up face to face with Lord Voldemort. Exactly like that. Except with more French people offering helpful advice on how to get the hell outta Vieille Dodge. And instead of meeting Lord Voldemort, well I ended up trying to speak French to a thoroughly unimpressed bollard. In retrospect, I think I might have preferred Voldemort. Perhaps I should explain.
You aren’t going to park anything larger than your own posterior anywhere in Vieux Nice. Once you’re in, you keep going until you’re out. Our iPhones showed an impressive ganglia of spindly alleys running this way and that, but with no information on any of the following:
- Which streets were one-way streets (Answer: All of them)
- Which streets were pedestrian-only streets (Answer: Most of them)
- Which streets were protected by those vexing hydraulic bollards (Answer: I can’t talk about it yet)
- Which streets allowed cars but were set up with bistro tables in such a way as to be impassable to the amply proportioned Ford S-Max without some abrupt meal interruptions for the good citizens of downtown Nice (Answer: Dude, many)
So, with these strategic limitations imposed on our efforts, we sallied forth as best we could by inching from one intersection to the next, brushing our way past the impassive and oblivious passersby. When we reached an intersection, we’d see which alleys were denied to us based on the presence of one-way streets, pedestrian-only streets, dead-end streets, or streets in use for religious services. This strategy not only severely limited our options, but it also got us very lost, very quickly. We did, however, see quite a lot of Vieux Nice that we might not have otherwise. So we had that going for us.
Then, salvation appeared. The iPhone showed what appeared to be a way out. Up that steep pedestrian hill to the church! Now hairpin down the other steep hill towards the sea! Watch out for that bicyclist, those babies, and that gentleman eating dinner in that cafe. Super! Let’s get out of here! Down, down, down, the hill we went, just as you see in the picture below.
Except when we got to the bottom of that hill it didn’t look like this picture, because this picture doesn’t show a construction truck blocking the road. And the exit. These guys were in the middle of excavating a large ditch and were not really interested in moving for me, despite my friendly suggestion that it would be really cool if they did. They suggested I talk to the bollard. This is not a cute expression or some sort of French euphemism for being told to pound sand. No. They wanted me to talk to the bollard. The one blocking the 90 degree turn to the left. So, I did. I talked to the bollard.
I approached cautiously. Never having talked to a bollard before, I wasn’t sure what to do. Did the normal rules of French conversational politesse apply? Was it a man or a woman bollard? Did I need to kiss it on the cheeks? If so, what constitutes bollard cheeks? As you can see, I had some issues here.
“Bonjour, monsieur bollard. Est-ce que je pourrais, err, passer, s’il vous plait?”
(“Hello, Mr. Bollard. Could I pass, please?”)
No response. I chanced a glance at the car where the adults of the family were continuing the Dead Silent Panic technique that had been working so well for all of us since our entry in to the Vieille Ville. Kristanne avoided eye contact, pretending that the iPhone’s map was good for something other than getting us more lost. Rosalie stared blankly ahead, her face a grim death mask behind sunglasses. For their part, the kids remained their calm, savvy, veteran selves – they’d seen way worse than this, plenty of times. Meanwhile, a lone bead of sweat traced an arduous furrow down Calvin’s forehead. “Oh crap,” that bead of sweat said. “He’s talking to the bollard. That can’t be good.”
Then I looked at the construction workers. Those that weren’t doubled over in appreciative laughter were making exaggerated button-pushing gestures with their index fingers. Either that or this was the rude hand gesture that went with the instruction to “Talk To The Bollard.” Since I’d rather be helped than insulted, I chose the former interpretation, found a handy button to push on a post next to the bollard, and waited. After a few seconds, a voice boomed out over what appeared to be the same staticky, feedback-prone sound system used by our friends back at the Palio d’Asti:
“OUI, MRRRSHHHEAUX C’EST ZYYXIEUX BUNGA BUNGA PARCE QUEEGHHZZZ?”
Hmm. This was a puzzler. Based on context, I decided that “bunga bunga” probably meant “bollard.” However, I really didn’t want to get this wrong and have him fire off a cannon at me. So I quite reasonably stated that I would like there to be no more bunga bunga. Pas de bunga bunga, my friend!
“Oui? Je voudrais pas de bunga bunga, s’il vous plait!”
I also figured it wouldn’t hurt to point out that I was lost, clueless, and in need of assistance, so I added a little further identification:
“Je suis Americain!”
There! That oughta do the trick. I turned to flash a quick thumbs-up and a reassuring grin at both the construction workers and the S-Max. The former were now in various stages of hysterics; the latter were starting to assemble their backpacks for what they rightly assumed to be the inevitable trudge out of Vieux Nice and back to some sort of public transportation home.
“PAS DE PASSAGE, MONSIEUR! BOUGE, BOUGE, BOUGE!”
(“No passage, sir. Move, move, move!”)
That part was pretty unmistakable. That bollard wasn’t moving. Not only that, but Kristanne was pretty sure that even if it had moved, it was only going to gain us access to a far worse, far more inextricable situation. Time to consider our options. We were at the very bottom of a steep, one-way hill that was also a functional dead-end because of the giggly excavators. There was not room to turn around. There was not room to go forward or to the sides. We could call ‘er good, give it up and throw down the ole parking brake, join the other car-bound residents of Vieux Nice, but the S-Max just isn’t quite roomy enough for long-term housing for six people. That left just one option — going back up the hill in reverse, with a manual transmission, against the one-way traffic, between the babies, bicycles, and bistros, until we finally found someplace to turn around. Gulp.
Where was Voldemort when I needed him? Geez, that is so like a fictional dark wizard, abandoning me in my time of need. Fortunately, the Ford S-Max comes with a daunting array of sonar buzzers, beepers, and bing-bings that are meant to alert you whenever some part of the car comes in proximity to some part of the world at large that it shouldn’t. A lot of cars in the US have this feature, but unless you live in the city, it’s kind of a pointless luxury. In Europe, where the streets are small (and the parking spots smaller), it comes in real handy more or less every day. So, up the hill we went, beeping and buzzing all the way, trying not to go too fast for safety and not so slow that I stalled the engine. Kristanne did her best to decipher whether the beeps and bings were false positives of people skirting our vehicle as we wrong-wayed our path up the grade or something we were actually going to hit and potentially destroy. At the very top of the hill, we backed around some group of irate soccer fans or a joyous wedding party or possibly just some squirrels (hey, I was under some stress here) before finally slapping it back into 1st gear and resuming our search for an exit, any exit at all, even if it was just a footpath to the wide-open vistas like those in the picture you see there.
This time, the one true path was on our side – after a few fits and starts, a patch of daylight revealed itself, blocked by yet another of those infernal bunga-bungas (err, bollards). Time to resume pleasantries, possibly re-establish negotiations? Or maybe if I just run into it, it’ll break off? How strong could it really be? It was only made out of military-grade metal, after all.
Fortunately for our insurance deductible, we were on the “safe” side of this bollard…all you had to do was drive up to it and it automatically retracted, giving you access to the world at large. Out! We were out! We stopped the car, did laps around it, high-fived strangers, knelt and kissed the grocery store parking lot, and returned the exhortations of the chortling excavators who paused their labor long enough to cheer our success. No more bunga-bunga for us, baby!
so did you ever get Your ice cream?
Thanks a lot, Mr. Buzzkill Headline Writer. No. We didn’t. But the family was so impressed with my successful extrication of the legendary Ford S-Max and its contents from Vieux Nice that they forgave me my previous transgressions and returned me to Persona Grata status. Quinn even started leaping over random fountains, like that one at the Rothschild Gardens you see there at right. As for the rest of us, we headed back to our mountainside farmhouse to collect our bearings and wash down fistfuls of valium with great gulps of quality red wine. I’m kidding. Mostly.
There was more to Nice than just gorgeous coastline, crowded aquariums, charming Provencal villages, and delicious food, though. There were Matisse museums, Picasso museums, and Roman history museums. There was the Rothschild Mansion and Gardens, complete with a delightful lunch and tour for Rosalie’s birthday. And, of course, there was traffic. Lots and lots of traffic.
This is yet another facet of the French “tous ensemble” ethos, where everyone does everything together all the time. If it’s spring break, everyone’s at the beach for exactly the same hours, breaking for the same meal times at the same restaurants and then reconvening the next day to do it all over again. You combine this with stop lights that appear to have been timed by wicked gnomes crouching in potholes and cackling gleefully as you wait five minutes between each light cycle at each block in each square kilometer of the entire country and, well, it ain’t exactly easy getting from Point A to Point Vieille Ville, if you know what I mean. As an American, accustomed to more or less doing what I want when I want it regardless of what others are doing, this took some getting used to when we first arrived. After 10 months here, though, at this point I really do like it. Part of this is because I don’t exactly have a choice in the matter and not liking it would be sort of like choosing mewling insanity when Mr. Sanity was just right over there, wearing some stylish clothes and inviting you to sit down and have an aperitif with him, because, well, it’s 18h30 and it’s certainly too early for dinner. Let’s have a drink and chat a bit, eh? Seem civilized enough?
It does. It is. And it’s a big part of why French people don’t seem to experience marble loss at quite the same rate Americans do when confronted with crowds or lines or nonsensical waits at illogical and inefficient stoplights. They expect it. It’s just part of it and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Especially if you managed to get some tasty ice cream from this awesome place in Vieux Nice before you got into whatever clusterjam you happen to be in.
but did you have a “nice” time…hahahaha! You’re right – that is fun!
Oh, it’s not over yet, Senor Snarky Headline Man. After six days in Nice, we still had to get back to Grenoble, facing that aforementioned traffic along the way. Our plan was to backroad it, taking the time to trace the contours of the Gorges du Verdon along the way. Also known as the “Grand Canyon of Europe” and possibly “That Big Hole in the Ground Over Yonder,” the Gorges du Verdon are not super well-known outside of France, but definitely deserve to be, as you can see for yourself in the picture below.
I’ll go on about this at ill-advised lengths in the next installment when we hit the Canal du Midi and the Ardeche, but the diversity of geography and geology (not to mention the cultural riches) packed into France is absolutely dizzying. Think about, for example, Texas, a state which doesn’t seem like it needs to be quite as big as it actually is to hold the things it does and compare it to France. Mainland France is smaller than the Lone Star State, but yet, well, it’s France, you know?
Now, before the Texans in the audience pull out their poison pens and proceed to light me up, let me hasten to add that I love Texas. I even lived there for a bit and there are plenty of amazing things there. Still, even its most ardent supporters have to admit that the vast swaths of nothingness that seem to constitute most West Texas don’t really need to be there. I mean, how many tumbleweeds and drive-through liquor stores do you really need?
Driving the Gorges of Verdon turned out to be a bit of a nailbiter. Not only were the roads narrow and perched precariously above the canyon, we also seemed to be sharing the road with all manner of different motorcycle and car clubs, which – suprise, surprise – appeared to be doing some group trips all together (tous ensemble forever, baby!).
The motorcyclists, especially, didn’t seem to have the sense of their own mortality that one typically expects from our two-wheeled brethren, exposed to the elements and motoring public at large as they are. Instead of, say, slowing down and riding single-file on the narrow roads skirting the canyon’s edge, their approach was to have the guy at the front of the pack flash his lights and wave his arms wildly whenever he passed a car, presumably so as to warn you that a bunch of motorcyclists were about to be riding way over the center line at speeds they could barely handle and doing it two or three abreast instead of single file. “With you in that totally exposed car like that,” their gestures seemed to say, “I strongly recommend that you slow down from that crazy 18mph you appear to be driving in that Ford S-Max, bro. It’s for your own safety.”
One group, in particular, stood out from the rest, mainly because they featured awe-inspiring multi-spiked helmets that made them appear as if their heads were either the business end of a medieval mace or a dandelion gone to seed – the Disciples of Chaos, as their leather jackets proudly declared. We saw their members so many times over the course of the drive that the kids would start pointing them out. There’s something inherently hilarious about an eight-year old girl excitedly exclaiming, “Look, Dad, it’s another Disciple of Chaos!” or a ten-year old boy wearily sighing, “Man, not the Disciples of Chaos again. Seems like we always see them.” Have I mentioned we’d been in the car a long time?
got any slightly off-color stories to illustrate that last bit?
The exact extent of our car-borne punchiness became more manifest as we eventually exited the Gorges du Verdon and started wending our way through a long river valley, making our way back to the major toll road that would speed us back to Grenoble. As luck would have it, this was the Asse River Valley, and, yes, that is how you pronounce it, thank you very much. The first town we came to had the following name:
Needless to say, this led to easily fifteen minutes of half-stifled guffaws, uncontrolled giggling, and plenty of tasteless jokes. There’s really no good way to pronounce that one, family sanity-wise. If you go for the French pronunciation and drop the “s” in the first word, well, it just sounds exactly like you’re saying “Broad Ass.” Yes, funny, I know. Stop it. Stop it now.
Now, you could also English it up and pronounce the “s”, but then it just sounds like the town is known for manufacturing ass support garments. Not good either. Again, stop it. Yes, I’m talking to you. The next town of “St. Julien d’Asse” didn’t help matters, for what it’s worth, nor did the repeated advertisements for a painting business named “Asscolor.” We had a carful of uncontrollable hysterics for the next 45 minutes, most of which, I hate to admit, came from Kristanne. Seriously. Only Rosalie, the former kindergarten teacher in our midst, managed a consistently stiff upper lip and a no-nonsense, that-is-neither-funny-nor-appropriate disposition. Still, next time, I think we’ll find a different route home.
The rest of the trip back to Grenoble passed in a blur, to the extent that eight hours in a car – even a natty Ford S-Max – can be termed a blur. We piled out of the car, peeled a few Disciples of Chaos off the hood, and headed back into the apartment, ready to plant our collective Broad Ass in a chair that wasn’t rolling. Phew.
what’s up next? And how long are calvin & Rosalie staying, anyway?
I had every intent of covering the rest of Calvin & Rosalie’s six-week stay with this entry, but with this bad boy topping 6700 words, I’m cutting if off here. Calvin & Rosalie are, after all, the parents of the Travelator — their pace produces results that cannot possibly be captured in a single entry. Plus, you know, they’re really fun and stuff.
So, next time out, we’ll take a relaxing boat ride on the Canal du Midi in a boat that practically steers itself and whose next mechanical problem will be its first, explore caves in the Ardeche that require the barest minimum of stair climbing, hit up a couple more Plus Beaux Villages, and maybe even eat some French food without fully understanding what the heck it is. All that and a yacht that is a floating testimony to one man’s love for Led Zeppelin. No, it’s not mine. Yet.
See you next time…on the Odyssey!