captains outrageous

Up on a Plane, at 8mphAfter ten hard-charging, pile-driving, train-feng-shui-ignoring days on the road in Italy and Provence, your Extreme Telecommuters were a well-oiled, performance-tuned, fire-snorting beast of a sightseeing machine. We could knock out a UNESCO site in the morning, blaze through a Plux Beaux Village in the afternoon, and complete a week’s worth of grocery shopping in the 90 seconds before the local Carrefour grocery store closed for the evening, leaving a trail of stunned clerks drooling in slack-jawed amazement in our wake.

With that level of performance at our beck and call, it was a bit of a shame that the whole experience had to be put out to pasture for a week, temporarily mothballed and otherwise back-burnered while the kids went back to “school” and I did my “job.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who will remark on this, but there’s an almost eerie resonance here with the career arc of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Yes, that Michael Jordan. Ah – so you see it, too. Almost Exactly Like ThatYep, it’s almost exactly like that time His Airness abruptly retired from basketball in order to play baseball, doing it when he was at the absolute apex of his career, coming off his third consecutive championship, and still able to dominate legions of would-be contenders effortlessly. As you can see in the picture, there are some strong parallels between Air Jordan in a baseball uniform and, say, Air Calvin & Rosalie taking the kids to the library in Grenoble instead of taking them competitive bodysurfing in Cannes. Fish out of water, all of them.

let’s compare medieval canals to rappers and dis spain in the process

Veni, Vidi, VizilleYou can really only keep Calvin & Rosalie in the garage for so long before the open road beckons and they must once again heed its siren call. This is just a metaphor, by the way – we don’t actually have a garage. Even if we did, I probably wouldn’t put my in-laws in it. Too easy for them to escape. Hah! Cheap in-law jokes are surprisingly fun, though I’m told by the unnamed person leaning over my shoulder and reading this as I write it that that’s the last one I’ll ever make. Thanks for the warning, Kinsey.

Like this, but harder to steer.Next up on the moveable French feast that was  Calvin and Rosalie’s six-week stay with us was the Canal du Midi in Southern France. An engineering marvel of the 17th century, the Canal du Midi gets a little help from its main homie, the Canal de Garonne, to connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. Back in the day of old-school canals, this Two Kanal Krew was an extremely important shipping lane, saving trade vessels bucketloads of time and avoiding Spain altogether, all while “keeping it real” and maintaining impossibly high levels of street credibility – not easy to do when you’re a canal. Spain’s still ticked off about it to this day, referring to it as the “Canal du Hock-Ptoeey” and making little spitting gestures of disdain each time they have occasion to even speak its name. Spain is a wee bit thin-skinned on matters such as these. I think they’re still convinced everyone holds the Inquisition against them. Settle down, Spain.

Backlit and BadassThese days, the Canal du Midi still lets you avoid Spain, though its not really one of its main selling points…not that it’s done much to pacify the cranky, fist-shaking Spaniards who line much of the canal’s length. I’m kidding. No, these days, the point of the Canal is leisurely idling, renting a canal boat and embarking on a lazy, self-catered cruise from Charming French Point A to Possibly Even More Charming French Point B. You can let go the anchor chain at cute, canal-side villages to pick up tasty local wine for the sipping and fresh local bread for the noshing. You can even tie off to the canal’s edge for 40 winks after tying one on with the aforementioned local delights. It’s the indulgent cruising dream, but on an intimate scale, with all the flexibility that being one’s own captain entails.

That’s the dream anyway. The reality, however, includes all of the tetchy details, right on up to the 5,000 hand-cranked locks you must pass through, the necessity of actually driving and docking the boat, and the constant discomfiting threat of the toilet giving up its groaning flush sounds and finally conking out altogether. But I do believe I’m getting ahead of myself.

meet the crack planning squad – planting decision trees since, like, forever

As with any adventure that includes multiple members of Kristanne’s family, we started out with a multi-layered, multi-threaded plan so baffling in its complexity that it would drive most full-grown adults to their knees, palms on their temples, crying out for a copy of Microsoft Project to handle it all. There were conditions and dependencies, checkpoints and milestones, decision trees and eventualities, and, of course, contingencies, failsafes, and backups. Somewhere, the Travelator was smiling.

To be fair, there were a lot of moving parts to this trip, with three separate groups of people coming together on the boat and heading off in different directions after the boat. At different times. To different countries. Here’s the lay of the land as we prepared to set sail:

  • Calvin and Rosalie – The formidable in-laws from San Francisco, on the boat for the duration, a full week from Carnon to Colombiers with all points in between. Headed to Paris afterwards by way of rental car. Wearing matching lime-green jumpsuits with their names emblazoned on the back in rhinestones. I wish.
  • Don and Liz – The salty veterans of previous Canal du Midi adventures, friends of Calvin and Rosalie from the US who were scheduled to meet us at the dock in Carnon before also heading out for the full week…maybe. Also headed to Paris afterwards by way of rental car, but a different rental car, from a different town, riding different roads. Dressed entirely in leather and featuring an artful arrangement of chains. Again, I wish.
  • Quinn, Kinsey, Kristanne, and Sid – The wet-behind-the-ears crew of swabbies, only in it for the weekend. Headed back to Grenoble afterwards, followed by an abrupt sortie to the US for Sid immediately afterwards. Wearing event-appropriate faux sailor uniforms, complete with jaunty caps. Man, if only.

As you can see, this was all sort of like our own version of the Yalta Conference, though I don’t really feel comfortable assigning the Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin roles to the various parties. Let’s just say that I don’t have a mustache and I didn’t occupy Eastern Europe afterwards. That’s right – I’m looking at you, Don.

Our planning started with the cold realization that our faithful pack-mule here in France, the legendary Partner Tepee, only seats five people. Being the crack mathematicians that we are, we quickly ascertained that we had six people to fit into those five spaces, a calculus that could not hold. Faced with a crisis, the Crack Planning Squad of Rosalie, Calvin, and Kristanne vaulted into furious action and devised a clever strategy whereby I would be summarily dispatched on a bus, two trains, a bus, and a half-mile walk to get me from Grenoble to Valence to Montpellier to Carnon to the actual boat. Hmm. Apparently, the Crack Planning Squad didn’t much care for my earlier “patronizing attempts at being funny” and now had it in for me. Uh-oh.

between scylla, charybdis, and the etang de thau

All aboard!When I finally trudged up to the waiting boat, the Crack Planning Squad made halfhearted attempts to conceal their surprise and dismay that I’d actually completed the arduous circuit they’d assigned me. “Oh, it’s you…,” they said in descending tones. “Err, I mean, hey, you’re finally here!” Do not tick off the Crack Planning Squad, man.

Push the katzenjammer and dinger on the fritz.The boat was a furious hive of activity as we stockpiled enough supplies and luggage to sustain the Spanish Armada…not that they would ever deign to actually come to the very canal they so disdained. Once loaded, it was time for us to get the rundown on how to actually operate the boat. This was communicated half in English, half in French, and mostly in gestures like that one you see in the picture at right. Have I mentioned that I’m not very good at math?

This was right about the time where our rosy preconceptions about what our idyllic life on the boat would be like began to sag under the weight of a thousand dire warnings communicated along the lines of, “Never, never, never do <thing x>,” or “Whatever you do, make sure you never turn off <thing y>,” or, my personal favorite, “If you do <thing z>, the boat will sink and you will all perish before you can swim the 10 yards to shore.”

There was a daunting volume of instructions to absorb, with all manner of kitchen, plumbing, electrical, and navigational systems to be covered, with attention paid to topping off fresh water tanks when marina supply was available, attaching shore lines to keep deep cycle batteries charged, and a thorough review of a vast array of toggle switches and geegaws, all handily labeled with French acronyms. We all nodded confidently, with self-assured looks on our faces, secure in the knowledge that surely someone else in the group must know what the heck this jovial fellow was on about. “Piece of gâteau, mate!” we piped up merrily. “Hoist the mizzen and throw the sheets to the wind!”

The French guy chuckled nervously, checked again to make sure we had all signed the liability waivers, and proceeded with the directions to our destination. This didn’t seem like it could be too hard…after all, it was a canal, right? There was presumably only forward and back. Point ‘er down the canal, let ‘er rip, don’t take the turn that sails ‘er to the open sea, and let’s get ‘er done. Maybe we can even find some other situations where we can drop the leading “h” in “her” to imply our unerring can-do spirit and endearing folksiness. That’s why we speak ‘er like that.

Alas, this was where the last vestiges of our shiny boat-borne dream dissolved into so many petrifying rules, regulations, and predictions of imminent doom. “Always stay 10 meters from the banks. Yes, I’m aware the canal is only 15 meters wide. Find a way. Yield the right of way at crossing canals in the following manner. Be aware that crossing canals produce a cross-current that can generate unexpected navigational results. Never boat after sundown. Never drink white wine on an empty stomach or with red meat. Go with rosé instead – it’s much more versatile. Use the following approved marinas. Read the canalside signage as so. Operate the myriad locks in the following manner, with all hands on deck and everyone assigned a job. Lines are made fast using the following knots that I will now demonstrate at triple-speed. When you go under these bridges, you must lie down. Of course I’m serious. Yes, it’s completely normal.”

“The low-speed, hydraulic thrusters are incredibly useful for docking but cannot be used at speeds exceeding 2 knots. They will also unexpectedly fail after Day 1, necessitating a harborside stop for their repair. As recompense, you will enjoy the chance to demonstrate your skills in parallel parking a 35 foot boat without said incredibly useful hydraulic thrusters. There will be an appreciative French audience at hand, sipping the approved rosé. You will bump into things in the process, once again producing unexpected navigational result and possibly some cries of terror (your boat) and anger (other boats).”

“There are timed drawbridges here, here, and here. You must be at these drawbridges by this time or you will not be able to make it to the next marina before nightfall. Do not venture past this drawbridge and onto the Etang de Thau after nightfall. Do not attempt to cross the Etang de Thau without first phoning the harbormaster to verify that the current wind conditions are safe. Do not stray from the center of the Etang de Thau. Do not say the Etang de Thau’s name aloud while crossing the Etang de Thau – refer to instead as The Etang That Must Not Be Named or, if you are a Ted Nugent fan, Wango-Tango. Do not cross the Etang de Thau on an empty stomach, after/during drinking, or without the proper attire. No one under the age of 16 is allowed to drive the boat. No one under the age of 16 must know that the Etang de Thau even exists. I cannot tell you what the Etang is – you must face it alone. Okay, I’ll tell you – it’s like a giant, wind-tossed lake with protected shellfish farms on either side. This is why you must stay in the middle – to protect France’s oysters and mussels…and your lives.”

“At the far end of the Etang de Thau there is an exit onto the Canal du Midi that is 10 meters wide. You must locate this exit or you will beach the boat, requiring an expensive and embarrassing rescue. The exit is not signed. You must feel it. Think of this in the same way Luke did when successfully firing the needle-in-a-haystack photon torpedo that took down the Death Star, except Calvin is not Red Leader One and there is no Han Solo coming to your rescue. Yes, I’m aware that I’m stretching the Star Wars thing. No matter – you, too, must stretch out your feelings and use the force, or you will dwell in the Etang de Thau forever, a signpost to other would-be canal boaters who thought they could just up and get ‘er done. You may not get ‘er done. You may get ‘er sunk. Have a nice trip and we’ll see you in six days…maybe.”

Yeesh. Whatever happened to “Fair winds and following seas, mate!” or something cheery like that? We had apparently signed up for the canal boating equivalent of sailing around Cape Horn. The hardtack and grog better be good, because we were all coming home with scurvy and hooks for hands, for sure.

dude, it’s a canal, not the river styx

Suitably chastened and wearing identical “What the hell did we just get ourselves into?” looks, we fired up the hydraulic thrusters for what would prove to be the last time for several days, and eased out of our berth into the godforsaken, maritime hellhole that is the Canal du Midi.

Kinsey staring canal-borne death in the face!Hmm. Wait a second. No slithery sea monsters or gap-mawed killer whales. No treacherous rip currents or cavernous whirlpools. No six foot seas and sleeper waves. Kids leisurely lounging in sun on deck, oblivious to any impending doom. Yo, Stalin and Churchill, let’s crack open that box of wine and pass the hors d’oeuvres…this ain’t half bad!

Heyyyyy, buddy!The anxiety we’d all been feeling after the grim tidings and ominous portent of our canal boat training began to recede in our wake. Who had time for that now? We were on a boat and the living was easy! With sun on our backs and wind in our hair, we pointed the boat down the canal, bound for the scenic medieval town of Aigues-Mortes (“Dead Eggs”…ok, ok: “Dead Waters”), where we would dock for the evening with plenty of time to partake of the local scenery and cuisine. The kids gamboled around the boat, the adults relaxed in deck chairs with glasses of wine, and Holy Horatio Hornblower, who’s driving the everloving boat?

Why, that would be none other than Rosalie, merrily weaving her carefree way from one side of the canal to the other, a delightfully s-shaped wake trailing behind her. With one hand on the wheel and the other on her wine, the nautical miles slipped behind us, much to the abject horror of shorebound onlookers. Or at least they did until a hastily-arranged mutiny took place, relieving Rosalie of her duties and confining her to her deck chair for the remainder of the proceedings. As a civil gesture, we did, however, allow her to keep her wine, which seemed to preserve some semblance of happiness, as you can see in the photo below.

Step away from the wheel, Ama.

Step away from the wheel, Ama.

With Rosalie banned from the pilot’s chair, who else was going to drive the boat? We needed someone with their wits about them, someone who was quick in a pinch, with reliable reflexes and a solid grasp of the maritime code. Someone who was neither Stalin, Churchill, nor Roosevelt, in other words. That’s right:

 have fun storming the castle!

Aigues-Mortes, Here We ComeWith our navigational needs covered, we headed on to Aigues-Mortes, it’s stolid guard tower already appearing in the distance. Aigues-Mortes is a delightfully well-preserved medieval village in the Petite Camargue area of southern France, with fully-intact city walls and an old town full of narrow alleys that reward exploration. Adding to the sensation of timelessness was the abundance of passersby garbed in period costume and speaking in charmingly dated vernacular. (“By my troth, m’lady, I swear I shall crush his skull ere the cock crows!”) There were damsels in full gowns, knights in chainmail and plate armor, most of which was quite realistically dented, and every 100 meters or so, some of these guys were engaged in fantastic battle royales, complete with much hacking, thrusting, parrying, grunting, and bleeding…great gott im himmel, what the everloving hell is going on here?

They really mean it, dude.As it turned out this frightfully realistic version of standard Renaissance Faire activities was actually the ‘World Championships’ of Medieval Combat. No, I’m not kidding, though I kinda wish I were. From the event brochure:


  • “This week, the worlds of role-playing, live-action role-playing, cosplay and military re-enactment will collide in France at the first ever Battle of the Nations, a ‘world championship’ for medieval combat.”

I have no idea what the heck “cosplay” is, but it doesn’t like something your average, upstanding adult should be doing, now, does it? Now, throw in this little tidbit from a revelatory New York Times piece describing the event:

  • The American team will be taking a support team of over 50 people, including a “psychologist specializing in head trauma, cooks, armorers, knight marshals, squires and a masseuse”.

Mind the vats of boiling oil....So, in other words, we’d picked the one weekend out of the year when Aigues-Mortes was full of people for whom a standard Renaissance Faire wasn’t quite weird enough and who wanted to add to the verisimilitude by hacking one another with blunted medieval weapons.

This was going to be awesome!

First, however, we had to park the boat. The faithful hordes who’d come to cheer on the masters of medieval combat also seemed to have exhausted the available parking spots (“slips” or “berths” in boat talk, I’m told). And, with the hydraulic thrusters already having gone on their own version of the classic French grève (strike), we were also going to have to do our parking without the aid of any instantaneous right-to-left corrections, something that’s very nice to have when you’re not, say, the most veteran of boat handlers. After gently dissuading Rosalie’s careening attempts to grab the wheel and “park ‘er up,” as she said, our first attempt to back into an open spot was met with much screaming and arm-waving from a generously-lunged gent on the opposite side of the canal. We weren’t quite sure what he was on about, but he had an insistence that made him difficult to ignore. So, rather than listen to him yell at us for the duration of our stay, a task which he seemed perfectly capable of performing, we opted to demur on the spot and search up another.

Look out, Moby DickAnd that’s when we saw ‘er….the mighty Led Zeppelin yacht. There she perched, queen of her slip, a testimony to one man’s love for all things Zep. This was a defiant statement of purpose, a physical manifestation of devotion to rock. And it was awesome.


The boat was covered stem to stern with intricate custom paintings depicting different aspects of the Led Zeppelin legend, including:

  • The famous logos for each band member from the Zoso cover (Led Zeppelin IV, natch)
  • The Hindenburg image from the Led Zeppelin I cover.
  • The stylized “Led Zeppelin” font logo on the rear of the flying bridge.
  • Mechanized scale models of the entire band performing the spacy part of the Whole Lotta Love jam, resin-coated, and permanently affixed to the flying bridge. Ok, not that one, but you have to admit, that would be pretty cool.
  • The actual pièce de résistance (French for “piece of resistance”) was an imaginative depiction of what can only be the “Stairway to Heaven,” as seen below.
There's a lady who's sure...

There’s a lady who’s sure…

Guess you knew where you were tying up for the night, eh?

So, yeah, there was no doubt where we were tying up for the night after we saw that bad-boy! We knew who we were partying with that night in Aigues-Mortes, for dang sure! And that’s when I remembered that I’m 45 years old, on a boat with my family, my in-laws, and another elderly couple and, frankly, should really be a bit more mature about the whole thing. “But dude!” my inner rocker said. “It’s the Zeppelin boat!”  And that’s when Kristanne tranquilized my inner rocker with a sharp crack to the skull with the Michelin Guide. Man. Hadn’t felt that in a while, but it still stings just like it used to. Point taken, Kristanne…point taken.

sitting on the dock of the bay, watching americans crash into it

There’s a definite trick to docking boats. I’ve watched it before, so I know it involves approaching at some sort of gentle angle and then violently slapping the transmission into reverse as you wildly spin the wheel in the opposite direction, allowing the stern of the boat to whack into the dock nudge into position. I mean, that’s one possible interpretation of it, anyway. The hydraulic thrusters make this task infinitely easier by firing out bursts of water from the sides of the boat that ease it this way or that without having to reverse the wheel and goose the engine. Alas, our hydraulic thrusters were still enjoying their little grève and were no doubt off sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes while sticking it to the man with “Power to the People” chants, even though they aren’t even people. Just like a socialist boat appliance, I tell you.

Marine Recovery SquadSo, it was back to Plan B, with the violent spins and transmission clunkage. First up, we stationed the kids on deck with nets to recover any flotsam that might spontaneously eject during our little docking procedure, up to and including stray grandparents. Then, we stationed various people at various spots along the rail of the boat, each of them with wildly conflicting ideas about what to do and when to do it. To improve our chances of a successful landing, as we neared the dock, we each began shouting contradictory instructions to one another in increasingly panicky tones. This is known in behavioral psychology circles as the “more is more” approach, the idea being that if you have more sensory input during a time of heightened anxiety, you have more options from which to choose, and, hell, one of them might be right. To be fair, it doesn’t really matter that much, since because everyone is shouting, no one is listening, and the kids just sit there, nets at the ready, increasingly convinced that they’re going to be fishing their grandparents out of the drink at any moment.

At this point, our angle of approach was fixed. With about eight meters to go before we reached both the dock and the boat moored ahead of us, I threw the engine in reverse and spun the wheel. As for those on the guardrail, at least two threw various lines towards the dock, shoveling every rope they could find in that general direction. Even if the ropes had made it all the way to the dock, there was no one there to catch them, so it would have taken a rodeo quality toss to hit a cleat which, needless to say, we weren’t quite up to. Then, as the gap narrowed, two others in our party essayed dockwards leaps that might best be described as “ill-considered” given their advancing age, the still-considerable gap, and the possible consequences of, err, missing. For her part, Kristanne remained firmly entrenched above decks, adding her own feverish counsel to the general cacophony while simultaneously preparing the kids for the rescue efforts that were doubtless soon to follow. Purposefully grim looks firmly in place, the kids took off their hats and stripped down to their swimsuits.

I want cake now!

I want cake now!

Unbelievably, our leapers somehow found dock instead of water and made quick work of securing the boat to the dock. Muffled applause, possibly ironic in nature, issued from the Led Zeppelin boat, filling my heart with pride. We did it! We really did it! The kids stood down from their Defcon 4 stance and changed out of their neoprene Farmer John wetsuits and back into shoreside clothes. Time for a leisurely exploration of Aigues-Mortes, hopefully with blunted broadswords in hand. There’s Stalin in that picture at left, providing us with his usual brand of gentle encouragement, no doubt saying something reassuring and supportive, such as “Come, let us sally forth and make the most of this cheery day!” or “I can’t wait to see this delightful French village!” or, perhaps, “Shake the lead out and hit the bricks so we can see how the French try to cheat us this time.” Stalin did not always have the most open-minded of stances for his travel, come to think of it. To be fair, I’m not sure one should expect much different from the guy who invented the Iron Curtain.

As it turned out, the leather-lunged fellow from across the canal turned out to be the harbormaster, a friendly fellow who charged us the nominal fee for our berth and set us on our way with a restaurant recommendation and his best wishes. Stalin, naturally, assumed that this was the French guy’s attempt at cheating us and we were suckers to have even given him the time of day, concluding the episode by attempting to push him into the canal. Good times. Good times. Calvin bailed us out of a potentially sticky situation with a quick, “Let’s git ‘er paid,” slapping our moorage fee in the feller’s nearly-offended hands and getting us on to Aigues-Mortes. Calvin had really asborbed the whole ‘er thing more readily than any of the rest of our crew.

a convenient time to point out that french people are actually really nice?

So, I don’t really know where it all got started, this rotten reputation the French have with, oh, the rest of the world as being snobby, supercilious, and peevish, but after a year here, I must say that it runs absolutely counter to nearly every experience we’ve had. Perhaps this stereotypical French attitude is something that’s more associated with Paris and the other major tourist destinations, where dealing with non-French-speaking visitors is a frequent occurrence, and ignorant buffoons in khaki shorts, golf shirts, and baseball caps clamber past the line in the local boulangerie and loudly declare that they’d like “one of them croy-sawnts, toot sweet”, finishing with an exhortation to “git ‘er baked”, irritating everyone in their presence in the process. Now, first off, I realize that stereotype is equally as reductive and ill-informed as those I described the rest of the world holding about the French and, secondly, I only did that, like, once. Also, I stopped wearing baseball caps here.

In all seriousness, it just boils down to the stuff you learned in kindergarten. Treat people with kindness and respect. It’s okay not to know the customs and language, but that all goes over so much better with others if they see you approaching situations with an open mind, a generous spirit, and a bit of warmth and humility. It doesn’t always work, but it definitely works better than arrogance and condescension and an assumption that all the people in a given country are conniving jerks who hate Americans and are actively trying to cheat you (unless you’re in Italy, where that last part is actually true, only they absolutely do not mean it personally and it’s really more of a sign of acceptance of you as part of their own…I think). We’re coming away from our year here with an amazement at how kind and helpful French people have been, here in Grenoble, there in Paris, and everywhere in between. Except for that one guy who stole my parking spot in the Carrefour lot. He can suck oeufs.

so is this, like, your new thing, wringing 6,000 words out of a weekend trip?

We had an enjoyable evening in Aigues-Mortes, dodging assaults from various medieval combatants, including our waitress, who was deadly with a rusty bottle cap…not to mention a rusty memory for what you ordered. Stalin insulted a few ice-cream vendors on the way home, and then it was bedtime…time for the eight of us to contort ourselves into our allotted .75 square meters of space and sail off to neverland in our dreams, secure in the knowledge that each of us would be waking up 15-20 times in the next six hours before we all gave up the charade and finally made some coffee. Aw, the idyllic pace and restful experience of the boating life.

For our family, all that was left was an uneventful return voyage to Carnon. There, a negotiator was hastily arranged to pacify the striking thrusters (turned out to be a hidden switch had been flipped in Stalin’s cabin…I suspect some sort of putsch, possibly the KGB), and the other four fellow travelers set out for the rest of their six day cruise, including the long-dreaded crossing of the Etang de Thau. Nothing is guaranteed on a canal boat, so as part of our farewells, we shed some tears, offered some benedictions, and sang a few rounds of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” before being advised that “that’s not helping, Sid.” Fair enough. For his part, Stalin assumed control of Poland.

in which the decision tree Begins to sag under its own weight, possibly crushing sid

The Crack Planning Squad (C.P.S.) was beginning to drive me to a newfound crack habit. Hey, I heard good things. The upshot this time was that I apparently had to fly to the US for a somewhat surreal four day business trip. Yes, it absolutely bears repeating – don’t tick the C.P.S. off. I was tasked with a late return flight Friday, after which I would meet the family in Geneva, and then drive out the next morning to meet the presumably-safe-from-the-Etang Calvin and Rosalie plus Stalin-and-Wife for a weekend of caves, Plus Beaux Villages, and questionable cuisine in the Ardeche. And crack. Lots of crack.

Good EatsIt was bizarre being in the US after 10 months away, but also quite boring since it was all for work, so I’m going to skip all of that and just show you the picture of my sweet “nesting suitcase” setup. On the way over, I paid the extra baggage fee and loaded two 50 pounders full of assorted bric-a-brac and whatchyahoosits that we no longer needed in G-Town but still wanted back in the States. I emptied both in Calvin & Rosalie’s condo in San Francisco (with their permission…I think) and then “nested” the two together to avoid the extra luggage fee on the way back. Into the suitcase went the few clothes I brought and some bare essentials from the US – refried beans and mac-n-cheese, natch. Genius, I tell you!

so, did calvin and rosalie survive the etang de thau?

Defying the Vegas odds and the epic rainstorms, we successfully managed to rendezvous with Calvin and Rosalie at the Aven d’Orgnac, an excellent cave site in the Ardèche countryside (pictured below). We’d already reserved rooms at a tidy auberge so it was just a matter of rolling up to the appointed location within the time window designated by the C.P.S., and we were good to go. This was all child’s-play for the C.P.S. and went off without a hitch, save for one detail. Where were Stalin-and-Wife?

ambiance-grotteAs it turned out, the Etang de Thau was not without its victims. Though they’d safely made the crossing, successfully ascertaining that the wind conditions were favorable and making the needle in a haystack shot onto the Canal du Midi, the process had come at some cost to their collective sanity, and a certain amount of post-traumatic canal disorder had set in. This was no doubt exacerbated somewhat by the endless leaping on and off of the boat to negotiate locks and was probably sent careering over the ledge when the toilet broke. Ah, canal boats…so romantic. So, in the end, Stalin went AWOL, defecting with his wife on Day 4 and opting for the rental car to Paris, where he no doubt collectivized the peasants and possibly held a few purges. I am possibly carrying this comparison a tad too far. For their part, Rosalie and Calvin sailed heroically onwards, undeterred by balky thrusters, absent toilets, or direct orders from concerned harbormasters, successfully reaching their intended destination and at long last kneeling on terra firma once again.

dude, this is getting really long…can you, like, give me the digest version?

I totally agree, Mr. Snarky Headline Writer. Let’s move on to the Technical Writer’s faithful pal, ye olde bulleted list for a quick summary of our final weekend together with Calvin and Rosalie before they concluded their epic six-week stay and returned home to San Francisco. The C.P.S.had concocted a plan that set the Extreme Telecommuting throttle at “blur” for the next two days, including the following high points in the exceedingly gorgeous Ardèche département:

  • Cavemanning It UpAven d’Orgnac. This gorgeous cave features a seductive pace, where you are slowly led down staircase after staircase, through antechamber after antechamber, until you finally arrive at the biggest chamber of all, except it’s completely in the dark. Then, the dance music cranks up, the lasers fire, and a DJ-worthy sound-and-light show takes place as the entire depth of the chamber is slowly revealed, leaving everyone feeling slightly woozy once it’s finished.



  • Kinsey KarnivoreA delicious meal at our auberge, complete with local wine, and a steak that is possibly illegal for an eight-year-old girl to order in most countries.



  • A whopping THREE Plus Beaux Villages (Aigueze, Balazuc, and Vogüé), at least one of which featured a really creepy mannequin for sale at a community garage sale. Here’s a quick album of Plus Beauxdom for you. I’m a sucker for these charming, well-preserved country French villages with awesome food. Yeah, I know – I’m crazy like that. The kids, incidentally, do not quite share my affinity, dissolving into a frothing rage at the mere mention of the words “plus beaux.” They’ll thank me later, as other parents may have said at some other point in parenting history.
  •  A preternaturally scenic drive through the absolutely sublime Gorges de l’Ardeche, as shown in the array of photos below. I hate to beat a dead horse – aw, who am I kidding…I  LOVE to beat dead horses! Kick sleeping dogs, too! – but France’s diversity of topography and richness of experience is nigh on mind-bending. Incidentally, I was roundly mocked during a recent car trip for using that “diversity of topography” construction in casual conversation with the kids yesterday, both by the kids and their – ahem – mother. That’s why I’m putting it here now. If you have any sleeping dogs or dead horses laying around, you might want to hide them. Take that, Crack Planning Squad!
  • More speleological wonders, including La Grotte de la Madeleine and a museum for La Grotte Chauvet. The Madeleine cave was remarkable for its position on the canyon wall of the Ardeche river, as well as for the impressive performance put on by Calvin and Rosalie in their tireless ascent of hundreds of wet, steep stairs. Me, I just took the elevator. You can’t actually visit the Grotte Chauvet, but it’s incredibly interesting. Its entrance sits just 300 meters from a heavily visited tourist site (the Pont d’Arc natural stone bridge over the Ardèche River), yet it wasn’t discovered until December 18, 1994. It has an impressive array of prehistoric cave paintings that scientists believe date back 30,000 years ago, which is incidentally right around the time the first decision tree was planted. My geology is shaky, but I think this is informally known as the PainInTheAssic Period. The museum was well-done, but an even grander one is in the works, including recreations of the cave paintings. Werner Herzog, of all people, was able to film in the cave, and released Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 2010, documenting the discovery of the cave and the treasures within. Interesting stuff. Seriously! If that’s all too highbrow, here’s Quinn’s impression of a caveman from the Madeleine cave.

Quinn Is An Apeman

  • The latest entry in my personal diary of odd French cuisine – caillette. At this point in the game, having been bitten by any number of tripe-wrapped sausages over the past several months, you’d think I’d go ahead and run Google Translate before ordering a local delicacy, no questions asked. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. On the plus side, not only was this delicious, but I’m pretty sure the name was mostly a euphemism, like “Elephant Ears” at the fair or “Sheep Testicles” in Montana. Let’s just go with that, eh?

 bringing it all back home

Too soon, the weekend was drawing to a close and our two roads diverged in a lovely Ardèche. Calvin and Rosalie had a leisurely drive ahead of them, full of Plus Beaux Villages (presumably sans enraged children) and French countryside hotels, before they would eventually arrive in Paris and head back to San Francisco. For our part, we had to get back to Grenoble. Why? Because the C.P.S.decreed that it must be so. Also, because that’s where we live and things like jobs and school occasionally intrude on our Gallic idyll.

We felt incredibly lucky to have as much time with Ama and Poppie as we did. We packed a whole lot of fun into their six weeks and can’t wait to see them again. Thanks for coming, Calvin and Rosalie!

With Calvin and Rosalie safely back in San Francisco, we began to cast an uneasy eye at our own French finish line, fast approaching at the end of July. We may have to put a momentary pause on the catch-up and talk about some of the things going on as we wind down our stay here…an experience for which the word “bittersweet” seems purpose-built.

See you next time…on the Odyssey!

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