“Can you drive zee steek sheeft?”
“Of course I can.”
The question was posed by the Frenchmen from the rent a car place with a cigarette in his mouth in front of two chubby Italians who looked like brothers and were waiting for their car and were also smoking cigarettes. It was a small car rental kiosk in the parking lot of Charles DE Gaulle Airport so the close proximity of the on-lookers was justified although I got the feeling this little crowd of Europeans were there to gaze at my wife, who is very pretty and likes to travel in style.
Everyone spoke some English and they were actually all very nice but my nerves were shot from the red eye and the fact that we were still two hours from our destination and that I actually hadn’t driven stick in ten years and definitely not through the streets of Paris, but away we go!
Driving stick is like riding a bike and I was full of hope after one practice lap around the parking lot and pulled confidently out onto the avenue. Hillary was filming it all on her IPhone and giggling in the passenger seat from lack of sleep and the excitement of finally being on French soil after months of planning. I was grinning with excitement as well and feeling more and more comfortable behind the wheel although the speedometer read in kilometers per hour and I had no idea how fast we were going but I stayed with the traffic and everything was going fine.
Our excitement grew as we headed southwest from Paris into the Loire Valley, the breadbasket of the nation and also one of the premier wine growing regions in France, which means also in the entire world. While perhaps not as famous as Burgundy or Boudreaux, the Loire Valley is a gem with rolling hills and pastures with hay bales that reminded me verbatim of central Texas.
“Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose”
I sang a verse of the one Edith Piaf song I knew and Hillary burst out laughing and tried to sing along. Her French is absolutely atrocious, which in turn made me laugh, but her joy and revelry added to the splendid mood and we actually waved at the next driver we passed and damned if they didn’t wave back!
We had pulled into Tours, the town where we were staying the first two nights and I was back on high alert pretending to read signs in French and Hillary was navigating us nicely to the hotel.
What a charming block our hotel was on! It was a tree lined boulevard bursting with shops less than fifty steps from the town square, which had an elegant courthouse draped with beautiful flags and a stunning, ornate fountain that was jetting streams of water in high arches that danced and dazzled as they cascaded in the evening sun. The town square was actually more of a massive round-a-bout that had a flow and an architecture that added a certain pleasing comfort to the ambience of the town itself. We could hear birds warbling and children playing and smell the vibrant flowers that surrounded the fountain and the air was crisp and full of oxygen and August in France wasn’t hot at all and our hearts leapt in this fairytale dream.
We were also hungry, and the main purpose of this trip was to devour delicious food and guzzle the local wine. And also visit the quaint little towns and experience the culture of the French countryside and explore the mighty chateaus where kings and queens once lived. Of course all those things as well, but now it was time to indulge in a meal.
The morning bells chimed as the sticky dew drafted out the open windows of the hotel room onto the rustling leaves of the trees lining the avenue. Supported from her silky cage she gazed out and proclaimed herself to the world on her birthday.
“Good morning world, today will take us places we really must see.”
As I sipped espressos she combed her hair and powdered her nose and transformed herself into the latest version of Sophia Loren in her lovely hugging off the shoulder dress the color of a sunset.
No sun was seen unfortunately as we drove off to find the vineyards whose names were immortalized as beacons of their voyage. Less than an hour’s drive included Saumur and Chinon, two villages that produced the sweet and bitter fruit that was sought after at the beginning of the journey. Also being sought was a busty, cloudless day of hidden dreams and movie scenes and understanding that life can be lived after.
The cloudy day gave way to sprinkles and we feared our photo set was ruined but were relieved as our bumbling order of a mid-morning tea made way for flaws in the clouds, and lunch was had at a café on the tilted town square with multi-colored umbrellas overhead and the proprietor helping us understand ‘cochon’ with two snorts of his piggy nose. We loved the good humor of this happy man and chalked it up to him living in such a salty, vibrant place but as we looked on, the best part about him became evident in the calm, heartfelt patience of his work. He purposely wanted people to enjoy the comfort of his service, which is why he would joke with a ridiculous twosome of Americans in the first place. What a guy, and all this with a towering chateau and vineyards overhead on the hillside and the abundant Loire River down below.
Chinon was such a quiet place, where we parked beneath the sycamores and timidly advanced into the town. Hillary asked for water once but her French was seen as unintelligible and we wandered on with tortured tongues, happy at the shyness of our speech and Down a humble stone corridor lined with little clean shops with one flying the French flag. One old shop keeper sat on a stool at the entrance to his store to enjoy the polite afternoon sun with an unlit cigar clinched underneath his moustache. I glanced in and noticed bottled water and we went in and he nimbly followed and waited patiently as we discussed if I should buy one of the cigars he had displayed. No no, just the water, I don’t even love cigars I just briefly wanted to imitate this casual, old-fashioned guy.
We ended the afternoon drinking glasses of rose made from local cab franc and watching the serene Vienne and an active round-a-bout that lead to the main bridge out of town. One unsuspecting driver didn’t yield properly and came too close to a bicyclist. “Ta mere!” Just as worthy an insult in France. And the world made perfect sense as we drove back to Tours.
The Loire river is big and broad as it ambles through Tours and on our side of the river just past old town is a towering Ferris wheel and la guinguette, a place to drink, dance and eat. We sat at a table near the band and the bees and cigarette smoke and ate charcuterie and drank Aperol spritzes. No dancing though, we were too content. It was a Friday evening and the locals were all gathered together to kick off their weekend and to see this similarity to America was uplifting after all the little variances we had noticed. People are people and sometimes it takes going far away from home to discern that. After dinner we took a ride on the Ferris wheel and Hillary held on desperately and forbid me from moving or breathing but not from laughing thank goodness. The view from the top was pure and remarkable and we could see the river and the countryside and the church tower and what seemed like the ends of the earth. We laughed and cuddled and kissed as the sun set over our first day in France.
Stay tuned for France part II COMING SOON!