Wednesday, May 28, 2008

From Paris to the Midi-Pyrenees

With the idea that the third time is the charm, I shall once again try picking up where I left off on my travelogue posts regarding my trip to France last September.

This post is dedicated to covering some of the nuts and bolts of traveling as well as relating our trip from France to the Midi-Pyrenees where my husband and I stayed for two weeks.

In preparing for our trip we thought long and hard of what we needed to bring with us. At every turn we were exhorted to pack light and so we took that advice to heart. We chose clothes that for the most part we could wash in a sink (blue jeans were the notable exception to that ideal.) We knew we would be in Paris for a week, a few days in Provence and during those times we would not have any access to a Laundromat, nor did we want to. With that in mind, we packed several packets of detergent and before we set out in the morning for sight seeing, we washed our underwear, shirts, et cetera in the sink and hung them to dry on the line over the bathtub.

We took two suitcases with us and two carry on bags. We considered the possibility of one of our suitcases getting lost in transit, we divvied up our clothes with the shorts and short sleeved clothes for the south of France going into the checked bag and the cooler clothes for Paris in the carry on suitcase. The checked bag had our various liquids that are now contraband on board airlines such as shampoo, shaving gel, tooth paste, and laundry detergent. Thankfully, we had no problem with our luggage and our precautionary packing of warm versus cool climate clothes did not prove necessary.

One of our carry on bags was filled with books. Included were guide books, a large Michelin spiral bound map of France, my working manuscript, and a Tess Gerritsen novel. That bag was heavy. Very heavy. Since I was the one who insisted on bringing all those books, I wound up being the one to schlep it around on top of my rollered suitcase while Scott carried the lighter bag with an old and rather clunky laptop. We had the high hopes that we would be able to keep up on our emails and I thought I might be able to blog during the trip similar to other friends of mine.

The hotel we stayed at in Paris, Hotel Dieu (I blogged on that neat historical working hospital/hotel in a previous post) had a wi-fi connection, but we were so exhausted by the time we returned to our room that the most we were able to do was check our email and download pictures off our digital camera. Composing a thoughtful blog post was out of the question. Even posting a small “we are here” post with a picture seemed as if it would be a Labor of Hercules to achieve.

Saturday morning marked a major change in our itinerary. We were leaving Paris, picking up a lease vehicle, stopping at Guédelon in the Burgundy region, driving south to Montauban, going grocery shopping before the stores closed, then check into the villa we were going to stay at for two weeks in Monclar-de-Quercy. We knew it was going to be a full day and that is why we had to start our day at an insane time of the morning. We had a shuttle van scheduled to pick us up in front of the hotel at 06:00 in order to take us to the Paris Orly Airport where we were to pick up our lease vehicle from Renault.

That meant that we had to wake up, take our showers, pack the last items into our suitcases and be outside at insane o’clock all the while without any benefit of any caffeinated beverages. It was brutal, but we survived. My husband and I have gotten so accustomed to our routine of achieving our therapeutic level of caffeine at a slow pace by periodically slurping coffee from a mug near our bed that having to get up without benefit of coffee is brutal and almost torturous. We knew that the hospital cafeteria would not be open at five in the morning, nor was it likely that any of the various cafés nearby would be open at that time on a Saturday morning. So we suffered while stumbling around our hotel room with our eyes barely open.

Our driver arrived shortly after 6 a.m. and it was our first real exchange with a French speaking native that was not fluent in English, and it foreshadowed what was to come for us. He spoke a little English and we spoke a little French. Together, the three of us were able to piece together a conversation. The discussion at first was focused on making sure he understood which gate at the airport we needed to be dropped off. Once he understood we were picking up a car, he asked if we were going to drive around Paris. We laughed, and said no -- that was dangerous. He then laughed and agreed with us. We told him we were on our way to visit the south of his country near Toulouse.

Then, he did something I thought was very kind of him. He wanted us to be aware of the monitors on the auto routes which would issue citations if you drove faster than the posted speed limit. He pointed out the signs and also the cameras in boxes by the side of the road.

Later when he heard that we were from California, he expressed his love for our state because of its beauty. We thought he had visited our state, but he had not. He said he knew it from pictures and he would like to visit one day.

We had other conversations with French people during our trip which had similar results. Using as much French vocabulary to the best of our ability allowed us to have a pleasant if not sophisticated conversation. We felt as if we made positive connections with people from another country, another culture, and another language.

After being dropped off at Orly Airport the first item on our agenda was to find coffee and something to eat. Then we also drew more money out of an automated teller machine (ATM). For those from the United States who have not traveled overseas before, forget any thought you may have of formally exchanging money or using travelers’ checks. ATMs are the way to go because you get Euros at the current exchange rate and depending upon your bank you may or may not have any withdrawal fees associated with the transaction. The only sticking point is that there is generally a maximum amount of money you can withdraw on any day.

Another financial aspect to consider before traveling is to contact your credit card company and alert them to the fact you will be on vacation and will be making quite a bit of charges. This is to avoid them thinking that your card was stolen and freezing your account for fear that there are unauthorized charges being made. Tell them of the dates of your trip and where you are going ahead of time and you should not have to worry about frozen accounts.

European countries also have a security chip embedded in their credit cards which are not in American credit cards. This will sometimes render your credit card transactions as invalid, so you should be aware of this potential. It seemed more likely to be troublesome at petrol stations and having a backup of Euros on hand was important.

In obtaining cars for driving overseas, there are several companies who have lease programs. You actually purchase a brand new vehicle and will sell it back to the company at a guaranteed price at the end of the lease period. The minimum is seventeen days possession of the car, but Renault had a minimum charge of twenty-one days.

My husband worked on these details and had the contract drawn up months in advance with Renault USA for the date, time and place for us to pick up the vehicle. He chose the Renault Megane.

Another driver picked us up from the airport and took us to the Renault facility. Our car was waiting for us. We signed some papers and were given “smart keys” which are about the same size as a credit card but are thick and padded. They have embedded computer chips which activate the car, even if it is not inserted into the ignition slot. To start the car you simply press the “start” button. Those keys also unlock the car whenever you are even near the car which makes it difficult if you are like me and want to just check to see if the trunk is locked. It will not be if you are standing near the car with that smart key in your pocket no matter how many times you punch the lock icon.

Our next goal was to find a station and fill up the car with gazoil, a diesel fuel. Once that was accomplished we set dusted off our Garmin Nuvi GPS and started it up. We had purchased a package for France and was about to discover how it differed from using that electronic toy in the United States.

One thing that we noticed as soon as we left the autoroute was that the accent of the voice in the Garmin garbles the pronunciations of roads and towns in French. It butchered the language – to the point where we would turn and stare at it and say “Wha ?”

At one point we switched the voice’s language to French, but that did not help because then every word was said in an incomprehensible thick accent. We wound up reverting to the familiar American sounding female voice and read the street names whenever a turn was announced.

We also had to play around with the settings to convert to kilometers as well as the time zone we were in rather than our Pacific time zone.

The GPS unit did get us to Guédelon without any trouble and we had a lovely time there. I shall blog about Guédelon another day since it is well worth a post all on its own.

In the meantime, here is a picture from that site to serve as a teaser. Yes, they are building a castle using thirteenth century technology!

We left Guédelon and relied upon the GPS to find the best route to Montauban. The thing is, since we were in a rural area, it did not take us directly back to the autoroute. It took us on a convoluted path going from one rural road to even lesser traveled rural roads that made us start doubting the reliability of the unit. We also were in need of lunch and beginning to get cranky.

We had considered eating lunch at Guédelon for they have a cafeteria there, but alas it had not opened for the day by the time we left even though the stated hours made it appear that it should have been. There were towels draped over the areas where food was supposed to be, so we knew that even if someone stepped up and began puttering around in that kitchen that it would probably still take some time before we had food in hand. So we left Guédelon without eating.

We considered and rejected the idea of stopping at a village for a meal. Many of the small villages in France are economically depressed and if we stopped at a village restaurant for lunch, they would probably want to make sure that we enjoyed our stay. That would likely translate into the two hour lunch as is customary in France. We just did not have that kind of time that day, and did not want to insult anyone -- so we set our sights on the promised fast food restaurants that line the autoroute. Then rural road after rural road, our morning croissants became a distant memory. I then did something desperate and searched for food on the Garmin GPS menu and found a McDonald’s restaurant that was not too far out of our way.

Eating at a McDo’s in France was out of desperation and necessity. It actually was not as bad as I had feared. We had reasonable fast food, and in around twenty minutes we were back on the road again.

We eventually made our way to the autoroute and once on those really smooth roads we seemed to fly through the gorgeous countryside.

Our next big goal for the day was to go grocery shopping. The reason we needed to do that on a Saturday night is that many stores are closed on Sunday in France. If we had not made it to the large E. LeClerc supermarket on Saturday night before they closed, then we would have been dependent upon the small grocery store named 8 à Huit (pronounced wheat-ah-wheat) in Monclar-de-Quercy which is only open for a few hours on Sunday. And never is the store open from eight to eight as the name implies.



There were some things we needed such as toilet paper and laundry detergent that we did not want to pack in our suitcases nor would be readily available at farmers markets.

I had corresponded with Sarah Rule for months prior to our arrival and she was kind enough to alert me to certain things that would otherwise have taken me by surprise. First was that the shopping carts require a Euro coin deposit to release them from a locking mechanism in the parking lot. We made sure that we kept at least one Euro coin at all times. Second was that grocery stores no longer provided shopping bags for your purchases. You are not asked paper or plastic, you are expected to bring your own.

So we packed some cheap flimsy plastic grocery bags from our local store and had them on hand for our shopping trip.

Each step in our journey in France seemed to be passing some kind of milestone that was worthy of celebration.

  1. We made it to Paris. Check.
  2. We made it through Customs without any hassle. Check.
  3. We retrieved our checked bag. Check.
  4. We found our shuttle bus to take us to our hotel. Check.
  5. We enjoyed our week in Paris. Check.
  6. We got our shuttle van to Orly Airport. Check.
  7. Picked up our car. Check. Got petrol. Check.
  8. Found our way to Guédelon. Check.
  9. Found the grocery store in Montauban. Check.
  10. Got our shopping cart and bags. Check.

We were giddy and getting pretty silly at this point in the day, but we felt as if we had accomplished something amazing just by finding our way in a foreign country without having to depend upon tour guides shuttling us from one over touristed spot to another.

Entering the large supermarket was another new adventure. One of the first aisles we went to was the wine aisle. There we became like kids in a candy store and just piled bottle after bottle into the basket. Their selection was almost exclusively French wines and we did not recognize any of the labels since we normally support our local economy and to us that means drinking Sonoma County wines. We rarely drink anything “over the hill” from Napa and treat that as being an import, so we really did not know which wines to choose and wound up picking what looked good. I did insist that we buy at least one bottle of champagne to celebrate our successes thus far. Most of the wine we purchased was a bargain at only about two to three Euros per bottle, but the champagne cost at least twenty Euros. I picked a bottle of Canard-Duchenne because I liked the name.

It was very tasty, and I have seen that label since returning to the States.

We then came upon the produce section and by watching other people realized that you need to hand your bags of fruit and vegetables to a clerk who will weigh it and create a price tag to be slapped on the side. I did not quite understand the subtleties of when it was and was not needed at first. I handed a head of lettuce to her, but she shook her head since it was priced by the unit and not by weight. A couple of other such examples happened until we understood how that system worked.

We felt good that we discovered this on our own and not after being embarrassed by a check out clerk telling us that we had neglected to follow that little step. I am also not so sure if we would have understood that verbal reprobation if it we heard it in rapid fire French and had people standing in our line glaring at us for slowing things down.

It was interesting to see in the meat section some animal products that are not available in the States, namely cheval and pigeon. The cheese aisles were filled with a wide variety of cheeses, but there was no cheddar to be found. That is a British cheese and therefore is not readily found in France. Neither could we find shredded Parmesan, although it was available in the familiar grated form that reminds me of fine sawdust.

We were unfamiliar with the brand names of the various products such as laundry detergent and dish detergent, so we went with the old “this looks good” method of shopping. Scott was determined to cook as many dinners as possible and so we stocked up on a variety of foodstuffs to last us about a week with the idea we would supplement as needed.

I mentioned this before, but it warrants repeat attention: the covers of the tabloid magazines at the checkout stands featured both Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. I felt ill at the sight. I cannot imagine that France does not have its own starlets that are worthy of public attention. Of all the possible American cultural exports the people of France could choose from, why would they want to fixate on those two air headed bimbos?

Once we bagged our groceries and left the store, we packed our trunk, returned the shopping cart in order to retrieve our Euro coin, and headed for Daramousque at Monclar-de-Quercy.

Sarah gave us fabulous directions to find their place and we arrived at around the time that Scott had planned: around 8 o’clock at night. It was a good thing we arrived before it was dark otherwise it would have been difficult to find their driveway.

As it was, we were welcomed by our hosts and shown to the cottage where we would be staying for two weeks. Scott then set out to make dinner. I thought he was planning on spaghetti, salad, and a baguette. Something simple, tasty and quick, but no -- he was in the mood for wild mushroom risotto. As he was knocking around in the kitchen, I unpacked our groceries and suitcases.

Here is the view from the patio of the cottage.

After a year’s worth of planning, we had finally arrived. We would soon be seeing and exploring places that were settings in my novel.
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