Robert Frost

The best way out is always through.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Day Three-The Loire: Descartes, Angles Sur L'Anglin

Here's our gite:

Well the next morning we awoke (truly, I awoke, I was typically the early riser during our trip-no most definitely not the norm) around 9:30am. So well rested and ready for a day at leisure. I walked into the dark bathroom and ---no lights. Panic. I knew it had been stormy as we drove in the night before but I had not even considered electricity loss, and I live in the country in Texas where when we have a storm I gather our candles, matches, and flashlights. Then I gave out a prayer of thanks to the Lord because as tired and weather worn as we were, with no phone in the farmhouse and no cell phones, we could have been stuck in complete dark in the middle of the night--yeah, I think the Lord knew I would have lost it and He was probably more concerned for my family, so I thanked the Lord for their sake.

So what did I do? Well, I stirred David awake, of course. "David you need to fix the electricity." I said ever so soothingly. "What?", David answered groggily. "Uh, yeah, we have no electricity and I guess that's fine for now but nighttime will come again, plus, I need to do my hair (I should have said most importantly)." So my sweet handyman and jack of all trades woke up, stumbled around downstairs and found the correct breaker switch and voila, we were set. Yeah, honestly, I was set and could curl my hair.

Now, the girls slowly roused and got themselves ready because we not only had to find a phone to let the owners/manager know our ordeal and see if they could check stuff out while we were gone, but we also had to find food and I had researched a local market in Descartes about 20 minutes from us.

This drive was beautiful. Rolling hills, fresh greenness from after the night's rain, neatly situated villages. I mean, yeah, I know trees are trees, and roads are roads, but their everyday scenery is still plotted differently than our central Texas dry landscapes in June. Now, I cringe at this point because in Descartes the fullness of a small French village was everywhere with the weekly Sunday market taking over the center of town and in full swing, but I, being so caught up in taking it in and finding the food carts for our takeaway lunch, shamefully didn't take a single picture. Argh. The market struck me as a blend of old time produce, spices, and artisan stalls and flea market tacky. Just right. The morning was damp, threatening rain, people milled about and chatted aplenty, and at the end of the road we found the food stalls the gite owners had described to me online.

Two boisterous men cooked away in the trailer booth, and took orders while chatting with customers. I was touched with a tourist's hesitation, but alas, as the one French speaker of my group, gathering the goodies was up to me. Now, don't get me wrong, David became excellent at the art of deducing what was being communicated (especially where food was concerned) but this direct person to person interaction in France was up to me. And in Descartes I got not one, two or three, but four opportunities to butcher the language of love. This first opportunity was the easiest, as the vendors were flirty and completely helpful as I ordered the Paella (being cooked oh so dramatically in a paella pan about three feet in diameter), and pasta (yeah, it wasn't lost on me that the two items being sold were not of Frenchy origins). At this point David noticed the large rotisserie chickens coming to peak gold while their rich drippings were falling on peeled small potatoes at the bottom of the rotisserie. Yum. But we already had all we could fit at the bottom of Sophia's stroller and our eyes where bigger than our tummies because we had not had our breadfast.

As we headed to the small Descartes town square where had noticed two bakeries (patisseries) on our way in, I noticed a fact of French life. To find the best town bakeries watch the locals. And in this instance it was right on, as one bakery had nary a visitor and the other had a small line out the door. We made our way into the patisserie and I ordered with a little more confidence. Sara, being a little adventurous, saw a picture pretty pastry that we had to get. We found a local cafe/bar and got our space surrounded by locals.

Again we were breakfasting late, 11ish, but all around us we noticed groups of primarily 50-60ish year old French men "gossiping" and sipping wine and various colorful cocktails in much the same way the old country boys in our boonies town sit around the Dairy Queen, coffee in hand and chew the fat. Our waitress came over and David actually ordered his own drink and I did swimmingly until I hit the language wall of our trip by ordering an apple juice.

In France juice is "jus" and the type is "jus de____ " (juice of _____ ). Well we had already ordered jus d'orange (yes, orange juice, very good) now we came to the stalemate of jus de pomme (juice of apple, you would think). We had seen and purchased this very "jus" in two instances already. She stared at me blankly. "Jus de pomme," I said. She was even more puzzled and slightly annoyed. I pointed at Anna "Jus d'orange por elle" (orange juice for her) and then at Sara "Et jus de pomme por elle" (and apple juice for her). The waitress just shook her head and said,"non, non, non." No, at what, I wondered. David was looking slightly embarrassed and then she motioned over the supposedly English speaking bartender and grabbed the attention of the bar customers around us. Oh, goody, the dark headed Hispanic woman sitting in the midst of her very blond German-looking family didn't stand out enough. Now I have to show everyone I don't know what I am talking about. The 30-something bartender looked kindly and again in heavy accented English asked what we were ordering. So first I tried in French and again the jus de pomme was the stumper. So I then repeated the order in well pronounced English and even acted out the eating of the "pomme". Yes, everyone, I am a tourist, butchering your language and now a loud American. "Sara, do you have to have apple juice?" I asked. "Well, I guess not." Sara said with a look on her face like she was losing hope of the very thing that was going to help her keep it together for the day. Of course, the bartender answered with a less bewildered "non" than the waitress and I just ordered "une carafe d'eau" (jug of tap water) for Sara.

All we could assume from the frustrated exchange was that just as the orange juice is always served at bars and most cafes fresh squeezed that they were troubled by us expecting a fresh squeezed glass of apple juice? Who knew. But I soon promised Sara that we would purchase a six pack of her favorite apple juice, just for her, the next time we spotted it and that set her to rights. Good timing, because she then took a healthy bite of artistic bonbon and quickly spit it out. And this normally was not an acceptable reaction but once David took a taste of the disgusting sweet, he cringed and then understood the flavor. "Uh, Jenny, that isn't honey coating the fruit and cake. This whole thing is soaked in rum. Lots of rum." Poor Sara. And then we all had a good laugh.

Understand that yes, of our crew, Sara would even confess to being the pickiest. But on this trip as with most, we had discussed with both the older girls that food was going to being an adventure (um, challenge) too. We told them that they should never react in disgust, complain if what they ordered was not what they had imagined, pout, cry, cringe, or utter phrases like gross, yuck, ugh, or nasty. And they graciously complied knowing that if instead they took a bite, proclaimed "it is not my favorite" then we would compromise, switch dishes, let them just eat dessert or find some fast food if possible. This actually worked out wonderfully. They would actually be game to try new things because they knew that if it didn't work out they would get something more acceptable. Typically though, they would end up liking what they ordered enough to satisfy them and only twice in 14 days did we succumb to fast food. Victory indeed.

After our makeshift breakfast, we paid up, and drove out from Descartes to the local grocery store for more provisions. Sophia was loving the juices, milk was a necessity and of course we stocked up on Sara's apple juice. We had some fun seeing the differences in what foods are staples, what flavor differences there are in potato chips found in France versus US....Potato chips ala Bolognese (meat flavored tomato sauce), shrimp flavor, anyone? Again, fumbled our way through the check out and I had to pay extra for our plastic bags. Ah, France.

Once back in Preuilly I attempted to contact the gite managers (Terry and Maureen) and had unreal trouble putting together the right number codes from the phone card I had purchased in Versailles. See most all the public phones (and there are almost as scarce as our US phone booths) do not take coins but use a phone card system. And my phone card had its helpful instructions in French jargon that I was not acquainted with. Finally I did get an answer but, whoever it was went off the phone to fetch Terri or Maureen and forgot about me on the phone. I waited about five minutes, yes, five minutes is long when your in a tiny dirty uriney smelling phone booth in the middle of village Preuilly. I then called the owners, who live in London, and they promised to get us some help and again were very polite and understanding.

My final call was going to shape up our day and hopefully perk us all up. While researching the area we were going to call home I came upon a sweet blog that was a lot of help in my planning: Days on the Claise. Susan and Simon are Australians who blog daily in such picture filled detail about their home renovation in Preuilly and day to day observations on small town France that you feel as if you are there. And when I found their site in April and left a question-filled comment, Susan so sweetly answered back' and offered such helpful information on the area that I wrote back to her more than once and we eventually had hopes to meet once we arrived in Preuilly. But each number I tried wouldn't go through, or even more oddly it would ring, stop and silence. I felt Iwas losing the fight against the French phone system. There was no other way for us to contact our hoped-to-be new friends. I gave up knowing we would try again that night yet knowing this was the one day that had worked out for all parties concerned over e-mail.

Though oh, so glad to be in central France the weather was a bit gloomy, so we went back to the gite for me to build my excitement in doing laundry in the tiniest washing machine I had ever seen, lunch, rest and pin down what we wanted to do next. We knew that the next day we were going to drive some 5 hours to Normandy (North coast of France) and have an early and long day. So we decided to tour some castle ruins in a nearby medieval village: Angles-sur-L'Anglin.

What a sweet drive this was also. Angles s/Anglin is only about 15 minutes from our gite and once we came upon the village it took our breath away. We parked by the ruins and I had to stop to take in how sweetly situated it was by the river and hills. We took a quick tour of the ruins of the medieval castle (Sophia and I had to sit out part of it because of steepness and some precarious climbing but the girls declared it "Great!") What troopers they are in being steeped in history, ruins, and museums without a mall in sight.

We walked around the bend in the road towards the bridge that crossed the swift moving Anglin river and the delightful beauty of the village did not disappoint. But we were again hungry travelers, so we followed this cobblestone path to the promise of more village life to be seen. I think we all enjoyed the small discovery of the town square filled with cafe tables. Across the street from the square on two opposite sides were a cafe and a bar that served the tables in the center. We settled ourselves and gave Sophia some much needed running around time. I got a delicious raspberry beer and a savory crepe (just okay). Sara of course got yet another banana nutella crepe and ice cream, Anna just ice cream, David just a beer and Sophia a little of all our treats. I do wish I took a picture of our enchanted stop, but see, I was enchanted. I simply am trying to describe the dreamy remembrance of one of the handful of times we just slowed down and took it all in.

We finally gathered ourselves together for our quick walk to the car, and back the gite. A downpour on our way to the gite canceled out our plans to eat out for dinner at an open air lakeside restaurant and so we ate leftover paella and pasta instead and stayed in watching some of the Gilmore Girls DVDs we brought and washing and drying some more clothes for our next day's trip to Normandy!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Day Two-Chateau Versailles and The Loire Valley

Well, I thought we were going to rise, well rested and ready to go. Instead I think we all agreed that we felt wiped still and so the morning was slow going. The exception being Sophia, who apparently awoke before any of us, moved the small table near the window and carefully placed all her toys on the table and was busy organizing. Which is what I had to jump awake to do because not only were we going to visit the palace of Versailles, but we also need to be packed completely to check out and yet organized for our 3 hour road trip to our Loire Valley (Central France wine country) farmhouse ("gite"-vacation rental home) that we would call home for the four days. Once I was done buzzing around and we were all finally ready to face the new French day it was sadly later than I wanted, 10:00am. But the day was ours to enjoy.

First on our agenda was Breakfast. And the "breadfast" of champions in France is a nice croissant/pastry (yummerific for me) and very nice and small cup of coffee (each time I saw the European smallness of the French "large" I heard Lorelai Gilmore in my head saying "Barbie dream cup"). For kids there was the traditional French bowl of hot chocolate, but the girls wanted none of it (what?!) so we had to hunt at a couple of spots to complete our bread/breakfast. So we turned into our first Patisserie, whose staff was friendly and ready for us. We got a full selection of basic pastries: Croissant, Pain Au Chocolate (Ah, delish), Chausson aux pomme (tasty tasty buttery apple pastry), and a French favorite, buttery carmely raisiny pastry we ended up liking but I can't for the life of me remember the name of. Each French morning this was our usual selection with the occasional impulse choice and I know it served me well but I have to say that my breakfast loving family was sorely missing plain ol' cereal and especially eggs, bacon, and biscuits at about our fifth pastry morning into the trip. And I have actually read where Europeans largely think little of American food but American breakfasts are a hit across the board.

Once we found our pastry, and bought some canned juices for the girls, we sat ourselves at a typical sidewalk cafe and gave the attentive waiter our coffee order of cafe au lait. I have to add that this way to breakfast was what Rick Steves and other guide books recommended for the budgeting traveler but David and I felt odd. It was a little strange for us to take food from one place and sit at another only ordering a couple of drinks. We knew we were eating at a later hour than even the French usually have breakfast, but as I looked about the oh, so, picturesque French cafe scene I noted a couple of other late breakfast eaters. And I even noticed a pastry wrapper from a place different from the cafe. Yes, this set me at ease. As the waiter brought our scrumptious coffee (I actually never had a bad cup of coffee in France, small-always, bad-never), we chuckled at our American desire for a Grande. The girls enjoyed all the pastries, and Sophia turned up her nose to any of the bready goodness, yet she clamored for coffee and after a couple of baby sips we had to stop her. I knew I wouldn't make it through the day with a caffeine fueled empty belly toddler. As we sat with our last morsels of breakfast before us, I took my second mental picture (because I didn't take an actual picture) of the 70 some degrees, cool breezy morning.....the five of us huddled close to our cafe-small table, the French cobblestone street near us mostly busy with pedestrian traffic... and the French conversations wafting around us. Ahhh. Then Sara said, "I'm done, where are we going next?" Versailles Palace.

Now Versailles the town is unpretentious, bigcity/smalltown feel with all the French arts and architecture, but it is decidedly overwhelmed by the grand figure of one of the most world renowned palaces....Versailles. The palace and the grounds' sprawl is seemingly larger than the town itself. We parked near the palatial entrance and approached the gates in much the same way elegant society did back in the day. I looked down and commented to the girls that we were walking on cobblestone that Marie Antoinette must have traveled over. Blank stares. So began my little (mis?)education of the the girls in regards to French royalty, the revolution and Versailles. Then we stopped in our tracks and took in the massive size of the 700 room Chateau, and the massive line weaving its way around, and filling the entrance.

I have visited Versailles before, way way before this day. My first visit was in 1993, and it was awesome but the line then was also long and so all we had time for was the castle and a quick picnic on the beautiful grounds then we left. I still had an aching desire to tour the gardens, Marie Antoinette's famous royal peasant abode and enjoy another picnic. So I left my family in the ever increasing line to the chateau and checked out the garden's entrance. Before I saw the gardens , I heard them. And this let me tell you was amazing. On this Saturday, Versailles, was showcasing it's gardens and fountains in a musical spectacle. Luxurious classical music was pumped through hidden speakers throughout the gardens and around the fountains in such a atmospheric way as to make you feel that at any moment the royal party of King Louis the whatever number was going to stroll by. It was the perfect soundtrack to the delightful gardens, beautiful weather and day. Also, no lines!

So I ran to David and the girls and we all decided the grounds before the chateau. Something else the music helped with is that as crowded as the castle and gardens were you did not hear the constant hum of people but the moving lilt of the music. Sophia had the opportunity to roam about and we spent the next five hours taking in most of the gardens. Yes, the grounds are so intimate and inviting yet large you can get lost in the exploration of them. Sara declared that she loved castles and Anna enjoyed touring the Queen's Hamlet. We actually did not have time for the castle (small regret for my crew, but not for me) but the girls did get the sample experience of the extravagance of the palace by touring the smaller palace on the grounds (yes, the royalty found it necessary to take a break from palace life with smaller place about a mile from the big house).

We picnicked, we took pictures galore, and we realized we had to leave to make it with daylight to our farmhouse in the Loire, about 3 1/2 hours away. We blessedly found another small grocery store in Versailles, stocked up, and after longer than we hoped made our way out of Versailles to the French highway. Ah, the French highway with its very clean countryside, just as clean and environmentally friendly roadside stops and toll booths aplenty. We were moving along smoothly until we were about supposedly 1 hour or so away from the gite. At that point the threatening clouds broke into a constant hard rain and the Loire river we drove over was raging against it's edges. Now, at this time I should share that God most definitely went ahead of us because we had a GPS screen that became invaluable at this point and I had not requested one in our rental when I had booked. All the small country roads that our Michelin French road map did not cover was on our trusty GPS screen. But as we sleepily approached the main road to our little French village: Preuilly-sur-Claise (around 10:30pm), horror, our little quaint country road was terribly flooded. A small line of small French cars and trucks were parked just before the flooded road and I realized no matter how much I wanted to ask a "hey, what's up and how do we Americans find a back road to our little gite?" uh, well I had complete French language block about what to ask or say. So David took charge, and put all his attention on the GPS as the girls as I split some bread and a few cold cuts to make our dinner.

Finally, at 12:30am we pulled into our little country gite, after a couple of scares encountering gutted shacks and dilapidated farmhouses and hoping against hope that our gite wasn't in similar shape. We breathed a sigh of relief and walked in our 18th century farmhouse that was completely ready for us, unpacked, snacked on some yummy French chocolate cookies, showered, and fell into our beds. I thanked the Lord for our safe adventure and knew that Sunday AM was going to be time for sleeping in.


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