Our plan was to ship our VW van-stuffed as though it were an indecently large suitcase-to France, drive around for six weeks, find a town to our liking, and settle down for two years so our three girls, aged three, five, and seven, could learn French while I finished a book. Not exactly A Year in Provence, but maybe a year or two in Montpellier, Pont-Aven, or Grenoble. Of course, it didn’t work out quite like that. Well, to be honest, it didn’t work out like that at all.
To begin with, there was the obligatory French dock strike. Our van would be two weeks late, we were told, and it wasn’t going to arrive in France after all. Maybe Belgium, perhaps the Netherlands. Normalement the boat would head for Antwerp after bypassing Le Havre (where it was supposed to go), but for obscure reasons it might have to unload in Rotterdam. Sitting on lumpy mattresses in an atmospheric but squalid Left Bank hotel, Wenda and I took a deep breath and decided to enjoy our fate while matters maritime sorted themselves out.
We explored Paris, bitterly cold in early January but devoid of tourists. There were no lines anywhere. The Eiffel Tower in a rainstorm was ours. So too the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, and Notre-Dame. There was nobody waiting for ice cream cones outside Berthillon on l’Isle St-Louis. We were cheated by cab drivers and snubbed by waiters. We rode boats on the Seine, wandered the streets, visited Jacques Cousteau’s Parc Océanique under Les Halles, spent exorbitant sums on mediocre snacks, and in general had a wonderful time. We decided Paris was indeed extraordinary, oozing history and beauty like no other place, but that Parisians who deal with tourists bear a distinct behavioral resemblance to New Yorkers, Paris not being France the same way New York is not America. Or is it? The question had too many layers to sort out when a three-year-old wants to be carried through all six million miles of the Louvre.
We rented a little red Peugeot, stuffed dolls, bears, and children into it and set off to find the real France, where we would set up shop. No sooner had we left Paris than one of the girls threw up all over the back seat. We pulled off the road next to a nice-looking auberge by the Seine and cleaned the car. By then everyone was hungry and cold, so we trotted past ducks and up stone steps and inquired if the establishment was open. It was, bien sûr. We were warmly welcomed, served great food at a reasonable price, and left feeling that perhaps we had not made a mistake after all, that in fact Parisians were only as good ambassadors as New Yorkers.
We headed for Normandy, where we stayed with friends in a farmhouse near Caen. We visited the Peace Museum, walked Sword Beach, and told the girls about World War II and the approaching fleet had this been D-Day so many years ago. One evening I achieved satori, or, as Spalding Gray might have it, a perfect moment, sharing wine and camembert with our friends. I am by no means a food-oriented person, but the French do indeed have a remarkable and communicable way with food. The next evening I made the mistake of expressing too much enthusiasm for tripe à la mode de Caen and needed to eat a lot to convince our hosts. In the morning my daughters entertained me with a dance they called “Let’s Do the Cow Stomach.”
In Villedieu-les-Poêles we visited a foundry where the church bells of France and other countries are made. We explored an empty, windswept Mont St-Michel and listened to organ practice in a chapel. One of the girls fell down a flight of stairs. A Mirage fighter roared overhead. The bay was magnificent, the solitude extraordinary.
We drove to Blois, on the Loire River, arriving late in the evening. By now the children had become night owls, but if we didn’t feed them by eight, rebellion was at hand. We staggered into a full and too-expensive restaurant and asked if the chef could produce something for the children. He presented exquisite little steaks at a fraction of the cost of a Paris snack. Wenda and I ruefully settled for shallow bowls of seafood soup, but after one mouthful it was apparent this was no ordinary soup. Many months later, on the Alaska Railroad, I struck up a conversation with one of the dining car waiters-he was French, from Blois-where he said there was a restaurant with this soup…How could soup be that good? I still wonder. But somehow it was.
We stayed in a hotel next to Château de Chambord, where we were fawned over by a staff who acted as though they hadn’t had guests in years. In fact, we were the only guests. It had become clear to us that one of the merits of traveling in winter with children was that hotel and restaurant staffs were more indulgent—and forgiving—than they might have been at peak season. But apart from the pros and cons of winter travel, we found people all over France to be warm and caring, especially toward children. Wherever we went, people seemed to look out for our daughters. It felt safe to let them out of our sight in a way that it doesn’t in America.
In the morning, we explored the Château and its extraordinary ramparts and double-helix staircase. Huge fires blazed in the fireplaces, but couldn’t chase the chill. I scattered a friend’s ashes on the frozen Cosson River nearby; when spring came, he’d be carried into the Loire.
That night we walked the perimeter of Chambord, vast, dark, mysterious, Orion bright and hard in the January sky.
We heard the laughter of the Château’s guardians floating from their living quarters, mocking the excess of the dead.
We headed south, past the sprawl of Lyon, to a walled farmhouse high over vineyards near Orange in northern Provence. The mistral howled all night but we slept well, aided by our hosts’ own wine.
By now we had seen dozens of towns and were adept at squeezing the car late at night down alleys meant for people and horses, in search of shelter. But a disturbing theme began to appear—we liked many places, but we couldn’t see ourselves living in them. “Let’s check out the next town,” became our theme. The girls protested, but by now they were beginning to qualify as Road Warriors, if not Road Scholars yet. When they tired of history lessons, we reminded them they could be at school back in the States instead of eating chocolate for lunch and driving around France. Life could be worse. We told ourselves the same thing, but the fact is, we were getting worried. Little did we know we would be doing the same thing four months and thousands of miles later.
We thought we’d like Aix-en-Provence, but there were an alarming number of tollbooths straddling the autoroute outside of town warning of the hordes to come once the weather turned warm. We drove around for an hour before finding a parking spot and then stepped out into a pile of dog merde, and were immediately panhandled. These incidents, we decided, did not constitute good omens, and after looking around the admittedly lovely city, we decided it would be a great place to live in as a student, but that it was too crowded for us. So it was back to the road.
Near Bordeaux, we stayed on a farm where the girls saw hours-old baby goats and drank fresh warm goat’s milk. Later, on another farm, they made butter with the farmer’s wife and mother and saw a calf still steaming from birth. These farm experiences came to be an important part of the Road Scholar Curriculum, along with almost daily tutoring from Wenda.
We hastened on, for it was time to pick up our van, which we had been told was in Belgium. We dropped by our friends’ Normandy home to recuperate, and then headed back to Paris. We stayed in a miserable hotel and took the train to Antwerp the following misty grey morning.
On the way to the shipping office, we had a cab driver who spoke French, Dutch, Flemish, German, and English. By now I think the utility of multilingualism was beginning to sink into the girls’ minds and their games had a mixture of French and pretend French. They could see how ineffective I was with only minimal French, but how well their mother—fluent in French and Italian-could communicate. To be monolingual is to be socially hobbled, no matter how much of the world speaks English. The next morning, Wenda asked them if they wanted to wash their hair, and the three responses were, “Oui, bien sûr,” “Weird, bien sûr,” and “Oui, bien sure.”
We drove through stack after towering stack of sea-freight containers until we arrived at one which mercifully contained our van and manifold contents. The children were delighted to renew acquaintance with toys and clothes; we were astounded at the quantity of stuff we’d thrown at the last minute into our capacious van, so full that if we parked on an incline and opened the door, goods to stock a Wal-Mart tumbled out.
We sallied forth again, crossing Belgium and Luxembourg to the Alps and Chamonix, where we were to meet friends for a week of skiing near Mt. Blanc. Our often-prescient oldest daughter suggested that this was the town we should live in. The people were friendly, it was the right size, and even though there were tourists, the outlying villages were appealing. But adults are a thick-headed lot, and we said no, there were other places more appropriate (sniff) than a ski town. We crossed the Massif Central, visited Lourdes in its exquisite Pyrenean setting, congratulating ourselves that we didn’t buy even one ashtray of the Virgin, saw vineyards covered in snow, drove through innumerable hamlets that charmed but didn’t hold us.
The fact is, we were on a driving jag. The autoroutes were empty, the hotels still empty, the prices off-season low, and the children were seeing more of France than many French do in a lifetime. We completed our second circuit of the country and drove into Switzerland. In Geneva, the girls watched a friend work the floor of the U.N., lobbying for a human rights resolution on behalf of Tibet. We drove to Lausanne with its Transport Museum, Vevey and its Alimentarium, Interlaken, Zurich, and into Austria. But much as we enjoyed everything, we were happy to leave highway ausfahrts behind and return to French sorties. At least we were in the right country, learning about France and the French if not much French itself.
By now we had hit upon our best tactic for ensuring the girls’ cooperation in exploring historic and religious sites—we bought postcards before entering and had the kids look for what was on the cards. It was also becoming clear to us, the more we roamed, that parents too routinely surrender the job of teaching to schools. There is great joy in seeing how your children learn, in a way you can’t when you just help with homework at night. We also gained renewed respect for the work teachers do.
Heading south again, we committed cultural heresy by visiting EuroDisney, feeling it was small payback for months of good behavior in the back of the van. Nonetheless, to make up for our sins we hastened to Versailles. In the vast cobbled courtyard, my oldest daughter took me aback by pointing at the palace and asking “Daddy, can we buy one of those?” Their favored mode of viewing the Sun King’s treasures was to lie on the floor and study the splendid, intricate ceilings.
On our third Tour de France now, we thought seriously about settling in Pont-Aven, the lovely town in Brittany where Paul Gauguin once lived, but a bizarre April Fool’s day encounter with an emotionally disturbed potential landlord, replete with symbolism that would have us laughing later—a huge spider in a closet, mold, a rainy funeral, a dead horse, deviation road signs, and the fact that I was reading Stephen King’s Dead Zone—sent us back to the autoroute with a sigh of relief.
But by now we had been driving for more than four months with only a week’s letup here and there in a gîte (a country place for rent), and everyone’s nerves were fraying. One night our three-year old shouted in a restaurant at the top of her lungs, “I hate menus! Just bring me food!” We, slow-to-learn grownups, began to wonder—perhaps we were overdoing this.
We went back to Normandy and left our van in a barn surrounded by chickens and bales of hay, and took the train to Paris. We rented an apartment for a week (through Chez Vous of Sausalito, California), an expensive proposition at first blush, but cost-effective for a family when you consider meals not eaten in restaurants. Our place was directly across the Seine from Notre-Dame Cathedral, which filled our living room windows, and around the corner from Mitterand’s Left Bank home.
One night, Vertigo, Hitchcock’s evocative San Francisco masterpiece, was on TV, and I discovered I could watch it in the dining room mirror with Notre-Dame also reflected there. A heady combination of wonders sent my head spinning, places and names scrolling before my eyes: Pont Neuf, North Beach, Pont-Aven, Mission San Juan Bautista, Pont d’Avignon, and Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak struggling under the Golden Gate Bridge!
It was time to go.
Although we never did find a home on that first trip, we’ve since returned to France. And of course, my daughter was right. We returned to a village in the Haute-Savoie a few kilometers from Chamonix, where she and her sisters are in a public school. PE includes instruction in downhill and cross-country skiing and they are now correcting their mother’s pronunciation. Mine, they just laugh at.
About James O’Reilly:
James O’Reilly is the publisher and series editor of Travelers’ Tales. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Palo Alto, CA, where they also publish children’s art games at Birdcage Books.