Friday, June 24, 2016

France, je t'aime

I bid farewell to England and took the ferry across the moat to France. I have always wanted to travel by sea, only so that I could say "This ship has sailed!". And to get the feel of the adventures of yore, when brave men sailed into the unknown in search new lands and fortune, without knowing if they'd fall of the edge of the earth, without Google Maps. My departure from Portsmouth was a rather staid affair. None of the hoopla and fanfare that you see in the movies. No waving and cheering. No foghorn. No "weigh the anchor!". Just a quiet rumble and we slowly pulled away from the bleak gray coastline of southern England.

The next morning dawned crisp and clear. Land Ahoy! That was France ahead. It really wasn't that exciting as the journey had only been 12 hours (covering a measly 200 km) and I had slept through most of it. Besides, there were no icebergs or pirates in the English Channel. While the sea journey was quite uneventful, the rest of the day made up for it. I saw the good and the bad of the French in a space of a few hours.

They ferry was delayed by an hour because of the annual summer strike by French workers. And so I missed the only bus to Mont St Michel, my day trip plan for the day. I decided to rebook my train ticket to leave St Malo at the earliest. The attendant grumpily took care of it, but I wasn't told that the changeover in Paris involved changing stations. Thankfully I read the tickets. When I reached Paris, I headed to the info desk to inquire about transit options to the other station. The guy at the information desk spoke to me as though I had insulted his mom or had stolen his girlfriend or both. Why do people whose job is to help people behave like that?

I got on the metro as instructed, but when we arrived at the metro stop, the train didn't stop as the station was closed because of the strike. Now how could Mr Grumpy not have known this? Thankfully a guy on the subway helped me figure out a new option and I made it onto the train just in time. I arrived in the beautiful Loire valley and hopped off the train at Amboise. I made my way out of town and into the countryside towards my Airbnb reservation. After a good 45 min of walking, I was there. Only problem, the place didn't exist. I looked at my Google Map, it said I had arrived. I didn't have a phone to call the host. Eventually I knocked on a neighbor's door. I was a little embarrassed to have interrupted their dinner. But they were very kind and I asked to use their WiFi. I got through to the Airbnb host, but couldn't understand his French. One of my new found friends offered to speak and translate for me. He figured that I was on the wrong street and began to give me instructions. But the older lady in the house insisted that they drive me over. I love the French! Finally, I had made it to the Airbnb place. In hindsight it was good that the strike led me to book an earlier train. Else I would have been wandering the countryside all night.

After the roller coaster of a first day in France, it was time to explore the country. I had seen the gorgeous French countryside on TV when I used to watch the Tour de France. I was quite stoked to ride those same back roads through quaint towns and over rolling hills of golden wheat fields. Loire Valley is famous for it castles with Chonenceau and Chambord among the finest. Also, soak in the small town ambiance in Blois and Amboise

My last stop in Europe was Paris, the city of lights. Paris was absolutely gorgeous and Paris after midnight was magical. With the Euro 2016 on, the party was definitely in town. The piece the resistance was the Eiffel tower of course. It is arguably the most recognizable landmark in the world. The view from the top at dusk was spectacular. But Paris was more than monuments and museums. It was about the ambiance. I loved walking the streets, past the cafes with chairs facing outside. Seriously, it's a thing in Paris where people don't face each other, but sit on the same side of the table, facing outside. A long lunch in one such cafe, watching the world go by, secretly or openly judging others is a must do thing in Paris. Throw in a rude waiter and your experience of Paris is complete.

The French are surprising friendly. Or maybe I had really low expectations. Much has been made of the French attitude and ennui. But I didn't see much of it on display, except for the odd waiter or help desk attendant. I wonder how they'd have reacted if I had said that Calif wine was better than the French wine. And they really appreciated my efforts in speaking in French. It was probably the first time they had heard French in an Indian accent. Now I speak only a little French. So whenever I initiated a conversation in French, they would just keep talking. And I would have no idea what they had said. But French sounds so beautiful that I didn't want them to stop. I once told a lady to just keep speaking because it was especially mellifluous. I think I would want to listen to bed time stories in French.

Paris was an amazing end to this trip. I had my doubts and fears with the strike, floods, Euro crowds, terrorist warnings, etc. None of it mattered. France, truly je t'aime.

Shout out to Lenka and Gabo for hosting in Paris.

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