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September-November 1999

WHY EUROPE - AGAIN?

We retired and went to Alaska, a total retirement cliche - except we avoided cruise ships and went hiking and kayaking in the wilderness.

Our next stop was to return to Europe - again. WHY?

Lou had to go "catatonic" (see TRAVEL PHILOSOPHY for the story) before we stopped planning a long trip to France, and decided to skip most of Western Europe and head to the less-traveled areas of Central Europe, Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

PARIS

In the autumn of 1999, we flew to Paris to begin nearly four months of travel through France, Germany, Central Europe, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. We began in Paris because - well, because it's Paris and we couldn't bear to fly over it!

Our first attempts to send e-mails from Paris back to family and friends were challenging, due to the difference between American and French keyboards. Here's part of a family letter from Paris:

Chere fqmille ,

Nous so;;es tres trqnauille, tres jolie... you cqn see zhy ze need French lessons qs soon qs possible! Ze qre sitting in the ;q post office in Pqris, vqliqntly trying to deql zith the French keyboqrd. They hqve reversed the a and q, the m and semi-colon and the w and z. (Pleqse beqr zith us!)

We stayed in a small budget hotel in Montmartre, a quaint section of Paris where many artists lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After settling in, we went out to explore, happened upon a walking tour and joined up. We walked for a couple of hours through the area, learning its history and seeing the former homes of Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mozart, Picasso, Utrillo and others. Our hotel was both funky and wonderful. Located in an area filled with small cafes, bakeries, food shops and bars, just two blocks from the Metro (Abbesses station), this eccentric, charming hotel made us feel we were in Paris.

The Hotel Bonsejour was run by a friendly, hard-working Moroccan couple with two small children. We had the best room in the hotel - it was on the top floor and had two windows, one opening onto a balcony. It was very basic, with a sloping linoleum floor, but also clean, light and only $30 a night! However, there's no elevator and we had to climb five flights of narrow, winding stairs to reach our room. The toilet was down the hall, shared with six other rooms. The hotel's only shower for rooms without a private bath is on the street floor! It cost 10 francs, or about $1.30 for seven minutes. We made a game out of going into the small shower room together, undressing, and shampooing fast and furiously, to see if we could both shower at the same time - in seven minutes flat!

One day we went to see Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" - in French. We know the play well, but bought a couple of copies of it in French so we could refresh our memories. Even so, we were hopelessly lost much of the time. Fortunately, the play was very well-acted and we knew approximately what was being said, but it was a humbling experience. French was the only language we "knew" at that time. SIGH. Unfortunately, most of us Americans are foreign language illiterates.

We had dinner with French friends in their Paris apartment (who thankfully speak good English), enjoyed some excellent cafe meals, and were disappointed by a few mediocre meals - rare when we first went to France in 1965. Mostly, we walked the streets a lot, soaking up the atmosphere. We didn't feel the need to hit the museums this trip, as we'd already made several visits to Paris over the years.

ALSACE

After a couple of weeks in Paris, we took the train east to Alsace, where we stayed in the home of complete strangers. We arranged this through Servas, an international non-profit organization dedicated to fostering understanding between the peoples of the world. Before leaving California, we were interviewed, paid the annual U.S. membership fee of $65 each, and received lists of host families in the countries we'd be visiting. A Servas visit is two nights in length and an opportunity to learn about the lives of ordinary people in foreign countries and share your own life with them. These home-stays are not free "crash pads." Typically, we arrived with flowers, and cooked one of the two evening meals or took the host family out for dinner.

SERVAS* VISIT:  Our very first Servas visit was something of a disappointment. Our host was a divorced mechanical engineer with two young daughters living in Kaysersburg - a Medieval village (below) in the vineyard countryside of Alsace, France. His girlfriend was a biologist with Du Pont. Both were well-traveled, interesting people in their early 40's. However, we realized later that this was our least meaningful Servas visit out of many because we had not yet learned to select a good match. Our host's interests were mountain biking and skiing. We like to camp, hike and ski, but don't find that outdoor sports are something to sit around and discuss. After this experience, we carefully read the host lists to find people who are interested in history, economics, literature, theater, social issues and other "discussible" topics. As a result, the remaining eight Servas visits on this trip were richly rewarding. Eight out of nine - not too bad!

The differences in technology between this French home and the typical American home were intriguing. The Kayserburg shower had two controls: the left side regulated the water flow, while the right side precisely set the temperature. Lou found that 38 degrees (centigrade) suited him perfectly, while Joan preferred 36 degrees. Excellent idea! The toilet had a dual push button that looked much like a divided computer mouse. One side showed three drops of water, the other side showed one drop. This control regulated the amount of water used. Another excellent idea! However, we did NOT like the European habit of using duvets on the bed. It was nearly impossible to adjust the temperature at night with only a down-filled comforter and no top sheet. When the duvet was off, we were chilled to the bone; when it was on, we steamed and sweated. The solution: we removed the comforter from its cover and used the latter as a sheet, the former as a blanket. In the months that followed, a rash of disassembled duvets broke out across Europe; the authorities haven't caught up with us yet.

While wandering the streets of Kayserburg, we noticed huge stork nests on the chimneys and searching in vain for signs of their inhabitants. Later we caught up with these Alsatian storks at their winter retreat in Morocco. We enjoyed the regional cuisine - especially the traditional baeckeoffe - a meat and vegetable stew - washed down with good Alsatian Reisling. We'd planned to do a lot of biking through the wonderful villages around here, but our plans were rained out. Instead, we spent time in the fine Medieval/Renaissance art museum in nearby Colmar. (Below, vineyards with Kayserburg in the distance.)

STRASBOURG

This quaint city, with five rivers streaming through its center, is a short train ride from Kayserburg. On our first night here, we came suddenly upon the huge, honey-colored cathedral - beautifully illuminated in the midst of the dark city. We sat at a street cafe and ate dinner facing it. The next morning we enjoyed croissants and coffee under the trees at a riverside cafe, while the - we have to say it - LOUD German visitors next to us drank their 9 a.m. "breakfast" of beer. Later, we climbed the 365 stone steps of the cathedral for a fabulous view of the city.

During one of our early morning walks along a riverbank, we spied a rat-tailed, whiskered muskrat swimming next to a group of graceful white swans. He fought with the swans for the bread floating on the water; soon his youngster popped out of a hole in the retaining wall, but ducked in again after encountering a huge swan. The next morning, we again saw M. Muskrat swimming purposefully along. He clambered clumsily up the bank and onto the path to snuffle up the bread crumbs left by tourists.

We loved Strasbourg. Too soon, it was time to leave this charming city, climb back on the train and head into GERMANY

 

DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS

GUIDEBOOKS:  France (Lonely Planet); Cheap Sleeps Paris, Sandra A. Gustafson

FILMMon Oncle (by Jaques Tati)

*SERVAS:  U.S. Servas   www.usservas.org   (see TRAVEL PHILOSOPHY for more on this worldwide friendship organization)

(1999 Prices)

PARIS:  Hotel Bonsejour in Montmartre. $27/double without bath; toilet down the hall & shared shower on first floor; $30 with shower; toilet down the hall.

Paris Walking Tours: (33) 01 48 09 21 40

STRASBOURG:  Hotel Patricia, one-star hotel in 16th century house with pretty inner courtyard. $43/double, including breakfast; bathroom down the hall. Good budget choice in quiet neighborhood.  Ph: 33 (0) 3 88 32 14 60

 

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Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net