In July, the girl, the little man, and i spent over two weeks in France with much of her family. Since i was in second grade and was first introduced to the language in the otherwise dire public schools of Slidell, Louisiana, i’ve loved everything French.
In 2003, i was thrilled to visit Paris for the first time. It was another scorching hot, deadly summer, and my first experience was amazement, and joy at being finally immersed in it, but still kinda, you know, enduring it. A week later, passing through for another night on the way back to London, it was cool and pleasant and it was everything I ever wanted.
Since then, i’ve been back half a dozen times or so in all seasons, and always had a fantastic time just soaking in its Frenchness. In 2015 when i brought the girl there, she noted that i was uncharacteristically nervous that she wouldn’t like it as much as i did. It rained on us but i needn’t have worried. The food alone made it amazing.
This year, we planned an ambitious itinerary around the end of the Women’s World Cup, from Provence, to Paris, to Normandy.
And somehow, so many days on this trip felt like my favorite country was kicking me for loving it so.
June 30th, Boston: Before we even left, yes. We got on the Logan Express bus from the Back Bay T station, I wrestled our bags into the rack and went to pay the driver. The girl handed me her wallet with her Charliecard to show the driver. It wasn’t even needed anymore. I set her wallet down to watch the man look out the window and talk to the traffic, and i never picked it back up. We spent the remaining time before our departure frantically searching for it, then preparing for the reality that we didn’t have it anymore.
July 1st, TGV Station, CDG Terminal 2: Multiple of our party can’t walk, and between luggage and strollers, we sought an elevator down to the TGV platform. After a few trips in the wrong direction in the urine-scented box, it finally took some of us down to the platform, but would not go any further. At that point, ticket agents confronted the people down there, while upstairs, they weren’t yet taking tickets and letting the rest of us down. Shouting in French ensued, with me a hundred feet away and barely able to help.
Upon boarding the train, me and a bunch of other people were riding between cars in stifling heat upon a mountain of luggage that had nowhere to go. It took me roughly an hour to get all our luggage moved to the right car, and I rode most of the three hours to Avignon standing while our giant suitcases sat comfortably.
July 1st, Violès, France: When you have 10 adults, you can get one hell of an Airbnb for not so much money, divided so many ways. We did that. It was one hell of an Airbnb on paper—a vineyard, modern appliances and furniture, air conditioning, a million bedrooms, boxes of wine to drink… And an ant and fly infestation. Dozens of flies, hundreds of ants, and an all-hands battle against them.
July 2nd, Violès, France: When we arrived, the pool systems were off, and the pool was a bit messy with some not-so-clever cicadas. It was pushing 100˚ out, and an enterprising member of our crew started pushing buttons in a nearby room. At some point, i was summoned to help, being an engineer who actually speaks French. I flipped the relevant switch and we all hopped into a soon-to-be-perfect blue pool. But we’d also turned on the water for the whole vineyard. Our host was not pleased. Later that night, after a great dinner at a local restaurant where I basically got to order for everyone, the insects returned.
July 3rd, Lyon, France: We waited rather too long to book lodging in Lyon during the World Cup, and the last reasonable option was a $200 Airbnb. No air conditioning, stairs, whatever. It was one night. Accessibility concerns meant that we ditched our original plan to take the train into the city and park at the airport, and instead we’re now driving into the center of the city. Up and down steep one-way streets. Google Maps lied about the parking garage, but that was okay because the Airbnb was five stories up. We changed a diaper there, the baby man made a game attempt to trash the place in fifteen minutes, but this wasn’t going to work for some of us and a hotel was hastily booked for a large sum of money §. Having driven to this hotel, they realized they made a mistake and moved us to another. At this point, we’ve driven around the center of Lyon for over two hours, and are in danger of not making it far across town to the stadium for kickoff. After the game, it took us roughly two hours to get back to our hotel with all the taxis spoken for and Uber a bit of false advertising.
July 4th, Grenoble, France: We had no reason to think that a city at the foot of the Alps would be a crime capital. We spent a nice day playing at a playground, eating ice cream, sightseeing, and having dinner. Many of the rest of us had gotten lost, but we had a great day. Until we returned to a car with a broken window. With a bag and two iPads stolen from it. An expensive call to the rental car company. An expensive call to the local police. Who said to make an expensive call to the national police. Who said to go in person to the local police. Whose first office was closed. Finally we find a hot, sweaty police lobby for me to wait in, with disinterested desk officers slowly processing whatever they’re processing and an old second world war comedy on the TV on the wall. I’m under no illusions about obtaining any justice, but the rental car company says I need a police report. With thisª:
in hand a sweaty ninety minutes later, we cram dirty clothes in the broken window and begin our two hour drive home close to midnight.
July 5th, Les Baux-de-Provence: Five days into our vacation, nothing bad finally happened, other than the possibility that we had maybe cost our host thousands of Euros in fines for violating local water bans, which is probably better than ruining the year’s vintage, which had also seemed a possibility.
July 6th, Violès, France: We scarcely left the house, which is a good tip for avoiding anything bad happening. We drank, we swam, we drank some more. It’s pushing 100˚ still and people are probably dying because of it. Perspective is useful.
July 7th, Uzès, France: It’s a notch hotter and we leave the house, but barely leave the car until evening. We had a great dinner in a nice bar in a town that the girl and I really liked four years ago. It was a good day. When we returned, there were more insects than ever.
July 8th, Violès, France: I learned some entomology from a very enthusiastic exterminator in French. I don’t actually care what i’m talking about, i still love talking in French to people. We got a late start searching for lavender fields, which had mostly been harvested already, but it was still a perfectly okay day. At least we got really drunk late that night.
July 9th, Avignon TGV Station: The rental car company was not impressed with my police report. They told me that Grenoble was a bad place and that they were deeply unsurprised at what had happened. And that they were just gonna bill me for it and I’d have to take it up with my credit card company. At least getting everybody’s luggage on the train again went better.
July 10th, Paris: We had a nice morning getting the walking-averse onto a tour bus, which we rode far away to the Luxembourg gardens. With the man cooked both literally and figuratively, we were devastated to find that the snack bar was out of sandwiches for the day, and went home to get him a nap. As if that wasn’t bad enough, then i got pickpocketed on the Métro. Yeah, getting shoved onto the crowded train with my stroller tickled my spider sense enough to be looking, but not hard enough. According to my better half, who fought their attempts to shove her away from me and the stroller, there were five of them, and one of them took advantage of my attention on the baby to lift my wallet. They attempted over $10,000 of charges in half an hour, all but $667 of which were declined. Still, they got away with nearly $1000 between that and the cash. And, what with that and the events of June 30th, now we have no cash or credit cards, nor a way to rent the next car. I abruptly start being nicer to my in-laws for no particular reason.
July 11th, Paris: We did very little this day other than not spend any money (Pro tip: some credit card companies will immediately load your new card onto Apple Pay in this situation, which meant that we could pay for a lot of stuff like diapers and formula for the baby and cookies and wine for us) and take the man to a local playground. He took a long nap and i caught up on work email, which remained terrible, but less so compared to other events.
July 12th, Disneyland Paris: Ah, the refuge of Disneyland, which initially I rolled my eyes at as a waste of valuable being-in-Paris time, but now seemed like a needed two days of paid-for-months-ago and everything-taken-care-of. Anyway, even their standard let us down as we found our toilet pre-peed-in and other niceties:
July 13th, Disneyland Paris: In Disneyland Paris, they still attempt to serve proper three-course meals, just like everywhere else, but worse, slower, and more expensive. At least they were a bundled cost, but I was not sad when my small colleague demanded we leave the restaurant adjoining Pirates of the Caribbean. By this point he was wise to the length of typical meals, and if the food wasn’t meeting his standards, he’d be difficult to contain.
July 14th, CDG Airport: It took us an hour and a half to get a car rented, but at least since it was the same agency as before, they remembered a time (a time that to me, seemed so long ago) when I had a valid driver’s license and handed me the keys to an Alfa Romeo.
July 15th and 16th, Crépon, France: Nothing bad happened for the rest of the trip, actually. Normandy was beautiful and blessedly cool. Everyone had a good time. Disaster was held at bay. It was nearly relaxing.
July 16th, CDG Airport: After dropping off rental cars uneventfully and having difficulty finding the shuttle back to our hotel, we figured screw it and that we’d grab a cheap cab back and save time. The cabbies had seen us before, and as they talked amongst each other at the cab stand, while we walked to the car of the lucky winner, he said “Ils n’ont pas trouver la navette.†” and quoted us €20 for the trip. We walked away.
But i’m still not mad at France.
The proprietor of the hotel in Normandy stayed up late for us and moved around our rooms so we could be near each other. The waitstaff at a dozen different restaurants were solicitous of my little man and his cousins, and patient with the demands of the rest of our unruly party (which I couldn’t always intercept and translate into polite French). Our Airbnb host forgave us our literal trespasses. The last police officer I spoke with in Grenoble was kind and helpful and sympathetic. The fury on the face of the lady at the front desk at Disneyland when I showed her pictures of our room and her swiftness in finally fixing it (by moving us to the nice part of the hotel). The late-night gas station clerk who joked along with me while I guessed at the size of our car’s fuel tank and had to come back and pay for more. The nice pot-smoking cyclist who declared himself the mayor of the TGV baggage compartment and helped me and countless others inch our way to the right place while we mutilated each other’s languages. Or the nice cab driver who took a cash fare at 1am across Lyon probably right after he put out his light. The manager of a rest stop sandwich place got our man a little travel bag with goodies that easily bought us a few hours of happy car seat time.
Even in a scorching summer in one of the most tourist-infested parts of the world, you’re still going to find nice people, and have good experiences. Even if our luck on this trip was objectively rotten, an awful reward for a huge amount of effort put into planning it, and no respite whatsoever* from strenuous work at home**, we were still lucky to get to do it, and will always remember it. Maybe even especially the bad parts.
ª Later, we noticed that the police report describes a green Ford Fiesta, not the large minivan we were driving, but on the other hand, the rental agreement says I was driving a VW Polo. Good job, everyone.
§ It was probably only available because some large fanbases had seen their teams be upset.
† “They didn’t find the shuttle.”
* Let’s face it, being the sole French speaker in a dozen neophyte travelers was never going to be a relaxing job.
** We’re not even going to talk about work right now other than that I count it as an accomplishment that i only billed eight hours during my vacation.