The French Adventure

Our French Adventure

 Harrison had proposed that we solicit donations for our “mission to  ‘descover’ new food,” at home before we left. He even drew a poster  (look on the inside my kitchen door!). Of course we reveled in food but  the real mission to me was to have a heck of a good time and to fulfill  my promise of a trip to Paris, to two world-shy/adventure-eager ten year  olds. 

I promised to send messages home to all of you, whenever I  found a computer. Well, that was just about never and when I did, the  keyboard is different than ours. Who would have thought that the French  use the letter “q” often enough to boot out the “a?!” Yep, those letters  were switched and so were the “m,” the comma and period, and the “w.”  Holy cow. It was hard to type a coherent sentence and when Harrison sent  a short message to his Mom, she wondered if he had had a  spelling-regression! Instead, I wrote as I went along, day by day, and  will share the days with you here, one region at a time. 

As some  of you already know, the food knocked me out. Not because it was fancy  or impressive in any way like that, but for the extravagance and luxury  of it, so taken for granted. I wrote a parallel about the food as we  travelled to new regions, so I’ll add that at the end. Viva la France! 

Wednesday, December 2. Flying out of here! 

Today  is the day. I’m sitting in sleepy Reno Tahoe Airport, on a dark icy  morning. Waiting for a flight to Los Angeles. I’m picking Emma and  Harrison up there. 

The airport is full of men wearing new felt  hats. It’s kind of funny and I wonder if the hats are hard to pack?!  Where the heck are they going?! 

One guy---not wearing a  hat---decides to sit directly across from me in a narrow aisle. I am not  kidding---. This is an early morning flight…big plane, few people.  There are DOZENS of empty seats to pick from and he decides to sit knee  to knee with me. He proceeds---I’m not kidding again---to read the Wall  Street Journal out loud to me!! This is a day I promised many years ago,  to Emma and Harrison, my oldest grandchildren. I just want to stare out  into the dark and embrace this day, to savor this moment as the very  beginning of a fantastically romantic adventure! 

The Wall Street  Journal guy asks where I’m going and I am surprised to hear myself  answer “Paris.” He’s clearly surprised too. The hat-wearing men stare in  surprise; stern businesswomen with scarves that perfectly match their  suits jerk up from their texting to stare at me. Once I’ve said it out  loud, my answer rings true to me suddenly and my day-embrace begins! 

I  struggle to control the beating of my heart and my urge to weep with  joy as we speed into the air. There is a full moon setting and the sun  rising over the eastern peaks is making the Silver Legacy sparkle. I’m  overjoyed to see Lake Tahoe so clearly today and I start to scan for  Half Dome. I’ve got a bag of miniature apples and pears for  Dylan-who’s-not-going-to-Paris-today. He’s a little brother and will  have to wait four more years for his tenth-birthday-trip-of-a-lifetime.  He’ll see us off this morning and I’ll be so sad that he’s so sad! Today  is the day! 

Thursday, December 3, Morning in Paris 

We  landed at 9:30am and were greeted at the airport by a hotel shuttle  driver. He sped through the rain, HOLY COW, tailgating all the way, to  our hotel on Ile St Louis. We stayed in a charming little boutique  hotel, converted from an ancient timbered building. We were just steps  from a boulangerie, fromagerie, a laundromat, a chocolate shop, and  Notre Dame. 

We decided to go to the Eiffel Tower, though our  internal day was pretty much advanced to evening. As we turned a corner,  we came face to face with Notre Dame…dear God. The bells started to  peel and a fine mist started to fall. We stepped out of the mist and  into the smoky depths of history. The place was full of tourists and the  choir music was piped in but I couldn’t catch my breath. We were  standing on the site of the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, of the  coronation of Napoleon! Why the heck hadn’t I come here before?! I’d  longed to see this since I was in grade school. I was dumbfounded,  awkward, serene in this most beautiful of churches. I could totally  approve---despite any circumstances of abuse---building for the glory of  God! 

Like good little tourists, the kids snapped pictures and  we ventured out into the rain again. When it really started to pour, we  took refuge under the awning of a sidewalk café along the river. Emma  and Harrison ordered escargot and Orangina---they’re now very loyal fans  of Orangina---and I had a cheese omelet. Not any omelet though, a  fluffy, delicate, clean, simple, elegant omelet! Beautifully  complimented with a frisee salad lightly dressed with just olive oil and  salt---that the café felt no obligation to describe in detail on the  menu, or charge extra for! The salad was silently there, beside the  omelet because they belong together! 

We walked on feeling  energized and exuberant, taking a shortcut that wasn’t so short. We  meandered through a fashion district; a pricey up-scale residential area  supplied by shockingly beautiful cheese shops, chocolate shops, fruit  markets. We walked through the center of the seat of government; parks,  schools…it seemed we walked for miles before finally spotting the top of  the Eiffel Tower. The drizzle had come again so when we got to the top,  high winds whipped our faces with icy rain. Even so, we lingered to  admire the view and embrace this moment we’d imagined for so many  years. 

Taking a train back to our hotel was a challenge. The  walk back would take about two hours and it was getting dark. The Metro  station below the street was empty and though we had a map, there was  only one train that seemed to get where we wanted to go…and it wasn’t  coming, according to a monitor screen I could only barely understand.  People came and went, but only spoke French. Our introduction then, to  the Paris Metro, was to take a different train going far south and pick  up another one that angled north to Ile St Louis and Notre Dame. Ohboy.  Everyone was dashing home from work right then and it was physically  somewhere in the middle of the night for us. The trains were PACKED and  Emma kept drifting off to sleep on her feet. We made it back to our  hotel and had dinner in a cozy café with mustard-glazed walls. The place  glowed through warm-steamy windows and we started to overcome our cold  numbness with bowls of delicious hot pureed vegetable soup, crusty warm  bread with sweet butter, and sweet hot chestnut crepes. The café was  filled with lively people on their ways home, gossiping over coffee  after work. Harrison fell asleep on the table. Goodnight Paris! 

Friday, December 4. Paris---visiting the Louvre. 

We  rolled out of bed and headed for the Louvre across the river. We  stopped at a boulangerie for breakfast and walked along with pain au  chocolate and baguettes in hand, feeling so Parisian! 

We toured  the sculptures, the paintings, the antiquities, the Mona Lisa. I watched  the kids swing between ecstasy and boredom. They delighted in recalling  occasionally that the buildings we were in had once been someone’s  “house.” They wrote postcards to mail from the Louvre and I lamented not  bringing my Christmas cards HERE to mail! We sat in the mundane  familiarity of the Starbucks in the museum’s basement, eating familiar  pastry and drinking familiar drinks---I had to remind myself to marvel  at where we were really sitting! 

Out into the evening, we  strolled through the Tuileries to the Place de la Concorde and the  Ferris wheel. Emma bought our tickets with some of her birthday money,  and we rode high into the sky for an incomparable view of the city at  Christmastime. Montmarte was illuminated in a quiet, stately way. The  Champs Elysees was jammed with traffic, the Eiffel Tower was sparkling  and glittering with some special light show, and we were holding our  breaths. 

In the carnival at the bottom of the Ferris wheel, we  watched two women giving a fencing demonstration, Emma got a soft pink  wool beret to frame her angel face, and we bought hot creamy roasted  chestnuts in scrap paper cones. We walked back through the dark misty  garden to the Louvre. Dinner tonight was simple, spectacular mushroom  crepes that I can’t wait to serve when I get home! On the menu,  alongside cassoulet and mustard roasted snapper! 

Saturday, December 5. Paris---visiting Versailles. 

We  woke to a drizzle but decided to go to Versailles anyway. I could  imagine how lush the gardens must be in spring and summer but given that  there were some dark days there, the starkness of winter seemed the  perfect light. Like comparing a color photo to one that is black and  white, the contrast of grey revealed detail without distraction. The  bare trees, the wet pebble boulevards, even the swans drifting in the  grey of the canals echoed sadness to me. The beauty of excess had a  rustic quality of use, abandonment, and poor repair. My daughter said  that the air in Paris is pink---I felt the air at Versailles to be a  veil of black and blue. 

On a light note, we had an early dinner  in a charming, bright, busy café back in Paris. I let the kids have  chocolate mousse and sweet foamed milk for dinner. The waiter sweetly  used his little bit of English when he delivered the milk, calling it  “hot milch.” The kids roared over that for the rest of our stay and I  predict that they will call it “milch” to each other, for the rest of  their days. Despite bitter drizzle, the streets outside our café were  alive with people strolling. Families pushed strollers and small  children rode along on tricycles. We were delighted to be part of  Saturday night in Paris! 

Sunday, December 6. Paris, Le Sacre Coeur. 

The  inspiration for our trip here was a post card of Le Sacre Coeur, sent  by a family friend. Emma and Harrison were babies together in the tub  when I showed them the card and in a flash of bright idea, blurted out  my promise to take them to Paris for their tenth birthday celebration.  At the time, Emma was a menace in the cheese section at Costco. I had to  purchase many cheeses that she managed to grab and bite through the  plastic. I’d told her of the infinite cheese opportunities she’d have in  France---and so our trip was born. 

Today, we made our  pilgrimage to Le Sacre Coeur. We emerged from the Metro into a busy  gypsy market and pouring rain. We rode a funicular to the top where the  rain stopped long enough for us to thrill to a sweeping view of the  just-washed Paris skyline. The kids picked out now-familiar landmarks to  my delight, with references like “that tower where the guy tested the  weight of air!” (Pascal, St. Jacque’s Tower) 

The rain began  again on our way down, so we took refuge in an Italian bistro where we  ordered three kinds of pasta to share---penne with mascarpone and  olives; fettuccini with pomodoro and basil; and bow tie pasta with  truffle and mushroom cream sauce. Again, we were safe from the cold in a  steamy heaven where the kids learned for the first time and forever,  the fragrant unforgettable flavor of truffles! 

We walked back  through the gypsy market to the Metro, full of truffle pasta and  cappuccino! The market vendors were selling marzipan, Matrushka dolls,  roasted chestnuts, and winter scarves. I spotted our first phone booth  since leaving home, so decided to touch base. Just as my daughter Skye  (Harrison’s mom) was excitedly telling me how the family was tracking us  through our debit card purchases and had even used Google Earth to look  at the front of the little café where we had our first dinner---Father  Christmas walked up with his entourage of a thirty-piece drum band! They  stopped to perform right outside our phone booth! How inconvenient! How  fantastically kooky! That just was not enough noise and chaos though,  the church beside us started to ring their bells, playing Beethoven’s  “Ode to Joy!” Emma and Harrison both played this piece for piano  lessons, so they started to hum as loud as they could, and dance in the  crowded phone booth! What a racket! What a blessing! 

We came up  out of the Metro into an enchanting bird and plant market on the Ile de  la Cite. It was misty dark by now, so the plants and Christmas trees  were filling the air with sweet Christmas fragrance. Cages were full of  canaries, parakeets, and doves. There were some “circus” ducks and  chickens performing on shelves beside birdseed and cage toys. We all  wanted canaries, and imagined aviaries in sunny winter windows, if we  were lucky enough to live here. Instead, we made a large purchase of  very expensive chocolate and took our loot “home” to savor. Actually, we  ate it up as fast as we could! Tomorrow we’re off to Strasbourg and the  Christmas market.

Monday, December 7. Strasbourg. 

Our  train to Strasbourg was in a first class car so the kids were impressed  and excited about their wide luxurious seats and leg-room, reading lamps  and tables! They’re so easy to please! They’re not babies anymore, but  so much is still out there for them to get excited about! Like anyplace  where you pass enough distance, we saw a slow transformation from  extravagant frilly Paris to rural charming Strasbourg. The buildings  look like those of “Hansel and Gretel” while Paris has the solid stone  monumental architecture of a long-standing seat of government. The  streets here were filled with playful Christmas market vendors selling  Christmas ornaments, spiced hot wine, every kind of candy---really giant  chocolate bells. Emma is delighted by painted Matrushka, so the sight  of hundreds of darling little dolls was breathtaking to her. 

We  happened on the ice rink beside the cathedral in the center of  town---run by the Kiwanis! Emma and Harrison put on skates and skated  around with the local kids to loud Sinatra Christmas tunes. The rink was  lined with parent paparazzi---greeting friends, squeezing babies,  sipping hot wine, and filming every awkward move on the ice. 

A  misty rain was coming down when we ducked into the cathedral. I loved  the worn look of it. It is spectacularly intricately elegant but with  the feeling of the well used, well loved center of the region for nearly  1,000 years. As the forever center of a community’s joys and sorrows,  it seemed so natural for the Christmas market with carousels and Russian  dancers to be swirling outside while a circle of middle aged women  inside, joined hands and voices to sing “Silent Night” in French. Their  voices lifted to the heights in a most private moment between them. They  were completely alone together in the busy cathedral and I wanted to  think that they have been doing this every Christmas since they were  little schoolgirls. They ended their song and shared a smile. 

I  love the idea of fussy-cream-butter-city-food blending with  country-butter and cream. The food was the contrast and blend of Paris  and Strasbourg. A small heated tin trivet was set on our table to  accommodate a large roasting dish piled high with several different  kinds of sausage, sauerkraut, and boiled potatoes. I had roast boar with  roasted potatoes that had been sautéed in sausage drippings….Wow. Wow!  We ate in mindless, hushed ecstasy. 

We ended the day with apple  tarts and a pile of candy. We bought bags of marzipan fruits, gelee  pears and berries, Orangette, glaceed chestnuts, and giant, extravagant  layered chocolate balls called “angels eyes.” These balls had a cut-away  exposing the many layers of soft and hard chocolate, dark and milk  chocolate…I hated the name. Biting into it though, made me instantly  forget. I love chocolate and “angel eyes” are what I hope they’re  serving for dinner in heaven. 

Tuesday, December 8. Strasbourg. 

It  was raining again, hard, and I’d been hoping for snow. We were in  Strasbourg, for crying-out-loud! I think the word “cozy” was invented  here. Our hotel room was so lush, so soft, so padded, so cocoon that I  could barely hear the pouring rain. The kids slept in, under a cloud of  down comforter. After the big sauerkraut/potato/sausage meal yesterday,  it was no wonder they’d be sleepy. The presentation of that meal had  made us gasp and the cold outside had made us dig in, so contentedly. 

We  spent the morning choosing Christmas ornaments, strolling past stalls  piled high with Christmas cookies, stollen, and crèche figurines,  candles, beautiful citrus scented soaps, incense, pretzels, and candied  fruit. The streets were decorated with Baccarat crystal chandeliers!  Three Santas played jazzy versions of familiar carols and schoolgirls  sang a punk version of “O Tannenbaum” in a narrow street on their ways  home to lunch. 

We took a cruise on the River Ill, passing  through a canal lock and viewing the notable and notorious buildings  along the historic river. The river was full of swans and the banks were  covered with ferns and tiny juicy little plants---the place had an  enchanting fairytale quality with all of the timbered buildings and lush  landscape. We hated to leave. 

We took a late, fast train back  to Paris, and then north to Normandy. Due to time---having to run  through two train stations---, we were forced to eat train food for  dinner---which was delicious! Of course! We had sandwiches on crunchy  rolls stuffed with moist, flavorful roasted chicken, tomatoes, soft  cheese, frisee and mache, and delicious mayonnaise---proof that  “industrial food”--hospital/airline/cafeteria food doesn’t have to taste  so weird! 

In Rouen, we took a cab to a hotel recommended by a  travel book. Oh-no. We were dropped off at the end of a dark alley in  the rain, at 9pm. The old wooden doors were locked up tight and every  window above was dark. The whole town was locked up tight! Our only  light was from a spectacular cathedral at the end of the alley. Emma  knocked timidly and Harrison peeked through the keyhole. The kids took  charge! A man just happened to be leaving, so let us in. I found a key  on the front desk, with my name on it…a self-serve hotel?! We clomped up  the stairs of the very old building and spent a soft night in a  charming room. Out of the cold, out of the rain, out of the dark…thank  heaven.

Wednesday, December 9. Rouen, Normandy. 

We  dragged out of bed today---late night, comfortable room papered in blue  toile, and had breakfast in an adorable tearoom where I finally got the  coffee that had been eluding me. We rented a car that we could NOT find,  and struggled out through a narrow multi-storied spiral exit, to the  narrow scary cobblestoned streets. With two ten-year olds learning to  navigate by map in the back seat, we were lost---driving through the  streets of big-city-Rouen, driving rain, driving lost. We accidentally  found the highway and proceeded…in the wrong direction. We got turned  around finally, with lots of horn honking and French swearing. 

The  rain never let up, but it turned the countryside a misty delicious  green. Fields of cows and sheep surrounded timbered farmhouses and  barns. Church spires marked occasional villages, and then we were out in  countryside again. 

In Caen, we visited the D-Day Memorial  Museum and came to a better appreciation of the countryside as sacred  ground. We had a buttery sole meuniere dinner in tiny Port du Bessin,  slept a dreamless sleep, cozy and safe in the harbor, and would pay our  respects to the beach in the morning. 

Thursday, December 10. Omaha Beach, Normandy. 

I  had no idea that France would be so melancholy for me. The thin cold  light and bareness of late fall suited me perfectly as we moved from one  place to the next. First Versailles moved me with sympathy; my heart  bowed down at the crypt of Richard the Lion Heart. I was haunted on the  spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake; I think I always will  be. It was ironic that we spent the night on the ocean, in warm comfort  before visiting the beaches. The coast is sparsely populated now, as it  likely was in 1944. I thought of the thousands of troops coming ashore  here and how any comfort at all was unimaginable. How their coming here,  and their sad adventure made these sleepy obscure villages a  sentimental place for Americans to visit. 

Walking to the  entrance of the American Cemetery, I fought tears. With the heaviest  heart, I led my sweet grandchildren through a sea of tombstones and  realized with a stab, that we were standing in a “children’s cemetery.”  So many innocents rest forever on a quiet field that had been  battlefield, above a beach now innocent of the blood that was washed  away so many winters ago. As we walked along the sand and the kids  collected seashells for their classmates, I thought of the unearthly  noise this peaceful beach had known. Driving through the countryside on  our way to Mont St. Michel, we recognized the small towns that had been  liberated one by one, after that long June day in 1944. 

Mont St  Michel presented welcome serenity for me in this day. Dense fog was  swirling around the monastery creating a thrilling eeriness. Fog rolled  through the great rooms and halls, damping the stone with icy cold. It  was all a spooky contrast to our cozy rooms in an ancient stone building  in the village. 

Thick damask drapes covered the windows and  when we threw them open, we could hear the waves crashing on the rock  below. We ate dinner in a warm elegant dining room with a roaring fire  that heated intensely fragrant fresh pine boughs. I realized tonight  that the food here is vividly, intensely, and traditionally adhered to,  regionally. I can’t stand to go home but I can’t wait to get back to my  kitchen! 

Friday, December 11. Mont St. Michel, Brittany/Normandy. 

I  woke up this morning before sunrise and enjoyed the luxury of our  rooms. The carpets and drapes were so thick and the glow of deep yellow  walls was so comforting in such a cold and stony place. I opened the  windows wide to the fog and took in the fragrance of the air scented  with salt, wet earth, and moss. I’d be happy to stay here forever. But  we had to return the rental car… 

We drove through 200 miles of  dense fog with a big bag of bread and pastry. The kids were happy as  clams---I was struggling to see, to figure out, to get back to that  Rouen train station that I hadn’t even been able to figure out how to  get out of! I missed a few turns so spent a few hours lost. By the time  we turned the car in and went to buy train tickets, the trains from  Paris to Avignon were full. Crumb. We decided to get to Paris, and then  traipsed from packed Metro station to packed train station trying to  make an alternative plan. I hoped we could take a sleeper car...and we  could, but would be trapped three hours from Avignon till late afternoon  the next day. It was Friday though, and it seemed that everyone was  traveling to ancestral homes. There is a complete redistribution of the  entire population of an entire country! We weren’t going to be here long  enough to get these things figured out! We were stuck in Paris for the  night…I couldn’t believe that I would ever think of having to stay in  Paris to be a problem! 

Actually we had been on the move all day  too. We finally sat down to a dinner of spaghetti carbonara and mushroom  omelet. I was miserable though---the table next to ours ordered big  slabs of pate with cornichon pickles and slices of baguette! I was  reminded that Julia Child had said that there were some pates that would  “haunt you for the rest of your life.” I wished I’d ordered that!

Saturday, December 12. Traveling to Provence. 

Our  first Metro train was empty. We even got to sit down! We were feeling  pretty sassy and it looked like we’d get to loll about with pastries,  waiting for our train to Avignon. But…the second Metro train was JAMMED  with people, and the grand line train station was too…crumb. We slogged  through the crowds using up our pastry time and dropped into our seats  with bare seconds to go. Instead of luscious almond and pear pastries,  we were going to have to settle for train food. Ah, but this is France!  Regular train breakfast is a delicious little roll with sweet butter and  jam, orange juice, fresh fruit (REALLY fresh fruit…), a chocolate  pastry---‘cause one piece of bread isn’t enough…and a shot of delicious  espresso with cream. 

We arrived in Avignon, the capital of  Provence, during a Mistral…a wind so strong you can’t open or close  doors! Or walk! A Mistral, apparently, is nothing like the Santa Anas I  grew up with in southern California. It doesn’t gust---it just blows  with one constant, punch-like blast. 

We headed for the Luberon,  in our tiny, light-as-a-leaf-in-the-wind rental car. We picked our way  along through stone villages, stopping in larger Cavaillon to use a  convenient ATM. When I looked beyond the ATM though, Cavaillon looked  very appealing despite being a large city. A shockingly beautiful fruit  market caught my eye but when we entered the store just to look, I  started filling a basket in earnest. I grabbed cheeses, tiny dry  finger-sized salamis bundled together with raffia, fat golden raisins,  the shiniest dates I have ever seen, hazelnuts, juicy dried kadota figs,  did I mention CHEESE?! We got a large bag of tiny tangerines, Rubinette  apples, and little pears that looked like a still life painting in the  Louvre. 

The kids both said “no” to carrying along some food as  we explored, but as soon as I began to eat what I brought for myself,  they crowded around with their mouths wide open, like fat baby birds. 

After  so many cathedrals, when the church bells rang in Cavaillon, it stopped  us still. The kids were hearing the sound of a rural church bell for  the first time and I was thrilling to hear a sound so familiar, so  precious to me--- 

Sunday, December 13. Cavaillon, Provence. 

It’s  supposed to snow tonight---hard to believe! Yesterday, we arrived to  shocking sunlight and blue sky after nearly two weeks of dreary grey.  The Mistral was howling and I thought we were going to have some sun.  Today it rained. 

We awoke to a lovely breakfast in the historic  Hotel du Parc. On the same plaza as the Office of Tourisme, we were  within walking distance to restaurants and markets. Our breakfast was a  beautiful array of yogurt, several kinds of granola, camembert, shiny  dates, croissants, French rolls, cakes, jams, fresh persimmons and  homemade persimmon jam served in the orangerie. We were cozy inside,  watching the rain spattering outside. The setting was so comfortable and  the breakfast so lush that we lingered for quite a long time. 

We  drove off feeling so good. We visited several villages, castles, and  citadels, weaving along through the Luberon Mountains. Fog drifted in  and out, so the narrow country roads felt very intimate lined with trees  still holding onto autumn leaves, cypress, oak, and pine. We happened  on a Christmas fete at a winery where we bought truffle cheese that  really stunk up our car---truffle oil, apricot bread, olive bread, and  pastry. A man was scrambling eggs with fresh truffles over a wood fire  in a huge fireplace and gave me a teacup to sample. The kids, now full  of pastry, refused a taste…good! Because I wanted to lick the cup when I  was done! We toured the wine cave and then were off again into the  rain-sweet countryside with our stinky-delicious cheese. In yet another,  heartbreakingly beautiful stone village, we admired Provencal quilted  boutis---bedding and tablecloths, the kids bought batteries so that they  could continue to videotape themselves being silly in the back seat,  and stepped into, yes, another cozy café for café crème and chocolate  chaud! 

Another beautiful day in Provence! We got back to our  hotel a little bit early because we had the drudge of all drudges to  look forward to---Laundromat time. Our bag of dirty laundry was nowhere  to be found and I started to panic that the maid had thrown it away. We  searched high and low. I went to inquire and found that the owner of the  hotel had taken it downstairs to wash it herself! It was all bleached,  clean, and folded! She made a recommendation for dinner, made a  reservation for us and we were off to another memorable dinner---a  perfect end to a perfect day! 

Monday, December 15. Provence. 

Settling  in comfortable Cavaillon, where some restaurants stay open on Sundays  and the boulangeries and markets have great cheese, fruit, and salami,  worked out very well for us in this cold season. Provence has been so  smooth! Even in icy rainy autumn/winter. With the freedom of a rental  car, we were able to roam. 

We roamed to the Camargue region  today, an immense marshland bordering the Mediterranean. We drove  through miles of Luberon and then Alpilles, which are massive ranges of  uplifted rock. The hills were covered with grey-green Mediterranean  plants and lavender was growing wild everywhere. Closer to the coast,  there were miles of flat grassland and large expanses of open water. We  noticed the stocky white horses and black bulls that are famous to the  region. Hundreds of them roam free to graze. There were also hundreds of  shell pink flamingos that migrate to the area for the winter. 

The  town of Stes Marie de la Mer was mostly shuttered to shocking cold,  strong winds. We spent just moments on the beach grabbing up spiraled  conis shells for classmates and found one of the few open restaurants.  All they had to serve was bull stew. It was appalling badly cooked, with  red wine and carrots. The meat was very tough but the waiter was  sweetly good-natured. We chewed through and got the heck out of there.  I’d purchased some bull salami earlier at the market, and the lady  helping me had been alarmed by my choice. I was wondering now if it was  anything like the stew I had just suffered through? We hadn’t tasted it  yet…she’d signified horns…but it was obviously meant to buy and eat…I  wondered who she would consider a “bull salami” kind of customer? 

While  the food was appalling, the town church was charming. It had the  utilitarian look of a small town church on the outside, but the stone  was rough cut on the inside. It looked like a grotto and had many  decorations and painting of boats. I guessed so close to the ocean, that  boats and fishing would dominate the joys and tragedies of such a small  community. The kids lit a candle for the fisherman and we headed  “home.” 

The sun was beginning to set into frozen icy crystal  haze and harsh wind was whipping and the grass on either side of the  road. We sped back to Cavaillon through St Remy, which was a sweet  little version of Paris. I wished we’d had more time to spend there. The  straight road from there to Cavaillon is miles long and lined with  trees. As far as we could see down the road, the bare ancient trees  reached up to mingle branches overhead. We felt like we were in a  church. 

For dinner, we had a hotel room picnic of truffle  cheese, French breakfast radishes, camembert, figs, pears….and bull  salami…which was completely delicious…then we had a deep and dreamless  sleep. 

Tuesday, December 15. Avignon, Provence. 

My  rule is that if we’re anywhere even near a UNESCO site, we get there and  take a look. The site of Pont du Gard lies west of Avignon, so we spent  the morning travelling there. The kids have been enjoying French news  and game shows so it didn’t seem so odd when Emma blithely used the word  “fromage” instead of “cheese. How delightful that despite their  occasional nagging and bickering, they once in awhile burst out with  something so sweet! 

We passed through miles of vineyard. Most of  the vines had been pruned for winter with piles of cuttings at the end  of the rows, waiting to be burned. We’d passed through the sweet smoke  of those smoldering fires, so I craved that smell one more time before  we left Provence. 

The wind was blasting and bitter icy cold. I  can’t remember ever being so cold. We had trouble walking against the  wind but we had a perfectly stunning section of Roman aqueduct spanning a  wide, deep river valley---completely to ourselves. This is the section  of aqueduct you see whenever there is a story of Roman  aqueducts…oh.my.gosh. I could have lingered despite the cold but we  hurried back to Avignon, to spend our last afternoon at the Pope’s  Palace. 

A French Pope abandoned Rome for Avignon, so the city is  built around a glorious palace. We spent our afternoon moving from icy  stony room to icy stony room. In warm seasons, when the gardens where in  bloom and the air was scented with lavender, basil, and lemon, I would  have envied the palace residents. On this day though, even with roaring  fires in the enormous fireplaces---large enough to burn tree TRUNKS, oh.  You couldn’t make me live in that palace! 

We exited through a  passage carved into a massive stone outcrop that reached at least two  stories above our heads. A Christmas market filled the town square and  featured the enchanting, familiar things common to the region. There  were booths selling beeswax candles and honey, olive oil, quilted boutis  tablecloths and bedding, Provencal fabrics, lace, baskets, soaps and  lavender---Provence celebrates summer even on the coldest December  afternoon! 

When we couldn’t stand the cold, we blustered into a  cozy patisserie and warmed up with marzipan and ganach, coffee with  thick cream, and hot chocolate. The place was packed so we felt very  appropriate and in-the-know on the luxurious way to spend a wintery  French afternoon.

Wednesday, December 16. Almost headed for home. 

We  made our way back to Paris in a snowstorm. We were going home to  California, early in the morning the next day. The kids were considering  that we should extend our stay. We were only a few hours from Spain,  Italy, Belgium, Germany, Africa!…we could just travel on as we were  doing! It wasn’t hard to distract them with the most distracting thing  I’ve ever seen work on 
kids---ah, the magic of souvenirs! 

I  wasn’t so easily distracted. I looked to Notre Dame beside us, one of  the great cathedrals of the world, while the kids had their faces in  baskets of baguette-shaped pens and Eiffel Tower key chains. We dropped  everything off at the hotel and clumped back into the Metro to travel to  the catacombs. After two train changes and a good hour of being jostled  around, we emerged to find the catacombs closed due to vandalism.  Crumb. The kids were undeterred, they bought chocolate crepes and we  went back down into the Metro. This time, we came out at the foot of the  Arc de Triomphe! It was growing dusky when we reached the top but the  view at that time of day left me stunned. The kids busied themselves  with identifying their landmarks and I tried to set the last two weeks  in my heart so that I could believe that this had all really happened. 

We  had our last dinner in the café where the kids had enjoyed “hot milch,”  and lingered, talking, until very late. The kids discussed which  college they’d like to attend and I quietly hoped that the next eight  years wouldn’t go as fast as the last ten had gone! I planned to talk  Dylan and Carter into retracing this trip in four years, when it would  be their turn. I’m going to buy a lot more cheese next time! 

Thursday, December 17. Flight to LAX. 

It’s  dinnertime in Paris. We’re 35,000 feet above Newfoundland and I feel so  sad as we speed away from Paris---seemingly suspended in space---I want  to be going the other direction! 

We got up in the dark and  trudged to the train that would take us to Charles de Gaulle. We  couldn’t stop to buy cheese and tangerines, or linger too long at the  boulangerie. The streets were dark and quiet. Emma wondered where the  accordion player had gone---the corner had been festive and sweet and  alive where he’d been playing Christmas songs last night. Notre Dame was  dark. The square was empty. We could have been walking through any  slumbering city, anywhere. I’d hoped for snow. I’d wanted to see Paris  sparkle through soft snow. 

It did snow, alright, on the way to  the airport. The worst storm in years was starting to hit. We waited.  And we waited. Airports are the most antiseptic places in the world.  They’re the same anywhere---you can use any kind of money, the shops are  the same no matter where you are…this sameness and familiarity might be  a comfort to some, but is very disturbing to me. I feel like we’re in a  bottle. There is no sparkle or flavor of the country. 

We were  in the chute. We were being processed. After the scramble to get to the  airport and the fear that the train would break down or some crazy  plane-missing scenario, I’d settled into a seat with an airport pan au  chocolate and waited. My heart started to feel heavy. Fantastic flashes  were lighting up from fresh memory and I hoped I’d be able to hold onto  all of it somehow. 

I want to remember Emma and Harrison gasping  as they stepped out on the top deck of the Eiffel Tower. I wanted to  remember them hurrying through the cold along the Champs Elysees on our  last night. I wanted to remember their sweet glowing faces at dinner in a  cozy bistro on “our” cobbled street on the Ile St Louis. I wanted to  remember the comedy of opening the car door in the morning to the smell  of stinky truffle cheese! 

The snow was falling heavily and I  could see that snowplows were having trouble keeping up. Our flight was  delayed indefinitely. We fell into the lull of waiting and finally  boarded the plane like sheep. After a long wait on the plane at the  terminal gate and then waiting for de-icing and clearance…we finally  moved to a taxiway just short of the runway. We sat through a full  engine power-up. Power down, we sat some more. I wasn’t thinking or  feeling anything. We moved out onto the runway and accelerated…my heart  was in my throat more than I’ve ever felt. I found the end of this  beautiful trip to be unbearable. We lifted into the air, into soft  snowfall, and headed home. 

Friday, December 18. The Morning After. 

I’ve  watched the sky go from pitch black to rose gold. I’m in a sleeping bag  on the second floor of my parents house with windows completely around.  It feels like a tree house. I look once in awhile to see if it’s light  enough to see the ocean. I’m in southern California and it’s 3pm in  Paris. I realize with a twinge, that Emma and Harrison and I would be in  a café right now, enjoying a pastry break. It has only been a two-week  trip, but what a profound two weeks! 

We were split up at the  airport last night and it was a strange painful way to end such an  intense time together. We’d been three little nothings out there  swirling together in the deep of the world. Now we were on home ground. 

We  were so lucky to have an hour! A day! Two weeks! Today, I’m going home  to Reno, back to where it all started, back to “real life.” As travel  always does though, I won’t be the same…I’ve FELT, not just heard the  difference again between cathedral bells and country bells. I’ve been  reminded again of the deliciousness of living simply and embracing the  unfamiliar. 

I can’t wait to experiment with terrines and pates.  I’m going to make marzipan from scratch and find out again, and remember  this time, what UNESCO stands for. I’m going to grow Meyer lemon and  olive topiaries that I’ll bring inside through the winter, like any  soul-wealthy peasant would do! I’m going to remember to make limoncello  in the dark and cold of February so that we can bask in the summer  lemon-y-ness when there’s fresh basil and parmesan and raspberries to go  with it! 

I’m going to rely solidly on my milk man to find me  some of the incredible, strange cheese I can’t get out of my  mind---rinds rolled in ash, rinds that are a weepy salmon color, no rind  at all! Cheese that’s goat-y, tangy, crunchy with salt crystals. Cheese  that works! I want “working” cheese with cornichons and baguette slices  beside a vinegar-y salad this spring! Just you wait!