The Perfect French Vacation -
Taking the time to waste!
Let's talk about how to have the perfect French vacation. Time slows down, as it should whenever you are on vacation. You need to waste time while on vaction. I know, I know - that doesn't sound right. But keep reading....
The Typical "European Tour"
I'll bet you know someone who's shelled out several thousand dollars for their "European tour" only to return home with a set of generic photographs which could have been pulled off the internet. A good deal of the pictures don't even have the redeeming quality of a familiar face since they were quite possibly taken through a grimy bus window or off the top of the open deck of a tourist bus. Although sometimes they do contain the backside of a stranger's head as you both, along with sixty-seven other tourists from various parts of the world, jostle each other to leap to the side of the bus where the Louvre is whizzing by through traffic.
Luckily technology has come to our aid and the split second it takes for a digital camera to capture a swift glimpse of the Louvre has resolved a good deal of the blur captured by our parent's generation as they took their "European tour".
Still, the excitement of actually seeing the Louvre first hand is rather marred by the frenzied need to get the shot for the album, and somewhere along the line, the point of going to Europe in the first place, is lost. The perfect French vacation ends up not-so-perfect.
Bob and Lisa - Learning to Slow Down
A few years ago, I had some friends from Michigan come visit me in France for the first time, for their perfect French vacation. Bob and Lisa (their names have been changed to protect the innocent....) sent a couple of short emails before sending the one with their flight schedule into Charles de Gaulle. The other emails were seriously devoid of any tips concerning what they wanted to see and do while here.
I was actually afraid on the day they arrived because I wasn't sure what they 'needed' to see for their own personal "European tour" photo album, what would make their perfect French vacation. I'd been given an assignment in creative tour guiding with no parameters to follow. It was daunting.
After the first slightly uncomfortable half-hour in the car when I tried to wheedle ideas from their jet-lagged selves, with pretty much no success, I figured it might be a good idea to go get us all a beer somewhere picturesque. As we sat in a small open air brasserie on the Place du Tertre with the biggest beer mug imaginable on the table in front of us, I watched them completely unwind. So did I.
For the record, they have excellent alcohol-free beer available in France, or the real thing should you feel so inclined.....
It must have been the sunlight flickering down through the covered awning, or the sweet little chickadees and sparrows boldly hopping on the tables to filch bread crumbs from compliant beer drinkers like ourselves, or maybe it was just really good beer.
No matter, they fell in love with Paris and more importantly with France in about 15 minutes time.
Their lives slowed right down to the pace you need to live at if you want the perfect French vacation. There were no timetables to respect, no buses to catch, no dictionaries to consult and not a guide book in sight.
They were free to sit and waste a little time enjoying the birds, the beer and to watch the comings and goings of the other people bustling around them, living their Parisian lives. I watched as their vacation took hold of them, erasing the stress of their last day at work, the long flight and subsequent hunt for baggage on the conveyor belt. It was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. They sat sipping and absorbing Paris, before our onion soup and salad appeared on the table and the serious business of eating began.
My Personal Crusade
Of course I had a job to do. My personal crusade for the past twenty some years has been to manage to get some of the obligatory monument visiting taken care of the first day, but to mix in a little of these precious time 'wasting' half hours here and there, creating that perfect French vacation for my visitors.
Sometimes they take place as I mentioned earlier in the Place du Tertre, sometimes in the Tuileries gardens, sometimes in a café near the St Michel fountain on the left bank. My list of hanging about spots is long.
But the point is, the perfect French vacation includes these hanging-about-not-doing-much-of-anything moments. Some chit-chat is done but sometimes we all get quiet since it's hard to absorb atmosphere and chatter at the same time.
Time continues to slow down....
At the end of the first day, as we drive out of town, headed north-west to Normandy and home, their heads nod sleepily in much needed napping, as we slowly slide through the jammed traffic on the “péripherique exterieure”.
I like to think they're dreaming of the visionary diligence of the guys who devoted their lives to building Notre Dame Cathedral, while knowing they'd never see it finished, or wondering what Picasso was thinking about when he painted his “portrait” - the one where the facial features are all mixed up. (Personally I've always thought it was a wonderful representation of how one feels on one of those infamous 'mornings after', when eyeballs are no longer lodged in their sockets and one's tongue seems to have taken on inhuman proportions, sticking itself firmly to the palette. However, once again I digress....)
As we head toward home, I always take a short detour to drive up to the palace of Versailles. By then, the palace has closed for the day, and the parking lot is blissfully empty of the hundred or so tour buses and the gazillion cars full of people who stream through the gates daily to ogle at the inconceivably megalomania-cal manifestation of the Sun King.
You get to drive right up to the gate and look in, seeing nobody at all. This is especially great if you can let your imagination take over and listen to your faithful tour guide (me) supply you with some visual descriptions of what you would have seen if you were standing in this very spot some 350 years previous.
Sometimes, like with this particular trip for Bob and Lisa, it will be their only visit to Versailles, still the impression has been made, they got the message and more would just be variations on a theme.
More importantly, we're off to Normandy, where real French people live, work, play, have babies and die, as they have for thousands of years.
The thing is, a visit to Normandy allows an American visitor to share in the differences of their perceptions of these things, and compare them to how the French do those things.
Bob and Lisa helped me do the shopping for our evening meals at the butcher, baker, greengrocer, fishmonger shops and market stalls. They asked questions about what such and such food was, tasted fresh figs for the first time, and oohed over the pastries on display at the “patisserie”, before deciding with some difficulty which one to buy for eating while sipping coffee in a sidewalk café, shopping bags piled at our feet during yet another time wasting break during their 'European tour'.
Slow Down to the Perfect French Vacation...
I've seen their photos. They're fabulous!
And I just received an email informing me that they're coming back next year for two weeks in celebration of Bob's 50th birthday to waste some more time living at French speed.
You might want to give it a try, you'll get some great pix. And you'll have the perfect French vacation!
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