A Week In France

The spring has come to France, bit by bit, and I can tell now in the nights that there is warmth in the air and in the personalities that have also been frozen, in a way, throughout the unusual winter we have had here. I find myself with only 2 weeks left of my intensive French classes, and wonder what I will with the month of April, as I have only one class, and that for just 4 hours a week, which means five out of seven days I am ‘sans chose à faire’. But we will see, and I am sure there will be adventures to recount.

I am currently in France with Tony. He was set to arrive on Friday of last week, and I had been anxiously counting the days. When I called him last Thursday I was shocked to hear that one of his flights had been cancelled and he would arrive at the airport in Paris a half hour too late to catch his flight to Pau. He was rather upset that he would be stranded in Paris for more than 10 hours, because the final flight to Pau in the evening would not leave until 6. He does not speak any French, and he had been waiting an awfully long time to come and visit me. The prospect of yet another 10 hours in a stark, lonely airport in a foreign city were not appealing to him.

A long time ago, I learned that what is important in life is not how much money something costs, and what is important in life is not always what is the most logical and ‘safe’ thing to do. On Thursday night I hopped the night train to Paris and was waiting at CDG airport when Tony’s flight arrived. I spend the night shivering on the bottom bunk of a tiny room as the train crept towards Paris.

You can travel between Pau and Paris on a regular train in 6 or 7 hours, perhaps 8, while the TGV takes just 5. However, when one buys a ticket on the night train, one knows it will take the NIGHT. At 9 PM I walked from my house to the train station, and at 11 I boarded the train and used my newly acquired French to ensure I had a place to sleep. The train did not arrive in Paris until 7 AM the following day.

The two people who shared my tiny couchette provided much of my entertainment for the evening. The man was obviously a musician, because he took up one of the top bunks, and his rather large guitar took up the other. He was also obviously a BROODING musician, because he spent the first two hours standing in the corridor watching the French night pass us by. The woman, who was a bit more talkative, perhaps was his REASON for brooding, because although I heard them talking to each other before they entered the room, and they LEFT the train together, they said nothing to each other for the entire journey. While he stood and watched she made some small talk with me before covering her face with her coat and keeping the exact same position for the next 7 hours.

I arrived in Paris with the brooding musician and his lady at about 7 AM. I had not slept a terribly large amount, but I was very excited to be there. Somehow I found my way on the RER, which is the regional train system in Paris, from Austerlitz station where I arrived, to the airport, where Tony did. I had not known much about CDG airport, because when I arrived in Paris I had followed the signs to the train station in the airport and had stayed in that place for 10 hours on my own. It had been easy enough to find, when I had arrived in France, back in January.

I had remembered the 10 hours I spent in the train station at CDG airport, underneath the large signs that announced each train that left and arrived, and I had remembered it well. It had really been my first impression of France, this time around. It had been cold, and it had been lonely, but I knew it would be different this time. The Thursday before Tony arrived I had thought to give him some simple instructions. “The word you are looking for is GARE” I told him, “Follow the signs from your gate to the GARE and meet me underneath the big signs that give arrivals and departures”. And that is what he did.

We sat on the floor of the GARE for perhaps an hour, talking, exchanging stories and hugs that seemed to last a day. We had not seen each other in two months, and spent the first few moments remembering each others faces again, and laughing about our travel adventures. After we arranged for Tony’s suitcase to travel the same route he would have travelled later that day, we decided to see as much of Paris as we possibly could before the train left for Pau. What does one see in Paris when one has only one day? We navigated the metro system and arrived, of course, at the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t have time to climb it, we had time only to stand underneath it and stare up at the people who HAD the time. We asked some strangers to take a few pictures of us there, in Paris, before we hailed a taxi to take us to Montparnasse station.

The taxi itself was wonderful. The seats were leather and cool black to match the coolness of the afternoon. The driver looked exactly like Kevin Spacey in a turtleneck sweater. He had jazz music playing on the radio, and although it was probably more expensive, he took us the long way to the station, which gave us both a view of the beautiful buildings and history that is Paris. I wished that I had studied Paris more in the three times I had been there, because although all of the buildings looked familiar to my eyes I wasn’t often able to answer Tony’s inquisitive “What’s that?”

From Montparnasse we rode the TGV back to Pau. The return trip for me, less than 20 hours after I had left my apartment, took only 5 hours to complete. The TGV travels about 160 miles an hour at top speed, and it is an amazing experience. Tony and I arrived back in Pau at around 9:30 and took another taxi to my apartment, which was much LESS romantic and much more practical than the one we had taken in Paris.

We have been having a wonderful time here in my town. On Saturday there was a USAC excursion to Basque County, and everyone was excited to meet this person I have been talking so much about. We saw a beautiful town in France, St Jean Peid de Port, and had our lunch at a French Cidery. The cidre was not very good, but the food WAS, and Tony’s vegetarian meal was much better looking than mine tasted!

We ended our day at Biarritz, which is at the ocean. I think that I can say walking to the edge of the sea on Saturday was perhaps the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It was a tiny bit cold, and we could see an amazing storm heading in our direction as we stood with France behind us and eternity before us. Our friends left behind, Tony and I walked to the furthest edge of the pier and wrapped our arms around each other as we gazed at the water. It was rough and cold and horribly wonderful as the spray hit us and matched the rain that we saw coming across the ocean like a velvet curtain you could just barely see through, being pulled across the water and tormenting the waves with its absolute smoothness. The salty air blew in our faces and we had a most private and beautiful romantic moment at the edge of the water.

We made it back to the bus just as the rain began to fall in earnest, and enjoyed the company of friends as we drove back to Pau. That evening I surprised and pleased myself by ordering a pizza on the telephone in French, and not only having the pizza arrive at my house, but having it be exactly what I had ordered. I was very proud of myself for accomplishing this task, and also very glad that Tony had no reason to tease me for screwing it up.

On Sunday, we travelled with friends to Lourdes. A small change in elevation unexpectedly threw us all into about an inch of snow as we stepped off of the platform. Lourdes is a beautiful place. A long time ago, at a Grotto in Lourdes, Bernadette saw the virgin Mary. Since that time, the waters that flow from the grotto have been said to be healing waters.

Tony and I marvelled at not only THIS amazing idea, but at the fact that while the grotto and church itself are very proper and beautiful and sacred, the streets on the WAY to the grotto are full of shops that sell things to capitalize on this idea. We stopped in a few of them, and bought ourselves plastic bottles shaped like Mary in which to bring water from the Grotto to our friends and family. The best part about this excursion, in my opinion, was that the plastic bottles look much more like Aunt Jemima from the syrup, rather than Mary from the Bible.

Liza Kollman
On Sunday night we visited one of my favorite restaurants in Pau, which is rather new. It is called The Mexico, and it is run by a man who once called Bloomington, Minnesota his home. When I first heard this I smiled and said “My mall is there!” When he moved to the US from Mexico, he was granted a type of citizenship, but when he married a French woman, the government would not let them both stay in Minnesota. So here he is, cooking us Mexican food, half a world away from home.

The week has flown by for us here in France. Last night we ate Crepes at the restaurant by the Chateau, and tonight we will cook for our friends. Tomorrow afternoon we will head to London for the weekend. I have booked us yet another hostel, and I know you will all be anxious to hear how that one works out. We will be sure to pay in cash, however, so don’t worry!

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