Published Jul 16, 2010

Now, a France vacation, it’s a dream vacation, that’s for sure; romance, food, culture, and all that. The only problem I’ve had is paying with credit cards. It’s not that we’ve run out of money — though, even with the euro as strong as it is, it all seems like funny money and a 2€ coca-cola comes off as a great discount that it’s almost impossible to say no to — it’s the technology. See, in cafés around here, instead of having a central machine they take your card to and then do the transaction at, the waiters have these hand-held machines that they use to run the charge on the spot. This sounds convenient, but the process is a little weird to me as an American. I can’t just get the bill, put my card out, then wait for the server to return, take the whole megillah back, and run it; I need to somehow signal to them that they should bring out the machine. Waving my card about seems gauche, and I never remember to ask if I can pay with a credit card when the tab shows up (anyway, at most cafés they leave a running tab with each comestible they deliver). The best thing to do would be to watch what the French do, but cafés are way too relaxing to go being all eagle-eyed about things. 

Speaking of cafés, the squat toilet situation has improved, although, now that I’m in the south, I expect that trend to reverse in due course. With consistency, the French seem to have no love for the tradition of washing one’s hands after using the restroom — I’ve yet to encounter hot water, soap is spotty, and the drying method of choice is the bacterially-frightening continuous roll towel — but, then, there’s precedent: my Father, an MIT grad, has always told the story of an MIT man and a Harvard man who meet in a restroom. Both men use the urinal, and, on the way out, the Harvard man stops to wash his hands. He notices the MIT man leaving without joining him at the sink, so the Harvard man says “You know, at Harvard, they taught us to wash our hands after we urinate.” The MIT man replies, wryly,: “At MIT, they taught us not to pee on our hands.”

Anyway, back to the whole trip thing. I was going to write one of my usual entries, filled with photos, but slow Internet connections have kept me offline and I’m about 105 photos behind on uploading — and have about 700 un-edited photos to go through after that. (FYI, that should cut down to about 150 that actually get uploaded at the end of the day, so I might get all that up eventually.) We did, finally, make it to the Louvre in Paris, and on a bateaux-mouches tour up and down the Seine. There will be black-and-white of the former, when I finally develop it (weeks or more, folks), and, when I finally edit it, color of the former. There may even be a few photos from the incredible lunch that we shared with my parents as they celebrated their 45th anniversary at the Pré Catalan.

And then there will be photos of the next two phases of our trip: the Loire, and Burgundy. The Loire is basically château central for France; once a prime route for invasion, many of the fortified castles have been torn down and turned into magnificent, ornate palaces. We saw lovely Chenonceaux, not just surrounded by a moat but actually built over a lake, supported by arches the float over the water and topped with rounded spires, and Cheverny, its second-best that is still privately-owned and sports a giant pack of 70 hunting dogs; we saw Ussé, with so many spires and made from such beautiful white stone that it inspired the story of Sleeping Beauty; we saw quaint little Saché, where Balzac wrote (and famously ordered coffee directly from Paris, to replace the local brew); and we saw Amboise, the former favorite home of the French kings, where poor Charles VIII hit his head on a doorframe and killed himself. We saw a two-hour sound-and-light-and-hundreds-of-townspeople-with-fireworks-and-horses spectacular on the château, which mostly concerned variations on the theme “the King and the people of Amboise like to party,” with a bit of “Leonardo Da Vinci died here” thrown in for good measure. The château of Amboise actually towered over our hotel room in the city of Amboise, a charming, narrow-streeted Renaissance city that served as our home for three days. We also had an outstanding meal there, at a place called Le Lion d’Or.

Then it was a train trip to the Burgundy region, to see some old family friends. France being France, we had to take a train from Amboise to Paris, then from Paris down to their little town. France being France, the trains were clean, fast, with wide seats, and on one leg of the trip even featured a range of seasonal delicacies as lunch options.

Our family friends are incredible people. The husband is a retired physicist, who now dabbles in archaeology by traveling to the Sudan on digs and brews his own liqueurs; the wife, a retired government minister, cooks three gourmet meals a day, makes jam from scratch, and keeps a home lovelier than any three ideal 1950s housewives could all working together at once. They showed us a wonderful, relaxing time, which was well-needed after our busy Paris and Loire schedule. 

Today we’re in transit. Perhaps I’ll get some of these photos processed. And, hotel Internet allowing, maybe there will be some more posts coming.