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Maiden Voyage: Adventures in the Land of Wine and Cheese

Maiden Voyage: Adventures in the Land of Wine and Cheese

Maiden Voyage: Adventures in the Land of Wine and Cheese

Versailles, July 1995, Personal photo from our first trip to France.

Rouen Cathedral, France 1995.

After completing my B.A. in Communication Arts, my mom and I prepared to depart for our first trip to France. With a recent Lyme disease diagnosis, she wasn’t feeling her best. It was the summer of 1995, and Europe was in the throes of a record-breaking heatwave. Despite the sultry temps, a tick-borne illness, protests over France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific, and bomb threats by The Armed Islamic Group, we set out undeterred, not wanting to miss our long-awaited trip.

Armed with a copy of Rick Steve’s latest guide book and tips from a French teacher-friend, my mom had carefully planned every detail of our itinerary. With our traveler’s cheques and pocket dictionary in hand, we boarded for Paris. Our promising start lasted precisely the duration of our flight from Minneapolis. From the moment we stepped off the plane in Paris, we were as dazed and confused as Dorothy and Toto arriving in OZ.

My brain raced, trying to keep up with the conversations happening all around us, picking out only a handful of words here and there. The pace was dizzying and so very far from the carefully practiced phrases of the classroom. All those semesters of French seemed to evaporate in the Parisian heat and suddenly felt as useless as a TGV ticket on the Metro.

Château de Fountainebleau, Summer 1995, Personal Photo

The journey from Charles de Gaulle airport to our Paris hotel seemed far more ambitious than the flight we had just made across the Atlantic. After retrieving our luggage, locating the train station, determining which tickets were necessary from the myriad of lines and choices, we schlepped our bags on and off three Metro lines. We eventually surfaced in a quiet corner of the 16th arrondissement, supposedly very near to our hotel. Honestly, it had looked quite close on the map we had obtained before leaving the states, but we soon realized the actual distance was a bit further than we had anticipated. Despite it being the middle of the day, almost everything appeared to be closed. By the time we reached our hotel, we were sweaty and exhausted, looking rather more like we had just swum the Atlantic than flown over it in air-conditioned comfort.

The little Parisian hotel we had booked was far more shabby than chic. As is not uncommon in small Parisian hotels, even today, it required yet another hike up three flights of narrow winding stairs. The small, plainly decorated room that greeted us had a single window overlooking a tiny interior courtyard that offered neither light nor air to the room’s dim, stuffy interior. When we inquired about a fan, the young man at the desk shrugged apologetically while an older man, who we took to be the proprietor, fiddled with a table in the adjacent breakfast area. Without looking up from his task, he made a sweeping gesture in our general direction mumbling something about opening a window.

We spent 5 nights in that hotel, often sleeping with dampened towels draped over ourselves in a desperate attempt to escape the heat and sleep for a few hours before venturing out again. With daily temps pushing 100 degrees, we cooled off by eating lots of ice cream and learned that finding even a single, random ice cube in your Coca-Cola was a genuine cause for celebration.

“London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.”

G. K. Chesterson

Dinner on our first night in Paris consisted of Chinese take-out from a tiny place on the corner, which appeared to be the only spot open. Tired and hungry after a long day of travel, we pointed and smiled and nodded as we ordered at the counter from a cheerful couple who didn’t seem to notice, or mind, our limited vocabulary.

I wish I could say things improved from there–that we strolled along the Seine and took in the stunning museums, gardens, and gothic cathedrals of Paris. We did, and it was thrilling! Less so was being evacuated from the world’s largest art museum only moments after finding Mona due to another bomb threat. Unfortunately, the museum remained closed for the rest of the day, and with an already full itinerary, we were unable to return.

We got lost–a lot–and usually while searching for the rare and elusive public “toilettes.” My mom refused to use the coin-operated Sanisettes scattered around Paris, too afraid the automated door would malfunction, leaving her locked inside.

 

In Paris on my first trip to France in July 1995.

“Eventually, my eyes were opened, and I really understood nature. I learned to love at the same time.”

– CLAUDE MONET

Nymphéas, 1906 by Claude Monet, Art Institute of Chicago, Image in the Public Domain

The day we visited Versailles, it was so hot they were handing out bottles of water at the entrance, trying to prevent tourists from passing out with heat-stroke. We gratefully accepted as we followed the throngs of visitors through room-after-stifling-room of The Sun King’s royal residence. While gazing up at one gilded ceiling or another, I clumsily dropped my water and suddenly found myself surrounded by grimacing security guards who had heard the plastic bottle splat on Louis’ 17th-century oak floor. I awkwardly mumbled my apologies, doing my best to wipe up the water with my hand before hastily moving on.

After enjoying the treasures of Versailles, we boarded the train to return to our hotel only to find everyone quickly disembarking after an indiscernible announcement over the loudspeaker. We decided it was best to follow suit and soon found ourselves dumped out into the street along with everyone else, somewhere between Versailles and our hotel. The trains, it appeared, were suspended due to new threats. Thankfully, it was a lovely evening for a very long walk and more Chinese take-out when we finally made it back to our hotel. After a terrifying lunchtime encounter with a beady-eyed crustacean-encrusted salad, we decided egg rolls and orange chicken sounded like the safer choice.

Another evening, after a full day of sightseeing, we discovered a tasty and affordable roast chicken and vegetable plate at a Brasserie with a pretty view onto the Place du Trocadéro. As Trocadéro was our final Metro transfer on our evening return to our hotel, we made it our dinner stop on more than one night, happy to have something familiar and recognizable.

Claude Monet’s home at Giverny, France, Summer 1995, Photo by Kristin Blakeman

We tried to see and do it all, cramming as much into our two-week vacation as we had into our bulging suitcases. Paris, Normandy, Brittany, Le-Mont-Saint-Michel, Chartres, Versailles, Fontainebleau. We got around on foot and by train. After mistakenly boarding a clattering TER train with its hard plastic seats and half-open windows, we quickly learned the critical distinction between the faster regional trains and the local variety that meander through every hamlet and pause at each whistle-stop on the line.

A few days later, while visiting the medieval walled city of Saint-Malo, we found ourselves locked in a tower that housed a musty maritime museum. The woman who’d collected our entrance fee not an hour earlier had, apparently, decided to close up early, leaving us and a French couple locked inside. After looking at each other in disbelief and exchanging a few shrugs, the Frenchman, clearly incensed, put his shoulder to the door and forced it open. I will admit we were relieved to be sprung after briefly facing the prospect of spending the night in that dusty tower.

Later that evening, when my mom felt feverish, I asked at the front desk for a nearby pharmacy. The proprietor seemed convinced it was an ambulance we needed. After assuring him the American woman in Chambre 12 was not going to die in his hotel and that all I wanted was a thermometer, he finally set down the phone, pointing me in the direction of a pharmacy.

After failing to find favor with French cuisine, sudden evacuations, and five sweltering nights in that tiny Parisian hotel, France felt decidedly different than the chic paradise of our dreams. I’m sure there were moments in the restless delirium between jetlag and heat stroke when we would have happily traded in our tacky American tennis shoes for a pair of magical ruby slippers to transport ourselves home. Fortunately, we persisted, sustained by croissants, jambon-beurre sandwiches, and Chinese take-out.

Despite the setbacks and missteps during that first trip, we had a marvelous time. Had everything gone perfectly, it would not have been nearly as memorable. We still get a good laugh remembering our adventures. Little did we know then that more than 20 years later, we would begin another chapter of adventures together in France.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  |  KRISTIN BLAKEMAN

I help others discover France’s storied destinations with curated travel experiences. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

Curious about what your French adventure could look like?

Hugo, Hepburn And The Frenchman In My Parent’s Basement

Hugo, Hepburn And The Frenchman In My Parent’s Basement

Hugo, Hepburn And The Frenchman In My Parent’s Basement

Quasimodo sauvant la Esmeralda des mains de ses bourreaux  |  Oil on Canvas by Elisa Victorine Henry (1790 – 1873)  |  In the collection at the Maison Victor Hugo in Paris.

The French Conversation Manual I found in my parent’s basement that first piqued my interest in learning French. | Photo © Kristin Blakeman

My fascination with the French language began in the basement of my childhood home, where my dad’s turntable and record collection lived. Thumbing over the album spines, I’d tip my head sideways, trying to read the titles, pausing to pull out anything that looked interesting. Hidden among the volumes of Chopin, Satchmo, and Miles Davis, was a blue and white striped LP jacket and matching French Conversation Manual. Curious, I carefully slid the record from its sleeve, placed it on the turntable until the cheerful music of the introduction crackled through the speakers. I was soon following along as the male voice said, “Bonjour, comment allez-vous?” then paused, giving me time to repeat it before moving on to the next expression. Before long, I was carrying on both sides of the conversation between myself and the imaginary French waiter in my parent’s basement.

Growing up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, my exposure to French culture was limited to singing “Frère Jacques” in Kindergarten and watching Warner Brother’s sappy, sentimental Romeo, Pepé le Pew, on Saturday mornings. My knowledge of French cuisine included the midwest supper club staple “French” dressing and the thick, spongy, grocery store loaves of  “French” bread.

I discovered Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1982 Hallmark Hall of Fame version starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Quasimodo, Derek Jacobi as Dom Frollo, and Lesley-Anne Down as Esmeralda. Admittedly, it is one of the worst productions of the classic tale, without a single scene filmed in Paris, let alone France. Nonetheless it captivated my eight-year-old imagination. Seeing Audrey Hepburn glide down the Louvre’s staircase in Funny Face, and watching Julia Ormond return transformed by Paris in the 80s remake of Sabrina further increased my infatuation with France.

Kay Thompson, Fred Astaire, and Audrey Hepburn in a publicity photo from the Paramount Pictures 1957 film Funny Face.  |  Public Domain

Un, deux, trois…

Middle school brought my first opportunity to study French formally. My instructor, Madame S., a tall, slender blonde, was always fashionably dressed in heels, a stylishly tied scarf, and perfume in a time and place where most of our fashion sense came from last season’s JCPenney catalog. She also must have had the patience of a saint to try and teach the nuances of French “U’s” and elegantly rolled “R’s” to a class of giggly, awkward adolescents with too-large glasses and braces, who were quite regularly still tripping on their shoelaces. All the baguette in Paris would not have been enough to make grenouille roll trippingly off our midwestern tongues, no matter how wide-eyed and well-intentioned we were.

I found myself utterly enchanted by the language. Soon it was French Forensics (who knew this was even a thing?!) and French Summer Camp. When I headed to college, I received a semester’s worth of retroactive credits by testing into 3rd year French. Don’t ever let anyone tell you high school French is a waste of time that will never do anything for you! Nearly 30 years later, I’m still waiting for a similar dividend on my single painful year of calculus.

Unfortunately, my college professor lacked both the style and personality of my earlier French teachers. His visible contempt for our clumsy pronunciation and constant reprimands quickly eroded my enthusiasm. Any satisfaction I found in making it through Maupassant’s Bel-Ami disappeared faster than I could say “un cafe, s’il vous plait.”

“The French, it seems to me, strike a happy balance between intimacy and reserve. Some of this must be helped by the language, which lends itself to graceful expression even when dealing with fairly basic subjects…. And there’s that famously elegant subtitle from a classic Western.
COWBOY: “Gimme a shot of red-eye.”
SUBTITLE: “Un Dubonnet, s’il vous plait.”
No wonder French was the language of diplomacy for all those years.

– Peter Mayle, Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France

Prêt à Voyager | Ready to Travel

After completing my B.A. in Communication Arts, my mom and I prepared to depart for our first trip to France in the summer of 1995. With a recent Lyme’s diagnosis, she wasn’t feeling her best. To complicate things further, Europe was in the throes of a record-breaking heatwave, protests were popping up over France’s continued nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and the Armed Islamic Group was targeting public transport systems. Despite the sultry temps, a tick-borne illness, civil unrest, and bomb threats, we set out undeterred, not wanting to miss our long-awaited trip.

You can read the full story of our trip here, but suffice it to say, next to nothing went as planned. From the moment we arrived, and despite our very best efforts to avoid them, we managed to make every first-timer-in-France mistake in the book. The next two weeks were a series of misadventures ranging from absurd to comical.

Our tiny hotel was far more shabby than chic and insufferably hot. During our 5 days in Paris, we ate the same Chinese takeout at least three times. Due to bomb threats, we were evacuated from the Louvre after only 20 minutes inside. Two days later, we were abruptly shooed off our return train from Versailles somewhere between the palace and our hotel.

We got lost–a lot–and often while searching for the rare and elusive public “toilettes.” We tried to see and do it all, cramming as much into our two-week vacation as we had into our bulging suitcases. We got around on foot and by train. After mistakenly boarding a clattering TER train with its hard plastic seats and half-open windows, we quickly learned the critical distinction between the faster regional trains and the local variety that meander through every hamlet and pause at each whistle-stop on the line.

When I inquired about the location of a pharmacy in Rouen, our hotelier seemed insistent that we instead needed the paramedics. He finally set the phone down after I repeatedly assured him that the American woman in Chambre 12 was not about to die in his hotel.

While visiting the medieval walled city of Saint-Malo, we found ourselves locked in a tower that housed a dusty maritime museum. The woman who’d collected our entrance fee not an hour before had, apparently, decided to close up early, leaving us and a French couple locked inside.

After failing to find favor with French cuisine, sudden evacuations, an unexpected incarceration, and five sweltering nights in that tiny Parisian hotel, France felt decidedly more like hell that the chic paradise of our dreams. I’m sure there were moments in the restless delirium between jetlag and heat stroke when we would have happily traded in our tacky American tennis shoes for a pair of magical ruby slippers to transport ourselves home. Fortunately, we persisted, sustained by croissants, jambon-beurre, and Chinese takeout.

Despite the setbacks and missteps during that first trip, we ended up having a marvelous, and very memorable time. We still get a good laugh recollecting our adventures. Little did we know then that more than 20 years later, we would begin another chapter of adventures together in France.

Paris, July 1995 on my first trip to France.

“The world is a book – with each step we open a page.”

– Alphonse de Lamartine

Giverny 1995. Photo © Kristin Blakeman

Bébé Changes Everything

When I returned home after our trip in ’95, life resumed. As I began my career in graphic design, French and France moved to the back burner, remaining there for the next 18 years. While looking at pre-school options for my daughter Madeleine, a local French immersion program caught my attention. The idea of an immersive learning experience from native speakers at such a young age intrigued me and rekindled my own interest in French. Before long, I had enrolled in classes as well, hoping I’d find the return to French after a 20-year hiatus as familiar as riding a bike. In some ways, it was. In others, I felt every bit like a squeaky antique that had been gathering dust in the garage for 2 decades. With a little practice, I was thoroughly enjoying reacquainting myself with the language that had so captivated me years before. Watching my daughter soak it up only added to the fun and fueled my motivation to keep going.

Mimi outside her French immersion school in 2016.

Cousin Love, Summer 2018

Mimi on the steps of Nana’s new house, 2017.

Retirement & Rekindled Dreams

In 2016 my mom decided to follow her dream of retiring abroad. During her 37-year teaching career, she had spent many summers traveling in Europe. With retirement came new opportunities to travel, and with grandchildren in The Netherlands and the U.S., she hoped to find a European home to split her time between the two continents. We spent five weeks exploring southwestern France in search of areas that might suit her.

By early 2017 we’d scoured the region and fallen in love with a home in the center of La Tour Blanche, a quiet hamlet with a romantic name in the Dordogne. Unfortunately, it turned out the siblings who had inherited the house had decided they weren’t quite ready to part with it after all. They took it off the market after leading us on for several weeks. Disappointed, we waited, hoping they would change their mind or put it back on the market. When they didn’t, we returned to a house we had seen on a whim in a small town on the Charente river near Cognac.

The home, originally built by a neighboring mill owner, checked all the boxes in terms of size and location. It was big enough to comfortably host visiting friends and family with a pleasant private garden at the back. The town had a daily market, shops, and restaurants all accessible on foot. It felt authentically French, but with a comforting smattering of Anglophones from around the world. We even discovered a few other Americans who had been similarly charmed by the area’s rolling green countryside and laid-back lifestyle. Most importantly, it was on the train line with daily TGV service from Paris, making it possible to get from Chicago to our corner of France in under a day.

The stone house had character, good bones, and an abundance of potential. In other words, it was a fixer-upper. Having been unoccupied for at least five years, it was more than a bit musty. From the look of things, it hadn’t had an update in at least 60 years. I counted 14 different wallpaper patterns and at least twice as many varieties of spiders, which I soon learned is to be expected in old stone houses.

As is common in vacant homes in France, the property was devoid of appliances, heat, and electricity. During our first viewing, the estate agent opened the shutters to illuminate the interior. Even on a frigid, gray January day, the huge windows flooded the rooms with light revealing the little details that one by one reeled us in.

The classic center hall retained its terrazzo floor, wood paneling, and huge double doors at the front and back. The salon and dining room with their nearly three-meter ceilings had lovely original plaster ceiling rosettes and floor-to-ceiling faux-bois doors that folded open making one large room. A walnut staircase with its faceted crystal finial gracefully spiraled up to the third-floor attic. The single enormous bathroom was spacious enough to divide it into three full baths giving each of the upstairs bedrooms a private bathroom–an American style creature comfort that is difficult to come by in France. A former office with a small passage connecting it to the kitchen provided a perfect opportunity for a ground floor bedroom and bathroom.

Compared to Chicago’s pricey real estate market, the asking price seemed like a relative bargain, even with the improvements required to bring it up-to-date. With a house, a contractor, a long wish list, and a healthy dose of blissful ignorance about the project we were about to undertake, we took the plunge and started the next chapter of our French adventure.

Of course, there were the typical hiccups, delays, and surprises that accompany any renovation no matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on. That first summer, our extended family of three generations–four adults and four kids under six–camped out on Ikea beds and couches in the ground floor rooms while construction continued around us. By the following summer, we were able to move upstairs and settle in further, adding curtains, more furniture, and decorating with our latest brocante (flea market) finds. In 2019 we welcomed more friends and family, finally able to relax into the familiar rhythms of summer without the chaos of construction.

Our French Fixer Upper, June 2017.

Looking for treasure under the layers of wallpaper.

14 Varieties of Wallpaper!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  |  KRISTIN BLAKEMAN

I help others discover France’s storied destinations with curated travel experiences. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

Curious about what your French adventure could look like?