Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Bon soir, monsieur. The smiling face behind the glass window at Passport Control was as welcoming (and welcomed) as the words its owner uttered. We were in France, finally! I was in France, finally!

It had always been a dream of mine to travel to the Gallic nation. Ever since I became acquainted with their proud culture, their peculiar pronunciation (words stressed usually on the last syllable) and their quirky accents (aigu, grave, circonflexe and tréma) I had imagined myself conversing with like-minded people in a café in Paris, or a family-friendly pub in the campagne.

That is why I still can’t bring myself to think that our trip to France almost didn’t happen.

I mentioned the welcoming smile from the immigration officer who checked our passports. That was after a dreadful ten-hour wait at Stansted airport on account of us missing our scheduled flight and having to book the next available one, but to a different airport. Whereas before we were supposed to fly to Bordeaux, the plane we ended up boarding was bound for Bergerac (as in Cyrano, minus the prominent nose and the poetic prowess). Luckily, the distance between the two airports was only an hour or so away, so we didn’t have to cough up any more dosh on trains or taxis. In addition, we had booked a car-hire at Bordeaux and after a few phone calls and a small transfer fee that, too, was sorted out.

After spending the first night at my brother-in-law’s who was, fortunately, staying near Bergerac with his family and who was very hospitable and accommodating, we set off for our destination, Lesparre-medoc. The drive there was smooth but tiring. Readers of this blog must by now be surely aware of how much I love driving but two and a half hours behind the wheel, on a side of the road on which I don’t usually find myself and in a new country is a bit excessive. And that’s without including the tolls! What larks! For me, mind you, not for the poor souls queueing up behind me. Thank God for whatever little fluency I still have in French (it tended to fluctuate; in desperate situations my plus-que-parfait made a very a sudden and gratifying cameo appearance), otherwise instead of A Cuban In London writing about his visit to France, people could have been discussing The Demise of the man formerly known as A Cuban In London at a toll booth in France.

There were, however, parts of that journey I enjoyed. What I loved the most was the change of terrain: we went from a hilly area south east of Bordeaux (where my brother-in-law was staying) full of dangerous, sudden bends to a flat, long surface north of the city (as soon as we left Bordeaux’s orbital) which seemed endless. Because it was a Sunday when we left for Lesparre most roads were deserted, including the otherwise very public and crowded (as I later found out in the week) D1215.  Whenever I’m driving in a different country and there aren’t that many cars around, I get a strange sense of being the first person ever to have arrived in that place. It was the same feeling when we went to Cantabria, in Spain, four years ago, but not in Italy two years after on account of the congested traffic I had to fight my way through in order to make it to our temporary abode.

As I pressed down on the accelerator on that first day, my eyes were drawn to the trees lining up the D1215. Some of them grew wildly on either side of the A-road, forming a long compact, thick bush that stretched for miles. Others had quizzical, capricious and very uniform shapes, as if an ex-army officer had been tasked with trimming them and s/he, following a Proustian-like impulse, had tried to turn them into soldiers.

Lesparre-medoc turned out to be the town one normally drives through in order to arrive at one’s destination. So was Blaignon after it, the place we nicknamed “ghost town” because we rarely spotted another human being there. Our house was a sweet, little, rustic cottage that resembled more a cabana from Hansel and Gretel than an actual one.

During the following days we plunged down a rabbit-hole similar to Alice’s, and like her we came out at the other end to a wonderland made up of different burrows:: La Réole, Monségur, Royan, Soulac sur mer, Le Verdon sur Mer, Hourtin. All towns and villages with their own charm and history. We swam in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean and in the tepid ones of a large lake near Carcans. In Soulac we strolled down the Rue de la Plage and ventured in and out of shops. We ended the day in a petit bistro on Rue Trouche where we had a delicious dinner.

The only sour note of our sojourn was at the beginning of our journey. It was not just the missed flight, but the lack of customer service skills displayed by the Ryanair employee who was supposed to help us out. I can forgive anything (well, almost anything, I’m Scorpio after all!) but ignorance, rudeness and stupidity are not the sort of traits and attitude I’m willing to put up with. Mademoiselle Ryanair was neither stupid nor rude, but was ignorant. How can you try to get someone to fly to another airport and not know where that airport is? Don’t they test knowledge of geography amongst airline staff? Once back in the UK, I spoke to my wife and told her that unless it was absolutely necessary and there was no other alternative, I would be boycotting Ryanair from then on. Even the low prices famously boasted about by Michael O’ Leary, Ryanair’s head honcho turn out to be a myth when you factor in the add-ons.

Which is why I felt so welcomed and relieved when I saw the smile on that immigration officer’s face upon arrival at Bergerac airport. France, I’m not done with you, I wish I had stayed longer. I’m sure there will be a second part to our relationship, and this time there won’t be a missed flight or ignorant member of staff of customer service. Just you, me and my family. This is not au revoir, ma vieille, but à bientôt!

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 17th September at 11:59pm (GMT)


23 comments:

  1. An enjoyable post and one that made me want to explore France. My experience of that country was a mere 'passing through' and that's not good enough. The only airport staff that have upset me was in New York but I guess the high security made them a bit fraught. Even so, it riled!

    Welcome back, Cuban. I missed your excellent posts.

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  2. ¡Qué gusto dar poder viajar por el mundo!
    Siento decirte que me acuerdo de mis amigos que están "presos" en su propio país-isla y me entristezco.

    Un beso

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  3. It' s a beautiful country and a wonderful language but Ryanair is not a good way to arrive there or anywhere.
    What I love about France is how expansive the landscape is with such amazing long views.I love the forests that go on and on. Coming from our cramped little island it always feels so liberating.

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  4. I've never been to France (I've seen it from the English Channel, however). That's a long wait for a flight. Why didn't you take the train or a ferry?

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  5. A very fun post. I have been to France different times, but not for a while and really have only spent short bits of time in Paris and Provence-so this whetted my appetite for more. Thanks. It sounds like you really had a wonderful time, and were able to convert the travails into part of the travel. k.

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  6. Welcome back. I have missed you. I so admire your courage in driving in an unfamiliar country. And agree with you about sub standard customer service. Hiss and spit.

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  7. Oh Ryanair! The one thing about them is that they are cheap. But beyond that...they are poor at everything else. Anyway, so glad you finally made it to your beautiful destination. I would love to go there myself.

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  8. Try Eurostar next time - it's fun to change trains and sometimes stations in Paris if you have time, and see more of the place. Just as well the two cities were within easy reach!

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  9. What a great post! Aren't Sunday mornings great! :)

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  10. I am glad you made it to France and home again safely, CiL.

    I enjoyed your story. And, what is travel without a bit of misadventure along with the pleasure? I could tell you a tale or two about misadventures; they often are what create the laughter after the journey has ended.

    I have been up and down and around in France twice on extended vacations, along with a couple of brief visits for business, which, thankfully, also included a few days to act out being an accidental tourist. Unfortunately, for me, I have only been to England once. Maybe, I can remedy that deficit.

    It will be nice to have your posts to read again when Sundays roll around.

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  11. A missed flight - oh how awful! But glad everything turned out so well once you got to la belle France.

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  12. Sounds wonderful -- and the music is magnifique!

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  13. France is truly wonderful. Suggest you use a different way of getting there - Ryanair are simply the worst!

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  14. I'm glad you sorted out your trip in the end, I agree airline staff should have a grasp of geography of the countries their flights go to.... I've gone to France on the ferry, much more pleasant...

    I love France and French, though i find French people talk too quickly for me to understand....

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  15. Really great to have you back!
    Oh wow...quite an adventure you had...from that long wait at the airport, with staff who seemed to seriously lack the basics in customer service...to discovering the beauty of the country and the friendliness of it's people.
    It is many years since I visited France. You have inspired me to return...real soon!
    Many thanks for such an inspiring post...:)

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  16. Welcome back to blogland, sounds like a place to explore and explore. France Part one sure wasn't a bore, even with the little annoyance haha

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  17. nice... despite that ryanair encounter it sounds like you had a wonderful time... i love france... the language, food, atmosphere... haven been to the atlantic side near bordeaux and also on the cote d'azur... tres bien..

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  18. Many thanks for your comments. Or should I say, "merci bien"? :-)

    It's funny that we never considered the possibility of going by train, which would have been fine with the whole troop and it would have saved us money in the long run. But going only for a week you we thought that we would lose that important first day with the all the travelling around and changing trains. That's why we chose Ryanair, because it was a very early flgith and that would have given us a whole day to explore and discover. Maybe next time we'll go by train. I shall heed your suggestions! :-)

    Greetings from London,

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  19. Lovely and spirited write-up of your adventures. It has been awhile since I've been in France but I have always enjoyed that country.

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  20. Too bad about the travel woes but it sounds like France was otherwise what you'd hoped it would be. And no doubt you will return for part deux.. and possibly trois.

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  21. Sounds like a fun vacation despite the unfortunate delay. I always take the train to Paris from London - easier and greener than flying. You are brave to drive a UK car on the Continent.

    It's nice to see you back to blogging. I was only vacation for a week, visiting family, but was otherwise busy finishing a ms. Now that my agent is reading it, I'm catching up with life on and offline.

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  22. I'm glad you made it to France, and hope you make it there again... only with less problems next time. Then again, it's the annoying travel problems that later make for more colorful tales and laughter.

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