Sunday, September 23, 2007

Our Trip to France

While we were in France I almost had no connection to the internet (except for one day in Toulouse) so I couldn't write about what we did. But now we're back. Here's a week-by-week recap of our trip:

Week 1

Marco and I left the warm summer of Minnesota and immediately landed in chilly grey Paris, then, even worse, drove up to chillier, greyer Normandy. We hadn't known that France was currently experiencing their coldest, rainiest summer in 30 years. It was like October! I was SO cold! We had come on this trip thinking only about going to beaches in the Southwest of France, so had a bag full of swimsuits, shorts and t-shirts and absolutely no pants or a sweater! I had to go buy pants at Zara and borrow a sweater from Marco's mom.

It was weird to be back in France culturally for the first couple days. I felt very Minnesotan (which is different from feeling "American", whatever that means). One manifestation of this was the desire to smile and say hello to strangers as they pass on the street. Even Marco said he felt compelled to do that out of habit now, having lived now for a year in Minnesota. But this would be ridiculous in Rouen (Marco's hometown) or anywhere in the north of France. People don't go around interacting warmly with strangers like they would in Minnesota.

Week 2

After a couple days Marco and I borrowed his brother's car and headed south. The car was kind of funny because it was a flashy silver Audi TT sports car. It was definitely not my style and I felt kind of silly in it. But I will admit that I loved getting behind the wheel of this car because it drove SO well. It had amazing acceleration and you could pass everyone on the freeway in seconds. It was a lot of fun to drive. Even better in the mountains.

After several hours of driving the sun came out, the rain stopped and the air got warm. We were in the south! For the next week we lived in a big rented house with about 20 of our friends and their kids. Most of them had come down from Paris, but a few live elsewhere - even Mexico City and Hong Kong. Some of them I know better than others, especially those that visited Marco and I when we lived in San Diego. Others I got to know better on this trip.

Every day we went to the beach. Since it's France, the beaches are quite crowded, but unlike the rest of France there are huge sand dunes that protect these beaches from construction, so they are relatively natural and you see no big buildings. The beach we went to the most was very scenic with a river running behind the dunes.

Every day had a nice rhythm - wake up (late, for Marco and I), eat, help prepare lunch with the others and play with the kids, go to the beach or go bicycling or running or some outdoor activity. Come back late for dinner, eat at a huge table with everyone and laugh and have a good time, sleep deeply and contentedly.

One of my favorite moments was actually the only grey, stormy day. I got up and decided to go running. I drove over to the wildest beach and ran on the sand in the edge of the water. I hadn't done this since we used to live by the beach in San Diego. I love the feeling of it - the splashing of the water around my feet and the fragrant ocean air. Nobody else was on the beach at all, and the ocean was tossing around in lines of silver waves. The sun broke through the choppy clouds here and there and cast bright spotlights on the water. It was gorgeous. I felt alive when I got back. Then immediately after I went bicycling and nobody was on the bike trail either and I passed through fragrant pine forests and it was very peaceful. I had so much energy.

This week was fantastically nice. It felt like being at summer camp, where you live all day long with friends and everyone comes together and you leave missing everyone a whole lot. Marco's friends are so much fun! Some of them I hadn't seen for a long time. It was hard to leave.

Week 3

Almost everyone got in their cars and drove back to their city lives in Paris. Marco and I drove east. We were sad leaving and just put on music and didn't talk much for the first few hours after we left. The landscape got dry and flat and agricultural. We were entering the Gers region of Southwest France. We were heading to the Pyrenees.

For reasons that will remain secret for a short time longer on this blog (oooh secrets!), we were heading to the Pyrenees mountains, halfway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. On the way we stayed a night in Auch, in the Gers, then a night in Toulouse, then finally headed south from there to the Ariege region. We found ourselves in a beautiful mountain area called the valley of Bethmale. And from there we sort of roamed around for a week.

This part of France is wonderful, and it was just what I was looking for. Coming from Minnesota, I grew up accustomed to low population density. We have a state 1/2 the size of France but with less than 1/6th the population, and most of that is concentrated in the Twin Cities, leaving the rest empty. This means that in Minnesota you can find a pretty beach or forest or lake anywhere and feel peaceful and alone (or alone with your friends), and not be disturbed by other people. This might sound dull, but it is actually so nice. You can feel far from the pressure of crowds and cities and pollution. You can reflect and absorb your surroundings. In many other places we have lived - San Diego, Singapore, Paris - I could never shake the feeling of pressure from the density of people surrounding us. You could never feel alone with nature. There was always a freeway or a city or something just beyond the horizon. There were always more people.

But the Pyrenees mountains and the frontier area with Spain is the part of France that seems the most wild and empty. There are definitely inhabitants and villages there, but there is also space and nature. I also like that the people there feel like rebels, not subjects of Paris or Madrid but independent. The people we met seemed unpretentious, earthy and friendly. Unlike Parisians, they would smile and joke with us. It suits my character.

So Marco and I went around in the mountains and in the foothills and did hikes and visited some places (though I can't say where!!) and stayed in rustic gites or slept in the car sometimes to save money. We ate a lot of lunches and dinners outdoors in a field somewhere with a view on the mountains. It was very simple and nice. Even though the previous week with our friends was fantastic, this week alone in the mountains was wonderful too, and it was the first time in a year that I felt so relaxed and rejuvenated. I felt like I could stay there forever.

Week 4

The time came to head north again. The drive was amazingly (and sadly) quick. Up up up we went, first past Toulouse, then Montauban, then the Lot (overnight sleeping in the car near Rocamadour), then the Dordogne, Limoges, the Creuze, the Loire Valley, over to Chartres, Evreux, Dreux, Normandy then Rouen. We spent our last few days at Marco's family's place. It's much easier now, because I speak French well now and can converse easily with his family. We jumped on the new trampoline at Marco's brother's place with Cecile and Clement, Marco's niece and nephew, on a rare warm sunny Normandy evening. We went to photograph stained glass windows at the church where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. We ate lots of good home-cooked food. We lounged around.

Then we got back on the airplane, flew through Rekjavik, Iceland and arrived back here in Minnesota. Goodbye again to France. We'll be back again soon.

Back from France

We're back from France.

We've been back for a couple days, and I've been in that funny window of time where, culturally, I have one foot in France and one in Minnesota. It's like being on both sides of a mirror. I walk around here and I see stuff through the eyes of a French person. It makes you think about a lot of things.

We've had great weather since we've been back. It's warm and summery. But there's a bittersweet feel in the air too, because the light is different and a couple trees are already starting to turn yellow. Fall is so sad, I think. I love summer passionately. Summer is about color and heat and warmth and greenery and life. I feel better than I ever do when I'm in the heat all day, running around outside or swimming in the river until the late summer sunset drops to the west and the crickets start chirping. It's exciting. It's everything I love. Heat doesn't bother me at all. Heat is passionate and invigorating. You don't have to wear many clothes and hence you can feel all the sensations around you - the wind, leaves, sand, cold stones, hot chairs. In winter we're all covered up and cut off from the sensations of things around us. I hate that. It's the saddest of sad things. Some people here like fall because the leaves change color but for me it's the beginning of a long goodbye.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

One Great Week

This past week was such a fantastic week. Marco and I spent it on the southwest coast of France with about twenty of our friends, five kids, two broken chairs and one garden snake. :-) It was so unbelievable. Pretty hard to leave actually. I miss you all so much!