I screwed up on my arrival to France. I wrote previously about how I had to change plans and take the Chunnel train instead of flying directly to Paris from Dublin. Another mistake caused even more confusion: I calculated the time for my hosts to meet me at the Paris train station based on the ticket clerk telling me how long the journey was.
The problem was that I didn’t realize London and Paris are in different time zones: my hosts were waiting an extra hour wondering where in the world I was! That probably didn’t put me in their good books to start – but, my gosh were they ever the epitome of gracious hospitality throughout my whole stay.
I went from the outstanding warmth of my cousins in Ireland… to further kindness and generosity in France. Another cousin, Anna, flew from Poland to join me for vacation in France… and we stayed with a friend of Anna’s mother.
Ya, that’s right: my host in France wasn’t even family, but a friend of family. She’d never met me before, yet she and her daughters opened their house, bought a whole tonne of delicious French food and wine, and took their time to show me around the country. I don’t know what it is that makes people so generous when foreigners visit them – but I was blown away by it all.
So, I met my cousin Anna and my host Marta at the Paris train station. We proceeded to Marta’s car in the parking lot, and I quickly became aware of how terrible French drivers are: more than half of the cars had dents (the car parked beside Marta’s had smashed windows and the airbags were hanging out – yet Marta said that the owner was probably still driving the car in that condition). Fortunately Marta (being Polish, but living in France) was a good driver.
We arrived at Marta’s house in the Parisian suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (a beautiful, small town on the River Seine) and met her daughters Karolina and Nathalie. I immediately realized that I was going to have a huge challenge during my stay in France: the mis-mash of languages among my hosts. I’m somewhat trilingual with Polish and French, and my hosts were each comfortable with different combinations of the languages. Since I’ not perfectly fluent, the alternation between all three languages was so confusing that I was virtually incapable of speaking at all for the first while! Or, I’d accidentally speak in French to Anna who couldn’t understand – and find myself unable to put the words together in Polish because my mind was stuck in French. Frustrating, but good learning.
The other thing to get used to during my stay in France was the remarkably late and leisurely dining/drinking/socializing routine. Don’t get me wrong… I was loving the food that Marta endlessly offered (mmm… the delicious red wine, French cheeses, pates, sausages and fresh baguette!). I also really enjoyed the long chats about life in France. But every night we ate very late and stayed up to 2am or later: that was simply the norm for them. It tired me out. Unlike the 30 minute to one hour meals around 6pm I’m used to in Canada, the daily meals in France epitomized European laisez-faire. We started eating late in the evening and continued nibbling, drinking, nibbling and drinking until early morning, followed by more drinking. And then we drank some more. And that was on weekdays.
So – staying up until 3am on my first evening in France (after having arrived by train around 11pm)… I was pretty exhausted, but very excited for my first day of exploring the country’s famous sites. We decided to build up excitement for Paris by seeing other sites first.
Our first destination: the Palace of Versailles. It was a very overcast day with intermittent rain; but that only made the photographs turn out more dramatic. Even the approach through the town of Versailles was quite dramatic and regal: the street leading to the palace is lined with perfectly manicured trees. We made the decision to pass on touring the palace interior in favour of exploring the gardens. I’m pretty sure we made the best choice – all accounts I’ve heard say the interior of Versailles smells like mothballs. While the palace is certainly impressive, the gardens are just out of this world. As well, from the exterior you can still take in the amazing architectural details and explore the awe-inspiring scale and attention. But the gardens… wow. They just make the whole site take on an air of importance and make the palace much more grand. I’ll refer you to the photos, including the ones where the fountain show turned on just in time for us to enjoy.
Returning to Marta’s house from Versailles, we were once again bombarded with French hospitality and cuisine. We prepared a barbecue in her lush garden: with the fresh baguettes and freely flowing wine, it felt like the most relaxing and most idealistic French summer evening imaginable. We were joined by Jean-Baptiste, the boyfriend of Marta’s daughter Karolina.
Another late night was followed by another early morning for a full day of sightseeing. Day two in France was spent along the Normandy coast. Since my grandparents endured WWII in Poland, I felt a need to see firsthand some of the historical sites from the war. As a second-generation Canadian, I was also familiar with the history of Canada’s efforts on Juno beach: so, that was our destination. The Canadian government has built an excellent museum at Juno beach right on the Normandy coast – complete with historical displays and education about the war, Canada’s involvement in the historic battle on Juno beach, and about modern-day Canada as well (to educate travelers). The most dramatic part of the visit was witnessing the beach itself. Our tour guide (a Canadian from Montreal) took us deep into one of the German concrete bunkers – those creepy structures built into the coast that would have been so terrifying to the allied soldiers. I also walked along the beach where so much heroism and tragedy took place. All in all it was very powerful to stand somewhere with so much history, and it made history a little more real to me.
Leaving Juno beach, Marta announced that she had a surprise destination. We were going to bookend the sombre visit to Juno beach with a trip further along the coast of Normandy… to one of the most beautiful places in France. Riding through the countryside, all of a sudden a spire started to rise on the horizon of a farm field. It grew until it looked like a castle on a cloud. This was the incredible medieval village of Mont Saint-Michel, built upon the steep contours of a small coastal mountain and surrounded all around by flat land and the ocean. When high tide comes in, the village becomes an isolated island: literally a village rising to a point out from the water… crowned by the spire of the village cathedral. Exploring the village was like a page out of Shrek with medieval stone walls, gates and even a drawbridge to the inner streets.
This exciting introduction to France primed us for our next destination: the city of lights… Paris itself.