France is without doubt a beautiful country with a fascinating history and a dynamic cultural patrimony of substantial value to the world. The cuisine, while not to everyone’s liking, is frequently good and often excellent. We have the French to thank for foie gras, champagne, steak frites, soufflé, bon bons, maccarons, quiche and on and on.
To the traveler who must eat somewhere outside their hotel room at least once if not 3 times a day, regional cuisine can grow very tiring. We’re staying in a small town in the southwestern region of France–the Dordogne/Perigord. In this area no duck or goose is safe. Those two small creatures are primary sources of food in these parts or so it seems. Canard, magret and l’oie give up not only their lives but their livers, gizzards, breast and bodies to keep the tourist shops and restaurants full of product. To be honest I can’t look another foie gras in the face after having been here for 12 days. I yearn for a plate of spaghetti, or a spring roll, grilled salmon, or yes, a good ol’ hamburger!
I took my first trip to France when I was about 30–a long time ago! Since then I’ve been to Europe a few other times but several years have elapsed since the last visit. Much about me has changed–I have less energy, am not as interested in castles or churches. I am not willing to stand in line, nor am I interested in following top ten lists developed by Rick Steves or anyone else and I’m certainly not interested in driving in a foreign country.
Well, guess what, we rented a car at the Toulouse airport and got on the French equivalent of the autobahn for an alleged 2.5 hours journey in a driving rain. The car had a stick shift (they’re cheaper to rent) which we both know how to drive–but it’s been a long, long time. The big highway has toll booths whenever there is an exit–but those exits are few and far between–something we did not realize. We are accustomed to our freeway system which has frequent off ramps and, of course, in most cases does not have tolls. Thankfully, we had the presence of mind to get some euros in the airport and, thank goodness, the machine at the toll booth (always unmanned) made change.
So along we go driving more slowly than everyone else, fearing for our lives, afraid of getting off at the wrong place which we of course did and then driving miles out of the way on tiny little country roads for two hours in the rain. The 2.5 hr trip from Toulouse to Sarlat took us four! We arrived at our destination–that is within the centre ville–about 4 hours after having departed the airport.
Sarlat is a tiny town. There’s one way in and one way out, more or less. There are round-abouts at every intersection with directional signs (toutes direccions or autres direcciones) pointing you toward obscure–Gourdon– or large –Paris–cities. From this information you are to derive directional information. Highway numbers which do exist on all the maps, are almost never signed–the only exception being the A20 (pay freeway) which runs north and south from Paris to Toulouse. We have a large Michilin map of France which is excellent, but so full of miniscule words, places, numbers and lines, ones eyes cross! Try to tell the driver whether he should head toward Brive or Bergerac, Gourdon or Limoge, Perigeux or Beulier-sur-Dordogne. Go ahead try while the impatient French driver behind you is honking and attempting to pass on a curve with a cyclist on your right and a cliff on the left. Go ahead! You drive!
Now let’s talk about language–French. I do speak a little French. I understand much more than I can articulate. However, mere words are useless without the correct pronunciation. “Le son Francaise.”
While Ken was checking the rental car (voiture, not auto) out at Hertz, my job was to get directions. In our family, I’m the linguist, but I may have met my match here in France.
Here’s an example. I approached the staff at the Bureau d’Tourisme at the Toulouse Airport. In French I asked: “Pardonez moi, s’il vous plait…..Please show me (I had a map) how to get to Sarlat.” (sar lat)
“Where?” the young woman said.
“Sarlat,” I said.
“Please spell that for me,” she said. Her three colleagues gathered around to help her find the strange city I wanted to find.
I showed her on the map.
“Oh,” she said, “Sar la.” (Rhymes with Marla, I noted).
Hmmm, I thought. Who knew? You drop the “t” and put the emphasis on the first syllable and only then can the French speaker understand what you are saying. Wow! This is gonna’ be a challenge because, guess what, the French don’t speak English and they are proud of it. And we’ve heard that from Belgians, Germans, British, and Scottish travelers. The only nation in the common market that speaks just one language! I’m exaggerating, but not a lot.
That doesn’t stop us from communicating and even sharing a joke. We love our host and hostess, and in fact Patric speaks excellent English, but he spent a lot of his life in Germany where almost everyone speaks English. So I am becoming quite “fluent.” Ken, you ask? Well, Ken, has many talents and gifts; and he is good natured and charming side kick, but don’t ask him to speak French!
Despite these issues it is impossible to deny the beauty of this countryside. The villages and the historic places are clean, safe, and lovely. The people are kind and polite. It all works and that’s saying a lot!