A House Guest in France, Part V

So now we were at the end of the train portion of the trip and it was time to take to the highways, at least for a while. We went to the car rental lot and walked in. It was mid-day and as you can expect, the place was deserted. I think the most civilized aspect of French life is their fanatical attachment to the lunch. To make a gross generalization, I think the French as a body would sooner drink Turning Leaf than give up one minute of their lunch… well, I was going to say hour, but it’s often far more like two. This is something that I think all countries could learn a lot from. A leisurely lunch meal in the States is about as common as they are nutritious.

We left and enjoyed a coffee at the local cafe and waited until we spotted the workers returning to their desks and followed. We had selected a compact car, with the hopes of getting a Smart Car, but to no avail. The car that they had waiting for us was a Skoda which we immediately fell in love with. We did the obligatory walk around with the agent and then, finding the car to be practically new, went in to fill out the paper work. When the agent brought up the subject of insurance, I had definite opinions. “Yes. Specifically, I want the coverage that will allow me to return the car to you in a variety of small boxes and walk away.” He blinked at me. I smiled. He gave that universal Gallic shrug that says “if you insist” and signed me up.

Some would say that I was tossing away money with this move since my own insurance will cover this, but here’s my thinking. If I’m in an accident in France. I speak no French., the paperwork that would have to be filled out with my insurance company, the French authorities and the rental company would be epic and to be honest, I’m on vacation. I don’t want risk my serenity by noticing a fresh “ding” left on a door after parking next to a jerk in some parking lot somewhere. I’ll do some overtime when I get home to cover the added expense. It’s worth it to me.

After we claimed out ride, Action Girl needed to place a phone call. She phoned up our unseen host and started scribbling directions down. I happily played with the stereo, zipping through various French pop stations in a fruitless effort to find Edith Piaf. Action Girl skipped back to the car and hopped into our trusty Skoda. Directions in hand, we headed off into a new and exciting road system full of locals who knew where they were going…. and at least one car with two clueless tourists in it.

Action Girl is a great navigator and this arrangement (me driving and she, telling me where to go) works wonderfully. All I need to do is trust in her ability to get us pointed the right way and all she needs to do is trust in my ability to shift from the far left lane, through the four lanes on the right to make the exit that just popped up 50 meters up the road , … At 120 kph. We are both very adept at our jobs. She channels the spirit of a WWII bombardier and I channel the spirit of Luke Skywalker in the Death Star trench. WHEEEE!

I was doing fine until I snuck a look at her notes. They were covered in what looked like spirals with arrows coming out of them.

“What the heck are all those?”
“Roundabouts”
How many of them are there!?”
“Um… At least nine or so.”
“Good Lord”

Looking at the crude map drawn by my wife, it looked imposing.

As it turned out, the roundabouts were more of a well marked and courteous affairs than a “Place de la Concorde” mess. The humorist Dave Berry referred to it as “Place de la cars coming at you from all directions”. As time and kilometers whizzed by, I felt more and more comfortable with driving through France. We never did find Edith Piaf though. One turn took us us off the highway, then the next into a small town, then the next to a smaller town, then scrubby and lonely roads, twisting along the hips of hills and mountains. Here and there, we would enter and immediately pass through a small village and Action Girl would be vindicated in her directions as she checked off the names of these places on her map.

Finally, we passed through the miniscule village of Gras. Hardly any one lives there now and the sheep far out number the inhabitants. What was once a road turned in to little more than a goat track and the crazy switchbacks that led up the steep hill made you prey that there was no one coming down. I have driven on some heart stopping roads in my time and let me tell you, this path made the Road to Hana look like a four lane highway in Kansas. On at least one occasion, I actually got out of the car to check around a corner before proceeding.

After the climb to the top, there was a turn off that led to a huge rambling farm house. Action Girl hopped out and started walking up like she always came here. I was more cautious. What if it’s the wrong place? Visions of suspicious French peasants with old shotguns came unbidden to mind. Then, out of an ancient doorway stepped a man who smiled, waved and beckoned us in.

Introductions were made and an offer of dinner was happily accepted. Our host was a man of about 70, easily smiled and was very gracious. Action Girl and our host chatted up a storm as they reconnected and I did my best to be as polite as possible. We gave him his gift which made him laugh and then set the table. I was famished. He went to the kitchen and very proudly set down a board holding a grey, rubbery substance in the approximate shape of a small loaf of bread. He cut a thick slice which made a wet “Thwack” sound as it fell over. He set it on a plate and gave the plate to me.

“It’s calf’s brain in gelatin. Quite a delicacy! Mustard?”
Dear Lord. “Oh yes, please. Mustard would be great!” I preyed that it was very, VERY strong mustard.

One last entry to come. Wine, cheese, bread and no brains, please.

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