Falling in Love on the French Seaside
Whenever I tell someone about my trip to France, there are two stories that I always tell them. The first is how the simple process of entering France was quite possibly the worst travel experience of my life, and the second is how a few days later, in the small shore-town of Cancale in Brittany, geographically around the corner from the white sands of the Normandie beaches where the rusted shells of landing ships from D-Day can still be seen, I fell in love with France.
I’m sure you already know and dread that feeling. You know, the feeling that you get when you hear the lock of your door click behind you and realizes that you had just locked the door behind you? That was just about how I felt (to put it lightly) during the moments after a touch-down in Paris and a twelve hour flight from Newark, the moments when I realized that my mom and I hadn’t gotten travel visas, which we needed to enter France, because we only had our green cards and not our US passports at the time.
Now, I admit, even though the travel agents on the US side should have caught the fact that we didn’t have travel visas, not getting the visas in the first place was an oversight on our part that never should’ve occurred in the first place. However, detaining us in what is literally a prison cell for hours when my dad was out in Paris (he is a citizen, so he could get out of the airport) trying to sort the situation out with the American embassy in Paris was slightly over the top. Which was obviously a sentiment that my mother shared when she let her famous temper break out as the French cop – who barely spoke English, but who definitely knew when someone is cursing at him – tried to lock the door on us.
Long story short, we were shortly joined by a group of four Parisians who were religiously drunk and/or drugged out of their minds, I fell asleep, and when I woke up, the Parisians were gone. I went on a bathroom hunt (there wasn’t one), and when I failed, I checked out all the graffiti left on the wall by the previous residents. I can’t remember if I had left anything behind or not. The embassy couldn’t help (and I didn’t expect them to, since we weren’t there in person, and we weren’t technically American citizens yet anyway), and we flew back to Newark on a flight later that very day.
A day and half after we left the soils of New Jersey for France, roughly 24 hours of which we had spent on planes, we were back where we started. That was the beginning of my trip to France, and I thought that was going to be the end of it, but my dad didn’t think so, so a week later, with our brand new visas, we flew back to Paris. This time, the entrance into one of the most beautiful cities in the world went without a hitch.
During our stay in Paris, we stayed at L’Hotel off the left bank of La Seine, ate what were probably the most expensive ham sandwiches (the famed croque monsieurs) in the world at Le Petit Saint-Benoit, had escargots for the first time – I always teased my mom about how the sauce reminded me of the slimes that snails left in their wake – and realized how expensive soda in Paris is. Shopped on le Champs-Elysees, spent about a year’s worth of Pratt tuition money (and I’m barely exaggerating) on clothes at Blanc Bleu (I love my sweater from there that I still wear from time to time, but my jeans still don’t quite fit, 4 years later, since I never got them tailored and fitted).
We stayed in Paris for a handful of days, filled with expensive dining, lots of walking, lots of sightseeing; I did pretty much everything a tourist would do in Paris (except for climbing the Eiffel tower). But we soon left for the northern countryside of France.
We planned on a route that would take us through the rural France to Normandy and then Brittany and the shore castle of Mont. Saint-Michel. We started off in a chauffeured car, but we switched to rental soon after we left Paris, after my mom’s purse, containing all our passports and visas, was almost grabbed from under her – while she was sitting in the front seat of the car – when we stopped for a bathroom break at a gas station off the highway.
It was quite a simple heist – it would be a two man job, one man would be the getaway driver/rider on an idling motorcycle, and the other would open an unsuspecting tourist’s car door, grab the purse/bag, run back to the getaway bike, and they would be gone in a blink of an eye down the entrance road, melting into the afternoon highway traffic of people who work but don’t live in Paris like a mist on a sunny day. What they didn’t count on was that the car was in reverse, and when the driver took his foot off the pedal to help my mom secure her bag, the car started moving backwards, straight into the back of a minivan parked to the right of us, so if the thief didn’t let go, he would have been crushed between the car door and the minivan. So we were spared more headaches and trouble that day.
Which brings us to Cancale at the edge of the sea. So what was the thing that attracted me to Cancale? It could have been the tiny boulangeries that were around every corner and sold freshly baked baguettes that smelled like a perfume of the bread gods, for the fraction of the cost of a croquet monsieur in Paris. It could have been the cafes with the wide open fronts facing the street, with a neat little handwritten sign advertising the special catches of the day. Cancale, after all, is known for its sea food. But I think what attracted me most of all was the open market by the harbor, with no more than two dozen stalls, all selling varieties of oysters, oysters that would shame its US cousins in both size and freshness – every single oyster was as large as my palm, if not larger, and all were freshly opened right at the stall. Slurping down a dozen of those fresh oysters – each with a squeeze of a fresh lemon that the vendors thoughtfully provide with each platter of oyster, was, well, a chowgasmic experience that I’ve not had the pleasure to match (with oysters, at least) since that day.
I’m not sure what my very thoughts were then, after I had finished stuffing my face with oysters and throwing the shells down onto a beach literally made of oyster shells under the harbor and was sitting on the edge of the harbor with my family, looking around at the French families, couples, and the teenage French boy wooing the teenage French girl (he couldn’t have picked a better spot). But I’m sure it ran along the lines of, ‘I can really live here.’
What about you? Have you been somewhere that you’ve never forgotten (and in fact have brought it up whenever someone else talked about something remotely similar)? I would love to hear it, as I’m sure other people would – after all, amazing experiences and moments like these are meant to be shared with the world. Post a comment here, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your stories!