Fixing Memories

I'm back and (nearly) unjetlagged from my longish trip to France. I saw wonderful things but, unfortunately, learned that my sister and I are not congenial travel companions. I feel more strongly than ever that it's a mistake to take a lot of gadgets on a trip. It's too easy to get lost in the gadget instruction manual, or its malfunction, or its location, so that a convenience intended to facilitate fixing memories of striking views or events instead distracts us just when we should be looking at what's in front of us. Or a device intended to help us navigate instead monopolizes the conversation with irritable observations about its inconvenience or inadequacy. Or an invention that might keep us in touch with important news or information about travel arrangements or the history of important sites instead tempts to us stay head-down in a small screen, indoors, ignoring the actual purpose of the travel. It's possible for conversation to be entirely spoiled by topics like "Where's my camera? What happened to the memory card? Why won't it stay charged up? How do I turn off the flash function?" Within a few days I was tempted to throw all the gadgets out the window. All the pictures in this post are stock photos from the net, better than I could have snapped, anyway, and perfectly faithful images of what I saw.

My sister having managed to arrive without her driver's license or most of her credit cards, there also was far too much time given over to finding the offices of credit-card companies and attempting to obtain replacement cards from them. What's more, I would not willingly enter any tourism bureau or souvenir gift shop, but these were catnip to my companion. For ten days, I felt that anything and everything threatened to interpose itself between us and the things we had come to experience.

In spite of all this, I fulfilled my goal of soaking in very old and beautiful architecture from Paris to Bayeux to Bordeaux to Nîmes. We were typical squealing tourists at the first few beautifully preserved medieval town centers, until we realized with some shock that they were completely commonplace. Every few miles we would stumble on another chateau or fabulous old church. We saw cave paintings more than 25,000 years old. The famous Gorges du Tarn looked just like a steeply hilly drive northwest of Austin, if you added a lot more annual rainfall, except that every ten miles or so the limestone canyon walls sprouted a little cluster of Cinderella castles. We finished up with the Pont du Gard and several other Roman ruins in Nîmes before taking the train back to Paris and flying home. It's hard to overstate the impact of such antiquity on someone who grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Small street markets were everywhere. I may have eaten enough first-rate cheese, sausage, bread, chocolate, and duck to last me for a lifetime. The one thing I hadn't enough time to get jaded about was truffles: I brought home a small jarful that we're looking forward to cooking up into something soon.

And I'm sure my sister and I will begin speaking to each other again before too long.


Grim said...

Welcome back! What more can you tell us about these medieval villages with the wonderful food?

Texan99 said...

They are ordinary small towns except that they have preserved their medieval centers to a degree I find quite wonderful. In some cases, the preservation is museum-like and empty, but in most there are new businesses in the ground floors during a thriving business in the tourist trade: restaurants, jewelry stores, chocolate shops, and bakeries.

In one town, we arrived just in time for a street market that has been set up on every Tuesday since some prince declared the practice in the 14th century. The street markets feature only a very few tchochkes amid an overwhelming display of fresh meat (heads and feet still on the chickens), handmade sausage, handmade cheese, local wine, street food, and produce. In the States, the food inspectors would go completely bonkers. In fact, everywhere the contrast with the U.S. approach to "safety first" is striking. On every hand are rail-less steps and cobbles and "chaussés déformés" that would make an American PI lawyer swoon. So strange that this socialist country expects its residents to look after their own safety in these simple things, while rugged individualist America tries to turn every public and private space and meal into a safe padded cell.

douglas said...

Wow, sounds like you had a wonderful time, despite the occasional inconveniences! I must say, I like tourist souvenir shops- It's interesting to see how a people want to market themselves to people from other places, and what those people will buy. On the other hand, when I'm in a foreign city, I also really like going into department stores to see what everyday life is like for the locals. I also have developed a habit of buying locally important knives as my souvenirs- I only wish I'd had more money for them when I was a traveling college student, but I found things that were inexpensive regardless, it's just that they were sometimes thing I could have gotten here as well. From France I brought home a waiters pocket corkscrew, and an Opinel #6 folding knife.

Did you bring home anything besides the truffles?

Texan99 said...

I did buy several inexpensive corkscrew-knives at the street markets, as well as one simple utility knife at a Metroprix -- but though I remembered to pack the corkscrew knives in my checked luggage, I left the utility knife in an obscure zippered compartment on my carry-on and thus suffered its confiscation on the way home. I've left untold numbers of small knives in airports! And I did such a good job of learning to ask for "un petit coutteau pour le picnic" in the Metroprix, too. It was interesting, as you say, to see how different the department stores are there.

I also brought home a small jar of duck liver pate, some tea, some bobbin lace, and several small pieces of jewelry for Christmas gifts. There were pretty earrings made from Mediterranean shells and a lot of Senegalese workmanship. I confined myself to things that were small, light, and sturdy.

The wine was, as everyone says, very cheap and good. I was even served several sweet wines, which I normally don't care for, with a lovely complex flavor.

At nearly every market, someone set up a row of rotisseries for whole chickens and let the dripping fall to a tray of potato chunks on the bottom, sometimes with green beans. After an hour or so, the potatoes were sold separately, all crunchy and wonderful. One market also had a variety of Moroccan dishes, including beets and greens, my favorite kind of thing. I ate a number of disappointing local tomatoes until I finally realized my ambition of finding the perfect heirloom tomato.

Popping into restaurants is handy when you're on the road, but if I went back I'd want to have my husband with me and access to a kitchen. He'd have done wonderful things with what we found. Such gorgeous leeks and garlic! I doubt I'll ever get him to France, though, or even on an airplane.

Anonymous said...

I shook my head at all the people in the Louvre who only saw the art through the screen on their digital cameras.

The tourist gift shops at Mont San Michele made me laugh because I suspect if we'd stepped back 700 years the ancestors of the current shop keepers were selling similar goods to the pilgrims then! I'll admit, I got a St. Michael medallion there - he's my patron.

Glad you had a generally good time.

Texan99 said...

Exactly! I took the occasional snapshot on my cellphone, but only of something I knew I couldn't find on a postcard, and without the need to stop dead for ten minutes setting up the conditions for the perfect shot. It's very easy to concentrate so hard on fixing memories that you never form the memories in the first place. And camera-talk doesn't make for scintillating conversation.

douglas said...

I'm salivating with all the interesting foodstuffs you encountered!

"I doubt I'll ever get him to France, though, or even on an airplane."

My father doesn't like flying, so in recent years, my mother has taken to looking for interesting cruises that leave from somewhere nearby, or from a destination they can reach by rail. For one trip, they took rail to New York to cruise down the East coast to the Caribbean. Perhaps something like that could work. When the cruise companies transfer ships between seasons, you can get across the Atlantic, and do other interesting routes. Just a suggestion.

Texan99 said...

It's an interesting suggestion, but I doubt I'd ever get him on a cruise ship, either. It's not the flying per se that's the problem, it's the crowds and the lines and the indignity of the security procedures. (He'd be fine if we acquired a wealthy friend with a private jet.) The security would not be such an issue on a ship, but the crowds would make him crazy. Me too, probably. We do best on long drives.

Also, while I consider it part of the fun to be somewhere where they speak a foreign language, he doesn't care for it.