Wednesday, November 4, 2009

In Which We Do Not Meet Bridget Bardot

It’s one thing just to up and decide to relocate your immediate family to a funny little small town in a foreign country. It’s quite another to convince your friends and your family of origin to make the trip of thousands and thousands of miles to come and visit you. But really, you should. We're not just saying that because we're desperately lonely for you. It's great here. (Except when it's not.)

Our kids’ grandparents generally adore their grandchildren (and at times, they even seem to like us) and so they had ample reason to schlep all the way here to see us. Since we are holding their grandchildren hostage here, we gave them little choice. Still, we were so grateful we could lure Nona and Pops into making the trip. While they were here, Pops sharpened all the knives, then helped to teach Abigail to ride her bike, and Nona stitched up the witch costume that had so badly thwarted me. They pitched in, changed spent lightbulbs, did dishes, and gave us all lots of hugs. They settled in quickly and comfortably, as though they traveled to the Continent all the time.

Of course by now, we’ve adjusted our own oxygen masks, and can now see to helping others. We have a few purely scrumptious dinners down pat, and know our way around the wine and cheese aisles. We’ve mastered the art of the A8 highway tolls and the parking garages, and we have finally internalized the French meals clock; now we rarely get stuck on Sundays or midday anymore on with nothing at all to eat. And Diesel Liesel and I have built a very deep and important bond between ourselves; we really understand one another now, and she’s on my side when it comes to getting places safely and with a minimum of anxiety.

Perhaps we should have stuck to our most well-traveled paths with Mom and Dad in tow. But having visitors, however familiar, raises the ante for daily pleasures and tourguiding. Our little trips to Medieval hilltowns were all fine and good, but this time we’d be heading to St. Tropez to dazzle our lucky, lucky guests (most likely against their wills) with the finest treats France has to share.

If you’ve never been there, St. Tropez conjures up visions of Bridget Bardot in a bikini, and luxury yachts moored at the port. Guys in Ray-Bans and white shirts unbuttoned to the navel. Champagne cocktails, beaches, clear water and endless sunshine.

My own St. Tropez memories are nearly as glamorous. When I visited there when I was 15, my French family took me to a resort with a pool and palm trees and unlimited chocolate mousse. It was the perfect place for me to wear the pretty light- pink strapless dress that had been a gift from my glamorous and generous Aunt Aimé. My French family spent a day on a sailboat cruising around the bay and looking at all the enormous villas, then another day on a nearly-nude beach where everyone but the five of us was topless and barely-bottomed. Then the 20-something resort activities director, the tall, French and handsome Jean-Luc, took an interest in me, and we kissed late at night in a hotel corridor while a mistral wind roared outside.

That was then, twenty five years ago. This would be now. My real family set off in two cars: one for the girls and one for the boys. In the girl car, we played Abigail’s birthday CD and all sang along. Presumably the boy car spent their trip reminiscing about their earlier European tours, fifty and twenty years ago. As we got further and further south, we hit a long stretch of road construction, and clouds gathered above the empty hillsides. We passed into Ste. Maxime, St. Tropez’s ugly stepsister, with her waterparks and roadside McDonald’s and endless poorly constructed orangey-beige concrete blocks of vacation apartments. The only good news I could really think of to add was, “Hey! No crowds!” I guess the smart money packs up and high tails it out of St. Tropez a lot earlier than a cloudy, menacing November 1st.

Bill’s plan was for us to eat a picnic lunch on the famous Tahiti beach. We had the usual sausages and bottled water and a few coconut cookies in my trusty green bag of many pockets. But this trip to Tahiti wasn’t exactly what we planned and hoped for. Instead of great accommodations and a sunny beach and sweet drinks with parasols in them, we saw only the sad backstage of the vacation melodrama.

It took forever for us to snake through the walls and high hedges of the fancy ocean compounds to find the parking lot, which when we arrived was simply fermé. Not just a Sunday-afternoon sort of closed, either, but a final-seeming, end-of-the-season closed. You could walk onto the beach only through a few dissipated and nearly-abandoned beach bars, their only sign of life the chalkboards still advertising massively overpriced salads and fried bits of squid. We poked our heads through, but the water was high and angry on the shore. The whole beach was strewn with dirty brown seaweed, looking a lot more Cousin It than Bridget Bardot.

I don’t know why people make such a virtue of being “undeterred” in the face of unpromising circumstances, particularly when it doesn't matter, like when you're on vacation. Because we probably should have been deterred right about then, and hopped back into the cars to soak up the sunshine and familiar Medieval hilltown joys of the Var.

But we are fools, we humans, drawn forth by our stupid happy hopes even when reality is tapping us on our shoulders with an insistent, bony finger. Bill promised that a better beach, a prettier walk, a better picnic awaited us in town. I was holding out for a restaurant and a proper restroom. The poor kids and their grandparents became mere pawns in our chessgame, unconvinced about the promised glories ahead, yet politely unwilling to point out the obvious: Bill was almost certainly deluded, and I was becoming an awful grump.

Back in town, we found an overpriced car park with little problem, then Bill marched us off towards his beach. I ain’t to proud to beg for a restaurant, particularly when it looks like it’s just about to pour rain. But I was soundly and firmly overruled, and we headed straight up the St. Tropez version of Lombard Street. We passed the walls of the fort, circling around a long cemetery, where whole families were stacked up in big square above-ground crypts decorated with real and ceramic flowers. It was Toussaint Sunday, and there were chrysanthemums for sale to the living to honor their dead.

It was getting colder and more overcast the further we got from the car park, and nobody had an umbrella. Bill promised, “Oh, just another half mile” right as I was about ready to join some other happily dead family in their crypt for all eternity among all those chrysanthemums. Bill had stopped listening to my pleas, marching purposefully up ahead. I was dramatizing my own distress, sulking unpleasantly in the background. Everyone else was just quiet and resigned, not quite sure how this stalemate would play out.

(If we haven’t yet convinced you how much fun it is to travel here with us, perhaps this sweet little anecdote will push you over the edge. We walk miles in the rain to eat outdoors and on the ground! We take special treks near graveyards! And if you’re really lucky, we can be counted on to bicker unpleasantly the whole time! Vive la France! Vive la Famille!)

We finally arrived at Bill’s beach. I’m sure that in August it’s quite lovely and picturesque, but in the November grey it showed itself as really more a patch of dirty and trash-strewn sand. The picnic I had packed was a little too light on the cheese, and a little too heavy on the fizzy water for Abigail’s taste. Grace launched herself out to explore the rocks that stretched out into the water. Mom and Dad were awfully good about the whole thing, exclaiming politely about the sailboats and the sausage and the fact that well, wasn’t the rain really holding off quite nicely. We all scanned the horizon hopefully, but there were no Bardots, Bridget or otherwise, to be found.

While they aren’t all that common, my sulks really aren’t very pretty. I sulked us back into town, (where we found a nice stretch of dockside restaurants we would not of course get to enjoy.) I sulked us past the shops (closed) and back to our cars. I probably could have turned things around with a little honest enthusiasm, or even some dishonest enthusiasm, but I was feeling so darn deflated. Where was all that free chocolate mousse? How about a good old sailboat trip? Or at least a little sweet sideways glance from good old Jean-Luc? Of course “old” would be the operative word to describe Jean-Luc these days, but can’t a girl enjoy a little nostalgia?

We had been outdoors for an awfully long time, so on the way home, I will admit that I pulled out a special little Launa trick, pulling Liesel and the girl car into the previously-maligned McDonald’s to use their restroom. Perhaps other people have also learned this little trick, but I’ve always thought of the golden arches as my own personal W.C. on long car trips. Say what you want about the evils of restaurant chains like Starbucks and Burger King: they do provide the world with some of its more reliably clean toilets.

Mom and I took some pity on the kids, (really more on ourselves) and ordered up a few cheeseburgers and some hot salty fries. Abigail had her only fun of the trip, scampering up and down the little outdoor slide with a few giggling French kids.

And, predictably, the end of my losing chess match with Bill produced a nice warm feeling for us both. I’m sure he was equally glad to be rid of me, speeding back home in the car with Pops, who would probably tell him a few more stories from the European tour of 1959.

Mom and Dad were, as usual, quite stoic, steadfast soldiers in the face of our family’s foolishness. But next time, when you come, we’ll know better. We’ll head straight for the old waterfront, have a café and a snack and stroll by the enormous yachts. We’ll probably skip the cemetery tour and take you for a nicer walk up to the old fort. We’ll pick a day of glowing blue sky. The road work will be done by then, and we’ll have our own lane (or two) to zip us there and back. You'll never even guess what a wreck we were on our first time around. (Except, of course, now that I have told you in such detail.)

So when you visit, by next time, we’ll have added to our list of familiar places in this world. For you, we’ll stick to what we know. We promise.

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