Tuesday morning, day of my departure. I arrange for one more night at the hotel for the kids because Alex is so sick--she needs rest, and plenty of it. We don't have a key to Vero's place (kids' next overnight), and Alex would otherwise have to clear out of the hotel by 10am and tote her bags around all day, because Vero has to work.
I take James out on one more attempt to obtain the adapter that the kids need. I also ask him to promise to take one of the backpacks over to Vero's at 6 and get the key, as well as to carry the other backpack over tomorrow, so Alex isn't doing anything too strenuous.
I hug the kids goodbye and get in the car to the airport. It's a 36-minute journey, according to Google maps, and I'm due at 2 for a 3pm flight. I leave the lot at 12:49. I get to the airport at 4:57. Yup, 4:57.
In Paris, roads move slowly. I mean, slooooooowwwwwwwly. I was tootling along happily until 1:12. Then: stoppage. Not just a slowdown, but a stoppage. There are moments of inching forward, then minutes of being stopped. This continues for the next 50 minutes.
I know that the NAV system has the airport pre-programmed, as it has been harassing me for a few exits, noting to me in French that traffic on the A86 is not moving. But the NAV has proved maybe 80% reliable at giving me the fastest way to get someplace. Once 2pm rolls by, however, and I still don't see any planes taking off or landing, I go with the NAV system.
I exit the highway and begin a tense trip on surface roads to the airport, knowing that my arrival will be late. After a whirligig turn at the beginning, the journey is pretty uncomplicated. After much too much time passes, voila, I see planes! Then, a sign: Orly Airport. But...the NAV was taking me to Charles De Gaulle! Wasn't it?!? I verified, and it was...LISTED as CDG. But taking me to Orly. Back, essentially, to where I had started.
Remember, I have no mobile phone, and no cellular data. I park the car at 2:52 and beg phone and wi-fi usage from strangers and shopkeepers, trying to reach my airline, Swiss Air. When I do, it is no help at all. It tells me that I need to call United, because that's who my ticket is booked through. (I have zero flights with United, this entire trip.) Repeated searches of United's website reveal no phone number that can be used in France. So I get back in the car at 3:22, headed to CDG, to talk to a live United clerk, in person, at a check-in counter. Maybe I can get on another flight.
Hence, I get to CDG at 4:57. You know what? All the United staff had gone home already. I finally found a number on the website (using airport wi-fi) that is listed as one for use in France. I call it, and reach a fax machine.
I don't give up. I spend 40 minutes on the phone with the service that booked this package deal for me. They can't reach anyone at United, either! I realize that I'm going to have to book, and pay for, another flight home.
Plus, I had another horrible food experience, a pesto sandwich at the airport that tasted like it was made of sand.
I hate Paris.
I rented a new car overnight and went back to the hotel.
We had dinner on night 1, after Versailles, at Chez Clement, a chain. I had inedible lamb, it was so fatty. James did order escargots, which Alex loved. Our hotel, advertised as being "in" Versailles, was in such a sketchy neighborhood of PARIS that we did not dare go far; hence, the chain.
With Paris as home base, we traveled to Chambord to see the Chateau. But Alex was increasingly troubled by an ear infection. Without mobile phones or cellular data, we traipsed from town to town seeking a pharmacy, where in Europe one goes first to consult.
In one town, the pharmacy was closed on Mondays, and the only doctor 'lived' at the church. He must have been conducting a service--no answer to our knock, and sounds of a heavenly choir. When we finally found an open pharmacy, two towns on, the pharmacist's advice was: go to a doctor. He pointed one out, across the street.
That doctor could not see us for like 5 hours. We continued on to urgent care at a hospital in the next town. There, when Alex's temperature was taken, it was 102!
We returned to Paris after picking up loads of meds for illing Alex. We sent out for Indian food, which was...disappointing! Damn Paris.
The ferry to Le Havre was nice: comfortable, with private bath and nice linens. We were on the deck with the bar, info station, and restaurant, each just round the corner.
Le Havre itself was VERY nice--though, architecturally, per Vero's husband Geoffrey, it is all made up of cubes because it was bombed to the ground during WWII. Our hotel, a very tall cube, had whirlpool, sauna, and steam room, so of course we made use. It was right next door to this (where we entered our car park):
The boulangeries (bakeries) were amazing, simply amazing, and so inexpensive! Artful and sinful tarts, pastries, breads, cakes, and layered slices of heaven, not a one more than €3 that I saw, most around €2.20.
Alex quickly developed a baguette habit, and announced that she could survive on nothing but baguettes and butter for the rest of the time she spent in France. (When James & Alex tried the butter over here, they marveled at the flavor.) And don't even get me started about the chocolates!
Our first lunch was at a place top-rated by Trip Advisor, La Voile Bleue (I think). There I had the best shrimp dish, roasted, that I have ever eaten. They were prepared in a pesto-like sauce with extra herbs added, and served with the heads and tails on. James tried salmon mousse (terrine), which he did not love, but kudos for bravery. At our hotel, for dinner, Alex had duck breast, which she pronounced the best she'd ever had. (Pictured, a hotel breakfast, sans croissant, but nice plate!)
The weekend was supposed to bring a festival of the sea, with parade and fireworks, but it rained. However, the day we left, a market appeared downtown--such a market! Handmade pastas and sausages, paella cooking in mammoth pans over fires, vibrant and enticing fruits and flowers and vegetables...I had to buy some grapes that were barely green, tinged with pink. I had never seen nor tasted them before. My, they were good.
A word about Williton's pub, our sole source of connection to the outside world. Called the Wyndham Arms, it did not encourage one to imagine great food or inspired beverage concoctions from the outside. From the inside, it encouraged one to flee. Filthy tables, threadbare carpet, mismatched chairs--a dingy environment, populated by geezers.
We stayed that first night because we needed the 'net. Remember, our cottage was a dead zone. In seating ourselves, we selected a relatively clean table as far from the knot of white-haired men as possible. I brought the Mazzes' passports up to the bar and placed an order for one beer, one white wine, and one Jack Daniels with soda, no ice. As expected, the bartender--who reminded me of Marty Feldman, in appearance and manner--said he would need to see the IDs of the rest of my party.
He apologized for asking. Then he apologized again. I assure him that we expected the inquiry. Yet again, he apologized. "This is why I brought the passports to the bar with me," I say, trying not to sound exasperated. "It's fine."
He scanned Alex's passport and accepted that she was of age. However, when scanning James's, he stopped short.
"Hold on. He's only 12."
"I beg your pardon?" says I, confused at this nonsensical assertion.
"The boy's age," says Marty (the name I have privately given him).
"Aah," says I, "except"--mustering my most firm yet friendly, schoolmarmish tone--"that says 1997, so he's actually 18. Right?" Prompting the slowest of my students.
"Mmm, mmm....yes, 18," says Marty, and he putters off to fetch the drinks.
When I bring them back to the table, Alex's beer is warm and tastes of nothing so much as piss with a powerfully bitter aftertaste. Isn't that what the British always say about American beer?
As we sit, accessing, searching, and blogging, some younger patrons appear from who knows where. They start to shoot pool in the back room, the entrance to which is next to us. They also make unfortunate use of the jukebox.
70s rock. We're talking Foreigner. Alex said, "This sounds a little like Queen, except it's awful." Non-alt 80s pop, a la Whitney Houston. Hair metal. It is LOUD. We look sadly at one another as each tune begins. We find scant relief in the Police and MJ's Thriller.
Concluding our business, we pack up our electronics. Marty hovers nearby, worried and beseeching. "Everything all right? Yer drinks OK?" He stammers and stares and wrings his hands, looking a bit the mad scientist.
On the way to Wales, we agree that any future trip to the Wyndham Arms will require a drinking game. Since we are not fond of pub alcohol, we will order 3 small glasses of something tolerable, Grand Marnier or Chambord or similar. Each time an artist or song that we despise comes on, we will take one sip. We begin to hammer out the list of qualifiers: Bob Seger. "My Heart Will Go On," from Titanic. The Eagles.
The next night, James and I saunter over to the pub around 10pm, just to chat briefly with some people online before bed. Having checked the night before, we know that it's open until 11:30. Except that it isn't. It's dark and sealed up tight. We re-trod the block-and-a-half to the cottage, half perplexed, half annoyed. Why even post your hours, British pubs?
The following night we decide against the pub and watch a movie, but on night 4 we return. As we approach the front door, around 8:30, Marty exits, putting on his jacket. "Oh," I say, "are you closing up?" He says nothing for a moment, then leans in, eyes wide.
"I'm going home," says he, somewhat dreamily, skating on the edges of context.
"Um. Is the pub closed?" I repeat, and Marty gestures toward the door.
"You have to push it," he says, and is gone.
Stifling exclamations along the lines of "What the hell?" we take his advice and find that, while Marty's shift has ended, pub life rolls merrily on. We settle in at the only empty table, which is especially grimy, and begin our online tasks for the night. We forget about the drinking game and have cider, since we discovered a good one in Wales. The pub empties a bit. The jukebox isn't a factor.
Then, suddenly, a few men sidle in, from somewhere at the back. We aren't sure where; our brief exploration on day 1 found only the billiards room and the toilets in the rear. A few more enter from the same mysterious location. Then several more. Then a gaggle. Then what appears to be the entire male population of Williton arrives as though from an invisible clown car. They hang out for a few minutes, sucking up all the air, noisily quarreling and laughing. Then they vanish the way they came.
We start to giggle, fingers frozen above keyboards. James utters a "What the--" while I question the architecture of what appears to be a standard building. We eventually re-engage in online matters, then maybe 20 minutes later the scene unfolds once more: a trickle, then a stream, then a gusher of men erupts from somewhere at the back. It subsides.
We do not ask. It is something to do with how nobody offered any information, when we were clearly quite surprised. Like it was not our business. Like we were not welcome to inquire.
It's a little like a Stephen King novel, this place, the Wyndham Arms.