France

La Vie en “Something” but Definitely not Rose

France
2003
            You know how when growing up, you see pictures of Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower and you think to yourself, “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to see those places in person one day?” Well, when the day finally came that I saw them, I wasn’t so impressed. It’s not that I didn’t find them striking enough or that I was too young to fully appreciate their gloried histories. Chalk it up more to the fact that for the second time in a month I had a tonsil infection. Quell dommage (what a shame) that on one’s very first trip to Europe the most “memorable” souvenir I took home with me was tonsillitis….


            For a high school graduation present, my parents sent me to Europe on an organized tour sponsored by my high school. It covered 12 days and a multitude of cities, and it was exactly the type of touring my father, a seasoned traveler to Europe, stayed away from (as in way too many cities in way too short a time). But for me, an eighteen year old who by that point only had one stamp in her passport, it sounded perfect. Little did I know that organized tours, especially organized tours for high school age students leave much to be desired in terms of what you actually get to see and do. My memories of London consisted of waving to Big Ben and Parliament from my seat on the bus, falling asleep at an evening performance of the musical Fame, and being incredibly bored from being given too much free time in the town of Windsor (cute place but overrun with bus groups, all exactly like the one I was on myself). Things didn’t get better once we crossed the channel into France. In reality, they actually got worse. 


            On our full day in Paris, I woke up with a searing fever. Posing for pictures in a group shot with the Eiffel Tower in the background, I was the only one of the group bundled up in a sweatshirt (mind you, it was the middle of summer when I was there). All day I ranged between feeling incredibly hot to having the chills. While the rest of the group took advantage of the couple of hours of free time we had, I basically parked myself at a table in the cafeteria of the Louvre. I’m sure people had no idea what to think of me when they saw my temporarily lifeless head resting on one of the tables, dressed as if it was late fall and not mid-July. To anyone that has not been to the Louvre, it is incredibly HUGE, which is to be expected considering that what began as a fortress was eventually converted into a palace for the French monarchy. The Louvre Palace was the predecessor to the palace at Versailles. I did will myself to garner the energy to pay a visit to La Gioconda, more widely known as Mona Lisa. During my hike there from my cafeteria table perch, I felt like I was going to keel over and pass out at any moment. Although there were points in which I was worried that I was heading in the wrong direction, I knew I didn’t have to be worried anymore when I saw mobs of people starting to travel in the same direction as I was. When I finally arrived at what is considered to be Leonardo DaVinci’s most acclaimed painting, boy was I disappointed. I guess I never knew how incredibly small the actual painting was. For one of the most talked about works of art ever, I had always expected it to be some huge painting, not something in a small sized frame you might overlook were it not for the mobs of people standing around it. 


            The next day we bid adieu to Paris and headed into the Loire Valley where we visited numerous châteaux, none of which made much of an impression on me since I was plain miserable from being sick. Onward south we journeyed into the land of Cognac. We didn’t actually visit the city of Cognac but we did tour the famous Hennessy Distillery. Since I was the only student of legal drinking age (by European law that is), I was actually able to partake in the complimentary tasting at the end of the tour. One of the chaperones even joked that the cognac would be strong enough to kick out whatever was in my system and making me under the weather. Although I found the taste of cognac to be the equivalent of downing a glass of rubbing alcohol, I did start to feel better in the days that followed my dalliance with one of France’s most beloved drinks. Who would have thought it?


            Our final visit in France before we were to cross over the Pyrenees and into Spain was the lovely beachside resort of Biarritz. I’ll admit, prior to going on this trip, my knowledge of French beaches consisted of Nice, Cannes, and Normandy; anything else was completely foreign. I had no idea what to expect out of Biarritz. In looking back, perhaps that was for the best, going in without any preconceived notions (unlike how I was for London and Paris), because I was wowed by Biarritz from the moment I first set eyes on her. 


            The city is located in the southwestern corner of the country and actually lies within the Basque province, which basically means that the Basque flag is a prevalent site, along with the names of street signs being in the Basque language. Later on in the trip we also stopped in San Sebastian, another beachside town that lies in Basque territory, only across the border in Spain. To me, Biarritz felt quintessentially French, whereas I thought San Sebastian retained more of a dual-language and dual-culture feel to it. 


            Unlike every other city we had visited, Biarritz marked the first time on the trip where we weren’t “go go going” for 12 hours straight each day. Dinners we were still required to eat as a group, but during the two days we spent there, we could do what we wanted. To someone still not feeling 100% in terms of health, and beyond sick of the childish and immature antics of my fellow tour mates (I was after all slightly older than the lot of them), the “alone” and unscheduled time was perfect. Relaxing in Biarritz was just what the doctor ordered. 


            It was here in Biarritz where I learned the French word for scoop, as in ice cream. I had known what glace meant since I was toddler age. It’s to be expected when you grow up in a house full of Francophiles who, instead of asking what the new flavor of ice cream is, will instead say, what’s the new flavor of glace? As I was wandering around the city the first day, I came across an ice cream shop that featured the word boule on a lot of its signage. After about a moment the light came on in my head that the foreign word must mean “scoop” (it was after all an ice cream shop and there isn’t a lot of specialized vocabulary attached to the ice cream industry). I proceeded to order a chocolate ice cream cone, deux boules. For the cone part of the ordering, yeah I just pointed. With my newly acquired delectable purchase, I proceeded to amble towards the beach until I came across a bench that offering picturesque views, ones that could rival any images found on the backs of postcards. 


            I did have one cultural mishap in Biarritz but I didn’t even realize that’s what it was until I returned home and told my mom about it. One thing I have found when you go abroad is that your nose is at the mercy of foreign tissues, as in not all tissues are made with the same softness that Kleenex tissues are. Well, by the time we got to Biarritz, the area between my nose and upper lip was completely red and sore due to having blown it too many times, and I wanted nothing more than some good old Vaseline to apply to the “ravaged” area. Unsure if French pharmacies would even carry Vaseline, I still decided it would be worth a shot to go into one and see if something else could be recommended. Although I knew a couple of words and phrases in French, I figured that I could make my needs known to the pharmacy worker since I had had four years of high school Spanish, and Biarritz was after all extremely close to the Spanish border. As it is going on seven years ago that I was there, I don’t remember exactly what I said or how I described my symptom (I’m sure I just pointed at my lip area), but I did walk away with a small jar that containing a cream/jelly-like substance which I applied it to the affected area for the remainder of the trip. It was only after I was home and showed the jar to my mom, who could more or less read the French on the jar, that she proceeded to tell me the cream was for feminine itch relief! God only knows how me pointing to my upper lip could make someone think that a cream for feminine itch relief was a good substitute. But I can’t say it hurt anything from applying or that it made me break out in a horrible reaction either!


            That day on the beach when I sat watching the swimmers (I even saw a couple of nude ones, which for someone who had only been to beaches stateside, it was quite a shocking sight for my eyes), I couldn’t help but think that of all the things I had seen and done on the trip so far, just eating ice cream and gazing out at the Atlantic Ocean was by far the best time I had had. Some people may think I’m crazy for saying that, but it truly was. It wasn’t the allure of seeing Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower for the very first time or walking in the path of the “Sun King” (Louis XIV) in the gardens of Versailles. For me, the allure was all about doing what made me happy, even if it was something I could have experienced back in the states. For as Da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” And indeed it is.

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