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stalling–roadtrip to bruges (part 1)

I’ve seen pictures of Brugge (or Bruges), Belgium and have always wanted to go there. They call it the Venice of the north, with picturesque ancient buildings flanked by canals. A town untouched by World War II. A gem. According to mapquest, it’s 168 miles away or a 2 hour and 48 minute drive from Auvers (they lie) or a 2 ½ hour train(s) trip from the Gare du Nord in Paris, so about 7 hours roundtrip.

If I take a train, it’s over 240 Euro round trip to get to Brugge. Flying might be cheaper, but there’s getting to the airport, security, waiting, fees… As opposed to the train, which is quick and painless. But I lose time in connections (ie: from Brussels to Gent to Brugge) and there’s that price thing.

I check the prices of a three day car rental and it’s a no-brainer. Three days unlimited mileage for more than half the price of a train ticket.   And this way, I can stop where and when I want.

But I quickly discover a catch…there’s a premium on cars with automatic transmissions. The difference in prices is huge. Which presents a huge dilemma.

The last time I attempted driving a car with manual transmission was in San Francisco (probably one of the world’s stupidest places to attempt such a feat). It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life. Not only was I in constant fear of death by rolling backwards down a vertical hill, I was also constantly humiliated by my inadequacy in shifting—stalling at every intersection and being forced to stop people on hills and ask them to hold the car in place while I shifted. I think I lost half my weight in sweat that day. I swore I’d never touch a stick shift again.

But poverty does funny things to a person. I decide driving with a stick shift will be an exciting challenge. A new experience. And there aren’t a lot of hills up north. I gamely click “reserve”.

The next two nights I spend studying maps and travel websites like I’m cramming for a final.

The night before I’m to pick up the car, the enormity of what I’m attempting hits me. I try desperately to come up with a reason, or find a sign that I should really cancel this whole junket. I’m sure I’m coming down with something. I can’t find my glasses. I can’t drive without my glasses. Oooooh, I have a bad cramp in my clutch leg. Where are the damn keys? Not being able to find the keys must be God’s way of telling me not to go. A black cat just crossed my path several times….THAT’s got to be a sign, even if it is Denzel.   Every little thing seems a warning of impending disaster.

I tell myself to calm down. It’ll be all right. I’ve got every conceivable route written out and mapped. How hard could it be? Less coordinated, dumber people than me have driven a stick shift. I temporarily ignore the fact that less coordinated, dumber people than me can also walk and use a cellphone at the same time and I’m totally incapable of that.

I mentally practice shifting until the xanax kicks in.

I must be maturing, because I don’t recall being tortured the by nightmares of sleeping through the alarm on the morning of my final exam or being at school naked. Only a few sane waking moments wondering whether seeing Bruges is worth dying for as I drift off to sleep.

When I wake up the next morning, I have that feeling I used to get before finals of being too tired and brain dead to cope with the task at hand. Being a trooper, I lumber towards my goal.

Armed with maps, instructions.credit cards, passport, drivers license, snacks and bottled water, I take the train to Pontoise, where I’m to pick up la voiture.

By 8:30 AM, I’m at the Pontoise Europcar. The car rental process itself is painless. The rental agent seems amused (in a friendly way) by my caveman French. The only rocky moment is when I sign the receipt and realize (after I signed it) that the number on it is E 500. Not the E116 I’d been quoted. The agent seems to notice that I’ve turned white and reassuringly tells me “c’est une deposit.” I’m relieved and terrified all at once. One false move and I’m broke. That’s worse than a fatal accident. I wonder if they’ll charge me for the day if I return it now?

No, I will hate myself if I don’t attempt to go to Brugge while I have this damn car. After stalling three times and almost backing into a Volkswagen Golf before getting out of the parking lot, I resolutely tell myself that I’m definitely driving up to Bruges while I have this goddamn car in my possession.

Just not today.

I stall 12 times on the 5 mile drive back to Auvers.   Fortunately, the French drivers are kind.   One person  honks when I stall at an intersection, but two jump out of their cars and offer to help.   In New York, I would have caused a riot.

The rest of the day, I intermittently practice driving the damn car interspersed with taking naps to recuperate from the physical and mental tension of practicing driving the damn car. My left leg will be very muscular from this experience. I have so many “my little goat moments”, I’ll be surprised if I don’t have permanent brain damage. I’m still trying to unfurl my hands from clutching the wheel in terror.

With a deep sense of foreboding, I make a delicious dinner of pasta with sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes before I go to bed. I figure it could be my last supper.


roadtrip to bruges part 2 (lost in the nether regions)


the big city (pontoise)

up the hillThe first time I visited Pontoise was last December. It was a brief trip–really only a stopover between Paris and Auvers. At the time, it seemd like a tiny little town, not much bigger than Auvers. maybe because it was New Years eve and everything was closed.

The second time I visited Pontoise was yesterday, and what a difference six months and a little direct sunlight can make.

rampartsApproaching from the train, my first view is the ancient rampart walls topped by old homes. But as the train draws nearer to the station, I see the walls are covered with graffiti. Since it’s in French, words I don’t understand, I think maybe it’s nice graffiti, welcoming visitors. The large modern ugly apartment complexes and throngs of teenagers in their uniforms of baggy dungarees with the crotches down the their knees (isn’t that passé?) indicate otherwise.

I don’t know why I didn’t notice it before, but the train station is huge, with many different tracks and trains all headed for different destinations.

Lordy, this is a thriving metropolis. Well, at least compared to Auvers.

Unlike Auvers, Pontoise has changed dramatically from the time the Impressionists painted it. The path up the hill that Pissarro painted is now a road lined with restaurants, salon d’ongles (nail salons), drug stores, travel agencies bakeries, boucheries, wine stores, everything except a Starbucks. Where do these people go for coffee? Do they (horrified gasp) make it themselves?


There are still narrow stone streets and old shuttered houses, but also a lot of newer, apartment buildings that take away the sweet old town effect. As I hike up the hill, my first beggars since I left Manhattan approach me, asking for money in French. I shrug and answer “je ne comprends pas”. There are advantages to being a dumb American after all. The other advantage is not understanding what they’re muttering under their breath as I pass them.

musee-pissarro-pontoiseAfter spending an hour or so in the Pissarro museum, I emerge famished. The streets are lined with bistros, restaurants, tea shops, sandwich stands, Chinese restaurants and sidewalk cafes and I’m frozen with indecision. Too…many…options. I wander the streets, utterly confused and finally decide on a quaint little tea shop when I almost faint with hunger in front of it.

As I stagger in, I notice the name of the place has the word “artisinal” in it so I figure it has to be good. It’s a combination café, tea and coffee store that also sells ceramic tea ware, fine chocolates and other gourmet goodies. It could easily be in Greenwich Village, except instead of college kids with pierced extremities, there’s a cute little old lady behind the cash register and another cute little older lady serving. I’m feeling younger and more energetic already. The menu is a choice of tarts and quiches with a salad compose. I‘m thrilled to understand what every quiche is made of. I order the chevre and tomato quiche and a citron presse (maintenant s’il vous plait, j’ai soif!) from the younger little old lady who scoots into the backroom.tomatotart

A relatively young woman enters the shop, looking much more stylish than anyone I’ve seen in Pontoise. She’s looking at all the items on sale and buying some coffee while she chats to the little old lady behind the counter. I hate her.

The little old lady notices I don’t have a drink and asks if I want one. I respond with “j’ai already ordered”. The old lady looks confused and the young woman translates “j’ai commander”. She then tells me her boyfriend is American. Her English is better than mine. I ask her where her boyfriend is from and it turns out he’s from New York City. He’s a theater director and is working in Paris. I ask if he misses New York and she tells me that he not only finds it an increasingly hard place for him to think, but that the rest of the population doesn’t do seem to do much thinking either. I love her and her boyfriend.

All in all, it was a lovely lunch. I bid them all farewell and head back into the street. After I’ve climbed every hill, explored the ramparts and the river below, I head back to the train station. I’m not sure which track to take or which train and a nice woman points out the Auvers train waiting on the tracks below. I run down and hurl myself into one of the back cars, next to two teenage boys who despite being sprawled out over the seats, look very nervous and not at all happy I’m there. They seem to be doing something they don’t want me to see.

Naturally, I’m curious and peer over to see what they’re up to. One of the boy’s hands are shaking as he empties the tobacco from a cigarette and starts mixing the tobacco with something and re-rolls it, putting the filter back on. They light up and I smell the marijuana smoke in the air. I wonder why they’re smoking it in the train if they’re so nervous…wouldn’t a bathroom have been better? Or maybe behind some bushes?

Almost immediately after they finish the joint two really cute police officers enter the car. The boys sit up straight and look innocent. My heart is racing. I think to myself, well, now they’ve done it. Somebody’s in big, big trouble. I sure hope they don’t think that pot smell is my fault. Can you get arrested for breathing in second hand pot smoke? The officers proceed to enforce the law—they tell me to take my feet off the seat. I act very guilty and answer with “merci, non, bonjour” and take my feet off the seat. They continue their patrol and the boys return to their slouched positions.

Obviously I’m going to have to read up on French law.


danger mort

It’s another lovely day and there’s no excuse to put off fullfilling yesterday’s mission. Today I’m taking the the train to L’isle Adam. Yes, I know it’s fraught with perils, but I must go.

This time, I’m prepared. I have less coffee, more yogurt and a banana. I study a map.

At precisely 10 AM, I tuck the bottled water into my bag and hit the driveway, full stride. Until I remember that I forgot my keys. I go back inside to find them. Desdemona greets me at the door, all full of expectation so I play with her for a bit. When she seems bored with me, I go to check on Denzel, and start to leave again… until I realize I still haven’t found the keys. As a rule, I try to put them on the furnace knob by the front door everytime I get back from somewhere. ‘Try’ being the key word. I finally find them in the refrigerator on top of the yogurt I bought earlier and head out again. This time I make it as far as the gate until it occurs to me that I may have left the internet connection on. I run back to check. It’s off; maybe I’m not as senile as I think.

I return to the front door which I’d left slightly ajar. But as I close it, I unwillingly begin entertaining my newest big fear: that Desdemona has slipped out the door, darted into the street in pursuit of a bird and…I can’t even continue. I call her and get no answer. I scan the yard, no kitty. I search the house calling her, first gently, but rising in pitch as I get more hysterical. By the time I find her on top of an armoire in the closet, I’m sweaty and my voice is raw and shaky. She looks at me like I’m insane. Phew. I double check that Denzel is still under the sheets and head out again. But when I get to the gate I can’t find my keys.

parmainI get to the train station, (probably 200 yeards from the house) at noon. A man sits behind a big glass wall. His voice booms through a speaker. “Bonjour madam.” Oh … my … God…I have to buy a ticket…in French. I prepare for the usual rush of blood to my brain. Only this time it doesn’t happen. I buy the ticket in French and even understand when he tells me the train is coming in ten minutes.

On the train, I watch the scenery closely trying to figure out exactly where I walked yesterday. Turns out it was the Valmondois, not Butry church bell that rang me into retreat. Valmondois is the first stop on a 7 minute train ride from Auvers. The next stop is another seven minutes away: Parmain/L’isle Adam. I’m tempted to go on to Champagne sur Oise because I like the name, but I also like the looks of this stop and don’t want to press my luck. So I get off. If I turn right, I’ll be in Parmain and if I turn left I’ll be in L’isle Adam.

footbridgeL’isle Adam is a small island in the middle of the Oise. I’d say it’s about one narrow square mile (a rectangular mile?). It’s green with trees that are much taller and lusher than the ones in Auvers. I think the Barbizon forest starts somewhere near here.

The houses are mostly old, beautifully maintained and shaded. It’s very peaceful, quaint as hell and the people seem extraordinarily friendly.

This town is full of little stores, restaurants, parks and great outlooks (Le Plage, the beach I’d read about is the pits—a huge sandbox with a big pool).

downtownI’m drawn to the center of town, which is always the church. Across the street from the church, I discover the answer to my prayers. A big outdoor market with all sorts of dry goods type stuff and a covered food market full of fresh produce, fish, meat, cheeses, baked goods, Asian delicacies…an array that makes Whole Foods look like Gristedes. I am so in awe (and lust) for all this food, I forget to become nervous when speaking to the people behind the counter. I get a beet salad, a half pound of gruyere (which I’ll never be able to prounounce no matter how drunk I deliam), two apples, two oranges, two spring rolls a loaf of bread and a really weird but tasty vietnamese dessert made of crushed peanuts and coconut wrapped in something sweet and doughy that the guy said was plus meillieux than the beignet ananas. All for under five Euro. And I bought everything in French with minimal blushing or stammering. It makes me want to dance around singing nyah, nyah nyah nyah…to whom, I’m not sure.goosey

I wander around the island for awhile. I have some bread and cheese at a shady spot overlooking l’Oise. And wander some more. I feel oddly relaxed and peaceful. In fact, when I come upon two swans (geese?), one building a nest around where she sits, I watch a full five minutes before even THINKING about bird flu.

When I return to Auvers at about 4:00 some of the people in town smile, wave and say bonjour to me. I inhale the scented air and think to myself “Damn, this is good!” I feel like in the beginning of the Mary Tyler Moore show, I should throw my beret triumphantly into the air to the chorus “you’re gonna make it after all.”


This too, shall pass.


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