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my new french teacher is a bitch

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Professor Iota

Up until now, the only person I felt comfortable conversing entirely in French with was my cat.

I babble away endlessly and she never corrects me, never judges, always understands.   However, like me, her primary language is English, so it’s really not much of a challenge and I’m probably not learning much.

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Romain, Iota, Vlad

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely, young French whippet.   Her name is Iota (pronounced e-yoh-ta, almost like “Yoda” with a “t” instead of “d”). She’s the daughter of my friends Romain and Vlad who are Belgian and French.   French is Iota’s mother tongue, so to speak, but being only seven months old, she’s still learning.

She impressed me immediately with her intelligence.   When Romain told her to assis, she sat.   And when he told her to debout, she stood up (and I learned a new word!).

Turns out, our French skills are very similar (okay, she’s a little better than I am).   We both know some words, but neither of us can conjugate or string together a sentence to save our lives.

While I’m still not good enough to confidently conduct an intelligent conversation in French with French humans, I think I’m ready to graduate from English speaking cat to French speaking dog.  The beauty of dogs is they totally live in the present, so I won’t have to deal with that pesky conjugation problem.

Today is our first session.  I’m taking her for a walk.

iota bisousI release her from her bedroom and she bursts out, happy to see me.   After the obligatory bisous are exchanged, I nervously speak.

“Bonjour Iota, Ca va?   Oui, tres bien!   Tres, tres bien!   Tres, tres, TRES bien!   Ou’est la…. Hmmm, quel est le mot pour “leash” en Francais?”

She’s too excited to answer, but she doesn’t roll her eyes or snigger at my accent. I consider that a minor victory.   I find her leash, attach it to her collar and she pulls me out the door.   This is going to be a piece of cake.

When we get to the sidewalk, I start to worry. Do I address Iota in the formal or familiar.? Do I tell her to viens, or venez? I don’t want to offend her right off the bat.   She’s pedigreed, so perhaps she demands formality.

As a rule, I always assume a certain level of familiarity with anyone who has already licked my face, so I opt for viens.  She seems okay with it.   On the other hand, she doesn’t viens, either. In fact, she kind of ignores me in favor of the much more interesting cigarette butt she finds on the grass. I chalk her reaction up to being French.

I speak to her sternly.

“Non!”

She looks at me and puts down the cigarette.   Ahhhhh, communication!

I pet her lavishly and shower her with compliments.

“C’est bien.   C’est tres, tres, tres bien.   Tu est une tres, tres bonne chien!”

She’s proud and very excited to be acknowledged.  I’m thrilled at the effortless exchange and meeting of the minds.

We walk along the beach, Iota occasionally pulling me towards bushes, picnics, cigarette butts and where ever the possibility of treasure lies.   When she does, I’m no longer afraid to speak my mind.

“Pas tirer!”

She slows down and walks with me.   Success!   I’m starting to feel like the dog whisperer…The FRENCH dog whisperer!

I’m not saying there isn’t the occasional language barrier. At one point, no amount of “NONs” and “pas tirers” can stop her from dragging me off towards a family picnic, forcing me to converse with actual French humans. But even this turns out to be a positive–it gives me the opportunity to try out a whole new French phrase: “Monsieur, je suis tres desole que ma chien a mange votre repas.”

After we say our au revoirs, I walk home alone along the ramparts. I’m feeling pretty good about my afternoon with Iota.   It was a lovely walk and I think it was tres beneficial.  Unlike my last French teacher, she doesn’t make me feel stupid.  I’m not living in dread of the next time I see her.   I’m looking forward to it.

I light a cigarette and look out over the bay at Nice and Cap Ferrat.   A child shrieks and shouts “NON” in the distance.   I reflexively drop my cigarette.

See?   I already learned something!

dubrovnik. heaven on earth, 18 hours a day

When you’re driving into Dubrovnik, you don’t see it coming. Even when you cross the modern, soaring bridge that looks like wishbones, you’re still wondering “where’s Dubrovnik?  Then you drive around a few more curves, take the Dubrovnik exit, look down the windy road, and gasp.    It’s a huge walled city/fortress built on top of cliffs and rocks overlooking the Adriatic. Everything around it is a jewel toned–the lush green suburb dotted by colorful flowers, the sparkling azure Adriatic..

In fact,  the only thing ugly in Dubrovnik is my mood.

katherine rolling eyes at us under photo of man rolling eyes

It’s about 8:00 PM and we’re about three hours later than our scheduled arrival time.

My dad is checking in to the hotel but there seems to be a problem.  But when I ask what the problem is, my dad screams across the lobby (even though I’m only two feet away) for me to” shut up and fetch his goddamn glasses from the car!”. How rude. How disrespectful. How crass. I scream some shrill obscenity back at him, but try to do so tastefully.

After dropping my bag in our room in the scullery maid’s quarters, I storm the old city gates (the Hilton is conveniently located just outside the Pile gate) and head for the nearest ice cream stand. Like any good bartender, the ice cream guy tries to distract me from my problems. He flips my scoop of forest berry into the air and catches it on my cone. I regress about 40 years and giggle in appreciation of his skill.

My cone and I stroll the Stradum, a wide main promenade of shiny marble slabs that gleam like ice. We look in store windows. We get kicked out of europe’s oldest pharmacy (they don’t allow cones, which I consider racist in this day and age). We climb the tiny sidestreets leading up hills to a series of outlooks that are just slightly different from the last one, but all worth seeing.

We pass a wall and a gate, taking us to Dubrovnik’s small stone harbor. I didn’t notice at the time a hulking beheomoth cruise ship lying quietly in wait to devour Dubrovnik tomorrow morning before scuttling off to Venice for her next meal.

The next morning I make peace with the family over breakfast at 8:30, hit the old city by 9:00, by 9:30 I have a brand new tee shirt and a pistachio ice cream cone and all is right with the world..

Then the crowds start pouring in and I get a chance to see the ugly side of Dubrovnik. Between the hours of 10AM – 4PM, the jewel of the Adriatic becomes the jewelry store of     the Adriatic.

Hundreds of cranky men of various nationalities line the Stradum, waiting impatiently outside jewelry stores for their wives. The theme is so prevalent, I start filming them. While capturing one such cranky man in front of a jewelry store. He looks at his watch, “tsks” and glares inside the jewelry shop. Then he makes a threatening gesture in the window and starts to walk away. It isn’t until he stops and storms back that I realize I’m filming my Dad.

After he destroys the video tape, We manage to drag mom out of Richard’s jewelry boutique #3 in Dubrovnik for a refreshing beverage and snack. But we lose her again at Trinity Jewelers and just hope she knows where to return when it’s time to leave Dubrovnik.

It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago the Yugoslavian army left this place in ruins. It’s only from the wall I can see the only visible effects of the war. The predominantly, redder colored rooftops indicate where reconstruction was needed.

The hour and a half walk around the wall also provides eight million of Dubrovnik’s finest views and is best in the morning or late afternoon when the sun isn’t raging. You’ll get an inside look at 1200 years of history as well as a peek at modern peoples’ kitchens and backyards. Someone even has a little orchard growing on the rooftops of Dubrovnik.

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cocktails on the rocks

 

I also recommend walking through t

he old town early in the morning or late at night when you can hear your footsteps echo; A 40 minute boat ride to the town of Cavtat during the 10-4 Dubrovnik tourist hours, Have lunch on the harbor; Back in Dubrovnik, Have a drink on the cliff rocks on the outside of the Dubrovnik walls facing the sea in the afternoon.

Dubrovnik is a testament to forgetting the past and moving forward. They’ve survived foreign invasions that are hard to imagine. And yet here she is, a beacon on the Adriatic, glowing with the hope that no matter what destruction may befall us, pleasure and beauty can always endure. Sure, there are still grim reminders from past onslaughts. But the tour bus will pick them up by 4:30.

See more pictures of Dubrovnik

the lavender fields of hvar

I’ve been wanting to go to Hvar ever since I knew there was a Hvar. I think the clincher was “the island is covered in lavender fields which scents the air”.

I’m not an island person, but I’m a sucker for a good smell. And lavender has all these amazing properties, aromatherapeutically speaking. It picks you up and calms you down. It’s not only a disinfectant and repels bugs, it also soothes, balances and restores the spirit. It even cures headaches when rubbed on temples and nausea when rubbed onto the fifth chakra (which is the throat…or Achilles tendon, I just rub it on both to be sure). Just think how great it’ll be to be naturally surrounded by it. It sounds like the herbal good smelling therapeutic equivalent of a speedball or Irish coffee.

Hvar itself is an emerald green island under aquamarine skies surrounded by a sapphire sea (in case anyone wants to commemorate the trip in jewelry).

The port in Starigrad looks like a big skating rink, which makes me nervous right off the bat. We aren’t staying in the old town here, so we should be able to find our hotel easily. Unless all the buildings look like skating rinks.

It’s about an hour and a half boat ride from Split to Starigrad, Hvar. And a winding 20 minute drive from Starigrad to Hvar town.

I become downright jittery when the arrow pointing the direction of our hotel, the Podstine, indicates it has only one star. The car trembles with the force of my mother’s shudders.

We pull over so we can regroup from the shock. Our eyes are hollow with horror as we imagine the implications.

Finally Dad breaks the silence and posits tightly, that ”at 200 a night, it can’t be one star. It must be a mistake” Yeah. I rejoin, feebly, saving my strength to break the waves of queasiness lashing at me. I unroll the car window desperately, remembering that the Lavender air should help sooth my nausea. I don’t smell the lavender. The fields must be further inland.

Up until now, I’ve been using the bottle of lavender essential oil strictly for medicinal purposes: repelling bugs, swabbing pink spots on cheeks. But right about now I really need a balancing, soothing whiff. I rub a dab into my temples and breath deeply.

The Podstine is modern and blends in with the stone cliffs overlooking the Adriatic From the lobby off the tiny road.  The hotel is built down, into the rocks, rather than on top of them. The lobby is on the top floor. So are our rooms. Nice, big, bright, clean rooms. With big balconies and sea views. Downstairs there’s a restaurant and café with tables on the deck. And a lower deck for lounging by the side of the world’s most gorgeous swimming pool—the Adriatic, It’s very nice.

Katherine on balcony of podstine hotel, relieved.

That’s one more potential disaster averted.

It’s a pleasant 20 minute walk from the Podstine into Hvar Town, yes, another medieval village. We chose not to stay in the Old town this time because I’d seen Hvar Town on an episode of “Wild on” and decided it would be good to sleep at a safe distance. A good choice since at 3 in the morning you can still hear music blaring from the direction of Hvar town on the hotel balcony.

But Hvar town is cool with the big fortress on the hill above the small harbor. And of course, the little shops. And sometimes the square becomes so happening, it doesn’t seem like the small town can handle it. Like the night they had Miss Croatian Universe Pageant. We catch a part of it on the way back from dinner one night. Katherine becomes offended by and wanders back to the hotel ahead of us. After the Croatian Stephen Tyler performance, the pageant continues. We watch until mom becomes offended that Dad is enjoying it.

Hvar is a good place to read, swim, and wander medieval streets and shops, eat ice cream, nap. But it’s so pretty, you’ll want to nap with your eyes open.

But there is one problem: the air is NOT scented with lavender. Apparently some big fire destroyed all the lavender fields on this side of the island three years ago.

This could be a problem because I was counting on that lavender scent and its soothing properties.

Now you may wonder why I need to be soothed. Hasn’t everything gone remarkably well? Even my biggest concern (plitvice lodging) has turned out happily. Hvar is blissful, what the heck am I so stressed out about?

Perhaps you don’t understand the anxiety involved in waiting for something to go wrong You know it will. It’s only a matter of time. In fact, by your schedule, things should have gone to shit at least twice by now. This is unsettling. You don’t want to be caught off guard. God forbid you should be too happy and comfortable when it happens. And you can’t help thinking that the longer you have to wait for something to go wrong, the worse that something will be.

Mom swimming in the Adriatic

My family feels it too. And the stress of having nothing major to complain about shows itself in little ways.

My dad simmers with anger because the hotel waiter serves us too much food.

My mother sighs and sadly reflects that my grilled lobster looks better than her grilled lobster, Katherine announces that if she sees another grilled fish she’ll puke. I splash lavender oil on all seven chakras.

When my elbow hits the knob that adjusts the water temperature in the shower, giving me an unwelcome blast of cold water,  I curse god’s tyranny and shower myself in lavender oil.

Sure, we may look rested, tan, well fed and healthy, but we are obviously at the ends of our ropes. And we reek of lavender.

When I get to the check out desk with my luggage, my dad and the guy with a cold sore are conspiring. If we leave now, drive an hour and a half to the other ferry port, we can catch the 11:30 ferry on the other side of the Island that takes us to Drvenek which is only a half hour ferry ride and we’ll end up an hour and a half closer to Dubrovnik than if we ferry back to Split and drive from there as originally planned. It’ll save a lot of time. But we have to go now. There are too many numbers in this plan for my little brain to process.

I ignore the nagging sense of foreboding. There’s something about the math here that isn’t adding up. But I’m a mathematical moron, so I defer to the wisdom of my dad and cold sore guy. Cold sore guy must know more about getting around Croatia than I do. When I look at the map, it almost makes sense. And maybe we’ll see some lavender fields.

We race the island’s narrow winding roads to catch the ferry. Well, my mother is driving, so we race in a safe, leisurely manner. We elected mom to drive the narrow, windy roads. figuring she’s going to be clutching, steering and pumping the breaks no matter who is driving. So we might has well let her actually drive. We’re hoping this will give her a sense of control. On this outing she vacillates between taunting the asshole on her tail to pass her or cursing the old goat in front of her who is driving too slow.

We’re in the middle of nowhere, Hvar (who knew a little Island could be so big?) By now it’s only an hour until the ferry leaves. We’re supposed to be there an hour early and god knows how far the damn ferry port is from here. From every point we see a bay that “must be it.” that isn’t.

Despite the fact I’m sweating lavender, I open the bottle for a few more drops. And at this moment, the car screeches to a halt followed by thud and impact. I pull my neck out trying to catch the lavender oil bottle which has been jolted from my hands.

Everyone in the car is checking their most valuable possession to make sure it’s okay. Mom is checking her lipstick. Dad is patting his Cal Bears fall football schedule. Katherine is checking her face and boobs. And I’m grieving my last drops of lavender which are now a part of the floor mat.

I don’t know whose fault the accident was. I was too busy trying not to be car sick at the time to notice.

The Bosnian guy who slammed into us is nice and concerned. But his wife sickens me. She’s so busy protecting her own ass from possible litigation, she can’t see my suffering. Here I am with an empty lavender bottle and a stiff neck and she’s blithely saying “at least everyone is okay.” Then she tries to imply that my stiff neck and lost lavender are the result of my own negligence because I wasn’t wearing my seat belt. But I was. Jesus, whatever happened to humanity and compassion? My neck feels pretty much better. So feeling fairly certain I won’t be able to sue her for making me an invalid, I can pretend to have lost movement of my entire lower body whenever she looks at me.

We take care of the business and continue to the ferry, knowing deep in our souls that we’re screwed. The feeling is confirmed when we turn a corner, expecting to see the harbor ahead and being faced with a long narrow highway of bumper to bumper cars, all waiting to get on the 25 car ferry.

Judging by our count, we’ll have to wait for two more ferries to get on. The third ferry today departs at 6:30PM. It’s 11;30 AM and the perfect storm has just converged.

Rage short circuits my brain. I’m quiet, but I know sparks are flying all over the car. I want to destroy everyone responsible for this. Starting with the guy with the cold sore guy back at the hotel. Do we have time to drive back, torture him thoroughly and still catch the later 4;30 ferry from Starigrad? The thought makes me carsick. My neck hurts. This is all THEIR fault. Everyone elses. Nobody appreciates me. I’m an idiot. I should never have listened to dad and the guy with the cold sore. I’ll probably GET a cold sore. I’ll need lavender for that cold sore I’m going to get and now I’m out. And mom and dad and Katherine are breathing what little is left of MY scented air! It’s so typically thoughtless. We’re stuck here in the car. For six hours. But nobody stops to think that maybe I NEED that air? Jeez, do I have to actually sit here for 6 hours with these barbarians? Katherine sighs. I glare at her and she sighs again. A big sigh. That’s unnecessary waste of my scented air. MOM! Katherine is pigging my air. Like they care. They’ve always liked Katherine better than me. Why? Why am I forced to endure being stuck on the tip of this godforsaken island, with nothing to do except check out some goddamn lavender fields?

plitvice in prada

Today we hike Plitvice Lakes.   We rise with the roosters (and the ants), and join some French tourists in the make-due shed for breakfast. Thanks to my new knowledge of the French language, I’m able to pantomime fluently with them about news and politics.

We get to the entrance of the lake pretty early. It’s not crowded yet and we float through to a place where we can see narrow walkways leading down to a milky teal blue lakes (think Peruvian opal) connected by a series of waterfalls. It’s here on this stunning outlook we experience our first moments of doubt. Well, three of us do.   I wonder how long of a hike it is? Do we have to do the whole thing? Are there places we can escape? What if we fall down the narrow footpath? I feel dizzy. What if I can’t get back up? Why don’t I own a pair of shoes designed for this sort of activity?  My mother wonders if there are bathrooms along the way and how clean are they.   I’m not sure what Katherine is thinking.   Her game face is on, but I see a flicker of concern in her eyes.   My dad is thinking “let’s get the show on the road, maybe we can break some record hiking around the lakes!!!!”I’m wearing pair of “Prada Sport” shoes. I got them 8 years ago at a Barney’s sale and never took them out of their box, because I never had an appropriate event to wear them. This is the trip my Prada Sport’s were made for. Rugged yet elegant with a small amount of athletic activity. Shoes you can wear “hiking” or to a restaurant. Up until now I always figured the word “sport” written clearly on the label indicated that the shoes would take care of anything that involved moving my feet. Which may be true As long as my feet aren’t touching the ground. Maybe “sport” in Italian means crappily made. All I know is the damn shoes didn’t even make it to Plitvice without busting a seam. And so far, the only job they’ve had to do is to look elegant. But maybe these “sport” shoes were designed to hold up better on steep rocky paths than in some café. I can only hope.

Plitvice lakes is more magnificent from the side of the lakes than above them. At the first waterfall I notice that my shoes are beginning to resemble the Flinstones’ car. My mother notices that there are a lot of flies. Katherine notices a tiny welt on her arm. My dad is consulting the map and has the entire 10 mile hike charted out. If we walk that way, we see lake number 4 and the falls, but miss three from the northern angle. So we should really take the 14 mile route so we can get every vantage point. He might as well be speaking Croatian.

We’ve been walking for over an hour. All this pristine beauty is starting to get to me. My Pradas are shredded. I don’t know how much more I can take. And really, how can the next lake be more beautiful than this lake? When can we stop walking, knowing we’ve experienced the optimal beauty of Plitvice Lakes without an unnecessary expenditure of energy? And honestly, if the next lake really is more beautiful than this lake, it would probably kill us all because I’m sure God never intended anyone to see anything that beautiful without being dead first. Okay, I’m getting a little convoluted in my thinking, but I’m desperate.

The problem is, I don’t want to be the first one to back down and neither does Katherine or mom. I can see the weary resolve in their lumbering gait. I grasp at straws hoping to force someone else’s hand. Mom, how’s that bladder holding out? Dad, how’s that pacemaker? Boy this would be a terrible place for it to conk out. Nothing. We trudge towards beautiful lake number five.   Well, three of us trudge.   Dad hikes briskly, occassionally stopping and looking back at us expectantly.

There must be something I can do to stop this madness. I frantically rummage through my brain for something new to try.

A large unfamiliar flying insect solves the problem for me by landing on Katherine’s face.  A moan echoes through the forest, bouncing from lake to lake. Katherine flails frantically at her face and starts running in the direction from whence we came.   And she’s moving fast.   We have no choice but to follow her.

God, I love nature.

 

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)

***

triumph!

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.”

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This too, shall pass.

 

the road to butry

road to butryI wake up to blue skies. At least in the literal sense. Like the birds, I’m atwitter.

I said I was going to walk to Pontoise on the first sunny day, but something pulls me in the opposite direction.

This is actually a test to see how far a city girl like me can walk without the stimuli of millions of things to covet in store windows.

I can barely make it a store-free block without extreme boredom in Manhattan, so I fear that the all the natural beauty (not available for purchase) will be less than I can bear.

I prepare with a good, hearty breakfast, which for me is coffee and yogurt. I get dressed, making sure to wear something mildly becoming in case some handsome, age appropriate vintner happens to be strolling as well. By 10:30AM, I’m off.

I practice French as I walk…mostly the r rolling thing, as I’ve decided that’s the key. I mutter to myself “ Merchkkkci…merchkkkci. Bonjourchkk….Bonjourchkkk. S’il vous plait, ou se trouve un slurpee?”

Once I exit the outskirts of Auvers, I start to panic. How will I get back? What if I can’t get back and collapse of dehydration? It’s very sunny. I better go back to the house to prevent skin cancer. I will die if I don’t turn back now. I have had similar sensations leaving the island of Manhattan for Queens. But that was Queens, for godsake. This is somewhere between Auvers and Butry Sur Oise.

ivy house

Bravely I continue into unfamiliar territory. It looks sort of like Auvers, but it’s not. I see nothing familiar. Sure, there are trees, flowers, cute old shuttered houses, hills, but they aren’t the same trees or flowers or houses or hills. I didn’t even bring any ID if I get hit by a truck. But as I keep walking I get lulled by the ever chirping birds. And the smell of flowers in the air. Everyone’s garden is blooming and every house has its own perfume. I’m starting to feel pretty good. But isn’t that how lost hikers feel right before they die?

A church bell chimes 11 times. Jeez, it feels like lunchtime, at least.

I continue practicing French as I continue onward.

Bonjourchkkk. Aidez moi s’il vous plait, monsieurchkkk. J’habille en Auvers. Prennez moi ca s’il vous plait. Je suis…lost. J’ai soif. Merchkkkci.

I keep telling myself to turn back, but I trudge onward as I’m sure there’s some lovely boutique just around the next bend.

No boutiques, just more stone houses, beautiful gardens, greenery and a million perfumes. Man, they should bottle these scents. And sell them at the boutique that’s got to be around the next corner.

I’ll tell you why the French are slimmer than Americans—they have to be. Their roads and sidewalks are so narrow, a mere 10 pounds overweight could render one immobile. I’m thin and still find myself walking sideways a lot, my back hunched up against a hedge or fence.

I smile at each passing bike rider in case they’re cute, while chanting my mantra to myself: Bonjourchkkk. Aidez moi s’il vous plait, monsieurchkkk. J’habille en Auvers. Prennez moi ca s’il vous plait. Je suis…lost. J’ai soif. Merchkkkci.

I’m now in the center of town. It’s so cute I can’t stand it. Tiny old stone buildings with brightly colored shutters on a narrow stone road that winds through. But there’s not one little store or restaurant open. And I am weak and faint from thirst and famine. The church bell strikes noon. I must flee back to Auvers. I must buy a quiche…or something.

I think next time I go wandering, I’ll check out L’Isle Adam, a town or two further. It’s supposed to be a lovely old town with a great beach…on a river. And little stores. This I have to see.

But maybe next time, I’ll take the train.

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