Larry drove us to the TGV station at Avignon yesterday. The ride was beautiful, with a thick fog on the fields and the Rhone. You pass under the famous bridge shortly before you reach the station, which is not far, maybe less than a mile, from the old city walls,
We got there in time to have breakfast at the Alfred Kayser bake shop. The yogurt served in France has a remarkably different flavor from the stuff we get at home. The pastries at this place are flaky and light. They bake it at the shop, and there’s a picture window where you can watch the baker work.
Then we waited for a short while on the platform for the Tren a Grande Vitesse to Paris. The trains work and are on time here. I enjoy train travel, even in the States, but the trains I’ve taken in France, Spain, and Italy put American rail service to shame.
Once we got to Gare de Lyon, things got weird. And stayed that way.
RER, the light rail system, requires a transfer between Charles de Gaulle airport and Gare de Lyon. Not a good idea with the weight we were carrying.
I know Cars Air France Line 4 stops at Gare de Lyon, because we took that bus line to Montparnasse on the 8th.
But there is no sign, no clue, not even anybody to ask about where to meet the bus or buy a ticket. I wound up springing for a cab ride for 60 euros. This isn’t just any cab ride, it starts at a curious intersection of highways where two intense streams of vehicles play chicken to cross each other.
Then you get into bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic and pass through an industrial part of town. You keep going until everything is a combination of boxy warehouses, rust, and weeds. Even the ride to Newark Liberty isn’t as grotesque.
The original plan was to take the Cars Air France bus service from the train station to the airport, maybe have dinner there, and then cab to the hotel.
A couple of months ago, I tried at least eight hotels—all that I could identify—that were in or next to the airport and not one had a vacancy.
The best I could do was some place called Campanile in a village called St. Witz. So I figured, since I was already taking a cab, Joanna and I could go straight to St. Witz.
Which appears to consist of a large housing development in the middle of farm fields and an isolated section where our hotel is. It’s a corner with five or six budget motels and four bad restaurants, exactly like one of the commercial developments that have cropped up at every rural exit on Interstate 95.
Handy, bland, and smack in the middle of nowhere.
Our room was on the second floor. That’s the European second floor, our third, and of course the place has no elevator. So we had to lug the bags up.
I was starving. It was three or four in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything since the Avignon rail station in the morning. All the restaurants were closed till 6:30.
I was tempted to go to McDonald’s. Yes, they had one of those too.
This is France. How do you get a Chinese buffet selling pizza? The place smelled of garlic, soy sauce, and MSG.
The restaurant at the Campanile was all buffet service, too, and I don’t eat that way. The food is chosen and cooked according to how well it will last on a steam table, not how good it will taste. You don’t know how long it has sat out or who has sneezed on it.
There was a place called Aldo or something that was supposed to be Italian.
We wound up at a French knockoff of the Rustler or Lone Star steak houses in the States. I figured naively that it would be American themed but really have a French twist. Like maybe interesting sauces for some of the food.
The comedy of errors continued. We ran into our first serious language barrier at the American theme restaurant. We tried to explain that Joanna wanted the lamb done so it was pink inside. Not rare. She really preferred it well done (bien fait) but that was out of the question.
She finally ordered a hamburger instead because for health reasons ground meat is always well done. It seems, though, that in our bilingual discussions of gustatory preferences part of the message almost got through. My rare steak with fries and green beans on the side came medium well done and without the fries.
The beans needed salt, so I tried grinding some. The cap fell off the grinder and buried the haricots verts in salt. I finished the piece of shoe leather on my plate, because I could scrape the salt off that.
The cheesecake for dessert wasn’t bad, and besides, I was drinking wine, so how unhappy could I really be?
I wanted a fourth glass, but nobody stopped at the table. Or even glanced at it. After sitting too long, we decided that all we wanted was the bill. When it finally came, they had left off Joanna’s burger, so I pointed that out to the waitress. Entrecote, oui. Cheesecake, oui. Trois verres des vins pour moi. Et pour madam?
We stopped at the salon of the Campanile for a nightcap of Bordeaux. Well, I had the nightcap and Joanna watched me drink it.
The people at the Campanile were helpful, but the place is a mess. There was no privacy curtain on my front window. The bathroom light had to be fixed.
Language was a problem here for the first time this trip. Most of the motel staff speak little English.
That’s doubly strange. Although the Campanile doesn’t seem to depend strictly on the airport trade (The number of cars in the lot suggests that many customers come from the highway.) many guests are probably international.
But more than that, we just got back from a week in the wilds of Provence. Larry did a lot of the talking. I was able to place fragmentary requests and order from menus by slipping from Pidgin French into English.
Joanna was watching TV and said she recognized three French words—oui, non, and voila. I think she knows vin, blanc, and rouge too.
But she had no trouble with language. Larry’s theory is that anytime Joanna said something, people were so relieved that the conversation wasn’t in Chinese that they bent over backwards to speak English.
The lady at the Campanile desk gladly called to arrange a cab for us at seven.
I lugged the bags down to the lobby ten minutes early, but the cab never showed. The man at the desk had to call not once, but twice more.
I was keenly feeling the helplessness of isolation.
During one of the calls, the desk guy relays a question from the other end of the line. “Quelle avion?” Which plane? No, I’m not letting a cab driver tell me when I need to be at the airport. I don’t even try French: “I need to be at the airport in 20 minutes.” More important, I wanted to get the hell out of St. Witz.
When the driver showed up, he came in a van that had the name of the Campanile and another hotel on the side. Is this a company van and they still couldn’t get the guy to show up on time? I don’t know.
By this time my temper is just about gone. But I have to control myself. I’m going to an airport, where I will have to behave. But I’m waiting for the next hit.
Joanna told me, “Don’t think that way.” I know she’s right, but I couldn’t escape that sense of being jinxed.
We had told the driver “United” and gotten a blank stare. “United Airlines.” “Terminal One,” he says.
And damn, the driver circles Terminal One and can’t find where to drop us.
I had something like that happen when I got reckless and tried a discount cab service one time.
That driver was a foreigner who couldn’t find Newark Liberty Airport. Who gave him a cab license? Of course, this was in New Jersey, so his brother-in-law could have bribed a politician.
But anyway, the guy was either too embarrassed or too naive to ask for directions at the office. Instead, he relied on a GPS that with all the wisdom of a computer directed him to take local streets through Newark, because on the map that’s the short way. I had to direct that cab driver to the airport.
“What airline?” asks our French driver again.
And he makes another pass and takes us to the right door. I don’t know which part of “United” he didn’t get the first time.
And this was no discount service. He charged 35 euros. That’s more than half the fare all the way from Gare de Lyon to St. Witz, a drive three or four times as far.
Funny thing is that we went on highways, including a toll road, to get to the terminal. It was a distance of a few miles, to reach an airport we could see from the motel.
Checking in was not bad nor was passport control.
We stopped for breakfast on the way to the security checkpoint. I had an espresso and a tall glass of white wine—strictly for medicinal reasons.
I set off the metal alarm, and went through a pat-down. And we never did figure what triggered the alarm. Maybe hair gel. But that episode was amusing.
The gate, however, was a mess. I never expected to see anything that makes a New York airport look well designed or competent. But Charles de Gaulle Airport managed to do it.
There is no place for people to line up, so they stretch across the entire waiting area and block the way to the seats. Reminiscent of Italy, there were no real lines. People tended to flow in a group past random airline employees, who seemed to be confused, as if they had never done this before.
United may have been boarding flights at adjacent gates. Somebody called our boarding group and everybody tried to get into the gate at once. Groups that hadn’t been called were crowding the space. Maybe they thought it would get them to New Jersey sooner.
I kept asking who was in Group 3 and who was in Group 4. I wanted to be the last guy in Group 3. I don’t ever want to jump into a mob of panicked tourists, many of whom have small children.
I heard them call Group 4 before my group was finished. As I say, it’s like they’d never done this before. But I got in without losing, or drawing, any blood. I was a little short-tempered, though. A kid came up and asked the security questions: Is everything yours? Did you pack it? etc.
All I could say is, “We’ve done this before. We know what to do.” That’s impolite, I know, but I just wasn’t in the mood.
General de Gaulle was a great man. I was moved to read de Gaulle’s words etched into stone under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. He was a beacon of light in a time of darkness. He deserves better than this.
One thing I’ve decided after this trip: If the only way to get to France is through Charles de Gaulle Airport, I’m going to Italy.
I’ve written this on the plane, where I have no Internet connection. So remember, if you receive this, it means the plane wasn’t highjacked to Cuba.
I did, however, manage to spill half a cup of water into my lap about an hour before we got to Newark.
The photo of the day is of better times. Claude is on the left. That's Sophie with the great smile, and Pierre, their son, next to Larry. We're eating Larry's dog food stew and drinking Chateauneuf du Pape.
Dinners aren't even supposed to get better than that.
Love to all.