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Bastille Day

Bastille Day

We arrive in Provence, specifically the Luberon, my favorite region of France. Rosé wines flow with pink flourish, ripe olives soaked in oil and herbs precede every meal, and fresh vegetables crown lamb and seafood platters. The crusty bread, as always in France, is addictive. My taste buds are tantalized, anticipating meals to come.

On a really good day when I hold my head high, I’m all of five foot three. I’ve always wished I were taller, but especially when I’m in this part of the world. Everything on the table appeals. With five more inches, I could eat so much more without worrying about calories and my thighs.

Today is Bastille Day, July 14, celebrating France’s independence from the king. The window of our hotel room in Roussillon, a charming amber-red hilltop hamlet in the heart of one of the world’s largest ochre deposits, looks over the village’s one main lane. A young Maman and her two sons, one with a baguette under his arm and the other munching a pain au chocolate, stroll home from the boulangerie. The children clench French flags in their tiny hands and sing La Marseillaise. “Le jour de gloire est arrivé!” The day of glory has arrived!

We’ll celebrate the day by catching up with the twelfth stage of the Tour de France. At 1pm, more than two hours before the cyclists are expected, we pull our car to the side of a country road that runs into Departmental Route number two. The D2 will take racers up to and through the picture-perfect perched village of Gordes and then towards Mont Ventoux, a critical climb in the annual competition. Despite the fact that it’s mid-July, temperatures are cool. The Provençal sun does its best to prove it’s summer, but the chilly bursts of the Mistral wind keep us wondering. It’s jacket-off, jacket-on weather. Dozens of onlookers line the road, holding tight to hats, blankets and picnic goodies the wind attempts to whip away. A group of children in striped blue, white and red tees, jump up and down chanting, “Allez! Allez,” willing the athletes to arrive. We overhear that seventy bikes will eventually pass us by.

Every six or seven minutes, a staccato stream of police cars, motorcycles, and sundry security vehicles whiz by. Each time the crowd hears them approach, ears perk up and heads pivot to look down the road. There are many of these false alarms. Joe takes out his phone to catch up on news and I lie back to avoid the wind and soak in the sun. The young men on the slope behind us jam on drums as the minutes and finally hours tick by. At long last we see and then hear helicopters in the distance; two hover over outlying vineyards and two approach. Spectators crane their necks to follow the whirlybirds. Anticipation mounts. It’s palpable. Cowbells clatter. Whistles ensue. The crowd noise swells and the Mistral blusters full force. Even Joe chants enthusiastically, “Allez, allez!”

We have a perfect spot on a slight rise above the road’s shoulder. In a flash, a media photographer jumps out of a black security car and scrambles up the sandy bank, trying to elbow his way into our exact spot. We congratulate ourselves for choosing our position well and hold our ground, feigning ignorance to his offensive. He can stand shoulder to shoulder with us if he’d like, and so he does.

What we expect to see is a line of lead vehicles followed by a peloton of sleek bicyclists. What we actually see is a scramble of color and promotion, hawking and horns, unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. Who knew the Tour de France competitors would be heralded by a Mardi Gras-like parade of floats hurtling thirty-five miles an hour down a country road, tossing not colorful plastic beads, but samples and t-shirts? It’s a mad scramble for just a bit of loot.

Tour -- yellow guyA man on a swing promoting sausages paper airplanes coupons and special offers into the crowd. Teens on a bed pitch packets of madeleines. Is this happening in France? Who said the French don’t let their hair down? A float for the adhesive brand, Bostick, tosses glue sticks from under the banner, “Voulez-vous coller avec moi?” Do you want to stick with me? It’s a relentless procession of dozens upon dozens of floats: a yodeling van promotes Swiss Tissot watches; fluorescent cars lob bags of chips; French fry girls fling coupons and hats; the Michelin man sings about tires; cheerleaders chant about cheese. The Bic float hurls pens (how did I not know Bic was French?) and I can’t believe no one is stabbed by a ballpoint flying at such speed. A man in a pool on a flatbed truck shouts through a bullhorn, “C’est bon ça – ce sont des jolis cadeaux!” They’re all good, these pretty gifts! Can there be this many official sponsors of the Tour?

Finally, after a substantial lull and waning wind, we see the first group of a dozen competitors approach from way down the road behind a rolling wall of security. The crowdTour -- bikers goes wild. The frontrunner in the yellow jersey, British biker Chris Froome, is in the second pack. The cyclists fly by in a blaze of color amid earsplitting cheers. We’re just above the fray but the crowd is verging on swarming the riders, no barriers holding them back. In the flash of a few minutes, the excitement is over, the crowd quiets, the road is empty, and families disperse. We’re left in the wake. The race has moved on.

It’s no wonder that ninety minutes later during the final climb up Mont Ventoux in advance of the finish (moved six kilometers from the scree-strewn summit to avoid winds that threatened to blow riders down), spectator proximity plays a role in the race. In a melee of a media motorcycle, a fan and Froome, the leader ditches his broken bike and runs up towards the finish line. Although losing many minutes, officials declare that he maintains his lead.

Sun-soaked after an ebullient day celebrating La France and being buffeted by a fierce Mistral, we have dinner and wine and collapse into bed.

At one in the morning we’re awakened by a call from our daughter.

“I just want to be sure you’re okay.”

Why wouldn’t we be okay? I think in the fog of leaving a dream. “We’re fine, sweetheart. What’s up?”

It sinks in slowly, what’s happened in Nice, and then we’re jolted — suddenly, fully awake. The news is devastating. The frivolity of the day, forgotten in an instant. That’s how it happens with tragedy. Pain deep in my chest.

We assure Caroline that we’re hours north of the Riviera and ask her to let her brother , Chris, know.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Je suis Nice.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2016 in baby boomer, France, Passion for French, Travel

 

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Back to France, Back to My Youth

I’ll do almost anything to go to France. Today I’m heading off on an Education First (EF) student tour on a plane full of teens, six of whom are under my care. As I anticipated, there’s nothing like being with youth to bring back your own. The excitement begins the minute we reach our departure gate and I let them scatter to buy food on their own. Just wait till we get to France, I think, and they’re able to wander cobblestoned streets without me.

I have four girls and two boys in my group, as well as one father, and when we reach Paris, we’ll join others to form a total of 50 – a full busload. I watch the girls sitting on the multi-colored airport carpet, their cell phones dangling from the power tower charger behind them, carry-on goodies and backpacks scattered. They’re oblivious to the world around them as they play cards, giggle continually, and periodically burst into belly laughs. The boys sit on chairs, content to be absorbed in their cell phones, delightedly telling me they’re playing tournaments and “hacking” into friends’ games. Without a doubt, I identify with the thirteen year-old girls and delight in their unbridled, innocent, all-consuming friendship as they hold hands across the aisles once we board the plane and make funny photo story montages on their phones, each one laughing harder than the next. How do I say “my best friends” in French, asks one girl who does not take French.

I win the lottery of overnight travel and score a middle of the plane seat assignment with the entire row to myself. I wake-up refreshed when the lights signaling breakfast come on. I’m doing well on this flight to Europe, having perfected my overnight routine: an eye mask, earplugs, a Tylenol PM and a glass of wine.  I’m out for the duration, even before we take off – a good thing, since I’ll be in charge the minute we hit French soil.

My students awaken draped over one another, bleary-eyed from staying up too late and getting only a couple hours of ineffective sleep, having taken the bait of endless free movies. But they’re instantly alive, sharing stories of overnight discomfort as if they’d undergone an epic adventure.

The almost constant rituals of affection continue among the girls as the plane lands – they so remind me of me at that age. I was never more content than when with my buddies, all of us promising to be forever friends. But as I now know, life has a way of enabling broken promises and I haven’t seen my middle school “besties” since I headed off to a high school many towns away. But vows of loyalty have remained intact with my closest high school chums – those from the days when all I wanted or needed were my girlfriends. These deep bonds of youth have endured. And now that our nests have emptied, we see each other regularly and we’re back to where we started, at ease, sharing stories, and giggling nonstop.

My spirited charges and I pick up our bags, meet our tour director, Guillaume, and as we head for the bus, one of the girls declares: “Oh, we’re in Nice? I wanted to go to Nephew!” It’s typical adolescent humor that always makes me laugh. My “tween” travelers are negotiating those tricky years between being children and full-fledged teens and for now, they appear quite sophisticated as they resolutely walk out into the southern sun of the Riviera and enter France for the first time, their luggage dragging behind.

After a quick tour of vieux Nice, we head for the promontory above town. While I’m itching to hike up, Guillaume, sensitive to group jet lag, loads us onto the convenient elevator to the top. We’re crossing the crown of the cliff to see the vista east over the colorful port and the students spy a red rope jungle gym rising 25 feet in the air. The girls, still blushing from flirtatious attention from a tanned French teen, and the boys, fresh from debating the relative merits of becoming quantum physicists or nuclear fusion specialists, they’re instantly back to the realm of children.

“Can we go up?” they plead, “Please?”

The rest of the tour group continues on ahead as I snap pictures of my “kids” climbing and twisting in the air. Next on our spontaneous schedule is a pick-up game of soccer or “foot,’ as the French say, on a lofty, sandy lot with their new friends, Dimitri and Éliot, who before we arrived were just kicking around the ball in the dust. Two of my girls and one of my boys are excellent players and the others handle themselves just fine as well, and in minutes, there’s a lively match in progress, with shots taken at makeshift goals between backpacks. I think back on the time my husband, Joe, and I took our own eight and five year-old children to Paris and that what they remember most is an impromptu soccer game with some French gamins in the Luxembourg Gardens.

“Must be Americans,” a passerby observes and I know it’s because the girls are as athletic as the boys as they head and juggle the ball with aplomb. “Yes,” I want to reply with pride, “yes, they sure are Americans,” I say to myself and smile, as I watch the players stop to exchange names and embraces (I’m sure Dimitri and Éliot are taken aback since hugs, even among friends, are too personal for the French) and then take multiple selfies. I’m witnessing international diplomacy at its best.

 

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2015 in France

 

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