France, We Have a Problem: About This Blog Entry
It’s hard for even me to believe that there was a time in my life when travel didn’t excite me. But there was.
There was actually a period in my life when I would travel–mostly cruises, with my family–when I didn’t have that travel “bug;” that unquenchable thirst for exploration, to see it all, as much as I could. I didn’t dislike traveling, but I certainly didn’t carry even ten percent of the enthusiasm I have today, I think because the travel was simply too organized. Piling off a cruise ship with 1,000 other American tourists and getting on a bus to see the main square for three hours never really did it for me. Of course, I’d soon discover my true passion for travel: going solo to off-the-beaten-track places to see things most have never even dreamed of…and well, you know the rest of the story.
Anyway, my trip to France in 2010 was one of those “hop off the cruise ship and take a tour” visits. I had a lovely time because I was with my dear mother, and I certainly didn’t dislike my stop here…but this was well before my real passion for travel was conceived, hence the reason I don’t have much of a “story.” I did take a few photographs though, so I hope you enjoy.
Seeing Paris when you’re on a cruise is actual a pain in the rump. Literally. It involves a three-hour bus ride from the port in Le Havre into Paris, with all the normal, frustrating and painstakingly-slow processes of being on a bus with 55 senior citizens. You have to meet at the crack of dawn in a special room of the cruise ship. And wait. Then board the bus. And wait. Then stop for bathroom breaks. And wait. It was on this particular trip that I came to the conclusion that cruise travel wasn’t for me. The whole process getting into Paris probably took four hours, just so we could see Paris for three hours, and then head back before the ship left us. Of course I was an amateur traveler then, France being just my fifteenth country. In hindsight, I would’ve hired a car to take us into Paris by ourselves. We would’ve arrived in half the time and had twice the time to explore. Oh well. I still had a nice time, and I was with my mom, so spending such quality time with her was fantastic.
This was by no means a bad trip at all, but it certainly was a shame to only be able to experience Paris for three hours. That in itself is a travesty. But it sure was nice for my mom to take me on a cruise, and I’ll always be grateful. It was my mom, in fact, who I inherited the travel bug from, so she’s to blame!
Thanks for putting up with my minimal notes. I literally took just twelve photos, can you believe that? Paris is definitely a city I plan to return to one day; lots to see, including tracing all of the locations from one of my favorite movies, The Red Balloon! For now, there are over 100 countries on this website with extensive notes and stories, and you can get started HERE.
I would return to France in the fall of 2019, when I sneaked away from a work conference for a little weekend escape to see the micro-nation of Andorra. This minuscule piece of land they call a country is nothing but a dot in-between France and Spain.
I’d start the trip after landing in Barcelona, where I’d pick up my rental car and get to Andorra before sundown. I’d explore its capital, Andorra La Vella that night and the next morning, before heading into France, and then north into the Spanish exclave of Llívia. A Spanish territory, only five square miles in area, Llívia appears as a little circle on the map, inside of France, just north of the Spanish border. I don’t know what I’d find there, but something inside me said I needed to spend a night in this place. So that’s where I headed.
Of course I had to stop for lunch in France, right? I mean, I wouldn’t feel right just driving through. The French border town of Bourg-Madame was all but shut down this Sunday afternoon. There were a couple of vagabonds sleeping near the fountain in a small stone plaza, but other than that, nobody in sight; and just like Andorra on a Sunday morning, all the businesses were shut down except one: a joint called Hors-Piste.
The indoor-outdoor café looked pretty fun and inviting, with a couple tables inside and outside already occupied. I took a seat inside and got to work deciphering the menu, with little luck. My English speaking waiter saved me, and helped me order the Plat du Jour + Dessert option. I started with the regionally popular ham and melon, which was fantastic and refreshing, but sadly, it all went downhill from there, fast, and it was all my fault.
I don’t know why I was so quick to yes to the bowl of muscles, but I did. It was an instant reaction, as if I was being offered something at a friend’s house and I had to say yes to be polite. I don’t know what I was thinking, but soon I was scooping out nasty muscles and trying to get them down my throat as quickly as I could. I guess I wanted to look like a local, a pro.
But the worst was the main course. The pieds de ministre cuit et gratiné was the worst thing that’s ever entered my mouth since that first trip to Tijuana as a teen. The dish, that looked, felt and tasted like raw chicken, with some tomato goop slathered on top, turned out to be pigs’ feet, and I still can’t comprehend why it didn’t seem cooked. My life literally flashed before my eyes and my taste buds, as I did my best to pick apart the bony and fatty mixture of matter on my plate and make it look like I’d eaten more than I’d really had; the old childhood trick. I could only stomach a couple bites. If the muscles didn’t kill me, this raw pork would. What had I done? If I would’ve only ordered the l’hamburger, but noooo…Mister travelling big-shot insisted on eating the local dish. Pigs’ feet: 1, Ramblin’ Randy: 0.
Back in my Fiat, no more than five minutes up the road I’d entered Llívia, Spain, and without warning. I actually turned around twice and drove back into France and then back into Llívia again, in an attempt to find some sign of a Spanish border, but there wasn’t so much as a stripe across the road; the border to this exclave was pretty much invisible.
Interesting–to me at least–that my first trip into France was to the crowded, touristy and populous metropolis that is Paris…and my second visit would be to two tiny towns I’ve never heard of. I enjoyed both tours and am looking forward to returning soon!
13 years and 178 countries later, I would finally return to France. A convention in Belgium made it geographically handy to swing by Paris for a night before heading on to Greenland. The stop here was still excruciatingly short, but in comparison, still much longer than my first and only visit way back in 2010. I only wish Mom was with me – she dreamed of spending more time in France. She would be with me in spirit.
As the schedule would go, I’d spend two nights in Lille, France, a brand new city for me. The daytime hours were taken up by my conference, just across the border in Ypres, Belgium. I’d only have time for a quick meal and stroll that first night in Lille before departing 36 hours later. Lille seemed nice and made for a great stop along the way.
My first moments in Paris were actually extremely stressful. Because I slept in (I needed it!), I was a whopping eight hours late returning the rental car. The rental company had called me at least ten times, hounding me for the car. I realized they must have been out of cars and some poor schmuck was probably waiting at the rental desk for my car. I like to think of myself as someone who is considerate to others, and this gave me anxiety. To make it worse, I nearly ran out of gas on the three-hour drive from Lille to Paris.
Things would get worse as I pulled into Paris. I had heard the city had gone downhill. The very moment I exited the freeway into the city, a not-so-friendly looking vagabond approached my window. Graffiti was abound. The nearly two hours it took me to drive two miles to turn in the rental was maddening. In my 46 years of life, I’ve never been so frustrated in traffic. Words truly can’t express the clusterf*ck that was Paris traffic that day, but it was bad and I lost my cool. One wrong turn (and oh, I made a few!) and I was back at the end of a long queue waiting another 3o minutes to pass through a light. Hours later, when I finally arrived to where GPS told me the rental car company was located, I’d been routed into the dead-end back of a bus station terminal. There was no car return here. I was this close to just parking the car and calling the rental company to tell them to pick it up themselves.
The mood changed when I called them. A very sweet young lady answered the phone and seemed completely empathetic to my situation as she slowly spelled out a new location to input into my Google Maps. She knew exactly where I was and explained that GPS gets it wrong all the time. By the end of our phone call, I’d calmed down and was almost at peace. Turns out, I would have never found this place on my own. It was six floors deep underground, down a spiral ramp, at the bottom of a random parking garage. I can’t believe they didn’t attach some sort of special instruction packet explaining how to return the car.
By the time I approached the counter, I felt (and probably looked) like Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Boy was I happy to hand the key over and get rid of that car. The woman attending the desk was the same person who helped me on the phone and she was even more of an angel in person, forgiving me for the late return as she explained she’d adjust the contract’s pickup time to match when I’d completed the drop off. Wow! I was ready for all of the rudeness by Parisians that I’d been constantly warned about, yet my first interaction proved to be exactly the opposite. And this mademoiselle was pretty easy on the eyes, too. And here I was, sweaty: disheveled and just a mess. But isn’t that always the way it goes? I let out a huge sigh as I took the elevator up and walked out into the street. I was now officially enjoying Paris.
Luckily there was lots of sunlight into the evening hours. It was August in Paris and I didn’t want to miss a moment of daylight. I was ready to explore!
It was through a park and over the Seine before arriving at the still-under-construction Notre Dame. It was full-on tourist season as I walked the streets along with the gobs of other visitors, like a giant school of fish. The divine weather made up for the crowd presence. I’d finish the night having a light dinner at the oldest café in the city. It was a very pleasant evening in Paris.
The Red Balloon
I set my alarm so I wouldn’t sleep the morning away. I only had until 1PM before I needed to be on my way to the airport, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to finally visit some of the filming locations from one of my favorite movies of all time.
I first saw “The Red Balloon” in kindergarten, on a projector – yes, I’m that old! The 1956 children’s film about a little boy and his magic red balloon has become somewhat of a cult classic over the decades. It seems about 50% of the population remembers seeing the film in elementary school and the other 50% usually gives me a confused look when I mention “The Red Balloon.” If you’re part of the latter, here’s a brief, two-minute intro to the story:
I’d fallen in love with this film as a kid and in later life found a copy on VHS. I even brought the movie into work one day and played it for willing participants as we ate lunch in the conference room. The movie still moves me to tears. The story and cinematography are absolutely beautiful and if you haven’t had the pleasure of taking in “The Red Balloon,” you really should. You can see the whole movie HERE, on YouTube.
It is safe to say – and I’m sure by this point in the story, you agree – that I have an obsession with “The Red Balloon.” Apparently, I’m not the only one. For many years, I’ve dreamed of visiting the specific filming locations of the movie. Turns out, some saint (and someone obviously just as obsessed with the movie as me) put together an entire web page detailing just about every scene and its respective location. This would save me years of doing my own detective work in figuring out these filming locations, as I did with the movie “Martin’s Day.” Let’s go see where “The Red Balloon” was filmed!
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