Saturday, March 22, 2008

French Travels and People; Part One

So I find myself wanting to tell everyone about our trip to France, but being too lazy to actually sit down and compose a blog. Here I have somewhat overcome the laziness, and I attempt to set down some sort of record, but I promise neither genius nor humor.

This post is a study in two subjects; first how through many travel difficulties and glitches Heavenly Father helped us manage to continue our trip without much interruption, and then second the kindness of the French people, especially in being the instruments that the aforesaid Divinity operated through.

Our trip started normal enough; we caught a bus to Oxford, than another bus to London. Here the normality ended; in the suburbs of London, Lydia (for only the third episode in her life since solids) threw up all over herself. Being the prepared mother that I am, I had absolutely nothing to clean her up with; even her wipes were down below in the luggage section of the coach. So I took some toilet paper from the on-board toilet and did my best with that. Then we stripped her shirt and cardigan off, and kept her half naked until we arrived in Victoria Station in the center of London, when we redressed her in a spare shirt (we had access to luggage at that point). I must admit in an entirely un-motherly way, my first thought when all of this happened is "why is this happening to me?" and not immediate concern for my poor daughter. Although besides the puke all over, Lydia still seemed in fine health. (As for the poor clothing, I ended up throwing them away a couple days later, when I realized they wouldn't get washed for another four days, and I would rather throw them away then deal with them at that point.)

All went smoothly from that point, until France. We took a coach from London to Dover (the White cliffs of Dover, which were rather more spotted with greenery than pure white), and then a ferry from Dover to Calais. Actually, there was a slight glitch. We planned to take one line, but when we arrived we found out that they had been on strike for sixteen days, but thought that it might end at any moment. The only other company that took foot passengers was 10 pounds more, and so since there ferry didn't leave for almost two hours, I had us all wait to see if the strike might happen to end before then. Miraculously, a short while later, the strike did end. Unfortunately, they were so backed up on freight that they couldn't take us anyway, so we ended up on the only other option. I bet the ferry we did end up on was sad to see the strike end; now they would actually have some competition again.

Yes, I know that two pounds more a person (so 10 for four adults) isn't much, but I'm notoriously cheap, especially when it comes to travelling. Not that this particular quirk of mine didn't get a large workout on our vacation; I think by now I may even be cured of it. Either that or a confirmed lifetime adherer to 'cheap is better'.

Once we arrived in France the comparative ease of our travel quickly complicated. We had planned to rent a car in Calais, and then drive it to Dunkirk for the night. When we disembarked all of the car rental companies were closed; in fact, the entire place was deserted. (France is an hour later than England, which we had forgotten. Also, I had left the French part of the trip to my Mom to plan, and she had been finishing up a mission and so had been distracted, although she had found us housing at least, but the car had never been researched out.) We went outside to see what our other options, and all there was was a public bus coming in an hour that went to the center of town in Calais, and that was it. By this point it was almost seven pm locally, we had been travelling since seven thirty that morning, and I at least was ready for rest, not for spending the evening stranded in Calais.

Avram and I went back inside the Ferry port place, to at least sit down, and noticed one lone place left open, so Avram ran outside and quickly dragged my Mom and step-dad Don in to talk to them. We soon ascertained that in order to rent a car from them, we would have to return to the same place, which wasn't possible for our plans, and so we were still stuck. That is until the friendly clerk told them something, and then came out of his booth with a scooter, and rode off on it. It turns out that he was in search of his sister, who could possibly give us a ride into the center of town, where we might be able to barely make a coach going to Dunkirk.

This was my first encounter with the French people, and I must say this was a very positive moment, going from abandoned at the port to a possible solution, from his and his sister's own kindness. He came back successful, so we hurried outside to where his poor sister was waiting, and shoved ourselves, Lydia, and all our luggage into her little car, and then she drove us to the bus station (don't worry, we did give her gas money, so hopefully she was left with a good reciprocal view of Americans). I can't even imagine Americans being this nice to Foreign visitors, and I must say provided a very nice introduction to France, and a much needed rescue from being abandoned in Calais.

We caught the coach in good time, and then made our alternate way to Dunkirk, about an hour and a half away. Then we went through the excitement of finding our hotel by public bus, through the means of asking all around us where they thought our hotel would be based on our map from Google and the street address. After being told many different answers, most of them conflicting, we tried one bus and went with it. Although the Lady waiting for the bus with us told us that our hotel was in a bad part of town, we persevered, and eventually the bus driver let us off, telling us to walk 500 meters 'that way' and we should come to our hotel. We booked Formula One, a very cheap hotel chain throughout the trip (except the first one, which was owned by the same people, but one step up and a lot more money), and so they were always by the freeway, since they advertise to drivers. Unfortunately, without our planned car to drive, we were always very far away from them when we arrived in a town, and had a hard time finding them.

We finally made it there (the neighborhood looked very safe; very American even), and crashed for the night, after I had experienced traveller's stress for the unexpected expense of the hotel (twice as much as I had been expecting, because it was the step up from Formula One). I thought at this point, despite the miraculous recovery at the port by the efforts of the French people and God that this trip was in serious danger of causing me a heart attack, by money spending if nothing else. Although in the end it really wasn't too bad at all for money.

The next morning our next glitch came when we still couldn't rent a car, because we didn't have a carseat for Lydia, and they didn't have any to rent us, but they couldn't rent us a car without one. The Hotel Clerk did call every rental company there was for us though, which furthered my opinion of the niceness of the French people even more. So we continued with public transportation, and took the bus back to the center of town, and then a train to Lille. The reason we had gone to Dunkirk at all was it was one of the areas that my Mother served in on her mission, but with the late arrival, and then trying to get any way to go to Lille, we didn't actually do anything there except for sleep and ride buses, so thus far except for broadening encounters with the French people, I felt like we hadn't yet actually done anything but spend a lot of money.

We never did get a car, and so made up on the spot a lot of public transportation alternatives until we arrived at Paris, where we had planned to return the car. Although we continued to have difficulties with transportation, we did agree that it was nice not trying to find our way around the roads ourselves. The hotels we booked were all by freeways though, so it was always an adventure to actually find the hotels from the center of town where the bus/train would arrive.

We proceeded on to Lille, sadly missing Flander's Fields, and safely arrived there, once again not knowing how to get to our hotel. We went to the connecting metro in the train station, and stood there lost, not even knowing how to buy a ticket, when I suddenly saw the Elders standing in the metro car that was about to leave. Like the Mormon that I am, I yelled out to them, and on seeing us, one Elder got off, but then before his companion could the metro took off, leaving the two Elders separated. Luckily the lost Elder rode back on the next Metro, and so they weren't separated too long, although I did feel bad to be the cause of breaking rules, even accidentally.

The Elders (who both spoke perfect English, although one was from Switzerland, and the other from Germany) then spent the next hour to two hours figuring out where our hotel was, and helping us get there by the public transportation. About this point I decided that Heavenly Father must really be looking out for us on this trip, because of all of the special interventions and Providential help we had received thus far. They not only took us there, but also called and arranged for the Ward Mission Leader to come and pick us up and take us to Church the next day as well.

The only sightseeing we did in Lille was to walk in a little parade/carnival thing on the way to Pierre's house that evening (someone my Mom talk and helped baptize, but is now inactive. We went to dinner at his house that night). The carnival was headed by an effigy or moving statue of a woman holding an armful of wheat, the middle was mainly composed of cross-dressed men with wildly painted faces, and the back full of parents with children and babies in strollers dressed up in Halloween-like costumes. The whole parade was probably about 100 people walking down the street, while policemen blocked off traffic. I took a lot of pictures, and walked along with them. I even had a girl dump a bunch of confetti on me. But I have no idea what it was all about. We just happened to pass it all on the bus, but since we were only a block away from our stop, we walked back to it after we got off and participated for a block, and then went back to our travels, while the parade continued on. There were no real spectators, but just the parade itself. We theorized that it could be something to do with Mardi Gras, but it was a month into Lent, so that seemed a little far fetched. And somehow it just didn't seem Easterish either. Any ideas? (Specifically RoseE, who might know something random about French culture). I've posted a video at the bottom, in case that will shed any light on the whole matter. Avram says that group is Les Buckenaires (at least according to the umbrellas they were carrying--his French isn't good enough to figure out anything from the websites a Google search leads us too).

That night we experienced our next travel moment anxiety, when the map we had of Pierre's house didn't match the streets we were walking on at all, after we had disembarked from the bus. A women whom my parents asked didn't know where it was either, but she had us come to her house while she called Pierre, and he came and got us. In America I would have expected her to leave us outside, but she had us come inside, got us chairs to sit on, offered drinks, gave Lydia chocolate, and she and her father chatted with us until Pierre came to take us to his house. Yet another example of the superlative French kindness I experienced there, as well as Divine help in our trip.

Pierre and his wife Claire were graciousness itself; they fed us, talked with us (well, not me really, but they tried to at least), played with Lydia, and were all that hosts should be. My parents gave them a photography book on Utah as a gift, and then they began giving gifts too; first a couple of cartoon books to my parents (Pierre had first introduced my Mom to Asterix when she taught him), Lydia got three stuffed animals, and Claire even emptied her vase of fresh daffodils from her garden and gave them to me.

The next day our foray in to the French people's lives continued when after (an all French) church we went to some member's house that my Mom had known and had lunch with them. We had Raclette (yummy French food where you eat melted cheese on potatoes with ham; you melt the cheese and cook the ham right at the table on a Raclette grill) and other good French food and once again enjoyed ourselves, although I still didn't know what was going on. Although in this family there were a couple of people who spoke English, so I got along quite well.

Finally, we were on our way to Paris; the Sister was driving us to the train station (we had bought our way too expensive train tickets the day before) to go to Paris, when my step-father realized that he didn't know where the tickets were. The entire half-hour drive was fraught with worry, while we imagined being stranded in Lille, or the cost of re-buying all the tickets. Up until now we had gone through several travel worries and moments of stress, but every time something miraculous had happened to carry us through; somehow we weren't sure how this could happen this time. Also, this wasn't a very funny mishap. When we arrived at the station Don went through the super long line, and found out that they didn't keep a register of tickets sold, so we couldn't go on the train. However, if he found the tickets, and had them there before 6:00 pm (our original train left at 5:00 pm, and at this point it was exactly 5:00) we could take the next train which left at 6:00. My mom went and called the hotel, and it turned out that he had left the tickets there, so Don, my mom, and the French sister went and jumped into her car to try and get to the hotel (on the edge of town) and return to the center of town in less than an hour, while Avram, Lydia and I waited in the station. After the most tense fifty minutes of my life, they arrived back at 5:50 pm with the tickets, Don and Avram waited in line and changed the tickets, and at about four minutes to six we ran onto the train, safely on our way to Paris.

I'm glad to report that this was the final glitch in our travel plans; either Heavenly Father exhausted his help, or more likely we finally got our act together and managed alright without the collective help of the French nation to assist us on our way.

I'll continue in my next post with our three days in Paris, where we actually started sight-seeing instead of just spending money to test God and the French Public's hospitality and pity (not to mention the French public transportation system).

Here's the video; if anyone can identify the song, please do so.


  1. Cool - you got to experience a real live French transportation strike! I don't know how you managed to stay in Formule 1s without a car - a truly difficult prospect in my mind. Can't wait to hear about Paris.

  2. Too bad about Flanders. I had had, seriously, the best meal of my life in Ypres.

    So good.

  3. sorry about all the troubles at the start of your trip! it still sounds like a wonderful experience and i am sure you will not even think twice about that money in a few years. That parade is an interesting thing.. hmmmm.... i am curious what it was all about! cant wait to hear more on your travels.