Saturday, April 2, 2016

When in France...

.... you don't have much choice but do as the French do.  That means forget doing any business between noon and 2:30 PM and after 7:00 PM.  At least in southern France where everyone considers it their God-given right (or human right or constitutional right or whatever) to have a leisurely lunch and time to digest it before continuing work.  Every time I go back to Europe I am amazed at how little people seem to work and still do all right.

Naturally, it is much easier to pop home for lunch if you live in a smaller town like Nice or Avignon where you can reach most addresses within 10-15 minutes.  But it's not only that. The cities and towns of France's south seem devoid of workaholism.  There's no competition to do a better job, and certainly no eagerness to serve a client.

I sat at a beach bar in Nice for half an hour before being able to entice a waiter to take my order. When a friend joined me a little later, she could not get a drink at all because they stopped serving.  It was 4:45 PM so one could assume that the bar closed at 5:00 PM. To our American minds, that was still enough time to order and finish a drink. A photo below would suggest that there were no tourists in Nice in March.  In fact, there were plenty. The restaurants just didn't allow them to eat outside proscribed meal hours. 

French restaurants are vacated outside "regular" meal hours....

.....not for the lack of tourists.

The locals know that and head for lunch promptly at noon among other reasons to ensure they don't come too late for the daily special, which could be gone within the first hour.  Since they prefer not to mingle with tourists, you can find them having their Sunday lunch at charming off-the-beaten-path villages, such as Bouzigues, a coastal community near Montpellier, known for its locally grown oysters.  A three course fixed-price lunch in a place like this can be had for as little as $15, sometimes including a glass of wine.  If you come too late, you may have to order à la carte, and pay twice as much for something similar.  We quickly learned to do as the French do.  After all, there is nothing else to do at lunch time but have lunch, so it better be satisfying.  And that it was. No one ever yanked our plates away as soon as we put down the forks, no waiter interrupted our conversation gazillion times to ask if we needed anything else, and most importantly, no one tried to push us out of the door in order to give our table to someone else.  You can spend all of the two or three hours while the shops are closed at that table (and long after you've finished your meal) enjoying the sun and the view. 
Le Marin restaurant in Bouzigues is popular with the locals 

Bouzigues is famous for seafood, especially oysters and this unusual squid

Closures are an important point to consider when planning a trip to France.  For example, I was not able to visit the famous Avignon Cathedral because it was closed for renovation until Easter when I was no longer there, but I was lucky to see the magnificent Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Nice whose two-year renovation had just been completed.  I also miscalculated in leaving my last full day in Nice, which was a Tuesday, to visit the Chagal Museum. As it happens, the museum is open every day except Tuesday. But having had similar experience with France before, I decided to take everything as it came and let nothing ruin my holiday.  Instead of the cathedral of Avignon, I visited the Ste Réparate Cathédrale in Nice and it was more than gorgeous. Since the visit was during the Easter Mass, I even got to see the Bishop of Nice (André Marceau) who presided over the spectacular service.
Avignon Cathedral was scheduled to open for Easter after an extensive renovation
I learned during my previous visits to France not to expect any street signs or directions in English and not too many in French either.  Even the most touristy places in France act as if no foreigner has ever stepped on their soil.  It is helpful not only to speak French, but also to be familiar with local customs and regulations because it will be assumed that you know them, unlike in the US where it is assumed that no one knows anything. If in doubt, head for the nearest Office de tourisme and get all the information you need before venturing out on your own. And remember, even the visitor centers can be closed for lunch as we found out in Aix-en-Provence.

Fortunately, people in southern France are much friendlier than the Parisians and very helpful when you get stuck, as we did literally in the old city of Arles.  It so happened that we had to spend an unplanned night in Arles so we had not learned much about it beforehand. I had always imagined Arles as a huge field of flowers painted by van Gogh, and so it was somewhat of a shock to run into an intricate network of narrow medieval streets while trying to locate our hotel. I got nervous about the very real possibility of damaging the rental car before reaching our destination. Between the cell phone contact with the hotel receptionist (miraculously, the phone decided to work in our moment of need after being dead for days) and the help of three young men passing by, we managed to maneuver the car out of the maze and drag our suitcases uphill to the 12th-century building converted into hotel Logis de la Muette.

Driving in the old city of Arles can be very tricky... may be easier to park outside Arles and walk to your hotel
On the whole, it seems easier to use public transportation than drive a rental car in France, except....  The last time I traveled outside Paris I decided to try the railway.  French trains are beautiful, comfortable, relatively cheap and you can see a lot of the country if you don't have to focus on taking the right exit at hundreds of roundabouts along the way.  What I did not know is that railway stations in France don't tell you from which platform your train will leave until about 10-15 minutes before departure.  At a station with 20 platforms, it is almost impossible to catch your train if you are lugging a heavy suitcase.  I paid more than $100 for a new ticket, after missing a train from Paris to Bordeaux, which originally cost me only $30. So when I missed another train from Toulouse to Lyon, I simply refused to buy a new ticket and boarded the next train with the old one. Two conductors argued with me for about 20 minutes demanding extra payment, but I was adamant that their system was at fault and stuck to my guns. Eventually they gave up because the only alternative was to throw me out of the train. To avoid a similar hassle this time, I decided to rent a car for traveling through the country.

I still took a train for a couple of day trips because I could leave the luggage in the hotel and so it was more convenient than driving. One trip was to Cannes where you don't want to get stuck in traffic. And it would not be worth it. I don't know what I expected - perhaps some sort of European glamor - but I felt like I arrived in Florida or California. The street signs suggested the feeling was justified. Did you know that Hotel California is in Cannes? 

Cannes appears to be fashioned after U.S. coastal resorts
The public transportation in the area is so good that it would have been a waste of money to take a taxi to the Nice airport  (or anywhere else, really).  Just as long as you know which terminal you are going to and can rely on your fellow travelers to tell you where to get off. When the bus stops, you have little way of knowing at which terminal you are.

If you are prepared for all this, muddling through is more amusing than annoying because everything somehow works.  You just need to know how. I laughed my head off reading passengers' comments about the Nice airport while waiting for my plane. One woman, ostensibly American, wrote that she was happy to see a good new restaurant at the airport. But when she and her husband sat down for a meal, no one came to serve them, although the waiters had looked their way. When the couple plucked up the courage to summon one, he said they were no longer serving. These things are so funny when they happen to other people.

My hilarity subsided when half an hour before my flight I still did not have my boarding gate number.  An airport worker assured me it was too early to announce it.  Luckily my big suitcase was checked in and I was ready to break into a run, hell for leather, to catch my plane at any of the 30 something gates scattered around different levels of the airport. 

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