France


So, I've been in the south of France for the last few weeks. Carolyn, Anne, Chris (Anne's boyfriend), and I have vacationed the heck out of those weeks. I can say with confidence, no vacation stones were left unturned. Just as an example, last Sunday was an easy day, but in that day I was mountain biking in St-Tropez, wine tasting, had lunch by the beach, and a quick swim too. We didn't go to a lot of sights. We took in the Chagall museum in Nice and in the realm of guide book high points you might pay to see, that was about it.  This trip wasn't about seeing. Don't get me wrong, there was a LOT to see along the way. The picture below was from our lunch stop in Éze. How do you even eat when you're looking at that? But really, it was about being in a place. And it was about the people in that place.

The daily intensity has made it difficult to write anything about it, at least in any kind of narrative way.  That said, I do want to note a few things that have been especially memorable beginning with...

France


The view from Chateau de la Chévre d'Or. Dear Lord...

France is like America if you put America in a saucepan, brought it to a boil, stuck a stick blender in it, and left it to simmer for a few thousand years. It has all the components of culture, place and society - ocean frontage, rivers, mountains, cities, agriculture, industry, and it's all compressed into an area that might be smaller than some Alaskan national parks. From Chris' apartment balcony, I can look out over the Mediterranean, watch jets landing in Nice, AND see the snow covered peaks of the Alpes-Maritimes. It really is overwhelming. On top of that, France is full of...

The French

Technically, Ellie in the front is the only French person
Let me say this up front, the French are great. I arrived in France packing the usual preconceived notions of what the French were like. They were, of course, totally wrong. The truth is, they are no more aloof, arrogant, or steeped in exceptionalism than Americans.  Like any place, there are good people, bad people, and people who don't notice you and when they do, would prefer that you not sit next to them. There are also kind people, funny people, and very generous people who go out of their way to make you feel welcome. The picture above was taken on our way to dinner the night we arrived. We'd been awake for about 30 hours and my luggage was lost. We ended up having dinner with six of Chris' friends. By the time we'd finished, we had been awake about 36 hours and all those strangers were our friends too.  Of course having friends in a foreign country helps, but being a decent, polite person with a bit of humility helps too.  We got quite a ways with "bonjour", "mercì", and "au revoir". Which leads me to...


French

I have always struggled with any language except English and French was no exception. But language on this trip was different in some significant ways. The biggest difference was we were traveling with French speakers. Both Anne and Chris speak French but very differently. Anne has a sharp, process-oriented mind and she studied French for years. She can conjugate the heck out of French but it's a head space she has to shift into and she really works at it. She could order a pizza on the phone but had to take notes up front. Chris, on the other hand, never studied French, but enough has soaked if that he can brazen out pretty much any situation. He's also a natural ambassador who loves finding humor in about anything. When he speaks with someone he leads with a question and follows with something funny or self effacing related to the conversation. It's a brilliant way to bridge a language gap. Anne tends to defer to him when speaking with others though I suspect her language skills are better. To stretch a metaphor, he uses his people skills in the way one would apply English to a billiard ball. That, almost more than language acquisition, is an innate skill and one that's very hard to learn.

I was also surprised that I understood most of what I was hearing. Not always, but enough to make me realize that I should stop struggling with trying to understand language as this monolithic thing and just get my head around a much smaller subset of this language. I can do this. After all, I figured out...

Swimming


Carolyn and me sighted off the coast of Juan-les-Pins
Three years in a pool and I still can't do flip turns. But my crawl is better and I don't look like I'm drowning anymore, so when we arrived at a beach restaurant at Juan-les-Pins and everyone decided to go for a swim, I went in too. I really didn't give it much thought beyond noticing how happy Carolyn was swimming. Back at our table, someone who didn't go in asked how the water was. I said I had never been in the ocean and I was surprised how salty it was. The whole table went quiet. Chris asked me pointedly "This was really your first time swimming in the ocean?" I said yes, and everyone just looked at me, even Carolyn. Now, I'm pretty sure at some point in the last 27 years I had told Carolyn I'd never been swimming in the ocean. On the other hand, mentioning that on a rainy Oregon night in November probably wasn't as memorable as mentioning it on a beach in June on the Côte d'Azur. It never occurred to me that everyone at the table grew up swimming in the ocean and most of them made their living on it. It seemed incredible to them that there was a person in their midst who had not been in the water that covers 71% of the earth. They might have a point. Chris ordered a magnum of rosė and everyone toasted the occasion. Which brings up...


Rosė

Anne and just one of many, many bottles of rosé

They drink it like bottled water here. I'm not kidding. If I ordered pancakes for breakfast, they'd bring me a glass of rosé to go with them. I don't know why. The tap water is fine here. They just like it, I guess. Helps take their mind off the insane traffic and all the mega-yachts clogging up the harbors. Whelp, when in Rome...

Quite remarkably, despite consuming a blistering amount of the pink stuff, I didn't gain any weight on the trip. That's probably because I got to go

Mountain Biking

Chris, Burke, and Ann in the Alpes Maritime

I should be banned from vacations after this one. Nobody gets to have this much fun. We rode in Valmasque, outside of Antibes, in the Alpes Maritime, and near St. Tropéz. Generally, the only time I get to ride with other people is when I have a number plate on my bike. The past few weeks I've not only been riding with new friends, I've been doing it in France! I'm going to be unbearable for the foreseeable future.

We got to do several rides with Chris' friends Burke and Anne. We were a perfect foursome. Chris and Burke were outstanding technical riders and Anne and I were better climbers, so we always had someone to talk to whatever the terrain was. It was so much fun just riding with people and these were great people! How great? When Carolyn handed our passports to the ticket agent at the Nice airport as we were getting ready to fly home, the agent said "Oh! You're Anne's friends! Hold on, I need to call her." It turns out Anne was also a ticket agent and had told her colleagues to keep an eye out for us. She ran over to say goodbye to us.
Ann and Carolyn

Which brings me back to where I started. This trip was about place and the place was defined by the people we met there. And they made it beautiful indeed.

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