The last portion of my cross-continental adventure was spent with Michelle and her family, who were hospitable to a fault. When we were 16, Michelle had spent a summer with me, my mom, and my brother as an exchange student. We spent the first part of the week at their Paris apartment.
She took me to bakeries where we bought warm baguettes and for the first time in my life I saw, and then ate, petit fours. In fact, I only learned later what they were called. The bakery had long cases of them in every color and I could barely believe my good fortune.
“Wow. Can we get some of those?” I asked. Michelle smiled.
“Of course you’d like to try them. Yes,” she said.
Her mother was a wonderful cook, there were often guests for dinner, and every food item was served separately, in courses. I’d never “just” eaten green beans but I found I could really taste them that way, and they were delicious. And the salad came last! And after that, at every dinner, cheese! This was before blue cheese was all the rage in the U.S. and I’d never had it. I was a little shocked at the huge wedge of mold as it made it’s way around the table with several other options on a thick, wood cheese board but “When in Rome” was in effect and I tried just a bite. It was creamy, strong, and delicious. I became an immediate fan and had a serving every night thereafter.
Michelle took me to many popular sites, including the National Archives (library tourism: it’s a thing!), and a day-long cruise on the River Marne. I have a cousin named Marne, with the same spelling even.
One day, we went to Versailles. In front, there was a small, formally dressed band. Michelle wondered why they were there and went to find out. A moment later she came back, “It’s the anniversary of the liberation of Versailles. I should have known that,” she looked a little embarrassed. Michelle was well educated.
“Why is the celebration so small?” I asked.
“In Europe, we’re trying to let go for the sake of the EU.”
She insisted on paying for everything, including my raging book mania. Versailles was AMAZING and in the gift shop, I naturally wanted a history. I tried to pay for it but she insisted, and then extracted a promise that I would ACTUALLY READ IT. My swoon over Versailles passed the next day and I never did read it, but I still have the book. That’s my compromise with book guilt.
After several days in the city, Michelle, her younger brother, a friend, and myself, took off for the Mediterranean. We cruised Nice, Cannes, and St. Tropez. Yup, the Med. In the afternoons, we would siesta under broad trees, sleeping through the hottest part of the day along with everyone else. I know it sounds great, and it was, seriously. But everywhere we went? There were pit toilets. Only pit toilets. My first experience with pit toilets. Is there a trick to those things? Y’know, like, a particular way to balance? Because seriously, I NEVER FIGURED IT OUT.
We stayed up late at outdoor cafes to enjoy the cooler temperatures. One evening I picked up what I thought was a parfait glass of yogurt from a food bar and discovered it was sour cream dusted with sugar. A lot of sour cream. Now, I like sour cream but there was no way I could eat it plain. Excuse me, with sugar. I looked helplessly at Michelle. She had exceptional manners but she couldn’t abide wasted food. She gave me a withering look, sat down, and ate it steadily bite after bite while I squirmed. Blue cheese? OK. A dish of sour cream? I just couldn’t get there.
In Cannes we stayed in a dormitory operating as a hostel during the off-season. Each room had a sink and a bidet but no toilet. I thought the prioritization very strange. I would have killed for a toilet in my MSU dorm days.
We ended up in the French countryside, at her parent’s second home where they were planning to retire. There was something different about the rural areas of France compared to the rural areas of the U.S. that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Intentional beautification? Cultivation of entire vistas? Our large party went through several cases of sparkling wine in the lush, picture-perfect environment.
Michelle and her family treated me to a wonderful week in France for which I am still grateful and 27 years later I still send them holiday cards. On the last morning, Michelle dropped me at the dock for my ride back to the UK. And that motion sickness that had me in its grip on the plane trip? A German pharmacy had solved that for me with this super magical gum that turned my mouth numb but that I could take AFTER I was already feeling nauseated. The U.S.’s only motion sickness medication – Dramamine – which I’d had a lifetime of experience with, couldn’t do that. It was smooth sailing from there on out.