Anxious In France

Several of my fellow bloggers have written about their travels and all the hazards, real and imagined, that accompany these journeys. It seems that we writers, blessed as we are (and equally cursed) with vivid imaginations, have a way of anticipating everything that could possibly go wrong when we venture out of our comfort zones. It was in that spirit, excited but anxious, that I ventured to France for a two-week tour.

I had been led to believe that mid-to-late August would be a relatively quiet time in France. That didn’t prove to be the case, at least not in 2019. True, many of the residents vacate their homes in late summer, but there are hordes of tourists to take their place. We were warned that wherever there are crowds, there are pickpockets, and that proved to be the grim reality for one of our party. It happened at the abbey of Mont St. Michel, of all places. We reported the incident to the police, who insisted that they had never heard of any criminal activity in that area. The wallet, they declared, must have fallen out of the victim’s pocket. Luckily, with the help of the international plan I had placed on my phone, and various emergency numbers I’d written down “just in case,” we contacted the relevant banks, and the damage was minimized.

Another source of unusual activity was the G-7 summit that was going on in Paris while we were there. That set off some political arguments in our group, proving that there is no escaping that deadly polarization no matter where you go. Those among the French who dislike President Trump are starting to fear that their own president, the undeniably handsome Emmanuel Macron, is showing Trumpian tendencies, which is not what they bargained for. Since the BBC was always available on TV, we got to see extensive coverage of Boris Johnson’s desperate effort to limit parliamentary debate on his Brexit plan. While the Trump contagion seemed to spread through Europe, our dear leader himself stayed mercifully quiet for the first few days. We could only hope that for once he wouldn’t make an international laughing stock out of us, but no such luck. He finally exploded with one of his pathetic, whiny speeches during which he blamed his predecessor for all of his present difficulties.

On a happier note, the country was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its liberation from Nazi rule, which served to remind us of the enduring ties between France and the U.S. During a brief trip to France long ago, I got the distinct impression that the natives disdained tourists who didn’t speak their language well. This time, the opposite seemed true. The tourist industry, which includes not only favored hotels but all of the restaurants in the vicinity of those hotels, is geared to English speakers. Even people on the street speak a fair amount. Whenever we needed directions, and asked a passersby if he or she could speak English, most modestly replied “Un peu” (a little). But in almost every case, they knew much more of our language than we knew of theirs, and could answer any question we posed.

I had a particularly emotional experience with one of the drivers who took over our tour bus in the south of France. He spotted a hat I’d bought in Normandy, commemorating the Allied troop landings on D-Day in June 1944. He was so moved by the sight of it that he offered to buy it from me for 10 Euros. I could not refuse, seeing him almost weep over it. He went on to thank me profusely just for being an American. Later, I found out that the tour director had reprimanded him, saying it was bad form for the travel agency’s employees to buy souvenirs from tourists. The next time he saw me on the bus, he apologized and asked if he should give it back. I insisted he keep it. He gave me a hug, which I will associate forever with the enduring warm feelings between our two nations owing to the great triumph we shared 75 years ago.

Thankfully, most of the hazards I anticipated didn’t come to pass. As a natural-born worrier, I tried to prepare for everything. I took out travel insurance in case of major illness, and had some cold medicine packed away for minor illness, but there was no need for either. Extreme catastrophes, such as a plane crash or a terrorist attack, can’t be planned for and aren’t my responsibility to prevent anyway, so I put those fears aside. Likewise, the currency was no problem. American Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere in France, but Euros are handy for small purchases and tips.

We did a lot of climbing at chateaux and abbeys, some of which preserve their medieval character by not providing guardrails. A few stumbles were inevitable, but all I suffered was a slightly scrapped knee. I was constantly afraid of getting lost, which also seemed inevitable, and caused momentary panic quite a few times. Somehow, I managed to drift several rooms ahead of the guide at the magnificent but very crowded Versailles, and had to backtrack. At the French Riviera, a few of us dipped into the Mediterranean, but found the stony beach hard to negotiate. As we struggled to find our feet, waves rushed in, but fortunately, the sea was warm and the waves relatively small. I made up for the slight indignity suffered on the beach by winning a small amount of money at nearby Monte Carlo.

I took almost 50 pictures, a large number for me. I fear my image of the Eiffel Tower looks more like the leaning tower of Pisa, although it’s bending left instead of right. In fact, many of my pictures seem to lean that way, as I was always in a hurry to click before getting jostled or pushed aside by the crowds. Tourists appear in the forefront of everything, which gives an accurate picture of what it was like.

The key to traveling is to enjoy and revel in everything, in spite of the inevitable stress. Coming home was anxiety-inducing as well. Two weeks is a relatively long time for me to be away from my house. It seems that whenever I neglect my main computer for more than a week, it treats me like a complete stranger when I return. Jet lag, at my age, can knock you out for a while. But I’m proud that I ventured out of my comfort zone, which is necessary for a writer and certainly advisable for everyone else.