When the lovely Catherine and I travel, we often follow a plan that is purposely vague. Sure, we know where we’re going, but the route we drive, fly or canoe to reach it often could be described as “north out of Des Moines” or “turn right at Amarillo.”
This year’s big adventure, however, defied footloose: four days in Bossut, a village in Belgium, followed by a week of eating in Provence, then a few days in sparkling Paris. And since daughter Grace and friend Devorah would meet us in Provence, a detailed plan was in and winging it was out.
The trip was a homecoming of sorts for Catherine who had spent a year as an exchange student with a family near Brussels in the early 1970s. We visited last in 1995, but four, early September days of great food and warm conversation proved we remain a family separated only by language, an ocean and fresh veal cutlets.
A couple of $90 tickets put us on the TGV, the fast train, to Avignon, in south central France, where a rental car, a 35-mile drive to the Provencal town of Apt, and Gracie and Devorah would be waiting.
Alas, however, France is a nation where any plan at anytime can go off the rails because someone somewhere dislikes something and responds with le greve, a strike.
And so it was with our train. It wasn’t a lengthy strike, though; we left Brussels on a later train and arrived in Avignon three hours late to no daughter, no friend and no idea of where the strike had left either. Worse, we couldn’t reach Devorah because her iPhone, evidently, was le greve, too.
Exactly, we left the rental car at the train station, took a city bus to Avignon’s center, found a hotel room and went to dinner. Before the vin, lamb and mousse, however, we e-mailed our changed plans to Grace from an Internet cafe.
When we returned to the hotel (ah, three hours) later the desk clerk announced that our “friends have arrived.” He pointed to a nearby room where two American girls, two suitcases and two smiles were waiting. Devorah’s phone had received our e-mail moments after we filed it.
The next day we motored to Apt, a small city in food-filled Provence. Every day thereafter we traveled to surrounding villages in search French history, great views and hearty lunches. And we found ‘em all, as well as smiles and genuine kindness.
Especially so in Apt. Each morning, I’d leave our tiny apartment and walk the cobbled streets to a local patisserie for fresh baked goods, then to a newsstand for a Herald Tribune and, after soaking in the day’s first warmth on a bench in any of a half-dozen tiny squares, I’d mosey home for thick, black coffee and a fluffy croissant. Late afternoons were spent making another food walkabout for supper fixings. It was the most perplexing, wonderful part of the entire trip.
Hmm, lamb, chicken, veal, pork or sausage; potatoes, rice or pasta; wine or beer? The answers, like nearly everything in Provence, were easily found, delicious and often involved butter.
Too soon the young ladies departed and, two days later, the lovely Catherine and I headed to Paris, a city neither of us ever had explored.
Two hours into our four days of museums, cafes, late lunches and long walks proved Hemingway right: “Paris is a moveable feast.”
Indeed, the entire trip was a once-in-a-lifetime feast. Nightly, however, even in the middle of harvest-gold Illinois, I return by closing my eyes and dreaming about plates of lamb and duck and veal.
And, of course, buckets of butter.
Cholesterol, and Provence, does that, I hear.