French Bliss

Did I tell you about the last time I saw Paris?

I just got back from almost three weeks in France. The sophisticated, casual sound of that statement is entirely bogus. In fact, I have trouble believing that I wrote it and, moreover, that it's true.

This was the second time I've used a passport--and I acquired said passport only when I was nearly 40 and my husband was handed a five-month boondoggle teaching in Florence (the one in Italy). On that trip our documents were stamped exactly twice, a fact that doesn't begin to convey the depth of our failure as tourists.

Not only did we not manage to travel beyond the borders of Italy, we barely left central Florence. We did not, for example, go to Rome. We were thinking about it at one point, but the rail workers staged one of their biweekly strikes and we took it as a sign to stay put. Venice was far, far beyond our powers. We did manage to take the hour-long train ride to Pisa, and walked around six or seven picturesque Tuscan hill towns.

Still, in our clueless, pokey way, we had a good time. We figured out where and when to buy groceries--a bigger achievement than it sounds like-- got friendly with the local shopkeepers and wandered nearly alone through the city's lithic alleys, frescoed churches and palazzi, and on through the Uffizi, the Pitti and the Bargello. We had the Boboli gardens almost to ourselves one drizzly afternoon after another. And one day, on the way to the central market, I segued into the building with the small sign I'd been walking past each morning and discovered it was that Medici Chapel.

But long before it was time to come home we were agonizingly homesick, and it was seven years before we thought of attempting another foreign adventure. Why, you might reasonably ask, would we even try?

It's a good question, and, to be honest, neither of us really wanted to go. We're dull, easily amused people, happy with our home improvements and garden and rotten little dogs. Both of us come from working-class Protestant families for whom the idea of vacationing--except for brief and usually traumatic family visits--was simply foreign. I, for example, moved with my family from Portland to Phoenix when I was 11, and didn't see the Grand Canyon until I was married.

You get to a point in life, however, at which travel, with a capital T, starts to seem obligatory, and you run out of excuses for staying home. The kitchen's redone, the tile's all laid and the kids are mostly educated. Even the dachshund problem won't wash: My husband has access to a limitless supply of conscientious graduate student house sitters. The exchange rate is good; airfares are laughable--although 12 hours with your knees under your chin is no joke, in my book. (Why can't they just come clean about us being cargo, knock us out before departure and ship us in drawers? I'm serious.)

And then, last fall, we read a food piece in the New York Times Magazine about the seafood, salt, butter and other attractions of the Brittany coast, and we started thinking maybe here was a destination we could work up enthusiasm for. That it would be a food piece that snagged us is typical: We throw out the Times travel supplement--The Sophisticated Traveler-- with a snort. A travel publication aimed at us would be something more along the lines of The Pathetic Traveler.

So, reader, we went--reluctantly, anxiously, with the usual flurry of ludicrous quarrels ("I'm sorry, but I think it's reasonable to worry about how we're going to get from the hotel to the airport!"), neurotic illnesses and suspicious injuries. We're particularly bad at leaving.

We had a two-week rental in the Breton countryside, where we re-established our usual domestic round with certain delightful improvements--including juicy $2 Muscadet, the strawberries of the gods and tiny, scrumptious mussels by the kilo. And it was good.

Or, at least, it was good once we'd figured out where to buy milk--an odd problem in verdant dairy country--and after I'd gotten the telltale red wine stain out of our landlords' sheets. (May I suggest that if you wish to drink wine in bed in France--and you will--that you select an unpretentious local white.)

Leafy woods, fields of wheat and rye, ponds, ditches full of flowers, silky, relaxed cows the size of SUVs, bustling farm towns crammed with medieval buildings and, here and there, your odd megalith--it was great. We shopped for groceries, bicycled mildly, saw the Atlantic once and never got to Carnac, Rouen or Monet's garden at Giverny. We wasted our time sitting outside through the long northern twilight, listening to the birds and to the effective but weird French front-loader washing our clothes. Among its many subtleties, as Ed termed them, was stopping every so often as if to think, then changing direction. We tried listening to the radio, which led to long, wine-lubricated analyses of the enduring awfulness of French pop music (I mean, flutes?) and derision of Monty Python-esque BBC Channel 4, where commentary on a cricket match consisted mostly of wistful descriptions of atrocious weather. This was followed by a right-wing talk show addressing the question, "Why don't Chinese restaurants serve breakfast? Ever wondered?" Who says the world is all the same?

For two weeks, we had no idea whether Pakistan and India still existed, much less whether Summerhaven had burned down. The phone rang twice. We didn't see the Eiffel Tower--except, possibly, the very top of it in the distance--and I learned to say "h-whay" instead of "wee."

We're immensely relieved to be home, but we think travel is good for everyone. You should go. Bonnes vacances!