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Back from Loire Valley

Our last long trip of the year has come to its end, leaving us not exactly looking forward to the cold and drab months ahead.

It was already quite cold in the Loire Valley (although, thankfully, no rain). It has long became clear to us that one of the biggest problems with our initial plan to travel all over Europe while living here full-time is the fact that most of Europe is not really inviting mid-fall to mid-spring. There are places that never get a true winter, but even those are likely to be less than entirely welcoming for five-plus months. Oh, well…

We did have a very good time. Visited over a dozen locations, including “major” sights such as Chambord, Chenonceau and Villandry, among others. Drove through pretty villages and landscapes. Indulged ourselves in local cuisine and wine. Kicked back on the grounds of our château, taking advantage of the infrequent sunny skies.

The kids hated French food. Kimmy is famous for having a very limited range at restaurants (sliced tomatoes, pasta with butter, – no sauce! – grilled chicken and an occasional soup), but Becky also expressed lukewarm appreciation for dishes like terrine de caille or magret de canard. Their culinary highlight was a trip to local McDonald’s on our last day, when Natasha and I decided that we needed to have at least one dinner without long arguments about food. The kids were happy with burgers and fries (check that – Kimmy had fries and a chocolate muffin; she rather hates burgers) and also with meeting some English kids at the Playplace. We achieved our own state of happiness over côtes d’agneau and a bottle of Bourgueil a while later at the château’s restaurant, while the girls stayed in our rooms next door.

We also had a bit of a mishap at one of the restaurants, to the tune of quite an expensive bill. Natasha made reservations at several places that she picked up at various travel forums. The initial returns were excellent, so one night we eagerly walked into a visibly upscale place… and realized that the cheapest appetizer on the à la carte menu cost €40 and the cheapest menu du jour €65. You may or may not agree with me here, but once I am shown to my table, I find it exceedingly embarrassing to make excuses and leave. Long story short, Kimmy had two plates of sliced tomatoes, Natasha and Becky limited themselves to just an appetizer, while I brazenly chose the aforementioned menu du jour and had one of the best restaurant meals in my life. Add in a requisite bottle of wine (at 15 times its retail price, as opposed to 6-7 times that you’d encounter in any other place), and the bill came to an outlandish total for the amount of food consumed. At least, I now have an idea how some of my more independently wealthy acquaintances live…

As far as sightseeing, it is no exaggeration that, for my own personal taste, medieval castles and quaint villages beat everything else hands down. If I had my way, I would be castle-hopping from sunrise to sundown. But even in moderation, we saw and did a lot.

I’ll leave specific impressions to a future Travelog entry, so for those of you who are interested, watch that space.

We also ran into a quintessential French-behavior situation at one of the castles’ gift shop. Kimmy needed her regular doze of being bribed into behaving well, so I agreed to let her buy a small doll. Armed with a €5 note, she queued behind a French-speaking tourist who was having a lively conversation with the woman at the register. Their transaction was complete, but whatever they were discussing was undoubtedly very important. Kimmy waited. The women continued to chat. Could it be that neither of them realized that a small child was waiting? From where I was standing, I said rather loudly, “You have to wait a bit”; not exactly to Kimmy, but to draw the cashier’s attention. No reaction. After a couple of minutes, I came over and positioned myself in the cashier’s line of sight in a way that could not be misinterpreted. The conversation went on. Finally, I took Kimmy’s doll, put her on the counter and said something along the lines of “Excuse me, can we please pay for this, my little daughter has been standing here for five minutes”.

The other shopper apologized to me, said her goodbyes and left. The woman at the counter looked at me very disapprovingly, but proceeded to take care of Kimmy’s purchase. Before returning the change, she inquired, “Where do you come from?” I said, with just the right inflection I hope, “America”. Her suspicions confirmed, the cashier disdainfully dispensed the change to my seven-year-old.

Becky observed, upon exiting the store, “I do not think that lady liked us”. I did my best to avoid strong expressions in explaining to her how little I cared for this particular display of French service culture. Ignoring a child so that their obviously chance chat can go on uninterrupted! I was fuming for quite some time afterwards.

It should be noted that our many other attempts at buying stuff at local stores have all yielded most positive and polite responses.

But it is quite funny that the one book that I picked up at a newsstand while waiting for our return Channel train, described very similar situation on first pages. No child involved, but a conversation that cannot be interrupted, followed by an utter disdain with having to eventually serve a person who clearly does not realize how rudely he behaves in trying to get a person at work to actually perform her duties. The book is called A Year in the Merde, and even though it explores the differences between French and British, not American, I now suppose that I will thoroughly enjoy it.

Waiting for that train, by the way, has given the nice trip an undeserving coda. Even though we started on our way back to Calais with time to spare, slow-moving traffic on the Paris Periferique coupled with a bad judgment call in relation to sat-nav directions caused us to miss our check-in time by 15 minutes. Eurotunnel promises to re-book you on a different train with no extra charge if you arrive within two hours of your missed departure. And we were re-booked… but on a train three hours later, even though trains leave roughly every 20 minutes. We had a lengthy wait reading books at the newsstand (the other choice would be to idly sit in the car). Goes to show that London is far from being an ideal base for European adventures: You always need to cross the Channel, and because you cannot do it on your own, you may end up wasting a lot of time no matter which mode of transportation you choose…