Sunday, October 29, 2023

France 2023 - Analysis of a Trip

The closer we get to Canada, the more things start to break down. Maybe it’s just the current state of the travel experience or airports or something else. Things don’t work, we get overcharged for baggage, we get emails from the airline company with incorrect information, and people (Canadians) cut into lines in front of us and everybody else. As a grand finale, the two bottles of duty-free rum I buy on the flight are improperly packaged and I’m sent back by security to check them in, which I do in my small backpack. Then somebody in the depths of Montreal security or baggage handling steals them and I pick up an empty bag in Toronto and nobody there seems able or willing to do anything about it. I know, first world problems. But we made it home safe and sound.

During this trip, Ana and I talked about what we missed from home. My immediate answer was always “Stella and Magnus”, but now that we are home I have a chance to think more about this, as I always do when we return from travel to other countries. We have a great life in Paris, Ontario. It is safe, uncrowded, we live in a big house with a big yard, we have a beautiful boat, and we have the greatest of friends. We both like our jobs and earn decent money and live close to family members on both sides. I really have no complaints. Except when we visit Europe and see the efficiency with which they do things – the transportation, city design, road design, immaculate public spaces. There are no ugly parking garages – these are built underground where they are easy to access and you don’t waste valuable space. There’s also their appreciation for languages, culture and history. And they never leave the house looking anything less than fabulous. We went grocery shopping today and there was a lady there wearing what looked like a two piece housecoat and furry slippers. Others wore filthy pants, baseball caps turned backwards, and sweat pants. You just don’t see this in Europe. People take care in their appearance. It matters to them.

This does not come without a cost though. Taxes in Europe are generally much higher than here. People live in tiny homes and don’t generally have much space to themselves. Many don’t have vehicles. The public realm necessarily plays a much larger role in people’s lives.

I always like to do a little post trip analysis on the finances to know what our daily spending was like. Excluding flights the trip cost us about $160 per person per day which covered all expenses. Oh, and with the help of the Health app on Ana's phone, I know that we walked for an average of 10 kilometers per day.

Thank-you France for treating us so well, sharing your country with us, and being such a great host!

I will finish with some thoughts on Europe versus Canada using my rose coloured glasses, fresh off an amazing trip where we experienced all of the wonders and few of the everyday nuisances.

Europe is shared spaces; Canada is private property.

Europe is user pays; Canada is nobody pays while everybody pays.

Europe builds things to last; Canada takes the lowest bidder. 

Europe preserves the past; Canada rips out and rebuilds

Europe is small and dense; Canada is massive and sparse

Europe celebrates languages; Canada wars over them

Friday, October 27, 2023

France 2023 - A Roman Amphitheater, a Kind Pitbull, and our Final Night in France

Nimes central station is where we find ourselves shortly after our 9am car rental return. Our train to Paris departs shortly before 2pm so we have five carefree, unplanned hours to enjoy.

Our first stop is to visit the Roman amphitheater in the centre of town, built in the year 100 and somehow still standing. The audio guide we are given after buying tickets provides a surprisingly interesting and entertaining story of the arena and what life was like for the gladiators and the crowds who came to watch them fight. It's not hard to imagine as we sit on the rock seats at the top of the arena looking down – the blood soaked sand of the arena floor that had be turned frequently during event days to reduce the smell, the lions and bears chained to posts and fighting each other, the human prisoners chained to the same posts and executed by letting the animals eat them alive, then finally the highly trained gladiators themselves clashing, rarely to the death, typically until one was injured and could not continue. It is awesome.

The arena now is under a long process of rehabilitation to ensure it will stand for another millennium. Surprisingly, this ancient structure is used frequently for events such as concerts, bullfights, and the annual Great Roman Days in May where the glory days of Rome are reenacted. Sometime in the future, we will attend an event here.

We spend the rest of our time walking the town. Nimes is a beautiful place, with so many of the things we’ve loved in other towns we’ve visited during this trip, but with a few ancient Roman structures added in for good measure. We sit for a long while in one of the squares enjoying a coffee, the sunshine, and our last few moments in this incredible part of the world.

The high speed TGV train rockets us northward across France and we arrive at the Charles de Gaulle station in Paris then have a hell of a time trying to find our way out of the station to the taxi area, walking in loops and circles until we finally find somebody to point us in the right direction. It then takes about five tries to get an Uber driver to actually find us, but finally a fine gent from Mali collects us and drives us the short distance to our Air B&B, and we have an interesting conversation with him using our limited French, his limited English, and the help of Google Translate.

We are dropped off in front of our home for the night. It is raining heavily outside, very dark, and there is nobody around. We push through a large steel exterior door to gain access to a small courtyard and apartment access. It’s completely dark inside but I can feel a small creature pawing at my legs, so I reach down and put my hand on the unmistakable muscled head of a pit bull. Fortunately he is the happiest pit bull we’ve ever met and he sticks to us like glue and nearly sneaks into the apartment behind us but I manage to push him out and shut the door. Sorry fella.

After dumping our gear we head back out to the neighbourhood in search of food. We don’t have to go far – there are three restaurants on our block, and each of them looks to be completely devoid of customers. We decide on the Lebanese restaurant and are served a delicious meal of garlicy wonders. The waiter spends a lot of time visiting with us and explains the schools are on a two week “Halloween break” which he claims is the reason why the restaurants are so slow. I just can’t help myself and I look up school breaks in France and discover that they get five holiday breaks per year, each approximately two weeks long (All Saints, Christmas, Winter, Spring, Summer), except for the summer break which is eight weeks. These Europeans drive me crazy! With a lax schedule like that they still manage to come out speaking multiple languages, with art and music training, a deep appreciation for history, and are superior at math and science. I wonder if this has something to do with it?

We return to the apartment and do some final packing adjustments to our bags. Tomorrow, we leave for home.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

France 2023 - Exploring Marseille and Cassis

Our hotel doesn’t have much for early breakfast, but we did spot a snack bar across the street yesterday so we walk over there and are the only customers at Snack Time by Lou Lou. The man working greets us warmly in French, then switches to patchy English when he hears our French skills; nevertheless, we have a lovely conversation. After a 7 euro meal of croissants, coffee, and a breakfast sandwich we get in the car and point south to Marseille, which is a mere thirty minute drive.

Our first stop is at the Basilica which is a church and complex built at the top of the highest point of the city, and is the most visited attraction. We should have left a bit earlier as it is packed with tourists, the most we’ve seen anywhere on this trip by far. This is the type of thing we really try to avoid when traveling, and we were expecting that by the end of October things would be quiet. But not here. We have a quick look around and snap some photos of the impressive vistas, then Ana picks up a religious figurine from the gift shop for her mom and we get the hell out of there.

Down in the old port we find a massive marina with hundreds of boats and thousands of tourists. The place does have a cool vibe but the sheer quantity of tourists is a little off-putting and we can’t really understand why there are so many here compared to the other places we’ve visited in France.

We walk the old town, have bagels and fries for lunch, take a short ferry ride across the marina, then drive east to the town of Cassis. The last thing on my checklist is to swim in the Mediterranean, and this is my final chance as we leave for Paris tomorrow.

Cassis itself is quite nice and the view is spectacular as it is nested at the base of steep cliffs and has a cute marina. Fortunately, I am in luck as there is also a rocky beach with dangerous looking breaking waves presenting just enough element of risk. Ana patiently waits for me while I navigate my way into the ocean between massive waves and get out there for a quick dip then almost get pummeled on my way back in. Despite this, I am very satisfied with my swim.

We finish our day once again in Aix at the Irish Pub and I do something I never do while traveling – order the same dish twice. It is, of course, excellent and Ana’s fish in chips are equally good. For this last night in the south we take our time, watch people, watch some of the soccer on the pub tv, talk about our trip and enjoy these last moments in a country we’ve really fallen in love with.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

France 2023 - Antibes, Helicopter Rides, and Medieval Torture in Aix-en-Provence

We pack up our stuff and say goodbye to Nice after an incredible three days. Our only plan is that we need be back in Provence tonight as we’ve booked a hotel in the town of Aix-en-Provence for the next two nights.

Heading southwest on the coastal road takes to the city of Antibes, of which we know nothing about, so we head to the port area and find a parking spot from where we can see an enormous mural on the side of a building, and we linger for a while to admire it. Past here are a series of marine stores, more than we’ve ever seen in one location before, but this all makes sense after we walk another block and find a gigantic marina, called Port Vauban – the largest marina in Europe, with space for some 2000 boats. Here, there is not just one Russian oligarch yacht; there is a whole neighbourhood of them. Besides these, there are all sizes, types, and makes of boats and along the harbour wall is a series of large signs explaining the history and evolution of the port.

Oh, and there’s a helicopter swinging people around by a rope. At first we think the helicopter is dropping a dummy down on a line then going for a joyride, but then we notice the dummies are waving their arms and legs. We walk to beach adjacent to the marina and see a lineup of people wearing uniforms, each taking a turn to put on a harness and get hauled up on a rope to a chopper then swung around the bay in a loop and then let back down to the ground. It must be safety or rescue training and it looks like a hell of a lot of fun.

The old town of Antibes is, of course, beautiful and full of shops, restaurants, cafes, and lots of people. The nautical theme is pervasive here and we see a lot of ocean themed items for sale and shops catering to yachts. After a big walk around and coffee in one of the many squares, we stop at the Professional Yachting Association office and have a long chat with a new fellow there about the professional yacht crew career option. During a visit to Cambodia we met a South African couple that worked on superyachts and we’ve been enamoured with the idea ever since. All I need now is a medical co-conspirator who can provide documentation to my employer that I have succumbed to a barely diagnosable yet believably serious ailment for which I will need extended leave.

The fastest way to Aix-en-Provence (or Aix for short, pronounced as simply “X”) from here is on the magnificent A8 toll road so we get on it, prepare a stack of euro coins and a credit card, and start driving. We could have gone further along the coastal road and visited more towns such as Cannes and St. Tropez, but we decide to save that for a future trip.

We check in at our hotel then take the 30 minute walk into the town center, which is full of chic young people being fancy. We are told it’s a university town, but one that’s clearly for people with money because these students are all wearing designer clothing, eating expensive meals, drinking pints, and having a rather great time.

Ana hits the shops while I walk over to the Granet museum (featuring paintings of dead fish, severed John the Baptist heads, and some nice medieval torture pieces), then the Jean Planque museum with more modern pieces, both of which I very much enjoyed.

We meet at 6pm and find a table at the Irish Bar. I know what you’re thinking. We’ll be eating Guinness and kidney pie or greasy fish and chips or some other dreadful food. But, as we’ve found, it’s really tough to find a bad meal in France and I eat the most amazing ribs of my life, prepared in a very unusual way. It didn’t even look like ribs, but the texture was right and the flavour was incredible. Ana’s meal too was delicious. By the time we leave it has gotten quite chilly and is raining a bit but we decide to walk anyway for some post dinner exercise and it’s all going great until Ana spots another rat on the street, then she starts moving so fast that I can barely keep up with her.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

France 2023 - A Quick Trip to Italy and Monaco

We are in the car and headed east just as the sun is peeking up from the ocean, giving us enough light to enjoy the spectacular views from the high road cut into the mountain sides. We are driving along the French coastline, the Cote d'Azur, towards Italy and we pass by towns below us - Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Eze, Cap d’Ail. Soon, a coastal city appears and we see skyscrapers, tall hotels, densely packed apartment buildings, and roads somehow weaving through at all - Monaco. We continue along the winding road and pass through beautiful Menton, which sits right on the eastern French border, then we drive through a set of tunnels and bam, everything changes! The French radio stations we were just listening to seem to have all instantly vanished. And now I can practically feel the hands and fingers reaching out from the stereo, waving in front of my face, as the announcers pepper us with rapid fire Italian. It is pleasantly jarring.

We drive into Ventimiglia and it looks different than the French towns - it's a little more beaten up, the people don't look quite as fancy, and we don't see any ancient buildings. It takes forever to find parking and we finally score a spot in what feels like the edge of town. It is raining quite heavily so we pull out our umbrellas and walk back along the coastal road towards the center of town. We pass an old Italian man who says “Buongiorno!" and we reply with the same. The shop windows display Limoncello and Martini instead of Pastis and red wine. Signs are in Italian. But the density of cars and buildings is the same.

An Italian café awaits us. We sit down and order an americano and a cappuccino. The drinks appear almost instantly and they are delicious. Makes me wonder what all the hubbub is with baristas in Canada, seems like the Europeans can foam milk in their sleep. We watch the Italians coming and going as the town slowly comes to life. Ana checks out a few shops and reports that stuff looks to be generally a bit cheaper here than in France. I step into a tobacco shop and note you can get a pack of smokes for five euro, which may help explain the proliferation of smokers we’ve noticed here and in France.

Because distances are short, we dip into Italy a bit further, to the larger town of Sanremo, and find a parking spot near the city centre. There we browse a market and I’m tempted to buy an enormous brick of Parmesan cheese for ten euro but I change my mind as I don’t want to commit to babysitting fromage for the rest of the trip. A street vendor see Ana browsing purses and descends on her with a huge bag of knock-offs and they do battle. He doesn’t stand a chance – she knows her prices and he’s asking way too much.

The restaurants are all opening for lunch and we decide on a small one in a narrow walking street with only a couple of outside tables. The chef appears and explains each item on the day’s menu with care and detail. I decide on the rabbit ravioli with mushroom sauce and Ana goes for the truffle tagliolini. The food is delicious and the red wine she suggested (actually, insisted on) goes perfectly with my dish. This is Ana and my first lunch in an actual Italian restaurant and I hope there are more to come in our future.

On the way back to the car, a small boat docked in the marine catches my eye. It has a fancy colourful sign like an ice cream shop, but when I get closer I see they sell fish cones. Their most popular appears looks to be the sardine cone, which looks just like it sounds. Hey, I like sardines and I like cones, but that combo just doesn’t sound that great. Thankfully the boat is deserted so I’m not forced to try it.

With our Italian sojourn complete, I point the car back towards France and we drive to Menton. Along the coastal road are a series of gorgeous buildings painted pastel yellow, orange, and pink. If I were to translate the palette of my most amazing dreams to reality, this is what it would look like. Ana and I walk through the narrow and hilly passageways of the old town, mesmerized by the antiquity of it all, the colours, the cobblestones, and wonder what it’s like to live here, in this medieval setting, with Amazon delivery. We visit the Basilique a Sainte-Michel and are stunned by the ancient beauty of it, so much so that we sit in a pew for a while to take it in. I don’t remember ever being inside a church this beautiful.

After cruising the fancy shops for a while and realizing this town’s specialty must be lemons (lemon soap, lemon deodorant, lemon gelato) we decide this stop must include a food break so we grab a table at the Chez Lina Snack Pizzeria and order a chorizo and jalapeño flat bread. It is deliciously spicy and cut into perfect rectangles to make it easy to share. A pack of near-elderly Americans sitting next to us have brought their corn hole game on extended vacation and they toss bean bags around on the boulevard. They are joined at their table by a few other English speakers - this must be the local ex-pat hangout.

The day is winding down but we have one more stop to make. Monaco is a tiny, two square kilometer city-state and hangs off a tip of the French coastline. It has been politically independent in various forms for hundreds of years and is a famous tax haven as it levies no personal income tax on citizens. Because of its unique properties, Monaco lands on the “number 1” list in many areas:

- highest number of millionaires and billionaires per capita in the world

- second smallest sovereign state in the world

- most densely populated sovereign state in the world

- world’s shortest coastline

- highest GDP per capita of any country

- world’s lowest poverty rate

- world’s most expensive property

- has the world's most difficult Formula One racetrack

When Ana and I first met she gave me a small world Atlas in which we made a list of the places we’d like to visit together. At the top of the list was “South of France” and Monaco was always discussed as the one place in that region we needed to visit. And here we are. Deep underground in a parking garage changing clothes in our rental car. I couldn’t even get my pants off while sitting in the driver’s seat so I jump out of the car to switch into my fancy red slacks, hardly mindful of the cameras everywhere. Ana hides at the back of the car with the trunk open so nobody can see her change. High class, all the way.

The cool evening air smells of money and status and we walk right through it, towards the Monte Carlo Casino but are sidelined by the luxury shopping area next to it. Every single luxury brand I have ever heard of (and many I have not) has a classy storefront here. Ana may have wet her pants a little bit as she stood there dumbfounded, surveying the scene in front of her. The classy people walking around proudly carrying designer bags, the luxury Italian and French shops, the glass and steel condo towers, the expensive vehicles passing by. She admitted to me that this place makes the rich areas of New York look like homeless shelters in comparison.

We stride into the immaculate casino then stride right back out when we realize it costs 18 euro just to get onto the gaming floor and we weren’t planning on doing any gambling anyway. Ana finds a Zara store and buys a belt, just so she has something to show for this Monaco visit. I have a feeling she will treasure it, always. As I wait for her I see a fancy lady with pumped up lips, jacked up breasts, stretched out face, and fifty grand worth of clothing yelling at her phone for somebody to get his ass over here and pick her up. A short while later a sheepish man arrives in a sports car and whisks her back to Never Never Land.

There isn’t much else to do here besides walk around, so we do just that. The streets are surprisingly quiet. We even have trouble finding a place for a drink as nearly everything is closed except for the casinos and hotels. The waiter at Nona Maria brings two beers for us and we sit at a bistro table on the sidewalk looking and listening. An electric garbage truck passes by and the workers toss in bags from the street. One of the men at the table near us tells his friends how he met both Putin and Trump in Russia. This is an unusual place.

I drive our Peugeot back to Nice like I’m James Bond on the run from a villain. And still, suicidal French motorcyclists are passing me on the left and right. It’s a fun end to an extraordinary day. It’s not often that dawn to dusk affords you sufficient time to visit three countries.

Monday, October 23, 2023

France 2023 - A Fine Day in Nice

The pullout couch bed is surprisingly comfortable and we wake up not early but not late either. Last night we picked up a few food items from the Intermarche grocery store across the street so we enjoy a leisurely breakfast on our small balcony then walk into the port area. 

After browsing around in a marine supply shop (force of habit) we hike up the Colline du Chateau which provides a magnificent vista over the city and harbour. Our question of how these boats manage to stern into such narrow slips is answered when we watch dock staff in two separate boats tow and push a sailboat all the way across the entire marina and expertly shoehorn it in between two other boats.

We walk down the massive promenade into Nice's old city. It is magnificent. Architectural wonders at every turn, narrow streets lined with interesting shops and the regular assortment of cafes and restaurants full of chic Europeans drinking their little coffees, smoking, chatting with friends, and making full use of these incredible public spaces designed hundreds of years ago for just this.

As we're walking down one street we're rattled by the noise of an explosion. Everybody around us jumps, startled, then looks around momentarily, and immediately gets back to what they were doing. I have no idea what it was. Strangely, a block later we are passed by half a dozen French soldiers in full fatigue uniforms carrying assault rifles, but they were in no hurry, so I assume it's just a coincidence.

The long strip where we ate last night has been transformed into a massive goods market with everything from nautical antiques to records to soap. I take a pass on the market and instead walk down to ocean and lay down on the beach, which is a thick blanket of stones instead of sand. I look for shapes in the clouds for a while then when that gets tiresome I pull out my Boredom Solution Machine and make smart assed comments on others' social media posts.

We randomly select one of the hundred restaurants and sit down for lunch. Ana has a Nicoise salad for lunch to see if it's any better here in the dish's origin city. It is indeed good, but it seems there's only so much you can do with tuna, tomatoes, lettuce, olives, eggs, and oil all mixed together.

We decide on a post-lunch half-marathon and walk and walk and walk, taking a break only to visit the beach and dip our hands into the Mediterranean Sea for the first time. We come across a memorial to the 86 people who were killed (and 434 injured) in a terrorist attack here in 2016 where they were run down on the promenade by a angry young man in a van. It's impossible for me to imagine the horror of that day as I look out to the promenade today and see families walking together, couples in love, people walking their dogs. So much can change in a moment.

We finally return to the apartment around 6 or 7pm and can't bear the thought of leaving again for dinner so we instead make breakfast for dinner and enjoy bacon,  eggs, cheese, baguette, and juice then watch a movie and get to bed early. Tomorrow is going to be a huge day. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

France 2023 - Arles, Frejus, Nice, and a Rat

By 9am Michael and Anna have us to central Nimes where we will pick up our rental car and head east across the south of France. We hug each other and hold it a little longer than usual - we feel close to them and have had so many laughs and fun times over the past days. We are sad to leave. But within a week we will once again be within a 90 minute drive of each other, so I know we'll see them again soon.

The rental car is a 2008 Peugeot. But it wasn't manufactured in 2008 - it's brand new - but I wonder who on earth came up with that idea for a model name. Maybe they released it in 2006 and it seemed brilliant at the time. It's a comfy four door model with space in the hatch for all of our luggage. We were scared we'd be driving around France in a soup can on wheels, but this one is a beauty.

Our first stop is Arles, which is another medieval Roman town, and we walk towards the centre after parking. A stone wishing well full of fish and coins is alongside the stairs leading up to a walking street.

"Let's make a wish," Ana says and tosses in a couple of coins. She then continues walking up the stairs as I remain well-side, throwing coppers.

"What are you doing? Do you need that many wishes?" she says looking down at me.

"Nah, I'm good. I'm making wishes for you instead, one for each of your menopause symptoms that I wish to go away," I say as I flip in another five eurocent coin. "So far I've got hot flashes, uncontrollable rage, night sweats, depression, muscle pain, joint ache, insomnia....hey, could you loan me a few more coins?

We continue into the centre and find a colossal coliseum. We've just walked into gladiator times and if I close my eyes I can hear the thunderous cheers of the gathered crowd, the roar from the lions, and the clashing of steel sword on shield. After walking the circumference we continue along a narrow street and grab croissants and coffee from a small bakery where we practice our French (we've lost our human translators...) with a lovely Lebanese boy and his father. In an ancient building just off the main squares is a free photography exhibition so we browse through and enjoy interesting prints of bulls, boobs, and old men.

Back on the toll motorway I am once again impressed by French sensibility. The toll road is expensive, but the three lane roadway is immaculate and the posted speed limit for most parts is 130 kph, or 110 if the weather is poor. This makes sense as the road is designed to handle these speeds. Compare this to the stupidity in Ontario. The 407 toll road is an immaculate three lane roadway. The posted speed limit is 100 kph at all times. People typically drive from 120-130 and simply take the chance on getting a speeding ticket, which the police often do at random times. This is such stupidity. We set our speed limits artificially low on nearly every roadway in Canada - roads that were designed to handle higher speeds. Everybody speeds, because your senses are telling you to go faster. Why do we do this? Why can't we get something as simple as speed limits right? Even worse, we design roads in residential neighbourhood far too wide, which induces high speeds. The residential and urban roads in France are tiny - you wouldn't dream of driving fast so they don't even need to post speed limits. Every single posted speed limit I've seen in France has made perfect sense to me.

Our next stop is Frejus, a town that's barely mentioned in the two guidebooks we have, but it's coastal and looks to have a sizeable marina. Well, the marina is big and it's awesome. The docks are open so we wander up and down, getting an up close view of the many boats. I'm intrigued by what's called the Mediterranean docking system where there are no finger piers so everybody backs in and use aft gangplanks to reach the dock. The front of the boat is held in place by lines that are anchored to the seabed and inflatable fenders between all the boats keep them locked together in place.

We enjoy a nice lunch at a dockside restaurant, noticing that everybody here is French and we haven't heard any other languages being spoken. I imagine us sailing our boat to the Mediterranean and docking here for a few nights. It's possible.

It's just getting dark when we reach our final destination - Nice. And yes, it is nice. Our Air B&B is small and efficient with its pull out couch, balcony just large enough for two people and a small bistro table, and a miniature kitchen that has everything we need for light meals (breakfast).

It's time to do some evening exploring. The city is alive with lights and people. We walk past admiring the yachts docked in the marina. I look up Kaiser, a massive motor yacht docked with uniformed crew still busy cleaning. It's a luxury charter vessel, owned by a Russian oligarch and it rents for just over half a million euro per week (plus expenses) for you and 11 of your closest henchmen.

Our walk takes us past the marina and we find a massive rock mountain with a war memorial carved into it, brilliantly lighted, overlooking the sea. From here we see the main centre of Nice -  a long stretch of lighted wonders along a wide pedestrian walkway and a beach. The view is simply stunning, unreal, magical. We walk down the hill and into the frenzy and find thousands of cool people, most of them young, walking the boardwalk and, one street in, packed into the patios of the outdoor restaurants.

Now, if you were to sit down at a restaurant called "Mama Mia's" on the main tourist street, with dozens of other tourists, in any other city or country in the world, the food would be CRAP. I know. We've done this a few times. It usually sucks, but you're just there for the atmosphere so you don't mind too much, you tolerate the food, and just focus on the place. We order a pizza to share, and it's simply delicious. It seems nearly impossible to find a bad meal here, which is a real testament to the French dedication to quality. We enjoy our pizza, our drinks, and watch the fine looking French folks passing back and forth. This is a great place.

At whatever time it is, we walk back to our apartment and Ana spots a rat along the way which sends her into terror spasms. I try to get close to it so I can give it a little pat on the head but no dice, he's already slipped down into the spacious sewers.

Tomorrow, we explore Nice in the daylight.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

France 2023 - Bullfights and Ramparts

Before we arrived in France, I was curious if Michael and Anna had been learning any French. I didn't remember them ever mentioning it before, so I had assumed they were getting by with hand signals, a smile, and translation apps where required. What they've actually been doing is intensive Duolingo daily training, speaking to people as much as possible, and immersing themselves in the local community and culture. We were both very impressed with their language skills. Neither Ana nor I speak French, but I do know most of the words commonly found on the French side of cereal boxes. It is a little embarrassing being Canadian and not speaking French, but I'll blame Quebec politics for that and their perpetual assaults on the English language and English speaking Canadians. Language in Canada is a war, not a celebration and it's a shame. Spending this time in France has reintroduced me to a beautiful language spoken by kind and helpful people and I hope to improve on my ability to speak it in the future. Oh, one note to Quebec - in France their stop signs say "Stop" and not "Arret", so that visitors can understand them. It's what good hosts do.

Aigues-Mortes is our destination for today and is a seaside walled city know primarily for its pink salt marshes. You may well have consumed salt that was produced here.

We pull the VW into a sea of cars parked in a field and see a big stadium set up outside the city walls. There's definitely something going on here today. As we walk towards the city entrance we hear the crackle of voice on a loudspeaker mentioning the word "taureau" which can only mean a bullfight! Michael and Anna tell us that this region of France is also known for its cowboy/bullfighting/horse culture.

Surprisingly, I'm able to slip between the bars of the steel gate into the rodeo circle. Inside is a centre area encircled by a steel fence with two separate piles of stacked up hay bales - refuge for the dozens of blue-jean wearing teenagers mulling around. Around the outside are wooden barriers with bleacher seats built on top of those. There is maybe twenty feet between the fence and exterior creating an open path around the track where one could race go-karts, but in this case I'm imagining a thousand pound bull running here, stomping teenagers or flipping them into the bleachers. This is going to be fun.

There's not much going on here yet so we walk into the town. The walls are massive and the town walls look to be perfectly rectangular with huge turrets on each corner. The perimeter probably runs a mile or so and it looks like you can walk the entire span on the ramparts.

We turn our attention to the town and begin our wanderings. We find ancient buildings, narrow passageways, and dozens and dozens of shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes. I buy a lovely white long-sleeved shirt and a small bag of nougat, which not only tastes good but is also one of my favourite words. Ana picks up a scarf and some jewelry. We meet up with Anna and Michael for our 12:30 lunch reservation in the main town square which is jammed with people. There is a marching band playing Spanish sounding songs as revelers flush with wine and beer watch on. A band fires up on a stage and their ambitious setlist far surpasses the vocal ability of the singer, but she gives it her best. A crew of local hooligans swarm a few tables near the front of the stage and have brought their own bottles of Coke and rum and are mixing thick ones as they light off brightly coloured smoke bombs near the stage, obscuring everything and creating a horrible stink. We drink pastis and wine and eat shrimp, bull stew, bull fillet, oysters, soup, and fish as we enjoy the festival atmosphere. We see a single man with a bottle of champagne, dining on the seafood feast for two, piled high on a platter with crab, shrimp, fish, and oysters and we speculate on his story. Inheritance? Recent divorce? Rich bachelor? Or did he perhaps steal one of the An(n)s's credit cards an hour ago? In any case, he enjoys his lunch as do we.

We buy our tickets for the rampart tour and climb the stairs. From here we can see the pink sea marshes in the distance with mountains of fine white salt piled up on the shoreline near the production facility. There are information displays in the various towers we pass through and we learn the history of this structure. Construction began in 1272 and the walls have stood since then. The ground on which we walk has a small drainage channel carved into it and I imagine what what have flowed through these in the middle ages - blood, piss, shit, and rainwater to wash it all out and down to the ground. We soon reach the part of the wall looking down on the bullfighting ground and each claim a gap in the rampart for optimal viewing.

In a stroke of luck, the event starts shortly after our arrival and a bull is set free in the stadium. He is pissed off! He gallops several loops around the outside track, taking runs at the people who taunt him by running close to him and trying to grab one of ribbons attached to his horns. He gets close a couple of times but the experienced kids always manage to leap onto the bleachers and hoist themselves up, just out of his reach. With no success on the outside track, the bull leaps the fence and lands in the inside area then chases a teenager around until he jumps to the safety of the hay bales. Not so fast kid - the bull rams himself into the stack and sends kids flying. A gasp erupts from the crowd, then cheering. Soon, that bull tires and another one is sent out in his place. He is bigger and meaner and is looking for somebody to stomp. He does the cartoon bull move where he lowers his head and drags his front hooves through the dust, snorting and grunting. One ambitious bullfighter runs across the field, hoping to snag a ribbon, but he trips and the bull tries to spear him with his horns, but misses and instead just tramples him, earning a loud reaction from the crowd. I'm not sure if they are cheering for the kids or the bull, but I'm for the bull mashing up his aggravators.

This is great fun and we look at each other across the rampart gaps frequently, laughing, in awe of what we're seeing. We see several more close calls, another successful ribbon snag, and one final teen stomping then decide to move on and complete the circumnavigation of the mighty wall.

Back at Chateau Olson, apero is served on the back deck and we are bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun which creates a beautiful hue on the stone walls. Michael sends up his drone and catches a magnificent panorama of us and our French habitation.

We enjoy a simple and delicious dinner of burgers and coleslaw then move into the fireplace room for a final magical evening with our hosts. Anna and I play a game of chess. We all snack. The conversation flows as we laugh and joke. Ana tells us of the recent migration of American ex-pats to the Azores and how they can't find anywhere to get their eyelashes done. Fools! Portuguese ladies spent most of their waking hours removing hair from their faces, not adding to it, as any man married to a sumptuous southern European beauty can attest to.

Our last evening with Anna and Michael is perfect and caps off an amazing five days with them. Tomorrow, we begin phase 3 of the trip - driving a rental car across the south of France. I wonder what will happen next?

Friday, October 20, 2023

France 2023 - Sommieres, Horsemeat, and Hooking up Justin Trudeau

Michael and I begin the day by sharing Instagram fart videos. He finds the Top 10 Baby Farts and I laugh so hard that I decide to forego my morning routine of 1000 crunches, 600 situps, and 45 minutes of side planks becuase my abs already feel sufficiently exercised.

We only have two days left here so I find some suitable writing paper (napkin) and put together my To-Do list. We have a lot to accomplish, but with the right level of determination and fortitude I think we might have a chance.

Our daily van adventure takes us to the town of Quissac, but the restaurant Anna and Michael wanted to take us to was closed. The French are awesome, if they want to go on vacation they just tape a sign to their shop window saying CLOSED and take off. They do not feel the need to be open 16 hours per day and 365 days per year. I was a little sad, though. I've been looking around for horsemeat and Michael thought they might have it on the menu here. I've never much liked horses, but think if a portion of a horse were to be mixed with exciting spices and encased in pig intestines then put into a freshly cooked bun and sprinkled with dried onions then layered with mustard and mayonnaise, then I could see myself converting into a horse lover, like almost immediately.

We continue onto Sommieres, a standard-issue medieval walled city and notice the recent rainfall has swelled the river and is nearly overflowing the sidewalks that run beside it and has drowned out trees and plants that were happily growing in the parched riverbed just yesterday. The level of rainfall we've received over the past two nights is very unusual for this region and happens very infrequently.

Sommieres is incredible and I feel like I'm in Game of Thrones, except I'm a shit sword fighter and I don't have that classy English accent. So instead of strutting around looking all mean and kicking ass on serfs, I instead just take a few pictures, say "Bonjour" to everybody I pass, and try to focus on the small details. For example I notice a poster of a giant ear at a tattoo/piercing shop that identifies all the possible pierce points so you could load up your head with dangling iron and look real badass. Further down the street I see a real cool sign above a shop that says "Boucherie Chevaline" and has horsehead icons. Wait a minute, I say to myself, that's a horsemeat butcher! Happy days! I do a little jig on the street and walk in, but all I see are handbags, cute outfits, and fancy shoes - no horse sausage, no filet du horse, no horse muffins, no horse dogs, no horse pastrami, not even a single pot of horse pate. I am devastated. I look to the shop owner, point to the sign and, in French, say, "What the fuh?"

She goes into this long winded story which I presume is about the history of horse butchery, the town's history, how her great grandfather's great grandfather was the original Sommiers horse butcher, and how he passed down the skills, tools, and stomach required for slicing up horses to his son, then that cascaded down the generations a few times and finally the last horse skewering patriarch in her family fell in love with a long legged but deadbeat vegan from San Francisco and she convinced him to get out of the horse business and into fashion. And that, I think, is why you can no longer get horsemeat in this town.

Back at Chateau Olson, Ana and I make ourselves some non-horse sandwiches and sit out by the pool to enjoy the glorious sunshine which has returned. But soon the clouds roll back in so we agree on a second pool option and go inside, head to the lower level, and rack up the balls on the billiards table and shoot a game. This room is amazing - besides the pool table there is a second foosball table, the door to the wine cellar, and a bunch of cool posters hanging on the wall. One is a signed picture of Pele shaking hands with an inferior opponent. There is a gold record by Madonna and a sexy picture, signed by the Material Girl herself. It's the ultimate dude quarters.

One of the items on my list is to eat a hot dog, so our immaculate hosts lead us up the medieval village hill to the Lookout Bar which is run by the most gentlemanly Frenchman you could imagine, and his partner who is an author. The only thing more amazing than the unobscured view over the countryside is the hot dog gratin. It is served in a soft bun and has been sprinkled with cheese then speed  baked to crisp it up, and weaved on top are alternating strings of Dijon and mayonnaise. I didn't ask if it was a pork or horse wiener, but it was so good it must have been horse. We clank wine and beer glasses together and cheers to this magnificent moment in France.

Back at the Chateau, Michael and I get to work in the kitchen. This is hallowed ground for Anna and Michael and not just anybody gets to wield a knife, so I feel most fortunate. I am tasked with washing and cutting beans, dicing an onion, and peeling some shrimp. Michael shows me a little trick for making a sauce with the shrimp peels, stock, and butter cubes and I take mental notes. Like the greatest kung fu master who, with unfathomable generosity, may offer a slight nod to an exceptional student, Michael tells me the onion is well diced. I feel like I'm ready to go pro.

We reposition to the poolside grill and get lubed up with 25 centilitre Kronenbourg infant beers as Michael cooks up a wallop of sausages and wild mushrooms.

"I'm not sure if I'm ready for dinner, still quite full from before," Ana says.

Michael looks up from the grill, confused. "This isn't dinner, this is for apero."

"I thought apero was that food we ate at the lookout bar," she replies.

"ARE YOU NEW HERE?" he shoots back, to uproarious laughter from Anna and me. "That was post-lunch snacks."

Sure enough we apero right there on the patio, jabbing toothpicks into the mushrooms and sausage pieces, sipping on our wines and beers. The temperature is rapidly cooling but the conversation is heating up so we head back inside.

"So who is Justin Trudeau going to hook up with?" asks Anna.

"His relationship with Sophie was cheesy and corny. So he needs somebody with less cheese and less corn," I say.

"Jacinda Arden, the ex-prime minister from New Zealand. She's straight up, no cheese, no corn, just results," says Michael.

"No good, she's married," says Ana. "What about Amanda Marshall?"

"Oooh, good one!" says Anna. "I met her once, she's really nice. She said she liked my cookies."

"Who doesn't? OK, but only one problem. She's not French. Trudeau is totally French. He can't even speak English properly. He needs a Quebecois," I say.


"Celine Dion!"

"Jan Arden!"

"Alannah Myles!"

"Nelly Furtado!"

"Buffy St. Marie!"

"Hold it!" Michael says. "Now you're all just naming every Canadian female musician you can think of. Nelly Furtado isn't French, neither is Alannah Myles or Buffy. And they wouldn't like him anyway."

"I've got it! I know who!" I say.


"Tegan. And Sara."

"This is going nowhere," says Ana. "He'll probably just start dating Chrystia Freeland."

"Why would she date him? She's a genius and probably already has like five plots in motion to get rid of him so she can take over," says Anna.

"Maybe he can find a nice girl in India?" I suggest.

"He's banned from India!" says Anna.

"This is tough," says Michael. "Kris, let's go outside and cook up the shrimp and fish while the girls sort this Trudeau thing out."

The plancha is still hot so Michael tosses the seafood on it while I hold up the bar. We pound back about 6 baby beers while the food sizzles, and soon we are back inside and sitting around the table with a magnificent spread and, of course, the wine selections for the evening.

I find myself in our room hours later after yet another fantastic evening. I challenge Ana to another foosball game. She agrees, but again, only up to 1 goal. We line up, I drop in the ball, and it rolls right into my goal.

Lights out.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

France 2023 - Hypermarkets, Wine Tastings, and Unsupported Breasts

We wake up at the ungodly, but somehow appropriate hour of 9am. I think I have given up on my regular early morning routine for this trip as it's simply not working out. It's a fine trade off for these late night, magical evenings.

I start the day with a morning swim and the pool water has been chilled by last night's downpour. It is refreshing beyond belief.

After a leisurely breakfast, we meet Mark the property manager, who lives in a separate apartment within the house. He is a cool guy and speaks perfect English. He's there to let the cleaners in and they appear to be a local couple, and attack the cleaning job with vigour, moving rapidly from room to room with rags, vacuums, mops, and spray bottles. We do our best to keep out of their way.

Michael warms up the leftover veal from the first day and we have lunch before leaving for today's day trip to Ales, a nearby town north of here less than ten kilometres. There, we are welcomed by a canopy of braziers that have been hung on wires above the bridge for breast cancer awareness. I expect there are a lot of unsupported breasts in this town.

The two An(n)as head to the pharmacy, renowned for its English speaking pharmacist and vast selection of herbal remedies for things like menopause and skin glitches and other afflictions that men don't understand. Michael and I just wander around the centre shopping area looking at fancy hats.

We swing by a hypermarket to pick up a few supplies. Ana and I always enjoy going to supermarkets in other countries as we always see items that would be huge hit in Canada, but are not available. Here, we find several examples - containers of chopped up cubes of back bacon (perfect for adding as flavouring to meals), small packages of preserved mini sausages (meat snack to go with your bag of chips), boxes of 25 cl mini-beers (good for Tuesday evenings), and a half dozen varieties of pate (delicious anytime).

Once back at the chateau, Ana and I head out for a walk into town and climb up and down some new streets. The town is again eerily quiet and we feel like we are the only ones here. We find a lovely forest path on the way down and walk through a section of woods then pop out near the bakery. We go in, have a chat with the lovely lady working the counter, and pick up tonight's baguette. I notice a small menu that lists hot dog so I try to order one but we are told they are only available from 7am to 1pm, so instead we share a piece of pizza and an orange Fanta. We feel so French.

When we return home we have a rousing game of poolside ping pong and Ana wins, but it was close. She's also been beating me at foosball. I am challenging her to a game before bed every night, but she only agrees to play up to one goal. So far, every time I've dropped the ball in, it just rolls slowly into my goal without any contact, but she is a good winner and doesn't rub it in.

Anna and Michael have prepared an amazing roast chicken and vegetables for dinner so we sit down at the table for our meal, after the mandatory apero snacking session of course. Meals at Chateau Olson are always accompanied by wine, and not just one bottle. They carefully select the best wines to accompany each dish and we have tastings so we can compare them and learn a bit more about wine. The variety of wine here is staggering and you can buy it anywhere. Ana and I are the furthest thing from wine connoisseurs and I compare our evening wine tastings to television shopping. TVs viewed on their own all look fantastic. But when you go TV shopping and see all these TVs lined up beside each other, you can spot small differences, and the smart assed TV salesperson will talk you into the most expensive one, but you probably would have been pretty happy with a cheaper basic model. For me, every glass of wine I've had here has been amazing, from the 5 euro bottles to the undoubtedly scary expensive ones Michael or Anna have been pulling out. Maybe I'm just easy to please.