Monthly Archives: November 2014

Lessons in French – Part 2

Although there are far worse things in life than becoming lost while on a drive with friends through the French countryside, we were all tired and ready to stop for lunch. So Laurel, on a hunger-fueled navigational mission, studied the map and confidently led us back to the main road. Paul then pointed our little rental car northwest, in the general direction of Bordeaux and the Château de Montaigne.

We drove through green valleys dotted with grapevines and patches of forest, and soon came to a market village called Duras. As we followed along the road that skirted the town, we passed the impressive Château de Duras on our left. We then spotted a sign for Office du Tourisme, so Paul quickly found a place to park and we hurried over. We were relieved to find that the office was still open, and not yet closed for the midday break.

The large room was bright and full of colorful maps and brochures lined up along the walls. Neither of the young people working there spoke English, but much to our delight, a woman I hadn’t noticed when we walked in started talking to us. Though her English was filtered through a French accent, hearing our own language spoken while in a foreign country was like running into an old friend.

The woman had graying hair and an easy smile, and seemed to be waiting just for us. After we got a detailed map of the area, as well as a brochure about the Château de Montaigne, we asked the woman if she knew of a good place to eat. She said she did, and started to explain how to get there, but then changed her mind and instead decided to show us. So we walked together, in the heat of the day, zigzagging our way up narrow lanes framed by weathered buildings, and eventually entered a pizzeria called Don Camillo.

Don Camillo Pizzeria, Duras, France

We thanked the woman for her kindness, but she wasn’t done with us yet, so we followed her through a couple of mostly empty dining rooms to the back of the restaurant, and out onto a shady eating area. We stood with her for a moment, looking at all of the crowded white tables, thinking we’d be in for a bit of a wait. But almost immediately another woman approached us and warmly greeted our guide. We were introduced, and then we said our good-byes to the lovely French woman. As we took our seats, we were kind of stunned at what just happened.

Despite the heat, I ordered a pizza as well as my usual coffee with cream and sugar, café crème avec sucre. As we waited for our orders, we spread out the map and determined that we were still about 40 kilometers from Montaigne’s château. It was hard to gauge how long it would take us to get there, as I had learned soon after arriving in France, what looked like a short distance on a map could easily turn into a very long drive in the French countryside.

Just as I was marveling at the fact that I was really here, in the south of France, about to walk through Michel de Montaigne’s tower and library, two light-colored cats suddenly appeared at our feet. They looked us over, perhaps having heard me order something with “crème.” They might have also pegged us as tourists and therefore easy marks for handouts.

After their greeting, our feline freeloaders strolled over to a shady area and plopped down on the cool cement to watch us and wait for their meal. I might have imagined it, but they seemed to be purring to each other in French, and I wondered if they were talking about us. This thought struck me as perfectly appropriate, considering our destination for the day was the home of a 16th century cat lover who had mused, “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”

Once our meals arrived, I noticed that my café already had the crème blended in. The cats must have realized this and soon disappeared, without even an au revoir. Maybe they weren’t looking for a free meal after all, I thought, but had merely stopped by to welcome us. Anyway, after a delicious lunch and a relaxing walk back to the car, we were again on our way.

Michel de Montaigne



Afternoon Dust Bath at Chateau de Montaigne

Dust Bath at Chateau de Montaigne

From: Michel de Montaigne

He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”

– Michel de Montaigne, “The Complete Essays”

Tower of Michel de Montaigne

In the Courtyard of Chateau Michel de Montaigne

Courtyard of Chateau Michel de Montaigne

Lessons in French – Part 1

It was already hot as we set off from our gite in Verdun-sur-Garonne, in the south of France. Paul was driving, with Laurel sitting next to him. As the navigator, Laurel was constantly looking down at the map spread out on her lap. Each roundabout brought on a few anxious seconds of, “Okay, let’s see, do we turn here? No not yet, it’s the next one.”  There seemed to be a lot of roundabouts, and as we approached each one I wished, mostly for Laurel’s sake, that we’d paid the extra euros for a rental car with GPS.

I lounged in the backseat, behind all the navigating going on up front. I had the luxury of doing absolutely nothing but relaxing and looking out the windows and taking in the views. I was quiet as I listened to their back and forth marriage dance, and remembered my own from long ago. I was both happy that I didn’t know it anymore and a little sad that I didn’t know it anymore.

I stared out the windows as we passed meadows and pasturelands, and fields of tired sunflowers, their faces now drooping in the sun. I studied the leafy forests, with their narrow trunks lined up in symmetrical rows. As the morning moved on, the landscape slowly gave way to grapevines and vineyards as we made our way to Château de Montaigne, home of philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne.

Chateau Michel de Montaigne

At some point, as we were winding our way along the back-roads through gently rolling hills, we realized we were lost and should probably ask for help. The same thing had happened a couple of days ago, when we were on our way to Albi to visit the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. On that day Laurel said she would ask directions from a utility worker we had just passed on a small country road. So as Paul and I waited in the car, Laurel grabbed her map and jumped out and approached the man.

When she got back she described him as having dreadlocks and a sharp piercing right below his lip. She said that when she asked him if he spoke English, “Parlez-vous anglais, Monsieur?” he replied, “A leetle.” He then showed her on the map how to get back to the main road. She said he was really friendly and seemed to enjoy practicing his English. Thinking back on it now, I’d say Laurel enjoyed the exchange as much as he did, and that if our rental car did have GPS, human interactions like this one would never happen.

I smiled as I thought of Laurel, and was impressed with her willingness to strike up conversations with strangers, in a language she barely knew. She seemed to like it, and maybe the other party did, too.

I thought about my own limited foreign vocabulary and my reluctance to use it. So far all I’d managed were a few basic phrases, certainly not extended conversations like Laurel. I was watching her, though. She always started with “Bonjour” and then politely asked the other party if they spoke English. Most of the time the answer would be a shy smile, a little shrug of the shoulders, and “un peu.”

That’s when both parties tentatively began their conversation, which consisted of a little English, a little French, and a lot of body language. Mutual smiling, confusion, nodding, gesturing, and understanding looks made for a successful connection.

Though I couldn’t know it then, these observations would prove useful to me in a few days, after we’d left our gite and flew to Paris and I found myself face-to-face with a thief.

But this day, in the peaceful French countryside, was for carefree adventures and gentle discoveries.