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.
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.