Town or country?
Looking at a trip to France, we struggled with the question. We're not big travelers, and we had saved four years for this excursion. Our sons are within spitting distance of going off to college, so we knew this would likely be our last big family vacation.
So: Town or country? As a restorative after a long Western New York winter, did we want the seductions of the big city or the good fresh air of the provinces? We decided to do both - a week in Paris, a week in Provence.
And the winner is - well, we'll get to that shortly.
* * *
Careening down the highway to Paris in the hotel shuttle, we saw three stopped cars in quick succession, and their drivers - men - relieving themselves against the retaining wall. So our first impression of the world's most cosmopolitan city was, uh, urological.
Our hotel was in the Bastille district, largely a garment district. There we saw: crazy drivers, lots of graffiti, lots of motorcycles, most everyone smoking and hardly anyone fat.
We also saw: Notre Dame, Saint-Chappelle, the Conciergerie, the Palais du Justice, the Sorbonne, the Musee de l'Armee, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Pont Neuf, the gardens of the Tuilleries, the Princess Diana memorial near the tunnel where she died, Napoleon's tomb, the Picasso museum.
We ate: duck, croque-monsieur (a kind of inside-out grilled cheese sandwich), French pizza, lapin (after the waiter helpfully made bunny ears by way of explanation), and American-style food, including pathetic wings, at the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, an earnest but ill-fated attempt to reproduce American culture. (At one point the waiters and waitresses stopped work and performed a line dance to some '50s "Grease"-style song. You wonder what the French think America is all about.)
We rode the excellent subway system continually and were reminded how public transportation can be the circulatory system of a great city.
We went to a Web cafe to send e-mail, and struggled with a keyboard whose letters were in unusual places. We bought some juggling clubs at a place called, humorously enough, Poupees Fantastiques. We saw the Eiffel Tower at night and marveled at its golden lace. The teenagers ogled slim stylish French girls; the parents pretended to be young lovers again.
We ducked occasional rain and huddled against temperatures in the 50s. April in Paris, we learned, is no sure thing.
You don't know fear until you've driven a Renault Espace minivan at 50 mph along the tortuous and narrow roads of Provence. Apparently the traffic engineers and the lawyers got together and decided it wasn't worth the bother to put guardrails along the hairpin turns that drop off to valleys on all sides. If you misjudge, at least you have the pastoral satisfaction of crashing among grapevines.
We stayed in a town of 300 called Sillans-la-Cascade ("doorstep of the waterfall," for a beautiful falls that's the town's main tourist attraction), about an hour out of Marseille if you don't get lost, which we of course did.
We went to market in nearby Cotignac, where we bought lettuce, tomatoes, an artichoke, asparagus, a toe ring, a snake charm and cut flowers (two bundles for the price of one; the vendor refused our offer of a few francs more). In Entrecasteaux, we soaked up the sunshine in a beautiful central park with mazelike hedges, beneath an old chateau.
We ate: trout with the heads still on; crayfish; pizza in a little restaurant where the dogs lay at their masters' feet and didn't even beg; and a four-star meal that involved fancy toasts with spreads for appetizer, bread, leg of pigeon, green pea soup ladled over raw green peas and radishes, pork (like ham hocks) as an entree with carrots, potatoes and onions, then dessert of an egg of ice cream trisected by flat sheets of chocolate, atop a little square of cake built on what turned out to be Sugar Smacks. Go figure.
We listened to dopey French pop music on the radio and watched "The Lost World," dubbed, on television. ("Mon dieu! Un dinosaur!")
And we climbed a sheer rock face in a Lake Placid-like town called Aiguines, in the Verdon Gorges area, with a guide named Philippe and three French kids. The author, still wrestling with his high school French, impressed Philippe by informing him that Buffalo gets 90 feet of snow each winter.
And lying in the sun with the smell of lavender in the air and the gentle hills of Provence around us, we thought about retiring to Sillans-la-Cascade.
So: Town or country?
The teenagers: Paris.
The grown-ups: Provence. By a country mile.