An Appalachian almost in Paris

IMG_2539My wife tells me she has booked a flight for four to visit Paris, France, not Texas, although I understand that France is Texas-sized. She’s looking to make family memories before our two girls go off to college, and she hopes that those memories will occur during a two-week Parisian summer vacation. For some reason, I had a different set of memories on the dock. I’d always dreamed of renting an RV and taking the all-American Tour de West, exploring the unspoiled wilds of America, checking out our great North American National Parks system, and sampling some Americana.

It’s true. I’ve never stepped around Old Faithful at Yellowstone, the Four Corners, the four famous presidents on Mount Rushmore, or the harrowing cliffs of El Capitan at Yosemite. Nor have I kicked up dust at the edge of the Grand Canyon or winded myself chasing a mountain goat across the icecaps of Glacier National Park. And I would like to, should this morning’s gas prices hold steady, bathe in the mineral hot springs at Olympic National Park, drive through a giant sequoia on the road to Kings Canyon, and explore the Pueblo dwellings at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Oft have I dreamed that along the way, in our rented motorhome, my family might drop in on a few famous American cities and sites too. I’ve been hankering to scale the Saarinen arch in St. Louis since my days of architecture school, ride the public transportation in Portland since the rest of the country started flocking to Portland, and the natives had to start working hard to keep the place weird. I’ve also been winding up to thread Seattle’s Space Needle. My dad visited there on a business trip when I was a boy and brought home a pen with a floating needle inside. I lost the pen but believe it’s time to replace it.

I also don’t want to miss out on the real America either: a hot day in Texas at the Cadillac Ranch, a steamboat cruise along Twain’s Mississippi, or a bowl-full of gumbo in the French quarter. But it appears I have to settle for the Arch de Triomphe, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and a bowl of French Onion Soup at Le Saint-Germain on la rue Cambon.

There were long days, even years, in the 1990s when I did not have a family or even a girlfriend, when I pictured myself living hungry and lean in the City of Lights. I had a newly minted architecture degree, I’d heard the trains of Europe were excellent, and my wanderlust was easily excited by the crinkle of unfolding maps. One afternoon, a pair of college friends phoned from Montmartre and suggested I fly over for a visit. I might have taken the expatriate plunge, gone for a week, stayed for a twenty-year stretch. If not a job in an architecture firm, I pictured myself working as a waiter, eating baguettes and brie, living in a sleeping bag somewhere along the Seine, and writing my first collection of sensitive and obtuse poems.

But I have always been slow on the uptake, unable to make decisions or take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. I missed both the airliner and freighter of those years and turned down my chance to break bread with my bohemian architecture brethren. I kept rooms in Baltimore, where it seemed essential to share my disenchantment about post-modern architecture with my apartment walls and keep tabs on the evolution of Batman movies and grunge rock. I did, however, manage to catch Edie Brickell and her New Bohemians at Hammerjacks one weekend between hose downs at a wet t-shirt contest.

A few weeks from now, I will be strolling the boulevards and wandering the arrondissements of Paris. The ghosts of my long-dead artistic heroes will populate my imagination, and I’ll be bumping elbows with a boho-mania that’s long past. Haussmann and his grand plan may guide me; Le Corbusier may alert me to the purities and impurities of the cubist galleries; and Hemingway, Pound, and Fitzgerald will probably burp in the shadows, sharing cocktails and exchanging sucker punches. But most likely there will be the ghosts of those stuffy Impressionist painters who have been a smudge in my subconscious since boyhood when my eyes crossed Monet’s Japanese Footbridge at the National Gallery in Washington D.C..

In the midst of my indoor Parisian museum sneezing and inexpert tourist rubbernecking, I’m sure to see some American millennial wearing a white long-sleeved button down beneath a threadbare black blazer. His grandfather’s frayed hat band may still hold a red feather. I will envy him the time he has to spend propping himself up on a bridge abutment, envy the time he has to hold his sketchbook and fountain pen before him and converse with reedy Parisian girls as they peer over his elbow and declare, “Vous devez être un artiste!” Oh, how I would like to dilly dally there, spend all day with an eye to the proportions of Notre Dame, nibbling bread, and offering my chardonnay to Juliette Binoche’s niece!

By touring France instead of the American west, our family will miss out on one of our country’s many natural wonders: The Colorado River about 50 miles from where it empties into the Gulf of California.

By touring France instead of the American west, our family will miss out on one of our country’s many natural wonders: The Colorado River about 50 miles from where it empties into the Gulf of California.

“Daaaad,” my daughters will say, interrupting my reverie, “why did you wear that threadbare black blazer? And is that great grandpa’s hat with the red feather or did you buy that at the Value Village back in Baltimore? We’re bored. Can we stop walking through these seedy neighborhoods? What are you looking for anyhow? We should see Versailles. According to our map, Paris Disney is only a few subway stops in the same direction.”

Don’t get me wrong. My girls are not insensitive to their father’s interests and addictions. They know me. They know I’m a regular off-beat, late-boomer, coffee junky. They sympathize, and I imagine that during their engagement with Frommer’s online, they will have come across the names of a few famous cafes, and they will insist that we sit down for some café au lait.

And there I will sit, legs crossed at the knees, exhaling smoke from my phantom Gauloises Brune, hoping like mad that adjacent to our table, this generation’s Simone de Beauvoir will vigorously debate existentialism with her companion, Jean-Paul Sartre. And I will scoff at the American tourists in the more touristy parts of town as they rush to complete their checklists: Eiffel Tower, check; Musée d’Orsay, check; Moulin Rouge, check. Never mind how irked I am that my café au lait costs three times its value in any Baltimore Starbucks, albeit a Starbucks with no literary names attached, just stenciled illustrations of the Lost Generation on wallpaper.

But I must ask, is this the memory I want to leave my girls? Dad, the detached American in Paris, living out an imitation of his poodle-eaten bohemian fantasy?  Dad, struggling hard to find the offbeat, the authentic, the free-thinking Paris while his wife and daughters wonder, “what’s up?” No, why deny what lingers on the precipice, why hold back my inner Appalachian? Why not admit to my obvious displacement?

Then it will be time. It will be time to dispense with my secondhand bohemianism, toss away my keffiyeh, and get on with expressing my redneck. I’ll pull on my cargo shorts, pull over my Virginia Tech Hokie t-shirt, strap on my Under Armour trainers, and do what any USAnian in France would do: Get to seeing the real tourist sights. Because what is a vacation good for if you’re unable to return home, stand around a water cooler, and converse about the common attractions, as you would about last night’s television event?

“It’s not my fault being the biggest and the strongest,” Andre the Giant once said, perhaps expressing the sentiments of so many American tourists in France, “I don’t even exercise!”

After some internet research, I see that the McRent Station in Paris offers a 9-day campervan rental for around $1000. Thankfully, because I have already overcome my inhibitions about revealing an inner hillbilly while still here at home, I will have arrived in France with two flags stashed in my suitcase: one star spangled, one Marylander. Upon acquiring our campervan, I will rivet one flag to each side, softening the impressionistic French light that shines into our RV’s interior breakfast nook. Once done, we’ll trek over to Carrefore, France’s own Wal-Mart-like superstore, and stock up on bulk croissants and cheese blocks before hitting the autoroute.

Although known as “l’ hexagone,” and home country to grid masters like Rene Descartes and Washington D.C. planner, Pierre L’Enfant, France, as I’ve observed on many a map, suffers from a lack of highway or “autoroute” system efficiency. While we Americans enjoy a highway system replete with north-south, east-west, cross-country routes—not to mention big city bypasses and beltways—the French seem to prefer an archaic system of urban nodes that taper into the provinces on radial spokes. It’s a system design that we Americans abandoned once the era of cooperative and profitable train travel ended. But leave it to the old-fashioned, laid back, and dare I say socialistic, French, to retain this model for their superhighways.

Given these transportation limitations, and the prevalence of expensive toll roads everywhere, I’ve consulted the Michelin guide and have attempted to design an itinerary that allows our family to take in as much of the country as we can. Aided by pushpins, I’ve done my best to map out a round trip that sets out from Charles De Gaulle Airport and touches on a few of the nation’s 20-some regions, sampling not only Paris but the West Coast Atlantic, South Pyrenees, Riviera, and Eastern Alps. Along the way, we’ll also be giving the nod to the French provincials and envisaging the country’s natural beauty.

After a few hours driving Paris, I’m thinking we make a brief run at Paris Disney, if not to brunch with Cinderella, then at least to see what was in 1992 the largest parking lot in Europe! From there we’ll pick things up and head northeast of the city on A1, l’autoroute du Nord, to Parc Astérix where my favorite Celtic cartoon characters, Asterix and Obelix, fend off the invading Romans alongside roller coasters and log flumes. Time then for a rendezvous with WWII, cruising along the A13, l’autoroute de Normandie, and landing our campervan on Omaha Beach before dining on moule et frites at D-Day House.

Back on the road, we’ll journey south on autoroute A10, L’Aquitaine, to Parc de Futuroscope near Poitiers, strapping on 3D glasses and making time in a time machine. The Futurescope park hosts Quebec’s own Cirque du Soleil, and their show “La Forge aux étoiles” is said to be “fabuleux!” If we miss the Cirque, we can drop in at adjacent Puy du Fou, a park where vacationers stare agog as King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable hover above an enchanted lake and discuss “la quête.”

Should the Renaissance be more to our tastes, du Fou allows us to tour a Renaissance château guided by costumed kings and queens. Or we might opt for more recent history, completing our time travel adventure by taking in “Lovers of Verdun,” a show featuring WWI trench life that has been awarded, “Best Original Creation.”

From Puy du Fou, it’ll be time to ramble south towards the Pyrenees. National Park-starved Americans, like I’m sure to be in France, should know that the Franks count 10 national parks, 49 regional natural parks, and 7 marine natural parks, the more popular parks of which seem to be spaced across the southern and eastern regions of the Pyrenees, Mediterranean, and alps. More so, Americans will be pleased to hear that for no more than $10 to $15 per night, a campervan can get a hook up, which sure beats heck out of apartment rentals or the cost for a one night bed and breakfast.

As we head toward the Pyrenees, we’ll also be sure to stop at the replica of the Lascaux Cave near Dordogne. Whether or not the attraction offers, I am hoping to witness a demonstration of Paleolithic men, or women, blowing iron and manganese-compound pigments from their cheeks, through tubes, and onto an overhead rock that’s already decorated with frolicking horses, deer, and oxen.

With our journey half over, we’ll probably have to skip stops in Provence, the French Riviera, and the casinos of Monte Carlo. But I’ve seen most of Grace Kelly’s better films, and the RV comes with a DVD player if the girls want to catch up to me on Kelly. Also, should I get the itch to gamble, I know that here in the states, bargain bus trips to Atlantic City are only a few New Jersey Turnpike exits away. And considering the potential cultural shock to our daughter’s psyches, it’s probably best to leave the topless beaches of the Côte d’Azur to the continentals. We’ll sober ourselves instead with some Gothic cathedral gawking. We Appalachian USAnians can tolerate only so much “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

Outside of Paris, in Poissy, we might stop at Mirče Mladenov’s re-envisioned renovation of Le Corbusier’s modestly modern Villa Savoy.

Outside of Paris, in Poissy, we might stop at Mirče Mladenov’s re-envisioned renovation of Le Corbusier’s modestly modern Villa Savoy.

Returning north, we’ll be ready for more urban adventures and a stop in Grenoble, a city set against the alps, and site of the Xth Olympiad. While our comprehensive journey through the French countryside should take us past a few of France’s 64 nuclear reactors, Grenoble boasts examples of the French nation’s more traditional industries. Here we can take comfort in familiar brand names like Hewlett Packard, Becton Dickinson, Caterpillar, Carrefour (sort of), and the semiconductor multinational, STMicroelectronics. There might even be time for a factory tour! And Grenoble, as most WWF fans know, is also birthplace of the legendary Andre the Giant. “It’s not my fault being the biggest and the strongest,” Andre once said, perhaps expressing the sentiments of so many American tourists in France, “I don’t even exercise!”

Further up the A6, or “Autoroute du Soleil,” we might drop in at Dijon to pick up some condiments, but it’s likely that we can purchase most gastronomic delicacies duty free at the De Gaulle Airport terminal, so we’ll pass. Besides, we don’t want to miss the opportunity to cap off our RV excursion by easing up on the pedal and taking one last dip into the City of Lights. After a quick internet search, I’m thinking we’ll call on a physician, request a physical, and take advantage of those discount rates that the French offer Americans for healthcare.

To wind up, what would a trip to France be without sampling a few of the country’s most notable beverages? It’s well-known that France lies in a direct line between the hoppy lands of Belgium and the Czech Republic. Within a short RV drive from the Arch de Triomphe, I have pushed my pushpins into a number of landmark microbreweries. This emergent market in libation is said to be gaining a solid following among the more progressive Parisians, French beers claiming their own unique flavors distinctive from brews in Belgium and Germany. Even as I blog, I can Futurescope a cold French bock lifted to my lips and savor hints of Alsatian peat-smoke and citrus.

While the wife and I quaff our drafts and contemplate a stop at Mickey D’s to pick up one last Royale with Cheese, I’ll ask our girls to de-rivet the American and Maryland flags from either side of our campervan. Then reverently, patriotically, winsomely, the girls will stretch and fold “les couleurs,” tucking them away into our suitcases, at which time Joan and I will finally be able to cozy up together, imagining how each girl will keep one flag as a souvenir, Corinne the Marylander, Cecilia the USAnian. And one day, each girl will hang her respective banner on her respective college dorm room wall, recalling our autoroutes, our amusements, our Carrefours, and our physicals.

“Trop belle,” Joan will observe, breathless after a second or third quaff of her French IPA. “Trop belle.”

“Oui.” I will add. “Oui.”

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