Friday, October 31, 2008

All Saints' Vacation--The Beginning

The first of my many French vacations has begun! While I write, I am sitting on the bed in a little country house in Provence, in a village called Port-le-Crau, outside of Arles. My partners in crime are watching CSI in French in the living room (in French, it’s called Les Experts) Sound idyllic? Just wait.

We left Saturday morning after a night of frantically searching the internet for lodging—the apartment we thought we had reserved was actually not available, so we had nowhere to stay for the entire week. At around nine Friday night, Isabel spoke with a woman about an apartment in Arles that was not available…When she asked if the woman knew of anything else in the area, or any other option, the woman suggested an apartment in her house outside of Arles. At a loss, we decided to take the apartment without ever seeing any pictures of it. I just hoped it didn’t have fleas. The owner seemed a little weird too; she was about to hang up the phone when Isabel asked if she wanted our names or telephone number. The woman seemed surprised, and said she had to go find a pencil.

The next morning we set off fairly early. Isabel had picked up the car the night before (which unfortunately only she can drive…For some reason automatic cars are much more expensive to rent in Europe, and I have never driven a stick) the night before, so we packed it up and headed out of Perpignan. The drive was pretty nice, along the water for a while and then through the countryside. I found out that you have to pay to use the freeways in France, so we stuck to the smaller ‘state’ routes. After a few brief stops (a city called Agde being the most memorable) we arrived in Arles around 2:30, and bided some time until we were able to go to the apartment. We visited a 10th century monastery called l’Abbaye de Montmajour, which was this great white stone structure a ways outside of Arles. It sits on top of a hill, and overlooks fields and vineyards, and basically Provence. It was amazing. The coolest thing about visiting these old places is that people actually used to be there. A thousand years ago, monks sat and prayed and lived and ate where I was. The place was kind of creepy at times, too, especially in the dark, unlighted places where they used to keep the relics. I always get so frustrated when visiting monuments, because it seems like there is always some place visitors are not allowed. There was a whole wing of the monastery under (re)construction, but we still got to see quite a bit anyway.

After visiting the monastery, we met the owner of the house outside of Arles. She led us to her home, along this tiny little road through fields and fields and past more fields. It really was in the country. Her property is lovely—she has an orchard of olive trees (the harvest of which begins tomorrow), and trees and plants and lots of birds in outdoor cages. The garden was beautiful, and the house was, too. The house is divided into three apartments, and we had the one on the bottom floor. We were all pleasantly surprised by the apartment. It was clean, and cute in a provincial (or should I say provencal) kind of way. The woman was very welcoming, and we settled in for the night. Although the kitchen lacked certain essential items (knives, for examples), and only one of the three stove elements worked, it turned out to be great.

Until we tried to wash the dishes. The warm (not hot, just warm) water was gone about 5 minutes into using it. Not a problem, though. I can take cold showers for a week. During the night, things got worse. I got up to go to the bathroom early in the morning, and tried to turn the light on. No go. The electricity was cut off throughout the entire apartment. Apparently this is fairly common in the French countryside (and in Europe in general. I guess it saves money to cut the electricity at night), so I wasn’t too worried. I would have liked for the owner to warn us, but oh well. The next morning, the electricity came back on at around 8 am, and Isabel got up to take a shower. There was no water. The water trickled briefly, and then stopped. Isabel called the owner upstairs, and before she could say anything, the woman said, “I know you have no water, I’m coming downstairs!” She explained that a pipe had burst overnight, and she had to cut off the water and electricity so that she wouldn’t drown upstairs. She called a plumber, but it was Sunday morning (when everyone in France refuses to work…and if someone tries to make them they just strike), and also the beginning of school vacation. So needless to say, a plumber would not be able to make it until Monday morning. We would have no water (although we would have electricity) for cooking, cleaning, taking showers, or flushing the toilet (the woman brought us a pack of bottled water to drink). The four of us discussed options for the rest of the vacation. I wanted to find a hotel for the day/night, and ask for a reduction on the apartment. It’s my vacation for chrissakes! I shouldn’t have to make sure I go pee during the day because I can’t do it at home. None of the others wanted to do this, so I was overruled, and brushed my teeth with Evian.

We left breakfast dishes on the counter, unable to wash them, and set off for our first day of travels. First on the agenda was a city called Cassis, which has been strongly recommended by Chris Stephens, who found it by chance on his trip to Europe a few years ago. He raved about it, so I have wanted to go ever since. We drove southeast, through Marseille (where we all decided we would have to return to…it seemed like a really cool town), along the sea for a while, too. We hit traffic because of a marathon in Cassis, but it really wasn’t that bad if you compare it to LA or even Seattle traffic. These crazy Europeans (and the one Costa Rican) were all antsy and uncomfortable in the car though, because they’re not used to driving such long distances. I think it took about three hours to drive to Cassis, with several stops, and including traffic. It was nothing.

On route to Cassis, we took this amazing road called Route des Crêtes, which stretches high above the coastline through some hills (the English guy kept calling them mountains. Bwahahahahahaa!) that drop abruptly off at the Mediterranean’s edge. Apparently these are the tallest cliffs in all of Europe. Like all European roads, la Route des Crêtes was far too narrow, especially because it snaked up and down these (albeit really tall) hills, and there were no guardrails for most of the length of the road. The views, however, were breathtaking, with the sea on one side and a port town called La Ciotat on the other. The one that I remember best occurred about halfway up, when my poor bladder could take it no longer and I had to find myself a nice bush to water. What a view! Route des Crêtes stretches between La Ciotat and Cassis, so we followed the winding road down to the port town on the other side. We quickly found a beach, and ate our sandwiches there before swimming (yeah, I swan outdoors on October 26th) and laying in the sun for an hour or so. When Chris was here, he said that he found the drain in the sea where France was stealing all of the Mediterranean water. I looked, Chris, but I couldn’t find the drain. Perhaps they’ve camouflaged it so that fewer people discover their secret. When the sun started to get a little lower, we took a walk through the town, down into the packed city center. I think everyone in France runs this marathon in Cassis. There were people everywhere with race number tacked to their backs and goodie bags marked Neuf/SFR (my shitty internet company…). It reminded me of when Mom and Papa worked with Train to End Stroke.

Walking around Cassis with my tiramisu ice cream (I should have gotten the cassis flavor, since we were there…Cassis is French for black currant, a popular flavor for just about anything. I have already tried Cassis jam, and I guess the purple Skittle in France isn’t grape, but cassis. I have yet to try those…) I realized that I love Provence. Actually, I realized this driving through the countryside. It’s beautiful here—the prettiest part of France that I have seen so far, by far. I can’t quite explain what it is, but hopefully my pictures will give an inkling. It’s amazing—the vineyards, the olive tree orchards, the gardens, the architecture, everything. I’m in love. Cassis was exceptionally beautiful, and exceptionally Provençal. The buildings and houses and businesses along the port were so beautiful.

The three girls (Isabel, Ligia, and myself) decided to take a little touristy boat trip around the “calanques” of Cassis. I am not sure what the English word is for calanques, or if there even is one, but it’s this land formation that may or may not be unique to this area of France. Two little fingers of land snake out into the sea, leaving an inlet of water that is calm and generally fairly large. They aren’t land spits, though, because the water inlet is bordered by fairly tall cliffs on either side. The water isn’t deep enough to make ports, nor is the inlet large enough. It’s hard to explain, but I took plenty of pictures. I’ll add captions to the pictures this time so you can see what pictures are what. Anyway, the boat visited three calanques, and it was really beautiful. There were people rock climbing on the cliffs of one of the calanques, and I felt a pang of regret that I left my climbing shoes at home but managed to bring my straightener and all of my knitting needles. Maybe someone can send them to me?!?

One thing that I did not like about Cassis was the castle overlooking the city. I am sure I would have loved it, except for the fact that it’s privately owned and I couldn’t visit it. Well, as it has been turned into a luxury hotel, I could visit it if I had between 400 and 1000 euros lying around. Which I don’t.

The trip home took much less time, as we took a faster route, and also paid entirely too much to use the “auto-routes”. I prefer to take the slower, free roads, but I think I might be the only one. These people and their phobia of long distances in the car! When we arrived home, we still didn’t have water, but I was able to see the stars for the first time since coming to France (it sucks living in a city), which was lovely. CSI is still on (I think this makes the third episode), dirty, unwashable dishes are stacked on the counter, and I am about to heat some water in the hotpot so that I can wash my face. Tomorrow is Arles, Tuesday Aix-en-Provence,Wednesday Avignon, and Thursday either Nimes or Orange. Friday we have a half day, as we have to head home, but I think we are going to visit Les Baux de Provence for part of the day before leaving for home.

I have almost another week before school starts, but I am staying in Perpignan. I finally get paid, so I am going to start buying gifts for people, I think! I am so excited! Also, I’ve got a date with the television next Tuesday night, as my eyes will be glued to the French coverage of the American election. I sent my absentee ballot last week. I tried to take a picture of myself and the line connecting the two sides of Obama’s arrow, but my arm wasn’t long enough and the camera couldn’t really focus. Oh well. More updates to come on my fabulous French vacation. Maybe when I write next I’ll have water!

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