Saturday, September 27, 2014

to the north, to the east

This weekend launches my third and last week of travels. The plan had been to give that over to France, but last minute changes mean that it will be split between France and Poland. And here's the curious thing: I was to stay for a week in a town that, on the surface at least is a poor match for me: it's rather touristy and it's in northern France, close to the border with Germany. And I will have to return sometime in the near future, because in changing my apartment rental there from one week to half a week, I could only get credit for the cancelled days. And I'm not going to let that go to waste!

So I have to like my destination. I'm set on it. Despite the peculiar misfit.

It's my biggest day of train travel yet and I'm glad, because I'm tired. I had fallen asleep last night while posting, leaving the lights on and the windows fully open. I woke up with a start some three hours into the night, finished my writing, turned off the lights and immediately heard the sound of a mosquito.

On went the lights. I chased it down. Out went the lights. Another buzz. There were five casualties by the time I was done. And jumping on furniture and waving a towel in the air has this way of waking me up, so that it was a long while before I returned to a sleepy state.

I mention this because I had been so set on loving this night in my not most favorite but still likable city. And of course, you can't ever predict how a night will go, how the weather would turn out, how your memories will be shaped in the end. (Mine of Milan will definitely include the park, the museum and the mosquito chase.)

Ah, but the weather continues to be my friend! A cornflower sky and a warm breeze outside -- an invitation to take a short walk before my 11:25 train. But first breakfast:


I steer more toward the healthy rather than interesting side of things. I need a break before my next series of morning indulgences.

Alright, the walk. Not long. You don't want quite the lead time for trains as you would for planes, but still, I can't push the clock on this one, because missing the train would trigger all sorts of unfortunate consequences -- missed further connections and inevitably another missed night at the rented apartment. And I don't think they'd be sympathetic to yet another cut back on my part.

So, a stroll, first without my suitcase, then with it. To enjoy a city that is as pleasantly surprised as I am with the continued good weather.








And then a metro ride to Milano Centrale, where I catch my longest train of this trip -- to Basel, Switzerland, where I'll change to another train to Colmar, France, where I'm hoping not to miss the bus for Riquewihr.

Riquewihr. Not very French sounding, is it? It is in Alsace, which, in a way, is like the French version of the Alto Adige (my first days of this trip). It's on the wine route and the grapes grown here overlap somewhat with those of the Southern Tyrol. Alsace definitely feels like it's on a cultural crest -- on one side we have the French influence and on the other -- the historically charged impact of Germany. Alsace is where you'll find cooked sauerkraut with sausage on many a menu.

My hope is that I can return to some country hiking here. Even though my apartment -- the very lovely place called Fox and Grapes, managed by a guy who really knows what he's doing -- is smack in the ramparts of the town, the country trails look close by.

And of course, there are the vineyards to admire (more vineyards for you to look at!), this time taking on the more golden colors of fall.

That is the plan.

As for the train rides? It was a beautiful day to cross the Italian and Swiss Alps! You'll have to put up with a few photos. They are records of how glorious Fall has been this year.

(still in Italy)

(during the long tunnel crossing)

(now Switzerland)

(one more in Switzerland)

The timing worked perfectly. Like Swiss clockwork! My last train pulled into Colmar at 17:05, my bus was there, and I hopped on as it left at 17:10. By 6 p.m., I am in my new home.

And it is a charmer!


If Eduardo in Tuscany was lackadaisical in his preparations for guests, my new host, Jean-Paul (who works through an assistant -- Valerie -- so I know him only through correspondence) is so organized, so detail oriented, that the unit has to rank as probably at the very top of any rental I have ever taken on overseas.


...With expansive views toward the vineyards.

(from my windows)

It is absolutely lovely and very perfect for a solo traveler. (Cheerful! Not dark! Meaning bright! Quiet, but near the center of things! Did I mention bright and cheerful? These things matter especially when you are alone.)

I quickly dash out to stock up on essentials for the weekend. Silly me. I notice that every food shop is going to be open on Sunday. I'm in France. (It's Mondays that you have to worry about here.)

I eat at "Au Dolder." I opt for the three course set menu. Pate (to die for!). Fish in Reisling sauce (to die for!) and a baked ice cream Kugelhopf  (to die for)!


I have four comments and then I'm done. Promise.

First, if you ever find yourself in a town or village that's been discovered, with throngs of happy visitors now taking over, remember the upside: visitors inevitably will raise the level of services in the town and villages  that now have a bigger and more demanding client base. Which is a good thing. A village like Riquewihr surely would not have the variety of eating venues, shops, the detailed information on walks, hikes -- the list is long! -- were it not for the tourists. (It also has a bit more of the schlock, but you can ignore that. Like spam that you automatically delete without opening.)

Secondly -- tourism in these small villages is a day thing. When I arrived, the main street was agog with (mostly German speaking) people. There were buses just outside the city walls. The visitors eat here, shop here and do lots of wine tastings -- all during the day. By evening the main street looked like this:


Every last diner at the "Dolder" was French speaking. It's Saturday. French people like to eat out even more than we do (by contrast, Poles are only in the last handful of years taking their meals outside the home). They come in from the surrounding towns and villages to a place like Riquewihr (which itself has a population of only 1300)  to eat.

My third comment is one that is now old news, but bears repeating (and it will take a bunch of words to fully illustrate it, so be forewarned): you can never really appreciate cultural differences until you witness them time and again. Roger Cohen wrote about this just a few days ago in the NYTimes ("Truths of a French Village," you can read it here) and I had yet another example of how different we really are as I sat waiting for my dinner. At the table just two away from me sat a mother with her two young children -- I'm guessing the boy was 6 or 7 and the girl was 4 -- at most 5. It was 8 p.m., they had had their meal served already. Perhaps you know where this is heading. But let me give the full benefit of the details:

Needless to say, they did not stand out. They were using their "restaurant voices." It wasn't an effort. The mother never once said "sh!" -- they knew what was expected. (By contrast, on the train to Basel, I had an eight year old Swiss boy in the train car and I was thrilled when he got off. The noise level with him there was amazing, despite the mom's constant prodding to take it down a notch.) 

The little girl still had most of her food on her plate. It looked to me like fish -- I know, because that's what I ordered and hers looked the same. The mom was done, the boy was almost done. The girl was eating, but she was eating very slowly. At one point her mom leaned over, tasted a bite of the girl's food and made some small remark and then went about her business -- which was explaining something to the boy about her iPhone. The girl kept on eating.

Then the mother ordered an iced coffee for herself with tons of whipped cream. The whole concoction looked like one big ice cream soda. The boy asked -- is that coffee? She said yes and proceeded to eat/drink it. The boy and girl knew that it was hers -- an adult treat. They ignored it. The girl kept on eating her fish, the boy asked questions about the iPhone.


So in case you missed the subtlety here - the mom is downing a whipped cream special, the boy is ignoring it, the girls is chewing away at her fish without a comment.

The mother, done with her meal, gets up to settle the account. The boy starts to follow. The girl is almost done, but not quite done. The mom says briefly -- stay with your sister. The boy dutifully stands by the table keeping watch over this little girl.

Mom is back, sits down for a minute, the girl is finally done. You know what she is allowed to do now? Drink her Coca Cola, which she does, with relish, like it's the biggest dessert on the planet. And they leave.

Now, you could say that this was just a well trained little unit. Except that at the table next to theirs, the scene was repeating itself, only with a family of four, with two slightly older boys.

What strikes me as noteworthy is how easy it is to parent certain values in your kid if the whole culture supports a set of imperatives. The mom didn't do this on her own. The kids are used to good social behavior because they learned it in school, with friends, at family gatherings. She is just the maraschino cherry on their path in life. Much of the socialization of children takes place in schools and day care centers here, starting with infancy, where good manners, especially table manners are taught as assiduously as nursery rhymes and letters of the alphabet.

So my third point here tonight is this: it is far far easier to be a parent in France than in the United States. The institutional-cultural support for making the job less of a strain on especially the mom is incredible. You want to teach your kids to be pleasant eating companions and to have good table manners and eating habits at home? I did. It was important to me. But my oh my, you are on your own if you choose that trail and a thousand prickly branches and grizzly beasts will get in your way! You're bucking the cultural tide! For so many reasons (family leave, or lack thereof, remains at the top of my list), it's rough being a parent in America.

Final point: the food at the restaurant was superb! I had forgotten how very special a dinner in a French village can be. I had also forgotten how sleepy I get after a big meal late at night. You'll notice my writing is coming at a later hour -- middle of the night for me! I am readjusting: I cross a border or two, I rent a different apartment and my day is completely flipped. Ah, the incredible beauty of travel!