Friday, December 05, 2014


I am happy to know that, at 61, I have not lost my ability to foolishly immerse myself in my surroundings and therefore lose track of time, leading to that famous from younger years run across town to make a vital train connection. (I blame not having a watch: I'm trying to be modern and rely on my cell phone for the time, but I tell you, it's not the same. You don't glance at your cell phone nearly as often.) People may brag about running marathons and triathlons and decathlons, I hereby will brag about this lesser accomplishment: I ran down the whole main drag of Avignon, from Palace de Papes all the way to the train station in 12 minutes flat and that's with suitcase and open umbrella. And no, Ed, cheapest is not always best: my umbrella, purchased some time ago for its lightness and its very base price, furled right into a tulip shape and nicely collected water the whole distance long.

I made it.

Now, Avignon is south of Orange which is puzzling, given that I'm actually heading north. Here's the awkward situation: like nearly every time I am in France, I have hit upon a rail strike. One that commences today and lasts until Sunday. Meaning exactly when I need the trains most.

Rail strikes are so common here that they are quite well organized. The schedule of cancelled trains is posted 24 hours in advance (if you know to check -- this is tricky for foreign visitors who often do not know there is a strike and thus show up for a train that is no longer running), giving people time to adjust. But I have learned the hard way that one must be prepared for anything and so I booked a four uncancelled train connection (four trains! on the first day of a strike!) with ample layovers in case of delays.

The trip begins, of course, in Orange. Madame brings me my breakfast and I notice that the bad croissant has been replaced with a good pain au chocolat, so I am exiting on a high note. (No, I do not think she reads Ocean.)

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I leave with plenty of time to walk leisurely to the station, sidestepping a little to get that one last glance at the town which raised such ambiguities within me. (BTW, it's not the first time I left a place regarded as beautiful earlier because I had had enough. Lyon and Rouen come to mind. It's all about the vibe, the connection that, for whatever reason, I fail to make.)

There is no market today. If you want oranges, you can get them here, for example.

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Orange is one of those towns where the river literally runs through it, or, more accurately, underneath portions of it. In December, it all looks rather gloomy, but I suppose in better times, this might be pretty.

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And finally, here's my B&B, kind of ragged at the edges inside (I recommend not sitting on the couch should you stay there). Maybe you'd like to buy it? Here's their phone number:

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Alright: my first train is to Avignon. I gave myself an hour there and this is where I really get distracted. I'm sort of fond of this town because it has good associations for me. (Well, actually the last time I was here I was with Ed and we had left the window open in our B&B room and many mosquitoes used the opportunity to visit, but on the upside, I took one of my favorite photos of him ever -- there was still a bit of a youthful toddle-along-with-Nina quality to him and so the memories remain good.)

This time, I just want to walk the main street and let the spirit of this rather splendid Provencal town sink in. There is a Christmas market and a quality one at that. Empty of course, because of the rain and the hour of the day.

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And finally, I am at the Palace de Papes -- or the square at its base. A wet square but not less beautiful for it. The photo is of a wintry cold and wet restaurant to the side...

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I drag my suitcase along the cobbled walk, up, up, toward the gardens and this is where it strikes me that I really ought to check my cell phone clock.


Well, you know that I made it -- for the brief ride on train number 2: to Avignon-TGV -- a train station a bit away from the city, where you catch the fast trains that will zip you in 2.5 hours to Paris.

Again I have an hour's pause (at Avignon-TGV) and I am delighted to find a cafe (with a very orange theme even as I am no longer in Orange).

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My speedy train comes on time and as usual, it is amazingly comfortable and exquisitely smooth and quiet and no, I will not go off on a rant about the loss of the fast rail service that almost came to Wisconsin (even as I completely agree with our former mayor who recently wrote a compelling piece about how much money we lost in giving up on that project because some politicians strategically leaked the word "boondoggle" into the general public and, without people doing the math, it stuck) but I am terribly saddened by it. End of rant.

Here's a photo of the woman next to me who was knitting furiously a gift for her (adult) daughter. I'm so stressed about this -- she says. I'll never finish it for the holidays. (For me, an older French woman knitting just conjures up memories of reading A Tale of Two Cities.)

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I am not staying in Paris. That comes on Sunday. Here's my only photo from the 20 minutes I spend at the Gare de Lyon (train station). I'm guessing he's stretching after a long train ride.

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I have two nights before I'm to be in Paris and I want something new, but just in this area, as this region, curiously enough, is the one small spot on the map that doesn't show rain for today and tomorrow.

So I pick Fontainbleau. And this is now the fourth and last train segment -- taking me southeast of Paris (a 45 minute ride, keeping me still within the commune of Paris) to a small town that likely owes its existence and survival to the Fontainbleau Chateau.

I've never been here. Like so many others, I've done the obligatory treks to Versailles, which, I suppose, is the grandest of all chateaus. But here's why I always wanted to visit its lesser cousin: Fontainbleau is arguably as splendid (I mean, you can only be overwhelmed so much by royal oppulance) and it draws 10 times fewer visitors (I got this statistic from the internet). So imagine how beautiful it will be to visit it in the calmest month, when even in the highest season it is said to be uncrowded.

Too, Fontainbleau has what I have so wanted to explore -- the great Fontainbleau forest. More on this later. Right now, I'll just say that I arrived, I hopped on the bus from the station to my hotel (yes, a real 16 room hotel and a special one at that, made affordable only because Madame the proprietor was so nice when I called last night and begged). It's the old Londres (it's been in the same family for three generations)...

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....and it is right outside the gate of the chateau. A little room...

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 ...but when I pull back the curtain, I can see a grand view:

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Later, much later, I go out in search of Bistrot 9 -- a recommended by my hosts spot for dinner. I see that I'm in a different world here! The streets are decked out and there's piped Christmas music. It's the first time this year that I have heard Christmas music.  Noel, Noel, born is the king...

I look around me. Lights. A merry-go-round. That, at least, is French.

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I watch a young couple make funny faces at their child perched on one of the animals. Is it that kids love merry-go-rounds because at the end of each round, they'll see their beloved mommy or daddy again?

The Bistrot is superb -- duck breast with peppercorns, braised endive - yum! But of course, these aren't Provencal dishes. I feel the break with the south: I'm  really back in the reaches of this great big city that is Paris. It's not that the people eating here on this cold December night are from Paris. No, by the kisses they disperse in all directions, I can tell that they are from here. On the other hand, I surely sense that Paris is but a breath away. I tuck in my scarf against the wind outside . Yep, I'm in the north now.

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