All it took was 20 minutes for me to fall in love with France. That’s quicker than my daily drive to work and almost quicker than it takes for me to choose my dinner in a restaurant. My first impressions of France began while I was still in the air, circling, preparing to land. The ground below was green, very green. So much so that it’s noticeable from above when you get your first glimpse of the country from an airplane window as you begin your descent into the airport. It’s been said that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, however, this isn’t about Paris. Indeed, Paris is beautiful in many parts, and truthfully, a little ordinary in others. But, it wasn’t the city that caught my eye, instead it was a 20 minute detour due to a missed turn that captured my heart. I admit that I approached Paris as though expecting a quick fling. Much like a first date, you’re nervous about the introduction to the city, not knowing what to expect, wondering if you will click. But, the French countryside, well that was definitely more than a crush. The French people have a phrase for it: “le coup de foudre”, which translates to love at first sight.
I was about to set sail on a river cruise with Avalon Waterways aboard the Tapestry II but the recent rains resulted in higher water levels making it difficult to pass under the beautiful bridges of Paris. In order to navigate the river we would need to board a motor coach to drive to our first stop. We would then embark at the first port of call in Vernon-Les Andelys. Some might have seen the change in plans as disappointing but I now believe it was fortunate fate. The bus ride along the highway to our new starting point was just like any other highway: multiple lanes of traffic in each direction with very little to look at. You could almost call it boring. We were moving along at a fast pace, passing other vehicles and sometimes being passed. Perhaps this hypnotic tedium contributed to our driver missing the turnoff for our destination. One additional exit later, an alternate route was chosen and unknowingly, our luck had just changed and for the better as we unexpectedly found ourselves in the French countryside.
At times it seemed as though the full size motor coach, the travel industry’s fancy and professional name for “bus”, couldn’t possibly navigate the small roads of the ancient villages. The driver faced a modern day challenge as the curbs were lined with private cars and the twists and turns were tight and many. Surely l wasn’t the only one to hold my breath as inch by inch the driver slowly and carefully shimmied his way through the narrow roads. But then, as I exhaled, the village itself took my breath completely away. It was everything you would imagine a small European village to be. A town where the tallest structure is the church steeple and people with picnic hampers lounge on the grass. Winding roads, originally built for animal drawn carts, weave past 16th century chateaux whose placement was determined long before there were paved roads. Stone houses with tiled roofs and grand chimneys had wooden shutters that covered full length windows. Jumbles of colorful flowers spilled over ancient stone walls that were originally erected to delineate property lines. However, the current function of those walls seemed to be solely for the purpose of preventing the premature deaths of free roaming chickens by limiting their access to the road. Occasionally you come across a newer home whose design with its constructed antique appearance is such that it intentionally pays homage to its past. Some homes are trying for modern sustainability while retaining an aged patina and have found a way for solar panels to coexist in design harmony with an earlier time. The pace was comfortable and slow and the countryside seduced you into relaxing and setting down the burden of daily life. It invited you to have a sip of calvados, the apple wine and perhaps taste a bit of pastry as you spent some time getting to know each other. Villages are dotted with handmade signs advertising apple “cidre” and fresh eggs and are replete with open meadows inhabited by contented cows and happy horses. The narrow roads allowed a front row view into the daily lives of the local folk giving the appearance of an idyllic lifestyle or at least a page from a themed calendar featuring story book cottages. Slowly, almost at an escargot’s pace, the driver continued safely past automobiles parked on both sides of the narrow road, until we had successfully navigated our way. I was almost disappointed to arrive at our destination as I wanted more of this countryside charm. I didn’t yet realize that this wasn’t the end of the trip but just the beginning of our journey.
We boarded the ship and were soon on our way. Smoothly and slowly, we made our way up the Seine (pronounced Sen). Local cottages gave way to grander homes perched high upon the riverbanks, set amidst the rolling green hills that lined the banks. Occasionally, a friendly land owner would wave and those of us on deck would wave back. I envy their lifestyle, perhaps they envied me mine, however temporary it was.
Did I fall in love? Absolutment! But, France was more than just a whirlwind romance or a brief fling for me. I believe that it was the prelude to a long lasting relationship – definitely an affair of the heart. “Jusqu’a ce que nous reverrons” – until we meet again.