While in France presenting several classes on relationships, my husband David and I had three free, blissfully unscheduled days to enjoy the beautiful scenery, the beautiful food, and (most of all) the beautiful meals. What a treat to look forward to!
And here’s how it turned out.
We had a property sale pending that required us to get my signature notarized on a power of attorney. I had already devoted several days of my precious free time in Europe to accomplishing this seemingly simple task. I’d gone to the Embassy in Stockholm, arriving well before lunch time at 11:20, only to find they stopped receiving documents at 11 a.m. Come back Monday.
We’d resisted the temptation to stop at a lovely quiet street in the Paris’ Marais district, where there were outdoor cafes lining both sides of the street, which was full of azaleas and rhododendrons blooming in blazing pinks, reds, and oranges, because we had to get back to our rented flat to see if one of the dozen French notaires that I’d phoned would actually return the phone call that afternoon as promised. He didn’t. Et cetera.
Through the graces of American Express Platinum’s concierge services, I’d actually obtained the phone number of the American consulate in Marseilles, and arranged to get an appointment for notary services at 9 a.m. the very next day. For those of you not familiar with France, Marseilles is at the very south on the Mediterranean, and Paris is at the north, quite near the English channel. It’s about 775 kilometers from Paris to Marseille.
We had talked about taking a leisurely two days to drive south and visit an old college friend of David’s who lived in the south. Driving hell-bent for leather all the way to Marseilles in one day was not what we had in mind.
There was one hope. Unlike the American Embassy where no phone numbers are available, you have to sign up for notary appointments on line and there weren’t any till Thursday and we were leaving Tuesday, you can actually call the British Consulate. As a British citizen, David is entitled to ask for their services.
On the ever hopeful off chance that we might get the issue handled there and be free to wend our way south, off we set to the British Consulate. Wandering through a neighborhood unfamiliar to us, we managed to arrive nonetheless by about 9:30. After surrendering our cell phones and nail clippers, we were admitted to the inner sanctum, a bare bones room with a glassed in desk with room for three staff. There were no magazines or anything else to read. Five people were ahead of us. We sat down and resigned ourselves to the wait.
It was made more entertaining than it might have been by the sole front desk attendant. Although she spoke British English and French with an accent, she actually looked French. She was petite, pretty, blonde, and continually smiling. She was a delight to watch. She was the most caring, helpful government employee we’d ever seen anywhere. One man did not have the right piece of paper to document his divorce in 1995. Oh, she was so sorry, if it was up to her she’d give him the document he needed but unfortunately it wasn’t. Moments later she was back, confiding that she was giving him the paper but he must PROMISE to fax in the required document today!
Finally it was our turn. We advanced to the window. We told what we required. That would require the notary in the back. She was on the phone. We sat down to wait, and wait some more. Others who came in after us were served. One man’s brother in law had the nerve to die a week after his children’s passports expired. Handled. Another man brought his elderly mother along to attest to his British citizenship, although he said haltingly, I don’t speak much English.
The notary was on the phone, our super government employee informed us, and continued to serve others.
Finally when the notary was free, she took one look at our papers and erroneously concluded they were not complete because they didn’t include Exhibit A. “This isn’t complete! I can’t sign this!” she exclaimed.
Adding further to the complications of the situation is a little legal requirement that any document not notarized by an American embassy had to also have an avocele. That was the last straw! The friendly government employee and her notary friend looked this up and found a London phone number. They conferred on how to dial that number from their office. They dialed that number. It was disconnected, the office in question had long since moved to Milton Keynes, 50 miles north of London. We would have to go there to get the additional paper. It no longer mattered that we couldn’t get the notarized signature, as it wouldonly be valid with the extra bit.
We were going to London from Marseilles, but we arrived late Friday afternoon and David flew out Monday morning at 10 am. Where in that schedule was time for a trek from the airport to Milton Keynes on the north side of the city? I would have had to fedex the document on Tuesday.
David came close to losing it with me at that. “Didn’t you print the whole thing?” he demanded. There was definitely a more than slightly accusatory tone in his voice.
“I thought I did,” I said, not believing that I hadn’t, even though the evidence seemed to point to the contrary. I didn’t add any fuel to the fire of his accusations. I have been known not to complete internet tasks, which has resulted in payments I thought I made not being credited and planes I was sure I’d reserved not being booked.
We took the still unsigned and unnotarized forms back to our flat and checked the internet. I HAD printed them all! The first page which I’d shown the notary WAS exhibit A, it just hadn’t been marked as such. But the British Embassy option was a bust, anyway.
Whirling through our rental apartment like a white tornado, we stripped the sheets and did everything we could think of to avoid paying $30 for maid services. Then we got a message from the owners’ agent that that wasn’t necessary! It saved us a lot of time and hassle, but why couldn’t we have known that yesterday?
We had a sense of leisureliness about our departure. We were planning to take the fast train, the TGV (short for Tres Grande Vitesse or very high speed) which would whisk us to Marseilles in less than 4 hours. We could wander and enjoy lunch in Paris, take the train at 7 p.m., and still arrive in Marseilles at a reasonable hour. We could pick up a rental car the next day in Marseilles and drive to our friend’s, who was expecting us that afternoon.
Then I checked the prices–it was going to be $250 each for a ticket south, more than the total of renting the car for three days. That was too much for David’s Scottish soul. In retrospect, it might have been worth it to have the extra time in Paris, but the thought of paying $500 for a 3 hour train ride for the two of us was just too much. Back to plan B–well, it must have been about plan K by this time. We would rent the car I’d reserved at Charles De Gaulle airport after all.
By then it was noon, and we had a 9 hour drive ahead of us. We walked the 2 blocks to the metro, clump clump clumped our bags down the long staircase, clumped them up and down some more stairs to get to the trains, and dragged the cases onto the train. I had arranged to rent a car to drive south from Charles De Gaulle airport, a metro ride and longish suburban train ride out of the city. It was a schlep, but it sounded better to me than trying to navigate and drive from a pick-up point in central Paris. It was only after we’d spent a couple hours through bumper to bumper traffic (at 2 in the afternoon!) that I realized it would have been quite a bit smarter to set out south from the other airport in Paris, the one that lies south of the city, instead of Charles De Gaulle, which is northeast. As the German saying goes, So soon old, so late smart!
We managed to avoid the ubiquitous gypsies of Gare du Nord (Speeeek Eeeenglish? accompanied by the most practiced pitiful looks) by staying within the paid passenger area while transferring from the metro to the suburban trains. We gratefully took elevators down again to the level of the trains to the airport. The platform was occupied with passengers, almost all with luggage, but certainly not jammed or overcrowded. We moved to a train car at the end of the train and waited for the passengers arriving in the train to exit before lifting our three heavy cases onto the train.
The arriving passengers had not all exited when intense pushing behind me propelled me onto the train. I recall being confused because the train was not yet unloaded, nor was it overcrowded, so I did not understand the reason for the pushing. Having been relieved of $3000 cash when my wallet was stolen on my last trip to Paris, I firmly grasped my backpack/purse under my right arm and stumbled onto the train.
I was wrestling with one heavy bag. David had his bag, as well as my wheeled carry-on, which was also no lightweight. Since the train was higher than the platform, both his hands were full lifting these heavy cases onto the train. When he felt a pushing against his back pocket which contained his wallet, he brilliantly did the only thing he could do–he turned away from the pushing into the train. The three large Africans, curiously standing on the train headed for the airport without luggage, melted away from the doorway of the train back into the station as the train doors closed.
The shaken feeling of being violated that accompanies being stolen from, mixed with awe and gratitude that David had been quick enough to outwit this gang of thieves, permeated our being as we dissected the event all the way to Charles De Gaulle airport.
An interminable trek through Charles De Gaulle airport—which a taxi driver accurately described to me later as a city, it’s so much bigger than an airport–brought us to the Avis counter, where another long wait awaited us. A gift from the universe was the man at the reception of the kiosk where the cars were parked (no need for another shuttle, thank God!). When I asked him for instructions on how to exit the airport, he reached down and printed a whole French version of mapquest itinerary from the airport to Marseilles. Nine hours, 808 kilometers, and we were setting out at 2:00. How does it get even better than that?
It took us about two hours to drive past the eastern edge of Paris, time wasted due to my brilliance in booking the car from the northern rather than the southern airport. We had some hot and heated discussions about exactly WHICH exit the mapquest directions really intended us to take, especially when on that looked like the right one was also marked as going north.
Finally we escaped Paris and found ourselves driving past the green-lined roads on the Michelin map. for those of you uninitiated to the wonders of these maps, the green lines along roads highlight routes that Michelin counts as especially scenic. The road that sped, French tollway style (135 kiometers per hour in places, that’s 81 mph for you Americans reading this), through the forest of Fountainbleu definitely qualified. Lovely hardwood trees, resplendent in their bright spring green leaves, lined hillsides on either side of the roadway. As we continued south, scenic stone hill top villages, crowned by the steeples of their alloted church, appeared on either side of the highway, beckoning us to return when we had time to do the wending we had hoped to do this time. Further enticement came from the brown and white French roadsigns, which were large enough to announce not only the names of the towns we passed, but also provided us with line illustrations of the scenic attractions we were whizzing by. What was right about all this we weren’t getting?
We stopped briefly at a highway rest stop. Wonder of wonders, even these places, never a showcase of fine cuisine in any country I’ve ever been in, still served French food. Fortified by our tartines with fromage and a lovely berry tart, we continued onwards.
Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, had been on my to-visit list for about twenty years. If we hadn’t had a 9 am appointment at the American consulate in Marseilles, we could have stopped there and enjoyed two or three meals. As it was, we decided to stop there for dinner, even if it made our arrival in Marseilles, where we did have a confirmed reservation, ridiculously late.
Lyon was a quick exit and a trip through the tunnel off the expressway. The daylight was fading and colors were deepening into grays and purples as we pulled off the road, made a wild guess where we could find restaurants (not a very difficult thing to guess in Lyon, you could probably try anywhere, but we made our choice based on Lonely Planet read on the highway at 80 mph), and found a parking lot where we could enter (though not without assistance from the attendant, it was that kind of day) and park.
We strolled across the river on a pedestrian bridge, admiring the houses, church, and other large buildings crammed against the hill through which we had just travelled, as well as the bell tower of the church and scenic old buildings that lined the side of the river towards which we were walking. As soon as we crossed the bridge, a large outdoor cafe beckoned, but it offered crepes and fast food. We didn’t come to Lyon for that! All kinds of foreign cuisine–Thai, Mexican, Moroccan–was offered in the nearly solid row of restaurants that we passed as we wandered, hoping we were wandering towards the center of town and promising territory for the meal of our dreams, our sole reward for this long trek through France by 4 wheeled jet.
A few blocks later we found the street of our dreams, a winding street lined with open air cafes and restaurants, leading up to the central church of Lyon. A momentous decision was to be made! Which of these wonderful establishments was the one and only one that would represent to us thepotentially orgasmic experience of eating in Lyon. We perused menu after menu, looking for one that served the meat that David prefers as well as the fish that I most enjoy. We walked from restaurant to restaurant, searching for a prix fixe menu (the best deal in French restaurants, as well a source of wonderful surprises) that included items that struck both our fancies.
We finally found one, after passing many other options that looked delicious to one of us or the other.
David ordered some kind of meat, and I ordered salmon. The entree (an appetizer in France, as it should be, since entree means entrance; it’s the Americans who twisted things into calling the main dish an entree) was apparently forgettable, as I don’t remember what it was. But the main dish, salmon, was the most delicious salmon I ever tasted in my entire life. I came set in parchment paper, open like a partially unwrapped present, and was it ever a gift! It was suffused with moisture and tenderness, the likes of which I have never tasted it. Did they use a hypodermic needle to inject every fragment with butter? I don’t know that I’ll ever know…but I know I won’t forget it.
This, in addition to our three courses, was followed by cervelle de canut, which means, literally, brains of the silk weaver. This is a delicious Lyonnais speciality (is another from Lyon NOT delicious?). It’s a fromage blanc/yogurt combination, flavored with garlic and herbs. It was delicious–but strangely out of place just before dessert. David couldn’t finish his, it was that intense. I finished mine, just because it was so delicious, while also feeling the shock of the garlic and herbs to a palate already sated with savoury flavors and ready for the sweet at the end of the meal.
After dinner, we strolled through town a bit. The steeple of the church at the end of our gastronomic orgy street was just too tempting to put off for our next visit to Lyon (and how soon could that be…please?). It was stunning. Then we strolled back to the car by another route, enjoying the bittersweetness of this brief brief interlude in Lyon and the wishful thinking that it might be only another 2 hours till we reached Marseilles, our destination for the all-too-brief night.
Such is the stuff dreams are made of. We seemed to go in circles as we followed signs that pointed out of town, then disappeared at the next intersection, leaving us to guess if we should continue straight ahead, turn or what? Despite the circuitous route we managed to find the auto-route out of town, only to enter the motorway and come to a grinding halt. By then it was dark and the option of taking a side route to our distance destination was not seeming to be any kind of feasible option. The wide bridge across the rivers that dominate Lyon, as well as the auto-route for miles ahead, was under construction and down to one lane. Trucks and cars and more traffic that we could imagine being generated all queued to merge and merge and merge yet again. We inched along, only to be rewarded for our efforts by being directed by the detour sign. That was French we both understood, to our own chagrin. It added an hour to our already long journey.
We drove and drove. We drove and drove. We managed to add another half hour to the trip by taking a wrong turn just before Marseille, at yet another detour. As we sped off in what felt like the wrong direction, something felt wrong to me without my being able to put my finger on anything concrete or real that told me so. We followed more intermittent detour signs through roundabout after roundabout. At one of these the main traffic headed off in one direction and David continued round the roundabout further, and sped onto the autoroute, returning in the direction we’d come. Somehow he’d figured out that we were actually headed off in the wrong direction as we whizzed round the roundabout, and he’d corrected our route then and there. Miraculous!
Our directions from the car rental place in Paris corresponded closely enough to the scenerey on the ground, once we were headed in the right direction, that we arrived right at the center of the harbor in Marseilles. We knew this was the location of the hotel we were looking for in the middle of the night (it was now well after 1:30 a.m.), but the directions leading from Quai de la Fraternite to the next street, Quai des Belges (quai of the Belgians) were mysterious in the extreme. There was a divided road heading both directions along the quai, but nowhere could we find anything that indicated Quai des Belges, or even anywhere to ask. David double parked in front of what looked like a grand hotel, but when I got out to walk, the only part of it that was actually open and inhabited by waking souls at that hour was MacDonald’s.
I wandered around and managed to catch the manager of a Tabac (newsstand/tobacco-dealer) just closing up. He pointed one block away in the direction of a street which went one way the wrong way, and told us to go there. I found the hotel. The neighborhood had a bit of the derelict air of a central city bus station on the outside, complete with an entry way that consisted of steps and a door you had to ring to get them to open. Once inside, however, the hotel was a lovely confection. Each floor was decorated in a different theme. We were on the Arabian themed floor and ornate curved parapets decorated our bed, with which I was to make far too short an acquaintance. Both the room and the large ornate tiled bathroom had windows that opened, and the harbor was barely visible between other buildings, shining yet another glittering invitation that we would be too pressed for time to fully explore. I returned downstairs to the bleary eyed receptionist, who looked up the address of the American consulate for me. The street was one that was not located on any map, nor was it one she recognized. It seemed not to be far, however, so I set the alarm for 8 a.m., hoping to make my 9 a.m. appointment without even more severe sleep deprivation.
I set off walking at 8:15 am, headed in the direction the hotel receptionist had pointed me. Time seemed to be passing quite fast as I strolled towards the waterfront. It would hardly do to have rushed across the country to make the only notarizing appointment available in France, only to miss it once we actually made it to Marsielle! I looked for a taxi but found none of them. Was it possible that this was town which did not require them? Now what? I headed off in the direction I was to be headed, hoping to catch one on the way. The air was warm with a slight breeze in it, and the possibility of finally getting some seasonal weather in late May presented itself. The sun glared off the water of the harbor and the boat rattled their fittings in the breeze. Trees lined the street I was walking on and it was glorious to be alive and in France!
I happened to distract myself from window shopping to look across the street. Wonder of wonders, in front of a cafe, was a taxi rank, with, even more wonderful, an empty and apparently available taxi. I got in and told the taxi driver, a woman who brilliantly complemented me on my spoken French, where I was going. She, like the clerk at the hotel, did not recognize the name of the street where the consulate was located. Mais, le consulate americain, she knew exactly where that was. As she drove, she made running tourist recommendations in French. It was not far at all, pas de tout. See that tree lined street up there to the left? I could walk straight back to my hotel from there!
She dropped me off in front of the consulate, which was on a place that must have been all of 100 feet long. The histoire de France tourist sign informed me that it had been named for a man who had allowed anti-fascists demonstrators to escape the Nazis.
I arrived for my 9:00 am appointment at 8:59. Relieved of my i-phone and lethal nail clippers, I was allowed to enter and made my appointment on time–even before the notary arrived. The very nice woman with whom I had scheduled the appointment said with concern, “I got your message that you might be late but you didn’t leave a phone number where I could call you back.” Pretty amazing humanity from a government official.
Not five minutes later, I was on my way. How does it get even better than that?
I know I got a little involved in the description of Lyon–but it was too delicious not to share. I hope you also could see how easy it would have been to slip into blame and anger with each other at the frustrations of the long ridiculous trip (all of which could have been avoided if our realtor had had me sign a power of attorney before leaving for Europe….ahem!). David tried to fall into that when he accused me of not printing all the necessary pages for notarization–but I sidestepped it and didn’t buy into the escalation of frustration and anger. It’s one of the 6 Don’ts–don’t criticize, argue, or tell them they’re wrong. We didn’t.