Ryan Air has a rather loose definition of "Paris." In fact, the airport Ryan Air calls their Paris airport is not only not in Paris, it is not even in Ile de France, the region that encompasses Paris. It is deep in the Picardie region, in a town called Beauvais. We knew this going in, of course, and in fact, strategized to use this to our benefit. Our original plan had been to spend two days in Rouen, just an hour and a half from the airport. From there, we'd launch to the Pays d'Auge region of Normandy. Perfect.
Or not quite.
Because without our knowledge or consent, Rouen scheduled their Rouen Armada, what we call the "Tall Ship Festival", for the exact days of our vacation. Now, I don't have anything against tall ships. I am as able as the next land-lubber to stop and admire when I see one dreamily floating by, particularly on the fabled Seine. But the last time the event was held, it brought 10 million people to Rouen, which is a city with a population of barely more than half a million. That kind of crowding does not float my boat. No matter how tall it is. And anyway, there was not a room to be had. Rouen was out, despite my protests and stamping my feet and carrying on about half-timbered houses and the cathedral Monet painted multiple times and Joan of fruity Arc.
But I do believe that when the universe closes a half-timbered door, it opens a bistro window. In other words, I believe in our family's ability to turn tragedy into triumph. At least the kind of tragedy that takes the form of disrupted vacation plans, otherwise known as first world problems of the highest magnitude. This is all to say we decided to go to Paris instead of Rouen. Since our flight would land at 9:30 at night, a bit late to drive an hour and a half before navigating Paris parking and metro, we decided to stay at a bed and breakfast in Beauvais. We'd get a good night's sleep, eat a croissant or two, and be in Paris by mid-morning. Perfect.
Or not quite.
Because less than 24 hours before our flight was scheduled to depart, we received an email from Ryan Air informing us that our flight was cancelled due to a strike of airport workers. I understand that that is beyond their control, but the company earned their nickname "Crying Air" with its laughable "customer service." Note the quote marks. They are intentional. Their email gave cryptic instructions for changing to another flight, and seemed to suggest that if we had already checked-in for our returning flight (which we had) that flight was non-changeable. But that was hard to tell. They gave no phone number, and the numbers we could find were a) toll calls, on the order of 30 cents a minute, and b) didn't work anyway. We quickly debated driving to France, going through a different airport (like Brussels), or leaving on an earlier flight that still seemed to be operating. We opted for the latter, even though it would mean driving to the airport at 2 in the morning, 7 hours from that moment. But when Keith went to book it, it looked like the flight would be €130,00 for each of us. A far cry from the super-inexpensive tickets we'd initially booked. We hesitated hitting that "book" button, until we realized we'd yet to give credit card information for that flight, so perhaps there would be information about swapping one flight for another on the next screen.
Which is in fact what happened. Our tickets were booked with no additional cost to us. Besides the cost of sleep and time for a planning and packing. I had been fiddling with research, mostly ahead of booking our accommodations as I wanted to find a convenient base for us, but had left the lion's share of the research for the morning of our evening flight. Not my usual M.O., but it had been a busy time, with the Infiorata and the end of school. Now we had next to nothing. Except dirty clothes and not enough time. We tried to turn our first world tragedy into triumph by focusing on our having an extra day in France, but we were frankly too cross and stressed to do more than hurriedly pack and try to sleep. Well, 3 of us slept a little. Nicolas didn't get home from his class party at Orlando until 11:30, and Keith opted not to sleep at all, as he also had the extra burden of work he needed to finish before we left.
This was, perhaps, not the ideal time for a party, but we had planned to have Paola over on Monday for pizza, and I didn't want to cancel. And then Angelo stopped by to ask me how to translate a blurb for a poster he was making, and we invited him as well, and all of a sudden, we were having a blast. Homemade pizza is perfect for a party, as the pizzas provide a continual source of diversion. Perfect.
Or not quite.
Because in my harried and fractured state, I forgot to add salt to the dough. Which is probably why the pizza with zucchini and onions turned out the best—it was topped with a salted kind of cheese, rather than the fresh mozzarella I used on the rest. In any case, it was a merry party, and it was absolutely one more stone in the wall that makes us feel that Spello is a foundation for us, not just a travel stop.
So 2:00 AM found us blearily driving to Rome airport, missing a turn-off, getting very nervous as we got lost, getting back on track, and then getting to the airport in time to find that our flight was delayed two hours. Two hours more we could have slept. But we cheered ourselves with a crummy breakfast we hardly noticed, and focused on Paris. Though we had no idea what we'd do once we arrived—In Beauvais. In Paris. In Normandy. Sure, we'd abandoned trying to do things perfectly in Sicily, but this was different. In Sicily, we still knew where we'd go—Segesta, Favignana, San Vito Lo Capo. Here, we knew where we were staying, but not a lot more than that. What does one do without internet planning?
Turns out, there are old fashioned ways to travel, all of which I'd forgotten. First of all, once we'd checked into Le Jardin de Marie-Jeanne (at left) with our hacked up attempt at French (learn French, also on my ambitious list of things-to-do for the day we lost), our host gave us suggestions on where to go. She gave us a map, and directed us to the town of Gerberoy. Which she described at tres jolie. Oh! I know that one! It's very, very, very--- something good!
And it was indeed very, very, something good. Glorious, in fact. Without knowing it, we had actually approached the border of Normandy. The village was a riot of fairy-tale houses flourished with roses and irises and wisteria. We walked through the streets with our faces glowing with astonishment. Perfect.
Or not quite.
Because what we realized is that though the town is spectacularly charming, like the very definition of charming, it didn't really breathe. Like many of these "most beautiful villages" of France and Italy, the heart is sort of gone. It's a marvelous stop for a walk and lunch, to imagine what the village must have been like hundreds of years ago, but it's not alive enough for more than that.
We found a spot for lunch, and had a spectacular meal at L'Atelier Gourmand de Sarah. Cider to drink, tartes salee in two different kinds (3 of us get one, 2 got another—I think Sarah, the owner/waitress/chef, found it easier to just bring us some of both rather than deciphering our confused faces when she told us the options), one a chicken and mushroom and the other provençale vegetable. Both were fantastic, like quiche, but with a different crust, and maybe there was something else different about it, because Nicolas doesn't like quiche and he loved this. They were served with salad, and then followed by dessert. Some of us received an almond scented pound cake covered with strawberries, and some got apples layered in pastry. Again, we were blown away by both. And Sarah was delightful. Directing us to the area above the garden for a view of Gerberoy, bringing out toys to buoy an increasingly tired and truculent Gabe, and even bringing out Josephine and Napolean, her highly entertaining turtles. She said that Josephine was more active, and I said as an aside that's because she's a girl, and we laughed and I spared a moment to notice that I had made a joke. In French. A not very funny, and quite inelegantly stated joke, to be sure, but a joke just the same. This was different. Usually, I'm shamefaced about my lack of language when I travel—pushing Keith to the front to be our spokesperson. Last time we were in France, I had what came close to a panic attack, so scared was I to speak or run the risk of being spoken to.
This was definitely different. And way better. Instead of pushing Keith to the front, I stepped forward, wanting to try. Being understood felt like a hurdle leapt; I felt a rush. Like a kid who invents a useable secret code. I can only assume it's this year abroad that has made the difference. I was forced to step out of my cozy zone, and found that taking the risk of looking foolish could be fun. Who knew?
We went back to our B&B for a rest. When we got up, the house was filled with the smell of cooking strawberries. Marie-Jeanne was making jam. For the next day's breakfast. Bliss. Further bliss was found at the table, all set and ready for our dinner, which we'd requested at 6:00. Which is early by French standards, but we had pleaded tiredness, and Marie-Jeanne was game to serve dinner at this crazy hour.
So 6:00 found us gathering around the table, inhaling the aromas and admiring the beautifully set table. We sat ourselves, and Marie-Jeanne brought out our first course—ficelle picardie, a traditional crepe of the region. It was filled with ham and mushrooms and gruyere cheese and creme fraiche, and topped with more gruyere and creme fraiche and was so unbelievable that Nicolas and Gabe devoured theirs despite their cheese aversion. Next came the duck. Oh, the duck. We'd all had duck confit before, but never like this. With crispy potatoes redolent with duck fat, and duck meat that melted in our mouths leaving behind a taste of grass and smoke. We ate past the point of explosion. And then came the camembert, in a sweet glass holder, like a small cake plate, which explained the table full of similar glassware on a nearby table, that had made us curious. The room was full of such knick-knacks and flourishes, not quite our style, but fun for an evening. And once we realized there were collections mixed in with the frills, we became more appreciative of the time it must have taken to accumulate the pottery and glassware that festooned the room.
The boys ducked out for camembert, but the rest of us swooned. And then came vanilla ice cream with warm, homemade raspberry coulis. Divine.
And the best part? After patting our tummies, and praising the artistry of the meal to Marie-Jeanne, we were able to roll to our rooms to sleep. Or try to, it was so light. In fact, we rarely saw the darkness in France—when we went to bed at 11:00 it was still light, and when we woke up it was light. Darkness is as hard to come by in summertime France as a bad baguette.
After a reasonable night's sleep, we came downstairs for breakfast. Warm and buttery croissants and baguette. Served with good French butter in individual butter pots and a selection of homemade jams. Oh, the jams, the jams! I'm pretty sure they were tres jolie. If anything is tres jolie it is those jams. My favorite was plum, but everyone else preferred the raspberry or strawberry. But they were all remarkable.
Gabe and Siena played outside while we packed, and there was a hiccup when they two of them inadvertently pulled up what they thought were wild plants to make "fishing wire" but were actually planted flowers, and had to maneuver past the pain borne of not being able to respond properly when confronted with their mistake by Marie-Jeanne. Nicolas's leftover French helped us ask if we could pay for them, which Marie-Jeanne laughed off. Gabe and Siena wrestled with significant shame over the incident. And with the benefit of almost a year of thought on the matter, I told them that part of our job is to come to terms with the lack of perfection in our world and in ourselves. We are going to mess up sometimes. That is part of the rent for being human. Unpleasant, and yet we roll on. Filled with the beautiful, though awkward, surety that we are imperfect, just as we should be. What's too perfect is stilted, lacking life. Better to live, and fumble. It was good to say that aloud, because I had been embarrassed at the incident, too—putting it into perspective for them helped me.
And then we piled into the car. A day in France under our collective belt, still no idea what we'd be doing but suddenly okay with that, full of French baked goods and the memory of duck confit, and a confidence that no matter our lack of preparation or bumbling language or embarrassing mistakes in our future, we would not only manage but flourish like a rose on a half-timbered house.