(the misadventures of an expatriate corporate dropout)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

losing it in Europe.

Yesterday was one of my closest friend's birthday. I haven't requested permission to post her age, so I'll leave that. Suffice it to say you'd never guess. This is my friend Christie, who has made several journeys with me to France. My earlier trips in particular.

Last night I joined Christie and her assorted family members at the coast for dinner. Several of Christie's family members have birthdays in the March/April timeframe. Apparently summers were good times for Christie's parents. So there we were drinking red wine and visiting in that kind of loud chaotic fashion families are wont to do when they all congregate in a smallish space.

They got started teasing Christie's sister about an airheaded phase she went through, say 20 years or so back. A phase where she did lots of silly things like lock herself out of places, forget stuff, leave things behind, etc. Now I've been in this phase pretty much all of my adult years. Of course, I wouldn't call it airheaded. I like to think of it as having SO many things to remember, be responsible for, to do... that my capacity just goes to overload and I'm kind of out of memory. You know, like those computer glitches. ahem.

Well anyway Christie and I got started reminiscing about a certain trip to France we took where apparently I lost stuff at basically every stop. I had begun to tell the tale of the ONE loss I experienced, when Christie pipes in and says, "No, start at the beginning ... it wasn't just ONE!" . Well, I still think she's blended multiple trips ... but here's how it is recalled now.

Lovely trip we'd planned. First down to San Sebastián to stay, enjoy the beach town in Northern Spain ... hop round to Bilbao to see the spectacular Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim. Then on up to Biarritz. Head over to the Loire for a couple of châteaux. Christie swears we hit Toulouse as well, but that was a second trip. Of course, as mentioned, her memory is many times sharper than mine. But still, I believe I'm right.

This was my second trip to France. And first to Spain. And our first time travelling together. I also should share that Christie has the patience of Job and I of a flea. Great match. I took on the driving (stick) and Christie the navigation (no stick ability). Christie had loads of travel experience, I little to none. So I had painstakingly researched and read and pondered in order to have some basic knowledge of the area. Christie on the other hand was like having a human Wikipediac on board. See, she had studied history and languages for years and could rattle off esoteric facts at will, and did so as we raced along the autoroute. I was instantly intimidated and cranky! (we can laugh about it now). In a nutshell, the entire experience was somewhat overwhelming.

We arrived in San Sebastián and made our way to our little pension. Prior to this trip, I had never even heard of a pension! This pleasant woman rented out rooms in her apartment. Ours was tiny, with a window overlooking a small courtyard. You could lean out and see all the neighbors. Which everyone did, of course. It was lovely.

It is too many years ago to recount every aspect of this trip. We went to the old square one night for tapas and managed to find the center of the most hideous tapas in Spain. Stall after stall of mayonnaise drenched yuck! But we also found great drinks and a square with a ska band and loads of beautiful young people, rocking out. Many of whom looked like my half-Spaniard daughter. The predominant language in this Basque neck of the woods is Euskara. My general impression was that 'esses' and 'ess kays' (s's and sk's) take on the sh sound. Best way to describe it is "osh kosh b'gosh". To my entirely untrained ear of course.

We ended this particular night closing down a little bar and then walking along the beach walk back to our pension. In the morning, I realize I can't find my wallet. We retrace all of our steps that evening and as we approach the bar, I am greeted with recognition by the proprietors. They had my wallet, intact, and had been hoping to find me somehow. The Spanish reacted with genuine concern towards a basic stranger. Loss #1.

Another recollection of the Spain portion of the trip is driving through the most magnificent Pyrenees during a skycracking thunderstorm in the pitch black, certain the next turn held our immediate demise. Driving through those same mountains in daylight was like being in some kind of mystical land. These pointy peaks seemed to rise higher than any mountains I'd seen before. You felt you were in the middle of nowhere and then you'd round the bend and there would be a dense little city made up of high-rise apartments clinging to the side of the road.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao was also a contradiction. Here we were in this sooty, dilapidated fishing town. We drove out towards the industrial port area, rounded a corner and voila! there emerged a fantastical building out of a child's fantasy. The art it housed was grand, but the building itself was the best installation offered.

Okay, back to losing.

One of my choices, carefully researched, was a visit to the Château of Azay le Rideau. This was a small, romantic château that seemed to float on the water. The story goes that its owner/builder Gilles Berthelot, state treasurer for King Francois I, was suspected of embezzlement once the king got wind of the lavish Château he was building and he was disgraced and forced to flee. The king took ownership and promptly gave it to one of his minions. Sounds fishy to me.

Anyhoo. Driving to Azay le Rideau along one of France's inimitable autoroutes, we swing off for a pitstop. Now the autoroute isn't such that there's an exit every 1/4 mile. No you drive and drive and then like an oasis in the distance there is a self-contained detour spot with cafe, road books, restrooms, showers, knick-knacks ... oh, and petrol. Well in any event, we pop out and I decide not to take my purse. Just my wallet and keys. (queue impending doom music). Take care of business, back in the car and hit the autoroute, all the while dreaming of dreamy Azay le Rideau.

Arrive, park loads away from actual château. Tromp through appropriately charming village to line up for ticket. Approach ticket booth, reach into purse and ... yeppers, no wallet.

Mind you we are at least 45 minutes from the pitstop. One way. sigh. My Job-like companion and I return to the car. 45 minutes of awkward silence interspersed with my whining ensues. I'm in a sweat. My passport was in that wallet. I barely engage the parking brake and make a mad dash for the interior. Yes, my wallet was at the cashier. Minus only the cash. All credit cards, passport and sundry items were intact. Wish I could say the same for my pride and disposition. They reacted with disbelief at this irresponsible American woman who ridiculously left behind her wallet. Zero sympathy. Yes, the French ARE my people. smile. Loss #2.

Loss #3, you ask? Well ... even though it WAS on a separate trip, my third loss occurred in Toulouse, "la ville rose", or the rose city - so named because of the gorgeous, soft pink and rose colored stone used in so many of the buildings. Toulouse is in the heart of foie gras country. Our last night in the city, we had dinner at a quite magical restaurant ... whose employees were actors in their own right, just biding their spare time at the restaurant. We ate and drank and were much entertained and staggered into our beds at an unmentionable hour. We hurried the next morning to depart at the appropriate hour. My diamond ring was nowhere to be found. Searched the room high, low and all points between. Pitched a fit at the hotel. Called daily throughout the rest of the trip. To no avail. My wedding ring, to boot. double sigh.

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