Oh France. What can I say about you? It’s a good thing Dan isn’t writing this blog post because he has plenty of words for you. And most of them are not so nice. If any of you follow Dan on Facebook you are
brave probably familiar with his feelings on Europe in general. I agree with some of his grumps, but not to the same red-hot-sun intensity.
This is mine and Dan’s third trip to France. I drove through in 1983 when I lived in Europe with my parents and sister. Dan backpacked through Europe in 1987 and then Dan and I came back as a couple with our BFFs in 2000 when we did an epic backpacking trip pre-children. And now here we are again, introducing our girls to France. I’ll be honest, Dan and I would not have come back here if it weren’t for the important things for the girls to experience. There’s no denying the vast amounts of history and culture here. Especially if you are studying World War 2, like we are, you can’t really skip France.
For this trip, our VERY first impression of France was when we drove from Calais, where we got off the Chunnel train, to our tiny town outside of Paris. The drive was so nice. So many green fields, wide open roads, generous speed limits and cows. A LOT of cows. We had to look up why there were so many white cows, wondering if maybe that’s where all the cheese comes from. Nope. Those are the beef cows. Well, that’s good. We like beef. We are glad they aren’t the skinny, sad cows that we saw in Panama, Dominican Republic as well as other places around the globe. These white cows are big, and they appeared to be happy as they slowly grazed on grass in big, open fields. Happy cows are tasty cows. Sorry to all those vegetarian and vegan fans that just unsubscribed in disgust.
So we arrive at our Airbnb on a high note. We love our car! The fields are so pretty! No sad animals! What a cute little town we will live in! And we are expecting good things from this Airbnb. We know it has 3 bedrooms and good internet because the host said she was getting 50 Mbps “fiber” internet before we arrived. And it would be quiet, as it’s a little cottage on a large property with the owner in another house. The pictures depicted a moderate house (a little dated, but still cute) and lovely, green, nature-filled property. And it had a dog. We booked it because of 1) space, 2) internet, and 3) dog for the 4) price.
But then we arrived. Oh boy, that arrival was a rough one. It was rainy and cold when we arrived. The owner had just finished planting grass so everything was brown and muddy and there were plastic fences everywhere. She greeted us and showed us to our cottage, which was 1) dirty and 2) very cluttered and, most importantly, 3) colder inside than it was out. Here’s the conversation that ensued:
NOTE: To set the scene, Dan is wearing a jacket and the host has a heavy sweater on. And it’s June 12th. In France (which is in the northern hemisphere, as you’ll recall from your geography lessons).
Dan: How do you turn on the heat?
Host: The heat is on.
Dan: No, it can’t be, it’s cold in here.
Host: We have no control over the heat. It’s automatically controlled by the outside temperature. When it gets cold outside it turns on higher. But it’s not cold outside so it’s not on very high.
Dan: But it’s cold outside.
Host: No, it’s not cold.
Dan: I’m cold.
Host: But it’s not cold.
And then they just stared at each other for awhile. We gave up on that conversation and figured we’d deal with that later. We dropped off our bags, took a quick survey of the house and tried not to cry. This was our “respite and recovery” house. It was rare to find a half-way affordable 3-bedroom house anywhere within spitting distance of Paris, and after 3 weeks of fast travel, we were ready for 3 weeks of relaxing while we slowly explored France. At first glance we saw no respite in our future. We saw discomfort.
This house looked like it had been furnished by those free groups you find on Facebook, or from garage sales. It looks like a cottage from 1965, with couches from that time frame too. Y’all, I’m not a diva but I could not sit on these couches. I immediately found what looked to be a cleaner blanket from upstairs and put that on the couch before I even contemplated sitting on it.
First thing’s first: we set off for a grocery store. Familiar food makes everything better and we’ve lived in Europe before (twice) so we even knew some of the grocery stores. Of course, Googling things in another language doesn’t work so well so when I asked for grocery stores near me it sent us to one that, we discovered later, was much less stocked and was further away than the stores that were ACTUALLY near me. #googleitmyass Two days later we discovered a great one just down the road. A welcome book in our Airbnb home would have been great in this situation. Just saying.
Anyway, that first grocery store was so disappointing. I told the fam to fan out, grab some items that they wanted to eat and meet back at the cart. Usually after about 10 minutes we have a cart full of stuff and lots of “Mom, look what they have!”. After 10 minutes we had eggs. That was all. Oh, and Haley’s tears. There was no gluten free bread or pasta item to be found. This, after finding gluten free stuff everywhere else we’ve been. Even in small towns on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Here, in Europe, outside of Paris, no gluten free. This was not faring well. To top if off, Dan didn’t even find his Diet Coke. He was ready to burn the store down but I told him I was not bailing him out of French jail. And it would probably be cold there too. #freedan
We could tell we were in small town France because no one spoke English and we got stared at. Full-on, head-turning STARES. We aren’t in Iceland anymore, Toto! But we pushed through. We got some basic things for dinner and headed home to settle in. That’s when we discovered the internet was 3 MBPS. 3. Three. Trois. Tres. 三 . Három. שלוש. We were told it would be 50. That’s a big difference, Ms. I’m-Not-Cold French Lady. Dan started the communication with her through the Airbnb app so we could document it in the wishful hope that we might have to leave due to promises not kept. I had visions of Airbnb saying “What? Your host did not deliver on her promises? Let us find you a lovely, big house that is sparkling clean with couches made within the last decade…” No such luck. As the weather cleared up and additional routers were configured, the internet got better and 6 days later we did get the promised fiber internet. I admit that it did work pretty darn well the rest of our visit.
But there’s still the matter of the dirty and cluttered house. If you are an Airbnb host, let me just suggest to you right now that you LIVE in your property at least 1 week a year. You’ll soon find what you are lacking. Like, no space for your guests to put their clothes and their food, curtain-less windows that shine light directly in your eyes while you sleep, TVs that can’t be viewed from both couches and brooms that don’t actually sweep. Oh, and garbage cans that hold only 1/2 a days worth of garbage. These are but just a FEW shortcomings. I’ll try not to bore you with the full list.
Perhaps by now you’re thinking “Complain much, Allison?” and you would be right. But it’s my blog post so I get to give you ALL sides of the Worldschooling experience. Not all days or countries are amazing! You might also be thinking “Well, you get what you pay for!” and you would be right there too. But we didn’t feel like this house was all that cheap. It cost us $2000 for 3 weeks. One of the higher rents we’ve paid around the world. So we just had expectations.
The next few days were spent righting the ship. Saving the day, if you will. I did some research and found the name of a big grocery store that is said to have lots of gluten free products, and was more of a Wal-Mart type store. It was an hour away but that’s fine because we like our rental car more than we like our rental house. So on Day 2 in France we set off for that store and we were not disappointed. We bought some sheets to cover the dirty couches, a frying pan (because #garagesalekitchen), lots of gluten free breads, and foods that we recognized. We even found Diet Coke for Dan.
It was at this point that we decided that we might JUST survive France.
But what more can I say about France? I mean, we could go ON and ON about all our observations, but why beat a dead horse? But I will say this… France is like a porcupine. You see it from a distance and you say “Oh how cute!” And then you go in for a hug and you go “Ouch!” and you’re picking barbs out of your face for days. It’s kind of like that. The small towns that we drive through to get anywhere are indeed adorable, so pretty and green with usually a river or a canal and all kinds of cafes and at least one major beautiful church. We LOVE the small towns. But if you spend too much time in one and you invariably get hungry, you might be out of luck if you don’t conform to their eating schedule. We tried to get pizza – or any food, really – at 4 p.m. in the afternoon and there was nothing – NOTHING – open for food other than coffee or tea. They all opened at 7 p.m. Haley, who eats like a squirrel – small, frequent meals – had words. Unkind words.
If you’ve been to France as a tourist, or if you would like to go, perhaps you are ready to blast me with commentary about how we are ungrateful and spoiled Americans. But I challenge you to understand the difference between LIVING in France and visiting France as a tourist. In fact, Dan and I have determined that France is really quite wonderful – as a tourist. If you save up for a few years, plan yourself an epic (but VERY expensive) 2-week trip where you stay in a centrally located hotel and eat at all the cute cafes and take all the tours and just live it as a tourist, it’s really quite sweet. But to actually **live** here…. that’s a different matter.
We’ve come to the conclusion that where we are at odds with France is their acceptance – almost embracing – of mediocrity and inconvenience. The aforementioned restaurant hours is just one example. Those open/close/open hours also apply to grocery stores, that close for a few hours in the middle of the day. Oh, you want to get groceries at 2:31pm in the afternoon? Not happening. Move along!
Our Airbnb host continued with that attitude of mediocrity, despite getting us our promised fiber internet. The washer/dryer combo that Europeans
tolerate love so much is in this house, but the dryer takes about 2.5 hours (for 25% of the load you can put into a typical US washer) and your clothes still come out wet. Hot, and wet. And smaller sometimes, too. So we asked if she had a drying rack – because we figured we’d do it the mediocre European way, right? Nope, no drying rack. OK, now it’s getting warmer in le cottage (hottest early summer on record), do you have a fan? Nope, no fan. OK fine. So now we own three fans that we will be shoving into the car on our road trip because we might as well use them since we bought them. We definitely aren’t leaving them with Ms. It’s-Not-Cold.
Well, to be fair, later she said she thinks there’s a drying rack under the stairs (why do you not know your own house??) and indeed there was, although it was falling apart. But we cobbled it together enough and put it on the balcony that got the most sun. Unfortunately, it gets a lot of birds too because our clothes ended up with bird poop on them. Haley discovered that little factoid after wearing her cute new jean shorts and accidentally shoved her hand into a big pile of poo. #notaFrancefan
Another example of acceptance of mediocrity would be when we asked if our host could print something for us. Sure! she says. It was delivered to us later, barely legible, at the end of what looked like a very long and sad life for the toner. Not only was the toner petering out, but it looked like it had altered it’s speed while printing since the text was misaligned. Entire lines were missing. There was no way I could fill that out, sign it and send it to anyone. Yet, that was perfectly acceptable to our host, I guess. Dan took one look at it and handed it to me saying simply “Hashtag Europe”.
Haley and I had a similar experience trying to get train tickets. It felt like we were the first people to EVER try to buy tickets between those two stations. TWO different French people even tried, unsuccessfully, to help us. TWO information booths nearby were completely unstaffed, in the middle of the day. (It was probably during their 2 hour lunch because no one could possibly need information during that time…?) Finally, a staffer helped us and we got our tickets and ran for the train only to find that our tickets didn’t fit into the machine to open the turnstiles. It was only the incredible kindness of a French lady that let us do a triple-spoon super-fast shuffle through the turnstile that we made our train. You cannot even imagine how funny it was for her to let two strangers essentially give her a full body back hug and scoot through the brief opening of the gate when she scanned her ticket. I’m not sure if I was out of breath from anxiety, laughing so hard or the fact that we were now probably running from the law. #freeAllison
I only need to check Dan’s Facebook page to find more examples of French Mediocrity. This would include a dashboard message in our rental car saying that we MUST add “AdBlue” to the car within the next 500 km or the car will be “impossible to start”. But calling the rental car agency proved to be no help at all. They had no idea what to do and said to take it to a garage and save the receipt. Really? Something that will make the car “impossible to start” is not something you want to figure out for your customers? Really???
Don’t even get him started on the movie theater with no cupholders.
And so, France, we recognize that you have a lot of lovely little towns, and you have a lot of really interesting things from a historical and cultural perspective. And in my next blog post I’ll tell you, my loyal and understanding readers, about some of the fantastic places we’ve visited. Despite all the grumps, we really have had a good time and made some memories. And yes, some good ones. But even the bad memories are memories, amIrite? #europe