July 17: Traffic in the South of France Destroys Our Souls

The plan this morning was to leave early, go swimming at Pont du Gard, make our way over to Pau, register Dan for his big L’Etape ride tomorrow, check into our gite, and maybe have a leisurely dinner. That did not happen.

We had immediate traffic issues as the medieval festival was launching and the street was clogged with vehicles – people unpacking their booths, arriving for the day, leaving town for the weekend, or whatever – the street was barely wide enough for one American car, but it was three deep in little Renaults, Citroens, and our Peugeot, as we tried to load up all our stuff. We managed to get out without forgetting anything (at least I haven’t remembered what it is yet) except to turn on the dishwasher before we left. So apart from annoying the house cleaners, there were no disasters, and we got to the freeway toward Nimes. That’s when disaster struck, and struck fiercely. Our arrival time as derived by the GPS info on traffic and route jumped from a pleasant 4pm to a horrifying 8pm as soon as we got to the autoroute. Dan absolutely had to sign in by 9 or not get a bib number – there was no late check-in for L’Etape.

Damn. We had to break it to the children that we were not going to swim at Pont du Gard, as planned, and while they took it well we both felt really bad, especially since we knew the day was going to be a dreadful one, full of traffic. We got on the road at 9:30am, and arrived in Pau at 6pm. The GPS tried to help us out, taking us on and off the Autoroute, through different back roads and byways, but even the back roads were clogged insanely. At times the traffic was just stopped completely. For long periods of time. So not good for Dan’s blood pressure – this L’Etape was the main event for him and if we didn’t make it to the sign up, he would completely miss out. Between Dan’s anxiety and the children’s impatience with each other, the day was pretty awful. We were traveling down Via Domitia, or at least next to it, but we did not experience any poignant moments of connection with history, unless history sometimes involved the relief of an overdue bathroom trip or a cold Coca Light. Everyone in Europe was heading to the Mediterranean. While I don’t blame them, I did start to resent them. There were just so many cars.

Benny spent a lot of the day worrying obsessively about a loose tooth, then it came out and he spent the rest of the day losing it and obsessing about finding it. This replaced the obsession with planning a diorama of Paris and was later succeeded by an obsession with mountain climbing. When the child is out of his element, he gets latched onto things. Really latched on.

We arrived at the Hippodrome in Pau, and it was swarming with cyclists – riding their bikes around, walking, clustered up in groups talking, and in general being in the way. As the L’Etape experience continued, this would become a familiar feeling for us – Dan on the bike and me in the car – 10,000 cyclists in the way. We parked next to an electrical building, and while Dan went in to sign up, several cyclists came by to duck behind the building and pee, although I was sitting right there with my legs sticking out the side of the car.
When Dan came back he had a backpack full of stuff – registration materials, swag, a t-shirt, etc. We peeled out of there and went to look for a grocery store – always a challenge, as GPS frequently sends us to ones that are closed. Most grocery stores close at 7:30, but we knew that Marche Plus stays open until 9:30, and we found one in downtown Pau.
Since leaving the coast and entering the Pyrenean area, we found France to be very different. Toulouse was quite a modern and kind of grungy town, at least the parts that we drove through, and we also found Pau to be sort of modern. The billboards bigger and more frequent, the buildings less picturesque – we saw tin roofs replacing clay tile roofs, poofy oaks replacing the spikey cedars of Provence. In general, the midi-Pyrenees reminded me more of Western PA than of anything. We couldn’t see the actual mountains – the weather was overcast and drizzling, and the mountains were hidden in clouds.

Downtown Pau had a kind of 19th century feeling. We found our groceries, packed them into the already-overloaded car, and asked the GPS to take us to Maubourguet. As we left town, we started recognizing a more familiar feeling – winding roads, tiny towns with very old churches, confusing switchbacks, and mountains. The roofs are different over here – some are thatch, and they have these kind of staircased structures along the eaves, I think to facilitate thatching. We wound around up through the hills, and found our village. It’s different from St. Antoine, not medieval, but picturesque and charming enough. There’s a river through it, and an old church. We felt better. The place had promise.

Our gite is a separate cottage attached to La Camellia, which is a bed and breakfast hotel run by a lovely English couple. Pulling through the gate and into the yard, I was reminded of England – something in how the place is laid out, and how our cottage is put together, reminded me of living in Hereford. Our hostess, Catherine Wales, came out to greet us and show us the place – she was so charming, and she’d prepared the cottage so thoughtfully. There was a loaf of fresh bread on the counter, food in the fridge, the beds were made up, and there was a TV and the promise of WIFI. I almost cried, listening to her pointing things out in the house. It was as if someone friendly was taking care of us, after being on our own for two weeks. She was the first person I’d really talked to since being here that was a native English speaker, and it felt really comforting. There was a huge bouquet of fresh hydrangea blooms in the hall. She had a ketchup bottle in the pantry – and while I’d bought the children “frites” to eat, a cheerfully familiar food after the long hot awful day in the car, but I’d forgotten ketchup, and here it was. Ketchup for the kids. It almost moved me to tears.

I got Dan fed his heap of pasta, got the children some food, got everyone showered and into bed by 11pm. We had to get up at 4am the following day, and we were so horribly obsessed with missing that wake-up that we set both of our phones and the children’s DSis to alarm at 4am. I went up to go to bed and found the whole bed was feathers – pillow, duvet, etc. I couldn’t sleep on it, and the children were in single beds. Bah. I wandered downstairs and thought I would go see if I could log onto the WIFI from the yard, as Catherine had said was possible. I couldn’t get out the door. The lock was locked from the inside, and turning the key in it produced no effect whatsoever except more key-turning. I had a bit of a panic over not being about to get out in case of a fire, then found a door that led out to the street that I could open. Then I realized we wouldn’t be able to get out to the car in the morning – the door to the street let us out outside the gate! After I found a window that opened that was big enough to get the bike through, I lay down on the sofa and tried to sleep. I think I finally got to sleep about 2am, and dreamed fitfully about the L’Etape, where Dan would probably go hurtling off a precipice in a glorious cascade of 10,000 other cyclists, all dashed to bits.


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  2. Thank you so much for this detailed travelogue. I love it. Please, as you have opportunity, post more...and pictures.

  3. A great entry, pre- and post-Catherine, with interesting insight into your composition... and I don't mean that of the written variety! I picked up your enjoyable blog as a result of your mother's posting of the link; it is most enjoyable.

  4. Ooh, I am so sorry to hear about the traffic, I remember that (not fondly), and I remember that profound sense of relief when you finally run into a native English speaker....

    One thing that is amazing when you get back to the States (I know you are not even close to thinking about that now), is the roads seem like they are so big, each lane seems as wide as two lanes in France.

    You know I so wish I could be you (because you are in France, not just because you are young), but, as I am not able, reading your beautiful blog is the next best thing.

    We have a giant pile of toys to donate to the kids when you get home...