Monday, November 21, 2011

A Different Type of Tour

During two summers before my enlistment in the US Army, my Boy Scout Troop took tours of the United States. The differences in my country amazed me. From the shores of the Pacific Ocean, through great deserts, the swamps and bayous of the south and eastern shore, the tall pines and great trees of the northeast, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains. We often traveled for several hours without seeing any towns or villages.
So, I found the French countryside far different from the USA. Los Angeles is not particularly a city as the center of a “landopolis” - a place where houses sat wherever one looked. There were never any clear lines between the towns. That was not the case in the countryside I now rode through. One did not go more than 5 or 6 kilometers without entering a small village.
Another note. My moped had a tank that held 1 liter of gasoline. Our gas stamps came in one, five, and ten liter denominations so I almost never used the monthly allocations. [We won't talk about how one bought the full allotment and “traded” them to one's buddies.] Being willing to peddle as much as using the engine often gave me well over 250 kilometers on a tank.
The Lambretta was a bit different. I had a 5 liter tank with a range of about 100 kilometers per liter – more if one kicked it into neutral going downhill. I bought the 1 liter stamps as I never used up all the tank and didn't want to give away the amount I didn't need on a 5 liter stamp. I may not be right about this but seem to remember the Exchange Service had a deal with ESSO and that was where one had to buy gas. I'm also not certain what companies operated there but seem to remember Shell, British Petroleum and another – but not a French company.
Interior of the Cathedral in Bordeaux
There I was, a young, virile man in a far away country, free to fall into the depths of sin. [That's all you're gonna read about that part of my time there!]
But, one of the things I truly enjoyed with the architecture, the old buildings came from historical times. I especially enjoyed visiting churches. The massive cathedrals with their towering ceilings and ornate facades and internal friezes always caught my attention. During my trips, I found a lot of smaller local churches just as beautiful.
I also broke from my Mormon upbringing by attending masses at the various churches in the area. Something about the Gregorian chants echoing from the vast ceilings calmed me. I even understood some of the Latin and the way the rite was conducted. I also discovered little places here and there where one could see remnants of things constructed during the presence of the Romans in the area.
In early summer of 1959, I took a 7 day leave to see the countryside. I had a Rand-McNally map from the Stars and Stripes store and figured I could make my way without getting lost. I had some American Express traveler's checks and French bills and coins.
At a top speed of about 45mph, I wasn't going to be traveling on the major highways where drivers had no idea speed limits existed. The first leg from Bussac to Bordeaux gave me no choice and I rode the very edge of the highway, hanging on for dear life with a truck or bus roared by, the wind tossing my around.
No, I didn't wear a helmet. They weren't required and I couldn't wear my army helmet. I wore a knit cap with a pair of shop goggles over my eyeglasses. And gloves with my black GI boots.
I reached Bayonne a little after noon and found a boulangerie [bakery], boucher [butcher], and boutique de vins [wine shop] to buy my lunch. A bench in a nice park filled with beautiful flowers almost, but not quite, hid the sight of soot-covered buildings and people wearing drab clothes.
It did not take much longer until I reached the Bay of Biscay and rode down the highway to Biarritz. There was a long stretch of beach but not a big crowd of bathers. I also saw very few bikinis. The one thing that upset me was to see tufts of dark hair showing under arm pits, a furry coat on legs, and similar tufts in places I won't delineate here.

I quickly moved on and, as it was getting late, decided to find a place to spend the night in Saint Jean-de-Luz. The first thing I noticed about the landscape south of Bordeaux was the total lack of signs of destruction from the big was only 13 years earlier. To see bullet holes in walls was common north of Bordeaux although it had been in Fichy France. I found a small inn facing the waterfront, selecting it because it had an interior courtyard where I could park my motor scooter.
The one thing I had learned was to check for the glass covered price list posted by the door of almost every establishment. The prices were clear so, with my English/French dictionary in hand, I went inside. Very quaint. Highly polished wood floor, old pictures and paintings covering the walls, some furniture that appeared to come from the late 1800s and a small bell desk with a woman in her 50s or 60s. Unlike her countrywomen to the north, she smiled and appeared pleased to welcome an American soldier to her establishment. She even tried to speak some words of English to me! [I almost fell over in shock.]
I filled out the required card, showed her my military ID and leave papers [which she had no idea what to do with but understood I didn't need a passport or visa] and paid by converting one of my traveler checks. She even gave me a most reasonable conversion rate that was posted behind her desk. I put my motor scooter in a corner of the courtyard and ensured it was locked, then followed her upstairs to my room. It was small but very clean and the sanitary facilities were more than adequate to include an old fashioned bathtub on legs. Yeah, it had the required bidet. The best thing was the small balcony facing the ocean.
Two doors away was a small restaurant. Again, I checked the clearly posted menu and sat down at a table looking out over the beach. It was not yet the height of summer and not that many people walked or lolled on the beach or in the water. Parents enjoying the day with their children were the majority. A waiter came out and patiently waited while I translated the menu. At least I'd become fluent in the different types of wine and ordered a small bottle of Bordeaux – it was not until a few years later that I learned to savor different types of wine.

I ordered alaitue, tomate, oignon et la salade au fromage, un soupe de poisson, et veau et les pommes de terre la puree et haricots verts. The wine was excellent, the lettuce crisp with an excellent vinegar and oil dressing, and the veal with mashed potatoes and green beans nicely finished the presentation. Actually French cooking worth talking about. There was an assortment of pastry, so I tried something with pears in it and topped off the meal with strong café avec crème et le sucre. Like every eating establishment I entered,  a large espresso machine stood behind the bar but I never had a taste for it.
The one thing I liked about eating was that nobody hurried. As long as I had a drink in front of me, I could spend hours. That's just what I did, watching the passing people to include a few young ladies who hid their faces and giggled as they passed the obvious American observing them.
There was a rare television set in the bar area and, when it grew dark, I went in and found a table where I could watch some kind of variety show in black and white. I only stayed long enough to drink a glass of cognac before going upstairs to my room. I left the window wide open to hear the soothing sound of waves – and the honking of horns that appeared mandatory for any French driver. The mattress was firm but the feather comforter and pillow soon led me to the land of slumber.
More next time.

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