Friday, August 24, 2007

Fini, les vacances

There is a tingle of anticipation when you wheel your suitcase to the quai of the Gare Montparnasse to head off for vacation. I adore Paris in August, but who am I to resist enticing invitations to head south?

On the one hand I find it so hard to leave this city. There is a sense of connection, of feeling the pulse of what is happening -- even in August.

Especially in August, I should say. At the drop of a hat I wax poetic about the joys of Paris in August, when the streets are empty. Paris the beauty, the magnificent sculptured jewel of a city, which is so much easier to experience first-hand when the daily commotion subsides. Like rediscovering your beloved when the kids are all packed off to summer camp. Ah -- alone at last! You and me, Paris.

And yet. And yet. The rest of France beckons.

Departing from Paris 12 short days ago, on the TGV heading south, the fields whirring past as I watch from my backwards-facing seat, I find that the need to feel Paris in my veins -- the daily fix -- slowly disappears during the three-hour ride. Then motoring south from La Rochelle through the countryside of the Poitou-Charentes, purposely avoiding the grandes autoroutes and traveling the backroads -- the routes départementales -- which take you through one little village after another. It doubled the travel time but more than tripled the enjoyment. Soaking up la belle France. Why not?

All the towns seem to have names that end in -ac. Segonzac, Cognac, Blanzac, Biberac, Bergerac, Issigeac. I privately wonder if there are also a Maniac, Cardiac, Cadillac. I am correct on the latter guess. Summer is time for celebrating everywhere in la France profonde. Each village celebrates with fetes, foires, concerts. I want to linger, but push onward.

And then after traveling a the more flat expanse of the Périgord, crossing the river and quietly experiencing the undulating hills of the Dordogne. Breathtaking is too forceful a word -- it is instantly pacifying. The tranquility is palpable. I drink in the peacefulness like a plant in need of watering.

I realize that when at home in my apartment in Paris, visually I am surrounded by a still-life tableau of furniture, molded ceilings, paintings and tall, curtained windows; but there is an overlay of noise from beyond-- the cranking of neighbors' shutters, footsteps in the apartment upstairs, incessant cooing of lovelorn pigeons, the hum of machines, the swishing of water through plumbing, bottles being deposited in the bin in the courtyard.

In the Dordogne countryside, it is the exact opposite. Outdoors, there is endless activity, but so much seems to happen in utter silence. The small white butterflies dancing low among the dry blades of grass and the foundation of the house. The green lizards darting on the ancient stone wall. Tides of ants on the wrought iron table under the walnut tree. A chestnut brown horse herding the cows as they munch, nodding, in the nearby pasture. Their tails swish, their ears twitch, but I hear nothing. Up the hill, across the road, a farmer is walking along the serrated edge of his fields to the opening in his barn. A hawk is tracing huge arcs under the puffs of clouds. A dragonfly stops to inspect my knee. This cotton-like silence is punctuated occasionally by the chirp of a gold finch or the cry of a distant field hawk. An errant fly drones past in doppler-effect. Paris seems a distant memory.

Then, wham! A switch from the Dordogne to the "in" summer resort of Ile de Ré is otherwordly. Instant immersion in the froth of La France en vacances. Parisians in summer homes or Parisians who have finally caved in to its charms and moved to the island year-round. A different social humming, of laid-back dinners starting at 9 or 9:30 and pots d'amis, dining outdoors, the cognescenti old-timers sporting about in their Citroen Meharis. Picture Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket drenched in French and you have a vision of Ile de Ré. Busy, buzz, bustle, bisous!

Quaint narrow streets lined with faded white stuccoed houses, stone walls, roses tremières. Fabulous beaches, lots of history and culture for the rainy days. Charming packed harbors with boutiques and outdoor dining. Donkeys, salt marshes, oyster farms. Campers, boaters, summer residents and jet-set cohabiting on a small slip of land. This island, hip enough for Le People, has plenty of new construction with whitewashed walls and red tile roofs, yet there is a neighboring rooster who lets us know that local farming is still key. There is simply nothing not to love about l'Ile de Ré, except for the August traffic clogging the main road. It's no wonder that the easiest way to get around the island is by bicycle.

Oh, and did I mention le Boucquingamp? That's where I discovered that although I can muster the energy to have fun finale at a boite de nuit until 3 a.m., my weary bones then need to take a vacation to recover from vacation.

On the return trip to Paris, the TGV ride seems to evaporate. Suddenly the announcement, "Mesdames et messieurs, we are arriving at the Gare Paris Montparnasse." How did it all go so swiftly? Was I really away for 12 days?

The cab driver, looking mournfully at the ever-present rain as he lugs my suitcase, asks the question du jour in Paris.

"Alors, fini, les vacances?"

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