Travel isn’t all smooth transitions and easy connections followed by uninterrupted exploration. A journey like ours will inevitably run into some hiccups and bumps along the way
You can’t realistically hope for a problem free journey, what you can hope for is kind people and serendipity along the way. Maybe a story or an experience to look back on is something to wish for rather than a simple trip.
Our day began with catching a train early morning before the light to Charles De Gaul airport. We had thoroughly enjoyed Paris but we were excited to see some countryside and explore the history and wine of Northern France as well
France is laid out in a way that Paris really is the center of the world. All roads lead to Rome, yes, but in France they all lead to Paris. It is an incredibly centralized state, the beauracracy and concept of how France runs and functions starts from Paris and spiderwebs out to the rest of the nation
The public transit system reflects this political science reality. Often, the easiest way to take a train, bus or metro from place to place is to go from Point A to Paris then from Paris to Point B. This makes traveling around the countryside by public transit a bit of a difficulty.
With the mindset of true Americans we decided to forgo the tricky logistics of public transit and rented a car. Besides train, car travel is genuinely one of the best ways to experience a more rural area. You can stop whenever you want, go at your own pace and reach places off the beaten trail.
That was our plan for Normandy. Get off the beaten trail a bit for the night. We rented a small AirBnB on a sheep farm: an adorable shepherds hut with a wood fireplace and a large loft with a bed upstairs surrounded by greenery, fields and farm houses. The exact opposite of Paris.
Since we were flying out of Charles de Gaul airport we decided to rent a car from there, take a tour around Northern France then return it the morning of our flight.
Halfway through the train ride to the rental car place at the airport the train came to an unscheduled stop.
The announcement was in rapid French over a low quality speaker and I couldn’t make out more than a few words. No one else moved so we figured it was just a longer stop then the other stations had been.
However soon more announcements came. The volume of the conversations on the train grew. Bags were zipped. People stood up.
This wasn’t our scheduled stop, not even close.
It becomes clear the train is delayed. They don’t know for how long. It could be awhile.
These things happen, however unfortunate. You can’t expect a problem free trip the entire time.
Through the clamour and confusion of the station platform I saw a very confused looking guy who appeared to be from the UK. About the same time I heard a voice near me “Parlez-vous anglais?”
“Oui, je parle l’Anglais, or yeah I mean yes I speak English” I reply to her. “Do you know what’s going on?”
The Irish lad joins our conversation and between the four of us, Jamie, myself, him and her we determine the train has been delayed indefinitely. The empty train car starts to roll away slowly as we talk.
They’re both panicked. They have flights to catch, we’re lucky to just be renting a car.
She suggests we split and Uber and we all agree that’s the most cost and time effective way to arrive at CDG.
Jamie and I were able to call an Uber and the four of us pile inside for the tense ride. The girl is from Texas on holiday and the guy is from Ireland here visiting his girlfriend. It takes a little bit to figure out how to pay since he didn’t have cash but helping out a fellow traveller would have been worth it even if he couldn’t have paid with an app.
I would hope someone would help us out the same if ever needed. You never know when and in what form kindness will come back to you.
Navigating Charles de Gaul was nice and stressful but ultimately it went well and we were able to get our car. I hope both of our Uber companions caught thier flights home.
All things considered we were happy to be on the road in a rented Audi headed towards Normandy.
The first leg of the drive itself and our first stop at Bayeux went flawlessly. This tiny town hosts one of the most important Medieval artifacts of French and English history: the Bayeaux Tapestry.
This epic tale of the victory of William the Conqueror was crafted in the late 1000s CE. It shows the naval invasion across the English channel of a horde of armored French knights.
The conquest of England by the French created a new noblility, one that eschewed the English words for fancy foods and adopted French as the language of the upper class. This war is part of the reason why we call cow meat “Beef” and pig “pork”. It was to sound fancier and more upper class during this time of French aristocratic influence.
We still use French words for foods to sound fancy. The linguistic impact of these interactions lasts till today.
Plus, the tapestry itself is a gorgeous piece of artwork. You must visit this museum if you are in the area.
We hoped back in the car and hit the road towards the American Memorial Cemetery on the coast in Normandy.
As a child I was obsessed with “playing army” and re-enacting famous historical battles with Lego soldiers. I have always loved military history. Ironically it has made me appreciate peace time so much more. Reading soldiers diaries as a kid really opens your eyes to the non glamorous aspects of war.
My parents bought me a Stephen E. Ambrose book called D-Day. It is 600 pages of purely one battle, the Normandy invasion that helped turned the tide of the Western front of World War Two. This battle is indirectly why the Holocaust was put to a stop. It helped open a new front against the Nazis and ensured Allied victory over fascism.
One of the greatest war films created in my lifetime is Saving Private Ryan. The intense scenes of soldiers being gunned down as they struggled to drag thier gear and themselves from amphibious landing boats up on to the shores of France forever stuck with me.
I also grew up hearing about the American liberation of Europe from my grandfather. He fought in the infantry from 1944 to 1945 across Western Europe, mostly France. He landed on the very beach we were about to visit. He was just a kid when it all happened. I know he would be able to pick out individual names of soldiers on the grave sites today as his comrades in arms.
Walking along the cliffs above the beach and seeing the Memorial made it so clear to me how valuable peace is. We simply don’t appreciate the fact that we don’t need to send millions of our kids to go die in another country. That may not always be the case, and every time a generation goes by without a world wide war we need to be thankful. I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” for more info and stats on just how peaceful our time is.
The last leg of our road trip for the day was to reach the shepherds hut we rented for the night.
I was getting extremely comfortable on the road. The roundabouts made sense, the insane drivers of Paris were far behind the rear view mirror. Open country roads filled with wheat, cows and chateaus stretched ahead for miles.
The actual act of travel was meant to be difficult today.
Twenty minutes from the AirBnB a warning light goes off on the car. Low tire pressure. Shit.
It’s not necessarily an emergency, night was coming and the air pressure probably changed a lot when it cooled down, but even as that hopeful thought crossed my mind the car started sounding off.
We were literally in farmers fields with no cross streets or refernce points nearby. Pulling over it was obvious, we had a flat, and we were in the middle of nowhere.
I pinned our location on Google maps to pull up the address closest to us then called the Sixt rental car roadside assistance line. I hit 2 for English and was transferred to someone who spoke very little of it.
The biggest struggle of the entire trip was trying to read out street names and cities over the phone with spotty recpetion to someone mostly did not speak the same language as me.
We settled on some bastardized version of the Greek alphabet to get letters and names spelt out. D as in Delta. Oui, no no not three, I meant to agree, not to say a number. Oui sounds too much like three.
Tension grew as they said they would need to call us back. We did not know how long it would be or even if we could communicate where we were to the tow truck driver. Some cars drove past. A giant combine with a farmer rolled past. A beat up pick up truck turned the corner.
The call back was frustrating again, she needed to confirm the address again and it was not the correct one. Transfered to the towing company. The driver does not speak English. I’m feeling a bit worried looking up at the dark clouds rolling in over the Eastern horizon. It seemed bleak, our chances of getting to our BnB seemed slim.
We started to question if coming all the way out here was even a good idea. Should we cancel other rental car ideas in case this happens again? In the moment your mind runs through a thousand scenarios and questions every decision made up till this point. We’re we going to be able to be on the road again at time soon? Are we going to end up taking a bus back to Paris? What’s the process with a broken down rental car anyways? If I need to pay for a tow or a taxi will insurance cover it? Is this going to set us back a good chunk of money, maybe even forcing us to cancel something else?
Then, just as subtle as the shift in the clouds above us, we felt hope.
I was practically waiting for a French farmer to pull up alongside our obvious city dweller selves and offer assistance. I know it’s the stereotype in America that farmers are helpful and country people will tend to lend a hand more often then city folks are, I just hoped it held true here as well.
What I hoped for was someone to commiserate with, laugh at our bad fortune and maybe speak to the tow truck driver to give our exact location. I didn’t expect to end up making a new friend.
After some pointing and smiling he asked to open up the trunk for the spare tire. “Merde, eletrique” he says. I know that one. Shit, electric. Yup that means no spare tire. He shakes his head. I explain we already called a tow truck.
Somehow we communicate. He knows maybe half a dozen English words. I can order food and ask for directions in French, but it’s working. Jamie is able to understand what I’m not. She seems to follow the flow of the multilingual conversation and knows he was asking us what we did that day.
He makes a cross with his fingers as he says Cathedral. Yes! We went to the Bayeux cathedral, c’est manifique! Tapestry is the next word I understand. I pull out my phone and show him the pictures from the museum. He seems impressed, I try to say I love history in French. He replies that he does as well.
I mention my grandfather was part of D-Day. That word he knows well. He points down the road we came from, Canadienne tanks he says. Another road, Americain tanks.
He is showing me the paths the soldiers used to free his village two generations ago.
We find a bunch of World War II words we both know, Sherman tank, paratrooper, and D-Day all transcend the language barrier. He says war is horrible. I say yes but peace is beautiful.
The farmer takes over the conversation with the tow truck driver for me as I hand over my phone. No we are not by the castle he explains to the driver, it’s a small wheat farm by a grain silo. I have no idea how I would have explained all that.
The tow driver arrives, takes one look at the tire and laughs. I can tell he can’t fix this here. These country roads did a number on the rubber.
He starts to say something as I also ask do we need to be towed. We both stop, we can’t make out what the other is saying. I think fast and pull out my phone and type in English to French translation. I type in my question, does it need to be towed, but he beats me by a second and shows me his phone first, he had also translated a phrase on his phone for me, It needs to be towed. We both burst out laughing at the fact that we both said nearly the exact same thing and had the exact same idea to translate with our phones.
Using technology makes communicating across cultures so much easier. But there is such charm in struggling and succeeding the old fashion way, hand gestures familiar words and high school French. The farmer and I stop using our phones and resume just taking once the tow driver hooks the Audi up and drives away. We understand each other really well for whatever reason. I think its because we share similar passions about history and culture. Some things truly can transcend language, you really can make a friend with someone without speaking all that much.
He says his “small girl” is on her way home. He says she works in Bayeux and speaks English very well. She will come explain everything the tow driver said and help us call the rental car company to organize a taxi.
A few minutes later his daughter arrives. If this was a movie or a fictional story she would have been our waitress or guide or something from earlier in the day when we were also in Bayeux. It would have been our serendipitous way of running back into someone we were meant to meet.
Alas, we don’t recognize her but she has even better, and kinder news then expected. She says her father wants to give us a ride to the AirBnB. He’s from here and knows how long a taxi could take to arrive. He pushes aside some equipment in his “truck Americain” and create a seat for Jamie.
I hop up front, profusely thanking him and his daughter for their kindness. It is truly remarkable that he offered to help us out after a day working in his own fields. I ask him what he grows, maize and potatoes he replies. Same as his father.
He plugs in the address into his GPS, a village called Beny-sur-Mer and says with astonishment “hotel?” No I reply, someone’s home. He seems to make it clear from his surprise that they don’t get many foreigners staying here. Most people probably stay in Bayeux or nearby Caen if they make it out to Normandy.
Beny is a small town, a village really, but even then it’s difficult to find the place we’re staying. It’s dusk and we park in front of the only possible building it could be. He walks down one side of the road, me the other looking for the house number.
Being a friendly guy he simply goes up to the house with a lit window and asks. They point us around back and we find our shepherds hut.
I realize we’ve had an entire afternoon together talking about history and overcoming language barriers and connecting about France’s culture yet I don’t even know his name. I ask him and finally officially meet Marc. He shakes my hand and repeats my name to himself.
I offer to pay but he declines. I take out my wallet and he seems offended. I make a show of putting it away and thank him again and again. The second he looks away I slipped 20 Euros into the side door of his truck. I would have paid that many times over just to have had made a friend and have this same conversation again. Moments and connections like this are invaluable.
The kindness and generosity of this area did not end when Marc drove away in his pickup. We exchanged Au Revoirs careful not to say Adieu, it’s more of a See you Next Time then a Farewell.
Having seen us drive up in a farmers truck many hours later then we had anticipated, our host was kind enough to give us advice on calling a taxi early and expecting an hour wait. Taxis take a long time to get out here. He suggests a pizza place that delivers since we cannot drive to the nearest town. Beny-sur-Mer has no restaurants.
Amazingly generous, he also offers to bring us food from his kitchen if we cannot find something. I feel so overwhelmed with gratitude and surrounded by true kindness that the fact that I may need to deal with insurance tomorrow and still do not know the cost doesn’t phase me.
We put on a fire in the wood stove but find out the pizza place is closed for the night. “That’s a very French thing to do, close up or go on holiday without telling anyone” I later hear from another kind BnB host.
If that’s a very French thing to do, so is offering strangers help when they need it. Every single person we met along the way had been incredibly kind. Our host brings over lasagna, salad bread and olive oil for us to eat. He points out hot chocolate and tea as well. I’ve never had a more soothing cup.
Without a car and without food we were able to make it to our place and have a full meal purely on the kindness of strangers. Normandy will forever have a place in my heart and a story on my lips for whoever wants to listen.
In the end we made it to our next stop flawlessly. The taxi arrived, about 45 mins late just as our host knew it would, but we were able to get a replacement car and were back on the road to the Loire Valley the next morning.
It turns out flat tires are completely covered by Sixt. We got a new car for free as well.
For getting a flat in the middle of nowhere on the first day driving in a foreign country it went pretty well. I am extremely impressed with the kindness and generosity of the French people we met along the way.