Note: I started this in Toulon and finished it in Veltimiglia, Italy. Much to share about this leg of the trip already but this one went long…
Here we are in Toulon, France. Toulon is a charming coastal town on the Mediterranean Sea with excellent weather, gorgeous views, and a nice mix of French and Italian cultures (what little I know of both). The people here are friendly and helpful and what we’ve seen of the city is clean, picturesque, and colorful. Between the sun, the wind, and the water, this would be an incredible place to retire or at least spend a few weeks out of the year.
We hate Toulon.
OK, I’m sorry, that wasn’t fair … nor, either, is it true. We are, however, stuck in Toulon because of train strikes (and bus strikes and no rental cars) and this fact makes enjoying this beautiful part of the country more difficult than it could be. Each day is spent watching the news, finding places to stay, delaying future plans, and taking trips to the train station. I can think of better things to do with my time, working being one of them. Thankfully wifi isn’t too hard to find if you shell out for a coffee.
No, our existence right now is tolerable and we’re not spending any more money than we had originally expected. Still, staying in high spirits has been a conscious effort as this has felt less like a honeymoon and more like a test. We have found one thing, however, that keeps us going. This thing is the one thing that keeps everyone going through the tough times and the most important thing we’ve got going for us.
Beer… no, sorry, that’s the other thing.
The first two months of this trip were spent, for the most part, in “isolation.” By that I mean it was just Anna and I experiencing things, taking photos, making memories. Typically, we’d have a get together with friends on the weekend to share stories, photos, and lessons learned. As great as Skype has been, there’s just no substitution for face-to-face time (which is why I’m not so sure that the digital age is as lonely as people make it out to be… totally separate topic, that). Add to that our inability to communicate exactly as we’d like in French and you have a couple who are really ready for some friends and family time.
Our first visitor was the most surprising of all in the sense that it was somewhat coincidental timing and her first trip to Europe. Jenn (cousin on my mom’s side for anyone that doesn’t know her) is a WWOOFer (a what?) and got the idea to go to France and stay with a family to learn the ins and outs of a real organic farm in a country that knows the value of quality ingredients. We met her at Gare de Lyon on a Monday to get her situated, get the right tickets, find her a jambon fromage baguette (daily ration for any real Parisienne), and get her on her merry way. She came back the following Sunday and stayed nearby for a few days.
I’m tempted to recount her entire visit but one night in particular was so great that it has become my most fond memory of Paris so far. Jenn had the idea to go on the Mike’s Fat Tire bike tour in Paris at night. Anna and I thought it sounded fun but had seen so much of Paris that the tour seemed like it might just be the same old thing. Still, it came highly recommended and we needed to get out of the house so we went. A crew of Americans, Brits, and other english-speakers followed two 20-somethings from Texas around Paris at night on bicycles dressed in ridiculous yellow vests. We took to the streets like French government workers and dominated roads, sidewalks, and everything else in our way. I had a big, dumb grin on my face the whole way. At the end, we were treated to a Seine river cruise complete with more wine than was necessary for 20 people in the group. Jenn, Anna, and I sipped wine, laughed, tried to take pictures, talked with the guides and a few airline pilots on the tour, and had a total ball. I spent about 10% of the time looking at sites and the rest just laughing out loud. Highly recommended.
Jenn is (and knows she is) one of my most favorite people on the planet. We’ve been close since, well, birth and have an understanding with each other that is rare. She’s been an inspiration to me for as long as I could remember, putting school as a priority, becoming an invaluable resource to so many under-served teens and families in Seattle, and showing the world how awesome being a mom can be (and how awesome kids can be). I’ve been away from her and her family way too long and this Paris visit was a clear, joyous reminder of this.
HERE’S TO SEATTLE DOMINATION
Jenn stayed until Friday (and missed her flight by 5 minutes … because she was only 55 minutes early. Note to self), which turned out to be perfect timing because Anna’s parents, Lon and Dee Dee, came in the day before. We had a kings meal of duck, duck, duck, and more duck at Chez Papa (doesn’t look like much but servers are great and food is delicious) and, after triple-bypasses all around, planned for our respective trips.
Team Warr-Cunningham decided to invade Britagne (Brittany), the region in the Northwest of France. My very brave wife was the only one with the Official International Driver’s License (obtainable with $25 and a passport photo at your neighborhood AAA) and renting a car was the cheapest, most flexible way to get a clan of Americans around the area so we picked up a Renault (of course) and were on our way to Dinan, Mont-Saint Michel, and the D-Day beaches.
The whole trip was fantastic but, for me (the author and, hence, the history-maker), Dinan was the highlight by far. Built about 1000 years ago, Dinan is essentially an intact castle complete with walls, towers, and everything else you would expect. It’s also in Britagne which means you’re eating fluffy, delicious buckwheat crepes called gallettes and drinking sparkling “hard” cider (2-4% is hard like Michelob Ultra is hard) out of porcelain mugs. On top of that, it was rainy and gloomy so it was hard not to be transported back to another time.
Lon and Dee Dee were a very welcome surprise, though they came to us with the mistaken idea that they were crashing our honeymoon. Nothing could be further from the truth; we were excited to show them the sights and tastes of a city we were beginning to see as a third home. I think the phrase “the in-laws are coming for a visit” could strike fear in the heart of a lesser significant other but, in my case, it was great to sit around, eat great food, and enjoy wine with another great set of people I can call family. Their generosity was endless and their company was the slice of home that we needed so desperately. Lon’s perpetual and honest smile shows the great kindness he has in his heart and his honest attempts at the French language made it clear that he was a stranger in a strange land but he was in someone else’s home and that warranted respect. Dee Dee’s infectious laugh and very heart-felt words (thanks again, Dee Dee) made me feel like I had my own mom near me but in a different way. This was not so much substitution as addition, the distinct feeling that there were now two more people out there, watching us, making sure we were OK. I hope (and suspect) Anna feels the same way, though she definitely got the better end of the bargain having added 4 people to her kindred.
Our last set of visitors to Paris was about as surprising as finding a fromagerie down the street from our apartment. Chris and Anna (C&A henceforth) from San Diego, a great couple I met while working in La Jolla, are seasoned, experienced, talented, and perpetual world travelers who are always looking for an excuse to use their passports. Well, that and we’re pretty awesome to hang out with too.
Chris is the most-prepared individual that I know or know of in the whole world. On one hand this is very useful as you can just sit back and follow the blue jacket and you’ll see some great stuff and eat some great food. On the other hand, you start to question your own utility to the people around you as you find yourself becoming somewhat complacent and pliable, being lead around the city like a curious puppy.
We spent some great time in Paris but the only thing I really want to talk about right now is Bruges, Belgium. Despite some fairly minor train strike issues (nothing compared to what was about to happen), we got to Bruges on the afternoon of the 15th. We were all very happy that les greves did not ruin a half-day in a beautiful city so we checked into the Jan Brito (one of the top 5 nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in with probably the best staff I’ve ever encountered) and made our way into a frickin’ fairytale.
It was gray, rainy, and chilly on the Friday we arrived but, in a way, it added great ambiance to an already surreal and incredible experience. I know little about the history of this city but it’s almost a thousand years old and very well preserved so walking through the cobblestone streets, even if you’re passing a Zara or an Esprit store, is truly like traveling back in time. Add to that a winding canal that forks in a few places and you have one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. Did I mention there is a world-famous chocolatier on every corner and at least 3 bars that serve over 100 Belgian beers each? No, no I didn’t, not until just then. Bruges = incredible.
The time we spent with C&A was special for two reasons. First, our Belgium trip ended with a very frustrating train fiasco that threatened our ability to get Anna to her proctored essay in the south of France. Chris’s easy-going personality combined with Anna’s truly caring and sympathetic nature made us both relax a little bit and remember that it’s just another part of the adventure. The second and far more important reason is that we really got to know these two people and what makes them tick. C&A live their lives like there really is no tomorrow in a way that is immensely inspiring. Their money is spent on good food, broad generous acts, and gifts for others without many exceptions. Conversation is divergent, friendly, always informative, positive, rational, and interesting. They care they show for each other, their friends (i.e. us), and the strangers all around them is just the way they operate, not some part of some conscious decision. I’m sure part of this comes from their well-rounded travel experience but C&A are just great people, down to their core and having those kind of people around can do nothing but improve any situation, if not your outlook as a whole.
Before I drown in a bog of mushy sentiment, I want to mention three people (and a 4th who made this very important stop-over possible) we met in Toulon that ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back (I should be careful with that phrase, what with my back in the state that it’s in) in regards to writing this “I love you, man” post.
Daniele Arnaud is one of the first freelance clients I ever took on (over two years ago) and a delightful person to be around. Daniele is from the south of France and a teacher and art representative back in San Diego. She was kind enough to connect us with Monsieur Philippe Dumas, a professor at the University, to find a time to proctor Anna’s nursing application essay. It was a strange request and Monsieur Dumas is a busy man but he stayed in close contact with us for the last month or so and, when it was time for the essay, invited us to his home in La Garde to complete the assignment. He picked us up in Toulon in his unique car (a Mehari, my first experience with one), took us to his paradise of a home complete with a large garden in the back, set Anna up with a comfortable place to write, made me cocktail using vin d’orange he vinted himself, made us dinner using vegetables he grew in his backyard, sat with us for an hour or more after Anna was finished talking about French culture and American politics, and then drove us back to our hotel (which was a wild ride on the freeway in a car with no windows, no seatbelts, and a ragtop) at the end of the night.
I know Daniele to be an endlessly kind and generous person and I now know that this enviable decorum is much less genetic and more something very special in certain cultures. Monsieur Dumas, je l’ai dit avant mais je vais dire encore… merci beaucoup beaucoup beaucoup pour une unsoiree tres gentile et pour l’assistance tres important. Vous avez sauve nos derrieres et nous sommes tellement de votre dette! Pardonez ma Francaise, s’il vous plait.
Last but not least, a big American shout-out to James and Stéphanie Cukr (pronounced “sous cœur” which is in turn pronouned “soo kurr”) at The Lunchbox Cafe in Toulon. Again proving that generosity and kindness just comes with the territory in the south of France, this great couple let us mooch off their wifi, distract them for hours, and leave our pile of luggage in their cafe. Not only that, James made us eggs for breakfast (an alien dish au matin), Stéphanie made me an actual americano, and, together, they both made Anna and I want to open a little storefront around the corner. Thank you very much for your hospitality and encouraging words of support around the strikes; we made it to Italy and will remember you fondly until we, hopefully, meet again! In a day or two, search your restaurant on Yelp for Toulon, France.
With just a little positive thinking, some fond memories, and a change of location, our trials and tribulation transform from tedious to fond, from aggrevating to motivational. I had a feeling all that was needed was a bit of re-framing…