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Roadtripping around France

by Ashley
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August 20, 2005. I was 20 years old, had 6 years of French under my belt, and got to fly international first class (!!!) avec mon père to Paris. Two full semesters studying abroad. I’d been planning this for years. A full year abroad was the whole reason I stayed in-state for college, letting scholarships cover my tuition so my dad would fund a year in Europe.

All packed and ready to go, 20 years old and about to live alone for the first time
Mon père dans l'avion
Our rental car

My dad was going to be with me for two full weeks. As he’d been to Paris a dozen times, and I’d been twice before (and had 10 whole months ahead of me!), after getting my apartment all set up, we decided the best use of our time would be exploring other parts of France. So six days into my year abroad, we rented a weird yellow Peugeot and hit the road.

The following italicized comments are directly from the journal I kept, interspersed with comments from now and photos from the trip:

August 27, 2005: france is pretty damn cool. yesterday we made it to Mont-St-Michel (which i’d never even heard of but OMG GO LOOK: http://www.asteria.fr/mont1.htm – though that cant even convey how BIG and TOTALLY AWESOME it is. today we did the tour and stuff. it was pretty amazing. [2016 Note: It was like seeing Hogwarts in person. That level of grandeur and history and beauty.]

today we made it to st. nazaire (on the atlantic coast) and saw the german u-boat bunkers (also more commonly known as the german submarine base from WWII). tomorrow we are going to go on a tour of the air bus factory – hopefully. we dont know if its open on sundays.

Nazi symbols left over from the war
U-boat bunkers

other than we have no idea what we are doing, when we are doing, where we are going. etc. we’re staying in tiny hotels, funny little french towns. driving through caen and rennes and all these other little places show you the other part of france that paris cant give you. lots of look like impoverished farmland yet are still quaint and beautiful at the same time. the podunk roads are actually really well-kept and give you a great tour of the countryside. corn, beef, chickens, old farm houses, old cars, its pretty cool. spending so much time with my dad….eh, a little on the annoying side, but we have the radio and i made some cds for the car. [Note from 2016: I still have some of those mix cds!]

Aug 28, 2005: today we drove more than 600 km. people around here are astounded at what we are doing, surprised that we want to spend that much time in the car, but hey, its an american thing, eh? we like spending time in our cars, a 4 hour drive is nothing. so what’s 6 hours in the car?

we tried finding the airbus factories today. first in st. nazaire (failing miserably i might add) and secondly in toulouse (where we are now). [2016 Note: I remember the conversation with a person at a toll-booth clear as day: “Bonjour, où se trouve l’usine d’Airbus?” “Pardon?” “Airbus?” “Pardon? Je ne vous comprends pas.” “AIRBUS.” <<several seconds pass>> “Ohhhh, Air-boooooooos.” We had been pronouncing the company name in English, Airbus. But they pronounce it “ehr-booooooossss” and I still think she understood us and was just being rude.]

We started in PARIS. Drove up through ROUEN, down through CAEN to the coast where MONT ST MICHEL is. We did that day one. Then yesterday we drove from mont st michel through RENNES, down towards NANTES but west of it to St. Nazaire (on the coast, not on the map). Then today we drove from St. Nazaire through BORDEAUX and all the way to TOULOUSE.  [2016 Note: I created a Google Map tracing our route.]

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 8.16.04 PM.png

its pretty cool getting to see so much of France before school even starts, but after awhile countryside gets boring. just like driving across the states – its like, ok, corn! i get it. lets move on. but its still fun.

August 31, 2005: From France to Andora to Spain and Back

A small country situated peacefully in the middle of the pyranees, in between France and Spain; winding roads through the mountains of a place no one has ever heard of. What do we expect? No idea. My dad had never been there. I’d never heard of it. Who knew they didn’t speak French, English or Spanish but Catalan? Who knew that communicating would become even more difficult?
[2016 Note: Did 2005 me not Google this place?]

There is one main road that runs through this country, which is no more than 40 miles across/down. The skiing here is supposed to be nice, which was my dad’s original interest, years ago. But now I know why people come here.

The shopping. EVERYTHING IS SO CHEAP. The French must love coming here and getting stuff for half the price. I bought a pair of Pumas today in Toulouse because I needed replacement sneakers for the ones in my lost bag. Aside from the skiing and the shopping, Andora doesn’t have much else to offer except the AMAZING VIEWS OF THE PYRANEES – omg. So beautiful. I’ve seen a lot of mountains over the past three months what with my driving across country and staying in Whistler for 6 weeks, but wow, these are damn impressive – and the food seems to be good (this coming from one of the world’s pickiest eaters AND from my dad, one of the world’s biggest food lovers). [2016 Note: I can not find ANY PHOTOS from Andorra. Good job, 2005 Me.]

The Pyranees

We were there for a grand total of maybe an hour, most of it spent driving. Didn’t see much other than mountains, roads, bad drivers, decrepit buildings and lots of signs in Spanish. 

“A life of taste and class, with culture and sophistication pouring out my ass!”
– “Great Big Stuff”, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

If anyone has ever seen the original La Cage aux Folles, or the musical stage version, you know that the story of the drag club and its gay owners takes place in the tropical St. Tropez, which is depicted as a quaint, beach town in the south of France full of interesting and rich people. What else you know about this popular French Riviera destination probably comes from movies or whatnot. For instance you may think it’s a hot, sandy beach paradise for the rich and famous; a small, upscale resort town overflowing with sky-rising hotels and long sandy white beaches filled with fat tourists in speedos and scantily clad Italian beauties.

This however is not the St. Tropez we found. After driving on an impossibly long, winding mountain road taking us through farming lands and lots of trees (and death defying curves), we finally saw a glimpse of the blue Mediterranean and we knew we were on the right track. But there were no tall hotels and no beach from what we could see. Driving around we found hundreds, thousands of foreign tourists milling about in summery, flowy outfits, flip flops and over-priced sunglasses, shopping in the designer stores and eating ice cream. The road by the water was lined with open-air restaurants and cafes facing the harbor and the rows of million dollar yachts. On these yachts, rich boys who sweat dollar bills, sat around looking cool in their Dolce & Gabanna sunglasses, slicked back gelled hair and pouting their lips. “Look at how much money I can piss away every year,” the yachts seem to scream. The women walking the streets, strutting their $500 purses, staring at the beautiful yet extravagant boats, have had way too much unnecessary plastic surgery and like to flaunt it.

Where were all the gay lovers? The drag queens walking around in feathery outfits and high heels? Where was the St. Tropez I saw on stage? Ok, so that’s not what really what I expected, but this certainly wasn’t what I expected either.

To get to the beaches, you have to follow the white road signs marked “Les Plages”, and there you can sun yourself silly along with the rest of Europe. But in the immediate village of St. Tropez, I have seen no beaches. Just yachts and ice cream, motorbikes and sunburns, and lots of fake breasts bursting forth from expensive tank tops. This town oozes money. This isn’t just a town of the rich, for the rich. It’s beyond that. People spend money here just for the sake of spending money. The first three hotels we stopped at cost more than 700 euros a night. The parking lots boast black Bentleys and silver Mercedes out the butt, and here we are cruising around in our tiny neon yellow Peugeot.

This place is beautiful, but in the words of Freddy Benson, a con man in another little Riviera town, its nothing more than “really classy shit” just for the sake of having. But then again, that might be what you’re into if you just want “Great Big Stuff”.

All the Yachts.
Mon père
One of my favorite shots from St. Tropez
The blue!
The drive into St. Tropez

September 3, 2005. went to monoco. not terribly exciting. lots of money oozing about in fancy cars and boats. saw a yacht that belongs to a saudi prince. 

[2016 Comment: On our way to Monaco, we realized neither of us had the proper attire. We were way underdressed in St. Tropez as it was. So we stopped at some department store along the way (not sure how we found it since we did not have Google maps assisting us, relying entirely on highway signs and a roadmap provided by the rental company), and my dad bought a nice shirt and slacks, and I bought a nice sleeveless top and what my dad has always referred to as my peasant skirt — a long, flowy, burgundy skirt very outside of my normal attire but was about the only thing I could find even close to comfortable and affordable.]

went to THE monte carlo casino/palais. WOW. big, beautiful, old, and not very crowded at all. not at ALL what i expected. it was more like a private gambling club than a casino. it was elegance up the ying yang. i lost 20 euros playing roulette, but it lasted me over an hour. i was doing well for a while, but since its all a game of chance, i dont feel too bad that i lost it. that was a lot of fun. i lost 5 euros playing video poker. but that was fun too. so that was my first experience gambling and it was kinda fun, but i wouldnt travel to just do it. i mean there were these older women with rings and expensive shoes throwing away 200, 500, 800 euros at a time! it was ridiculous. whereas i was betting 5 at a time, they were betting 500! my dad said it reminded him of the great gatsby, and it was very much like that everywhere. that attitude everywhere. the casino only had like 5 rooms each with like 4 tables in it. nothing like what i thought.

[2016 Comment: I knew this place was not my cup of tea but was reassured in my assumptions when I witnessed some rich 20-something knock into a waiter, who spilled the tray of drinks he was carrying, and then flip out on the waiter, berating him in some foreign language. Definitely not my jam.]

There were dozens of these cows all over Monoco, each one done by a different artist. Several months later they came to Paris. The cows were following me!
Money money money
This view doesn't suck.
Beaches along the riviera

the whole trip was fab. a little town called EZE was nice, cute. the beaches are smaller and pebbly but with those views i could be a beach person. what was strange, but not unexpected, was the topless women just strolling around with their kids and sitting and chatting with each other within CLEAR VIEWING FROM THE ROAD. i understand topless beaches, even nude beaches, but within view of the road? where drivers can just see you? whatever floats your boat, man.
[2016 Comment: We drove the rental car back to Marseille, hopped a TGV train all the way back to Paris.]
the train was cool. TGV. 300 km/h. i fell asleep. but we got back to paris around 9:45 tonight.

 • • •

To this day, our week-long road trip around France is one of my fondest memories. Did I get annoyed by my dad? Yes. Trying spending a week in a tiny European car with any person, but especially one that created you. Annoying as hell. I’m sure I annoyed him too. But did I get to see some INCREDIBLE things? Did I get to add three countries to my list in less than week? Am I eternally grateful for the travel opportunities he (and his generous wallet) have afforded me? OUI. A loud, resounding OUI, BIEN SÛR, UNE MILLE FOIS OUI!

This is the video I made at the end of our road-trip. Keep in mind the year (2005) AND the airline lost one of my bags which had my brand new digital camera in it, so I was working with an old-school MiniDV tape camera. The quality is terrible compared to what our phones do these days, but I’m grateful I took all of this footage.

What family travel memory stands out most to you? What road trip was your favorite?

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