The Key to the Journey
The first stop on our trip was in Bordeaux in the Aquitaine region located in Southwestern France. After we picked up our car at the airport, we still had a couple of errands to do before arriving at Lignan-de-Bordeaux where we would be staying for 4 nights. Although we were exhausted from hours and hours of travel with little sleep, grocery shopping and picking up a few other necessary items you just can’t pack like a good chef’s knife and a fan were unavoidable for our comfort on a self-catering vacation. If you arrive on a Saturday afternoon as we did, you have to get your shopping done then because stores close at 7 PM daily and on Sunday the few places that are open close at noon. You have to be prepared to relax on Sundays because that’s what all the French are doing — what a concept! Seems Americans used to do this on Sundays too until they became consumed by commercialism and chasing the dollar. From our last trip, we learned about many of the most economical places to shop, such as the Super U for groceries and other miscellaneous items and Leclerc for groceries and everything else.
With our Peugeot’s gas tank full of diesel and the beginnings of our French pantry purchased, we headed off to our apartment in the countryside about 20 minutes outside of Bordeaux. Once we exchanged pleasantries with the owner and received our unique, old-fashioned skeleton key and some recommendations for places to visit during our stay, we happily settled in to our first French “home”. Every accommodation is a new experience. Most have their pros and cons. The secret to happiness on an adventure like this is to make it your own and not let the little things bother you. Sometimes that requires rearranging furniture or buying a few items that should be provided but are not. Case in point, at this apartment which I found via TripAdvisor and is billed as a “Country Retreat”, our hostess invited us to knock on the front door and let her know if we needed anything. Shortly after our arrival, I realized there was only one small, half full roll of toilet paper. We are accustomed to buying a supply, but there are usually a couple of rolls to get you started. Since it was Saturday night with little chance of shopping until Monday, I thought I had better ask if she had an extra roll. After several attempts at knocking on the front door and ringing a possibly inaudible bell, I finally got the attention of the man of the house who saw me through the glass front door but chose to exit out of a side garage door. I said “hello!, you must be William” and proceeded to tell him that his wife had encouraged us to inquire if we needed anything and I asked him if he had a roll of toilet paper we could have. Almost before I finished making my request he abruptly and emphatically responded with, “No!” No greeting… “Hello, I’m pleased to meet you. How are your accommodations?” Nothing! Well as you can imagine, with such a curt and abrupt response like that, I was shocked! After a second or two however, he thought better of it and said he would get one for me and surprisingly returned with two. Whew! OK! Well, remind me not to ask him for anything else. As we settled in, we noticed that the husband, was working on remolding a bedroom next to our unit. He kept drilling, hammering and scraping well into the night!] He seemed to be very busy renovating the rest of the house perhaps to add more rental space. Unfortunately, the work went on all day long and on one night, he kept at it until after 1 a.m. the next morning. Another odd thing that happened was that for the first two nights there wasn’t any hot water (the hot water seemed to be cut off starting at noon). Norman didn’t realize this was happening until I told him on the third day so he decided to heat water on the stove to wash the dishes with. Since the range was electric, he used both the range top and the electric tea pot to heat up the water. This led to a blown fuse and everything went dark. Of course, the owners were affected by this as much as we were so power was quickly restored. I suppose the husband decided that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to cut off the hot water after all and for our last night, we had all the hot water we needed. One last thing that made us realize that maybe the owners were trying to keep their cost down as much as as possible was that while at first, the Internet connection seemed ok, later in the day however, and all evening long, it took forever to load a page on the Internet. Nevertheless, we were able to laugh about it all and make the best of it knowing that it was not a permanent situation and we had many more lodgings ahead.
Our location did make a good home base from which to begin to explore Bordeaux, a port city on the Garonne and hub of the famed wine-growing region. It’s population is about 250,000 with over a million people in its greater metropolitan area. It is the location of the world’s main wine fair, Vinexpo, which was taking place while we were there. The Bordeaux wine industry takes in 14.5 billion euros each year. On Sunday, we headed in for a quick tour on foot that helped us get a feel for the layout of the city. It was relatively quiet and mostly occupied with tourists both French and foreign. We saw a few of the main sights and planned what we might do when we return for a stay in the city at the end of our journey.
Our second shopping trek took us to E. Leclerc, a French hypermarket (superstore) chain — combination grocery store and department store — with more than 500 locations. It was established in 1948 by Edouard Leclerc, a man perhaps ahead of his time. The size and selection of the store can be overwhelming, but you can certainly find anything you might need at very reasonable prices — perhaps like a WalMart superstore on steroids with much better quality. As one of the things the French are famous for, the choices of bread alone are unending. Even when you are not buying your bread specifically from a boulangerie, the taste and texture are generally far superior to anything we can buy at a store back home. On this particular visit, aside from additional food items, we were in search of a few more necessities such as paper towels, laundry soap, umbrellas, beach towels, and, of course, toilet paper! We also wanted a nightlight for the bathroom. Apparently, the French think nightlights are only for children because in that huge Leclerc store, we could only find one and it was just “too cute”, obviously designed for a two-year old’s bedroom, but since we had no other choice, we purchased it — one of many things we will be leaving behind and the end of our trip.
One of the cleverest things we have found in our travels throughout France involves shopping carts. It is such a smart invention that I can’t believe we haven’t borrowed the idea. When you go to most supermarkets, the shopping carts are gathered in certain areas in the parking lot lined up neatly one inside the next — not unlike what you might see in the U.S. except that they are locked together via a chain and “key”. In order to remove one to take inside the store, you must insert a €1 coin into a slot in the handle that releases the key that is chained to the cart from the one in front of it. After you have finished your shopping, you simply slip your cart back into the row of connected carts, insert the key from the dangling chain that is attached to the cart in front of it, and the €1 coin pops out for use the next time. No employee ever has to round up the shopping carts, there are never stray shopping carts all over the parking lot or along the street for that matter, and there are always plenty of shopping carts available neatly clustered together for your convenience. We could take a lesson from this idea. We keep our 1€ coin in the car to use on the next shopping cart and never have to worry about getting a cart for our entire trip.
Still suffering a bit from jet lag which seems to last longer and longer each time we travel, we finished up our stay in the Bordeaux countryside with a lot of needed rest and relaxation. I read and researched online (albeit slowly) and Norman completed several sketches. This area is no doubt beautiful, but too far from any small town with basic necessities. In order to make the cut for our list of top places to retire in France, we would need to be able to walk, bike or have a short drive into a village or town for our daily purchases. Our next stop will be in the region of Poitou-Charentes.