Sunday, August 27, 2006
My role in the family is to take well-conceived vacation plans and complicate them. Someone in every family has to be the acknowledged enforcer of the laws of entropy. Over the years I have had a gift for turning even the most sublime vacation into an ordeal. Thus almost from the moment we arrived at de Gaulle for a vacation in Paris, I began dreaming of leaving Paris behind and going on a road trip.
I wanted to see castles and vineyards and tiny French villages with cobbled streets barely wide enough for a tank. (For many American males of a certain age, old European streets are inevitably associated with tanks, from watching TV shows like "Combat.") But I didn't know if a road trip would be plausible in France -- a real road trip, the kind that's impulsive, unplanned and potentially calamitous. The authentic American road trip is improvisational. It's not just a means of getting from point A to point B, because point B is often an unknown. A road trip should have something of the feel of a jailbreak. Often it is organized merely around a cardinal point on the compass, i.e., "Let's go south." Many a person has wound up in Key West, for example, simply because it's the end of the road.
The United States has the infrastructure to support such spontaneity. You can pull off the highway, grab chow, spend the night, hit the road again. These freeway-exit retail villages have no character, of course, and at 3 in the morning it is impossible to recall if you're in a Comfort Inn or a Motel 6 or a Red Roof Hampton Courtyard AmeriSuites by Ramada. But it doesn't matter. The great virtue of these places is the ease with which they can be departed.
Could that style of travel be transposed onto the continent of Europe, with its fetishization of mom-and-pop hotels and its little country inns and its presumption that travel should have some stickiness to it, some odd textures and quirks and eccentricities that don't lend themselves to drive-by tourism?
Obviously a person can, with some forethought, drive just about anywhere in France or elsewhere in Europe, because there are cars, there are highways, there are gas stations, etc. This is not like parachuting into Siberia and trying to use a hand ax to build a raft to float down the Lena.
But you don't hear of many Americans doing European road trips, because they prefer to travel by rail. Indeed, you'd think they were required to, that it was a law laid down at the same time as the Magna Carta, violation of which will result in a hearing before a tribunal in The Hague.
My colleagues and friends warned me that renting a car and driving in France would be problematic, and the travel guides frown at the idea. They pointed out that the cars can be expensive and tiny, and that gas is so precious it is sold by the liter, as though it were wine. Lodging could be iffy since, at the end of July and early August, everyone in Europe goes on holiday. "There are stories of people sleeping in their cars along the highway," a veteran Paris correspondent warned me. I could picture my wife and me and our three kids trying to sleep in some two-cylinder Fiat, the kind of car that looks like it ought to be driven by Stuart Little.
My wife, moreover, is the kind of person who does not believe that travel requires compulsive motion. She had carefully planned our trip to Paris, and considered it sufficiently reckless that we were crossing the Atlantic without first learning French. She packed a library of books about Paris and not one broached the rest of France. We were ensconced in a house about a block from the Eiffel Tower, which sparkled every night on the hour, visible from the bedroom windows. A road trip would surely be a fiasco. We'd get lost and wind up in Morocco. We'd drive off a cliff. Worst of all, we'd be immersed in uncertainties and unknowns.
I responded to these concerns as any husband on vacation would, with calculated indecision and paralysis, and for two solid weeks we enjoyed the Paris life and filled up on baguettes and took in museums, until finally one Friday night I could take no more, and got online and booked a car for the very next morning.
There is some skepticism in the Eiffel house about whether we are actually going. But we are. It is imperative to nip in the bud any incipient revolt that might nix the excursion.
I do something extremely smart, if I may say so: I pick a destination, the Loire Valley, and search online for rooms in that vicinity. I pick the Loire because it has castles and is only a couple of hours away and it sounds like an authentic destination (more so than "Let's go south"). I search in Orleans and Angers and finally find two rooms in a hotel in Tours. It's a Comfort Hotel. Yes, the Comfort Inn! Same chain!