It is easy to find fault, to tear down, what others have built up. My mother in law, of blessed memory, taught me an expression in Yiddish, which roughly translated, means, “The bride is too pretty,” to illustrate that some people can find fault even with the very best things – the pretty bride, the excellent meal, the first class, first rate tour of Europe. And so it is with the consciousness that my criticisms here noted are miniscule, nitpicking, negatives, worthy of the ugliest of ugly Americans, that I catalogue my various “problems” with a tour my husband and I recently took of Versailles, the Loire Valley, Brittany, Normandy, and Paris.
And yes, it was a beautiful tour, one which, in my younger days, would have surpassed my wildest dreams. In Versailles, we visited the Hall of Mirrors, of course, witnessing the incredible excess of France’s rulers just before the Revolution, strolling the lavish rooms and gardens, marveling at the luxury enjoyed by Marie Antoinette before she lost everything. And we enjoyed a taste of that luxury, staying in the palatial hotel where the treaty which ended World War 1 and, some say, caused World War II, was developed, eating dinner in the very room where Woodrow Wilson spoke. Dinner at the hotel was a Michelin starred affair – wonderful champagne, exquisitely fresh fish, desserts rich with chocolate and cream. Dare I say that the dessert was too chocolaty? I couldn’t finish it.
What a terrible thing, to her this critical voice echoing in my fortunate head. But how can a person feel lucky when she can’t operate the shower? The wish for a quick shower after dinner became an extended exploration of unfamiliar plumbing – buttons and knobs and unexpected deluges of cold water, or worse, scalding hot water. All this exasperated by the fact that when I removed my glasses I couldn’t see the damn buttons. A tub bath was an alternative I didn’t want to pursue. The tub was deep, with high sides, a challenge to my short legs and precarious sense of balance. It was a stretch for me just to reach the grab bar. I imagined myself stretched out cold on the beautiful marble floor, and tried for the shower again. I figured it out, got clean, and sank into bed, too tired to care that the mattress was too soft and the pillows too fluffy.
We met our tour guide that first night, and she begged us for one favor- always to be on time. I’ll call her “Fifi.” Fifi was a good-humored, talkative, and rather tall woman, and she spoke French fluently and badly. Even I, with a mere two years of French, was appalled at her accent, and our bus driver constantly corrected her. She was unflappable about his criticism. But in another way, she was very flappable – choosing to wear long skirts, drape-like fringed scarves and other loose garment, hanging off her like curtains on a sales rack. Her long earrings also dangled precariously. Fifi also accessorized with enormous cloth bags hanging from her arms and around her neck, bags filled with extra batteries for our little voice box receivers and lots and lots of emergency supplies like scissors, snacks, and handouts. Each night she stayed up late preparing handouts, but she sometimes gave them to us on the wrong day, perhaps a day or two after we’d seen the sights described. She was more than a trip, as the saying goes. She was a whole journey. Dear, friendly Fifi – a guide so knowledgeable and diligent she once fell asleep during her own lecture. I mean it. She literally fell asleep mid- word on the bus. We sent a cardiologist who happened to be on tour with us to check her out, and he proclaimed that she was just a little sleep-deprived. She got almost no sleep, typing those handouts and researching the answers to our most random questions. On the plus side, when a member of the group became ill, Fifi sprang into efficient action, arranging for a local doctor to visit the hotel. Her swift action allowed the ailing individual to obtain needed medication and continue touring. Perhaps this was why other members of the tour were unusually tolerant – no one complained to the management about poor Fifi. Even when she was late to join the group the very first morning.
Back to the pretty bride. Breakfast each morning was a feast – the normal American bacon and eggs, fruits, salads, the cold cuts and smoked fish other travelers seemed to prefer, plus pain au chocolate, croissants, and local French breads. I wanted all of it. Hard to resist piling my plate. But I knew that protein was needed for the trip ahead to the Loire Valley, so I ordered scrambled eggs and bacon. Ugh! The French method of preparing the eggs was not what I expected – soft, runny, an unpleasant texture to my unaccustomed palate. And the bacon was undercooked and very smoky. Again, not what I expected, and not what I wanted. I determined to concentrate on the pain au chocolate, which was, alas, too chocolatey. The croissant was delicious, I must confess, but so fresh that crumbs spilled all over the spotless table cloth, causing a supercilious waiter to clear the crumbs.
Never mind, I told myself, brushing off the croissant crumbs. My husband and I rode, with 11 other couples, Fifi, and the unflappable bus driver, from Versailles to the Loire Valley, where we were to stay at an honest to goodness chateau. But problems persisted. The chateau where we stayed, a gorgeous structure of the sixteenth century, boasted a large room, antique furniture, and a musty smell. Perhaps this was only because it was raining outside, so opening the windows was not an option. Turn on the AC, you might suggest. Not here, in the sixteenth century you don’t. Never mind. An excellent dinner, prepared, unbelievably, by the owners of the chateau – an appetizer of Asian style spring rolls filled to bursting with freshly cooked langoustine, fresh local fish, garden fresh vegetables, and a spectacular crème caramel, took attention away from musty smells. And since this was France, wine. Lots of wine. It was awful. My waistline was disappearing, and the trip had barely started.
The next day we set out for the winery in cold pouring rain. I layered against the cold, wearing a long-sleeved blouse, a sweater, an anorak with a hood, etc. Not bothering with sunscreen, of course. The sun began to shine brightly just as we reached the muddy vineyard. I stood in the mud weighed down by my heavy clothing, I tried to listen as the vintner explained all about the different kinds of grapes, and terroir, but I wondered why the sun had to shine quite so brightly. As pigs, goats, and a donkey emitted their respective barnyard noises from an adjacent yard I felt the sun burn my nose, my cheeks, even the part in my hair. I could have raised my hood, of course, but I was much too warm to keep the anorak on. I had to keep the sweater, though, to conceal the perspiration already soaking my long sleeved blouse. There would be no way to change the blouse – we were heading on to the next attraction right after lunch. There’d be no time to launder the blouse later. I only hoped there’d be time to launder me – what would the next shower be like?
Our tour took us to the seaside town of St. Malo, complete with a harbor dotted with sailboats and other pleasure vessels. The day was warm and sunny, perfect, it seemed for spending time near the beach. Our hotel room was magnificent, a king-sized bed with an exquisite coverlet, views facing the sea, and a gorgeous little terrace with which to enjoy them. The windows were wide open when we entered the room, and I was entranced. My husband was not. “There is no air vent,” he hissed.
“What are you talking about,” I asked.
“That means no air-conditioning,”
“There must be,” I said, looking at the rack rate posted. “At these prices?”
There was not. As the sun climbed higher in the sky we closed the window to the terrace, drew the curtains, and pulled back the exquisite coverlet to reveal a duvet⸺ no sheet. A duvet guaranteed to lock in heat. The shower was easy to operate⸺ for anyone familiar with solving a rubric’s cube, say.
The sunny weather held up, alas. We went to the beautiful gardens of Giverney, where Monet painted his fabulous water lilies. The problem was that we were joined by scores of other tourists. The gardens were impossible to photograph without including lots of strangers in our shots. What a terrible pity. The weather was too beautiful. Cafes in Paris, where we finished, were similarly crowded, with scores and scores of French citizens enjoying the sidewalk parade, and nary a ringside seat for these weary tourists. What a shame it wasn’t raining!
Yes, it was a glorious tour, worthy of praise, a beautiful country, deserving of many many pictures. But the showers were too high tech, the food was too delicious, the weather was too sunny. In short, the bride was too pretty.