Letter from the Loire Valley
I am sitting in a beautiful spacious room in the most divine bed and breakfast place in the world. Outside my large window, birds are calling. Nearby is the Loire river, with its winding sprawling waters shaded by trees that are straight out of a Monet painting. I cannot believe I am here in the town of Amboise in the Loire Valley, traveling all alone.
And yet what a trek it has been just to get here. This morning I woke up in my friend Lana’s apartment in Massy, a suburb of Paris, having slept a long and peaceful sleep in days. I made myself tea – I finally seemed to have figured out the quirky stove with its vertical gas pipe and a valve that needs to be turned on first. I also seemed to have at last mastered the technique of lighting up a match and then turning the gas in the burner just so to sustain the flame. I can’t remember what circa stove in the US needed matches. It was so long ago, I have forgotten. I sent my column to India Currents, wrote a bunch of emails, then packed up my stuff. Lana was asking me about the opera on Thursday and our proposed trip to Normandy but I was ready to leave Paris. I realize that in the future, if I want to spend more than a week in Paris, I will have to stay in a quiet corner of the city so as not to get overwhelmed with the noise and the commotion.
Lana said to go to the train station early just in case. So I packed up and rushed to the station which is right across the street from her building. I got a ticket. The agent told me to take the 11:10 train. My train for Amboise was not until 12:38 so I thought I had plenty of time. But I could not figure out which platform to go to because there were no signs. I needed to take the C Line for the railway station which I had not taken before. When I went to the platform on the right hand side, a man said that there had been a death on the track and the trains had stopped running. Just my luck. I kept doing what I had done in South America, namely, ask everyone the same question until I got a consistent answer.
A man wearing headphones connected to his phone (this seems to be the common thing here; everyone has elaborate headphones with tiny microphones attached to the wires that they speak into) said that I would have to take two buses and a subway to get to Gare Austerlitz train station. I said I could just take the B line instead which was on the other side of the station. I was trying to decide whether to walk over there when finally a train arrived. But the man would not get into it because he said that it would not leave right away. I asked a woman sitting in the train and she said it was going to Paris. I didn’t know why everyone was not getting into it though.
I followed the suited and booted man into the other train even though I could see that the train on the opposite side did say “Suite Desserte.” A moment of indecision. The man’s train was going to stop at more stations. The other train at fewer stations. Yet a majority of the riders got on the man’s train. The logic of the train riders defies any analysis here. When I ask them questions, generally they know as much as I do which means very little. The system doesn’t offer a lot of clues either.
Anyway, I got in. Just then the train on the other platform left. Aw shucks. My train took its time. I figured five minutes per station which for 16 stations would take 45 minutes, or 30 if I was lucky. And it was already 11:45. I sat anxiously, studying the train maps, counting the stops and the minutes. At some point, I realized I was not going to make it and just surrendered to the situation. After all, I could take the next train. I could take a different train to Blois and from there catch a connection to Amboise.
A middle aged man opposite me was more anxious than me, and toward the end, at about 12:25, held his head in his hand. He had no luggage. I should have talked to him but I was in no mood to talk, as if I was the one driving the train and any distraction would prove fatal. At about 12:34 we got into Gare Austerlitz. I moved my bag to the door even before we stopped. The man asked “Where are you going?” I told him Amboise. Everyone speaks English here, or at least most educated people do. He said he was going to Amboise too. I asked him where to transfer but he could not quite articulate it. “We have 4 minutes,” he said, “We have to run.” I knew there was no way I would be able to figure out where to go in 4 minutes, given the complexities of French stations and platforms. I said, “I will go with you.” Then corrected myself by saying, “I will just follow you. I can run fast.”
So we jumped down. I literally ran after the man, up and down staircases, lugging my bag, glad that I had left some stuff in Paris and brought only the bare essentials. Still, climbing stairs as long as the stairs out of BART’s Civic Center station with a bag and a heavy backpack was no joke. I am so glad I am utterly fit. At each turn though, the man paused to see that I was behind him. The French men are so very nice. I have not had such experiences with American men. This is the second time I have encountered a kind Frenchman. The last time was in Italy, in Cinque Terre when I was lost on an isolated hike in the hills and had no clue how to find my way. French men have a way of turning up in my life just when I need them!
We got to the platform. Of course the SNCF train was late too, which I had been hoping for. The kind man pointed to the yellow machine. I validated my ticket. He asked me to get in, then disappeard to buy his ticket. I felt I had met a Guardian Angel. I was so exhausted from all the stress of Paris and the worry about the train that I just relaxed for a while. I was sitting opposite a couple and I watched them in contentment, thinking that if I had not met the man I would not have made the train because it soon left.
When I got to Amboise I could not open the train door. I did not know its quirks. Another important lesson; always get out where other people are getting off, just in case. The train was about to leave. I shouted for help. A woman got up and helped me. I jumped off and just then the train took off.
I walked a leisurely walk into town, following Rick Steve’s directions and came upon a big red wooden door. I rang the bell and was let into a lovely little garden. My room here is spacious, with a large window overlooking the roses. I wanted to lie down but I felt hungry after all the trauma, even though I had eaten my snack of couscous on board. I walked into town, had lunch at a cafe, and sat there reading Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon. I am really enjoying comparing his experiences of Paris with mine.
I realized my feet were aching from a week of walking around in Paris. I saw people walking down the river embankment from the cafe but I could not move. I came back to my room and lay in my luxurous bed for a little nap. I felt so very happy. I can easily stay in this place for a week. It is so beautiful and the couple who keep it are so friendly and helpful. I am definitely staying three nights but I am wondering whether to ask for a discount for a third night because the whole place is empty.
After my rest, I sat at the picnic table in the garden, reading my book and at 10 PM had a little snack of salad, toubule and cheese I got from the grocery store. I went to bed while twilight still lingered, at 10:30 PM!
What a day! I feel so proud of myself for traveling alone around France. This experience is giving me a new level of confidence. I am not anxious to return to Paris. I love being in the quiet countryside.