The first of my vacations has arrived, thanks to the dual celebration of All Saint’s Day or La Toussaint (Nov. 1) and Armistice Day (Nov. 11).
To take advantage of the 17 days I don’t have to spend lecturing nine-year-olds about the difference between the expressions “good evening” and “goodnight,” I’m breaking in my French debit card (and my first paycheck!) and traveling, traveling, traveling.
The adventure technically started on Wednesday, when I went to Toulouse for some shopping, sightseeing and, most importantly, a reunion with my best friend from college, Tricia (who’s visiting me in Auch, joining me as my fearless travel companion, and will henceforth be referred to as Patz).
Patz and I already had travel plans for Oct. 31 through Nov. 11 (more on that later), but wanted to do some traveling around France the preceding weekend. So we booked a string of train tickets to Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Arles a mere 12 hours before embarking.
I traveled within France on this same weekend during my time abroad in Nantes in the fall of 2010. Instead of organizing this post like that one, with a brief summary of highlights and thoughts about each city, I’m going to present the trip through a series of observations and lessons learned:
1. Staying in hostels is like a combination of camping (in a cabin) and living in a college dorm:
You’re kind of roughing it but kind of not. You have to be respectful of other people’s space, habits and sleep schedule. And it’s great if you’re young and on a budget.
My first hostel experience was so horrible (one word: mold) that I reflected that I’d have rather gone camping. Outside. In a tent.
Some hostels suck, but some are wonderful. And this time I definitely wasn’t wishing for a tent as I fell asleep to the sound of pouring rain, cozy and dry on my bottom bunk.
2. Always carry a spoon on your person:
Patz snagged a spoon from my house to eat a hurried yogurt breakfast on the train our first morning. It came in handy for eating quiche out of the shell (Patz is trying to be gluten free) and even handier for eating fig yogurt huddled in an alcove of the Arles amphitheater. Spoonless, I got to drink mine/attempt to use a banana as a spoon.
3. Never travel in autumn—even in Southern France—without a hat and gloves (and a decent coat):
You never know when the bitterest, hurricane-force winds will strike and leave you chilled to the bone days after your first exposure.
4. If you find yourself in such a situation, take advantage of indoor activities:
Eat as leisurely a lunch as possible, drink hot chocolate in a café (make sure you stir it though, because you might get to an intense chocolate sludge at the bottom of your cup after drinking muddy-looking and somewhat tasteless hot water) and find a well-heated museum. (If you’re lucky, you might find one whose bathroom has hot water and a hand dryer that blows hot air. If this is the case, you’re encouraged to loiter in the bathroom for a good 15 minutes enjoying these luxuries and then write “Merci pour l’eau chaude” in the guestbook.)
Also, eat some stew.
5. A pastry a day does not keep the doctor away:
Pastries are delicious, and I encourage you to eat as many as possible while in France, but they do not make you immortal. Especially when you work with small children, haven’t been getting enough sleep and choose to wander around in the death wind for a day and a half.
6. When traveling by rail in France, book as many direct trains as possible:
Whenever I travel through the SNCF and definitely whenever I have a connection to make, one of my trains almost always gets delayed, resulting at best in a belated arrival and at worst in being stranded. Fun fact: Most train stations are open-air (read: COLD).
We didn’t get stranded anywhere, but we definitely came close.
7. Always have your camera ready: