When telling friends and coworkers about my upcoming family vacation to France, the reaction was invariably the same: Three weeks in Paris? You are so lucky!
I’d dreamt of visiting Paris, strolling along the Seine and stopping for a leisurely drink at one of the countless sidewalk cafes. This particular city is what spurred my interest in travel to begin with, so I hardly blame my friends for assuming I would be spending three glorious weeks in the city I’d loved from afar.
Don’t worry, we’ll get to Paris soon enough. Right now, I’d like to tell you all about our home base, the place where my family and I stayed for the majority of our extended vacation. The primary purpose of our family vacation was to spend some time with our grandparents. They very generously funded a significant portion of our expenses, including hotel stays and meals with an endless supply of wine, cheese and delicious bread. They have a beautiful home in Chamarandes-Choignes, about three hours east of Paris.
My grandparents are named Marie and Roger, but to my siblings and I, they are simply Mamie and Papy (the French words for grandma and grandpa). Mamie and Papy sent a private shuttle to pick us all up at the airport – did I mention there are ten of us in my immediate family alone? We passed the time playing old road trip games or sleeping as the packed highways and funny-looking European cars gave way to smaller, single-lane back roads.
When I think of the “French countryside,” I imagine plentiful vineyards, well-tended fields, and tree branches dipping their flowers down to tickle the necks of anyone sleeping beneath them. I imagine wide-open skies, green grass, and perhaps a few sheep grazing nearby. In truth, the world that passed by as we moved further from Paris very closely resembled parts of Washington State, where I grew up. The landscape was comprised of never-ending fields, occasionally broken up by a few trees or a cluster of close-set barns, backed at all times by lush green forests. I gazed at the fields passing by, swatches of pale green and brown, until they all seemed to blend together, and I fell asleep at last.
I awoke with a jerk as the shuttle turned onto a small unpaved road, seemingly a walking path carved right into yet another field. The shuttle lurched over its rough surface, kicking up dust in its wake, and emerged several minutes later into a charming French village, the very thing I had conjured up when imagining my grandparent’s home. Our shuttle driver sped through the first of many roundabouts, careening around sharp corners and squeezing past oncoming traffic on the narrow roads.
As we hurtled down a brief incline, each of us squealing in disbelief at our mad driver, my mother explained that Mamie and Papy’s neighborhood is a ville fleuri, or “floral town.” Each home we passed was bursting with flowers and greenery, a symbol of welcome and, I feel, of shared commitment to finding the beauty in everyday life. You can read more about this charming concept here. The town was beautiful, without a doubt, and I wished the driver would slow down and allow me to capture a few shots of the crumbling town church and the people tending to their lovely floral displays.
At last, our driver delivered his passengers to our grandparents’ house, passing through a charming red gate and rumbling to a stop on rust-colored gravel. Our grandparents welcomed us with tight hugs and the fluttering of kisses on each cheek. I had not seen them in many years, so long, in fact, that I could not even recall the last time we were all together in one place. Half of the family stayed with them in their sprawling two story home, while the other half stayed in a modest hotel just a mile or two down the hill. We retrieved our luggage from the shuttle, thanked our driver for getting us here so quickly – cue a few giggles from the younger kids – and took in the view that greeted Mamie and Papy every morning. It was so beautiful…and to think, we were just getting started.