Southern France

One morning I awoke to find I had received a text message from Anders.  He was in southern France working onboard a yacht.  You see, he is a business owner and engineer in the marine industry.  Anders had been on this particular yacht in La Seyne Sur Mer, France repairing a generator system.  This particular morning in mid-June, he texted me from France and asked what I had going on work wise for the next week. At the time,  I was self-employed, working as an event manager for several clients.  I told him my week was going to be an uneventful one (no pun intended).  He responded with, “well, maybe not.”

“Can you please go up to Kennesaw and pick up some parts that I need in order to complete this project?” Anders asked.  “Ok, do you want me to ship them overnight to you in France?” I asked. “No, I need you to hand deliver them to me,” Anders responded.


June 15, 2015 was by far one of the craziest adventure days in my life.  I woke up that morning thinking it would be a quiet week in Atlanta and went to bed that night (or maybe it was the next day) a block away from the Mediterranean Sea.

I left Atlanta in such a hurry, that I never had the chance to call my credit card company to alert them I was traveling overseas, nor did I exchange US Dollars for Euros.  I had about $200 US cash on me and only $20 Euros.

My final airport destination was Nice, France.  Before leaving Atlanta, I had booked a rental car, since my drive from Nice to La Seyne Sur Mer was around two hours and there was no public transportation between the two cities.  Mind you, I have been to Europe many times, but I had never driven there.  This made me nervous.

The only automatic vehicle I was able to reserve (I was not about to drive a gear shift in a foreign country) was a damn mini-van.  Seriously.  It was kind of a small mini-van, but it was still a mini-van.  A really sweet young man helped me set up the gps system in the car because it was in French and je ne parle pas Francais.  I was in a bit of a panic already because my cell phone battery was almost dead and I did not have a car cell phone charger.  Uggghhh!  So I basically had to rely on the car gps system or a paper map, which I did not have.

So Pierre plugged in my coordinates (I don’t think his name was Pierre but let’s just go with it) and I was on my way, with tons of nervous energy, driving for the first time in Europe.

Once on the freeway, motorists were buzzing past me.  For the most part I was going like 110 km which is about 70 mph, but apparently that is not fast enough over there.

I’m nervous during the drive, fists clenched and palms sweaty.  I approach a toll booth.  Oh shit, I have no coins. I try my credit cards, but they are not working, probably because the credit card companies were not alerted of my spontaneous overseas travel.  Panic begins to set in.  I hit the ‘help’ button and a computer voice speaks to me in French. I look out my rear view mirror and see a man in the car behind me.  I get out and ask if he could help me, in English obviously as I am mono-lingual.  He yells back at me “I do not speak English,” puts his car in reverse and goes through the toll in the next lane. It was an asshole thing to do, but I laugh every time I recall it.

I get back in my car and this time hit the emergency button at the toll booth machine.  Eventually a lady comes over and she speaks as much English as I speak French, but she understands what is going on.  I try to tell her I have to get to La Seyne Sur Mer.  I show her a $100 US bill.  Can you exchange this with me?  And is it enough to get me to La Seyne Sur Mer?  Oui, is all she says and she trades me lots of Euros for that $100 US bill, and I am off.  That was intense.  For the rest of the trip I encountered two more tolls and since I have Euros now it is thankfully uneventful.

The crazy thing is, well what am I saying, it’s all crazy, I am in France and thought I would be spending today back home in Georgia, but the night before I found myself driving unfamiliar highways in France, I was watching a biopic about Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco.  And here I am the next day, in her adopted home country.  The universe has a weird way of foreshadowing the future.

Cote d’Azur is absolutely breathtaking.  Honestly the most beautiful part of the world I have ever visited thus far in my life.  The people may drive erratically and may not be the most helpful, but damn if they don’t live in heaven on earth.

Somewhere outside of Cannes, I can see the foothills of the Southern Alps hitting the Mediterranean and a dark, ominous cloud over the sea.  All of sudden it is windy, dark and hail is coming down, hard.  Like I wasn’t already nervous enough.  Jeezzzz…

Luckily, this storm lasts only 15 minutes.  And as scary as it was, it was also a beautiful site to see.

This may be the only road trip I have ever taken where I did not once touch the car stereo controls.  Two hours later I take an exit off of A8.  I am in La Seyne Sur Mer. But some may say the adventure has just began.

La Seyne Sur Mer (which basically means “the city by the sea”) is a seaport town on a peninsula.  And it gets a little confusing. I arrive to town, my cell is on 4% and the British lady voice on my gps has me going in circles.  I am freaking lost, but at least I am at my final destination city.

I see a guy working a food truck and I stop for directions. I first tell him, “I am sorry but I do not speak French.”  He says, “Oui, ok.” He is very kind and I tell him I am trying to find the Rives Door hotel.  He understands what I am asking for and is basically telling me that I am right behind the hotel, as he points in the direction I need to go.  I thank him (merci!) and drive that way but cannot find the hotel.  I stop at a gas station and call Anders.  I had texted him 10 minutes earlier and told him my phone is about to die, I am in town but totally lost.  Turns out they (Anders, the captain and two engineers) had been behind me since I left the food truck guy. They noticed me there and caught up to me.  They were laughing as they pulled up to the gas station because 1) I was in a mini-van and that made Anders laugh and 2) I was blocking the gas station lanes, totally unaware I was blocking the lanes (they do things differently in France.).  But I must say, I have never been so happy to be laughed at in my life.

I follow them over to the yacht which was located in a quaint boatyard facing Toulon.  I meet the entire crew and feel like I have always known them.  A tour of the yacht, sans shoes, is a taste of the finer things in life.  A cappuccino in the crew quarters to relax and tell my adrenaline-filled travel story followed by a glass of red was exactly what I needed.  The crew is international representing England, Denmark, New Zealand and Australia.  It was almost exactly like that Bravo show “Below Deck.”

Anders and I finally get to the hotel, out of the kindness of my heart, I let him drive over there.  Dinner that night was had al fresco overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

The next week was spent with mornings of amazing French breakfast, followed by a walk to the grocer behind the hotel for a lunch and snacks and afternoons on the beach or the hotel rooftop lounge.

Two evenings in a row we had dinner with the captain and crew, one night at the captain’s rental home in La Seyne Sur Mer and once at a restaurant in town.  His rental had a great top deck view of the town and sea.  That evening at the captain’s home, the chef and her staff were practicing their meal prep and serving for future onboard clients.  We were the guinea pigs.  How fun!  A delightful meal followed by mojitos and coffee. Yum!  What an unforgettable surprise vacation this trip turned out to be.

Towards the end of this journey, we went over to Saint Tropez for dinner and site seeing (Anders drove J).  Glitzy and touristy yet still beautiful. I do hope we visit Cot d’Azur again one day.

IHOP: A different kind of travel story

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, by now you will have realized that I might have pegged myself the modern day Charles Kuralt.  Always with an itch to get on the road and experience life in different places and record my impressions and discoveries.

This next story began on the road as well.

A couple of years ago around this time of year, after work on a Friday, my husband Anders and I we were feeling spontaneous and set out for a road trip down to the Gulf Coast.  At this time, we were driving an older Chevrolet Tahoe.  Just south of Atlanta, we noticed the steering column acting a bit rigid making it very difficult to turn the wheel.  Anders took an exit off the interstate and coasted into an obscure and tucked away International House of Pancakes (IHOP).  We figured we could sit down, get some coffee, a little bite to eat and hopefully come up with a plan for the car problem and this quick getaway trip down south.

Around 8:00 p.m. we drove right into this IHOP parking lot, almost as if we were being led there.  The IHOP was different, it was by no means one of the more ‘modern’ IHOP restaurants.  The building was A-framed and looked like a ski chalet or Bavarian house.

We parked the car and when we got out, I clearly remember the air seemed thicker, almost like the door was difficult to open and when I stepped outside from the car the feeling in the air was just altogether different.  I also recall hearing a sound when I opened the door, almost like a swishing sound, like I was leaving one place and entering another.  A sound of clear distinction.  If you have ever watched The Wizard of Oz and listened to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon simultaneously, you would remember when Dorothy opened the door and entered Technicolor and “Money” was playing.  It was like that, except I didn’t hear Pink Floyd.

Walking into the IHOP was not by any means a new experience for me.  I’ve done it many times before, as a connoisseur of breakfast foods filled with sugar, I’m not above an IHOP good time/cheat meal.  But this was different, from the moment we walked in on a somewhat chilly October night in Georgia.

First of all, there were not many people in the restaurant, maybe four other patrons, but all eyes were on us from the moment we strolled in.

I began to notice, the décor of the restaurant seemed extremely outdated.  I know many of these restaurants, depending on where in the country you are, appear old and as if they haven’t been refurbished in some time.  But this place, seemed completely left behind.  From every corner, there was a macrame plant hanger, lots of bubbled art work in the shape of fruit and underneath each shape, the name of the fruit was written, wallpaper that was glossy and shiny, almost like contact paper we would put on our school books when I was a kid.  And every single song that was playing was from the mid-1970s.  I distinctly remember the song that was playing when we sat down at our table.  It was “Brother Louie” by Stories.  This song was popular two years before I was born. I had a cross-body bag around my torso and my cell phone in my hand.  The woman sitting at the table across and down from me, couldn’t keep her eyes off of me and especially my cell phone, which was by now sitting on the table.

Pretty quickly, the manager and the cook both came out to chat with us and provided us with menus.  It seemed odd.  That never happens.  They seemed overly interested in us.  It was a little unsettling at first.  The manager was dressed in black pants and a polyester blend button down shirt with a butterfly collar. The shirt was sort of a pink color.  To my knowledge, it was not a restaurant uniform for IHOP.  I don’t remember what the cook was wearing, I seemed to recall a blue apron, but that’s all I remember.  The manager guy was very interested in us, asking us both all sorts of questions.  Mostly, he wanted to know where we were from.

We told him we were from Atlanta.  “No, really where are you guys from?  I am originally from Belarus. It is safe, please tell me where you both are from,” he pleaded. Anders, who is originally from Denmark, let out a chuckle and said “Oh, that’s what you are wondering, you picked up on my accent. I am from Copenhagen, Denmark originally but I’ve been here in Atlanta since the mid 1990s.”  This guy had a look of utter shock on his face which I did not understand.  He turned to me and asked me where I was from.  I wasn’t sure what he was expecting to hear.  My answer wasn’t going to be exotic by any means.  I certainly didn’t want to upset the man, who seemed shocked and confused, but I also didn’t want to lie.  “I am from Savannah. Originally,” I said in my more ‘Atlanta’ accent.

This man asked us a few more questions and pointed to our phones often, asking, “this is new? No?”  and “what do you do with this?” These questions about our phones seemed odd, but I also thought it was possible he just didn’t have a smart phone yet.

We ate our meal and drank coffee rather quickly, mostly because with the game of 64 questions, we were beginning to feel uncomfortable.  As we were leaving, Anders paid via credit card and the cashier let out a sigh and got out a huge flatbed credit card imprinter with carbon copy paper.  I hadn’t seen one of those since I was kid.

Leaving the IHOP, we got back into the car.  When I closed the car door, I heard a loud clap.  Almost like there was thunder, but I never heard it again and I saw no lightening in the sky.  I remember the parking lot was poorly lit.  We left and drove down the street to a QuickTrip.  There we got some power steering fluid and just decided to drive back home, by this time it was 10 p.m. and being unsure of the safety of the car, we decided against the spontaneous holiday.

Driving back to Atlanta, I turned to Anders and said, “I think we just came from the year I was born.”

Completely perplexed by this experience, we still to this day are unsure what happened.  Did we time-travel? Was there a break in the space-time continuum and we experienced it?  If anyone reading this has ever had a similar experience and maybe has a better idea of what they may have experienced, please share.

It’s also completely within the realm of possibility that Anders and I walked into an old IHOP with outdated décor and piped in music from the 70s channel on Pandora and very odd employees.

Anything is possible.

Reminiscing my Spanish Holiday

Nearly a decade ago now, I embarked on a two-week journey in Spain.  During this time in my life I was soon to be recovering from a failed on-again/off-again relationship and the completion of a nine year position with an international corporation.  The timing for this trip, without knowing it, was impeccable.

The winter before going to Spain; I spent a good deal of time reading biographies about musicians and bands, which is still a hobby.  I can’t explain it, because I don’t play a musical instrument.  This one particular winter, I was reading a biography on Michael Hutchence, former front man for INXS.  It was a really harsh winter for Atlanta, with one full week of being snowed in.  Seriously, in Atlanta.  Anyway, this dreary winter experience made me naturally think to a warm and sunny summer.  I wanted to make it a memorable summer and I wanted adventure.  Michael Hutchence would have it no other way.

Perusing the internet, I started thinking I wanted to volunteer internationally.  I was determined to find a volunteer opportunity overseas during the summer.

I understand limited Spanish, but I do speak fluent English and found the perfect opportunity, Pueblo Ingles! “Volunteer to teach English in Spain with Pueblo Ingles!”  I applied right then and there. However, I was concerned that perhaps I would not be accepted as I do not speak fluent Spanish, but about two weeks later I received a letter confirming my participation and dates in mid-August. My only requirement was getting to Madrid.

Madrid is fast-paced.  To me, it felt a little like New York City. I arrived two days before the volunteer program began and stayed in a hotel in Puerta del Sol (“Gate of the sun”). This area is to Madrid what Times Square is to NYC.  Before leaving the States, I connected with a lady from south Florida, who was also volunteering for the Pueblo Ingles program.  We exchanged emails and planned to meet up in Madrid.  She had spent time in Spain before and was a fun companion!  We went to see a Flamenco show, which was a lovely surprise, walked the city and enjoyed lots of good food and drinks.

A day later we took a cab to a meeting location in Madrid to jump on the Pueblo Ingles motorcoach bus for the four-hour ride to La Alberca, a small town very close to the border with Portugal.  It is not far from Salamanca, Spain.

I have to mention this experience was magical. Almost every person I met on this trip, and there were quite a few, I felt like I had met them all before.  Maybe it was some sort of precognition, but I was meant to have this experience. There were about 30 English speaking volunteers who all met in Madrid for the journey to La Alberca.  Every volunteer represented a few English speaking countries: Australia, England and the United States all had representatives.  The purpose was to really teach the nuances of the language in different English-speaking regions of the world.  I was sure to confuse folks with my southern dialect and accent.

The location for the program was idyllic.  Located in the Spanish countryside, surrounded by mountains and olive groves, the Pueblo Ingles complex included about 20 chalet living space buildings (the English-speaking volunteer has a room downstairs and the Spaniards had a room upstairs), a mess hall kind of area, with a bar, meeting space and dining.  The bar area was generally always packed.  There was also a pool on site.

The days were filled with different activities, all spoken in English.  I recall a good deal of laughter with fun-loving people.  Every single person I encountered was enjoying life. At night, we would have dinner followed by a few drinks, laughing, talking and occasionally some dancing.  I have kept in touch with many from the program.

One day, we walked to the tiny, medieval village of La Alberca, it was basically a 30-minute walk through an olive grove to arrive there.  During this time, I was suffering from a cold, a sweet friend I met during the program, helped me communicate what meds I needed at the pharmacy in the village.

That afternoon we walked around the narrow streets of the city. Naturally, we found ourselves in a Bodego (wine cellar). Of course we did.

Later we had lunch in a restaurant where a suckling pig was brought out to the table.  I opted for the vegetarian dish. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a carnivore but that kind of presentation always turns me off.  It’s the American in me.

I remember an explosive conversation over lunch about Fidel Castro.  I listened and drank wine, but how anyone could defend the way Castro treated the people of Cuba is beyond me.

When the program was complete, we loaded up and headed back to Madrid. After saying our goodbyes, it was a sad, lonely feeling.  But the next day, I hopped a plane to Barcelona!  I was going to be spending a few days there before returning home to Atlanta.

Ah Barcelona!  One of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited.  From Gaudi inspired buildings and cathedrals to palm tree lined streets, everything about this city portrays beauty and grace to me.  I know not everyone is as crazy about Barcelona, but to each her own.

Five languages are spoken in Spain: Castilian Spanish, Galician, Basque, Asturian and Catalan. Catalan, which sounds to me a lot like French, is spoken in Barcelona.

I spent my two days here visiting the majestic Sagrada Familia, walking around the district of L’Eixample, taking in Las Ramblas and the Gothic Quarter.  The Gothic Quarter (Bari Gotic) is not a throw-back to your hard partying days in the 90s at the Limelight nightclub, but instead encompasses some of the oldest parts of Barcelona, including remains of the city’s Roman wall.

On my third day, I went down to the shore in Tarragona, exploring ancient Roman ruins and then on to Sitges, to spend some time on the beach.  I am always looking for ways to spend time on a beach. I met a few new friends on this trip, two ladies, one from Boston and the other from England.  I remember in Sitges, we were buying bottles of water in a convenience store.  A man in line started to talk to us and thought I was Dutch. This made me laugh, because I thought my look screamed “American!” Then it dawned on me, hell it must be my height. I should’ve acted like I was Dutch though and spoke no English.

Being raised Catholic, I naturally opted for a tour of Montserrat on my final day in Catalonia. Montserrat is a Benedictine abbey which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat, and the oldest publishing house in the world, which is still running, with the first book published in 1499. The Virgin of Montserrat is believed to have been carved in Jerusalem in the early days of the church. Legend has it that the monks could not move the statue to construct their monastery, choosing instead to build around it. The statue’s sanctuary is located at the rear of the chapel, where an altar of gold surrounds her, and is now a site of pilgrimage. What a bad ass, she made them build around her schedule and surround her in gold. Nice.  The line to see this virgin was way long, and being that I am more of a ‘diet’ Catholic, I opted to sit that one out.

And just like that my Spanish adventure was over.  It was an amazing trip, filled with even more great experiences to add to my most precious account, my memory bank.