Monday, 07 July 2008 06:09

Body Shop Vacation: Impressions From a Month in France

Written by Dick Strom

For those collision repairers with your noses constantly to the grind wheel, I’d like to depart from my regular format and point out that there is more to life than that found in the shop. Left to me, my wife and I would probably never have spent a month touring France by car. But Bobbi never lost her “wanderlust” as a military brat of a career Marine and so we were off to France, Rick Steves’ handy travel guides in hand. Here are some impressions of our trip to the motherland of the Impressionist Movement. 

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Dick Strom at Mont Saint-Michel

   We’ve all heard that the French hate Americans (and sometimes vice versa). Though we occasionally noted a muted undertone of irritation, we found them to be hurried and not that conversationally outgoing—not antagonistic against us. Despite the language barrier, many folks went out of their way to help us find ours.
    At one restaurant the waitress was kind enough to point out that what Bobbi was planning to order was raw meat, a delicacy not to our liking. Totally lost trying to navigate our way out of Paris, a motorcyclist personally led us through a maze of streets onto the freeway we couldn’t find.
    Part of the language barrier appears to be that although basic English is taught in French schools, they don’t want to be laughed at for their halting English – which is generally far superior to our French. We found that opening a conversation with “Parlez-vous anglais?” (“Do you speak English?”) is usually answered with a squeezing together of their thumb and first finger, indicating “only a little.” From there on, they tend to warm up and give English their best shot.
    One blessing of not knowing the language is never knowing if someone is cursing at you. At a sale of local art in one French city, as I attempted to inquire of the artist what materials he had melded together, a man standing nearby interpreted for us. He later explained that he was born and raised in a nearby village until moving to America for college.
    Having returned to France for the funeral of an aunt, and knowing the French language intimately, he could not understand the resentment many of the younger to middle-aged French harbored against Americans, especially after all we did along with England, Canada, and Australia to free France in both World Wars.

Inhaling history
Later, as we contemplatively walked among the nearly 10,000 white crosses and Stars of David that marked the final resting place of many thousands of Americans who gave their lives for France’s freedom on Normandy’s beaches and beyond. An older woman reverently laid two large bouquets of beautiful flowers on the steps of the memorial’s centerpiece. It was obvious that this French woman remembered, and was thankful for our sacrifices on their behalf.
    Normandy’s beaches and shoreline are still littered with the enormous hulks of concrete barges that transported Allied supplies from England and then doubled as ramps between ships off-shore and the beachhead. And the land above the beach, especially above Omaha and Utah Beaches where Americans stormed German fortifications, are still deeply scarred from the hellish impact of fierce Allied fire from ships off the coast.
    One strategic German strong point was so decimated by ship fire that not an inch of it is not still cratered with holes up to 40 feet across and 20 feet deep. After a few wild shots to find their range, allied ships from miles out at sea had so accurately honed in on German gun emplacements above the Normandy shore that they were lobbing shells directly into the ammunition magazines of each German gun emplacement, blowing them sky high.
    We also visited a couple places on the Alsace borderland between Germany and France where the French and her allies, including America, fought to the last man to stop Germany’s land grabbing. This region is still heavily rutted with defensive dirt fortifications, now covered with moss and grass under a covering of trees.
    Occasionally still, someone who strays into the woods is crippled or killed by landmines that have evaded detection over the past 90+ years. I bought two well used military helmets from that war, one French and one Belgian, which now line our recreation room walls, along with the American WW1 helmet and gas mask I already had – mute symbols of “the war to end all wars.”


    It should be noteworthy to all in the collision industry that though Germany promised France that it would never again be attacked, early on in WWII France was easily overrun in Hitler’s frenzied push to take England, and eventually America. History tells the rest of the story, but suffice it to say that had not America been forced into this battle, all of Europe and most likely America would be speaking German.
    Few cities and villages escaped the necessary destruction involved in ridding France of German occupation during both World Wars. But those that remained of these determined folks immediately began restacking the stone blocks from which their world is composed.
    Though some buildings remain pockmarked from wartime shelling, the parents and grandparents of present day France didn’t waste any time starting to rebuild. and to an admirable extent haven’t harbored great resentment for the atrocities Germany brought on them.
    An immense memorial is dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of French and like numbers of German soldiers lost in that battle. Those who could be identified are buried there, while the skulls and bones of the many more thousands of those who could not be identified, French, German, American, and others, are yet visible through the memorial’s lower windows.
    Nearly every village has a war memorial listing those lost in the two major battles for France’s independence, each indicating whether that village had lost more citizens in WWI than in WWII. In these tiny villages as many as three from one family gave the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the freedom of their family and country.

Convoluted roads

One frustrating thing we encountered in touring France, next to the illogical nature of the location of its many and varied roads, is the signage along these roads. Possibly this comes with the territory, considering this is the same country that brought the world Fiats, Citroens, and Renaults. I was told by someone there that in the past whenever some high official assumed office, he would be rewarded by having a road built to his home. Whether true or not, this would seem to hint at the insanity that they call their road system.
    Of the 4,908 kilometers I drove during that month, with the best maps money could buy and Bobbi’s expert navigation skills, we must have backtracked and re-backtracked at least 300 of those kilometers trying to figure out how to get to our next destination.
    In all the places we’ve driven in the world, absolutely nothing has been as baffling, at times even maddening, as trying to navigate France. At a bed and breakfast place, we met a couple from Connecticut who were depending on GPS to navigate French roads – frustrated by verbal instructions to take roads that no longer exist or are being detoured around. They weren’t faring much better than we were.
    On the other hand, we’ve never seen cleaner roadsides, cities and villages than in France. They don’t allow garbage to pile up, and on virtually every early morning, mechanical and manual street-sweepers are doing their thing, and the sidewalks of businesses are washed. It wasn’t uncommon to see men with backpack gas-powered vacuums going after the last vestiges of dirt along cobblestone city streets.
    In France it’s apparently OK to park anywhere, pointed in any direction, at any time, and more than one vehicle away from the curb. All vehicles are small in Western Europe for good reason: roads are extremely narrow, and diesel sells presently for around 1.5 Euros per liter – the equivalent of around $9 per gallon. Diesel consumption is much more common there, and less expensive than gasoline.
    Tailgating, especially on narrow, winding roads is apparently a national pastime, and speed limits appear to be only suggestive in nature. While driving at the legal limit of 130 kilometers per hour (close to 85 mph), cars on their toll freeways, cars and motorcycles passed us like we were standing still. Though there appeared to be few police on the roads, the only accident we saw in the over 3,000 miles we traveled was a large improperly secured tractor that had slid part way off its trailer on a sharp curve.


Almost as common as the steeples of Catholic churches in the center of every village are the ruins of castles on craggy hilltops. The French are by nature expert at farming – and at stacking rocks. Maybe they got their rock-stacking abilities from the Romans, many of whose incredible roads, theaters, coliseums, and bridges, all built 2000 years ago without mortar or rebar, are still standing throughout much of Western Europe.
    We drove across Roman-built bridges that yet today are the main entrance to villages, and which have held up against the ravages of numerous flash floods in which modern steel bridges have collapsed. Primarily built to transport Roman troops quickly, these well-executed Roman structures remain very serviceable long after the Roman Empire fell around 1500 years ago.
    I love wandering through the remains of ancient castles, old farmsteads, and houses dug into solid rock, many of them still inhabited, some now with electricity, modern windows and doors. It’s slightly shocking to see an enormous natural rock of sandstone or limestone having a modern door and windows, with a smoking chimney protruding from its top.
    On our way to visit a cluster of Medieval farms discovered by a curious youngster in 1960 behind a heavy covering of brambles, we passed a new car parked inside the tight confines of a garage, most likely a former house, cut out eons ago from a solid limestone wall.
    It seems that everyone is a gardener here. Beautiful roses, irises, poppies, sunflowers, lavender, and many other beautiful plants in a wide variety of colors, grow everywhere. Nearly every apartment had flower baskets in full bloom. In the wild, vibrant yellow rapeweed and orange-red poppies by the billions cover the landscape, sometimes as far as the eye can see. Olive trees, grape vines, and a multitude of varieties of fruit trees, especially cherries, cover the terraced hillsides.
    Flea markets and antique stores are fun and plentiful, and open-air food markets are a daily occurrence in this country where living spaces, and refrigerators, are relatively small. We bought many of our breakfasts and lunches at these markets, and enjoyed eating them in grassy fields overlooking old castles, villages, or ancient cliff dwelling. Great cheeses and bread are French staples, to which we added marinated olives, fresh tomatoes, onions, cured meats, and the like in our lunches.
    Unlike here in the States, many stores throughout Western Europe sell only one product: you go to the meat store to buy fresh rabbit, pork, lamb, and beef, then walk a short distance to the fish market for seafood items that include eel and clams, and then nearby to the bread store for their many varieties of breads and scrumptious pastries, then to the cheese store, and so on. Open-air markets provide all of these items, plus clothing, jewelry and pickpockets, in an atmosphere that is fun and yet a little confining for those such as myself who are mildly claustrophobic.
    At one open air market a very large old-world French man somewhat resembling Anthony Quinn was selling cheeses and salami that he had produced. As is common there, he sliced off a generous piece of each of his products and handed them directly to me. To his amusement I broke these in half and gave half to Bobbi. When we decided to purchase some of each, Bobbi handed him a 20 Euro bill. He then handed back our change and purchase directly to me, at which time I smiled and handed Bobbi the change.
    Though we couldn’t converse an intelligible word between us, we all broke out in laughter as we shook hands and departed: He in his Anthony Quinn deep-hearted laughter was laughing over this obvious foreigner whose wife appeared to control the purse-strings.
    Our laughter was in observing this aging man so set in tradition in a world where men yet, at least on the surface, control everything. One thing we all agreed on: his cheese and salami were excellent!