France Day 6-8: Fantasy Meets Reality, and the Aftermath

Day 6This morning our bikes were delivered! Although I was too tired to exert a whole lot of enthusiasm in the mire of also getting myself and kids ready, this was a pretty exciting day. When I was 16, out of the blue somehow I had a travel adventure catalog mailed to me. At the time, I loved painting and drawing landscapes, so I kept it around as inspiration. But I started reading, too, about all the active vacations you could take, which was a whole new concept to me. My idea of vacation was a condo at Myrtle Beach with my parents for a week every year, which is great, and I love hushpuppies, don't get me wrong, but this catalog seemed exotic and beautiful and unattainable. I went off to college and left the catalog behind, but I never forgot the $4,995 3-week-long luxury vacation you could sign up for biking through the south of France (among other activities), stopping at the end of the day for pre-prepared gourmet meals at gorgeous, remote locations with amazing views and wine with the friends you’d just biked all day with.

Even after 15 years, I remember the images of people smiling and riding past fields of yellow wildflowers and lavender farms. I remember the smiling people around meals at sunset and the support vans full of luxury camping stuff, bike pumps, and kayaks. It all looked so amazing and without all the work that active activities can bring. As time wore on, I began to subconsciously construct images of myself in these scenarios, riding through the south of France. Except one thing. I’m totally not athletic. I was dreaming about their “easy route.” And I envisioned it in style. I envisioned myself in a wide-striped blue-and-white skirt billowing around me as I rode with those same smiles, but no sunscreen, no sweat, no helmet, and sitting upright on a kind of vintage cruiser bike, with a little wicker basket full of flowers. I think this was more Audrey Hepburn or Sound of Music than reality and totally in my head, but this was my styled version of this dream I never really articulated, even to myself, until now. Suffice it to say, fantasy and reality are two totally different things. There's also one more little teeny-tiny detail you'll need to know about the south of France for this story to make sense. Those easy routes? They are practically nonexistent. This area is not only hilly, it's mountainous.

The bikes seemed fabulous to me! Hubert (pronounced "hugh-BEAR") was super-nice, spoke nice, slow French to us so we could understand him, and even brought a couple of bonus tiny bikes for the kids to putter around the yard with, which have been a hit. We loaded the car up with ice water, extra water, a picnic lunch, and headed for the Cedar Forest in Luberon, which Hubert described as very easy, totally flat, no cars, and lots of shade. Since it was very hot, this sounded perfect.

We drove and drove and drove. I followed the map exactly. But we had no idea what to look for and saw a flat line of trees up ahead. We had no idea how long this might go on for, so we pulled over, had a nice picnic in the shade, and set up our bikes. Geoff had Butterscotch on the tagalong bike attached to the back of his, and I had Bittykins in a babyseat on the back of my bike.

We went up the hill, and I was totally winded within the first quarter mile and started walking my bike. After about a half mile, I got off again, and announced, “This isn’t working for me anymore.” I kind of had a feeling we were still a bit of a haul from the flat, shaded area. It was much farther than it looked from the car. But I didn’t want to be lame, go all the way back, unhitch the tagalong, unhitch the baby seat, put both bikes on the rack, strap all the wheels, etc. etc. etc. I wanted to be a trooper and tough it out.

Geoff is way more fit than I am. Like ridiculously fit. In fact, he’s training to climb Mont Blanc in a few weeks and runs 4-6 miles almost every day, including intervals. He’s a little insane. I do not know any other 32-year-old men in nearly as good a shape as he is in. I have that kind of astonished “I could never do that” respect for his level of commitment. I used to go to the gym with him, but gosh darnit, I’m so freaking tired by 5 pm when the nursery is open, and ever since I got pneumonia (AGAIN) this past winter, running has been almost twice as hard as it used to be on my scarred lungs and I have to use my inhaler almost every time after I’m done (I have had asthma since I was 14).

It’s embarrassing.

So I toughed it out. As usual. Without whining (except to announce that this wasn’t working for me anymore that one time). I walked the bike all 1.3 Km up that hot, sweaty, dry hill. And lo and behold, we found a well-marked sign after all for the Cedar Forest, a huge shaded parking lot, and a bike/hike-only path through a scenic forest. We even found another family with little ones and an elderly couple hunting for mushrooms. This was a nice, easygoing area. I was feeling slightly cross that we hadn’t kept driving. But we were here now, so there was no point in complaining. Even within the “flat, shaded pathway,” it was still uphill. The hard bike seat was so painful, I was trying to not sit with each pedal push. Finally, I reached a point where I could no longer go on. And it worked out because just then, Butterscotch had a sudden, intense interest in getting out to go play on the large stacks of cedar logs.

We also found a big stick teepee someone had left behind, and the children wanted to play Three Little Pigs. I read this to them all the time in French, but Butterscotch insisted on playing in English, so English it was. He did accidentally slip up and call me a “loup” (wolf) once, though…so some of it is sinking in. Sometimes I slip in French words in our conversation and he doesn’t bat an eyelash. But if you ask him, “What does X mean?” he’ll bristle. He thinks he doesn’t like learning a new language because it’s a struggle, and he shies from challenge (something he did not get from Geoff or me). Hopefully that will change as he gains confidence in his ability to learn. Right now, he’s still so young, he doesn’t recognize when he’s learned something new, though he’s learning all the time. I hope he finds the joy in struggling and achieving, and that the two go together.

After shade and water and rest and play, I was feeling better. We started again, and from the moment I pedaled just once, it was all downhill. I rode the brakes most of the way downhill. Because it was such a steep hill (and holy wow, how the heck did I make it this far?!), we got going pretty fast. And suddenly, a car.

A car ZOOMING up the hill way too fast. I screamed.

Luckily, he saw me instantly, but was going so fast, he had to make a small zigzag swerve to stop.

Within 1 second of my seeing him, I realized we were not likely to actually be hit by the car, so instead I mitigated the more likely risk of flying over the handlebars or falling and sliding and raking off all our skin in a terrible road rash. I swerved a bit, then controlled the swerve, and stopped safely. The car and I missed each other by about 10 feet.

As we both slowly started again and passed each other, I looked directly into the eyes of the man who almost killed me. He seemed to be scolding me with his eyes. I began to be apologetic, but then realized, hey wait, I’m the one on the bike. With a toddler in the back.

Then again, I was coming around a bend in the road, and because I was going so fast down the hill, I had kind of merged into his lane. Had I been 50 feet up the road, I may not be writing this story right now. Luckily, I reached that corner first and he saw me in the straightaway.

I should have been more careful, but no other cars had passed me on the way down. I wasn’t in high alert mode.

Geoff also looked at me with scolding eyes. I felt like a teenager coming home late.

This hadn’t gone as I envisioned.

Hot, tired, thirsty, sunscreeny, sweaty, filthy, sticky, smelly, and dusty, we reloaded the bikes and folded ourselves back into our Euro-car and drove back down the mountain.

Oddly, I wasn’t shaken up at all, just eager for Geoff to not be upset with me. (Why is it when you come home late or almost hurt yourself, the people who love you most aren't all "Oh you poor thing!" They're all "I WAS SCARED TO DEATH!"? During the scene, I had actually felt pretty in control. My scream was to alert the driver.

We change the subject, we move on with our day. But when my brain gets a second to have an independent thought that isn’t “Put that down,” or “No, don’t climb that,” or “Come back here, please….Do you need a time-out for not listening?” it keeps coming back to me. I thought that if that car had hit us that it would be worse if Bittykins died than if I died.

OK. I mean, I get it. A baby dying is more horrifying than an adult dying. (Right? That’s SO sad!) I mean, a parent dying and leaving behind children is awful, too…I mean, I don’t know. You can’t really compare the two (and probably shouldn’t, especially in the wake of a near-death scenario). But what about the value of my own life? I know in my own head that I matter, I matter to God, I matter to my family, but I don't take time to matter to me. And when I play that out in the day to day actions of ignoring myself bit by bit, apparently I begin to disappear.

I don’t know. The incident was kind of a downer. It brought to light the feelings I already have that I feel like second fiddle to a baby. I kind of feel like that anyway in my own mind because I put her needs first. For instance, she has tons of amazingly cute clothes, and I showed up halfway across the planet in the middle of summer with everything in the closet that fit me when we left: two pairs of long jeans that are too hot to wear, two long sleeve shirts, two ill-fitting dresses, and a sweater. So I have one dress that both fits and is weather-appropriate.

I should be better at taking care of myself, but I have this messed up idea that someone will care for me enough to notice I need taking care of and either just help me or provide me with deliberate time I don’t have to ask for specifically to shop or get a haircut or eat or things like that. I need friends in my life. Like real friends, not just internet friends. I feel like if Geoff doesn’t notice that I am in need of basic human things, that my need must not show enough and that I don’t deserve to be taken care of yet, so I work harder and press on in hopes someone will stop me and say kind words like, “You’ve done enough” or “You must be exhausted!” or “Wow, look at all you did today!” or “Here, take a load off! You deserve it,” or something like that. Isn’t that stupid? It’s obviously an unfair burden to put on him. Plus, when we’re all together, he’s so busy taking care of the kids to sort of relieve me that he may not notice *I* need things, too, like, food. Or someone to listen to me. Or that I’m getting exhausted. I’m terrible at telling him that I need things, because I put an unfair expectation on him to see my needs. He’s not telepathic. He can't be everything to everyone. I know this. I just have an emotional need to feel prioritized in the same way I prioritize the children. I’m a selfish, needy person, but no one knows.

It had been a long day.

I decided to convince Geoff to take the kids to the pool by himself so I could rest on the sofa. He was OK with that. (See?! He is such an amazing husband, and totally awesome at helping me out if I JUST ASK HIM, gaaaah why do I have to be such a martyr in my own head? Why do I secretly wish he’d bring me a glass of water instead of just asking or getting it myself? What is wrong with me? Nobody is telepathic and no one can serve everyone! He already does way more than I do these days.)

But no sooner had I laid down and closed my eyes to guilt myself and taken exactly one deep breath that I heard a sound like the bats of hell screeching from a distance.

Butterscotch had fallen off the kiddie bike.

He scraped his elbow, and gosh darnit, they never made it to the pool, so here they all come, super filthy, and with a problem for me to solve.

I would rather eat a handful of sand right now than deal with this. (Aren’t I a horrible mother?!)

Still, I lurch off the sofa faster than an eagle and swooped forth into the yard to meet my wounded child.

It wasn’t that bad. (Whew.)

But he was scared, and Butterscotch turns all his negative emotions into anger.

Screaming at us, running away from us, yelling at us to “GO AWAY!” and other charming things like this, which make it super easy to care for him…

Of course, we’re all concerned and we’re trying to be gentle and talking to him sweetly and he’s like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast when Belle tries to clean his wound (remember that?). ROAR!

Finally, Geoff and Bittykins went in the house, and he relaxed and told me he was “scared.”

Wow, that’s a huge admission for this kid! He calmed down and identified an emotion, separate from anger! Hooray! Mark this day!

Then his face changed instantly and he turned angry again. Geoff was walking up behind me. Butterscotch never returned to his vulnerability, but at least now I knew he was scared.

He refused to come in the house for a shower. I tried to coax him with a cookie. Nothing worked. Finally I had to threaten to come near him if he didn’t go in the house.

Geoff acted like a patient angel from Heaven and was gentle with Butterscotch despite his violent behavior and angry screaming at Geoff the shower. Geoff has a lot of his mother in him, especially in times like these. He is amazing. I give him a gold star for dealing with that. After it was over, I helped him calm down some more and bandaged his wound.

Oh! And throughout all of this process – the convincing, the showering, the dressing, the bandaging – I was going back and forth up and downstairs prepping dinner. So when Butterscotch came downstairs all warm and clean and showered, he had pizza and milk for dinner in front of My Little Pony – in English, no less!

Now where was I? Oh yes. It had been a long day.

Geoff and I had movie night and watched Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, which is about an incredible one-night meet-cute and ultimate date in Vienna. It reminded me so much of the deep connection Geoff and I shared when we were dating. We still talk like that sometimes, about everything and nothing, and could talk all night, but it’s at home, and if we’re out, everything in Waterville is closed before 10 pm, I’m usually exhausted, and we’re on the clock with a babysitter. I wonder if we’ll ever have that kind of experience again. I miss that kind of energy and spontaneity in my life sometimes, though I seldom have time to think about it anymore, and my life is full the way it is.

After the movie, we were just starting to chat and reconnect and enjoy each other’s company again, which was fabulous, because it’s not easy to connect when you can’t finish a sentence at dinner, and sometimes not even finish a thought. And then when kids are finally asleep, sometimes all you want is time alone, at least for a little while, you know? It was great to finally hear what he had to say and what was on his mind.

Then Bittykins woke up and came downstairs. And that was the end of our night.

I think back to those dating days in my early college days, and I remember how lonely it was. I’m living the goal of dating right now. I am literally living my dream! OK, it may differ from fantasy slightly, but only by a comfortable bike seat and some decent clothes. And more date nights where I’m rested and have had sufficient alone time beforehand. That is my new fantasy.

[There are no pictures from Day 6. All images below are from Days 7 and 8.)

Day 7

Yesterday was a trying day. Today I needed an easy day.

We went into town (Saignon) for breakfast and the organic farmer’s market. We bought and ate fresh-made crepes! Geoff and I each had caramel & salted butter, and the kids had chocolate. They were tres delicieux! We bought “salades” (lettuce) and carrots. Geoff then wanted to wander through Saignon, which was truly lovely, but I just was not feeling quite up to it, and I realized there was no way for me to find and use a bathroom without advanced language and negotiation skills. I finally asked Geoff for the car keys and drove all the way back home!

I felt much better after driving, some cool air conditioning in the car, and about 32 ounces of water as soon as I got home! I came right back to pick them up, and thankfully, they were waiting at the corner so I didn’t have to park and search for them.

Next was the grocery store again. This time, we divided and conquered – one kid in each cart. It was much less overwhelming this time. I also realized that I have no hope of ever finding any sort of Ritz-like butter cracker while I’m here. The French do bread. Their version of a box of crackers is bagged toast. Small pre-toasted pieces of bread. I’m just not that into it. I love 99% of all French food and French language and French culture! I try so hard not to be such an American tourist. I teach my children, I travel with them, I show them new places and new foods and different people. But it’s going to be hard to let go of crackers. I noticed that the French don’t really do a whole lot of processed food, period. Especially in this region of the country, everything is fresh. Even at the checkout counter, there are no crackers, cookies, and almost no candy. It’s all huge boxes of Tic-Tacs and breathmint gum (remember when I told you everyone smokes)? The Tic-Tac boxes are triple the size of American Tic-Tac boxes. If you want candy, you can go the amazing candy aisle, where you’ll find more varieties of chocolate bars than you will varieties of soft drinks, cereals, and processed lunch meat put together.

The thing about the French grocery store is that there is almost no convenience food. No Pop Tarts, no Goldfish, no cheese sticks, no fruit-by-the-foot (not that we buy that anyway), no 100-calorie "Snak Paks," no packs of cheese crackers or vending machine food. No energy bars, no microwave pizza, no mac-and-cheese-in-a-box, no Chips Ahoy, no Oreos, no cheese puffs, just pretzels and a few varieties of chips. No ding-dongs or Little Debbies. No pudding cups, no Jell-O, no brownie mix, no lunchbox-sized anything, no tiny raisin boxes, no applesauce cups, no unrefrigerated salad dressings full of preservatives, no butter crackers or crackers of any kind, and maybe a dozen varieties of soda total. French children here walk home from school each day at 1 pm for lunch and walk back at 2. And because they attend year-round school, we see them, talking to each other, none with phones. The food is a mark of an unbusied, unpackaged, unmarketed life.

When we returned home, I was too tired to finish fixing lunch or even to eat it. I went upstairs and took a 3-hour nap by myself (and the angels sang). When I woke up, both kids were napping and Geoff was out for (another!) run, this time from our farmhouse all the way to Buoux! This is not an easy run. That man…wow.

We ended our day with more laundry hanging, pool time, and steak-frites with bechamel sauce. Yes, not only is my Dr. Mitchell amazing, handsome, and sweet, he's also an amazing and enthusiastic cook. I watched Finding Nemo with the kids all the way through. I hadn’t seen it all the way since it came out! This was such a luxury because I usually use movies on rare occasions as a time to catch up on housework. Such a delight to just enjoy it with them. And yes, I cried at the end when Marlin thought Nemo was dead and envisioned him as a little egg again. Why do I have to be so emotional. It’s so embarrassing.

Day 8

Oh, today. Today was slow to start and wonderfully lax. We loaded up the bikes and headed out for a nice, easy, flat, sunny ride through wine country, starting in Robillon and heading toward Coustellet. Riding from one town to another may sound ambitious, but you have to understand that these centuries-old villages are separated by like a nice, short, half-hour horse ride.

However, due to the previous bike adventure attempt, my derrier was still bruised from the super-hard athleti-bike seat totally not made for a pregnant woman. We had also realized this morning that the pump Hubert left us with was only good for Shraeder valves, and we had Prestas. So bike shop it was. Geoff parked up the street in Apt and sent me walking up the road to the bike shop, alone. Oh. My gosh. I was going to have to speak French all alone without backup. I speak well enough to get around and understand 85% of what is being said to me or even on the radio and almost everything I read. But speaking it requires a new confidence.

I spent 67 Euros with this guy, and despite my obvious pregnancy he would not let me use his bathroom! Grr! I swear people are not as nice to me when I’m not wearing makeup. And this is also exactly why I don’t shop local more at home – people don’t let me and my two tiny children use their bathroom! “We don’t have one…mleh mleh mleh” Whatever! Yes you do! I am pregnant with two kids who are totally willing to….”STOP PEEING IN THAT!” [Let’s leave now. Now. Just go.)

I did allow him, though, to install my new seat for me while I almost melted with embarrassment sneaking into the restaurant bathroom across the street. I just walked right in and was inches from the bathroom door when the owner gave me the 3rd degree about if I was certain I wasn’t going to eat there. I spoke enough French to apologize profusely, explain that I was just visiting for the summer and didn’t speak too much French, and please forgive me. I wished I could have just melted into a puddle, slid under the bathroom door, and reformulated once on the other side of the porte de les toilettes.

I totally would love to eat there, though. It smelled delicious. I’m sure it is. Everything in France is. Well, OK, almost everything.

Andouillette sausage is maybe not for me. But everything else, yes. (Geoff ate the andouillette, though. Oh my. I’m expecting way more chest hair at the pool tomorrow.)

Finding the beginning of the bike path was not easy and required advanced map skills, blind faith, and some driving through what looked like a private farm or three, but we found it! By this time, it was 1 pm and we were starving, so we ate our picnic in the car – apples, broccoli, and baguettes avec prosciutto and sausage and other meats and a couple types of cheeses we’d pick up (about 2 Euros/pound! Cheese here is plentiful, has great variety, and is very affordable!)

The new path was extremely pregnant-lady friendly and flat and despite the 90+ degree heat, I was very happy. We lived in Tucson for 8 years, so I was delighted to feel the extreme sun again.

We biked to Coustellet! We made it! I was so proud of myself! OK, OK. It was maybe 2 km. But still – a successful, safe, and well-hydrated bike run! I’ll take it for a win.

I came back and fell asleep nursing Bittykins. We slept for 2 ½ or 3 hours together.

We ended the day with Geoff grilling prawns for us. Bittykins couldn’t wait, so she just bit the head off a raw prawn before I knew what was going on, and she ate it. Dang girl, nothing holds you back. She looked that prawn right in the eye (it has EYES!) and she chomped its head off and ate it. Oh! Bittykins! We are certainly raising “adventurous eaters…”

As it turns out, it is much easier to peel delicate prawns before they are grilled, but if you boil them, they’re probably easy enough to peel after you cook them. During dinner, another surprise visitor showed up.

Some insect had gotten me good 5 times and I was swelling up like crazy.

I took Benadryl, showered the kids, and no sooner had I handed the last bitty out of the shower and gotten that moment to myself that the Benadryl kicked in. The dishes wouldn’t get washed for three nights. I was so zonked, I passed out in the bed before drying my hair. And that was the end of THAT day…

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