Category Archives: Crossing Borders

Blog posts from our trip (mostly overland) from Ireland to Niger for 2 and a half months in 2011.

Last Night in Paris

I’ve been putting off writing this last blog about our trip, partly because it seems a little unfair to reflect on what was a lovely end to our summer travels given the recent news about Ramatou, and partly because I’m hesitant to give up this last tangible link with being on the road. But here goes…

We left Cahors early the morning of the August 17th, taking “forced luxury” (as Rick Steves calls it) in the form of first-class seats to Paris. Because of some strange promotion SNCF had going on for the summer, these tickets were considerably cheaper than 2nd class tickets on this particular day and route. Otherwise, I’d never advise springing for the upgrade. It’s kind of like flying first class domestic in the States – the seats are only marginally wider, the bump in service from paltry to disingenuously attentive doesn’t justify the premium, and the people you’re surrounded with are bound to be road-weary frequent fliers and stuffy bluebloods rather than the more interesting rucksackers you’re apt to find in coach.

Hopping on the Paris Metro after getting in early at Gare d’Austerlitz, we unwittingly took the scenic route to our hotel by getting off at the Invalides stop. We’d stayed at the Hotel du Champ de Mars when we had passed through in June and so were quite confident we knew the way. Finding the hotel on foot didn’t give us any trouble, but hoofing it for more than a kilometer under the weight of our port- and cured-meat-laden packs turned out to be unnecessary.

Anne-Claire’s friend Julie from Marseilles met us that afternoon for dinner. “You’re joking, right?” she said, when I told her, yeah, the hotel was nice, but wasn’t well located for catching the Metro. “It’s just right around the corner.”

A lot of times people will say something’s right around the corner, when in fact something’s considerably farther away. Even with Julie’s excellent colloquial English, I didn’t believe her…until we walked right around the corner to the École Militaire station.

We have few excuses for this flub up. It wasn’t a language barrier or a lack of travel experience. It was just the arrogance to think that we didn’t need to check the map of a Metro system we both thought we knew well, or to not ask the hotel clerk the best way to get around, or to not just simply be a bit more aware as we were walking around. Oh well, I suppose there are worse places to take a long stroll through than the 7th arrondissement around the Eiffel Tower.

We met Sophie at her office to pick up a few of our things she’d been kind enough to hold for us while we’d traveled through Spain, Morocco and West Africa. Strangely enough, the very next morning Sophie and her boyfriend flew to California for vacation, and they’d end up staying with us in Pacific Grove not a week later.

After a quick “see you soon” to Sophie, we set out in search of a drink. Paris has automated kiosks all over the city crammed full of bicycles for rent. It’s not a terribly new system, but it’s light years ahead of similar programs that have taken off at places like Washington, D.C., and New York in the past year or so. As long as you’re a member (which Julie is), you swipe your credit card, pop the bike of the rack and start pedaling the big city. There are rules about how much you’re charged for the duration of the rental. The system’s optimized for short trips, like the one we were taking to get from the business-y 8th arrondissement back to our hotel, which ended up costing us about a euro each.

Biking through some of the busiest parts of the city was a whirlwind adventure. Yes, there are bike lanes (which you often have to share with buses), and in my two very short pedal-powered trips in Europe, I do think drivers are generally more aware of cyclists. However, I haven’t quite figured out how that dovetails with Europeans’ hell-bent need to get to where they’re going as fast as possible. Relaxed – bordering on lackadaisical in certain situations – Europeans, and the French in particular, never seem in a hurry when not confined in the cabin of a vehicle. But stick them behind the wheel of an automobile, and no amount of swerving, hedging traffic lights and breaking the occasional traffic code is too much if it shortens the journey. Maybe they’re just jonesing to get back to all that good living. Perhaps that’s another vestige of their culture they’ve left behind in West Africa.

Regardless, just because I had the impression that I’d been noticed (often not the case here in the States) didn’t mean I felt safe. We barreled through oceanic intersections with starfish-like (the sunflower type, not the classic 5-legged variety) patterns of streets coming in from all directions, only to come up on Place de la Concorde. The mammoth, oval-shaped roundabout swallows streams of cars, all eager to reach another of the oval’s access points (again, as quickly as possible) and get on their way. Unfortunately, none of the drivers seemed to have seen this oh-so-helpful video from my hometown on how to properly and safely navigate this traffic feature. The half-hearted attempts at lane lines appeared to be mere suggestions, and the traffic lights, presumably protecting gawking tourists brave enough to cross a dozen lanes of traffic, seemed to be more starting gates than safety devices.

Taking the second turn onto the Champs Elysées, we somehow ended up in the middle riding along the center divider. After a hair-raising left turn on a just-turned-red light toward the Seine – and a brief *chat* with a few police officers who mistook Anne-Claire and Julie for monolingual tourists but were quickly assuaged with a little eyelash batting – we crossed the Pont Alexandre III and were soon clicking our bikes back into the rack just off Rue Cler before having (at least for me) a much-needed drink.

The end of any journey is always a bit sad.

Staying true to form, Julie, Anne-Claire and I headed for a known entity, reprising the meals we’d had in June at Vins et Terroir in the Latin Quarter. Some of Julie’s friends met us for the evening, and mercifully, one couple had traveled and worked quite a bit in Australia (where they met Julie), so they spoke excellent English. Apart from not having the steak tartare we’d enjoyed so much in June and that Anne-Claire had been dreaming of on our long hikes and bush taxi rides through Africa, dinner was superb and the conversation excellent.

We held down the table for more than three hours, unfortunately outlasting the gelato shop down the street that locks its doors at 11 pm. Julie and her friends were bent on making a night of it, inviting us to have a drink somewhere else, but we opted to stroll Paris’s streets one more time before leaving the continent the next morning.

Like so many visitors, the pull of Notre Dame is a force too strong to shake when we’re the grand cathedral’s neighborhood, so for perhaps the fourth time in as many days in Paris (including June), we crossed the Seine and set off toward the twin Gothic towers. Of course, the square out front was packed, on this evening gathered around a fire dancer. Transfixed by the light show, it occurred to me that, five hundred years ago, a crowd might have enjoyed a strikingly similar show in Renaissance-tinged Paris, or that in another five hundred years, a similar scene would perhaps unfold right where we stood.

The Paris Opera House

We wandered back up the Seine toward those icons of Paris, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Through the Tuileries Garden, across Place de la Concorde, up the Champs Elysées we walked, until finally, exhausted, we caught a quick Metro ride back to our hotel. And this time we didn’t take the scenic route.

Thanks so much for joining us on our summer trip. It’s been great to hear from everyone who’s been reading. Keep an eye out for weekly updates, as I’ve got a few stories I hope to go into more depth on. I have a few ideas beyond just a summer jaunt to keep this blog going, so I hope you’ll continue to read and let me know what you think.

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Stop All the Clocks

Issaka, Anne-Claire, Ramatou and a sleeping Khadidja at the Niamey Airport, August 3, 2011

Insha’Allah. The phrase is often the last you’ll hear from as you say goodbye in a Muslim country. As we passed through the barriers at the Niamey airport to board our flight back to Morocco, we told Issaka and his wife Ramatou that we’d see them when we returned, some day.

“Insha’Allah,” they said. “If God wills it.” It didn’t occur to us that God wouldn’t will the reunion we all looked forward to in that moment.

I’m still working on my last post from our summer travels. But we got some sad news today that makes it difficult to share more of the joy we experienced this summer, especially when someone who played such a big role in bringing us that joy is no longer with us.

This past Monday night in Niamey, Ramatou—Issaka’s wife, not Anne-Claire’s best friend from her service—died after getting sick that day. I haven’t spoken with Issaka directly, but he mentioned in an e-mail that she’d had some heart trouble in the past. Nothing about her 30-something appearance suggested that she’d fall ill so quickly. Not the way she buzzed around the house making sure Anne-Claire and I had everything we needed to feel at home. Not the way she looked after the children, whether hers by birth (Khadidja) or by marriage. Not the way she prepared more than a dozen meals for us while we visited.

Like so many Nigeriens, her first instincts in any situation were to smile and to laugh. That never-met-a-stranger smile put us at ease right away.

Not just statistics: Khadidja and Mohammed each face a childhood with only one parent

I won’t make much hay here trying to reconcile why these things happen. I’ve certainly tried to rationalize the unfairness that seems to pervade places like Niger, to no avail. The conclusion I come to is that so much in this life, and the way in which it often ends, is dependent on where you’re born. Ramatou’s death is a jolting reminder that a life expectancy of around 52 years (compared to ours, nearly 80 in the States) and other statistics are grounded in the real devastation for many families. Unlike other countries, Niger is not beset with the scourge of high AIDS rates (at least that we know of) that drags down the age to which people can expect to live in otherwise up-and-coming African countries like Zambia, Botswana and South Africa.

Putting a face on these numbers is not a new topic for this blog, but it’s perhaps the most sobering lesson from our trip this summer. I’m left with few answers and only sadness for Issaka and for Khadidja, yet another toddler who found her way into our hearts and now will grow up with only the memory of one of her parents.

Medieval France

I’m convinced Anne-Claire is on a mission to become friends with all the best cooks in France. Last year, before starting graduate school, she came to Cahors in southwestern France to brush up on her French. While the school itself turned out to be a disappointment, she made lifelong friends in the family she lived with – a woman, Cécile, and her two daughters, Elora and Maylïn – cemented with their shared appreciation of top notch food and excellent “black wine” from the region.

We made the trek from Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Atlantic coast of France to Toulouse, and then turned north to Cahors. Cécile and her girls met us at the train station and welcomed us into their home.

They live on five floors built around a spiral staircase, tucked in the town’s old section, which dates back to the 14th century. Strolling the narrow, gorge-like streets, you catch glimpses of arching stone windows and the ancient timbers that still form the endoskeleton of these shotgun homes (only here, you’d better point the gun skyward if you want the bullet to clear the building’s walls and occupants, rather than horizontally as you might in an American home of this type).

After stashing our stuff on the second-floor room (ours for the three nights we stayed there), our hosts took us on a walk through Cahors, the highlight of which was seeing the spectacular Pont de Valentré, built in the 1300s. Legend has it that the bridge’s builder had to sell his soul to the devil to meet the construction deadlines. But to ensure that the bridge would never be completed, he gave the devil a sieve to collect the water needed for the last bit of mortar. The devil of course couldn’t carry any water with the sieve, leaving the bridge unfinished and thus saving the master builder’s soul. In retaliation for being tricked, the devil

removed a cornerstone from one of the bridge’s towers every night that had to then be replaced in the morning. To this day a devil sits high atop the bridge (thanks to the architect in charge of the bridge’s 19th century restoration) poised to yank a stone from one of the towers.

Our walked ended with a stroll along the Lot River, followed shortly thereafter by a delicious dinner.

The French pretty much have this whole food thing figured out. Every meal we had at Cécile’s had at least three courses. The first night we had rabbit in a mushroom sauce, and dessert was a caramel chocolate tart made by a pastry chef that Anne-Claire made friends with last summer. Other dishes included farsi – seasoned ground pork stuffed into tomatoes and zucchini – and fried duck, along with a smattering of foie gras (duck or goose liver) in various forms. I’m almost certain foie gras is Anne-Claire’s favorite thing on the planet, though I thought it was a little strange that she’d stop to thank the ducks we saw sitting along the roadside.

Cécile and the girls’ father split up a while ago, and it sounds like he’s shirked his responsibilities to them a bit. The upshot of those difficulties is that the three of them have become as close as I’ve ever seen a mother and two teenaged girls. Maylïn and Elora are truly best friends, even at 17 and 15, and it’s obvious that Maylïn’s coming departure for university won’t be easy on anyone. When we visited, they were enjoying each other’s

company and the month of August that Cécile gets off for vacation.

One afternoon, we all went to a charming hilltop village called Saint-Cirq-Lapopie with incredible views of the Lot, the region’s namesake river. Picturesque doesn’t begin to describe the stone-paved streets and the curving red-tiled roofs typical of towns here and in the adjacent Dordogne region. I’ve been fortunate to live in some beautiful places, so I don’t often seek out the most attractive locales for travel, but this part of France begs for a longer visit in the future.

Our stay in Cahors finished with an abbreviated meal of foie gras and a lasagna-like dish with thin layers of pasta and a light sauce. The real purpose of the evening was to sample the dozen or so desserts Cécile had bought from Anne-Claire’s friend’s pastry shop. Though we nearly made ourselves sick, we tasted an éclair stuffed so full of rich chocolate that the chef had sliced it lengthwise to accommodate it all, a lime tart with a basil ganache, a fraisier (strawberry cream and cake), a cake soaked in Cointreau, and a handful of equally inventive others. Even with a half-hour break midway through, I woke up the next morning still full.

Across the Pyrenees

We left Burgos, again without a clear plan, knowing only that we’d spend a night in Pamplona and make it to Cahors in France at some point in the coming days. A quick calculation as the city bus to the train station told us we weren’t going to make our train that day, so we grabbed a empty taxi (somewhat miraculously, as there weren’t a lot just trolling for passengers). Even the cab driver was a little surprised at how close we were cutting it, but he dropped us off in time to make it onto the train.

Pamplona is far too big and full of history and culture to begin to absorb in just a one-night stay. Still, we made the most, getting lost in the narrow, cavernous streets that look deliberately designed to form the racetrack for the annual Running of the Bulls that happens here each July. Tiny balconies seem to jut from every window – perfect for watching the run from a safe distance, or for scoping out the nightly rehearsal for the party that precedes the run, as the cobblestones are covered Bourbon Street-style with tipsy revelers.

Like so many cities on the Iberian Peninsula, Pamplona is steeped in Catholicism, and it shows in the beautiful churches that sit on every corner. The Running of the Bulls, after all, is the cornerstone of the San Fermin festival, which celebrates the town’s martyred patron. He was beheaded, hence the red scarves that folks like to wear. Not knowing much about the brutal sport/art that is bullfighting, Pamplona certainly feels like the center of that universe, from the impressive bullfighting stadium to this magnificent rendering of the run itself. It’s done so well that you almost swear the bulls and people move.

From Pamplona we headed deeper into Basque Country to the seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz just over the border in France. We ended up staying at the pleasant little Hotel de Paris. The town itself is charming – in fact almost overwhelming with its cuteness. The beach too was lovely, if a bit crowded, and the warmish water made for a nice swim on our second day there.

But we’re not sit-on-the-beach people, and we used our lucky find of a hotel room here (as this was a holiday weekend and the tourist office told us that all the other rooms in the area were booked) to stay a second night and explore some of the Basque region. We made the mistake of taking a train to the top of the Rhune. If we had to do it over, we would take most of the day and hike the 900-m peak, enjoy the tough little Basque ponies that dot the hillsides, and gawk at the views of the coastline and the French and Spanish Pyrenees.

Instead, we cheated, whisked up to the top and back again by the “little train of the Rhune.” That left us more time to explore the nearby town of Sare. While it was interesting to see the feisty independence of the Basque people up close – a friendly shopkeeper explained the graffiti we’d noticed around by stating unequivocally, We don’t want another high-speed rail line built here” – Sare was touristy, and everything seemed to be overpriced.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be a lovely spot, and we enjoyed terrific meals, replete with creatively prepared fresh-caught seafood and meat galore, at Chez Pablo and Pil-Pil Enea. I wouldn’t hesitate to return here if I was looking for a beach vacation. But, spoiled as we’ve become, we missed not being with people we know who have welcomed us into their homes again and again as we’ve traveled. Thankfully, our next-to-last stop was Cahors, where Anne-Claire had come to study French last summer and met a family eager to welcome her back.

My most embarrassing post

So throughout our travels, Anne-Claire’s made a little hobby of taking pictures of me while I’m sleeping. Which apparently I do. A lot. Especially on buses and trains. So here are a few pictures, none of which is very flattering, of me – well, in my view, just taking advantage of the downtime to catch up on rest. None is worse than this video, however, of me on the bus from Burgos to Castrillo de Murcia. How many chins do I have?