Middle! Middle!” Chantal urged, mild panic in her voice.
“Sorry,” Matthew breathed out as he maneuvered the car closer to the middle of the road and the painted lines and away from the edge that fell away into a deep water channel.
Driving on the narrow country lanes in the south of France is far more hair-raising than it should be. We were in the middle of sleepy somewhere just east of Montpellier. Vineyards and other farms surrounded us. The sun was high and hot. We were on holiday.
We were also in a foreign environment, surrounded by signs and voices in a foreign language, and driving on the wrong side of the road where traffic circles, large and small, did not so much dot as stamp their way along the route.
Everything was different. From where the steering wheel is in the car, to where to change gears, which way to look for oncoming cars, the rules, and Google maps not always playing with. Our hearts beat loud and strong. We sweated not only from the heat, but from the adrenaline coursing through our bodies as we danced the driving two step, clumsy and uncoordinated.
The allure of travel
Travelling to new and other lands has the allure of a siren song. Cities, ancient and modern, seasons sultry when we are frosty, icy when we are sizzling, colourful cultures and a diversity of people who look and sound unfamiliar. These places beckon across our screens as they whisper promises of thrilling experiences and whirlwind adventures.
The marketing does not cover out of comfort zone awkwardness, exchange rate overindulgence, sleep deprivation and time lost to queueing and that forever wonder of travel called “hurry up and wait”. All of this does not, however, deter the unwavering explorer. And it shouldn’t because travel is a teacher through the experience of doing it. There's nothing you can learn about travel by researching or reading or watching YouTube videos. You have to do it.
What better place than France to celebrate 60 years of marriage, with a central theme of travel
A driving lesson required
Chantal has been blessed with many opportunities to travel abroad, Matthew not so much. A family celebration in the south of France with Chantal’s extended family was the impetus to shoehorning a stopover at Matthew’s parents who live in the middle of France and a final few days in Paris. And dragging Tristan, Matthew’s son, along for the ride too.
For the first part of our trip we stayed at an organic vineyard just outside a small village called Maugiou, east of Montpellier. We were there for a week to celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of Chantal’s parents. A full, noisy and busy family affair. There were 20 of us in total.
Chantal’s parents are in their 80’s, and although her father is a competent driver they needed a second person to assist. Judson, Chantal’s son, was the chosen candidate. After three days, he still had not had a chance to test his driving skills, and he had to as he was tasked to drive a group to the airport on the day of departure.
“You must practise,” said Chantal, “Driving on the other side, the narrow roads, the gear changes, and the traffic circles - oi!” Visions of her son driving into the oncoming lane or down a steep water ditch flashed unpleasantly across her mind.
“And you have to get used to looking the opposite way at intersections,” added Matthew.
“Yes, Juds, you must get on the road, maybe start slow on a quiet road to get the hang of it,” urged his sister.
Country driving when everything is the opposite way is not for the faint hearted
A chance to try
A quiet afternoon, a need to go to the supermarket, and Judson had his chance. We agreed to meet in the village at a cafe.
There was some confusion for us regarding the parking in town. Where are we allowed to park? Where do we pay? Oh just write on a piece of paper the time you park and you get an hour free is what we learnt from a local. None such conundrum for Judson and co. Of course.
“How was the driving?”
“Oh it was fine,” replied Judson through his mouthful of French pastry, “I think you guys all made it sound far more hectic than it actually was.”
And isn’t that the case. He is younger, more confident and less concerned about his ability to drive on any side of the road. His neural pathways are more flexible and have not set in so firmly, like cement in our brains.
A memorable travel experience rich with opportunities to connect and create community
To know what we don't know
Travel does offer one the opportunity to learn, and to unlearn. It is in the doing of it, rather than the dreaming of it, that provides the real time lessons no classroom can give. Travel offers many opportunities to face our fears and step into our discomfort while allowing time to take in new experiences.
Travel builds character as it unveils what we don’t know we don’t know. In the queues and traffic jams, cancelled flights and train sections stopped, we are moved from blissful ignorance through the anxiety and stress of becoming all too aware of our blind spots. With nowhere else to go but through we are pushed to a place where we can look back and say: “That wasn’t all that bad.” Knowing that if we have to do it again it will be much easier.
Who says the French aren’t polite?
We were invited to cross the road 3 times whilst taking this photo!
Many stories to come
The opportunity to be there, and immerse ourselves in a world so different from ours in South Africa gave us time to reflect. Not having to worry about when the lights are going to go off, or if we will have water was unique. Public transport is a reliable given. Trains, the metro and buses run on schedule and offer multiple choices to get around. If that does not suit then grab a bike or a scooter as an easy way to move from place to place.
There are many more stories and lessons that will be shared in the weeks to come. We have come back to a dry and difficult winter with a bump. While we are very grateful for the time we have had on the other side of the world, we are also able to breathe a sigh of relief at being in one place for a whole day without needing to hurry up and wait!
Until next time.
Yours in feeling,
Chantal & Matthew
About the author
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