by Diane M Covington
We were being watched. From both sides of the narrow country lane, seas of wide-faced sunflowers lined up to peer at us as we wove our way through the French countryside. They felt like friends, or maybe long-lost sisters, standing by the road, waiting for us, row after row of them, their bright yellow permeating the horizon.
They seemed to beckon to us, call to us. Finally we had to stop and meet them. “Ohh”, shouted Heather, my 19-year-old daughter, as she ran into their midst. Leaves rustled, heads turned. They welcomed her, swaying slightly, whispering to each other. Their vibrant energy matched Heather’s youthful enthusiasm.
Time stopped as I watched Heather, her arms outstretched in joy. I celebrated the magic of this moment. As she stood in this field, along the road from Bordeaux to Auch, I thought about the month-long tour of France we were sharing. We had dreamed about this journey together since she was 14.
Our trip had become a reality. As a freelance journalist, I was researching Thalassotherapy Spas, French Health Spas that use sea water and sea products to improve health and reduce stress. I had also arranged to visit unique and historical hotels and chateaux, the Hotel de Crillon in Paris, the Relais de Margaux near Bordeaux, and the Hotel de France in Auch. It seemed like a perfect fit for Heather to accompany me and share the fun and adventure.
Now, near the end of our journey, we were not the same mother and daughter who had landed in Paris a few weeks before. Our relationship felt more alive and fresh now, like these sunflowers. In the adventure of exploring France together, we had also rediscovered each other as friends.
But it wasn’t all roses at first. I remembered our first days on the road.
“How much farther ’till we get there?” Heather groaned as she attempted to stretch her right leg out the front window of our miniature rental car. “I’m all cramped up. Can’t we stop?” she winced, as we whizzed by Le Mans en route from Paris to Brest.
I desperately glanced at the map on my knee. We had been driving for hours and we were only halfway to our destination. When I’d planned this trip, everyone told me France was the size of Texas. I’d never been to Texas, but it was beginning to dawn on me that it was a lot bigger than I had realized.
As Heather wiggled and squirmed, her favorite American music blasted from the tape player in our car. Smashing Pumpkins — or maybe it was Toad the Wet Sprocket; I never could get those groups straight –boomed out as we sped toward the Atlantic coast from Paris.
“Heather, could you please turn the music down? I can’t think and my ears hurt when it is so loud”, I said. She complied, but shot me an exasperated look.
Lost Along the Way
We were lost. The French road signs didn’t match the roads on my maps. I had stopped at a gas station to ask directions, but the rapid-fire French response went right over my head, so we were even more lost than before.
We were about to enter another roundabout, a European invention in which the road suddenly, without warning, spat us out into a circle, the different destinations spreading outward like the rays of the sun. My hands gripped the steering wheel as we drove around and around until I finally chose one exit and hoped for the best.
We had to do something fast. We’d planned, saved, dreamed about sharing this special time. We had high hopes of fun and relaxation together. I wasn’t willing for our dream to become a nightmare.
That night, we had a talk. I agreed, at Heather’s suggestion, to revamp the itinerary to allow for shorter drives. For example, I arranged for us to fly one 12-hour leg from Nice to Nantes, picking up another rental car in Nantes. The next morning, we began again.
Heather was right. I, too, relished the more relaxed pace with less time in the car. If we had to drive more than a few hours and she got antsy, we stopped on one of the well-maintained parks marked “P” on the larger roads. These offered natural beauty, picnic tables and playgrounds.
We’d sit on the grass with our picnic of cheese, bread, and fruit, smiling at the French families all around us. In the north, many of the parks bordered forests and before lunch we’d jog around the perimeter, soaking in the quiet of the trees, birds, and creeks meandering by.
In the southern areas, we enjoyed drier terrain, making sure we had plenty of water along to cool us from the heat. I will always remember one such stop near Talouse. The ever-present sunflowers stood at attention and winked at us as we sailed through the air on a giant teeter-totter, laughing so hard we almost fell off.
Along the way, we compromised. Heather agreed to turn the music down, especially when we were lost; that helped a lot. I began to appreciate the sounds that had before been just loud noise.
She taught me the words to her favorite songs. As we sped across France together, the car windows rolled down to beat the heat, the wind carried our blended voices over the rolling farms of Normandy, our through the lavender fields of Provence, into the sunsets of the Mediterranean.
We agreed to face the challenges of the map and the roundabouts together, she navigating while I drove. When we got to a roundabout and weren’t sure which direction to go, we would yell, “Whee” as we drove around and around until we chose.
To accommodate her high energy level, we jogged through some of our sightseeing. As I remember the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris, and the vineyards near the Relais de Margaux near Bordeaux, I see us trotting along, me gasping a bit to keep up with Heather. Other days she would take long walks with me, sometimes indulging in French vanilla ice-cream as we strolled along the Seine or the Mediterranean.
We also cried together. The sheep dotted the hillside as we hiked the rugged cliffs of Brittany, the fresh sea air on our faces. Suddenly, Heather burst into tears and poured out her fears: What should she do with her life? What should she be? How would it all turn out?
Maybe it was because we were thousands of miles from home together, but my words of reassurance sounded stronger, truer, calming her down. I told her how proud I was of her for tackling French, for working hard in college, for looking for the answers in life. We stood on the edge of the Atlantic and hugged. She felt better.
Then Heather comforted me.
I cried as we stood in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach and remembered my father and his stories of the Normandy Invasion so many years ago. She was there for me with a hug.
I felt better.
Together, we faced the vulnerability of speaking French, the willingness to make mistakes and look silly.
But we also shared the excitement of actually communicating in another language. The day Heather brought fruit at an open market in Pornichet and successfully negotiated the price and the money all by herself, we both felt proud.
After placing an ad in the Normandy paper, we located the French orphan, Gilbert Desclos, whom my father had taken under his wing during the Normandy Invasion and whom he had tried unsuccessfully to adopt.
We both cried at the touching reunion with this man who remembered my father with such love and had been waiting over 50 years to hear from him.
Feeling Sick for Home
One night, about halfway through the trip, we were both grumpy as we sat in our hotel room in Porchinet. Suddenly, I realized we were homesick.
The discovery of our mutual affliction resulted in a heart-to-heart talk that lasted into the wee hours and covered life, love, and relationships.
The homesickness dissolved in the closeness and laughter.
Just as I learned to appreciate Heather’s music, she wanted to learn the words to some old favorites sung at a jazz brunch at Relais de Margaux, near Bordeaux, “All the Way”, “When I Fall in Love”, “The Girl from Ipenema”. Even though I couldn’t seem to get the names of her favorite groups straight, she learned that
I had known the named and words to the popular songs of my youth. As we headed toward Auch, we took turns singing old and new songs.
Having Heather with me allowed me to see France through her youthful eyes. When we dined at the gourmet two-star restaurant at the Hotel de France in Auch, we had to take a picture of Heather’s delight at her desert that consisted of more than six different mounds of delectable chocolate creations.
We relished the pampering of the French spas and their relaxing treatments.
I had arranged for us to visit the Rive Bella Spa on the Normandy coast, several spas in Porchinet, and La Baule along the Atlantic, and the Thalazur Spa in Antibes, in Provence, along the Mediterranean.
Unlike American spas, where the emphasis is on exercise classes and low-calorie food, these spas promote rest and relaxation and the curative effects of the sea climate, air, and water.
There were no up-at-dawn-to-hike-up-a-mountain pastimes.
After a sumptuous buffet breakfast about 9am, at 10 we shuffled off in our rubber slippers and thick terry robes to indulge in our warm sea-water treatments. Afternoons were spent resting, lying in the sun, swimming, soaking, or using the sauna or steam bath.
Heather and I not only got over our jetlag, but also soaked away the pre-trip stresses of our busy lives.
By the end of our total stay of seven days in various spas, we’d both lost weight, although we weren’t even trying, and I definitely felt a surge of energy I hadn’t felt since my teens. Heather’s comment was: “This is so cool, Mom!”
Whether we sat covered from head to toe with green seaweed or soaked in a bath bubbling with a hundred tiny jets, the fun was magnified by being there together. One day we were princesses at the majestic Hotel de Crillon in Paris, admiring the elaborate medieval tapestries and crystal chandeliers. The next, at Mon St. Michael, we slept in a tiny hotel room barely larger than the bed. But it didn’t matter.
The continuous thread woven through our trip was our relationship, the compromises and communication, the laughter the magic, and the love.
Diane M. Covington is a free-lance writer who lives in California. You can reach her at email@example.com.