Friday, August 17, 2012

A "Little Paradise" without the hassle - Un "Petit Paradis" senza scocciature

This is pretty much how my parents' car looked like on the day we were going on our yearly summer vacation in France. The car was not a cinquecento (we owned one which we rarely used  for long trips) but the end result was the same: we were all jammed in between bags of shoes, my mother's electronic equipment and pieces of furniture which my parents were keen to take to the studio where we lived in France.

It could easily take my parents a couple of weeks of packing, cleaning and arranging before my parents would finally say: "ok, we can leave now". Their hard and meticulous preparation, to the outsider, must have looked like the ritual of initiation for a new life. Luckily, until I was thirteen, I could hide at my grandmother's place. Later, I became resigned to the idea that those beautiful French beaches, made smooth by a transparent, silver blue, Mediterranean sea, could only be reached after two weeks of hell, with my mother giving exact instructions of what to do and how. The kind of thing to make a child run away.

When we were finally ready to open the door and leave, my mother would invariably panic and say that she could not find the keys or that she could not find some useless, but suddenly necessary thing, like a handmade mermaid bought at the antique market 8 months before. Or she would have a sweet last-minute thought like, The room in the basement needs cleaning! I must do this before we leave!  At times, I almost felt as if she was making a genuine effort to find reasons to keep me in the heat of the city. I remember on more than one occasion fastening down our stuff to the car with elastic straps at two in the morning... long after my father had pronounced that we would leave not later than 9 pm to avoid the hated early morning bouchons (traffic). 

I was happy (I mean, thrilled) when I could finally see my mother in her summer shorts (instead of elegant city clothes), seated next to my father in the car, with her large cassette carrier on her lap. She was ready. Was she really? Her Celentano's songs were firing up and my ten-hour long adventure was about to start. How exciting. I could stay awake all night. From the tiny free corner of my window, I could see the stars in the sky; as a child, I was in love with the idea that the moon was following me. It was also in that moment that I was finally allowed to open my grandmother's summer gift. I remember playing with  boats and divers  in the car, while feeling so excited that I would soon be able to soak them in the French sea, together with my feet.

Then there were the stops at the Autogrill restaurants for croissants and cappuccinos. The serious looking border officers (not the Italian mammoni) suddenly speaking to me in French, my dad doing the countdown to France and the evviva (hurrah!) Ci siamo! Tre, due, uno, ecco, bienvenue en France!  (Here we are! Three, two, one, that's it, welcome to France!) 

Once over the border, the road signs were more clear and everything generally looked more orderly and cleaner (no garbage on the highways). Midway through our long journey, we would consume a four course meal, carefully prepared by my mother (with prunes and peaches bursting with colorful juice), on beautiful wooden picnic tables. I enjoyed the smell of the pine trees with a slight hint of the salt in the air, and along the road there were always boards advertising fish pies and kiosks selling gorgeous melons and tomatoes. We were in our beloved South of France. My father always called it "notre petit paradis", our little paradise.

This was my concept of summer vacation until I was about seventeen and stopped going to the South of France with my parents.

Finally, a week ago - twenty three years later - I was able to go back to beaches like those that I loved so much as a child. But this time without the hassle that used to come packaged with my childhood vacations. I was taken back in my memory. I was able to enjoy the smell of the pine trees mixed with the slight hint of  the salt in the air. I was thrilled to hear the people speak French all around me. Fresh seafood everywhere! And I cannot describe my surprise when I saw the beaches leading to the crystalline sea with waves crashing to white surf. 

Another surprise. The lobsters were huge, cost little more than sandwiches, and they were served with corn on the cob, the people around me were eating fries instead of the fresh seafood and the francophones were from Quebec.

The biggest surprise for me is that all this was in Maine. 

I had no idea that I could be transported back to my childhood vacations in France not ten hours away from home, but only one and a half hours drive from our house in Massachusetts. Just enough time to pack, load the car and eat lunch at the destination. And yes, there is something that Americans don't realize: the sea in August in Maine gets as warm as in the South of France.

I loved the beach!

I loved the cute stores and restaurants.

I loved the food (i.e. the seafood)!

I loved everything...

...even the fog!

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