On the first day of our two-week walking vacation in France, my boyfriend and I encountered an older gentleman as we climbed out of town. He greeted us, touched his...
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On the first day of our two-week walking vacation in France, my boyfriend and I encountered an older gentleman as we climbed out of town. He greeted us, touched his hat, and asked our nationality and destination. When we told him where we were headed, he gripped my arm, “Ah, les Américains! Bon courage.”
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Walking the French countryside brought an immediacy to each moment as the scenery, weather, our moods and energy level changed from minute to minute. Typical travel complaints sporadic train schedules, shifting museum hours gave way to different concerns of aggressive dogs, lingering blisters and elusive trail markers.
On tiring stretches we’d debate the obscene amounts of money we’d pay to hire a car, yet moments later be swept away by the scent of cut lavender, the sound of church bells or the somber silhouette of a village cemetery. The sounds of country life quacking ducks, whirling fans from a tobacco drying plant, even hunters’ guns in the distance added aural texture to the visual landscape.
Over the course of time we came to understand and accept the freedoms and limitations of walking. We missed many of the must-see attractions in the Dordogne. The area’s renowned prehistoric cave paintings and fortified “bastide” towns fell by the wayside as we realized we could not cover the distances we’d planned.
Yet this narrower range of options freed us from the distraction of too many choices: What about this side trip? Should we try to fit in another chateau? Instead we simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
What we missed in “sights” we made up for through our other senses; indeed, my memories are evenly distributed among taste, feel, sound, smell and sight. During our days, a child’s wave, a smile, a nod, “Bon marche, monsieur, madame” drew us into the fabric of country life. Burning leaves hinted at what lay further along the path. Dogs, horses, roosters and mushroom gatherers greeted us along the paths; butterflies escorted us along our journey.
Left sharp memories
Our slow pace allowed the usual blur of vacation images to crystallize into clear and vivid impressions. One morning we lumbered through Sarlat’s famous outdoor Saturday market and the images remain bright and distinct the wicker shopping baskets weaving along the old city’s cobbled streets, ruddy reflections mirrored in a display of hammered copper pots, a farmer’s gnarled hands cradling a rabbit, a group of messieurs keeping warm under an awning with red wine and sausage at 9 a.m.
Planning for the day’s picnic and our long journey ahead, I wavered over a jar of raspberry jam. After weighing it in my hand, I reluctantly set it down, explaining to the woman why I didn’t buy her confiture de framboise. She smiled and told me to taste it, “so that you will only carry with you the regret of not buying.”
(Heather Bloch lives in Berkeley, Calif.)
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