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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: December 2023

Remembering a Special Holiday Trip

Douglas Denton Church

Remembering a Special Holiday Trip Camandona

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For many years, our family tradition was to gather with my parents, siblings, and grandchildren at the condominium complex on Siesta Key in Sarasota, Florida, that my mom and dad rented for the winter months.  Sisters, grandchildren, and all would motor down to Florida and enjoy a week of sand, sun, food, and fellowship. Sadly, one winter my mother was suffering from breast cancer and the decision to go to Florida was put on hold as she was going through treatments in Indiana. Literally, at the last minute, I phoned one of our family’s special friends who lived in France to see if we might come for a visit with her over the holidays. Chantal Chatot had been the teacher leading a group of French students to the States for the summer a few years earlier and she made her home with us while the students were guests of other families.  My son and daughter, then sixteen and fifteen, considered Chantal to be their big sister and they were thrilled at the idea of going to France and getting to spend time with her.  Her enthusiastic response to my request convinced me that she would truly enjoy having us visit and notwithstanding my promises not to interfere with her plans, she started immediately making arrangements for our visit.  So did I!  The best fares I could find were on Icelandic Air out of Kennedy Airport in NYC flying through Iceland and on to Luxembourg.  Hasty arrangements were made for a rental car to be picked up in Luxembourg and reservations were made at a hotel in Paris that we had previously visited, the Hotel Square Monge de Bernadine, near the Odeon Metro station on the left bank and just two blocks up the hill from the Seine and literally at the foot bridge to Isle de la Cite and the Notre Dame Cathedral.

We left for NYC on Christmas Eve.  Following an office Christmas party on December 24th about two o’clock in the afternoon, we loaded up our diesel-powered Chevy station wagon and headed out on I-70 from Indianapolis to NYC.  It began to snow and we went as far as we felt we safely could and…this is no joke...we stopped for the night in Bethlehem, PA, at a Holiday Inn! Our little party seemed to be the only guests in the Inn!  Early on Christmas morning we all got up and opened a few presents that had been packed and were deemed “useable” for the trip, and then we drove on to the airport and arrived in plenty of time for our 8 p.m. departure. We found a pay phone and called family and friends to wish them all a Merry Christmas…no cell phones existed then… and boarded our on-time flight to Luxembourg.

Luxembourg to Paris. Our flight initiated in New York but didn’t go directly to Luxembourg.  We stopped, as did all Icelandic Air flights, at Keflavic Airport in Reykjavik, Iceland, first for a two-hour layover and visit to the duty-free shops!  Upon arrival in Luxembourg on December 26th at about 9 a.m. their time (3 a.m. our time), we rounded up the rental car and headed for Paris. I count this as one of my best “dead reckoning” driving efforts since I had no map but managed to drive directly to our hotel by following the Seine! When we arrived at Square Monge, the proprietor led us to a house next door and told us to enjoy a more spacious place to spend the night since, as he put it, things were a bit slow at that time of year.  We unloaded our bags and headed off for a whirlwind tour of Paris which included a visit to the very top of the Eiffel Tower, dinner at Le Procope, a very old restaurant actually visited by Benjamin Franklin when he was ambassador to France, along with lots of people watching along Rue St. Germaine.

Paris to Blagnac.  Early the next morning we loaded into the rental car and headed south to Blagnac, Chantal’s home.  Blagnac is the city nearest the Airbus plants and Chantal was a language teacher at the facility for the various nationalities employed by Airbus. We stopped at a village market early on to load up on picnic food…good cheese, bread, some meats, and wonderful desserts…and passed through Toulouse and other cities in route.  Our plan was to meet Chantal at the famous walled city of Carcassonne. We arrived early and enjoyed a walking tour of the medieval fortress.  Then off to the meeting place and a joyous reunion with Chantal.  She led us from Carcassonne to her home in Blagnac, where we enjoyed getting reacquainted over some fabulous foie gras and wine, and then she led us on to Argeles Sur Mer, a small holiday town on the Mediterranean Sea where her parents had a vacation home which was to be our home during the visit.

Visits around the area.  With the best tourist guide imaginable, Chantal, we toured the region including quaint fishing villages along the Mediterranean coast just north of the Spanish border; hilltop watch towers built to warn local villagers of raiding parties from around the region over the centuries; country markets catering to the imaginative tastes of the residents of the area; small fishing ports where the daily catch was available for eating at nearby restaurants; shops with all kinds of things to catch the shoppers eye; and on and on.

New Years Eve. Chantal’s husband, Jean Francois, invited us to join his parents and siblings for their NYE dinner party. Of course, we said “yes” but we had no idea what was ahead of us.  The dinner began about 6:30 with fresh oysters, champagne, and wine.  “Fresh” meant literally right out of the ocean no more than two hours before they were consumed.  The five courses that followed were each served individually with a new bottle of wine that was appropriate to the food being served.  A large fish cooked whole and fileted at the table by the hostess.  A turkey likewise carved at the table. A salad that would have served as the full meal on any other day.  And desserts!! Goodness me! Chantal was the primary interpreter for the entire table keeping us apprised of what the French speakers were saying and conversely translating our English comments into French.  My very bad and limited French was put to use whenever I thought I could say something that was not too stupid but basically it was non-stop Chantal. The dinner lasted for hours and by the time we had consumed sufficient wine, language was no longer a barrier!

Back to Luxembourg.  On New Years Day, bright and early we packed up, shed a few tears as we said our “goodbyes” to Chantal and family and headed north.  The day was cold and the distance was about 600 miles between Blagnac and Nancy where we were to spend the night and there was an “interstate” style highway all the way.  The trip took about 8 hours even at high speed! The highway paralleled the train track and we were periodically overtaken by Le Grande Vitesse! That is the superfast train that connects the south of France to Paris.  Chantal had made a reservation for us at a fabulous hotel in the city of Nancy, where she had taught school.  We arrived in Nancy fairly exhausted and enjoyed the comforts of the hotel and did a bit of exploration of the city.  Early to bed and then up early for the final leg of the trip to Luxembourg which took only two hours and then back on Icelandic Airlines for the trip home.

Home.  Flying back to the US from Europe is basically “chasing the sun” since you arrive just an hour or two after you left minus the six-hour time difference.  We arrived in New York about noon, retrieved our car, and began the trip back to Indiana. A short overnight stay at a hotel in PA cut the trip home into two legs but we were all delighted to arrive back in the Hoosier State with many memories of a truly special holiday trip.