by: Matt Simerson
Sunday 03 Mar 24

Matt's Christmas Vacation in France

On December 16th, 1997 I packed the two suitcases of Heather's belongings and my two carry on bags into my trusty Bronco II and headed for Detroit. As I had left 8 hours before my flight left so that if anything went wrong I could still make it there in plenty of time. I arrived at Detroit Metro International Airport and checked in 5 hours early. British Air weighed my larger carry-on which contained all my clothes and toiletries. It was overweight so it had to go baggage as well.

One very long day later (30 hours) on Wednesday the 17th around 4:30pm (France time) I arrived in Nice, France. As I walked through the arrival hall I searched through the faces for the one I recognized. As I walked along I heard the sweetest voice call out "Matt." I looked to my right and there was Heather, who was looking very relieved to see me. My flight had arrived late so she had been getting a little distressed. I could tell from the way the security guard watched me that I wasn't supposed to stop and give her a big hug over the little wall but I didn't care. I was thrilled to have arrived and to see my sweetheart.

I moved along to the baggage claim area to find my luggage. After waiting forever and watching all the other luggage go by I heard a bunch of French gibberish and my name come over the intercom. Not knowing if the luggage people spoke English I walked through the customs area and dragged Heather back through with me to talk to the luggage people. It seems my luggage didn't make it through London during the 4 hours I was there. It was piled up with some 6500 other pieces of luggage because a conveyor broke. We filled out the lost luggage form and headed for her apartment.

We arrived in St. Raphael at 6:00pm and stopped by the church so that I could meet some of the people there. Being pretty exhausted we didn't stay for service and headed up to her apartment. It was raining steadily and continued to do so the rest of the day. We didn't mind having to stay inside. I was tired and we had a lot of catching up to do.

During the morning of Thursday the 18th British Air called to let us know that our luggage arrived in Nice and would be delivered in the afternoon. It was still raining but we walked around town during the morning. We came back and made lunch and waited for the baggage guy to arrive. Staying inside wasn't a big deal since it continued to rain all day. Our luggage finally arrived and we spend a few hours unpacking. I really enjoy Heather sometimes. Unpacking and handing her all the stuff she had been waiting for was as much fun as watching a little kid at Christmas. That evening we had Jean-Daniel from the church over for dinner. He doesn't speak English so it was a rather interesting evening with Heather doing a lot of translating.

It rained all day the 19th as well. We walked around St. Raphael anyway. I bought a millefeuille and a croissant aux amandes at the patisserie. The almond croissant was pretty good and so was the millefeuille. We stopped into the catholic church and took a look at a crêche which is a miniature town with moving people doing stuff indigenous to that area. While driving around town I found one of the traits I share with the French, a very aggressive driving style. Back at Heather's apartment while she was freshening up I called her out of the bathroom. She poked her head around the door and I took a really neat candid shot. It was enough to provoke her to come out after me which explains this even better "Ooohhh, you got me" look.

That evening we played Scrabble and made hot spiced wine. It was a good way to get rid of bad wine. You boil water and add lots of sugar, a cinnamon stick, and cloves. Once you have it boiled good you add the wine and pour it over a few almonds and raisins in your cup. A nice little concoction.

The morning of Saturday the 20th the sun came out. The temperatures made it into the high 60s making for a very enjoyable day. We went to the market in Frejus the neighboring town. We stopped and had lunch at a Creperie. Crepes are OK but they aren't anywhere near the treat I expected from the way everyone talked about them. The apple cider we had with it was interesting (its fermented and has 2% alcohol in it). The prices at restaurants all seemed pretty high but once I found that the tip is usually included, it was only a little outrageous. After lunch we did a driving tour of the French countryside around St. Raphael. The southern coast of France is very mountainous so most of the driving was on little mountain roads. I had a blast driving on them but Heather wasn't so fond of the roller coaster ride.

Sunday the 21st the sun once again rose over the mountains and warmed up the world. After breakfast we went to church. The services were in French so I just worked on a network diagram I've been building. I know very little French so I didn't catch much of what was said but some actually did get processed. After church we decided to go hiking. We packed our fanny pack with apples, sausage, the venison jerky I brought with me, cheese, and water. After studying a map for a couple hours we chose to climb Cap Roux. It's located in the Esterel a few miles east of St. Raphael. This is the view we got that afternoon as we approached the Mountain.

We only had about 3 hours of daylight when we got to the base. We started ascending anyway with the intent of turning around at 4:00 so we'd be back to the car by dark. This picture was taken on a little footpath at the base of the mountain.

It took us a little longer than the hour and a half we allotted to get to the top. In fact, we ended up running out of time and stopping just short of the last peak. I got a nice picture of Heather bundled up like an Eskimo just below the summit. The wind was a little chillier near the top. This was a neat shot that was far more impressive there than in the picture. This was one of the smaller peaks on our way up.

I just couldn't resist taking a picture of my favorite little hiker as she took a short break. At this point we were high enough to see the French Alps just around the corner.

It started getting late so we turned back and walked back down the mountain. We didn't think we were descending much faster than we were but we got back down really quick. Had we known, we'd have had time to go all the way up. It worked out well because we didn't realize how out of shape we had gotten until the next day when moving took a lot more effort than it should have. I am getting old.

On Monday we did a little shopping at Mr. Bricologe to get some home improvement stuff. A 2x4 in France costs about $17. A little more pricey that the $3 I'd pay here. Then we walked the CRAPA which is a little park with fitness exercises you can do as you walk it. Heather did 65 situps on the situp bench! Her tummy is tighter than mine. I'll have to start doing my situps again. We went back to her apartment as I gave Heather a little primer on he basics of automotive maintenance. We rotated the tires and I showed her where important little things were under the hood. She has a good mechanical aptitude for being a girl ;) We also went a bought her a CD/Cassette/Radio at a used furniture store. It cost as much as a new one in the States but not nearly as much as a new one in France. Electronics like that are considered luxury items and taxed heavily. We then had dinner with Evans, an elderly English couple. They were a delight to meet and chat with.

On Tuesday the 23rd Heather had an meeting with the Principal at the high school. While she did that I reinforced the shelves in her closet and mounted her thermometer. After she got back we went grocery shopping, picked up paint to replace that which I scraped off her car on that little one lane mountain road that her car narrowly fit through, and had dinner with Farmers. They're an interesting bunch of people. Steve and I cracked Walnuts with our bare hands and after dinner we played a few games of spoons and some other silverware game.

I got a surprise Tuesday night when I went to the fridge for some juice and found it warm! The plug had come out of the socket and everything was defrosting. Heather wasn't real thrilled with the news when I called her at Germaine's, where she was staying during my visit. A little duct tape would keep that plug from coming out again!

On Wednesday the 24th we went to the market for fresh fruit & veggies. Since we planned to attend mass at the Anglican church the next day we located it. We needed to be home early to get the previous night's defrosted meat cooking; so she headed for home and I went off and bought her some flowers. It had been months since I had been able to do that. I got her a bouquet of roses and one of tulips that I bought all by myself. We cooked up the remaining meat from when the freezer came unplugged and I set about the task of making dinner. We had tried to find some cornish game hens in the market but found only little itty bitty birds that I could fit into my mouth whole. We settled for sliced turkey and stuffing. I found a stuffing recipe in Mangia (my cookbook software) that sounded really good. It called for Kahlua which I had never heard of. After spending a fair amount of time looking for it at the store I dug a little deeper and found a recipe for it. You make it with coffee, sugar, and Vodka. My turkey recipe used it for a baste and my stuffing called for it too. I made that and lined the pan with stuffing and put the turkey slices on top of the stuffing. I baked it until the turkey was done but didn't notice that the stuffing on the bottom of the pan was a little bit charcoaled. The turkey was really good and so was the stuffing that wasn't baked to the bottom.

On Thursday the 25th (Christmas Day) we attended mass at the Anglican church. It was one of the more interesting services we have attended and gave us lots to talk about. We had lunch with Farmers and walked the CRAPA with Beth &Steve. We went home, opened presents, and made phone calls to our families. Heather made it through talking to her parents but broke down while talking to my dad. It was special. She had been feeling homesick and my dad asked how she was doing. She didn't make it through answering that question.

On Friday the 26th we had fully recovered from the last mountain and decided to tackle another. We pulled out the trusty trail map once again and picked another nearby mountain. This one was a little more fun in that it was in the middle of a park and we had to drive 20 miles inland through some big hills on little one lane mountain roads. Something about that kind of driving gets me all riled up. The challenge of driving fast, keeping the car on the road, and watching around every curve for anyone driving as senselessly as myself is a thrill. Anyway, at the end of a long windy path up into the mountains we came to the base of this mountain.

It took a couple hours to reach the peak but it was well worth it. There was only a couple other mountains that were a little higher but we were nearly on top of the world. This one was high enough that they put in a geological marker at the very top. Here's a picture of my favorite hiker at the very top. This is the famous "Big Stuff" picture. Once we got to the top she quite proudly said "I'm big stuff." I smiled outwardly and in my heart. She was right, and I was proud of her as well.


We had noticed some pieces of tree bark in the market a few days before and had been wondering what they were for. While we were hiking up this mountain we noticed that many of the trees had been girded (had the bark removed). Having remembered learning that the Indians would gird trees to kill them while clearing fields I was quite surprised to see that the trees had grown the bark back. I attributed that to the differences in climate between the French Riviera and Michigan but it still didn't answer the question of why. We passed another group of hikers and I had Heather ask them if they knew why the bark was removed from the trees. We found out that they use the bark for corks in wine bottles. I never would have guessed.

That evening we had dinner with Marius and Andree Wallace. It was a most interesting meal with the main course being some type of homemade sausage that wasn't cooked very well according to my standards. Heather and I were both somewhat concerned about how it would affect our digestive systems but it didn't make us sick. When I got home I chased it through my system with some vodka laced orange juice figuring the alcohol would help kill anything left alive in that meal.

On Saturday the 27th we visited the Gastons, the field supervisors for the French division of the Baptist General Conference Heather is working under. They live in Menton which is very near Monaco and the Italian border. Since we were that close we left early and drove through Monaco and then into Vintimiglia, Italy. I was hoping to get my passport stamped but we both forgot our passports at home. When we got to the border there weren't any border guards to check passports so we just drove right in. We drove back into France and on to Menton and the Gastons. We took their two daughters for a walk through town. We skipped a few rocks on the Mediterranean and checked out all the Gardens in the center of town. Then we had lunch with the Gastons (Mike, Murf, Amy, and Melanie) and the Farmers (Mark, Jean, Steve, Beth, Daniel). After dinner the we all walked back through town where we watched a reenactment of some Russian revolution, ice skating in 65 degree weather, and tons of people. This is Heather under a tangerine tree. Trust me on this one, what is standing under the tree is much sweeter than what's above her head.

Then we went back and had dessert. Some of us ate more than others :) The ice cream logs were something like Vianetta chocolate and delightfully good. I ate about 1/4 of the log myself. Sometime about 4:00 we cruised back to Heather's studio. Since we would be returning late Tuesday night, I packed everything into my two carry-on bags and went to bed.

On Sunday the 28th we packed our lunches and left St. Raphael around 10:00am - destination Albi. We stopped off in Narbonne where we spotted a large cathedral from the AutoRoute. We needed to stop for lunch anyway so after running a traffic light and figuring out how the town was laid out we made it into old town and found a nice parkway to stop and eat lunch in. After eating lunch we walked into town to have a look at the cathedral. Here is Heather standing just inside the gates.

Most of the doors were locked but I insisted that we walk around until we found an open door and walked around inside. A pesky guard got after me for trying to open every door in the building. I just played a dumb tourist and said "Je m'excuse. Je ne parle pas français" (Excuse me, I don't speak French). We left and walked the rest of the way around the building where we found the town square. The year before they had done a little excavating and found part of the ancient Roman highway. Here's me standing on a 2000 year old road.

On Monday the 29th we walked into downtown Albi and toured the largest cathedral I have ever seen. It is also the largest red brick building in the world. We didn't have time to tour the castle there which was also quite impressive so we hurried back to the Adelman's and picked up our car. We did a little driving trip which is known as the "tour de Bastide" which takes you through a bunch of medieval towns like the one we're sitting on the edge of here:

It was a very nice drive through the mountains ending in Gaillac. There we did some wine testing and I left carrying 20 bottles of wine. We had one with dinner that evening. I wasn't quite sure if I would have to give away a case (6 bottles) of it or not. I planned to carry 3 cases (18 bottles) home with me if I could get away with it.

On Tuesday the 30th the castle was closed which is something to watch for in France. I now understand that many of the national museums and historical sites are closed on either Monday or Tuesday. Since it was closed we packed up and started heading for Carcassone which also has a castle. I really wanted to see a big castle. Here's a picture of the old city.

Then we traveled down into the newer part and more reasonably priced part of town to find lunch. Heather treated me to a fabulous meal at a very nice little restaurant. I had a large salad that we shared so that I could have half of hers (which looked and tasted much better). Included was some type of mixed alcoholic fruit drinks which were also very good. It's fortunate that lunch takes 2 hours to eat. It gives the drinks and wine a chance to wear off before you need to drive home. For the next course I had a bean casserole with rabbit, sausage, and duck. The meat was very good but I'm not terribly fond of most types of beans. She had tender pieces of beef in a rich brown sauce, served with noodles. We shared that as well :) Then came the cheese course with Camembert and Swiss. It was topped off with a wonderful dessert of ice cream with peaches and some type of raspberry sauce that was soooo good. I wasn't disappointed when Heather couldn't finish her merange with caramel and some type of rich sauce on top. If all the French meals were that good I could possibly be convinced to put up with the rest of France's problems. We also found the best bathrooms we had come across in France. Much better than many public restrooms that had a hole in the floor and two pads to stand on. And they didn't have tree bark for toilet paper either :)

After lunch we laid tracks for home. We got back to her apartment around 7:00pm. After dropping off a bottle of wine to her neighbors as a gift, I repacked everything so I'd have room for the wine in my carry-on bags. I took a few final pictures of us that night.

Early Tuesday morning we drove to Nice. I checked in and they weighed the larger of my carry on bags. It seems there is a 6 kilogram limit on weight and the 12 bottles of wine I had in that one weighed 20kgs. That's 44 pounds. They wanted to send it baggage class and I refused so they called in someone a little higher up the food chain. When I explained it was wine bottles they were very gracious and allowed me to separate the boxes and pre-board to find space for it. We sat in a little cafeteria for the next hour until it was time for me to board. We said goodbyes and I spent the next few minutes discovering that 7 rolls of film will set off a metal detector. I looked back one last time before headed towards my terminal lugging the "18 bottles of wine in my bags, 18 bottles of wine", sung to the tune of "99 bottle of beer on the wall."

I arrived in Detroit Metro at 5:50 and after waiting for my luggage and clearing customs I headed home. I made it out of Detroit by 7 and was home shortly before 10:00pm on New Years Eve. After being awake for 28 hours, I crashed before the new year began.