Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jersey, Channel Islands

By Chuck and Claire
On our way to St. Malo on Sunday we passed a ferry terminal with signs to Jersey. We just couldn’t pass up the opportunity, especially since we had the time and the right vehicle. We reserved our seats for Tuesday, giving us a day off between sights, then went on our way for the day. Just so you know, Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands with beaches stretching 48 miles around and is 37 Km from St. Malo, France.

Up early for an 8 am ferry departure, we left in the dark with great anticipation and a fair amount of trepidation when we realized we would have to drive on the LEFT! Claire volunteered to do the driving…..

Getting off the ferry was somewhat terrifying, to put it mildly. It didn’t help that the clutch sometimes sticks, the guy directing traffic was waving us forward briskly and I couldn’t get it into gear. Finally I tried popping the clutch manually and stalled the car. Great start. I didn’t know I could be cold and sweat at the same time. We made it all the way to a parking garage, spying a bike shop along the way, and got the car parked. A huge accomplishment. We walked down to “Parking Control” and spoke in ENGLISH to the very formal gentleman selling the Paycards. Since we had no Jersey pounds, it was a problem. The cost for one hour, all we wanted, was 58 pence. When I told him all we had were Euros he said “that’s no good” in a stern voice. He finally decided to just give us the Paycard and asked us to bring him the 58 pence later that day. We took off for the Tourist Information Office where we picked up a map and talked with someone about finding a cash machine and how to find the German Underground War Tunnels. Got 10£ and we were off. Went to the bike shop for a bolt Chuck has been needing for his bike and talked in ENGLISH to the guy about it. He scrounged something up and wouldn’t let us pay. He then sent us to a shop that would carry additional screws we needed for Claire's bike basket. We were impressed with how well we understood him! Chuck found the perfect screws with the help of a man at that shop who also refused payment. We haven’t found a single bike shop in France and saw them everywhere on Jersey. Next, we found a post office where we bought a postcard and stamp, getting change so we could go back and pay the Parking Control guy. When we showed up I think he was a little astonished to see us. He even smiled when he gave Claire change for the 1£ she handed him.

That done, we gathered our courage to make our way on the LEFT to the German tunnels. Claire's first mistake was coming out of the parking spot in the wrong direction, blocking all traffic coming the other way. And by the way, there is about an inch between cars, even as small as they are. Finally someone squeezed by and naturally took our spot, the place we planned to turn around in. Chuck manfully took over the driving and in a flash, had the car turned around and we were on our way. Claire believes she is a better navigator anyway, with the help of Susan, of course.

We finally made it to our destination, driving on very narrow roads, a hair raising experience. It just feels wrong to drive on the LEFT and the cars come so fast and so close!

One of many "Green Lanes" around the island. Mainly for horses, cyclists and people, cars are allowed to drive them at 15 mph.

Susan was a lifesaver and ridiculous at the same time. She got us close to where we wanted to go but only after asking if we wanted to take a ferry.

We ended up on private property, driving up to a elderly gentleman farmer and his wife, both looking a bit horrified. We asked about the tunnels and he said we had taken a wrong turn and we needed to go back to where all the people were. Hadn’t we seen them? He was quite nice and we were embarrassed, but that’s travel for you. His house was an exquisite manor and although he was elegant, his modest clothing would never have led us to believe it was his. His pants were partially unzipped, his belt overly cinched and with a pitchfork in his hand, he looked like the gardener. We spoke briefly about the German War Tunnels and he said he was glad they had never reached his property.

The German tunnel complex led us through the events of evacuation, deportation, captivity and siege, to eventual liberation.

The tunnel complex, which took almost three years to build, was designed as an armaments workshop and bombproof barracks. It was excavated by forced and slave laborers from all over Europe, some of whom died from the terrible hardship they were made to endure.

Towards the end of 1943, amid fears of an inevitable Allied invasion of Europe, the complex was converted into a casualty receiving station or underground hospital to accommodate up to 500 casualties and included a fully equipped operating theatre. The invasion never occurred, so the tunnel complex failed to fulfill its final purpose.

It was quite an experience with lots of video of people who had lived on Jersey during the occupation. There were a number of interactive exhibits that really made us think. Would you turn in your neighbor for more rations and better conditions?

One of the tunnels constructed using slave labor

German tunnel stairs

This is a DKW RT-350—Dampf-Kraft-Wagen—which became Audi

Bike tire made from a garden hose

It’s hard to imagine living under these conditions with very little food, fear and suspicion all around you and one German soldier for every three people. Hitler was really proud of the fact that he had taken British territory.

Coming out, Claire was in dire need of food and someplace to sit down. Driving really was a challenge so we found a place on the map that was close and we could enter into the GPS, and likely to have a place to eat. Dreams of eating on the harbor went out the window. Susan took us directly to the “Living Legend”, a rather tacky place with a restaurant. We didn’t care. In we went, greeted by lamps for sale.

That’s when we realized it was a buffet. We walked through the food area—there were very few people and it mostly resembled a senior citizen center—and studied the assortment of hot dishes, mostly roast and potatoes and something green like the color you get with food coloring. Definitely a color unknown to nature. I quickly went back and grabbed a made up sandwich, some butternut/pumpkin soup and tea. Chuck followed suit adding a scone and Jersey clotted cream. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, satisfied the hunger, and gave us the energy to drive some more.

Chuck drove to St. Aubin's Harbor, pulling into a parking area. We couldn’t figure out how to pay for parking and wandered down the promenade a ways where we found a sign explaining the need for a Paycard. At that point, a man getting out of his car started talking to us and explained that you buy the Paycards in a shop and carry them with you. He then generously gave us one of his, scratching off the required information, telling us a little bit about the area and where we should walk. We were truly amazed. He was the fourth person who had helped us and each time gave us something for free. The funny thing is, we had just had a long conversation with a fellow camper, Bob, from England, who agreed with us that the French are so helpful and friendly and warned us that we wouldn’t find that in Britain.

The beach was beautiful with extremely fine, white sand; the skies were overcast, not surprising in the U.K.

We started noticing these strange things along the beach.

One woman we stopped said she thought worms caused them, digging for bait left by the fishermen. It’s anyone’s guess but they sure were weird.

All the telephone booths are yellow

Even the banks are decorated with flowers

Jersey drivers have their own identification sticker

We finally did get to sit at the harbor

We drove on to the other side of the island, not really knowing where we were going. It’s about the size of San Francisco so we figured we could handle it. We found Gorey Harbor. The sun was coming out and this was a really beautiful area. I wish we’d come here first. We searched for parking, always a challenge since we really didn’t know where to buy the Paycards (or where to park to get one!) and we had very little Jersey money, on purpose since we can't use it when we're in England. Finally found a place in a neighborhood right next to Mont Orgueil Castle with a trebuchet! We didn’t have time to do it justice and it was £9.50 each so we just walked around admiring it, knowing we will see many, many castles along the way.

Mont Orgueil Castle

There was a nice pathway down to the harbor and the first thing Chuck saw was a dollar store. He just had to check it out.

We found a place selling real Jersey ice cream so each of us ordered one and sat on a bench overlooking the water.

Time to head back to the ferry terminal. Susan saved us again relieving us of some of the stress of the driving.

The ride was smooth and comfortable but we spent the whole way back up on deck.

Last view

We were back at Homer by 9 pm. A long and satisfying day. I never dreamed I’d get to go to a channel island. I’ve read several books about them, including The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and we watched the 3 part British series, Island at War which was very close to the story of the Jersey occupation. It was wonderful to see it for ourselves.

Camping, €13
Ferry, £162 = €177.79
Parking, £.58 = €.63
German Tunnels, £19.50 = €21.40
Lunch, £17.50 = €19.20
Drinks, £3 = €3.29
Ice Cream, £3.60 = €3.95
Snack on Ferry, £2.70 = €2.96

Total: €242.22

If you don't know where you are going, it doesn't matter which road you take. ~ Lewis Carroll

Monday, September 28, 2009

Reflections and Observations

By Claire
It’s such a mix of feelings being in a different culture. I find that I’m noticing things more and because we’re living it, feeling the differences all around us. For example:

Doors push in from outside and pull out from inside, exactly the opposite from what we’re used to. I still struggle, pushing and pushing until I remember, oh yeah, I have to pull. I wonder what happens in a fire? This is also true for other things, if it’s clockwise in the U.S., it’s counter clockwise here. C’est normal.

You must weigh your own produce and adhere a sticker with the price to the bag. No problem. Except when there isn’t a little picture of the produce you want. I gave up trying to buy an avocat (avocado). I just didn’t feel I had the language skills to explain. At the next store, everything had prices on it and came in boxes or was shrink wrapped and priced.

Strange. I guess an avocado is also a lawyer.

Trust. The French really seem to have a strong sense of trust. We are staying at this campground and have been here for 6 days and we haven’t paid them anything, nor do they have our camping carnet card with all our information. We could just drive away one day. You pay for gas after you fill up. I guess this doesn’t hold true for the shopping carts since you do have to insert a €1 coin as deposit in order to use it.

We so appreciate how helpful everyone is. When Chuck was trying to communicate at the Fiat dealership, they went to get their one and only English speaking person, one of the mechanics. He has been the spokesperson every time, on the phone and in person, each time being taken away from a job he’s working on. Every time he is asked to be translator, he smiles, puts his hand out to shake and is very reassuring. Nadine at Garage Roussel who laughingly helped us figure out the mirrors and windows on our little Peugeot was shopping at the same grocery store. Chuck went over to say hi and then later, when we got to the car to unload, we couldn’t figure out how to open the hatch. She was walking by with two six packs of beer, put them down on the ground and came over to help. Caroline, Jérome and Christóphe at Camping St. Michel are cheerful and often singing and whistling while they work. Is this beginning to sound like Disneyland? We are simply amazed at how people will go out of their way to help us.

The quiet.
If that damn dove would just shut up….Really, we just can’t get over how, as a country, these people are quiet! They murmur into their mobile phones, speak in low tones in restaurants, and the roads are so smooth Suzette is now too loud for us and we've had to adjust the volume. Even the phone in the camping reception, where we have our WiFi, rings in a soft, Vivaldi kind of tune. We wake each morning to the church bells but even those are muted and considerate. Many of the town centers are traffic free and all you hear are footsteps. We rarely hear a complaining child or a raised voice. Our rental car is diesel and we can’t even hear it. The campgrounds have all been so quiet I can hear the blood in my veins. This has been true in every one of them. It could be that it’s September and off season. We have also noticed that all we see are French tourists in this area.

The napkins in restaurants are paper but feel like cloth. Probably not very good for the environment but amazing. Speaking of the environment, recycling isn’t so great, especially for paper. However, this campground has a huge bin for plastics and another for wine bottles. They’re quite elegant looking too.

It’s clean.
The bathrooms at the campgrounds are continually being cleaned. Except for the Paris campground bathrooms that had a perpetually dank smell, everywhere else has been spotless.

I just saw two older French gentlemen dressed very nicely in black outfits, so chic, cleaning the bathrooms. We’re talking hands and knees scrubbing. I guess we’re usually gone when all this cleaning goes on. Here are a few shots around the shower/WC area:

Flowers are everywhere, even at the WC

Even the waste removal area for dumping chemical toilets and gray water is pretty. That little mini-chateau behind the hedge is where you discreetly dump your toilet cassette. You drive your camper over the waste water area and let it pour into the drains.

We've barely noticed the smoking. That metal box is a place to extinguish your cigarette. I guess Schnauzers aren't allowed in the WC.

When we were in St. Malo yesterday we both wanted to find a toilet. We followed the signs and found a pay toilet, €.30, and I managed to get in after pulling a few times until Chuck reminded me that I needed to push.....Anyway, when I got inside I saw that it had been completely hosed down. As I approached the toilet, the toilet seat began to mechanically lower itself. Everything was automatic but when I left, the toilet didn't flush. We had decided to cheat the system since we didn't have another exact change of €.30 so Chuck grabbed to door and entered. Immediately, I heard loud gushing sounds of water being sprayed and imagined him completely drenched. I stood outside with camera ready but he emerged pleased and dry.

Our lifestyle. We made a decision about how to do this one year journey. The idea of schlepping our bags from one hotel to another and then to a train just didn’t appeal. Driving and camping isn’t necessarily less expensive, it’s a lifestyle choice. No matter what, we’re always home with our things in place. We can cook every meal and the bed is always the same. We just have a different backyard every so often and have the opportunity to meet other people living in our little community of campers. The other advantage is that we can go places trains do not serve. We love staying in this remote little village, Courtils.

I hate mine. It feels like a girdle yet sticks out making me look pregnant, and cuts into my rib cage when I bend over. Luckily, most of my pants are loose; wearing this thing is like adding 10 lbs. Chuck has switched to a neck pouch that he had brought with him. I so wish I could find one. I keep looking. On the other hand, he always has a suspicious bulge under his shirt. I don’t think there is a good answer to this dilemma but I do think it’s a necessary evil.

Sensibility. Unlike the American gas station mini-mart selling super sized drinks, ribs, hamburgers, donuts, chew, beef jerky and candy bars, the French gas station store is called a “boutique” and has a patisserie. They do stoop to selling candy bars.

Binoculars. These are great to have along, especially when looking at huge medieval cities with ramparts and fortifications a distance away. I think I’ve used the word ramparts in the last 3 blogs.

Breakfast. What can I say. A daily treat.

Missing in action. We still have not found Chuck’s travel bath towel, my bike pant clips, Chuck’s notepad for which he bought extra pads, one mitten and one sock. I know they’re in here somewhere. However, the towel and bike clips have never turned up even though we KNOW we packed them.

Things we couldn’t live without:
Ikea frother for our cappuccinos:

Hanging toilet kit

"Mighty Bright" Book lights and Kindles

Suzette—TomTom Go 930

Bag. & Croissants, €2.70
Groceries and supplies, €12.41

Total: €28.11

Experience, travel - these are an education in themselves. ~ Euripedes

Update: I went on a 22 Km. bike ride this afternoon. I just couldn't let the sunny day go by without one and Chuck just couldn't leave his comfortable spot in the sun with his latest book, Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell. The most amazing thing was being stopped by a FRENCH couple asking ME directions! And I was able to give them! It was a high point for me. They thought I was a local.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

St. Malo

Fog then another spectacular day of sunshine
Camping St. Michel
By Claire
Today we decided to take advantage, once again, of the gorgeous weather. It’s foggy and cold in the mornings but quickly burns off to glorious sunshine and temps in the seventies with a light breeze. We couldn’t have ordered it up better. We drove to St. Malo, a walled city right on the coast in Brittany. Our campground is located in Normandy and right on the border with Brittany. Along the way we saw three French deer (you can tell by how elegantly they leap) and multiple cobwebs on the farm fences glistening with dew.

Chuck was in heaven walking along the ramparts. The views were spectacular and we had a wonderful picnic on a stone bench up on the walls. What a great day. It even ended with Chuck’s favorite thing: dessert! We each had an ice cream and then we found a Ker-y-pom, traditional Breton shortbread biscuits with butter, honey, and an apple-pie filling. Yum.

We walked across the sand to this "island". Wouldn't want to get caught during high tide.

View from the ramparts

Beach view

Swimming pool in the ocean with diving platform and bars to pull yourself out

Pylons used to gather mussels


We've had fun with road signs. Many we just don't understand. One shows a car in a red circle with a line through it on the road we're driving on! We thought this one was great. I guess it's OK to go swimming in your car.

Camping, €13
Bag. & Crois., €2.70
Gazole, €30.41

Total: €46.11

Kilometers are shorter than miles. Save gas, take your next trip in kilometers. ~ George Carlin

Dinan, Brittany

September 26
Bright, sunny day
By Claire
Woke up to find it was 49° inside Homer. Brrrrr! Fortunately, we have both a gas and an electric heater. We tried the gas heater for the first time. After a few tries, we finally figured it out and it roared to life. It warms up quickly and stays hot. We were toasty soon enough and hot showers felt great. It’s interesting bathing and using the WC in unisex quarters. I don’t even notice anymore. I love the piped in French radio station, even if I can’t understand it except for the occasional English word or phrase or the theme song, ♫Monday, Tuesday, Happy Days!♫ from the old Ron Howard TV show.

We decided to take advantage of our little car and head to Dinan, a perfectly preserved, untouched by World War II bombs, medieval city. We really loved it and had a full day. Here is a photo tour:

Dinan Port

Chateau de Dinan

Anybody's Tomb--place your face here. These were made up in advance during the 100 years' war because people were dying so fast.

Leaning House. Taxes were based on the first floor square footage. Many built up and out, roofs almost touching.

Beautiful produce

Steep Rue du Jerzual

Custom made in Paris! Each house has it's own septic tank cover right outside their front door

Beautiful setting--a typical house in Dinan

We loved these private gardens, viewed from the ramparts. Eat your heart out Village Homes, Davis!

We drove over this viaduct from 1850

During our self-guided walk through the town thanks once again to Rick Steves, I stopped at a few “Coiffure Femmes and Hommes” to see about a much needed haircut. Two wanted me to come back in several hours and one could take me in 10 minutes. We talked about price and services and what started at €35 for a wash, cut and dry with mousse somehow ended up being €25 for a wash, cut and dry with mousse even though I didn’t want the mousse.


Washing Station

Somehow I always end up with a “Bubble” from the sixties. Whatever that mousse was she used, it was like concrete. I couldn’t wait to wash my hair. But, the cut was great, the photos I supplied showing a recent cut were a big help and she referred to them often. Plus, it was a new, fun experience.

Off with a new do, we took the scenic drive home the long way stopping at Dunes de Chevets:

Imagine living here!

We took Rick Steves’ advice again and stopped at Pointe du Grouin, a gorgeous place very reminiscent of Pt. Reyes, particularly Tomales Point:

Pointe du Grouin

Chuck on the rocks, Pointe de Grouin

By now it was 3:30 and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast so we stopped at Bar/Restaurant Les Chevets and had the famous cider and a couple of Margharita pizzas.

Restaurant les Chevets

Hard Cider

Drove home, tired but relaxed, talking about what a perfect day it was. I think I’ve completely switched over to relaxed mode. I am completely with the program and enjoy the spontaneity and surprises along the way.

Camping, €13
Bag.&Crois., €2.70
Parking, €1.80
Haircut, €25
Pizza & Cider, €20

Total: €62.50