I spent the first part of July helping lead a tour of D-Day and other historical sites in Europe. We were reasonably hopeful it would be cooler there than here, where the mercury hit 104 degrees in Kennesaw the week we left.
Our prayers were answered — and then some. Temperatures never climbed higher than the low 70s (Fahrenheit) and usually were in the 60s — or lower. I only took one long-sleeve shirt and wound up wearing it nearly every day, along with a t-shirt and often a jacket to ward off the damp and the brisk winds. And sometimes even that was not enough. We ate at an outdoor restaurant in picturesque Luxemburg City one evening at which folded blankets were draped on each seat that diners could use to drape over themselves if necessary. The chilly afternoon, stiff breeze and al fresco beverages left me feeling like I was tailgating at a football game, not on summer vacation. And we later noticed that the space heaters under the awnings of the famed outdoor cafes in Paris were turned on during the evenings in that city.
Another oddity, to us anyway, was the fact that the sky was still so light at 10:30 p.m. that the streetlights in Luxembourg hadn’t come on yet. But that shouldn’t have been surprising, considering that it is on roughly the same latitude as Vancouver and actually is closer to the North Pole than Quebec is.
Some other impressions:
* The food on Air France jets is magnifique! But the narrow seats? Not so much.
After dinner on our evening flight from Atlanta the flight attendants came through with a coffee service at 10:45 p.m. I didn’t have any, but might as well have, since I barely slept. And then, flying toward the sunrise as we were, the attendants woke us up for breakfast less than four hours later at 2:30 a.m., Atlanta time.
* Once in France, we traveled via comfortable Mercedes motor coach when not hoofing it. Few of the “interstate” highways we saw, even in Paris, were more than two lanes wide, or in other words barely big enough to qualify as an “avenue” over here. The cars over there are cute but puny, with BMWs more common than Fords or Hondas are here. I’d never seen a BMW taxicab till I got to Paris.
* Meanwhile, motorcycles and motor scooters are far more common. It’s not unusual at all to see 10 or 20 motor bikers at every intersection in Paris. And French law allows them to zip between vehicles when passing, even on the highway. Dangerous over there; suicidal over here.
And speaking of suicidal, there’s the traffic around the famed Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where eight or 10 “lanes” of traffic jockey as they circle, and where there are no lane markers on the pavement to serve as guides.
n France is now part of the European Union, so transactions take place in euros, rather than francs. I’ve never seen such drab, non-descript currency.
* The French do a lot of things better than anyone on the planet — bread, cheese, butter, wine. Unfortunately, they haven’t figured out modern plumbing yet. The only ventilation, even at the sizeable men’s’ rooms at major tourist attractions, is provided by keeping the main door propped open. One D-Day site offered a restroom for the ladies — but only a wall for the men. And curiously, at Omaha Beach, the public toilets included two standard-style restrooms and a third best described as a “squatty potty.”
* The French are famously chauvinistic about their culture and officially wary about the influence of American tastes. Yet listed prominently on the menus of every restaurant, brasserie and bar we visited was that old Tennessee legend: Jack Daniels. And on swanky Boulevard St. Germain in the Latin Quarter was a hot new bar called, what else? “Tennessee.” Go figure. (I’m also still trying to understand why “The French Quarter” is in New Orleans and “The Latin Quarter” is in Paris.)
* French barkeeps are expert at uncorking wine, but when it comes to mixing drinks, it’s another story. Order a “Jack and Coke” (or a “Jacques et Coke”) and you invariably are brought a glass with the bourbon in it, a second glass or small pitcher with the Coke, and a third with ice. How you choose to mix them is up to you. And if you should ask for ice in your drink (alcoholic or otherwise), you’re apt to be asked by your waiter, “How many pieces?”
* Speaking of food and drink, many restaurants there have the word “Assiette” in the name, meaning “dish” or “plate” (such as “L’Assiette Normande” in Bayeux). But probably not the best name for a French restaurant in this country!
ALL TOLD, it was the trip of a lifetime — or at least, of my lifetime thus far. The bad news is that it was “only” 10 days long. The good news is that we’re planning a similar trip for next summer or fall of 2013, this time to World War II sites in Italy (i.e., Anzio, Salerno, Monte Cassino, etc.) with plenty of stops at “cultural” attractions as well, like Rome, Naples, Pompeii and Florence.
Sarà molto divertente! (It will be great fun!) Allora vieni con noi! (“So come with us!”)
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Bell Bomber Plant” and “The Lockheed Plant.”