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Road Scholars

By James O'Reilly

As you pack the kids for your travels this holiday season, consider this -- eight thousand miles in France with three kids, a van, and no hotel reservations.

Our plan was to ship our VW van—stuffed as though it were an indecently large suitcase—to France, drive around for six weeks, find a town to our liking, and settle down for two years so our three girls, aged three, five, and seven, could learn French while I finished a book. Not exactly A Year in Provence, but maybe a year or two in Montpellier, Pont-Aven, or Grenoble. Of course, it didn’t work out quite like that. Well, to be honest, it didn’t work out like that at all.

To begin with, there was the obligatory French dock strike. Our van would be two weeks late, we were told, and it wasn’t going to arrive in France after all. Maybe Belgium, perhaps the Netherlands. So, sitting on lumpy mattresses in an atmospheric but squalid Left Bank hotel, my wife Wenda and I took a deep breath and decided to enjoy our fate while matters maritime sorted themselves out.

We explored Paris, bitterly cold in early January but devoid of tourists. There were no lines anywhere. The Eiffel Tower in a rainstorm was ours. So too the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, and Notre-Dame. There was nobody waiting for ice cream cones outside Berthillon on L’Isle St-Louis. We rode boats on the Seine, wandered the streets, visited Jacques Cousteau’s Parc Océanique under Les Halles, spent exorbitant sums on mediocre snacks, and in general had a wonderful time. We decided Paris was indeed extraordinary, oozing history and beauty like no other place.

French FoodWe rented a little red Peugeot, stuffed dolls, bears, and children into it and set off to find the real France, where we would set up shop. We headed for Normandy, where we stayed with friends in a farmhouse near Caen. We visited the Peace Museum, walked Sword Beach, and told the girls about World War II and the approaching fleet had this been D-Day so many years ago. One evening I achieved satori, a perfect moment, sharing wine and camembert with our friends. I am by no means a food-oriented person, but the French—if I may generalize—do indeed have a remarkable and communicable way with food. The next evening, however, I made the mistake of expressing too much enthusiasm for tripe à la mode de Caen and needed to eat a lot to convince our hosts. In the morning, as I groaned, my daughters entertained me with a dance they called “Let’s Do the Cow Stomach.”

We drove on and stayed in a hotel next to Château de Chambord, where we were fawned over by a staff who acted as though they hadn’t had guests in years. In fact, we were the only guests. It had become clear to us that one of the merits of traveling in winter with children was that hotel and restaurant staffs were more indulgent—and forgiving—than they might have been at peak season. But apart from the pros and cons of winter travel, we found people all over France to be warm and caring, especially toward children. Wherever we went, people seemed to look out for our daughters. It felt safe to let them out of our sight in a way that it doesn’t in America.
In the morning, we explored the Château and its extraordinary ramparts and double-helix staircase. Huge fires blazed in the fireplaces, but couldn’t chase the chill. I scattered a friend’s ashes on the frozen Cosson River nearby; when spring came, he’d be carried into the Loire.The only legacy worth having is one of kindness

That night we walked the perimeter of Chambord, vast, dark, mysterious, Orion bright and hard in the January sky. We heard the laughter of the Château’s guardians floating from their living quarters, mocking the excesses of the dead. It occurred to me like a bell struck in the night that the only legacy worth having is one of kindness.

By now we had seen dozens of towns and were adept at squeezing the car late at night down alleys meant for people and horses, in search of shelter. But a disturbing theme began to appear—we liked many places, but we couldn’t see ourselves living in them. “Let’s check out the next town,” became our mantra. The girls protested, but by now they were beginning to qualify as Road Warriors, if not Road Scholars quite yet. When they tired of history lessons, we reminded them they could be at school back in the States instead of eating chocolate for lunch and driving around France. Life could be worse. We told ourselves the same thing, but the fact is, we were getting worried. Little did we know we would be doing the same thing four months and thousands of miles later.

Near Bordeaux, we stayed on a farm where the girls saw hours-old baby goats and drank fresh warm goat’s milk. Later, on another farm, they made butter with the farmer’s wife and mother and saw a calf still steaming from birth. These farm experiences came to be an important part of the Road Scholar Curriculum, along with almost daily tutoring from Wenda.
We hastened on, for it was time to pick up our van, which we had been told was in Belgium.

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