Going to Strasbourg. Coming home to Nancy

We were hurtling down the highway at one hundred and forty kilometres and hour. In the back of my mind I could hear Franc say to me, “Keep to the right. Keep to the right.”

It was something that I hadn’t gotten used to, driving in France. The left lane was for passing, the right for slower drivers and those who would be turning off. One could invoke road rage in these volatile Frenchmen if you held them up on the highway.

But it was Mother and me in a rental car. I was trying to show Mother everything I had seen in France, the important places I had been to; the places I had studied; the museums I had haunted. I was trying to do it in two weeks, though I had lived there for seven years. In addition, there were things I wanted to see that I had never been able to convince Franc to take me to – like the Gothic Notre Dame Cathedrals. I’d seen Notre Dame of Paris, Rheims, Amiens, Laon and Chartres, but I hadn’t seen Beauvais nor Rouen.

And so, we were on our way to Strasbourg’s, passing through several small towns in this eastern Alsace and Lorraine departments of France.

We had a very early start and it was just after seven when we stopped at a little town to pick up some coffee and a pastry. It was too early. Nothing in this small town was open . The door on the bakery indicated a seven thirty opening and we waited in the cool of the late September morning until a portly baker turned the open/closed sign on the door. I bought croissants and a tarte aux pommes, this latter being filled with sweet cooked apple that I knew would delight Mother’s sweet tooth. Mother tested her high school French, pointing at the Boucherie, Café and the Pharmacie. I translated the ones she didn’t know and soon we had finished our treats and proceeded on our way.

Near noon, we stopped at Baccarat to look at the crystal works, although the factory was closed and we could only look in the gift shop and the little museum that was adjacent to it. Mother bought a few treasures but I found them terribly expensive and declined the subservient ministrations of the sales clerk that were meant to trap a person into purchasing something, anything. I knew I’d have a problem carrying it home and I knew when it got there it would be out of context and out of place.

In Baccarat, we crossed the street and found a place for lunch as well, then once again we took to the road. We reached Strasbourg mid afternoon and actually had to hurry to see the inside. I found the architecture fascinating and craned my neck to look at the marvels of stain glass art, the carvings in rich wood and the stone sculptures; Mother greeted it with a ho-hum and sat in a pew waiting for me to finish my tour of it. When its fabulous astronomical clock struck the hour and the various figures circled out to do their hourly performance, Mother made it quite clear that it was time to go. We had to find a washroom before we left and there was an hour and a half drive to get home for dinner at Mamie’s, my mother-in-law.

Mother is so particular and come to think of it, so am I. I suggested a tea room might provide us both with a snack to keep us going and a restroom that would meet our cleanliness criteria. The place we chose was close to the Cathedral and was tourist-trap expensive but the cakes and pastries were exquisitely presented. I suggested to Mother that she go look at them, just for the pleasure of her eyes, but she was recalcitrant. She wanted to sit. More likely she feared that someone would ask her what she wanted in a language that she could not speak and she would be embarrassed, flustered and confused.

“Pick whatever you want. Pick something you think I will like. Don’t forget to bring home something we can give to Mamie,” she exhorted as I went up to the counter to give our order. I brought back some Bergamotte tea and pastries plus a box of treats to take home.

She decided not to drink the tea. If she had to stop along the way there was no knowing what kind of facilities she might have to submit to. As for the pastry, she took a bite or two and then offered it to me. “I don’t really have an appetite,” she said, “and we are going home for dinner. Besides, it’s getting dark outside. We have to get going.”

I wolfed down my cake, the pleasure gone from it. I wrapped her pastry to take. I have an absolute horror of wasting food and more so when the food cost as if it were made of solid gold. I helped her with her coat – it was likely to get chilly on the way back- and donned my own.

So there we were hurtling down the highway in a race with the remaining daylight. The road was clearer than the morning because we were taking a direct route to Nancy, not the byways that had taken us to our other tourist destinations. Night fell inexorably, as it always does, but the road signs in France were good and we kept seeing “Nancy” written upon them. We were going in the right direction.

Who knows where I went wrong. I only know that it was much later than we expected and I had reached the outskirts of Nancy but I didn’t know where to go to find our temporary home. Mother, ever fearful, began to ask when we would get there in a cadence worthy of a small child. “Are we there yet?” “When are we going to be home.”

Finally I had to admit that I was lost and I didn’t know how to get there. It was pitch black. After some time of this worrisome chatter, I saw what looked like a city bus terminal. There was a bus sitting, lit up, not moving, without passengers, in a large parking lot that could accommodate a much larger number of buses.

“Don’t get out, Kay!” she said to me, taking hold of my wrist as I tried to extricate myself from the car. “It’s pitch dark out there. You don’t know who you are going to talk to.” she continued. “If anything happened to you, I would be completely lost. ”

I reassured her. Bus drivers were hired by the city. Normally they would be honorable people. Who better to ask directions from than a person who drove the streets all the time? She would not be reassured, but I escaped nonetheless to ask for directions.

The driver gave the directions and I tried my best to memorize them. I’m a visual person. I can only remember things if I see them. This was all verbal and I concentrated with all my might to ingest the advice and retain it. It was given in a second language and the difference between “allez tout droite” and “tournez a droite” (go straight ahead or turn right) could make a critical difference to my arrival at destination.

She harried me with questions when I arrived at the car, in between telling me how relieved she was that I had passed this ordeal and returned to the car. I struggled to retain the directions. She went on at length to tell me how brave and capable I was; and how incompetent and fearful she was.
Once again, I started up the rental car and we proceeded. I had lost everything the bus driver had told me. The only way I was going to be able to get back to Mamie’s was to drive into the centre of town and then I might recognize my way from the several times Franc and I had made this journey at Easters and Christmases in the three years we had been together. I’d never driven it before and I hadn’t had to pay attention to where I was. Alas!

The signs led us to Centre Ville and I recognized the bridge over the main river. I knew I had to bypass it and get onto a smaller bridge. I recognized my way but was hesitant. It had been six years since I had been there.

“You should have gone over the big bridge. Why would you think about taking this  byway. It’s an industrial district. We’ll never find our way out of it. We’re really lost now. It’s black out. We’ll never get back!” wailed my nervous passenger. All her trust had gone. I fought to keep my composure.

“It’s the only way I know. I recognize this.” I said desperately. Did I really?

Not long after, I was vindicated. There was a road sign for Tomblaine where Mamie lived. I followed that and ended up on the square where we had first pulled into town two days before. It was deserted and dark in the late evening gloom but I knew my way from here, mostly. I knew it was below this square, close to the river. We were closing in.

I drove around a few streets until saw the Maison des Vieux – the Seniors rest home. There was a problem though. It too, in a energy conserving measure, was pitch black. We didn’t have a key. How were we to get in?

I rang a bell a dozen times before some poor attendant dazed with sleep and dressed in night clothes and pantoufles came to the door. We had a lot of explaining to do. It was after ten and the door was locked at ten. She was not sure that Mamie was awake. She would have to go to see. We stood outside while she ran her errand. It seemed forever, to have arrived and to be blocked at the door just when we really needed to sink into a chair, both of us from nervous exhaustion.

It could not have been long. We were escorted to Mamie’s apartment. She had not saved dinner. We had been so long away she figured we had found a hotel and stayed out. We recounted our adventures. We broke open the box of pastries and with a hot cup of tea that Mamie brewed, we assuaged our expectant tummies with sweets.

Not long after, we tumbled into bed in the guest room, thankful to be home and safe from the terrors of the night.

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