We awoke early on that final Friday morning, having only achieved a few hours of sleep, ensuring that everything was packed and that nothing would be left behind: except for one shirt.
One of my favourite shirts. Light-blue, subtly textured, short-sleeved, with vertical silver stripes. It was a staple of mine in the summer, often worn with a white t-shirt underneath. My eldest daughter took a photo of me wearing the shirt, about six years ago. We were enjoying breakfast at Benny's Bistro, at the back of the French Baker on Murray Street in the Byward Market. I was sipping a coffee, savouring it with a chocolate croissant. We could have been in France that very day, for the food and the atmosphere was comparable, equally exquisite.
That photo that my daughter shot became the first one that I used for my Twitter account. I have also used it with Facebook and it dons the back cover (paperback) and inside flap (hardcover) of my novel. It's one of my favourite photos of me, taken by one of my favourite people.
And I was wearing my favourite shirt.
But I left it in Salon-de-Provence, on purpose, in the trash can.
I packed only two buttoned shirts for my vacation. A new, slate-coloured shirt, and my blue one. On the journey to France, I wore the blue shirt. It always has that slightly crushed look, and so I knew it would look fine at the end of a trans-Atlantic flight.
Only, I didn't count on my neighbour in the centre-rowed seats spilling something on the shirt. I didn't notice it happen, couldn't tell you what was spilled: coffee, orange juice, tomato juice. I remembered him ordering all three, but I never saw him spill a drink. Perhaps it happened in the few hours that I was asleep. But it wasn't until we had landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, after we had retrieved our checked baggage and the girls had found a washroom that one of them noticed the stain.
A reddish-brown stain. Dried. Large.
I know it wasn't on the shirt when I dressed for our departure, nor was it on me after we had eaten at Archibald Microbrasserie, in the Montréal-Trudeau Airport. The stain was so prominent, it was noticed immediately by anyone who looked at me.
Because I had only two buttoned shirts for my vacation, I continued to wear it on our trip, though I only wore it when I had no other shirt to wear (I had a long-sleeved shirt and a couple of t-shirts, in addition to the slate shirt).
But on that final Friday in France, I would not pack my blue shirt. We tried to wash out the stain on our first night in Paris. I scrubbed the spot with soap and put it through a couple of washes, but the stain would not budge. It had dried for too long.
My favourite shirt was spoiled.
As sad as I was to see the shirt go, I was even sadder that we would be saying farewell to our friends. If time were no object, we would have spent weeks with them. Because they live in Europe and we live in Canada, our visits with each other come only every few years. And so, leaving them behind was hard.
We did enjoy one last breakfast, finishing the last of our food and spending final moments together, but we had a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive ahead, and we couldn't guarantee the traffic conditions on a Friday morning, to Nice, and so our last goodbye seemed rushed, far too brief.
It was a gorgeous morning. In fact, the weather in Provence had been perfect almost every day. At worst, we had a bit of overcast sky, but never for long. And when it rained, it only happened late at night, when we were settled in our farmhouse, fast asleep, or when we were in transit, between sites, and only then, it fell lightly.
But as we drove to Nice, the early morning sunlight lit the Alpilles for the last time, cast a glow over the fog in the valleys. As we drove around Aix-en-Provence, we said farewell to Montagne Sainte-Victoire, made famous by Paul Cézanne. Though we had seen it many times over the week, I hadn't taken a single photo of it, and on the autoroute, I couldn't stop to do it this last time.
As we passed through toll booth after toll booth, we were struck with a thought: what if we didn't have enough euros? Lori counted the number of stops ahead of us and performed a rough calculation. It would be close, she said, but we should have enough. At the last booth, just ahead of Nice, we paid our fare and counted the last-remaining coins we had: 1.70 €. We had made it.
Or so we thought. As we reached the city limits, as the signs for the airport came up, we saw another toll booth ahead. We had no ticket in hand—we had just inserted our last ticket at the booth a few kilometres back. If we have to take a fresh ticket, we decided, we would get off at the very next exit. Surely, that would not cost much.
As we approached the toll, I noticed a sign with pictures of various vehicles and the corresponding toll fees. I saw a car and 1.50 €—we would be fine. But as I held out my hand for Lori to place the coins in it, one of the coins slipped from my fingers and fell somewhere between the seats. It was a 50 eurocent coin. But that wasn't the worst part: as I stopped in front of the barrier, the fare demanded three euros.
I tried inserting a credit card, but the machine wouldn't accept it. I pressed the button for assistance, all the while aware of the frustrated drivers behind me. A woman came on the intercom, and when I explained that I had an insufficient amount of coin and that the machine wouldn't accept my credit card, she told me she would be right there.
She was not impressed. She watched me try two of my credit cards, the machine displaying a reading error both times (though, I don't think the machine was looking for a credit card so much as a pass card). The attendant said, "You have no cash?" to which I held the 1.20 €, pathetically. She just shook her head, furrowed her brow, and frowned.
"Can I pull over somewhere to pay?" I asked.
Another stern shake of the head.
She looked at my licence plate, saw that the car was a rental (as though my broken French and use of English wasn't a giveaway), made a note on a hand-held electronic device, told me to wait a moment, and walked away.
A moment later, the barrier lifted. I waited a second, in case she was going to speak to me through the intercom, but when the driver behind me honked his horn, I moved on, feeling embarrassed and nervous. Was she going to fine me?
Only time will tell.
I dropped the girls and our baggage at our departure terminal and then returned our Renault to the rental agency at another terminal. Apart from dirt on the floor, from a week of camping, and dirt on the outside, from two weeks of driving, the car was in great condition. The same couldn't be said of another car that was being returned at the same time, the driver having to explain the missing side-view mirror.
I signed for the car, got a receipt, and took a shuttle bus to catch up with the girls.
We arrived in France with one checked bag that held our camping gear and my tripod. In Nice, we checked a second duffle bag, filled with wine and souvenirs. We were not travelling light. We had memories to share, stories to tell.
Time flew, and when I think about all the things my family and I did in France, on our own and with our dear friends, I am amazed that we accomplished so much.
I also realize that in recounting our adventures, I took more time to tell our tale than it took to live it (that said, I did only write about our trip from Monday to Friday, and while my family was in France for 19 days, this is my eighteenth post about our trip).
I hope you've enjoyed my telling of my vacation as much as I've enjoyed sharing it. And thanks to those of you who sent kind words and comments through Twitter and e-mails along the way.
As this is a Photo Friday post, I leave you with the very last photo that I shot of our vacation. If you want to see more photos, I have posted many in my Flickr album. I'll add more. And, at the insistence of a Twitter friend (yes, I mean you, Sarah McC!), I will create a real photo album.
As we lifted off, westward, from Nice Airport, our plane turned south as it climbed, over the Mediterranean Sea, before circling around and cutting north. The French Alps (and possibly, further west, the Italian Alps) were on the horizon, Nice and the coastal towns spread below us, ships in the sea. The airport itself was unmistakable. I took a photo, then watched the landscape a little longer, until it was obscured by dense cloud.
Our vacation was finished. We had home to look forward to.
And a new shirt to replace the one I left behind.