|Lost in the Woods
The start of the journey was a bit shaky. Within ten minutes of leaving Eiji and Vero, I came to a toll which didn’t take my charge card. I had no change and began to panic. I was standing between the toll booth and Blacky when I looked at the car behind me in apology. The fancy woman in the fancy car motioned me to her and handed me the exact toll. How sweet is that? I pulled off at the next town to go to a store and get change for any other tolls, just in case, which was fortunate. While in Italy, every toll booth had taken my charge card, but in France, I found out that it was not accepted, and France has tons of tolls.
I was driving northwest, to an area of France called Limousin. According to GoogleMaps it was an eight hour drive, almost exactly halfway way between Nice and Belle Ile, my next stop. I was staying with Gary and his Mom, Elaine. Gary was an Englishman who had lived in New Zealand for thirteen years, and knew my Kiwi friend Susie, who put us in touch back when I first arrived in Europe. He moved to France three years ago to help his Mom finish a half renovated barn, which is where they both lived. He and I had emailed several times during the year, but this was the first time I was going near his part of France and he offered to put me up for as long as I wanted to stay, which in this case was only three days. We arranged to meet in Oradour-sur-Vayres, the nearest village to the house. I told him I would find wifi in town and call him when I arrived, somewhere between five and six that night.
I followed the coast for several hours before Leona directed me north outside of Montpellier. I had not pre-planned the route so I was just following whatever Leona said. Seriously, I must have some kind of brain damage, after all the times she’s screwed me over, you would think I’d learn by now. But it was such a glorious day and the drive took me through some of the most beautiful country I’d seen on my trip. I was kind of blissed out, just driving and thinking, totally present, peaceful and calm. Until it got to be about 5pm which was when I was supposed to be getting close to Gary’s. I really had no idea where I was and the map I had was not detailed enough for me to figure it out. I knew we were heading northwest, but we had left the bigger roads far behind and were on secondary and tertiary roads, which was why it was so pretty. I couldn’t call, there wasn’t much I could do so I just trusted Leona and we kept going.
Eventually I turned onto one small road that wound through the woods and fields, following a small river. It was getting to be dusk, especially in the woods, and had begun to rain. I kept seeing signs for a detour and road closing, but I ignored them since I didn’t know any other way to go. I was looking for anything open-a store, restaurant, any place with a live person to ask for directions. I passed by a large stone mill that had been converted to a restaurant. There were some people on the porch, so I pulled Blacky over and went to talk to them. There was a young woman power washing the deck and I asked her if she spoke English.
“Oui, a leetle.”
“I’m trying to get to this town,” as I showed her the address on my phone.
She conferred with an older man on the porch with her, then another man came outside.
“Zees eez my ‘usband and my fazer, zey are better at directions. Zee road you need eez closed.”
As the men talked, I asked the woman if this was her restaurant.
“Yes, eet eez our Auberge, we are preparing it to open next week.”
Finally, they made a decision and the woman took me inside and upstairs to the third floor. The first floor was the restaurant, the second floor was hotel part, with a few rooms for rent, and the third was the family living area. There was a young girl, about two, and an older woman, evidently the grandmere, watching her. The young woman took me to the computer and went to Google Maps on the Internet, the little girl in her lap. She couldn’t print the directions, she told me, because they didn’t have any ink in the printer, but she explained how to get where I wanted to go and showed me the map on the screen. Then she offered to call Gary for me and they talked for a bit before she handed me the phone. Apparently, I was about an hour from his house.
“Gary, I’m so sorry for being so late, I hope I haven’t messed up any plans you may have made.”
“No, no, just be careful on the roads and get here when you can.”
I thanked the family profusely and took off down the road. The woman had said that in about five km, the road would be closed but the detour signs would direct me onto another road. If I just took this road, I would get to a small town then the road I needed to take to Oradour-sur-Vayres.
I drove out of the tiny town, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, which was quite pristine and beautiful, and made it to where the road was closed. The detour signs just said “la route est fermee,” but did not offer an alternate route, no arrows, nothing. There was only one other road to take, a dirt road leading into deep woods and I didn’t want to just keep wandering aimlessly for another few hours.
I turned around and went back to the Auberge. I didn’t know what else to do. Did I mention it was pouring rain and had been for the last couple of hours? The husband was on the porch pressure washing now, and I explained about the detour being a dead end. He motioned me inside, brought me back upstairs and started talking to his wife. She got her purse and a raincoat and said, “I take you zair, to zee town, just follow me.”
I saw nothing but kindness and concern for me on their faces, not a trace of irritation, just a true desire to help me get where I was going. A stranger who does not speak our language shows up at our door in the pouring rain, we bring them into our home, we do whatever we can to help them, then drop everything and drive them twenty minutes away. Who in America would do this? I was stunned, and asked her to just explain a different way for me to get there but she insisted on taking me.
I followed her to where the road ended and she took the right turn onto the tiny dirt road I was too afraid to take earlier. The dirt road became paved road after a couple of miles and fifteen minutes later we arrived at the town. She motioned me to go straight, then pulled over to make sure I was going the right way. I waved as I got back on track, thinking of her turning around and getting back to her family, which I had interrupted not once but twice. They had spent a total of about an hour getting me unlost, right during the French dinner preparation hour. The French get a bad rap for being unfriendly and rude, but it’s just not true. Well, maybe with some of the Parisians, but that’s like comparing New Yorkers to everyone else in the US, it’s an unfair generalization. Most French people, just like most Americans, are warm and welcoming, but these people had taken this generosity of spirit to a whole new level.
At about 9pm, I pulled into the church parking lot where I had arranged to meet Gary four hours earlier. He pulled in a minute after I did and got out to greet me. He looked to be about my age, with thick salt and pepper hair, tall and slim, with a friendly smile and warm eyes.
“So glad you made it here OK. You must be exhausted,” he said as we hugged hello. He had a lovely British accent with a large hint of Kiwi thrown in.
“No, I’m actually OK now that I’m here. I just feel so bad for being so late.”
He explained that he would be taking me to a neighbor’s house first. More than half of his Mum’s hoise was still barn and the converted part only had two bedrooms, so their neighbors, who were in Paris now, had offered to let me stay at their house. I followed him to the neighbors and he helped me take my luggage in, showed me around, then we went back to Elaine’s.
His Mom was waiting for us when we walked into the house, as were two dogs and five cats.
“Oh luv, you must be so tired,” she said as she hugged and fussed over me and the dogs sniffed me up and down, wagging themselves into a frenzy. “How awful for you to have to drive for so long. It wasn’t until she said this that I fully realized my eight hour drive had turned into a twelve hour drive.
“Actually, I’m not all that tired. It was a really beautiful drive, just longer than I thought it would be.”
“What a wonderful way to look at it. Did you get something to eat? Are you hungry? We already ate but I made enough for you and I can make you a plate. Do you drink wine?”
I almost laughed out loud at the last question. “Yes, I’d love something to eat, and I never turn down wine.”
We all sat around the table talking while I ate, I felt at home and comfortable immediately. The room we were in was roughly 30x20, a combination living room and eat in kitchen, with a low beamed ceiling and a stone alcove in one corner which used to be a large oven but was now a woodstove area. It was lovely, and I felt the road slide off my shoulders as I relaxed in their care.
A while later Gary walked me down to the neighbor’s house where I would stay for the next three days. It was very dark outside, lots of stars with a crescent moon in their midst, frogs croaking loudly, mists coming off the fields surrounding us and a nightingale singing. It felt like I was in a movie. He walked me into the house and made sure everything was OK for me, told me to sleep late in the morning and walk up to the house whenever I wanted to, the door would be unlocked and he would make me some breakfast. Wow. This should be an interesting few days….