06 April 2007

Our 1989 road trip around France

Since the end of February Walt has been posting pictures and descriptions of a road trip he and I took around southern France in 1989. We started in Grenoble, drove down to Toulouse and over to Bordeaux, and then turned north back up to Paris. In those days I didn't take pictures — it was a pre-digital world and I didn't even have a camera — so there are none here.

It was a great trip for us, as Walt has been saying and showing on his blog. We rented a little white Peugeot 309 in Grenoble and just got in it and started driving. We spent seven days on the road and six nights in hotels — in Nîmes, Sète, Castelnaudary, Bergerac, Soulac-sur-Mer, and Poitiers, before getting back to Paris. We never made reservations; we just showed up. It was late October, early November. I remember that decent, comfortable hotel rooms cost $35 to $40 a night, and we didn't have trouble finding one each day.

Most of the places we went in 1989 were places I only knew from books, and I bet Walt had never heard of a lot of them at all. We went to Les Baux, Arles, the Camargue, and Aigues-Mortes — Agde, Narbonne, Carcassonne, and Toulouse — Cahors, Montaigne's castle, Montesquieu's castle, and the Médoc wine region — Royan, Saintes, and Cognac — St-Savin-sur-Gartempe, Saint-Aignan (!), Chambord, Beaugency, and Chartres. It was fantastic.

I had lived in France earlier for 8 years total, on and off, starting in 1970 and mostly in Paris. That part of my life ended with my return to the U.S. in 1982 to find a "real" job and make some kind of career for myself. I had met Walt in Paris in 1981, but we didn't go back to France together until 1988, when we took a short trip just to Paris.

What happened in 1988 to make a trip to France possible for us was that I was invited to attend a conference in Grenoble. I was working for a computer magazine in San Francisco called UNIX Review, and Walt was a student at Berkeley. We were not living large. I had taken a significant pay cut when I quit my job in Washington DC in 1986 and moved to California.

UNIX is a computer operating system, in case you don't know. It has been around forever, and it was the basis for the newest Apple Macintosh OS, which is called OS X (ten).

Walt had taken a 100% pay cut when he quit his Washington job to go to school at Berkeley. My UNIX Review job in San Francisco paid a very low salary, I thought. Walt was contributing to our budget by taking out student loans. After we paid the rent and groceries, we couldn't really afford to travel much, and certainly not to France.

One day in early 1988 at UNIX Review the phone rang and the editor picked it up (I was the managing editor). It was a French woman who just barely spoke English. Mark, the editor, called me over and said, here, talk to this French woman. I did, in French, and found out she was the editor of a UNIX newsletter in Grenoble. She was passing through San Francisco and wanted to come and visit with us, to see how we worked. She knew of our magazine.

I showed her around the office that afternoon, introduced her to everyone, and explained as best I could in French how we were organized, what software tools we used to put together the magazine, and how we found UNIX experts to write the articles we published.

The upshot of that little three-hour tour was a call from the French editor a few months after she returned to Grenoble. Her company was putting on a UNIX conference in Grenoble (which is a high-tech pole in France). She asked me if I would come talk at the conference about UNIX Review and the UNIX market in the U.S.

She didn't have to ask me twice.

Our publisher in San Francisco said OK, I could go without using up my precious vacation days. My presence in Grenoble would be good publicity for UNIX Review and might hook in some new advertisers. The people in Grenoble would pay my airfare and my expenses while I was working the conference. For me, it was a good deal! Expenses paid, and on work time.

Walt and I talked about it and decided we would be able to scrape together the money for him to fly to Paris and meet me after the conference. The two of us would spent a few nights there — it was Thanksgiving so he didn't have to be at Berkeley. I knew of an inexpensive hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens. We didn't plan to eat in fancy restaurants while we were there — we never had done that when we lived in Paris 6 or 7 years earlier, so the prospect didn't bother us.

When the conference in Grenoble ended, I was sent to see somebody responsible for conference finances. I would be reimbursed for any expenses I had to report — mostly restaurant tabs, since the hotel and airfare had already been taken care of. The person in charge looked at my few receipts, said Très bien !, and proceeded to give me the reimbursement money... plus about $1000 in French francs. I said there must be a mistake, and he or she said no, that's your expenses reimbursement, plus your honorarium!

I was stunned and in heaven. It had never occurred to me that I would actually get paid for my three-day appearance at the Grenoble UNIX event. To tell you the truth, I knew pretty much zilch about UNIX at that point. But I did know how to get a magazine edited, typeset, and laid out.

When I left Grenoble by train to go meet Walt at the airport in Paris, I had a nice surprise for him. We weren't broke! We had a good time in Paris that long weekend. All I really remember is that Walt took some nice photos, especially some night shots of Notre Dame and St-Eustache.

Fast forward one year. In 1989, the people in Grenoble asked me to make a repeat appearance. That time, I knew I was going to get paid $1000 or more just to show up there. Well, I had to write a paper on one of the controversial issues of the day in the UNIX world and present it at the conference. In French. But that was a small price to pay.

Walt and I planned accordingly. We had to take advantage of the windfall. We decided to plan a longer trip to France, and to venture out beyond Paris. If you look at his blog, you'll see his posts about the 1989 trip starting last February. Here's the latest one; you can see the others by going into his archives.

Three days before I was scheduled to leave for Paris on October 20, 1989, the earth moved. The cause: the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.


  1. I must immediately start reading Walt's posts! How I wish I had the type of photos that I take now from my first years in France -- I moved here in 1990 but also took trips in 1980, 82, 84, 86, 87 and 89.

    I generally took slides and still have them, but since photos of any kind were expensive, I mainly just took tourist type shots -- and limited those.

    I remember visiting Sarlat and Rocamadour on my first trip and thinking they were out-and-out primitive!

  2. Betty, all the photos on my blog from that trip are color slides. That's why I don't have as many pix as I would if the trip were now - film and processing were expensive !!

    I've been scanning them so I can save them on CDs, the side benefit is that I can reproduce them on the blog. The quality of the scans is pretty good, but I can certainly tell they're slides and not digital pix.

  3. What a story! Isn't it terrific when things click like that? I'm so happy for you...from way back then.

    Meilleurs voeux!!

  4. I love your Grenoble story--I can imagine how surprised you were to get your honorarium and then to get asked back, wow!

    It's a good thing you were in the office when the French woman called. This seems more than a coincidence to me.


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