It's hard to boil down my 36 hours in Paris into something resembling a blog topic.
I've traveled and lived in France for so long now that there isn't much exotic about driving to Paris and around the city once I get there. However, I still feel a little thrill when I set out on a car trip through the French countryside.
Sunday I drove north, passing through such places as Bourré, where the stone for the big Loire châteaux was quarried and where mushrooms are grown in the old quarry tunnels; Chaumont-sur-Loire, the site of one of the most impressive châteaux, high on a bluff above the Loire River; Châteaudun, where you can see the big old castle/fortress on the horizon from miles away as you drive in from the south on the Nationale 10 highway; and Chartres, where you can see the mismatched towers of the gigantic cathedral soaring above the flat countryside from miles away and from all along the road that bypasses the town on the west.
Then there's the town of Maintenon, where you can barely catch a glimpse of the château, set back in its park behind tall iron gates. I think I'll have to go back there one day and spend some time; this is the second or third time I've driven through on my way to somewhere else. Next are Rambouillet, where I have a nice memory involving being locked in on the château grounds at sunset some 30+ years ago (ah, youth!) when I overstayed the visiting hours and had to climb over a wall to get out. And Versailles, a place I've visited as a tourist many times. No time to stop on Sunday.
Also no time to take any pictures. You just can't do everything.
After four hours driving by all these old memories and thinking about future sights to see, I arrived in Argenteuil, the Paris suburb where my old friends who live in Chicago were staying with his brother and sister-in-law. We were happy to see each other again after a 16-year hiatus.
Lunch was a three- or four-hour affair seated outside in a small garden at a long table under an awning. The weather was hot and the sky was very blue. My friends' family has a house down in the Lot, between Cahors and Puy-l'Evêque, and they had just returned from a week's stay there. The food served at lunch reflected that geographical connection.
The first course was slices of foie gras de canard mi-cuit — duck liver that has been partially cooked so it is like a spreadable pâté. The second was magret de canard cooked on a barbecue grill and served rare to medium-rare — they call it rosé in French. Accompanying the duck breast were sliced new potatoes that had been lightly sautéed in duck fat. After the main course came green salad with vinaigrette and a selection of cheeses: Bleu de Gex, Comté, Saint-Nectaire, and goat cheese from the Saint-Aignan area (my contribution, along with a couple of bottles of our local Touraine wines). Dessert was a big salad of fresh fruit. Then there was coffee.
Conversation flowed easily. We talked about life in Argenteuil, commuting, traffic, how the neighborhood is changing, and plans to escape to the country. Two cars had been torched on the street just outside my friend's brother's house a couple of nights earlier. You'd never know there was such unrest in the neighborhood as you sit in the garden having a big lunch. People like my friends are approaching retirement age and looking forward to relocating to the country.
We also talked about the past — people we knew back in the 1970s, when we lived in Paris and spent a lot of time together, and whether we had seen them over the intervening years or heard news of how their lives had turned out. We talked about the food products that the Chicago contingent particularly enjoy when they come back to France, and about what kinds of things — mustard, foie gras, candies and cookies — they plan to take back to Chicago with them. As I type this, they are probably boarding their flight at Charles de Gaulle airport. Better them than me is what I'm thinking!
The wine we drank Sunday afternoon greased the conversational skids, of course. Jean-Pierre and Alain, the two brothers, had brought back good, dark Cahors wine in big plastic jugs when they returned from their recent stay in the Lot. We enjoyed that, fresh and fruity and cool from the cellar. We also enjoyed a bottle of the 1996 Cahors vintage.
The temperature hit 34ºC — that's the mid-90s in F — by the end of the afternoon, so it was good to be under an awning. At 6:00 p.m. lunch was over, and after a second cup of coffee (one for the road) I needed to get going. I was going to stay the night with another old friend in Paris, and I needed to drive to his neighborhood and find a place to park the car.