Then life happened, and excuses piled atop one another. We spent the next ten years getting jobs, moving in together, moving to California, changing jobs, getting married, going on honeymoons, and moving to Utah. Every year seemed to contain within itself enough of an adventure to keep travel on the back-burner. Life would settle down eventually, we thought, and then we would travel.
But in 2016, I found the postcard I had written so long ago, and realized it was time to go back. At the time, we were selling our house in California and it was hard for us to part with. So my husband and I decided to make a vow: if we were going to sell our dream home, we would have to trade it for another dream. We decided to use part of the money we would make from the house to fulfill two lifelong dreams: for him to buy a camper van, and for me to go to France.
That time France turned into a girls trip
We bought the van, and began planning our trip, but after a month I realized that my dream vacance to France had somehow become a three week backpacking trek through the alps with no showers and limited access to croissants. Not exactly what I had in mind. My husband (and his super outdoorsy ways) had somehow managed to hijack my once every ten years opportunity to drink champagne in Champagne, and I wasn’t about to miss that opportunity.
So we came up with an alternative: he would travel in the van for three weeks with his brother-in-laws and I would go to France with four of my best girlfriends. Perfection. I texted the girls, asked them if they wanted to go to France over the summer, received a resounding succession of “HELL YES’s” and one week later we gathered up to do the first and most monumental part of any vacation: we bought our plane tickets.
That moment was one of the best moments of my life. But it was only the first in what would truly be a life-changing trip. We spent three months booking our Airbnb’s, and creating our packing lists. Though part of me wants to write about the entire trip from start to finish in all it’s grueling detail, I know that would take an entire book. So instead, I’m picking a few of my favorite memories to share. And I apologize, but it’s still pretty long. Here they are.
That time we drank Champagne in Champagne
We started our trip by spending five days at a beautiful vine-covered Airbnb nestled in my favorite part of Paris, Montmartre. On our second day there, we took the train to Reims, the heart of Champagne country. We bought almond croissants and espressos and, despite having food sensitivities, I ate all of the pastries.
We wandered the shops and then explored a couple beautiful cathedrals (some of the oldest I’ve ever seen). Then at last the time had arrived and we made our long-planned pilgrimage to Veuve Clicquot. In addition to being (by far) our favorite champagne (reserved for every fancy occasion we can possibly imagine), we had all read The Widow Clicquot in advance of our trip and were excited to sip champagne where the famous matriarch had created it.
We took the “On The Footsteps Of Madame Clicquot” tour and sipped glasses of the classic yellow label and the 2008 reserve. It was wonderful, but the day was only getting started. From there we tried to go to Pommery, but despite the fact that I was speaking in French, the snooty receptionist responded in English: “I am sorry, but the last tour is only in French, and it is not for you.”
So we decided to embrace being the “Americans” everyone thought us to be and danced through the streets of Reims singing, “JE. NE. PARLE PAS FRANCAIS!” Yes, we were those people. But not long after, the French redeemed themselves when we walked into a butcher shop to pick-up some charcuterie. The butcher only spoke in French but he was so excited to have us in his shop. He gave us tastes of every possible treat you could imagine while telling us the stories of how it was made and how he had started his butcher shop.
We bought treats from neighboring shops, namely cheeses, honeys, jams, and baguettes and laid down in the grass, picnicking in the park before our train brought us back to Paris. We spent the evening under the Sacre Cour with cheese and champagne while we watched what can only be described as “French rappers” performing on the street. We laughed, and talked about how surreal it was that we were actually in Paris. We asked each other questions like “how long would you stay with your husband if he was a prisoner of war” and “what would you do if you had a million dollars” that had us dreaming and giggling late into the night.
That time soccer almost ruined Provence
We had a great plan. On our fifth day in France we would take the train from Paris to Marseille. This seemed a simple enough idea. Trains in Europe are easy to come by. On any given day you can take a trip to just about anywhere in France without needing to buy your ticket in advance. Except, as it turns out, when their are some kind of soccer semi-finals going on. None of us had any idea that this world-wide soccer phenomenon would be happening in France while we were there. And we certainly didn’t know it would be following us around the country.
On our last night in Paris, we did the Paris thing and went to picnic out under the Eiffel tower. Except that the Eiffel tower was closed (as was a several block radius around it). Security was out en masse as were thousands of drunk and unruly soccer fans. We picnicked at a nearby park and watched from afar as the Eiffel Tower lit up with the soccer score and an announcer narrated the game over a loudspeaker.
But it was about to get way worse. The next morning, my sister and I woke up at 7am and took the metro to the train station so we could buy our tickets to Marseille while the other three girls slept. Except that there were no tickets. Everything was completely sold out because (unbenowest to us at the time) the soccer tournament would be taking place in Marseille later that day. And e v e r y o n e was trying to get to the game.
After some playing around on the computer, we found that if we typed in two tickets on one computer, and then three tickets on another computer, we could get on two different trains that left at 9am and 9:15am. The problem was, it was now 8am and it had taken us half-an-hour to get to the train station. To make matters worse, we didn’t have cell phones (because everyone had roaming going on) so we had no way to reach the girls sleeping in our Airbnb.
My sister and I bought the tickets then tore through the train station, the metro system, then back to our Airbnb in Montmartre. We screamed at everyone the second we walked in, “We have to leave in five minutes, and we’re going to have to run.” Everyone woke up in a panic and threw everything into their bags with reckless abandon. Thankfully we had one thing going for us: we had packed our bags the night before on a whim.
All of us had backpacking backpacks with the exception of Lindsay F who had brought a roller bag. And at that moment, nothing could have been worse. We were all sprinting down the street as Lindsay F rolled her bag across cobblestones and down dozens of flights of metro stairs. We had to do the same as we changed metro trains, and again when we finally arrived at the train station. It was 8:55 when we arrived.
We agreed that me, my sister Sarah, and Lindsay G would take the first train (which had a connecting stop), and Lindsay F and Baya would take the second train (so they would have 15 minutes to figure out where it was). Seeing that we could not for the life of us find our train platform, a man helped us to find the first one. Except that when we got there, it wasn’t the right train. There didn’t seem to be any signs for our train, and even the Frenchman couldn’t figure it out.
As we ran around the train platform at 9am, I remember running into Baya briefly, and both of us had the same look of sheer panic on our faces. If we weren’t so distressed, I would have laughed out loud, but that would have to wait for another time. We finally found a train best matching the description the Frenchman had told us and jumped on just before the door closed. It was only once the train was moving that we were able to verify that it was in fact the correct train.
We sat down and looked at each other, completely disheveled, and laughed in relief. We had made it. The other girls had another 15 minutes to figure out where their train platform was—surely they could manage that—but Lindsay G turned on her phone and braved the roaming fees just in case the others needed to contact us. Twenty minutes later came a text: “We didn’t make it, we’re at the train station trying to see if we can get a train out tomorrow.”
The three of us spent the next thirty minutes in dread. Could we still have fun that night knowing the other girls were stuck in Paris? Would they be able to figure out a hotel and a train without any of them being able to speak French? And, how could they have not found their train with 15 minutes to find it! Then came another text, “Just kidding, see you in Marseille.” Needless to say, we were too relieved to be furious.
That time we almost spent the night in Aix-En-Provence
Though we stayed in Marseille, we took a train up to Aix-en-Provence, a small country town that immediately became one of our favorites. The village is essentially all courtyards—bedecked with really old buildings where outdoor restaurants and bars were lively with French people sitting out in the streets drinking wine, smoking cigarettes, and whispering to one another (one thing we know for sure: french people talk v e r y quietly in restaurants. I don’t even know how they hear each other).
We ate a leisurely dinner under a full moon and were completely despaired when it came time to take the last train back to Marseille at midnight. We got to the station early to avoid that whole “missing the last train” thing, so my friend Lindsay F and I went out in search of wine. While out, we stumbled upon a beautiful boutique hotel and we were half tempted to get a room and stay the night. We bought a bottle of wine from the lobby (yes it was that kind of lobby—they even uncorked it for us) and strolled back to the train station.
No one else was ready to get a hotel when we already had a perfectly good place in Marseille, so we popped open our wine and started drinking at the train station. Already fairly tipsy, we barely noticed when the clock struck midnight and our train didn’t arrive. There was only one other person in the station, an attendant, who took one look at our ticket and said, “this isn’t a train ticket, it’s a streetcar ticket, the last train left several hours ago.” Oops.
She told us to go out into the parking lot and up a flight of stairs and that we’d find it. We ran. We were already late by this point so we could only hope that whatever a streetcar was, it would be obvious and still there. It wasn’t. At the top of the flight of stairs, there was only a street, and no sight of anything that could resemble a streetcar. After standing on the street despaired, and some 15 minutes after our last ride was supposed to have departed, we saw a bus several blocks away. We chased it for several blocks until it pulled into a bus station. Best of all, it said “Marseille” on the front of it.
The bus driver told us that our tickets were for a streetcar (what the heck was that?) but that there were a few tickets left on his bus, we bought them and sat in the back where we preceded to once again be “those Americans.” At first my sister was hesitant to drink our bottle of the wine on the bus, but Lindsay F persisted, she put the wine in a bag and passed it across the aisle with panache saying, “Would you like a baguette” in at not so subtle tone. We were dying of laughter.
We played Drake’s “one dress” on our phones and made Snapchat stories of us dancing, and laughing, and pretending we were in a Parisian nightclub. We were probably the only ones that thought we were hilarious. By the time we got off the bus we were so drunk that we were singing aloud, “Is it too late now to say sorry??” “Shhhh!!!!” we giggled. “What?” my sister said, “music is the universal language!”
That time we took a Catamaran out to the Calanques
The next day, we took a catamaran out on the Mediterranean. We thought we were being super touristy, but as it turns out we were the only Americans on the boat (which all of the boat captains found pretty amusing). There were two captains: Thomas, who was the nice older one, and Guillermo, who was the very hot but very rude typical Frenchman. We loved them both.
Guillermo explained the rules of the boat to the 25 or so people traveling with us, “There is no smoking on the boat,” he said, “but we are French so we will smoke anyway.” Cheers arose. We perched ourselves on the front of the yacht and Thomas bought us a bottle of rosé. The sun was lovely and warm, and the Mediterranean was one of the most beautiful bodies of water I had ever seen.
Eventually we made our way out to the Calanques, and settled into one of the beautiful coves. We enjoyed watching Guillermo hoist the anchor, very obviously giggling as he took off his shirt to reveal a tattoo of Christ The Redeemer (the famous statue in Rio) that took up the entire expanse of his back. With the boat stopped, we laid out on the hammock and took turns climbing down the ladder into the Mediterranean. It was so completely surreal.
For years I dreamed of swimming in the Mediterranean, and I pinned pictures of it to my Pinterest boards with all kinds of longing. But that day, I actually did it. I lived something that up until that point I had only ever dreamed about. And it had actually happened! Really and truly it did. For a long moment I tried to breathe, completely unable to believe that this was actually my life. That my dreams had actually come true. It was one of the best moments of my entire life.
We spent the afternoon alternating between swimming, laying out in the sun, and picnicking on cheese and rosé. On the way back, Thomas allowed us to steer the boat, and Guillermo took us up to the rooftop and told us about his dream to one day captain his own ship. We talked with both of them all afternoon, laughing about how much everyone smoked. “Everyone does” Thomas said, “my mother has smoked everyday since she was thirteen, and drinks a glass of whiskey for every lunch, and she is the healthiest 95 year old I have ever met.”
Later in the day, Thomas texted the owner of the boat to ask if we could attend a soccer viewing party they were having with some friends on the boat that evening. The owner was a rich Frenchman who owned several yachts on the French Riviera. “Send me a picture of the Americans!” he said. Laughing, we took a lot of selfies with Thomas and Guillermo and sent them back to the owner. “Invite them over!” he said with enthusiasm.
When we docked back in Marseille, we walked back to our Airbnb, got ready for the night, and then went back to the boat. At first it was fairly awkward. We were the only Americans among a tight-knit group of French friends who clearly didn’t want to talk to us. But Thomas made us feel at home. He loved Americans, he said. And so did the owner of the boat. The two of them talked with us for hours, discussing the insufferable French and how fun Americans were.
Guillermo on the other hand, completely disagreed. When we first arrived to the fête, we couldn’t help but notice a giant brown paper bag filled with at least twenty baguettes. So it’s true what they say about the French, we thought. But when we remarked as much, Guillermo was quick to say that of course the French eat baguettes. And cheese. Every meal of the day. It’s Americans, he said, who don’t know how to eat. My sister, (who has an Instagram account for this sort of thing) then famously asked him, “Have you ever heard of Paleo?” Guillermo took one blank look at her then turned around, ignoring the conversation all together and leaving us all to dissolve into fits of laughter.
That time we became locals in Corsica
After our time in Provence, we took a flight from Nice to Bonifacio, a small ancient city on the southern most tip of the island of Corsica. I know we can all agree that this was our favorite portion of the trip. Bonifacio is where the French elite go to vacation, and we did not see another American the entire time we were there. The French park their million-dollar yachts in the blue Mediterranean waters of the Bonifacio harbor, and stay in the small ancient village perched on the cliff tops above them.
In the mornings we would walk to a local crepe shop where the Italian owner and his son would delight in making us crepes drenched with lemon and sugar. “The pleasure is all mine” the father would say in Italian accented French, “Absolutely not,” the son would reply, “the pleasure is all mine, bella,” he smiled. We spent our days at the Maora Plage, what our Airbnb owner called the “beach-chic of the locals,” and we lounged in plush cabanas while snacking on extravagent appetizers and drinking bubbly cocktails.
We stayed at the tippy top of Bonifacio in a fortress-like building complete with cast iron gates, tall stone steps that have clearly been around for centuries, and a small abode that overlooked the ocean. It was pure heaven. We never closed the doors and let the warm air wash over us as we drank rose on the balcony with yet another brick of cheese crumbling in our fingertips. We braided each others hair and went out to dinner with the locals we met during the day.
On one particularly memorable night, a shopkeeper invited us to have a glass of wine with her but by the time we made it down to the shop she had gone home for the night only to be replaced by the shop owner’s son. Tony was a Corsican native with dark skin and his long hair pulled back into a bun. When we told him we had come for a glass of wine, he told us he could do one better. He closed down his shop for the night to take us to B52, an outdoor lounge on the waterfront. As we made our way down the many steps toward the harbor, we closed down several more shops as Tony gathered his friends as we went.
The next night we stopped by our favorite Italian restaurant for dinner. When Baya tried to pass me a bite of her ravioli, the whole thing plopped into my wine glass. We couldn’t stop laughing at how classically impolite we were (especially because the French table next to us was trying so hard not to smile). But our waiter was Italian and friendly, and when we told him about our snafu he picked up the wine glass and added a wedge of bread to it “now it has everything good” he said as we laughed.
We returned to the restaurant the next night, and this time the entire staff came out to join us for dessert and a digestif. They only spoke French, and my friends only spoke English, so I translated between them and we somehow managed to have a lively conversation. At the end of the night, they closed the till then invited us to join them at their favorite bar.
We followed them down a silent alleyway, only to hear loud singing spilling from an open door. When we walked in, the entire place roared in cheers “Simone!” they shouted at the waiter who had brought us, “and with five beautiful Americans in towe!” they gushed. Everyone in the bar pounded his back with delight as we walked through the cheerful crowds. We danced and sang with these loud, rowdy, Corsican natives as we drank wine late into the night. We had so much fun we hardly knew disaster was about to strike.
That time we watched the Bachelor in Nice
On our last night in Corsica, the Bastille Day Terrorist Attack happened in Nice. Eighty-four people were killed. Expensive calls were made to figure out what exactly had happened and to ensure family that we were ok. Then we flew into Nice a mere 12-hours after tragedy struck the city’s famous promenade.
When we arrived, the entire coast was shut down. We walked along the bloodstained boardwalk and visited all the shrines in a somber silence. Lindsay F and I attended mass at a cathedral in the old village where people cried and photographers took photos. Then we wandered the streets collecting all the fixings of a thoroughly luxurious cheese platter. As we did so, the merchants talked to us about the tragic events of the night before, and also offered words of affirmation and resilience as they vowed to return to their day to day lives.
By this point of the trip, we were all (understandably) feeling a little bit homesick and figured we needed to take a day to regroup before we could enjoy the remaining six days of our French vacation. So we did what we always did on Mondays: we put on our jammies and cuddled on the couch as we watched The Bachelor via iPad as we snacked from the most luxurious spread we had assembled thus far. Just a moment to feel at home in a strange and beautiful country.
We spent the next several days soaking up the warm summer sun, eating hearty Italian food, and exploring Eze—we even treated ourselves to a spa day for some pampering while were at it. By the time we left six days later, we were ready, but we were also sad to go. We’d be back, we vowed. And one day we will be.