Half the fun of travelling on an organized tour is the company, sharing stories and adventures, while engaging in that great sport of people watching. Folk on the trip came from Canada, South Africa, Australia, US, Singapore. Over the course of twelve days tour around France, we melded into one happy family, with all the fun and foibles that implies.
Our guide Jodie (not her real name), had a good sense of humour, and she needed it, dealing with at least forty eight diverse opinions about how to best run things, and changes which might be made. People clearly expected every detail to be perfect for them alone. Jodie bent like a branch in the wind to please people, which seemed the wisest course. Mother, friend, shoulder to cry on – she was all of these things and more.
On duty from first thing every morning to last thing at night, Jodie fielded questions and complaints, and organized the next day, including a poster to make everybody aware of what would happen. She made sure that every piece of luggage was intact before leaving the hotel each morning, and counted her charges before departing for the next stop. Her energy and enthusiasm was amazing.
Our driver had no easy task, either. First thing after breakfast, Pierre began to stash our luggage. The weight grew daily, due to souvenirs and bottles of fine French wine. Tired and sweaty after hefting it all into the storage area under the bus, he then drove for hours, jour après jour. Departure from some hotel car parks proved a challenge in itself. In one, we held our breaths as Pierre edged our huge coach past potted shrubs on one side and concrete barriers on the other…He deserved those claps of approval when we made it safely onto the rue! And the difficulties continued along narrow streets, and through diversions not meant for such a large vehicle.
We enjoyed the two Australian jesters on board. Their gags kept the fun and laughter flowing, like the fine red wine we drank at restaurants along the way. At every town or village our token gay man, Bruce, wrists loaded with silver bracelets, primped and preened for our benefit, wearing the latest souvenir shirt or cap. Behind every smile, though, lurked a caustic joke or three, ready to cut the unwary down to size.
One day I offered him a biscuit. ‘No thanks. You would ask me when I had a mouth full of chewing gum.’
I smiled. ‘That’s exactly why I did ask.’
The coach roared with laughter.
We felt puzzled over the man who never smiled. Ever. People tried, but failed, to make him laugh. In contrast, his wife had a lovely smile. Repartee? You must be kidding! Trying to make conversation with him proved harder than pulling teeth. It was all so heavy, diners at our table gave up.
As my newly acquired friend, another Aussie, whispered, ‘He’s a barrel of laughs.’
Only on the last day did I notice the long scar on his scalp, wondering if that explained his lack of spontaneity and emotional intelligence.
Then there was the forty-something American woman. Delilah was built like a Rugby Forward, with a penchant for narrow, criss-cross ribbons over plump arms, and see-through dresses. Not a good look with her butt! At the Louvre, Delilah wanted a photograph of the Mona Lisa. It seemed hopeless: the painting was surrounded by a dense crowd.
Camera in hand, she disappeared.
She returned, grinning. Her partner asked,’ Did you make it to the front?
Delilah grinned. ‘What do you think?’
I couldn’t help wondering about all the folk nursing bruised toes!
One fiftyish single lady almost invariably sat alone. Her unsmiling take on the world, and stultifying attitudes, put people off. The day Bruce, the gay man, was obliged to sit beside her, he tried to draw her out. Parents? No. Children? No. Siblings? No. Someone remarked they made the perfect couple, and the coach roared.
She said tartly, ‘It wasn’t all that funny!’ Which made people laugh even louder.
I sensed her loneliness, a poignant, unfulfilled need for company. She sat on the coach humming tunes, as if for comfort, a sort of self-mothering.
The South African contingent largely kept to themselves. Their women wore different outfits almost every day. We figured they must have brought huge cases. One evening I wore my cropped maroon jacket, black beaded top, black tailored trousers and three rows of pearls, intertwined with narrow black ribbon. One of the women said how nice my pearls were, rushing over to feel them as if to confirm they were only costume jewellery.
I felt violated!
In the Languedoc region we were offered the local delicacy of Cassoulet, which dates back to about 1355. Some believe the provenance is South Muslim Spain of the 12C. Others claim it was a dish made during a siege with the Black Prince. Whatever its origins, ingredients vary according to the kitchen, and must be of the best quality. All Cassoulets have one thing in common: long cooking in a casserole dish.
Ours was made with beans, pork sausages, and chicken. I found the flavours delicious, the meats melting in the mouth, the beans tasty, and could easily have managed seconds, amazed when many of the group complained. In fact, it became a talking point for days, Jodie making jokes about it for the benefit of those who’d found it unappetizing.
I couldn’t help thinking they were all too well fed.