. The first was a family in this small town of Aix. The family had two flats on the ground floor of a large apartment building, within walking distance to this most picturesque and interesting of college towns. We arrived on the late afternoon of Bastille Day, just as the family was returning home. Jean and Laurence (Jean is the man) had two daughters: Juliette (18) and Cecile (16). Immediately they put our girls to work fixing a meal they would have never had at home and would have never have ordered in a restaurant. It was similar to ratatouille, but was baked instead of fried. It consisted of layers of eggplant, onions, tomatoes, hamburger and zucchinis layered vertically in a big sauce pan. I wish I had taken a picture of it. I have never in my life enjoyed eating eggplant, and I was concerned that my kids, who actually repel vegetables, would not touch the stuff. It was cooked and it was eaten. I had two huge helpings and all of my kids ate some. Mason had mostly hamburger meat, but everybody said they felt full. We opened up a bottle of sherry that I brought from Spain and then we tried some of a bottle of a French anise liqueur similar to uzo. My family went for a walk around town, but found it to be dead so we came back and went to bed.
The next morning Jean and I got up early to hit market day in Aix. He had a huge backpack and I carried a big shopping bag. He gave me a brief history of Aix as we walked around, the huge city walls, buildings and Roman ruins hold a thousand years of violent history. He bought enough food to last their family the entire week, mostly vegetables, fruits, cheeses and a chicken. We filled up his pack entirely and my huge shopping back entirely and were back before the crowds hit the market. After another hour I took my family to retrace our steps through the market. We covered a large part of the town and the market stalls but wanted to get away from the main centers to find something to eat for lunch that was not entirely tourist oriented and not ridiculously expensive
. We found a creperie on a small back street. We asked the waiter, who was also the owner, if he spoke any English, and he said he did. I explained to him that we have never before had crapes, and he said he would make sure we had a great experience. Estela and I ordered ‘salty’ crapes, and the kids ordered ‘sweet’ crapes. Shelby hit gold with hers, called the ‘tutty fruity’. The owner’s wife made it with three types of sorbet, wrapped inside, with fresh cream and fresh fruit sauce on top. It was incredible. Estela and I ordered eggs and ham and mushroom, which were also great. The owner took care of us, so I left him a huge tip.
We all returned to the flat and took a nap. I guess it was a habit we picked up in Spain. At five Jean and Laurence returned and both of our families went out for a hike. Just outside the city limits to Aix, there exists a wilderness that I would compare to the southern Sierras. You can hike it from the center of Aix, which we did.
We hiked for about two hours along trails and narrow roads, across a 100- year old vaulted dam that held the water for part of Southern France. The dam let out a trickle, just a small brook to carry on below. My family complained for the entire second half of the hike, that it was too long and they were too tired from walking all day, and I just listened to them complain, hoping the destination would be worth it. I had told them to get some good hiking shoes, but they had shoes, called ‘Toms’ that amounted to something slightly more substantial than shower slippers. Mason and I had on reasonable shoes. When we got to the bottom of the canyon we found a small clearing with tall grass where we sat beside the brook and put out the food
. We ate a lot of fruit: watermelon, cantaloupe and peaches, and four baguettes with pork pate, a variety of cheeses and a loaf of head cheese. Besides the fruit and the breads, nobody in my family had ever eaten any of this before, but almost everybody ate everything. Only Shelby and I ate the head cheese and we both liked it. It was an excellent meal really, and a good rest after a strenuous hike. Mason made a passing comment that he sure would like to play Catch Phrase, but we didn’t have an IPOD. Jean asked what he was talking about, and we described the game to him. He put together a ‘forest version’ of the game, and suggested that one in the party whisper to another in the party a word, and that word would be described to the group to let them guess the word. We did this for a while and it was a good success, but night was creeping in so we all decided to get up, pack up, and move up to the top of the hill before it got too dark to make it out of the canyon. My family had stopped complaining and nobody mentioned the long hike again, so I guess it was worth it. Cecile had grabbed some rosemary on the hike, and after we returned home Jean made some tea out of it and we all drank some. The next day would be a big travel day, the biggest on the trip so far, so the kids needed to be tired out so they could sleep all day in the car.
In all, this was an excellent experience with this family, a very genuine and probably pretty typical family from a town in southern France. They were very conservation conscious, a trait that I believe we will see as a common thread throughout this trip. They rarely had lights on and never during the day, instead they opened the outside shutters. They had no dishwasher, but had a good two- sink system of cleaning dishes very efficiently. Room temperature water was served for all meals, and if they wanted something slightly more elaborate they would squeeze two or three lemons and put some sugar with it and that would be lemonade. They were a very functional family with a lot on the ball. Both parents are nuclear Fuels Engineers, which was a true surprise to me. Jean is a member of EPRI on the nuclear fuels committee, and travels to the US on occasion for conferences. The girls has a good grasp of international issues and knew American History and policy better than most US kids their own age would, I believe. Our first experience with couch surfing was a success, and we would love to see this family again, either here or in the US.
We drove four hours and arrived in the town of Aix-en-Provence, commonly known as Aix (pronounced 'X'). I had arranged to meet a family I contacted through the Couch Surfing website. If you haven’t heard of it, the Couch Surfing project is a resource for travelers around the world who are looking for the opportunity to meet people from other places, get to know them and share new experiences. The website costs twenty five dollars to join, but it enables you to post your profile and do very in-depth searches for couches to ‘surf’. If you find somebody willing to host you, they don’t charge you any money but let you stay with them, sleep on the couch or on a spare bed, in a spare bedroom, in a barn, in the yard in a tent or whatever they have available. In return, you share with them your travel experience and perhaps take them out for dinner, but that is entirely up to you. I was very nervous about introducing Estela to this concept, and so I looked very carefully around at the couch surfing hosts in France and Switzerland to find the ones we thought we could trust