This week my family of five – 2 parents plus 3 adolescents ages 19, 16, and 14, began a road trip to France. My husband came up with this rather risky proposition – he decided that we should use the first week of January to drive to the Loire Valley from Rome and visit some castles and eat some French food.
When he announced this at dinner – none of us was enthusiastic – I suggested why not go to Marrakech instead and go camping in the desert. The kids cheered, and my husband quashed that proposal in 2 seconds flat. He had already decided and already booked. Turns out his mother had a done a similar road trip with her family back in the 1950s so we were going to relive their experience.
We all know that husbands and wives cannot get along when one is driving and the other is navigating. I am sure that some of the worst marital bickering takes place in the front seats of cars around the globe. Now, in our case it was a ménage-a-trois. Yes indeed, there was another woman there, the lady inside the car’s navigator.
(Little aside here – why do all car navigators have women’s voices?? Do the people who make these things think that a man might end up punching the navigator for giving the wrong directions if it were a man’s voice??? Do they think people will remain calm and listen more carefully if it is a women’s voice? Someone must have studied this question.)
Heading into France, my husband had the navigator on and had given me a map to study and provide additional guidance. Somewhere around Grenoble – the other woman and I had a difference of opinion. Looking at the map I suggested what appeared to be a much shorter route. My husband decided to risk it and listen to me and exited the highway we were on. There were a few moments of silence from the other woman and Gustavo said anxiously, “Why isn’t she talking to me anymore? She’s angry. What is she going to do now??”
And then she spoke loudly and clearly, “ATTENZIONE, PROBLEMMI DI TRAFFICO”, that would be “ATTENTION, TRAFFIC PROBLEMS” in English. Gustavo declared, “that’s her way of saying she is offended. Now she’s mad.”
Yes, readers, my husband actually was worried that he had offended the “navigatrice” (feminine for Navigator in Italian). Then little Mademoiselle Navigatrice took her revenge. She re-calculated the distance and added an extra 20 minutes to the trip. Then my husband went berserk on me. “We’ve got 10 hours in the car and you make a mistake that adds an extra 20 minutes!!!”
I shot back: “she’s taking us far off our route, the map shows this way is going to be much shorter. Just look at it!!”
Then something occurred to me – the map looked a little old, “Where did you get this map anyway?” I asked.
“My mother gave it to me.” He answered, still slapping the steering wheel and shaking his head over my screw up.
“Don’t tell me it is the map that her family used back in the 1950s, for goodness sake,” I sputtered, “You have got to be kidding.”
And then I realized I had gone where I should not go. Anyone who reads this blog knows that you never criticize the mother of an Italian man, and you don’t dare criticize a map provided by the mother of an Italian man, even if it is from the 1950s and your are trying to get somewhere in 2015.
So I had to put up with his fury for the next hour after which I decided to raise a delicate issue.
“I could really use a rest-stop,” I said once we were past Grenoble and leaving ourselves totally in the hands of Mademoiselle Navigatrice.
“Yeah, me too!!” Chiara declared from the back seat.
“NO!!” said Gustavo, “you’ve already put us 20 minutes off schedule we are not going to lose precious minutes with you having to pee all the time!!!!!”
Of course by the time I did manage to get him to pull over in a rest area, I was desperate. I charged into the restroom, only to find a Turkish toilet. Aarrggh.
The next stop – always adding on minutes to Mademoiselle Navigatrice’s arrival time calculations—was to get gas. We went in to pay and I saw a brand new map of France for 3 euros. I suggested to Gustavo that it might be a worthy investment. He said, “No, the map we have is perfectly good.”
Lesson Number One: Do not mess with an Italian Man’s Mamma’s Map!!
While my husband and I were bickering in the front seats, it wasn’t all sunshine and happiness in the back seat. My middle daughter Caterina decided to imitate some Disney show called “Good Luck Charlie” and make frequent videos on her phone to send back to friends in Rome.
Occasionally she would pipe up in the back seat saying something that roughly went like this “So, hi everyone, now we are in France and see, that’s my parents, they are getting lost and fighting, and that’s my brother sleeping with his mouth open, and these are my new sneakers with flowers on them, and that’s it for now, baci baci baci” After giving the three final kisses, she would usually stick her tongue out in some teenage form of communication that I have not yet grasped.
These video performances would occasionally be interrupted by her brother punching her and yelling: “spegni quell benedetto cellular prima che lo spacco cretina!” (Translated: turn that blessed cell phone off before I break it in two, idiot.”)
In the middle of all this action, my younger daughter, Chiara, has developed a case of backseat narcolepsy – every time we enter in the car, she falls into a deep sleep. But at every castle she was wide awake managing to appear Rapunzel-like, flaunting her long, golden locks in the middle of every photo.
After hours of fun in the car, we finally arrived at Bourges, where my husband had already chosen a restaurant. Gustavo has an idea, that I believe he got from his two grandfathers, that when visiting a place one must book the best restaurants at lunch and at dinner. I have frequently found myself on trips making a futile effort to convince him to skip the expensive 3-course lunch or the expensive 3-course dinner. On this particular occasion I got lucky, we had to skip our 3-course lunch because, due to navigational difficulties, we didn’t arrive until 3pm and all the restaurants in town were closed.
Our first tourist attraction to visit was the cathedral in Bourges with its extraordinary stained glass windows. My son trailed along behind me as I wandered about the cathedral taking photos of the windows for an eventual blog post. “Mom, you are getting so annoying with that phone, can you just stop taking pictures?” he mumbled in my ear.
We passed a sign quoting Pope John Paul II, “Do not be Afraid,” and all of a sudden my son Niccolo’ was quoting the bible.
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”
“Wow,” I said, “Nico, pretty impressive, I’ve never heard you quote the Bible before, not bad.”
“Yeah, that would be Ezekial 25:17,” he added.
“When have you ever learned passages from the Bible by memory,” I said clicking another photo of a very blue stainglass window.
“Pulp Fiction, Mom, the hit man played by Samuel Jackson says it before he shoots people.”
It was then that I began to wonder if I was every going to survive the trip to the Loire Valley. We had not even seen a castle yet, and I wanted to escape.
At this point I will fast-forward. With the help of Mademoiselle Navigatrice we eventually made it to our lovely hotel the Beaulieu near Tours. It is a marvelous place—a small French Castle with large, elegant, beautifully decorated rooms. It only has one little problem for people traveling with three teenagers, the Wifi doesn’t work properly.
“How can I watch my NBA games at 4am?” Nico asked. “I need to get on Facebook?” Cate insisted, “What about Instragram and What’s App” Chiara asked querulously.
Day 2 – Gustavo had the whole schedule worked out – up at 7am, breakfast at 7:30, out the door by 8am – three castles with three hours for each – Chenonceau, Chambord and Cheverny. He just had one little problem – four of us were dragging our feet. We wanted to lounge around at breakfast enjoying our Café’ au Lait, Chocolat Chaud, Croissant, and Pain au Chocolat.
We finally reached the spectacular castle of Chenonceau and I was told that journalists get a free audio guide. Gustavo was asked to do a radio interview about the Greek economy so returned to the car. None of my teenagers wanted the audio guide so I ordered them to explore the castle on their own while I made my way around with the headphones.
The audio guide was excellent, providing detailed descriptions of the individuals who lives were influential in the creation and existence of the castle: Katherine Briconnet, Catherine De Medici, Diana Di Poitiers and Louise Dupin. I especially enjoyed the Frenchman speaking with such a delectable accent in English in his deep, rather sexy voice.
There were 20 rooms with explanations on the audio guide and I made my way slowly through them finally forgetting about family bickering and irritating teenagers. It must have been about 12:30 when my phone rang and it was my husband, “Where are you he shouted? We have to go!!! We have two more castles to see!!”
I told him that I intended to finish the last three rooms on the tour and they could all just wait. Little did I know that two of my teenagers were having a big snack in the café, that Nico had nearly dropped his sister Chiara into the moat, and Caterina was buying up the entire gift shop for her teachers and friends in Rome.
“No!” My husband shouted, “There’s no time. We are going to leave you here!!”
“Great, go ahead,” I said and hung up.
I turned on my audio guide again and that deep, French voice spoke soothingly in my ear. I momentarily contemplated the idea of climbing into Diana Di Poitiers four poster bed, closing the red velvet curtains and snuggling down with Monsieur Audio-Guide whispering sweet- historical nothings in my ear.
After all if my husband was enamored of Miss Navigatrice, what could be wrong if I dedicated some time to Monsieur audio-guide.
I eventually made it back to the car to discover to my dismay that my family had not left me behind. We were decidedly off-schedule so had to proceed to our restaurant for our 3-course meal. The French food is a refreshing change from daily Italian diet of pasta, pizza, pasta, pizza and some more pasta. Everything here is covered with rich, creamy, buttery sauces and is delicious. (My son forbid me from taking a food photos).
And then off to see the Chambord Castle.
As we pulled into the parking lot at Chambord, Nico offered his opinion on the extraordinary castles of the Loire, “seen one castle, you’ve seem them all – potato, potahtoe, tomato, tomahtoe—let’s call the whole thing off.”
I turned around to look at him in the back seat, “What the heck are you saying Nico,”
“Louis Armstrong, Mom, Louis Armstrong,” he answered.
And I got out of the car and went in search of an audio-guide hoping for some sonorous satisfaction.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.