Chapter 4. French Road Trip
[Chapter 5 will be available on November 1. Scroll down for previous chapters or click label for specific chapter, i.e., aachapter 1.]
Charles de Gaulle airport was a swirling whirlpool of people moving in all directions and speaking gibberish. But of course it wasn't gibberish, it was French. Vanessa felt she was drowning in a sea of French desperate for a life line of English. Maybe she'd made a major mistake coming to a country where she didn't know the language. How would she ever find her way to Michelle's chateau.
Charlie was still drowsy, but whimpered at his unusual surroundings. With the help of a tranquilizer he'd slept through most the trip. Vanessa had followed all the suggestions from the vet and all the regulations of the airlines to get Charlie safely to Paris with her. Fortunately, he was under 13 pounds and could stay in the cabin. She smiled down at him telling herself to be brave for the dog's sake. It would be terrible if he became anxious, too.
She kept him in his travel carrier until she'd gone through passport control, collected her luggage, negotiated through customs, and emerged in the ground transportation area. Most of the airport personnel spoke some English so, although frustrating, it wasn't too difficult to follow the required procedures.
Charlie wiggled, trying to lick her face when she bent to open his case and clip on his leash. As she stood up she saw in the waiting crowd a rumpled, black haired man in his thirties holding up a roughly written sign, “Tippett”. Vanessa gave a little wave and tentative smile. He nodded and she made her way over to him. He looked a little rough in a collarless brown leather jacket, and black T shirt.
“I'm Vanessa Tippett. Are you looking for me?”
His amused, cinnamon colored eyes opened wide as he looked at the beret attempting to cover her crimson colored hair. “Oui. Yes.” His slim hips swiveled as he looked around. “And someone named Charlie?”
Sylvia had warned her the beret was a bad idea. Vanessa, determined not to care if the first Frenchman she'd met thought she looked weird, just explained. “He's a dog, down here,” she gestured. He and Charlie stared at each other. The man shrugged.
“And what are you called?” Scruffy, she thought. He looked like he hadn't shaved for days.
He frowned. “Pardonnez-moi, I have no manners. Je suis Jacques—Jack.” Vanessa put out her hand to shake his, but he ignored it, grabbed her luggage cart and pushed it towards the exit. He hurried her and Charlie out to the car park and into a funny looking two-door, blue station wagon. It was old and wood paneled. Vanessa thought it looked like something in a foreign movie.
“Charlie, the dog, will need a bathroom break as soon as we reach open land.”
Jack nodded. “I understand.”
He plunked the bags behind the back seat and left Vanessa to open which ever door she preferred. She chose to sit up front with him to have a view of wherever they were going. But first she pushed the passenger seat forward so Charlie could climb into the back.
Vanessa traveled with pee pads for Charlie which she'd used in the plane and terminal bathrooms. But he needed the freedom of an open air relief station. As she settled him, she felt a flicker of apprehension about driving off with a stranger in a weird car. But Charlie wasn't suspicious. She decided to trust Charlie's instincts and believe that Michelle wouldn't have sent an ax murderer to pick her up.
She turned to sit in front but saw a white cardboard box and a bottle of water there. She put them on the floor while she buckled her seat belt.
Jack shifted gears and pulled out of the space. “Michelle thought you might like a snack on the trip.”
“How long will it take?”
“Seven hundred kilometers, about seven hours.”
“Seven hours! Did you drive all that way today?”
“Mais non. I had private business in Paris. I offered to pick you up on my way back to the chateau.”
Vanessa relaxed. He spoke English. She wouldn't have to struggle to understand him although he wasn't talkative. A sweet, fruity aroma came from the petite box. She felt a shiver of anticipation as she slipped off the pink and gold ribbons and flipped open the lid. Nestled in a lacy paper doily was a beautiful pastry. But appearances could be deceiving. She'd had French pastries in Chicago and many times they hadn't tasted as good as they looked.
Jack glanced at her. “It's called framboise...raspberry. I got it at a pastry shop Michelle suggested”
“Would you like some of the framboise?”
“Non, I'm good.”
Vanessa looked at the gift. There were two delicate layers of cake soaked in a raspberry syrup. Instead of frosting, the miniature cake was topped with raspberry mousse sprinkled with bits of pistachios. Her mouth watered although she'd just had an airline breakfast before landing. Since she was in for a seven hour drive, she wondered if she should save it for later. No, she remembered what her mother always told her, 'Life is short, eat dessert first'. Perhaps unusual advice from a mother but then she had an unusual mother. And perhaps, based on how Jack was driving, she would not survive the trip.
“There's what you'd call a rest stop a few miles up the motorway. The dog can stretch his legs there.”
Vanessa was glad he told her. Now she could stop worrying about poor Charlie.
She savored the last pastry crumbs. The car'd escaped the Paris suburbs and they were rushing south. She'd been disappointed when she learned she wouldn't be stopping in Paris, but since she hadn't paid for the ticket she couldn't complain.
The views seen through the dusty windows were all she'd hoped for. An unfolding panorama of farm fields, forests, hills, river valleys, and small villages seen in the distance, were all connected by the highway strung like a rope connecting the varying landscapes.
They stopped every two hours so Charlie could 'stretch his legs'. He enjoyed sniffing all the foreign smells. Vanessa was glad she'd brought him, even though it had been a challenge. Without Charlie, she thought Jack would have driven straight through to the chateau without a stop. The air was cool, but not harsh, as they drove south. Although it was the first of November, the south of France was warmer and sunnier than it had been in Chicago.
For her first meal in France, they stopped at a service area. She had grilled ham and cheese on a bun, but this was a Croque Monsieur made with thinly sliced jambon and fromage—gruyere, if her taste buds were working. And seasoned with nutmeg and Dijon mustard. It melted in her mouth. She gave Charlie a few pieces of her ham. Jack also fed Charlie when he thought she wasn't looking.
Vanessa wanted to ask Jack the question she had forgotten to ask her mother. But she didn't really know his relationship to Michelle. Was he a friend, relative, employee, or maybe, since this was France, even her lover? He might think she was too nosy so she decided to wait.
After lunch, jet lag caught up with her and she and Charlie were lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sound of the Michelin tires spinning on the pavement. ***
“Mademoiselle Tippett, regarde. We approach.” Jack grinned as he nodded to the view ahead of them.
Vanessa rubbed her sleepy eyes and gasped. The car was hurtling through a tunnel of trees their bare branches intertwined overhead like lovers' hands seeking contact. She shook her head. Her metaphors sounded like a romance novel, not that she ever read them.
Behind the trees on either side she glimpsed barren fields with seemingly dead plants as far as her eye could focus. She realized she was surrounded by the acres of lavender fields Michelle had mentioned. And straight ahead, perhaps a mile away, was a magnificent gray stone building. It was wreathed by an eerie, undulating fog. Forget a romance novel, now she felt she was the unsuspecting heroine approaching the mysterious house of terror.
“While you slept, I called ahead to let Michelle know our ETA. She's really looking forward to meeting you.” He smirked. “Maybe you should ditch the beret before she sees it.”
Vanessa glared. Now she would die before she took off the beret. Who did he think he was, making fun of her? So what if she'd had an unfortunate hair disaster and tried to cover it up with another unfortunate fashion disaster? She flew all the way from Chicago as a favor to her mother's friend. She should be treated with gratitude not ridicule. She vowed to keep her backbone straight up and not cave in to any inferiority feelings.
Jack swung the blue car around the circle drive, surrounding a ten foot tall fountain, and stopped abruptly in front of gray steps leading up to a huge terrace guarded by man sized urns spaced around its perimeter. As the engine stopped, one of the colossal doors carved in an intricate ribbon design flew open. A tiny, white haired woman flew down the steps like a bird. In the fading sunlight her pale pink cashmere dress shimmered as if she was a fairy godmother come to rescue her favorite god daughter. All she needed to complete the picture was a golden, fortune-granting wand in her hand.
Charlie, his paws braced against the side window, barked joyously. It seemed he had found his long lost home.
Michelle tore open the car door and Vanessa nearly fell into her welcoming arms. “Enfin, vous êtes ici.”
Jack translated. “She says, 'at last, you are here'. Michelle has a flair for the dramatic.” He pulled the baggage out of the car and carried them up the stairs and through the open door.
Michelle kissed Vanessa on both cheeks, took her swiftly into the house, up a staircase wide enough for a horse drawn carriage, down a wide hallway and into the most beautiful bedroom Vanessa had ever seen.
The heavily carved walnut furniture was old and nicked but beautifully polished and smelled divine. Of course they must use lavender oil on everything, she thought.
Peach colored, silk brocade curtains hung at the windows and from the canopy over the bed, which was so high it needed a little step stool to climb into it. Vanessa smiled as she realized the walls were lavender lightened by ivory panels enclosing landscapes of lavender fields.
Michelle asked, “You like?”
Dragging up the little French she knew, Vanessa burst out, “Je l'adore.”
Michelle smiled and let loose a volley of French. Jack bringing in her last suitcase translated. “She's telling you she will leave you here to rest and refresh yourself.” He nodded to a door across the room. “The bathroom's over there. And to please come down at seven for an aperitif before dinner. You'll have to unpack yourself as the maid's on holiday.”
Michelle kissed Vanessa on the cheeks again and tripped out of the room. As Jack was leaving, he urged, “I'd really get rid of the beret. Nice women don't wear hats in a house.”
Vanessa resisted the urge to stick out her tongue at him because she needed his help. “Where, where am I supposed to go downstairs?”
“The bottom of the staircase, through the large doors on the left.” He bent down to give Charlie a pat and left.
Her American Flag watch, which her dad had given her as a joke, read six p.m. And she'd set it to French time. That meant she only had an hour to change out of her travel weary clothes. What on earth should she wear to her first dinner in a gorgeous French chateau? And what about her other unanswered questions? Perhaps they'd be answered tonight. Whatever she learned she vowed to enjoy life as much as possible in the luxurious room.
Vanessa hung her long black silk skirt and a scooped neck top in the bathroom to steam out wrinkles. She hoped they would be dressy enough. She showered with lavender scented soap, used a lavender scented shampoo, dried with lavender scented towels and rubbed lavender scented lotion all over her body. Unfortunately, the lavender scented shampoo had not removed the crimson hair dye. She still looked like a carnival clown. Perhaps if she wrapped a silk scarf around her head like a turban, it would be a more stylish cover up. But she didn't know how to do that, so she just blow dried her hair as usual and ran a little mousse through it to calm it down.
She was just zipping up the skirt when a loud boom rang out, shaking the room. She was from Chicago, she knew it wasn't gunfire, but could it be a missile? She'd never heard one fired so she couldn't tell. Were terrorists attacking the chateau?
[Chapter 5 will be continued on November 1.]