1990-03-14: Bordeaux, Day 1

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1990-03-14, 1945, Hotel Majestic, Bordeaux

Loaded the plane about 2045. Even though we were so late, and had had (awful) sandwiches in the lounge, they served dinner, ending around midnight EST. After very little sleep they served breakfast around 2 am EST and prepared to land. The crew handed out white ‘commentary’ cards and yellow disembarkation cards, but only 1 yellow card for the three of us. When I asked if Susan & Chrissy needed one, I was told only 1 per family was needed.

After a glimpse of the coast (I had the ‘C’ seat in 2-5-2 seating) we landed at Bordeaux Airport ~4:10 am EST, 1015 local.

The first encounter with official France (Air Frontier Police) revealed that all three of us needed yellow cards, so we waited while these were completed.

While waiting to retrieve luggage, I was paged to go to the Information desk.

Customs passed us through without examining our bags. At the Information desk, a serious woman instructed me to accompany her to customs with my passport. There I signed insurance forms for our leased car, and she went to get the car, a very bright red Peugeot 205 Jr. She (I didn’t get her name) showed me how to operate its controls and was quite helpful, wishing us a pleasant holiday.

To this point we had not attempted to speak any French. Only customs had spoken F to us, about the yellow card.

Since the car was not legally parked, we decided not to try to make hotel rooms at the airport tourist desk, and started driving into Bordeaux. I noticed there was very little gasoline in the car, and decided to stop at a self-serve station. Since it looked unusual to us, and we didn’t have much currency, we parked next to the station (in a mall lot) and I walked over to the pumps to try to figure out how the system worked. The owner’s manual and all signs on the car refused to reveal whether we needed diesel or gasoline (‘essence’), but an examination of the engine compartment revealed spark-plug wires, so we took a chance on essence (not ‘super’) at 4,79 per liter. 93 F later we went back to the mall to see if a bank would cash some traveler’s checks. S stayed in the car with the bags, while C & I walked the length of a long mall and back (They had a Tandy & Pier 1 Import).

Finally we headed into Bordeaux, with S navigating & C reading street names. Amazingly we found our way to a parking lot near the Tourism Office. We asked there for a hotel, without knowing how many *’s we wanted. But S mentioned the need to park a car, so we needed a min. of 3. Just around the corner is the H. Majestic, at 420F + 30F for the car. The woman at Tourism called the hotel and gave them our name. When we walked around to the hotel, another E-speaking woman gave us the key to 309 (on a 2-pound key chain). To this point the extent of our F had been ‘Parle vous Anglais?’

After looking over the room, we brought the bags up and went out to get more currency, mail 2 letters for gites, get some food and check for mail at AmEx, only a few blocks away.

At AmEx 1 of 2 clerks spoke enough E to direct us downstairs, where we cashed some TC & asked for mail (in E). We then went to Tourism to ask about mailing and they sent us to PTT, where S asked for ‘des timbres’. During all this walking, S noticed a pedestrian mall where we thought we could eat, but first we wanted to move the car to the hotel garage. I asked the clerk (a new one) if he spoke E, and he said ‘non’, and (I think) asked if I spoke a little bit of F. I said no, and he asked the woman to interpret. Eventually we became convinced that we would be able to park the car, so we went to the public lot to get it. This lot used automatic ticketing for which we needed to get coins from a nearby gas station. The word ‘change’ seemed to work.

Finally we went looking for food. Despite our best intentions, we had a meal at McDonald’s; at least it had a sidewalk cafe. We had not drunk anything since the plane and were all somewhat dehydrated. We were (are) avoiding tap water for a few days, in hope of avoiding bacterial onslaught. Perhaps small exposure in food, etc will allow a gradual adjustment to F bugs.

After eating, I returned to the hotel alone to get C’s sweater,and upon meeting the male clerk attempted ‘trois cent neuf’, and did well enough to receive the key. The 3rd floor was very dark as I tried to find the proper place and orientation for the strangest key I’ve ever seen.

After leaving McD (which was very much like home) we looked for an E bookstore. We found one with a small, expensive selection, but did not buy. We were all fading rapidly, so headed for the hotel, looking for rolls & bottled water on the way (we didn’t get any). At the hotel, C & I quickly fell asleep (~6pm).

S went out and got water and turnovers, without waking us. The next thing I knew, C was asking what a certain noise was, and I realized immediately it was the telephone. Unfortunately I couldn’t immediately locate it (only arm’s reach away), so it rang a few more times before I picked it up and said ‘bonjour’. It was S downstairs.

After eating apple tarts & drinking Vittel, we went quickly to sleep.


1990-03-14, 1945, Hotel Majestic, Bordeaux

On the flight to Bordeaux, Chrissy and Susan had the A & B seats (somewhere in the middle of the plane), and I had the C seat, across a narrow aisle and staggered slightly forward. I managed to make myself appear ridiculous by losing the case for my contact lenses when I wanted to remove them. The D seat was vacant, and I somehow put the case in the seat-back pocket of that seat, then spent at least five minutes crawling around on the floor behind me looking for it, bothering some poor woman who no doubt thought the worst of me.

I have forgotten what the meal was, except that it was French-style airline food, and quite good, for airline food. I don’t think Chrissy had much.

As in the departure area, all announcements were in French, then English.

I couldn’t see much of the land as we approached Bordeaux, with broken clouds below. As we taxied to the terminal, I could see that the field was grass along the edges, with cannibalized aircraft sitting in the weeds; a very small-town airport atmosphere. We left the plane by airstair, and walked across the ramp to the terminal, where we immediately queued up to pass through passport checks and immigration formalities.

Susan and Chrissy were ahead of me, and we tried to hand in the one yellow card, but were told (apparently) to go to a little cubicle next to the Air Frontier Police guard to fill out two more. This was not a big incident to them, although slightly embarrassing to me; after all, I had asked a flight steward if we needed one apiece.

The next incident, after we got through customs without any check of our bags, was answering my page at the information desk. When we got to the desk I said my name, hoping that they would recognize it as the object of a page, and was directed to the end of the counter where a thirtyish brown-haired woman in a tan trenchcoat was standing, looking serious, though not like an officer. She verified my name and instructed (like someone used to instructing people) me to bring my passport and accompany her. None of us knew what this was about, and we were hoping it didn’t mean a yellow card was filled out wrong. Susan asked her if she should come with us, but the woman simply said no. We went upstairs to the desk of the chief customs officer. There she had me sign papers for insurance and ownership of the car we were leasing, explaining a little of it as she went along. It looked to me as if the insurance only covered me as the driver, so I asked her if Susan was insured to drive. After asking the customs officer’s opinion (in French) she said no, and I asked how Susan could be added to the insurance. This appeared to confuse everyone; I got the impression that the sensible thing was simply to ignore this restriction, or else it made no sense for a man to let a woman drive a car. At any rate something vague was said about going to a police station to have the insurance changed. This sounded like a very unlikely thing for me to do, so I just thanked them for their help.

The woman took me back downstairs to where Susan and Chrissy were waiting with the luggage on a cart, near some doors leading out to the parking lot and road out of the airport. She pointed to the curb just outside these doors and said she would bring the car to us. We pushed the cart outside and waited, just a few minutes, until she came driving up in a bright red Peugeot 205 Jr. This is the low end model (no radio or other amenities) of the smallest Peugeot made. The 205 appears to be quite popular in France, but the Jr is not so common.

She patiently ensured that I knew where all the controls (lights, heater, etc.) were, and that I understood it needed to have the oil changed after a certain mileage (kilometerage). She also left the name and phone number of someone at the leasing company who might be able to answer the insurance question. Then she wished us well and left.

We had planned (tentatively) to use the tourist desk at the airport to arrange a hotel in Bordeaux for three nights, but the car didn’t seem to be in a legal parking spot, so we loaded the bags and Chrissy (a very tight fit) and started driving to Bordeaux. In all our planning, I had just assumed that Susan and I would share the driving, as we do at home. Susan doesn’t usually relax when I’m driving, so I started to have misgivings about the idea of doing all the driving in France for six weeks, aside from the fact that I am not terribly fond of driving anyway.

Anyway we started following signs for Bordeaux, which seemed clear enough; traffic was fairly light (midday on a Wednesday), and the road was wide enough to drive relatively slowly while watching for signs. I don’t know why I thought to check the gas, but it was quite low, and decided to get gas. In order to avoid having to carry out a transaction in French, I took the first opportunity to use a self-service station.


If anyone had been watching us, they would have a good laugh. I desperately did not want to ruin the car by putting in the wrong kind of fuel, so attempted to find a label or other indication of the right kind of fuel. There was no label near the filler cap, and neither Susan nor I could find anything in the owner’s manual. There were several different labels on the pumps, none familiar (sans plombe was decipherable). Eventually we decided against ‘gazole’, which is apparently diesel, and settled on the most ordinary kind of fuel. Filling was also slightly trying, with me outside, not knowing how many liters to put in, because I didn’t know the capacity of the tank or how much of our cash I should use. Eventually I stopped at a round number, and went to the payment window, where I let my money speak for me.

Chrissy and I walked quickly through the mall, looking (unsuccessfully) for a bank. We saw a gigantic supermarket named Carrefoure with about 75 checkout lanes. This we later found was called a hypermarket (hypermarche), and combines a food market and a department store (somewhat like some FEDCO stores in California). All in all, it looked much like an ordinary mall, except that the entrances were revolving doors, big enough to push shopping carts through.

The drive into Bordeaux was relatively uneventful. Susan spotted the ‘i’ sign for tourist information, and we found parking in a wonderfully shady parking lot. In fact when I first saw all the trees, I thought it must be a temporary arrangement, but in fact it is simply a parking lot with trees growing in all the aisle dividers.

When we eventually put the car in the hotel garage, we discovered a tiny little space, big enough for 8 or 9 cars (I think it advertised space for 11). Every time we entered or exited the garage was quite a production of back-and-forthing, with a hotel employee on the sidewalk to watch for cars coming down the narrow street.

It was important to us to mail the form and check for the last gite on our list, which we had delayed from the day before because the mail would take a few days to cross the Atlantic. We also checked the mail at AmEx because we hoped to get the confirmation for one (or more?) gite. This was a problem throughout the trip. We had left the gite arrangements a bit late, and underestimated the time that they would take to complete, via mail; still everything worked out.

During our planning we had noticed that some guidebooks listed bookstores that had English-language books, so we naturally made note of these, in the hope that a few books would entertain Chrissy if all else failed. There was supposed to be one in Bordeaux, on the Rue Ste Catherine (which was a few blocks of pedestrian mall, where we had found McDonald’s). We didn’t immediately find a store with the name we were looking for, but did see a bookstore at about the right place, so went in. It was almost entirely French (surprise), but did have some English books. As tired as we were, it was satisfying to be able to navigate and locate something as unimportant as a bookstore whose address we had only chanced upon at home. As things turned out, we were to experience amazing good fortune for the entire trip.

I remember very little else about the first day in Bordeaux; we were tired and dehydrated. Susan and I had decided that there was no point in trying to avoid the water forever in France, but we had also decided to try to acclimate to it gradually by using only bottled water for the first few days, getting exposure through salads, etc. (1991-03-31)


When we landed we walked down a covered stairway (yes! a stairway right from the plane!) and went across the air strip. We got a message for Dad and went to receive it. A woman in a trench coat came up and took Dad away. She wouldn’t let Mom & I come. I asked Mom if Dad was getting himself arrested. She hoped not! He came back then though. We got the car (which is why he had gone) and went to try to figure out how and what kind of gas to get. We could have done with some more money so we went into a nearby Mall and looked for a bank. We couldn’t find a bank, but they have a Circuit City (Tandy’s) and a Pier 1 Imports (Pier Imports). We were thinking of staying in the Hotel Normandy but decided not to when we saw 4 cops outside. They looked like 2 seniors and 2 juniors. The juniors were laughing and fooling around. We went to a tourist office and registered at the Hotel Majestic. There was a girl there who spoke a little English so she helped us. Our room was very nice. There was a carnival across the street from us. There will be more about that later. We walked up & down Rue de Ste Catherine. We ate at McDonalds (which had a sidewalk café). Then we looked for an English bookstore that had a small collection of paperbacks but not the one we wanted. We were all tired out so we went back to the hotel. Mom went out after Dad and i were asleep. After a while I heard a noise and asked Dad what it was and he turned over and started looking for the phone in the wrong direction when the phone was within his reach. It was Mom. She was locked out. She came up and she had bought apple turnovers and water. We ate that and they got me ready for bed.

Previous: Newark to Bordeaux ~~ France 1990 ~~ Next: More Bordeaux

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