They say necessity is the mother of invention. We have all been there in a spot where what you need and are accustomed to is unavailable. How do you smoke a cigarette during your meal when you don’t have cigarettes or even smoke cigarettes? How do you get the cork out of a bottle when you don’t have a corkscrew? How do you use a toilet with no toilet paper when you really have to take a dump? These are all questions I answered today when it was necessary for me to improvise in France.
As you may have realized, I don’t have much in the way of a filter at times on what I write. Here are three experiences I had today on my last day in Clermont-Ferrand, France.
Manning up to French Culture with a sidewalk café meal
I manned up and purchased a lunch meal seated on the sidewalk to experience the side of French culture some readers felt I was missing out on during this trip to France.
All factors came together motivating me to eat at a French restaurant today. I had kind of skipped breakfast with only coffee and a banana eaten before heading out in the city. I initially planned to walk to the train station and adjust the ticket I purchased online through the France railway site, then come back to my room for breakfast. I’ll spare the details of how I got on the city tram and headed far away from where I wanted to be.
This morning I purchased a train ticket to Geneva, Switzerland. Initially I went online through the French national rail website, scnf.com, for a transaction in English, but my credit card would not process due to the website requiring a UK address. When I repeated the process stating I was from the USA, the transaction switched from the French scnf.com train website to RailEurope.com and the price increased through an $8 transaction charge that was not a fee on the French scnf.com website for Brits.
I decided to try and purchase the ticket directly through the French website working through the purchase in French. I was proud to complete the transaction for 54.60€ ($61.17 USD) rather than $73.95 the RailEurope.com site charged.
All set to eat breakfast and go volcano hiking, I wrote down my train reservation confirmation number and time schedule, then realized I’d bought my ticket for travel on Sunday, not Saturday. I have to be in Geneva tomorrow since I am flying to Copenhagen on Sunday.
I walked to the city train station and station agent changed my ticket to Saturday at no additional charge.
And that is why I missed breakfast.
I knew the forecast is for rain tomorrow, so I wanted to get out early today and spend time hiking volcano country.
To my disappointment, I learned “la saison est terminée” meaning bus service to Puy de Dôme, the tallest volcano in the Auvergne region at nearly 5,000 feet and visible from the city of Clermont-Ferrand is only accessible through public transportation during the summer season. That season ended last weekend. A car is necessary to reach the dormant volcano outside summer months.
In postcard images around town and on the Clermont-Ferrand website, I noticed the city cathedral photos are taken from Parc Montjuzet. Since access to Puy de Dôme was a road too far, I decided to fill myself with a meal before hiking uphill to the park about a mile or so away from the cathedral. I was disappointed with my photos of the cathedral taken the previous two days. The building looked so much more impressive in the website and postcard photos when seen from Parc Montjuzet.
Authentic French Dining
The specific restaurant in Clermont-Ferrand is irrelevant to my story. I checked out chalkboard menus at several restaurants in the city center and noticed nearly all offered a Plat du Jour, mostly priced from 8 to 12€, some as high as 15€ with vin.
Most of these chalkboard signs did not state what the main type of food was for the Plat du Jour meal. Of the menus that did state the type of food, most were meat or pasta, neither of which I am particularly fond of eating and not a normal meal for me.
Eventually I came across a place with poulet – chicken. I don’t eat chicken often, but that is something I figured I would enjoy.
I picked a restaurant and ordered by pointing to the menu item on the board. One of the employees asked if I speak English? “Yes”, I replied with relief. I have not encountered too many English speakers in my interactions with people around Clermont-Ferrand. Then, three staff all looked to one guy who looked like he was the deer in the headlights.
He asked me the specifics like if I wanted cheese bread? I said, no cheese bread. I don’t eat much cheese, except I enjoy brie and bread.
“Yes, I’ll take fries.”
Some conversation followed in French among the staff.
“You want sit outside?”
“Yes, I’ll sit outside.”
I took a seat outside at the one available empty table. And I sat. Other people finished their meals and I was still seated at an empty table with no food as my stomach grumbled. Drink never came up when I ordered, and nobody ever came around to ask if I wanted something to drink, but I had a full water bottle in my backpack.
Four young attractive women arrived and sat at the empty table behind me. The person who had impressed me as probably the manager during my order motioned in a way indicating my food was coming, and then he sat down at the table with me. He did not say anything, simply lit up his cigarette and sat there at the table. He had a view of the women seated behind me. I did not.
As my meal arrived, the women seated behind me lighted up cigarettes while waiting for their meal. Famished, I began eating while smoking at the same time, breathing in the cloud of second hand smoke surrounding my air space.
That was my authentic French café sidewalk meal.
On a brighter note, I was charged 1€ less than the listed menu price.
On the way to Parc Montjuzet, I passed by a large Carrefour supermarket. Most of my English conversations in Clermont-Ferrand have been with the staff at the tourism center. ‘Supermarket’ and ‘grocery store’ were confusing words to one staff person at the tourist center and it took some time to convey that I wanted to know the location of a big market where I could buy hot food.
Carrefour was our common ground terminology. She put an ‘X’ on my map and that ‘X’ marks the spot of my daily journeys for groceries. It is about a 15 minute walk from the Holiday Inn Clermont-Ferrand.
The Carrefour market I came across on the way to Parc Montjuzet was the second U.S. type big supermarket I saw in the city.
I wanted to buy a couple of beers to take to the park.
- Chimay Rouge, Red Belgium Trappist Monastery ale 7%, 33 CL, 1.34€
- Chimay Blanche White 8%, 33 CL, 1.70€
- Chimay Bleue Blue 9%, 33CL, 1.56€
No mistake there, the 9% beer is priced less than the 8%.
I have had Chimay ale many times before. I picked up a St. Stefanus blonde ale, a Trappist ale from Ghent, Belgium I have not tasted before. Historically, the significance of Trappist ales was the beer provided a safe beverage for people to drink when water sources were often contaminated with fecal matter and the source of disease epidemics in medieval times and up to the late-19th century when public health science led to the separation of waste management systems and fresh water supply systems. Beer truly developed as a means of safe food and drink for people. Craft brewing, as developed in monasteries, is the tradition of northern France and Belgium and the source of some of the world’s finest craft beers today.
Question: How do you open a corked beer when you have no corkscrew and only common stuff from your airline carry-on bag?
Answer: Slowly with tweezers
I would probably carry a corkscrew if I regularly drank wine. But I don’t drink wine very often.
I purchased a northern France 3 Monts Brasserie de Saint Sylvestre blonde ale 750 ml bottle of 8.5% beer the first day in Clermont-Ferrand. Most of the 75CL high alcohol content bottles of beer from Belgium and northern France are in heavy glass bottles and corked, just like wines. I unwrapped the foil and metal bar seal and attempted to remove the cork manually to no avail. The beer has been sitting around my hotel room for a couple of days. Today, I manned up again and contemplated how I could get the cork out with the items available in my hotel room. Tweezers seemed like my most appropriate tool. Piece by piece I ripped apart the cork with tweezers, until eventually only about 20% of the cork remained. Fortunately, I did not have the bottle directed at my face as the remaining cork finally ‘popped’ out with considerable force and bounced around the Holiday Inn bathroom.
I am proud to say my glasses of 3 Monts beer are cork-free.
When in France, think bidet
After my authentic smoking hot French sidewalk café lunch, and beer purchases at the Carrefour ‘supermarket’, I headed uphill to Parc Montjuzet.
A hike is exactly what I needed after punishing the soles of my feet the past two days on hard concrete and cobblestones. The views from Parc Montjuzet were great.
An unexpected aspect of the park visit was a class of high school students apparently on a field trip and in some kind of timed race to reach spots in the park. Teenagers carrying notebooks were running full speed all around me through the trees. While my objective was to kick back on a bench with a view and drink some beer, the teacher spirit inside me prevents me from drinking around minors who are on school activities.
I photographed scenery and avoided photographing cute teenage girls and boys running around the park.
In 1996-97 there were a series of sculptures created by international artists for display around Clermont-Ferrand. One of these sculptures is in Jardin Lecoq, across the street from the Holiday Inn.
La mémoire des crapauds by Dutch artist, Mark Brusse, is one of the first images I saw in Clermont-Ferrand and I adore it. This piece is an image in the city tourism brochures.
Parc Montjuzet has another sculpture from the Symposium de sculpture monumentale Clermont-Ferrand 1996-97.
Boule erratique – Takashi Naraha – Japan
This piece is rough granite on the exterior and polished granite on the interior rectangle, representing the duality of yin and yang.
After a busy morning with little food, followed by a full meal and a hike up the hill to the park, I really needed to shit. I’d walked for hours through Clermont-Ferrand and the potential for a toilet in the park, up in the hills, seemed low. I was happy to find a toilet in the park. And the door opened without needing any coin payment.
Inside there were lighted electronic buttons and signage in English stating the toilet is sanitized after each use and to press the button to exit. This was a 5-star public toilet. I pushed on the door and it was locked. I did not want a teenage high school girl opening the door on me with my pants down.
I did not need a story to add to this morning’s Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al” tribute for the lines
There were incidents and accidents
There were hints and allegations
Paradise was lost in my 5-star French toilet when I realized there was no toilet paper. I searched my backpack hoping for a wad of napkins. I had a handkerchief, but…gross. I didn’t want to throw away a handkerchief. Three maps were in my backpack. But I wanted to save those maps, besides there was no trash can in the room. And I mean room at about 7 feet by 5 feet.
Then I thought of the web research I had done earlier in the morning on Blaise Pascal and his experiments in hydrostatic pressure. I had purchased a bottle of water at the Carrefour store. One of those thin plastic bottles with a small opening that sprays when you squeeze the plastic bottle. I had my own water bottle version of a French bidet. Necessity is the mother of creativity. There was also a high pressure water fountain in the room for water bottle refills.
That water bottle purchase was a fortuitous Carrefour purchase before hiking to Parc Montjuzet. My thanks go out to the Loyalty Traveler readers who shamed me into eating at a French restaurant sidewalk café, where I drank all the water in my hard plastic bottle, prompting me to buy a plastic bottle of water at the supermarket before my uphill hike to the park.
I think I tapped into the spirit of Blaise Pascal today on my walks around Clermont-Ferrand.
This day was an adventure, even though I never walked on Puy de Dôme.
Puy de Dôme seen from Parc Montjuzet, Clermont-Ferrand.