Mantes-La-Jolie was the first stop. As it turned out, the young man behind the rental counter at the airport was born and raised there. When I told him where I was headed, he offered his sage wisdom on the best route to take to avoid the Paris traffic. I should not have listened. It’s not that he didn’t have good intentions or even that his directions were bad but I have NO sense of direction. None, zero, zilch, nada. He pointed out on the map what seemed to be a very simple route and sent me on my way.
I had already purchased the international plan for my phone because I knew I would need it to get around and communicate during my trip. (I was too cheap to rent the gps for the car through the rental company- it was obscenely expensive) I was feeling rather confident in my ability to navigate the situation (pun intended – ha ha) so I left the airport and headed towards the highway. Forty minutes later…I was still looking for it. I never found it. I ended up in some weird backwoods gas station trying to ask for directions in French and getting nothing but silent stares in return. After a few choice words to myself in the car I scrapped that plan, plugged the address into my phone and got back on course.
I arrived in Mantes-La-Jolie a little over an hour later. The drive was picturesque with beautiful rolling hills and expansive fields flanking the highway. It was strangely familiar. I could have easily been driving in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.
The house was amazing but it became apparent almost immediately that my plans for the car would require a bit of ‘tweaking’. In the airbnb listing, it said there was a parking space available for guests. What it didn’t say was that you would need the driving skills of Mario Andretti and the scientific mind of Einstein to fit that car into the allotted space. Any thoughts I had about taking it out and driving it around the area quickly evaporated. That baby wasn’t moving from that spot until it was time for the next city.
I was staying with a family of four, my host Marie-Laure, her husband and their two children. Everyone was very sweet although the children were a bit loud. I got myself settled in and headed out to see the town.
I had the misfortune of arriving in France on Monday. Now if I had been staying in Paris this may not have been a big deal but I was in a sleepy little town 50km from Paris and on Mondays everything is closed. I’m sure it never even occurred to Marie-Laure to mention it because it’s a very French thing for stores and banks and restaurants to be closed on Monday. It is meant to give everyone a full 2 days off since many people have to work on Saturday. Although I appreciate the sentiment behind this practice, it was extremely inconvenient at that moment. You see I didn’t know about Mondays in France and I was really hungry.
I was a bit underwhelmed with Mantes. It seemed nice enough but very small and I definitely spied some not so savory areas around the edges of centre ville (the heart of town). I was beginning to feel that this may not be the place for me.
After wandering around, I decided to come back to the house, take a nap and search out a restaurant to have dinner. No dice. Every place I found online was closed. Even the pizza place down the street.
One of the things I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I am expert at killing time. This is a very useful skill for someone who often travels alone but it can also derail a lot of plans. That was the case this particular evening. I got on Facebook, texted a few friends, updated everyone on my whereabouts and the next thing I knew it was quite late, almost 10pm. I decided to just go outside and find a place to eat. Luckily, there was an Indian restaurant right off the main road. It was empty except for a couple huddled in the corner.
I sat down at a table a good distance away from the love birds. I figured we had the whole place to ourselves no need to infringe on their privacy. The manager was a charming young man named Shabaz who spoke perfect English. I told him of my plans and asked his opinion about Mantes. He was more than happy to contribute to my research efforts. He ran the restaurant for his father (the owner) and lent his particular charm to the nightlife of Mantes via some very interesting events at said restaurant.
I ordered my food and was thoroughly enjoying my mango lassi when I heard a loud crash as the food from the lovers’ table cascaded to the ground. The hand of the gentleman was just coming back to rest on the table when I looked up. His voice was louder now and truth be told there were earlier warning signs that not all was well in paradise. You could tell the woman had been crying and they were in the midst of a pretty nasty argument.
I didn’t like the guy’s tone at all. Whatever happened, he was pretty pissed about it and was becoming quite unhinged. There are some men for whom a backhand across the face is not an out of bounds reaction. This guy seemed like that type. My first thought when he started yelling was ‘Shit. I’ve been in France less than 24 hours and I’m gonna end up in jail for having to beat this man’s ass.’ Because sitting idly by while a man used his woman as a punching bag is just not in my DNA, regardless of what country I happen to be in.
As it turns out, my worries although justified, were unnecessary. Within a few seconds Shabaz swooped in and handled the situation. He quietly escorted the man out of the restaurant and followed him down the street to be sure he didn’t put his hands on her. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with concerns.
After the entire ordeal, Shabaz told me that the man’s wife had cheated on him and that was why he was so angry. I asked him if he made the guy pay for the stuff he had broken and he said “No, because then he would think it was okay to behave that way. Now he will never cross this doorstep again. The embarrassment would be too great.” It’s rare for someone to change my mind (I of course would have gone a completely different direction on this one) but his rationale was poetic. I was surprised to find such wisdom in someone so young. Maybe Mantes la Jolie wasn’t so bad after all.
The next day dawned with open shops and bustling, noisy streets. It was distinctly less gloomy than the previous day but I still wasn’t convinced it was the right place for me. I spent the day getting a feel for the town. I decided to put a pin in Mantes and see what awaited me at my next stop. So first thing the next morning, Mantes-La-Jolie was in my rear view and I was headed to Chartres.