This picks up where Part One leaves off — JB
So, where were we? Oh, yes — driving in Europe. As previously mentioned, I hadn’t been to Europe in quite some time, and had never driven there. The first thing I learned is that there didn’t appear to be a very good way to get anywhere. Unless you were going from one huge city to another, the route invariably included some one-lane, barely paved roads and some bridges that virtually no car sold in America would fit on (more on this later).There wasn’t any good way to bypass the towns along the route-you simply had to drive through them and get stuck in whatever traffic you encountered.
There also appeared to be no such thing as a “grid” in these small to medium sized European cities. The roads twisted and wound in a way that made absolutely no sense to me. When we arrived in Hamme for soundcheck, we had to stop three times and ask people walking on the street for directions to the gig. We had entered the part of Belgium where Dutch was more prominent than French, which was somewhat of a problem because none of us spoke Dutch. Luckily, after several left turns that would have made one travel in a circle in America, we arrived at the town square.
Another thing that must be understood at this point: Europeans LOVE the Blues. Whereas it is merely a blip on the radar for most Americans, Europeans have a great appreciation for both the music and the musicians who perform it. A small town Blues festival in America might turn out a hundred or so people, most of whom will have an age north of fifty. In Europe, it turns out EVERYBODY. Since we were the headlining act of the event, the festival organizers and fans treated us like we were the Beatles. One of the bandmembers jokingly wondered about the availability of one of the young ladies dancing in the crowd. Within moments, a member of the backstage crew returned with this news: “She is off limits, but her older sister is available, yes? You want me to bring her?”
One of the best parts of being a Blues musician is the mutual understanding of the Blues language that we all have. I had never played a single note with any of the French Blues Explosion guys-no rehearsal, nothing. When we hit the stage and played for several hours together, you would have thought we’d been bandmates for years. Just call out the key and the groove and we were on our way, rolling down the tracks, swinging as hard as possible. The crowd was incredibly responsive and appreciative. It was a great first night and I was ready to get to sleep after a long day of travel.
The next day involved a twelve-hour road trip from Hamme back to Pascal’s home in Saint Sulpice, France, which is close to Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrenees region. We had to drop off Sam and Fred along the way-Sam at a recording studio that was located in a castle (no kidding) and Fred at his country home near the city of Cahors (which naturally meant that we had to get off the highway and drive all the way up and down a mountain and directly through the city of Cahors). Terry would be staying at Fred’s home while Sean and I were fortunate enough to be the guests of Pascal and his lovely girlfriend, Anne. We didn’t have any gigs until Thursday night, three days away.
As we drove down the French toll road of A20 in the Jumpy (which seemed to have a toll booth every ten feet with exorbitant tolls of ten euros (fifteen dollars) or more), I kept an eye out for exciting and interesting European cars. Unfortunately, I was disappointed-it was an endless sea of French compact hatchbacks, the kind that make lots of American forum posters giddy at the thought of purchasing them (used, of course). The only German cars I saw were some BMW 1 Series (mostly in 116d trim), Audi A1s, and Mercedes B Class (again, in 170 diesel trim)-I never saw a Bimmer larger than a 320d, and Audi larger than an A4, or a Merc larger than a C220.
A quick stop at a Shell gas station off of A20 revealed why. Gas prices were astronomical by American standards-about 1,80 Euro per liter. Factor in current Euro to Dollar conversion rates of .67 Euro per dollar, and then do some metric conversion in your head from liter to gallon and you’ll come up with a price of around $10 a gallon for standard petrol. Having a, oh, I don’t know…Boss 302 in Europe would be fantastic, with all the mountain roads and the well-maintained highways, but it would also bankrupt anybody who actually wanted to drive it.
Upon arrival at Pascal’s home, Sean and I unloaded our gear from the Jumpy, fended off some significant attacks on our persons from Pierrat, Pascal’s year-old Black Lab mix dog, and sat down to a glorious meal that had been prepared for us by Anne. Anne was a wonderful cook, in addition to being a professor of Spanish, and an owner of her own Citroen, a white C3 hatchback. I did my best to converse with them in my very poor French, and they did their best not to laugh at me. The combination of the long drive and the warm food put me right to sleep.
When I awoke the next day, Pascal asked us if we’d like to go to Cordes Sur Ciel, an ancient French city built on the top of a mountain- “Sur Ciel” translates as “on the sky.” But of course!
Cordes was magnificent-there’s simply nothing like it in America. Our nation just isn’t old enough. We parked the Jumpy at the foot of the hill and began our steep ascent up the cobblestone streets by foot. By the way, if and when you go to Europe, bring good walking shoes-none of the really good stuff is accessible by car, and if you are stuck with O’Neil sandals that you bought at the airport, you’ll have extremely sore feet and shin splints by the end of your trip.
Every so often along the climb, we’d have to make way for a car that looked and acted like it had no business making it up such a sharp incline-like an old Citroen Saxo or a Renault Twingo. I feared for the safety of the drivers, but they always made it.
We then went on to Albi, another ancient city with the largest brick cathedral in the world. Again, much of it was inaccessible by car and parking was hard to come by. The old streets of Albi were filled with music and histories-gypsy tunes in one corner, an amateur swing band on the town square. Albi was not, however, filled with that most precious of commodities in Europe for an American traveler, that being public wifi. Since our phones didn’t work in Europe and data roaming is hellaciously expensive (try $20 per MB!), Sean and I were on an endless search for public wifi access to stay in touch with friends and family via e-mail or Facebook.
The next day, Pascal was busy with some personal and business matters, so Sean and I took the train to Toulouse. People with an agenda to eliminate cars from American lifestyle always go on and on about how magnificent European public transportation is. I’m here to tell you-it’s not. Train passes are very expensive-our trip from Saint Sulpice to Toulouse was about eighteen euros round trip for a ride that took about twenty minutes. There’s exactly one station in Toulouse, a city that is roughly the size of Cincinnati, Ohio-once you get off the train, you’re walking everywhere you want to go. If you’re thirty-five, 5’9″ and 170 pounds, that’s not a huge deal. If you’re 65 and have physical issues, it’s a big problem. The streets of Toulouse were, again, largely inaccessible by car, especially the streets around the capital building where all the shopping is located.
Our quest for wifi in Toulouse brought us to this rather un-European place called “McDonald’s.” Security inside was tight-you couldn’t use the restroom or sit down at a table unless you had purchased food-and it was enforced strictly by hired security officers. I wasn’t really even hungry, and I knew Anne would have something MUCH better prepared for us when we got back to the house, but I had to order one of these as a tribute to my man from Amsterdam, Vincent Vega.
Shopping in Toulouse was fantastic. Sean and I found a men’s shirts store where I could have purchased every single shirt in the store and been happy with all of them. My personal challenge of buying something from every Lacoste boutique in the world was assisted by a red sweatshirt purchase from the Toulouse branch-quite reasonable at 69 euros on sale.
Another problem of a public transportation dependent society arose shortly after we left the Lacoste store-rain. We had about a mile and a half walk back to the train station, and a drizzle had started while we were inside that threated to turn to a serious storm very quickly. Faced with the option of getting soaked or taking a taxi, we hopped into a Skoda sedan taxi and paid another twelve euros to go to the train station.
Which reminds me-when you go to France, make sure you can speak at least SOME French. Hospitality workers speak some English (except for the fine folks at Air France-more on that in part 2) but taxi drivers, shop workers, agents at the train station? Rien.
In part 3, we’ll learn all about Spain, taking the train to Barcelona at 5 AM, the Mediterranean Sea, riding in a van with hippies, and roadside car searches for drugs-don’t miss it.