France My Way, Adventures of a Solo Traveler is the result of nine visits to France from my first experience way back in 1971 to the present. The stories I tell in the memoir include many challenges and scary situations, but also plenty of humorous incidents, amazing surprises, and the fabulous hospitality I experienced from the French people. In choosing which events to include, I’ve kept in mind readers who will identify with my solo travel even if France has not been their destination, those who are weary of planned tours, and those looking for places to visit in France. I hope to entertain some armchair travelers as well. Perhaps I will encourage some to strike out on their own—or not.

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Below is an excerpt from Chapter 2 La Pension (boarding house), located across from the Luxembourg Gardens. I tell of having my first dinner with the other occupants, trying to adjust to their customs:

Luxembourg Gardens, across from my pension

I carefully observed others, tried to observe protocol, and kept the fork in my left hand after cutting meat. I hadn’t watched closely enough, however. I reached to pour my own wine, having noticed someone at the next table serving himself.

The lady across from me immediately corrected my blunder. “Non, non, non, ma chère mademoiselle! One passes the glass to Madame Gagnier at the head of the table. She will pour for you. I jerked my hand back. Everyone at the table stopped to look at me.

I had been given the place on the side of the table, right next to Madame Gagnier who sat officially—I assumed—at the end. Thus the open bottle sat directly in front of me as well has her. I’m still not sure if that is French custom or merely the tradition at Madame Beauvais’ pension. The courses in turn were placed on the six tables in bowls or on serving platters as the previous ones were removed. No such rule seemed to apply to these dishes. But I waited to receive the passed bowl.

Following the wine incident, no one made eye contact with me for several minutes. After the heat had cooled from my face, those around me made me the central focus by asking questions: Where was I from? What did I think of their President Georges Pompidou? Did I think Robin Williams was outrageous? Were American teenagers as wild as those in France?

Of course, each person joined in with his or her own opinion. That included both favorable and unfavorable remarks about the United States.

At the end of that first delicious meal, I felt that after my initial blunder, I’d been accepted and had held up my end of the conversation adequately. Before getting up to leave, I folded my cloth napkin and placed it neatly beside my plate. But as I scooted my chair back, the ladies on either side of me burst out simultaneously: “Non, non, non!”

One of them instructed, “We roll the napkin up and slip the ring over it, like this. Then Madame Gagnier collects them all in the box for our table.”

I smiled and did as I was told.

The lady added, “Remember which napkin is yours. You will pick it up from the basket and use it for the week.” I noticed the napkins were all of different patterns and colors.

Later I learned we would be issued one sheet a week for the bed. The top used sheet was then to be put on the bottom and the fresh one would replace the top. The bottom sheet was pulled up over and around the long bolster that served as a pillow. All right, I could do this.

I came here to learn.


What if Zeus stood up?

[Follow the FUN FACTS that relate to Race to Glory, chapter by chapter.]

Chapter 1, p. 6:[Senator Seneca said,] “Claudius Caesar hired me soon after he

Statue of Zeus in Olympia Temple

married his niece Agrippina and adopted her child. Now where is that mischievous boy? Nero Claudius?” he called out, “Ne. . . Get down from there!”    The defiant child who was attempting to climb up behind the statue, now stalked toward his tutor. “Sorry, Master Seneca, I was investigating. You always tell me to investigate, do you not?”

FUNFACT: The seated statue of Zeus, the king of the Greek Gods, rose 43 feet in height, almost touching the ceiling of the two-story Temple.  The geographer Strabo commented, “It seems that if Zeus were to stand up, he would un-roof the temple.”

The Marble-Slab Starting Line

Chapter 1 – page 1: The young man curled his toes into the marble grooves of the starting slab. He tensed his naked body into the required standing position. Glistening with olive oil and sprinkled with fine sand, he waited . . .

A marble slab with two side-by-side deep grooves about seven inches apart, formed the starting line for all footraces in ancient Greek stadiums. The runners lined up, about 20 at a time. At the signal from a judge, they curled their toes into the grooves, one foot forward, the other back. Rather than crouching as in modern races, the contestants stood and leaned slightly forward with their arms outstretched.

A rope stretched chest high across the runners, held by a spring-loaded mechanism at each end to form the starting gate. An official released the taut rope with a trigger that banged it to the ground as another official called out the word ápete! The runners then sprang forward to race to the finish.

Ancient marble slab starting line as seen today


Olympics – China – Genocide

The Olympics are over and I’m left with the same ambiguous emotions I’ve had since being in Olympia, Greece for the lighting of the flame.

The Olympics are over and I’m left with the same ambiguous emotions I’ve had since being in Olympia, Greece, for the lighting of the flame that  multiple runners carried around the world. I sat in that ancient stadium and heard the leaders of Greece and China speak in their native languages while their national flags rose behind them. Jacques Rogge, Chairman of the International Olympic Committee, spoke in English, even though he is from Belgium. The Olympia flag rose. I watched the first runner sprint across the ancient tract. What a thrill!

Only one incident gave me pause. During the speech by the head of China’s Communist Party and Chairman of the Olympics in Beijing, one sole protester held up a FREE TIBET sign. He was quickly whisked away and the program continued. As the torch made it’s way around the world, huge protests and demonstrations against China’s poor human rights record, cruelty against Tibetan monks, and China’s support of the oppressive regime of President al-Bashir’s in Sudan followed.

Therein lies my dilemma. China put on a spectacular show. The athletic events were riveting. The documentaries about the Great Wall and the Forbidden City mixed with modern restaurants and foot rubs were highly entertaining. But I also knew about the torture of political prisoners, the lack of even minimal freedoms, extreme poverty, etc. lurking behind the grand façade.

How does one process these extremes and reconcile these two realities?

One World, One Dream
One World, One Dream

Two individuals still stand out in my mind. One, a Chinese young man, wearing the red “One World, One Dream” tee-shirt. He was with a large group of similarly-attired young people (athletes?) in front of the Press Office in Olympia on March 25, for the flame lighting. An equal number of Greek young people faced them in their blue and white tee-shirts with the message printed in Greek. Both groups held small flags of both countries. I watched the two groups come together, shaking hands or hugging. Words were not necessary. Harmony personified. I wrapped my arm around this young Chinese and my friend took our picture. I won’t publish it, but here’s the back of the tee-shirt. He then took a picture of the two of us. We smiled at each other and parted.

The other individual I saw only on TV: Lopez Lomong—a member of the U.S. Olympic team and now a U.S. citizen—carrying the American flag in the opening ceremony in Beijing. As one of the Lost Boys of Sudan he is president and co-founder of a different sort of team: Team Darfur. The organization is an international coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness about and bringing an end to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Lopez Lomong has learned to reconcile these two realities about China.