Monday, April 12, 2010

Driving With My Sister

It was a year ago today that my sister came to visit me here in France. I wrote this article after she returned home to Minnesota. This Monday Flashback is for her...I miss her so much.

My childhood memories are sporadic at best. I vividly remember vignettes but not all the details of my little life. I recall my dad, sitting me down on a stump next to the frozen river and insisting, I thought, cruelly, that he tighten my skates until my ankles hurt. My mind has held on to a particular re-occurring nightmare that involved a giant wolf, dressed all in green just like Robin Hood, who would chase me up some Cathedral steps, through the church and out the other side (please don't even try to interpret this). I remember hiding under a neighbor’s car, watching the giant boots walk by of a man I was sure was "Stranger Danger" and being so afraid. And I have a memory of a summer trip to Virginia with my mother.

We were driving through the mountains of Pennsylvania, my mom at the wheel and my sister Jennie and I stuck to the hot, vinyl in the back seat of the blue ford. I was on the outside, which meant when I looked out the window, I could see nothing but the deep valley below and it felt as if there were no road under us. It made my stomach do flip-flops. I remember my mom looking all around, pointing out the unusual barns and architecture, and peering across the passenger seat to see the valley below. I screamed at her to stop looking around and watch the road. She calmly replied, as if it made complete sense, "how can I watch the road when I'm looking at the scenery?" That shut me up because she made it sound so.... reasonable.

My sister arrived in France last month and after a couple of days here in Aix en Provence, we began our 4-week Grand Tour. Our first stop was Chamonix, a ski town in the Alps of France, and then on to Switzerland. Chamonix is only a few hours away from here and the drive there was incredible. We set out from Aix just as our summer was beginning. Our fruit trees had already blossomed, the forsythia was finished and the heads on the tulips had dropped off in the hopes of being replaced by the fragrant blossoms of Rosemary and the ensuing bloom of fields of lavender.

But each mile, as we drove into the Alps, set us back in time to an earlier chapter of spring. We got to experience the season over and over again, the further we went into the mountains. By the time we got to Chamonix, the trees were just sprouting their tiny, lime green leaves, the yellow was just peaking out of the forsythia branches, and the snow had begun its retreat up the mountains, but only just a bit.  The top three quarters of those mountains were still snow covered and majestic. Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe, looked dangerous and unyielding...and completely breathtaking.

And I'm having childhood flashbacks! This is my sister's leg to drive so I'm sitting in the passenger seat looking down at the valley far below.  And I’m sure that Jennie is my mother. No, that's not true. She is my mother times 10!   My sister is a professional driver; she drives a ladder truck as a firefighter for the city of Minneapolis. I would think this would make her a careful and prudent driver. As it is, she drives like she's going to a fire! As we followed the beautiful, narrow, treacherous mountain roads that twisted around on themselves more like a pretzel than a hairpin, and clung to the sides of the mountains, I found myself clinging to the dashboard and doing that entirely useless, but completely unpreventable brake thing with my feet.

 Jennie was charmed by the architecture, awed by the giant waterfalls, amazed at the height to which we had climbed (which she could see clearly by leaning over me to look out my window), and the contrast of the green against the snow-covered peaks. I really didn't see much. I got out my computer and began to type furiously as a way to take my mind off my impending death. Concentrating on keeping it squarely on my lap during Jennie’s driving maneuvers proved impossible however, and I finally gave up.

Remember those James Bond movies? The ones where James, along with one of his beautiful babes, is driving his tricked-out convertible in the mountains of Italy…. her Hermes scarf is blowing in the wind and he is chitchatting nonchalantly and driving at a speed that defies reality, all the while being chased by a series of very ugly and dangerous Russians?  Our Renault did not even have cup holders, and I’ll never even own a Hermes scarf, but I was waiting for the Russians to start shooting! I finally said to Jennie, "If we arrive alive, I promise I will make you a martini...shaken not stirred". She didn't get it.

At least she didn't act like she got it. However, we were listening to polka music as we drove. It seemed to enhance the ambiance. Just as we hit the clouds, dusk, and my impending panic, a strange but angelic sounding song, with a bit of yodeling thrown in for good measure, came over the airwaves.  At this point I'm hyperventilating and Jennie is ignoring me. But as the angels yodeled, she turned to me (don't turn to me Jennie, please! Look straight ahead!) gave me a crazed, little smile, and informed me that this would be perfect music to accompany me to heaven after we go over the edge. Little sisters never change! I think they enjoy the power!

Driving terror aside, traveling with my sister is perfect.  She is willing to wing it and taking small, mysterious roads that aren’t included in any tourist guidebooks. She’s willing to change plans at a moments notice just because something else looks like more fun. She’s willing to eat stinky cheese and bread by the side of a mountain stream
and then actually put the remainder in the car, which causes our vehicle to constantly smell like a French refrigerator.  She laughs rather than ridicules me when, in Switzerland, I finally figure out that Ausfahrt is the German word for exit and not a town that seems to be everywhere. She changes the radio station when I cringe at a love song being sung in German (love songs should just not be sung in German) and finds something in French or Italian. She’s willing to sleep in a double bed with me because that’s the only bed left in the hotel, and then is perfectly happy to cork her ears with the little blue earplugs so she can sleep through my snoring.  She’s willing to wash out clothes in the hotel sink with shampoo and dry them until they’re stiff on the towel warmer. And she was willing to leave her family for a whole month and come to France to visit her big sister.

One of my childhood memories of my sister is the two of us playing in her bedroom, pretending we were French and talking to each other in made-up French words.  Her name became “Jen-en-ay” and our word for kiss was” ma-foo”. To this day, everyone in our family says ma foo when we say goodbye to each other.  I said “ma foo” to “Jen-en-ay” a few days ago after our month long adventure. I will miss her so much. And even though I don’t know when I will see her again, I know at least two things: rental car companies do not charge you for fingernail scratches on the dashboard or weird smells in the car, and Jennie and I have made another lasting memory that I can hang on to forever.



  1. Oh I remember the 'ma foo' from when I did my special words post.

    This was a lovely tribute to Jennie and how much you miss her just shines out of these words, Delana. I hope I'm never driven down a mountain pass by her, that's all.

  2. I will drive with you soon! I'm not your sister, but I will try and bring some Midwest with us to help! Can't wait!

  3. It has been over 12 years since I visited Chamonix. Your story brings back so many wonderful memories. The view of Monte Blanc...the gorgeous waterfalls...the Alpine lakes...the wonderful little villages, racqolette (?) and WINE!

  4. Thank you for saying that, FF. I'm so lucky to have her...and I know it. But she gets to a fire pronto so I guess that's good!

    Yes, E. I'll drive you around and show you all the driving tricks she taught me!

    Doug: It is exquisite, isn't it. Like a postcard...only better. And it's raclette...BTW...but who cares how you spell it. Eating it is what counts.

  5. Oh, I just love these pictures of the two of you in that gorgeous countryside! Sisters are the BEST, aren't they? I have three, myself, and I wouldn't trade the memories we share (and continue to make!) for anything!!

    Hope you're reunited again soon (without the stinky car, of course!!).

  6. What a great story! I have to foward this to my sister so she can get excited about having sister memories in France when she comes to visit me....

  7. Delana, what a delightful and colorfully descriptive story. I enjoyed ever morsel. It's truly living life well.
    Thank you for taking me along, with you and your sister, on your journey.
    The pics, as usual, were divine.

  8. Delana: Thanks for your comment on the bag post! France is actually way ahead of us in not providing those horrible little plastic bags at checkout...And when people put ONE thing into an entire bag I have a fit! My Neela bags have been with me for years...
    Yes, I would imagine a trolley would be quite something to haul up 4 flights.
    Your posts are wonderful! Lucky you to have a sister you are so comfortable with: mine would just not quite do in those circumstances...
    Anyway, look forward to the next "story"!

  9. Anything Fits: Yes, sisters are the best. And one is all I can handle...I'm not sure what I would do with 3!

    Holly: Forward it to her. Get me more readers!! :)
    And when she comes, I hope I can come out and play with you guys.

    Michelle: Next time we'll stop in Germany. Watch out!

    Aneye:I love your site. Makes me drool. I tried to order a couple of bags but the shipping prices...well..I'll have to come back to the US next time with an empty bag.


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