I pride myself on traveling light.
Anyone who has done the “backpack thing” in their travels, learns quickly to be a minimalist when it comes to packing. My first time out, the rule amongst our study abroad group was, “Bring as much as you want, buy as much as you want, but you have to carry it.”
Which is worlds away from Cornelia’s and Emily’s sojourn. By the time the girls arrived in Dieppe, France, they were each traveling with a steamer trunk, a large suitcase, at least one enormous hatbox, and various other smaller pieces of luggage too numerous to count.
What is most amazing to me about this is that they never seemed to give a thought to the idea of moving around with such a mountain of stuff. Whereas for me, each new item, each new bit of weight added to the bag, gives me pause. It’s all about being able to move as effortlessly as possible from place to place. I can’t even begin to fathom traveling with a steamer trunk.
Now, after a month of being happily unpacked in London, it was time for France. Time to start handling my luggage again. I had managed to stash all of my belongings in one suitcase and one carry-on, but the bags had turned out to be heavier than I was expecting (after all, I was traveling with a number of books). So, despite those wonderful quartets of wheels on the bottoms of my suitcases, I wasn’t looking forward to pulling them around for two weeks.
My travels with Cornelia and Emily were to begin with a trek through Normandy, before heading on to Paris — just as they had done in 1922. And like the girls, my first stop was an overnight stay in Dieppe. For Cornelia and Emily, Dieppe had merely been a layover, a place to bed down for a night before they traveled to the village of St. Valery-en-Caux the next day.
I’d come over on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, just as the girls had done. In Newhaven, I’d met Anne and Alan, a lovely English couple who were meeting their daughter, Stacey, in Dieppe. And I’d interfered in a spat involving a darling young woman and her sulky boyfriend (see previous post for all the scintillating details of the crossing). Aside from those two brief encounters, this was to be nothing more than a day of logistics for me – making the train, making the boat, getting to my pension (hotel), confirming my rental car. Tomorrow would be the day that my adventures in France would really start.
As I was bouncing my suitcases off the ferry and onto the dock in Dieppe, I couldn’t help but be in awe (and, truth be told, somewhat jealous) of Cornelia’s and Emily’s situation, living in their glamorous Golden Age of Travel, where every terminal and train station was teeming with porters who would swarm their luggage, whisking them off to the girls’ next stop. Those lucky ladies never had to carry anything more than their handbags.
But then again, in Dieppe, it wasn’t so glamorous for Cornelia and Emily after all. The girls got smooth-talked into letting a porter haul their luggage to their pension in what turned out to be, not a taxi, but an ox cart, while they walked along behind him.
“We, who had seen ourselves whipping through the city in a handsome equipage, found ourselves progressing on foot, and high heels, stumbling and lurching over the cobble stones behind a glorified wheelbarrow. It was a much longer trek than our cicerone had led us to believe, and in the heat of the afternoon sun we became disheveled and exhausted.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
From what I had worked out from the book, the girls had stayed at one of the pensions on the long beachfront street, which I had seen from the deck of the ferry as we were coming into the harbor. They hadn’t been kidding — it was a seriously long hike from the dock to their hotel, and I felt for them. Especially in those heels.
For my one night in Dieppe, I had booked a room at the Chambres d’hote Atypik, which appeared to be quite a bit closer to the ferry landing than where the girls had stayed. But on arrival at the dock – just as Emily and Cornelia had discovered – I learned that my pension was actually a greater distance than it seemed. Which was no great crisis, except that there were no taxis waiting to meet the boat. Perhaps because there simply weren’t many passengers who came over sans car, no cab driver bothered to cruise the dock. And there was no Uber in Dieppe.
There wasn’t even the option of the ox cart like the girls had.
Well, I told myself, the girls had arrived at their pension on foot, so it only makes sense that this is what is happening for me right now. Synchronicity. Instead of attempting to locate the phone number of a taxi service, then order one, which would involve me having to speak French, I would just hoof it to my pension. It would be a bit of a hike, but it was certainly walkable. And after all, I had just the two pieces of luggage, which were on wheels. And I was wearing flats.
With that, I summoned up some fortitude and started across the parking lot. I hadn’t gone more than a few feet when I heard Anne and Alan call to me. They had met up with daughter Stacey, and were just getting into her car. They offered me a lift which, after one feeble attempt at declining their offer, I accepted most gratefully. “Sorry, Cornelia and Emily,” I thought to myself, “but forget synchronicity. I’m not going to walk to the pension if I don’t have to.”
Immediately, as I had with her parents, I liked Stacey, and her dog Luna, too, who rode in the front seat with Stacey and Alan. Stacey punched in the address I had for my pension, and within a few minutes, they were dropping me off at number 3 rue cite de limes. I thanked them heartily and we joked that maybe we might run into each other in town.
As they drove off, I turned and, ringing the doorbell, braced myself: no avoiding it now — it was time to start speaking French.
Laurent, one of the proprietors of the pension, answered the door, and was as warm and kind as anyone could hope for. Inside, he introduced me to his wife and co-owner, Isabell, who was equally lovely and gracious, especially about my abysmal French. Laurent gave me a quick tour, and then showed me to my room. I was enchanted — the pension exceeded its photographs and was as charming and welcoming as its owners.
My room was large and comfortable, with a cozy, shabby chic vibe, and an enormous soaking tub in one end of the room. I was already wishing I could stay for longer than one night.
After I got cleaned up a bit, I headed into town, and hadn’t been walking for ten minutes before I ran into Anne, Alan, Stacey and Luna. We had a good chuckle about it, then ended up spending the rest of the day and evening together.
The sun had come out and it was warm and lovely. We sat at an outdoor café and had a couple of drinks, over which I got to know Stacey as well as her parents. Stacey was a few years younger than me, a powerhouse fitness instructor living in Paris with her French husband and her kids, and she was an absolute riot. Everything she said was zany and funny, and she was full of energy. Her parents were an equal match for her marvelous sense of humor, and we all laughed uproariously there at the café for a good two hours.
As the afternoon turned into evening, we took Luna for a walk by the beach, along the crescent of hotels where Cornelia and Emily had stayed (I had told my new friends all about my travels with the girls — thankfully, they hadn’t been put off by this). We then ambled past the Cathedral and into some of those magical, winding cobblestone streets. After a while, we stopped for dinner at a seafood restaurant close to where we’d earlier had drinks. We dined on different flavors of marvelously fresh mussels and wine, and once again we laughed so much it made my sides hurt. It was superb.
After dinner, I bid farewell to my friends, and made it back to my beguiling pension feeling energized and excited for whatever adventures might lie ahead. In my cozy room, I wrote in my journal about my travel day to France and about how it had been unexpectedly brilliant. I’d had the good fortune of falling in with three wonderfully witty people, who had turned a necessary layover into a real occasion.
You just never know how a day will go.
Above: That dollop of pure bliss, the gorgeous tub in my room at the pension.
Below: The breakfast room of the pension, featuring Isabell’s homemade marmalade, and where tea is served the French way – in a bowl; the boat-filled harbor, framed by a blue bridge and a blue sky; one of Dieppe’s graceful churches basks in the sunset atop its white cliff.