Carnet de Voyage: First Encounter with the French

Carnet de Voyage: First Encounter with the French

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

Although I have been to France many times since, my first experience with France and the French came in the mid 1970s. At that time, there was an organization called Worldwide Sportsman’s Club; for a modest annual fee, a member could participate in very low-cost charter flights from Chicago, where I lived, to various destinations in Europe. Being in our late 20s, my wife and I joined the Club and made our first trip to Europe at a cost of about $350 per person. This trip included round trip airfare from Chicago to Zurich, and then your choice of either a 7-night stay in a Zurich hotel or 2 nights in a hotel and a rental car for 5 days. We chose the latter and decided on an itinerary that would take us from Switzerland, through a corner of Germany, and then to Strasbourg and the wine region of Alsace.  

Of course, this was before the age of the Internet, and we were novice travellers, so we had very little information about the places we were going or where we would be staying once we were on the road; we just presumed we would be able to find accommodation wherever we decided to stop for the night.  

From Switzerland, we drove through the Black Forest to Freiburg, where we visited the Cathedral, and then drove on to Strasbourg, where we intended to stay for the night. After visiting their magnificent Cathedral, we started looking for a hotel. What we discovered was that there was some kind of huge convention in town, and every room in the city was booked. The last place we tried suggested we drive south to Colmar, where we might find a room. Unfortunately, we found the same situation in Colmar, having received the overflow of Strasbourg visitors. The last hotel we tried in Colmar was at the western edge of town adjacent to a small highway. As we approached the highway, we saw a road sign saying “Motel” with an arrow pointing west. Thinking it was our last chance, we decided to follow that sign.  

We drove west on that road for some time and did not come upon any motel. It was starting to get dark, and I finally pulled out the road map and made the startling discovery that Motel was the name of a village somewhere in the Vosges Mountains just ahead of us, not the motor hotel that had become ubiquitous back home. Knowing nothing was available back in Colmar, we had no choice but to keep going west; maybe we would find this Motel and hope it had a motel.  

With darkness closing in, we entered the Vosges Mountains and the road started winding and going up. We were pretty worried by this time. After about 20 minutes, we saw the first lights up ahead. It wasn’t a town, but what appeared to be three small hotels in a little enclave at a bend of the road. Suddenly feeling great relief, we stopped at what appeared to be the largest hotel, which also had a restaurant. The person who greeted us did not speak English, so motioned for us to stay there and went off to find someone. She came back with a young man wearing a white jacket and chef’s hat who it turned out was not only the chef, but the owner of the hotel. When we asked for a room, he told us that his hotel as well as the other two in his enclave were fully booked. He then said he had an idea and left to make a phone call. When he came back, he told us he talked to a friend of his who had a small inn about 10 minutes up the road and had one room available which he would be keeping for this young American couple who desperately needed it. Now this occurred in the middle of dinner service at the restaurant, and we were profoundly grateful that this guy had taken the time to help these two hapless Americans instead of just dismissing us and getting back to the kitchen.  

We found the inn, and once settled, got back in the car and returned to the restaurant of our new friend for dinner. We had a wonderful meal, and the chef/owner saw us and came out and sat down with us for a while to make sure everything had worked out OK.  

In the U.S., there was then and sometimes still is a stereotype that the French are rude and don’t like Americans. Some of us know better. 

Notre-Dame de Strasbourg © Leonid Andronov / shutterstock

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here

Larry Fischer is 78 years old and retired from the real estate business. He’s lived in the Chicago area all his life, and for the past 35 years has been in the suburb of Buffalo Grove. He loves to travel, and has been fortunate to have travelled quite a bit (until Covid), including China, India, and quite a bit in Europe, including about 7 times in France. The story attached goes back to his first overseas trip in the 1970s. His last 5 trips to Europe have been on his own and since travelling solo, which he really enjoys, he has started keeping journals, mainly for letting his family know where he’s been. His older brother is a big fan of his  journal writing and encouraged Larry to submit this story.

Lead photo credit : Beautiful mountain landscapes in the Vosges © Alexander Sorokopud / shutterstock

Share to:  Facebook  Twitter   LinkedIn   Email

More in alsace, Carnet de Voyage, travel memories, travel stories, travel writing, Vosges

Previous Article Stopover Sightseeing: What to See and Do in the Grand Roissy Area 
Next Article Photo Essay: Karl Lagerfeld at the MET in New York

Related Articles

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Kathleen
    2023-07-06 07:29:24
    Love this story! Thanks so much for sharing it!


  • Kathy Campbell
    2023-07-05 06:47:56
    Kathy Campbell
    Larry, thank you for this story. It's very similar to my first visit to Paris, which was a spur-of-the-moment trip after my friend and I discovered that the Netherlands was a lot smaller than we had anticipated. This was in 1980; like you, we were winging it. People had told us, "Don't worry, when you get to the train station in Paris, just look for The Traveller's Aid booth." So we did. When we found The Traveller's Aid, there was a sign on the door saying, "Paris est complet" And it was--completely full. And it was also a convention that caused it. Somehow, you don't picture the Shriners meeting and parading in Paris, but I believe that's what it was. In the end, the people at the aid society were able to find us an accommodation in the 18th arrondissement. It was a tiny room with a bathroom down the hall; no one spoke English, but everyone was very kind. Having just come from Amsterdam, I fell asleep thinking that Ann Frank's hideout was considerably roomier. Your story brought all of this back--not only memories of the hotel search, but also the thoughts of the "gentil" folks who were so gracious to us. Thank you!