"Travels With Alice" still better than the Grand Tour

Feb. 11, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

I have one of those 1996 calendars that features a different book -- and sometimes several books -- for every day of the year. Today's entry features a book I've read and loved and I was happy to use this as an excuse to reread "Travels With Alice" (1989) by Calvin Trillin.

(Even though I promised I wouldn't write about cats anymore this year I do think readers will be interested in knowing that I once had an orange cat who I named Alice in homage to Trillin's wife. Alice ran away, something I don't think Trillin's wife has done.)

"Travels With Alice" is nominally a travel book but it's really about Trillin's favorite pastime, which is eating. He has lots to say about food in these 15 essays. Some of his comments are acerbic ("Anyone who is under the impression that an ancient culture guarantees a great cuisine has never tasted Navajo fry-bread") but in the main he's a big fan.

When it comes to eating new and exotic foods, his daughters, Abigail and Sarah, bring him back to earth. Their favorite gourmet meal is grilled chicken and French fries. His wife's favorite meal, at least while she's in Italy, is gelato.

In an effort to broaden his daughters' education, Trillin planned a family vacation some years ago in the South of France. This was not going to be the Grand Tour of Europe, Trillin decided. No visits to seven countries in seven weeks, counting off trips to churches and museums like dreary tasks accomplished. Trillin had seen too many "children who sat in formal hotel dining rooms doodling on the tablecloth with their butter knives, looking as if they were wondering whether there was any reason to hold out hope that they might be spared the second of tomorrow's scheduled cathedrals by a sudden downpour or perhaps a nuclear attack."

Instead he rented a house in Uzes, a town of about 7,000 located 20 miles from Avignon, for a month. But before the vacation got under way, he began to worry. He worried about plumbing problems and obdurate French plumbers and what the French words for "stopped up" might be. He also worried about his daughter, Sarah, a legend among fussy eaters. Would she find enough nourishment to last for a month? She had been known to faint at the prospect of eating a live, fresh asparagus.

"Aside from the language barrier, my experiences in France had, to put it as politely as possible, not persuaded me that the French have a particularly strong tradition of friendliness and helpfulness toward visitors," he added. The Grand Tour, which offers nothing if not a series of quick getaways and good plumbing, was looking more and more attractive. But the family stuck to its original plan. They found that Uzes was a market center (offering food) in the French farmland (offering scenery) with its own ducal palace (offering culture). The fact that no one in the family could speak much French didn't seem to matter either.

"Among four people, someone is bound to come up with the right word or gesture, and a great command of the language is not required in order to point to a display of fluffy croissants and say 'Fourteen, please.' "

Sarah relaxed once she found the local pommes frites stand. As for culture, Trillin took care of that by telling his girls what they were missing that day by not being on the Grand Tour. "It's Rome today, jeunes filles," he would say as they sat next to their favorite swimming spot on the Gard River. His travelogue would go something like this: "In Rome you have the Spanish Steps, the Vatican and the Colosseum. It's hot, crowded and expensive. OK, girls, into the water."

And the rented house turned out to be just what the family wanted.

"It was small and simple, a restored mid-nineteenth century row house on an otherwise ungentrified block just off the main street of Uzes, but it turned out to be splendid. It had thick stone walls and a first-rate kitchen and precisely the garden I had imagined our having supper in every evening, a private little place with a table underneath an arbor."

And what about the plumbing? "The plumbing held up admirably, something I'll remember next time I get in one of those geopolitical discussions about whether the French can be depended on."

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