Five years ago in mid-August, I visited France for the first time on a family vacation. There were flaky pains au chocolat in the cool, pale mornings, evenings dips in the warm Mediterranean, bottles of rosé drunk by candlelight, and moments of awe and splendor. But none of that is what comes to mind when my family and I reminisce. Instead, what do I recall most vividly about those two weeks?
The crowds, the sticky, sweltering heat, and our many bus and train rides involving crowds and sticky, sweltering heat. Our family bond and our respective ties to sanity were tested every day by the obscene amount of tourists and locals alike vying for space, shade, and views. In an effort to visit the destinations my mom claimed were “supposed to be amazing,” we hopped on every form of public transportation available to see sights like Cannes, Monaco, and St. Jean Cap Ferrat. On our visit to the latter, what I assumed would be a breezy 30-minute coastal bus ride turned into one of the most miserable half hours of my life. My parents tucked my younger brother between them and shoved their way onto the bus—a united front in battle—but the doors were shutting just as my older brother and I reached them. With an aggressive yet necessary yank, my brother pulled me past the hordes of grunting men and pushy women and into the dripping, merciless masses. I may have inadvertently smacked a small boy upside the head with my flailing arm, but this was no time to feel remorse. This was savage territory, survival of the fittest. From the center of the bus where we were, there were no railings, chair backs, or grips to latch onto and so we latched onto one another. “We made it,” we panted in unison.
And that was the easy part. People were pressed up against one another like insatiable lovers, sitting three to a seat, flattening themselves against windows, and worst of all, raising their arms to grab the high-placed handholds. The air was thick and rank with sweat, open mouths, and body-close heat. Someone’s pillowy breast squished against my left arm. A foot somewhere crunched my baby toe. A moist, audible stream of carbon dioxide tickled my ear. And everywhere, the pervasive stench of human bodies in summer stung your nose. I was in hell.
By the time my family and I exited the bus, we were cranky and pissed off. Not even the bright harbor views, crisp cerulean water, and promise of moules frites could stop us from actively bitching about our morning and firing out hunger-induced insults at one another like they were going out of style. We enjoyed our trip, but every experience during those two weeks was weighted with the extra effort each task took and tainted by the screen of irritability through which you inevitably view the places you visit during peak tourist season.
Summer travel, particularly that in August, means a 15 inch sliver of sand to place your beach towel, ostensibly endless lines, and zero personal space.
Let me then introduce you to a majestic month called May. I recreated that vacation I once took with my family this past spring and was welcomed into a sublime south of France paradise where waiting time was slim to none, reservations were easy to make, beach boardwalk was wide and untouched, and everyone had a seat on the bus. Colors were brighter, the air was milder, market peaches were juicier, and the only scent that floated in the breeze was that of fresh strawberry crêpes.
The pace of my days was restful and unhurried. My chats with strangers were sincere and thoughtful. And when I wasn’t forced to retreat to a happy place in my mind on a stressful train ride or using my brain power to navigate busy sidewalks, I was able to remain much more present. And that’s the best part of any trip—the ability to stay in the moment and let yourself absorb every detail and bit of beauty a place has to offer.