Not wanting to stay near the airport, we dive off the motorway near St Emilion, un region de vignobles – wine country.  I spotted the dilapidated hotel/bar just up from the exit, where the Holiday Inn would be in America, but we sped on toward what we hoped would be picturesque little towns between les Chateau de this and that.  We wind among the vines, heavy with purple grapes hanging like dark udders beneath the torsos of green leaves, surely about to be picked.  The occasional villages, however, were strangely deserted, shut up tight with no hotels, so we turned back to the old routier.

Tiles were falling off the roof, the shutters peeling and haphazard, the parking lot potholed – we knew we were in for an adventure.  Stepping past the couple of outside smokers into the bar (which had been unfortunately remodeled in, I would guess, the early 70’s – does avocado formica speak to you?), we inquire about a room.  Clearly used to truck drivers, the trim barmaid with the Wal-Mart clothes, tight curly hair, and machine-gun delivery shows us a dusty room with two beds tiredly sagging in the middle, covered in cheap souvenir blankets.  We take it.

Though we have a sink in the room, the toilet’s down the hall.  I stop to take advantage of the facilities on the way back down – when I pull the handle water intended to flush spurts up and over the edge.  I warn Misty that if she should have to use the bathroom she should be prepared for a bidet  (and bring her own paper), but she can read the sign that I cannot (roughly): Pull the handle gently or you will be … arrosé (sprinkled like a flower).  Only the French…

In the bar, I discover a Gottlieb pinball machine (they’re the best).  I love pinball, but who, in this era of video games, can find them any more?  Crash your electronic car and live to drive again, blast aliens or bad guys all you want; I like the precise measure of the initial skill shot, the satisfying chung of the bumpers, the careening silver ball either poised momentarily on the flippers or sped on with a shove with the heel of a hand to the corner of the machine, knocking down the targets, ringing the bells, or, alas, slipping down the side lane, and, if you’re lucky or been at it long enough, the thrilling definitive ‘tok’ of a free game.  Stupid, I know, but if you grew up with it – the occasionally changed-out pinball games in the bowling alley were the most exciting thing in my tiny Maine town.  Unfortunately, this one – the board and runners patina’d in black from long years – has lost the scoring function, so the general uselessness is piled onto by utter pointlessness.  Even though I bought 3 games, one fulfills the nostalgie.

Meanwhile, Misty has negotiated a fine bottle of red wine for a ridiculously low price from the barkeep, who looks like a cheerful cowboy in a paid shirt and a neckerchief, but this turns out to be a cover for a tracheotomy.  A knot of questionable characters sits drinking and watching France vs. Serbia on the tellie; Note to self: make sure the Audi is locked for the night.  A woman in a full skirt and long gray hair that she holds protectively across her mouth is anxiously waiting for someone to arrive.  She watches me playing pinball and reads judgment in my eyes (I do not intend it, but she is not the first).

Misty and I sit outside at a wobbly plastic table to enjoy the wine in the fading light.  This woman paces back and forth, looking down the road casting us menacing glances from behind her hair.  From the doorway, she unexpectedly launches herself forward, she spits at us, revealing the missing and rotted teeth she was hiding with her hair.  Fortunately most of it hits the glass door by our table, but the venom of her look is even worse, belied by a flashing grimace at Misty that could have been glee or apology or just plain craziness.  The barkeep and the brunette, clearly she is a tolerated local, react in horror and drag her safely away, “Non, ces sonts les clients!”.  This has the unexpected effect of putting everyone else on our side, and the atmosphere, sans la folie, warms considerably.

Dinner at a routier can be marvelous or dispiriting, and ours is a mixture – richly-sauced coq au vin, but with a tired buffet of mixed salads, measly olives, overcooked haricots verts, fatty terrines, and packaged crab sticks.  This is followed by flan from a package, and capped off with such fabulous local cheeses that even I, generally not a fan of the cheese course, cannot resist.

Throughout the meal, Misty has been recapping her year in terms of friendships won and lost, and lessons learned about loyalty and betrayal – and self-loyalty and self-betrayal that these days often get clumped under the heading of ‘boundary issues’.  Would that I could have been so self-aware at 22 – what humiliations and useless twists and turns I might have avoided!

The beds await, and after consuming Joss Whedon’s short Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Misty and I are both Whedon dorks, and can to our horror identify a moment from the 10 hours of Firefly with no more than a snippet of music), the creaking beds, the wild splashing of the toilet down the hall, or the unidentified electrical buzz – any of which could have led to insomnia – are not enough to keep us from the welcoming arms of Morpheus.

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