Bacteria is not your Friend in France, and other Travel Stories
Adventures in finally taking a much needed vacation
Bacteria are tricky little bastards. I mean, on one hand, we need them. Without “good” bacteria in our digestive tract, we wouldn’t be able to properly break down food into the nutrients we need. Plant seeds even contain a little bacteria inside, to help plants access nitrogen when they sprout.[i] We also rely on bacteria for making some of our favorite foods. You’ve probably heard of lactobacillus; that’s lactic acid bacteria, and it’s necessary for cheesemaking and other fermentation. Bacteria has been used to help clean oil spills and break down chemicals, and it’s even needed to make antibiotics. But some bacteria—well. It’s bad. Like vibrio vulnificus, for instance.
Vibrio are gram-negative, motile, curved rod-shaped pathogenic bacteria.[ii] Gram-negative (referring to whether they retain the color of gram staining) are resistant to drugs and really good at passing their resistant to other bacteria; motile means they can move on their own, and pathogenic means they are bad news for human beings: they cause disease. If the bacteria gets into a small cut in the skin, it may result in necrotizing fasciitis. The skin and other soft tissue, or fascia, simply rot away. As in… your foot will fall off. And thank God, my feet did not fall off in France, but I did meet the pathogen. The usual way humans come in contact with vibrio is by eating raw or undercooked seafood—especially oysters. I know all this because I wrote extensively about it for a series of audio lectures. And I even included a close call I had with sushi. And a warning about consuming raw fish. Especially from sources you are unfamiliar with.
You know, like when you are on vacation in the French Alps and decide half way up a mountain is a great place to eat raw oysters. Sure.
Now, technically, I did not get food poisoning in France. I actualy had no symptoms until we were half-way over the Alpine pass on our way to Italy, which is a REALLY BAD PLACE to get food poisoning symptoms. I did manage to keep it together (sweating and shaking) until we arrived in Turin. And I just want to say a heart-felt thank you to the Grand Sitean hotel for installing bidet in every en-suite room. Friends, DO NOT risk raw fishies while on vacation. But in addition to this PSA, I want to share some of the quirkier things that happened on our trek abroad. Like, the not-biological things.
Trying to Leave Chamonix is Difficult
I began the trip in Lund, Switzlerland. Actually, no. I began it in Copenhagen, which is a train ride away from Lund—a beautiful medieval town with glorious architecture, alleys, and rather hard to understand bicycle vs. pedestrian laws. From Lund, we flew to Geneva, rented a car, and drove to Chamonix, France (location of my future food fail). I’d never been. That close. To mountains. They are, literally:
So perfect are the vistas that I kept thinking a green-screen was involved. I am still not wholly convinced fancy camera work made it all happen.
I found it very hard to leave.
Literally, we couldn’t leave.
See, there is a tunnel through Mount Blanc and it is guarded by a gatekeeper that would keep good company with Charon or Anubis—or otherworldly bouncer of your choosing. This, incidentally, explains the long line. So long a line, in fact, that we would have turned around if not, you know, partway up the butt crack of a mountain. Slowly we creep toward the yawning maw of the mountain, the blinking stop light of destiny, and the cupboard-sized-hut of doom.
An employee in a blue vest tells Mark, in French, that the fee is 45 Euro. That’s about 10 more Euro than we had between us, so we fish out the usual soul-toll: an international credit card. There is a chip reader, so we tap. And we wait.
“No.” Says the gatekeeper.
“Was it denied?” Asks Mark (in English—I speak French but I am on the wrong side of the car). She mimes that he try again.
“I’ll try another card,” he says. And another. We try all the cards. We run out of cards.
“CASH,” she said.
“We don’t have any,” says Mark, “nous ne l'avons pas!” I shout from the passenger side. European drivers are, by and large, more polite than Cleveland ones… but there is tension rising in the queue. I see the apple cash icon and point.
Out comes my phone and I happily do the annoying double tap thing. And so we wait. The employee looks cross. A firm shake of the head.
Is that a honk I detect in the back of us? The drivers are restless. No one is moving. “WHY is it no?” I ask in truly terrible French, because I am flustered. It comes out like Can you tell me where to find the tell of why no work on the machine? Embarassing. She now has her fingers clutching the edge of her work station, blond hair flying in mountain wind. She fixes me with a steely glance.
“American Card. NO!” Triumphant, she adds. “CASH.” Because my nous-ne-l-avons-pas has long since been forgotten, I suppose. Mark decides to try an object lesson. He holds up 30 Euro.
“That’s it!” he says. She is unmoved. And while she has not spoken English up to this point, she says the next bit flawlessly:
“Go find a bank.”
My friends and colleagues, we are on a mountain. And there are about 40 very angry drivers behind us. AND we are in a queue hemmed in on two sides. I think you can understand my Quoi?? At this point, she waves to her colleague in the next glass cupboard. A woman younger than both of us pops over, has a listen, peeks into the window and says:
“You just have to enter your pin number.”
Pin number. Do you want to know the French translation of pin? It’s PIN. Yes, really, and no, it was never uttered in our direction by Charon of the Mountains. Perhaps she didn’t know that was the missing link. In any event, she looks at me, smiles, and says “PIN s'il te plaît,” and that worked just fine. Otherwise I would still be there.
This is a humorous anecdote, but I truly mean it when I say: Chamonix was utterly breathtaking and I will definitely go back. Just not through the tunnel.
No Boring Drinks in Italy
In Turin, Italy, there’s “Spritz hour.” It’s like happy hour, except pre-food is delivered with your food (in case you get hungry while ordering?) and the drink of choice is an Aperol Spritz. We took advantage of this one afternoon, and had such a lovely time that we went back. Mark recalled that the one waiting tables had been mixing drinks the day before; ah yes, it seems she was the bartender. And she HATES SPRITZ HOUR. The drinks are so boring. Oh, but we came for spritz hour, we tell her. She agrees to the cheap food but absolutely refuses to let us drink the “foof” drink.
What did we order instead? We didn’t. She decided I looked like a tequila and Mark looked like a gin, and away she went. Returned with the best damn drinks I’ve ever had and I don’t even know what they were or what was in them. Basil? Limes? Mark’s was blue? I don’t know. It was AMAZING. We asked her to pose with the creations.
Most of our time in Italy was spent gaping with mouths open at all the THINGS.
Geneva Airport Space Time
We all like google maps, right? It’s very useful. But in general, when it comes to the nitty-gritty, we most of us still want there to be… you know… road signs? Like “this way to the airport” for instance. Or, better yet, “rental cars go here.”
I should have known I was in trouble when the airport rental car people gave us a pictographic turn by turn map. (NOT a useful map. But the attempt was made). You see, rental car returns at the Geneva airport—an airport that is, yes, in TWO countries at once—exist within a time-space rip that you need Rey’s WayFinder from STARWARS to locate. Google maps, on the other hand, gave directions like turn left, turn rught, turn around three times, kill a chicken at midnight, summon the overlords…
AND there were no SIGNS. I have been to a lot of airports in a lot of countries. Even Marakesh had signs, mate. But when we finally found the place (beyond a field, under an overpass, and yet somehow still attached to the airport) the only sign that said “rental cars” was OVER THE PARKING SPOT. Even Mark, the easy going of our union, said I need a drink as we climbed the weird back entrance stairs to departures.
Safely in Geneva city center, we located an Irish pub playing David Attenborough videos (my version of dying and going to heaven). Having asked several people about why the airport is “like that” we discovered that the Swiss blame the French and the French blame the Swiss. In any case, we got a taxi to drop us back for the flight to Copenhagen, and he had no trouble getting us there. Maybe it’s us?
We’re back home again, and while it’s always difficult to come back online after time off, I do feel recharged. It’s probably my first real vacation since 2013—as in, I did no work. Well, okay I gave a keynote. But apart from that. Oh. And I worked on the sequel to the novel. But only a little. ANYWAY… I am back, and tomorrow is our next Peculiar Book Club show (live with Ed Yong for VIPs!)
See you next time—
[i] Michael P. Doyle, Larry R. Beuchat, and Thomas J. Montville, eds., Food Microbiology: Fundamentals and Frontiers (Washington, DC: ASM Press, 1997).
[ii] Yvette Brazier, “What Are Bacteria and What Do They Do?,” Medical News Today, February 12, 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/157973.
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Loved this riotous account of your trip. Your picture of the mountains from the cafe really brought home what you meant about the mountains being right. there. Mark's blue drink was so pretty I would have been tempted to drink it--which might not have gone well, since I don't drink. Everything sounds wonderful!