Coastal Touring

One of the coolest things about traveling is the rare experience of meeting people who are both wonderfully proud of their region and interested in welcoming outsiders. These odd breeds act as the best sort of travel guides for people like me, and I’ve had the luck of meeting quite a few here in Normandy.

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite such tour guides invited several members of the crew to spend the weekend at his parents’ cabin in Portbail. Rather than drive directly to the village just 45 minutes away, he took us on a six-hour road trip hugging the coast of Northwestern France. 

Tucked into one of those go-carts that the French have the gall to call “cars”, we puttered to Cherbourg for a midmorning coffee, then continued on, singing along to 70’s funk and unfolding ourselves out of the car every few kilometers to line up on a different beach and stare off into the distance. 

A fellow traveler

A fellow traveler

I collected shells beside the tiniest port in Europe and stood at a safe distance from cliffs with names like “The End of The World” and “The Nose of Jobourg” (no word on who Jobourg was or whether his schnoz really was the size of a small peninsula). My tour guides force-fed me steamed mussels after they were collected steps away from us on the Omonville beach (not really worth breaking my vegetarian lifestyle for it, but an interesting cultural experience, nonetheless) and we washed them down with peach liquor.

The Portbail sunset.

The Portbail sunset.

By the time we finally reached our destination, we had just enough time to go on one of the bigger grocery-shopping trips of my life and start cooking before the sun went down. Half a dozen of us sat outside and passed around guitars while the more culinary-inclined barbecued up a feast. We noshed and sang for hours upon hours. Around 5 in the morning, as the sky lightened and everyone else was still jamming along to French classics of the 1960s, I finally waved my white flag and crawled into the cabin loft for a few hours of rest before we started it all again the next day.

Across the magical frontier of lower Normandy, where all the inhabitants seem to be on permanent vacation time, I had a ball. It’s wonderful to have friends who have taken it upon themselves to show me their wonderful country. They are proud of where they come from and happy to show it off, and I’m tickled to be able to see this world through their expert eyes.


Hump Day Is My Favorite Day

Wednesdays are quickly becoming one of my favorite days here in France. Traditionally, high schoolers have class during the morning hours, and school closes for the afternoon (elementary schools are closed all day on Wednesdays). After a short workday, I’m usually able to leisurely eat my lunch in the half-empty cafeteria and spend the afternoon doing what I like until choir practice.

I had the luck of stumbling upon a choir several weeks ago, and I’ve been attending rehearsals ever since. It’s an independent community group, not associated with a school or church, composed mostly of adorable retirees who can’t help but make me feel at home. Every Wednesday night at eight o’clock, I am greeted by the powdery cheeks of each and every member just begging to be kissed, which takes at least fifteen minutes. The grannies warm up by marching in place and smiling at each other, then usually move on to some very silly sounding vocalizations, even for this veteran chorister. Next comes three hours (yep, you read that right) of practice. These retirees sure know how to party! I’m generally yawning through the last hour of rehearsal, but the rest of the group seems to have no problem singing until eleven at night. It’s not the most difficult of repertoire, but the group could hold its own in a Solfege competition and performs a nice mix of classical and traditional works. Mostly, I’m happy to have found an ensemble at all in this small town!

Lately, a whole contingent of assistants has joined in on the party, so the mamies and pépés have four of us young’uns to coddle and stuff with homemade cookies. They’re all so kind to us; it’s nice to have a little bit of the comforts of family here. I’m used to speaking with teenagers and middle-aged colleagues at work; being in the choir allows me to learn a whole new vocabulary and se profiter bien from the universal wisdom of the greatest generation.

And hey, the homemade desserts aren’t so bad, either.



Welcome To My Family

One of the best moments of having my parents come to Europe was getting to introduce them to my host family. We arrived in Tours with just enough time to drop their bags off at the hotel downtown and then head to the ‘burbs to meet the fam and enjoy an evening of French food and conversation. I was concerned about having to translate for the two groups all night, but everything went off without a hitch, largely due to the fact that my host family’s been majorly downplaying their English abilities. Surprise, surprise.

Anyway, I was tickled to get to show my parents what I’ve been up to for the past few months and give my host family a little insight into where I come from. I think they were a little shocked to see how much louder I got with my parents around! It’s so easy to become a “quiet” person when you don’t speak the language; you may have a story to tell, but because you can’t express it easily, you sometimes choose not to speak at all. Switching back to English made my muchness come back with a vengeance.
It was a great few days. There’s not a ton of touristy stuff to see within the city limits of Tours, but I took my parents to see one of France’s most famous châteaux, Chenonceau, and we had a great time walking the grounds. I’m always amazed when I realize that these beautiful places are a short train ride away from my home. Check out some of the pictures from our little daytrip!

After Chenonceau, it was time to put my parents on the train toward Paris and the USA. I miss them already, but I’ll be back in the States in less than a month and it will be a lovely reunion!

Normandy [Day 1]

I’ve just returned from my three-day trip to Normandy, and I have so much to write about. This post will be the first of multiple (most likely 3) parts. Seatbelts everyone: we’re about to dive into some major history nerd territory.

First, a little background:
I consider myself to be a lover of stories and ancient peoples, but I wouldn’t call myself a history buff. I prefer personal memoirs and sociology to textbooks and battle plans . So, the majority of my World War II knowledge is focused on the Holocaust and the daily life of civilians during wartime. Both of my grandfathers served in the Pacific theatre, but neither has ever been too keen to discuss their time overseas, and I suppose I’ve never pushed them to do so.
All that changed when I learned last Fall that my great-uncle was one of the 156,000 men who landed on the Norman coast on June 6, 1944 to liberate France from the Nazi occupation. I couldn’t believe that no one in my family had ever bothered to tell me such an important story about one of the most famous days in modern history. Now, with a personal link to D-Day, I became much more interested in the events that took place on that fateful day, and decided to plan a trip to the north of France.

I booked a hotel in Bayeux, the first town that was liberated by the Allies after D-Day and a culturally rich area in its own right. It was a great place to be; I spent my first day exploring the tiny village’s ancient sites.
Most of the surrounding area was pretty much destroyed and rebuilt after the war. How strange to think of European villages without Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals, and Renaissance plazas! Bayeux, though, was hardly touched by the multiple bombings, so the main cathedral and several other buildings are still standing. Lucky me!

I went to the Notre Dame cathedral to start my sightseeing. What a beautiful place. Even though it was freezing cold, windy, and cloudy outside (it hailed later that afternoon!), the inside was flooded with light. The architects in 1077 definitely understood Normandy weather and took advantage of what little natural light was available! Yes, you read that date correctly; the church was built in 1077 over an ancient Roman sanctuary, and prominently features both Roman and Gothic styles in different sections of the building. It will never cease to amaze me how ancient people were able to calculate how to erect such monuments without computers or even a reliable ruler.

The view from my hotel. Not too shabby.

Loved the rainbow effect from the stained glass windows.

Light from the top windows of the cathedral.

Colorful ice cream stand outside the cathedral!

I walked next door to see the Bayeux Tapestry, a massive embroidered wall hanging that also dates back to the 1070s. The Tapestry is basically a 230-foot long comic strip that tells the story of how William the Conquerer won the Battle of Hastings. It’s kept behind glass in a darkened room, and visitors can walk along it while listening to an audio recording that describes the action in each panel. I selected the French recording, and I’m proud to say I understood nearly all of it!

Just outside of the museum, I hopped on a little tourist train that rode through Bayeux and showed lots of neat monuments. I generally prefer to walk on my own to familiarize myself with a new place, but it was raining and windy, so I was willing to part with two euros for a mini tour. It really did give a good overview of the town, but that’s not hard to do, seeing as there are only 16,000 people and most of those seem to be Anglophone tourists. Honestly, I’ve seen more baseball caps and Northface windbreakers in the past three days than I’ve seen in the past four months-Normandy is still definitely a tourist destination even in the offseason.

The limited view from my little train car. I was so glad there were plastic screens to block the wind, even though they prevented me from taking pictures.

At the suggestion of the hotel concierge, I went to dinner at Pate à Pat, a cozy (read: tiny) galetterie right beside the cathedral. I nommed on a a salad and a galette complete-mushroom, ham, cheese, and egg wrapped in a buckwheat crêpe. Of course, I had to have dessert, too, which was a café gourmand with two tiny caramel crêpes, teurgoule (a sort of rice pudding) and a brownie with crème anglaise. Delish. My dinner came with a show in the form of a group of Englishmen beside me, whose laughs got louder and louder as they emptied their steins. I love eating alone and just listening to other diner’s conversations; it makes for great entertainment.

My classic galette, or savory crêpe.

Mini desserts and espresso rounded out the meal.

As the sun set, spotlights turned on, and the cathedral was bathed in a warm glow.

I left the restaurant in search of breakfast for the next day and passed by a small group of obvious tourists on the sidewalk. At that moment, I heard one of the women say the three most beautiful words in the English language: “bless his heart“.
Needless to day, I. Had. A. Moment.
I couldn’t help but stop her and ask where she and the rest of the group were from. The lady replied that they were all recent retirees from Texas, and I got a little teary as I explained that I hadn’t heard a southern accent in several months and it warmed my heart to hear one now. I got way too dramatic over such a silly thing but it was just really nice to hear a bit of home! The whole group asked me all about my experiences abroad, and we just stood there on the street for a few minutes talking. The lady even gave me a real hug-another thing I haven’t experienced in months. You never realize the things you miss until they suddenly pop up out of nowhere. It made my day.

I headed back to my hotel to hit the hay-I had a big day planned for Tuesday! Check back tomorrow to read about my tour of the D-Day beaches.

Suddenly I See

It was drizzly (English?) and chilly this morning in Tours, and I didn’t really want to go on our class field trip to another château, but I packed my camera and went anyway. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to stay in bed; the few of us who managed to attend all groaned as we hopped on the train headed for Azay-le-Rideau.

When we arrived at the castle, though, the sudden sight of such beautiful Renaissance architecture made the trip worth it. As you can see from the photos, Azay-le-Rideau is surrounded by a small pond and lovely green lawns. Large windows and open staircases lend an airiness to the building that medieval castles just couldn’t ever figure out. No defense mechanisms here-this château is purely for pleasure.
Guided by our professor, we spent a few hours touring the castle and surrounding property, and then we were let loose to wander around the tiny village for the rest of the afternoon.
The town wasn’t much to look at, but we grabbed a snack at a patisserie and enjoyed our time away from the daily grind in Tours. Châteaux always seem like a world away from real life!

the village outside the château was covered in creeping vines and tree limbs.

Around the back of the property-this pond was created in the 19th century by flooding the gardens that once filled the area.

Another view from the opposite side.

Let’s Get Rich And Buy Our Parents Homes In The South Of France

I’ve decided that I’m just going to have to move to the South of France. Bordeaux was absolutely lovely this weekend, and a completely different experience from Paris, Tours, or the rest of the center of France.

Seven girls (four Canadians, two Americans, and a Scot) piled into a train on Friday morning and set out for the land of vineyards and sunshine. As soon as we got to the city, it was obvious that we were in a new region. The architecture, dialect, and general attitude were so much more relaxed than those of the North. Hundreds of people sunbathed in parks and on the main plaza while street bands played and candy vendors pushed their carts up and down the alleys. It felt more like New Orleans than France!

We spent most of Friday exploring the main areas of town and people-watching. We enjoyed a bottle of wine in the city park, and visited the main cathedral and shopping district. We couldn’t have asked for better weather or a friendlier atmosphere-it was a beautiful day.

Rows and rows of chairs in the cathedral.

The beautiful organ-I would have loved to hear it!

A view from the top of St. Emilion. Something I could definitely get used to.

On Saturday morning, we were picked up by our personal driver and taken on a private tour of the countryside outside of Bordeaux (No, I can’t believe my life here, either). We strolled through the cobblestone streets of Saint Emilion, an ancient village about an hour away from the city, and visited the Christian Gombard Vineyard, where the proprietor himself took us through every step of the red wine-making process, from growing the grapes to bottling it all up. Some of my favorite fun facts:

1. During the growing process, about half the grapes in the vineyard are thrown out for various quality-control reasons. It takes a lot of work to make just a little product!

2. There’s no difference in species between the different types of red wine (Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet, etc.) The grapes are just picked at different times. Merlots are sweeter because the grapes are picked about fifteen days later than the other grapes, allowing for more sugar to accumulate in the fruit.

3. Bordeaux is famous for blending two or more types of wine to create unique flavors. See-sometimes it’s a good thing to mix your alcohols!

4. The wine is stored in huge wooden barrels for several months to finish fermenting, and the type of wood used helps to flavor the wine even more. Each barrel at the vineyard we visited holds about sixty gallons of wine.

5. It takes about two years for a grape to go from harvest to the bottle, but it’s worth it to wait even longer for a more fully flavored wine.

We even got to taste a few of the owner’s personal favorites, and he gave us a crash course on how to properly taste a high-quality wine. It was all very fancy-we spent more time giggling over how ridiculous we looked than anything else-but very fun and informative. Definitely something every French study-abroader should learn!

It turns out that "I Love Lucy" was somewhat romanticized-grapes are generally crushed by these big silos instead of feet.

The dark cave where barrels are kept as the wine ferments.

One of the thousands of vineyards in the Bordeaux area. They'll be harvested at the end of September-can you say "return trip"?

What a beautiful country and an exciting weekend. After having spent only 36 hours in Bordeaux, I’ve fallen in love. I can’t wait to return someday to see more of what the region has to offer.

Bicycle Race

Who said the French didn’t love sports?

I am pretty proud to say that I biked twenty kilometers in the countryside today. After a yummy lunch of salad, sausages, and Lays chips (you should have seen the look on my face when they pulled out the bag), the family and I hopped on our bikes and headed for the horizon. If I had known we were going to go as far as we did, I would have probably made a quick excuse not to go, but I’m glad I had no idea!
As a generally un-athletic and uncoordinated person, I try to avoid devices with wheels as much as possible. This includes roller skates, bikes, skateboards, motorized scooters, wheely office chairs, and just about anything else that holds the possibility of me falling flat on my face. To sum up, I’m no good on a bike. However, I’m glad to say that this adventure passed without incident. Even though there was quite a bit of rough terrain and not nearly enough cushioning on my bike seat, I made it without too much difficulty. To make it even better, we met lots of furry friends at the farms along the way. Here are a few of the photos I managed to take while rolling along.

We happened upon a man driving a cart with two donkeys-Laurent happily rode alongside to chat for a while.

Martine was a little scared to get too close to this donkey-she kept jerking her hand back!

Simon shares Martine's concerns about being bitten by large animals, but this pony wasn't about to hurt anyone!

We stayed with the pony for a long time, feeding him the grass that really was much better on our side of the fence.

A nice pause from riding. I think I'll go back to visit our pony friend next week.

It was a beautiful day and a lovely ride. When we made it back home, Laurent informed me that the family goes on much longer bike rides nearly every weekend during the Spring and Summer. Bring on those hills-I have a few French pastries to work off!