Monday 2nd April 2012, On board Mont St. Michel crossing between Portmouth and Caen
After five months back in England we are again crossing the Channel to France to see our friends in Caen before starting out for a couple of months along Europe’s byways with Modestine, having left our daughter Kate to occupy and care for our home.
It has been a good few months back in Devon; an opportunity to catch up with many friends, carry out a few repairs and alterations on the house, give the garden a deal of much needed care and attention and spend time with our children and grandchildren.
Once the sun begins to shine again in earnest and buds start to appear in the hedgerows however, we become restless and feel the urge for the open roads once more. Although we have now visited most of the countries of Europe and we are unlikely to travel so far or for so long again, there are obviously places we missed along the way and Europe is once again drawing us back.
Wednesday 4th April 2012, Caen
We reached Geneviève on Monday night to receive the same happy welcome. There was even a chocolate cake awaiting Ian so he’s already started enjoying his favourite delight of travelling. Yesterday started freezing cold but very bright and sunny. After a leisurely breakfast catching up on five months of news about our various families and friends we visited the nearby street market. With the first round of the French presidential elections looming leaflets were thrust into our hands by the various candidates’ representatives. Geneviève and I tried not to own Ian as he entered into a healthy argument playing devil’s advocate with Sarkozy’s supporters. Their leaflet called on the French to support all that was strong about France - the land of Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Charles De Gaulle. Ian suggested Sarkozy’s choices lacked judgement, pointing out that the French had burned the first in Rouen and exiled the second to the Channel Islands whilst De Gaulle spent the 2nd World War safely tucked away in England. Before the argument became too heated we dragged him away to the cake shop – always guaranteed to calm him down – to select a box of creamy gateaux for our dinner invitation with our retired library friends Marie-Françoise and Odile. Unfortunately Ian has now discovered M. Sarkozy will be lobbying as a presidential candidate in Caen on Friday and is determined to attend the meeting!
Returning home we bumped into Geneviève’s mother, Germaine, at 91 out taking a stroll in the sunshine. Next we met her brother Yves off to the swimming pool. We meet as many friends in the streets here as we do back home in Exeter!
Lunchtime in the garden sunshine was wonderful and hot enough for the sunshade. The afternoon passed exploring the botanic gardens with its orangery and hot houses filled with tropical plants where we followed winding paths through a jungle of banana, cocoa, coffee and pepper plants. Nearby we explored the primrose strewn but overgrown and disused cemetery with its broken tombs, smothering ivy and rusted wrought iron railings. It is now a haven of tranquillity and home to wild birds, small mammals and the ghosts of Caen’s nineteenth century past.
Returning home we discovered an empty jeroboam of quality Buzet wine too large to fit into the recycling bottle bank. Happily the French consider the English to be eccentric (why?) so Geneviève accepted it as normal that we should take it back to her house with grand ideas of turning it into a lamp. It now shares the lounge with a large flag of the Queen we’ve suspended over her television screen. So there is at least one corner of a foreign land that is, if not forever England, at least a souvenir of the Queen’s sixty years of monarchy! It was also an excuse for some amusement amongst our friends. Generally the French people regard the Queen with a certain respect and there is interest in her diamond jubilee.
Last night we were invited for supper with Marie-Françoise in her oh, so French flat high above the city with sunset views over the leaning towers of the Eglise St Jean. The lounge has large velvet sofas piled high with satin cushions, and brocade chairs with curved legs and scrolled wooden arms. China is kept in a massive carved wooden dresser, generations old, while the large defunct grandfather clock in the hall has a new lease of life housing wine glasses and bottles of port, martini, whisky, cognac and muscat. Faded family photos of generations past wearing high collars and hats hang on the walls while heavy floral drapes are at the windows. It is a room so full of charm and interest. We spent a delightful evening where we were spoilt beyond belief with several different wines and countless courses of delicious food, the centrepiece of which was succulent pork served with apples and prunes. We do not deserve such unbounded generosity and friendship from our friends – but that doesn’t stop us loving every second of it! Merci beaucoup Marie-Françoise, nous sommes vraiment gâtés!
Saturday 7th April 2012, Caen
We’ve been busy over the past few days visiting friends, lounging in the city’s coffee shops and soaking up the uniquely French atmosphere of the Friday market from where we carried home mushroom quiches for lunch. They were home-made, creamy and delicious.
On Wednesday we dined with our friend Claire. Her son Marc was Neil’s penfriend some 25 years ago and we have all stayed friends. Marc happened to be back in Caen on a training course so we had the added delight of seeing him again after a gap of several years. Thank you Claire for a delightful evening.
For librarians: Thursday our friend Bénédicte from the Bibliothèque Municipale called after work for an apéro and stayed for supper. We heard all the latest library gossip and felt very envious that France is not suffering the dreadful decimation of the library service that we are facing in Britain. The new library is still at the planning stage but advancing rapidly while with special funding it is also hoped to embark on digitising the texts of works published in Caen from the 16th right up to the end of the 19th century. End for Librarians
Yesterday was Good Friday. It is a day like any other in France where only Easter Monday is a national holiday. In the evening President Sarkozy flew in to Carpiquet Airport for a whistle-stop visit prior to the first round of the presidential elections due on 22nd April. The country is gripped by election fever with enthusiastic supporters of the various parties handing out leaflets on street corners. A gathering of anti-Sarkozy protesters was busy with banners down in the city centre but the party faithful were crowding into the huge Zenith concert hall on the outskirts of the city not far from Geneviève’s home. Leaving Geneviève at home where the banner of our Queen still festoons the lounge Ian and I headed for Zenith on foot. The hall had been full for hours with flag-waving supporters and drafted-in youngster wearing tee-shirts proclaiming that “Les jeunes sont pour Sarkozy”. We were frisked as at airports and permitted into the vast entrance lobby where activities within the auditorium were transmitted via overhead projectors. It was as near as we got to the President but it did mean we could slip out before the crowd at the end. Of course he was delayed coming through Caen and we watched several enthusiastic and highly influential supporters –including Bernadette Chirac, wife of the former president and discredited mayor of Paris - winding the crowd to a frenzy of enthusiastic cheering and flag-waving. M. Sarkozy is of diminutive stature despite his high heels and he looked exhausted as he ploughed his way through enthusiastic supporters to the podium. At this point many of those in the foyer made a concerted attack on the doors of the auditorium and many made it through onto the gangways inside before security forces jumped barriers and forcefully pushed the rest of them back.
Sarkozy’s clarion-call is “La France Forte” and he called on his supporters to uphold French values, to be the masters of its destiny, to help the weak and vulnerable, to spread its values and culture and never to accept globalisation unless the rules were applied equally. The usual rhetoric really but a fascinating experience for us having never attended a party rally before. Every phrase was punctuated with cheers and flags. The camera scanned the crowd focusing on wet-eyed women and one lone black supporter waving his flag. Otherwise everybody appeared to be white, smart and fashionably dressed. Sarkozy himself had eyes that brimmed with tears so strong was his plea to the people of Caen, of Normandy and of France to support him in his patriotic struggle to keep France strong and to bring him back for a second term as President. (The fact that he is of Hungarian descent and his current wife is Italian does not escape the polemics of opposing candidates.)
We found the tannoyed jingoism difficult to understand properly and, having savoured the atmosphere, we slipped away, lured home by the thought of a glass of wine with Geneviève before supper. On the way we took a short-cut down a back lane where we were stopped by a couple of police who asked us if we’d noticed anything odd about a character we’d passed further back. Apart from him lingering there swathed in a huge orange blanket and needing a shave and a good meal he’d seemed okay. We left them to decide what to do about him.
Saturday 7th April 2012, Caen, continued
Today has been pleasant and low key. Before lunch we called on Odile in the centre of the town for coffee before adjourning to the nearby former Chamber of Commerce, now a rather upmarket Asian restaurant where we sat in the half light amongst bamboo plants and flickering candles and were served chicken chop suey, beef, vegetables and rice in little bowls. An interesting and pleasant enough experience in France where such restaurants are less common than in Britain.
The weather has been cold but we decided to visit the coast at least once while we are here so drove to Cabourg, a seaside resort of great charm that regularly lures us back. We were not the only ones to appreciate the delightful seaside architecture of the closing years of the 19th century. The main street was crowded with Parisians spending the weekend on the coast while, despite the chill, the wide sandy beaches were speckled with happy families digging sandcastles, playing ball games and strolling along beside the incoming tide. The sky and the sea offered a beautiful fusion of blue green colour with an almost luminous glow. No wonder this coast was a magnet for artists and writers during the heyday of Les Stations Balnéaires.
The Grand Hotel de Cabourg is as magnificent today as it was when the writer Marcel Proust spent time there in the past, adding much to the fame and the charm of the place. Today there was a special exhibition of paintings and sculptures, offering us a good excuse to explore the interior with its wide carpeted corridors, large mirrors, decorative chandeliers, heavy ornate sofas and magnificent window drapes with views overlooking the sea and framing the ferry on its way across to England.
Before we left home Kate made us a special anniversary card where the centre of every flower was a 2 euro piece. She told us it was for a treat on our travels. So we indulged in thick hot chocolate and Madeleines, just as Proust might have done, served to us at a low table where we lounged in velvet armchairs, soaking up the ambiance.
We bravely followed this by a brisk walk along the seafront before returning home via the coast road, crossing the river Orne to reach Caen via the reconstructed Pegasus Bridge where the D-Day attack on the Normandy Coast first began in June 1944.
Monday 9th April 2012, Caen
We had intended to move on today but it has been such a crowded Easter weekend we are not yet prepared, and in any case the roads will be busy with everyone returning home after driving huge distances across France to be with their families. (Here they only celebrate Easter Sunday and Monday. School holidays are staggered and many do not begin for another week or two.)
Yesterday was wet as we walked down to the Sunday market with a commission to purchase the bread for the Easter lunch along with a selection of cheeses which we chose from an open sided van in the heart of the market along beside the marina in the canal basin. Geneviève was back home preparing lunch and driving to the station to collect Cécile and her partner Jean-François who arrived from Paris at midday.
Having struggled through the crowds in the rain and thoroughly enjoyed the patois of the Moroccan couscous vendors and the stalls selling rotisseried chickens, tartiflette and paella, in order to avoid our three unwrapped baguettes getting soaked further we crossed to the PMU for a warm-up with coffee and croissants.
The PMU is the antithesis of the Grand Hotel at Cabourg. It is the state-run betting shop which also serves alcohol and coffee. Yesterday it was packed and steamy as we sat squashed together at little tables while the waiter patted regular clients on the back and passed our coffee over the heads of others to reach us. Outside, market stall holders warmed up with coffee and cigarettes as they sheltered beneath the PMU awning from the continuing rain. The betting machine had pride of place in the centre of the bar. Here people filled in their betting slips and fed them, with their bets into the machine’s electronic jaws before crowding around the overhead screen to watch the progress of the race. (Today they were betting on “Le Trotting”, a uniquely French experience where horses run pulling lightweight carts and a jockey around a circuit.)
Crowded as the bar was we were soon joined by a group of musicians with a saxophone, clarinet, banjo and washboard. They wore bright yellow jackets advertising Ricard pastis. Meanwhile a colleague circulated the bar handing out free glasses of this aniseed aperitif and the atmosphere rapidly became even more jolly as our eardrums were blasted with jazz and the lively rhythm of metal thimbles slithering and tapping on the zinc washboard.
By the time they eventually moved on and we could squeeze out of the bar we were late for lunch and Ian had consumed not only his Ricard but mine as well! Not really my taste.
Back home Cecile and Jean-François had arrived and we were soon sitting down to the traditional Easter meal centred around roast lamb. Our market cheeses were appreciated, as was the Devon-made Easter simnel cake. The table was decorated with chocolate chickens and tiny chocolate eggs. During the afternoon we were joined by Yves and various cousins and friends for champagne and apéros. The hubhub of conversation became increasingly difficult to follow as our brains tired of following several conversations on different topics at the same time!
Today is grey and cold. Everyone here and at Yves’ house around the corner will be departing back to Paris this afternoon. The past week has flown by but tomorrow we really must move on, even if as yet we haven’t actually decided whether to make our way to Holland, Belgium or Germany! Stay with us, it should be interesting whatever we decide to do.