4 May 2007

Norman nostalgia

(This is an entry that should have been posted at the end of September 2006!)

We reached Caen on Friday evening at about 6pm. The rain in Deauville hadn’t followed us and the sun revealed the rich, creamy colour of the stone of the castle around which Caen is built. We parked the car in the Libération car park and walked to our friends’ flat, a stone’s throw away.

Even in their flat in Caen, our friends’ taste and passion for antique furniture was obvious. A few years ago, they bought two flats and converted them into one, and throughout they decorated it with old fireplaces, antique beds and 18th century banquettes and armchairs. The only piece of furniture that was old but battered and ugly was the kitchen table and chairs. ‘While waiting for something better to come along...’ our Australian friend, A., said. Then she explained: ‘Actually, F. [her husband, who is French] wanted me to go and get a cheap table; I got so fed up with the chore of buying furniture that I bought the cheapest and most horrible table. That taught him a lesson.’

We were soon joined by our third friend, D., and an hour later by F., who came back from work and greeted his three children, his wife and his friends with joviality and immense pleasure. Our evening could finally start properly.

For dinner, A. prepared fresh mussels that she had bought from the market that morning, with freshly made... French fries from the local McDonald’s! A Franco-American combination that made the traditional Belgian moules-frites not as delicious as it should have been, but the conviviality of the meal made up for it. We then had a selection of French cheeses and a delicious salad made from proper French lettuce (they just don’t know how to cultivate round lettuce here in England – it just never tastes the same), followed by apple crumble. F. served some divine wine (wine and calvados are his other passions) and I started feeling quite at home.

Oh but hang on a minute – that’s right, I was at home! I was in France! But this is what’s been happening in recent years. I consider myself English and when I go to France, I don’t quite feel French any more. One day soon, I’ll take the test of British citizenship and become a British citizen. How will I feel then?

We spoke a mixture of English and French and I realised, once more, how pleasant it would be if we could do the same at home, Monsieur l’Anglais and myself. But his French is just not good enough. We say a sentence or two, and then have to revert to English if we want to have a proper conversation.

At midnight, after much eating, drinking and laughter, Monsieur l’Anglais, D. and I headed for the car park to drive to our friends’ country chateau, 20 minutes outside of Caen. But the metal doors were well and truly pulled down, our car imprisoned underground. There was no way of getting to our car!

‘I knew it! I should have checked! A 24-hour car park in a small French town? No way, not possible! I knew it! I should have listened to my instinct and double-checked!’

D., who had parked his MG in another part of town, had already left us to our own devices. Luckily, we had arranged to meet up at a crossroads in town, because we didn’t quite know how to get out of Caen to reach the chateau. We waited and waited, and waited some more. I was getting cold, so we decided to call A. and F. and explain the situation rather than wait another minute – who knew how much longer D. would be...

Apologising profusely, I explained the problem to F. – we were stranded in the middle of Caen, waiting for D. who wouldn’t be able to take us both in his little MG. The solution imposed itself: it was half past midnight and our host would have to get out of bed, put some clothes on and drive us to the chateau, after drinking we were not too sure how much alcohol. He assured us that he was fine and that he hadn’t drunk much at all. It was obvious to me that he had drunk well over the legal limit, but we decided to take our chances, since there was no room for us to sleep in their flat. Well, there was, but F. wouldn’t let us sleep on his banquette or floor, ‘Come on!’.

Anyway, F. and I arrived at the chateau, unscathed, 20 minutes later, and Monsieur l’Anglais and D. another 15 minutes later (D. is a bit of a slow driver, and things haven’t changed since he bought the MG a few months ago!).

What I had only been able to imagine these past three years suddenly came to life in front of my eyes. The lighting was subtle, the night very dark outside the huge, floor-to-ceiling windows, but I could tell that I was in truly special surroundings.

‘I don’t see it any more – I know it’s beautiful, but I don’t notice things any more,’ said F. when I uttered a few words of wonder, amazement and awe at the old windows, the original stone fireplace, the shiny parquet and the wood panelling.

‘It’s all 18th century. Even the parquet. I managed to find just enough to cover the floor in this room.’

The bedroom we would sleep in for the next three nights was also 18th century. It was pale yellow with hints of pale green, from the fireplace to the wood panelling to the windows, right down to the bed frame. By comparison, the adjoining bathroom was ultra-modern, but even there, there were hints of history – the tall windows, the antique mirror, the imposing wooden cupboard.

I felt like Marie-Antoinette must have felt when she first entered Versailles.

Monsieur l’Anglais and I slept soundly through the silent night and woke up at 10, after opening our eyes briefly at 8 and thinking that it was far too early to get out of bed. Getting up late is so unlike us, I couldn’t believe we had overslept so much! The sun was shining and it was a very mild air that meandered its way into our room when I slowly, carefully drew the curtains and opened the large, 17th century windows. We were going to have a fabulous weekend!

We had a cup of tea on the terrace next to the kitchen, then Monsieur l’Anglais and D. left in the MG to go back to Caen and collect our own MG from the car park, which hopefully would be open by then and be able to release our little car.

F. disappeared somewhere in the huge grounds that surround the house to do a spot of gardening, while I... set off on an exploration of the park on my own.

I started with the orchard, populated by 5,000 apple trees. In my search for the best pomme for my breakfast, I got very wet feet and trousers but I enjoyed the silence, the low sun rays on my skin and the fruity smells all around me. I ate three apples during my walk, and gathered a few for the men.

When I went back to the house, I took off my drenched shoes and let them dry on the double staircase at the front of the house, which the sun splashed with its rays. I then went around all the rooms in the chateau and relished looking at such gorgeous walls, furniture, paintings and floors. Rameau’s harpsichord music, which F. had put on in the living room, resonated in the whole house – perfect melodies to accompany my tour.

It was so peaceful, I nearly didn’t want Monsieur l’Anglais and D. to come back. As it turned out, they didn’t for another hour, during which I discovered the literature of Anais Nin. Our Australian friend A. had one of her diaries stashed away in the library corner of our bedroom, and I found out a thing or two about this amazing writer. Her diaries will sure be part of my next Amazon order! I had vaguely heard about her, but didn’t know who she was, nor that she had actually spent some time in France. I can’t wait to read her books now!

A scrumptious apple in one hand, the delectable book in the other, I settled myself on one of the front stone steps and let my trousers and shoes dry in the sun and gentle breeze. I was in heaven.

When my husband and D. finally came back, I had a hot shower and delighted in changing my clothes (in which I had spent 8 hours sitting in the car and another 9 hours sleeping in the bed – the heating wasn’t on in the chateau because the weather was still mild, but not quite so mild at night as to sleep with nothing on!). Half an hour later, the three of us were in a little town 5 kilometres away and sitting down at a table in a typical small Norman restaurant. Although D. is English, he is treated like a local when he arrives in that eatery. He has, after all, been coming to the area for 15 years because he also owns a chateau 5 kilometres away, though in the other direction. A place I had been longing to see for three years too and couldn’t believe I was roughly two hours away from discovering.

After our delicious but simple meal, we went to the borough where D.’s chateau is. It is not even a village – it’s just a cluster of five houses, and then it’s fields and national forest all around. While there is a 1-kilometre track to get to A. and F.’s chateau, there is no such path to V..., D.’s chateau. Nonetheless, the view is no less spectacular. It is an imposing mansion, very long and quite high, at the bottom of a grassy slope that you have to negotiate with care when you drive an MG as the path is uneven.

But inside! Inside! I was shocked! D. and his partner have had this chateau for 15 years and practically nothing has been done. Well, everything that has been done is invisible – the electricity, the plumbing, structural work, the taking-out of the mud and soil between the beams in order to relieve them from the weight bearing on them from one floor to the other, and of course, the roof. But there are still rooms with no floor or no ceiling! It’s all still an empty shell, anxiously waiting to be filled with all the things that D. and his partner have bought over the years, themselves waiting patiently in storage.

I soon made myself at home, however. I just ignored the naked walls, the dirty floors, the dusty shelves and furniture items, and sat down next to the floor-to-ceiling fireplace, on the 18th-century rocking chair. Once the fire got going, I stopped shivering from the cold and started relaxing properly.

Soon, it was dark and the fire was roaring, echoing our laughter and D.’s lengthy diatribes about French taxes, the United States (one of A.’s friends there was American) and the awful European laws. We left at 8.30 p.m. and then ate pain perdu for dinner at A. and F.’s, a typical French dish (which I believe translates as ‘French bread’, ironically!) that you usually make when you don’t know what to cook – a mixture of eggs, milk and sugar, in which you soak slices of (usually stale) bread, which you then cook in a frying pan until golden. Absolutely delicious! Because of its unhealthy, fattening quality, my mum never made it for me, but my nanny had a few times, in the many years I had spent at her house, between the ages of 3 and 10.

On the Sunday, we got up at 9 a.m. and joined D. at his chateau at midday. For the next two hours, we prepared bowls of lettuce, some vinaigrette, a kilo and a half of green beans, small potatoes, a two-inches-thick côte de bœuf and the fire to cook it over – an indoor barbeque of sorts!

When guests started to arrive (the American lady and her French husband, A., F. and their children), I felt quite at home cooking, boiling, tossing, marinating, cutting. I was the lady of the house and assumed my role quite seriously. I also took a few pictures. The one of the dining room, with the low rays of the sun illuminating softly the long 17th-century table and benches, is my favourite and became my computer background as soon as I came back home.

The ensuing lunch and afternoon were just heaven. I felt completely at home and realised the chasm that separates the English culture from the French one. Even with English and American people in the house, the simple fact of being in France changes how people eat, act, interact and think. We were truly living how the French live – how I used to live when I was in France full time. I felt so relaxed and so happy, yet at the same time I longed for the possibility of doing this in England and wondered why it just wasn’t possible, even in my own home. It’s all down to the produce (no English butcher will ever sell you a piece of meat like the one the French butcher had sold D.; the green beans do not look, let alone taste, the same [although I have since found some excellent ones at Waitrose, exactly the same as the French ones I’m used to!]), but also, I believe, to the conviviality of the French style that tends to be copied while in France – because it would be an offence not to live as the French do, even when you are a foreigner. The American lady had even made a macédoine de légumes, just the same as I used to have at the school canteen, with a little home-made mayonnaise. You can’t get more French than that!

I felt incredibly good but also incredibly nostalgic. I was this close to wondering why I have lived in England for the past 11 years when life could have been this good all along, in my own country... A bad case of ‘the grass is greener on the other side of the fence’ – of the Channel in this case. Literally, the grass is greener in England, because of the weather – but metaphorically? Sometimes I’m not so sure...

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