What can I report on France which I have just visited for the first time? (I was raised there until I was 11, I am fluent, and I am half french. In my hundreds of weeks spent there with family, I have never toured the countryside–the expatriate lifestyle is full of obligations to aging grandparents and rickety parental units.)
As I traveled around the countryside for five days–La Rochelle, Nantes, Carnac, St. Malo, Mont St. Michel, Cancale–the french met my expectations. They are notable for their subdued delight in the essential bodily pleasures. Note the forlorn way the distinguished Maitre D’, short on staff, will deliver the world’s freshest oysters to the table. It is like eating the sea’s heart. The oysters are cold, they are salty, they are the children of a thousand waves.
It’s hard for me to see France without my childhood inserting itself. There’s also the France in my head, corrupted by years of living in America–the hodgepodge of satiric representations: Pepe Le Pew, Christopher Walken playing the Continental on Saturday Night Live, Freedom Fries, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (Thank you Simpsons).
We didn’t have an itinerary until the day we left to pick up our rental car. I made one decision–no chateaux! (Too many palaces and fortresses visited in India in June.)
However, the France I saw was delightful in providing varied backgrounds for fantastic daydreams. We went to visit Les Machines de L’ile in Nantes and it was like being in a Hollywood movie, except the special effects weren’t digitized, they were real. And the children were quiet and well behaved (relatively speaking.) We went because we’d heard that we could ride a giant wooden mechanical elephant. And we did. The elephant sprays water out of its trunk on those who get too close to its path. It’s a whimsical, stunning, gigantic thing.
We also saw a giant mechanical heron carrying four people “fly” on a suspended track. It was wonderful to see adult imagination look so much like child’s play.
Then we went to Carnac which has several thousand menhirs standing in long lines–they are called The Alignments, and there are several different clusters. The picture below is of The Alignments of Le Menec.
They are more than 5000 years old. I got excited reading about them, and then I saw them. The overwhelming first impression is pretty low key: yup, a bunch of stones. But then we took the tour which explained the amount of work involved, the potential meaning of the stones, and the way trade worked around 3500 B.C. I started imagining a Celtic wold full of chieftains undertaking big projects to mark prosperity and territory. I imagined the way the stones might have looked originally, one side raw, one side smooth, one gleaming white side, the underbelly yanked from the rock.
The next day we drove to St. Malo which is a walled city of stone built on the riches accumulated by French Corsairs (pirates sanctioned by the King). We walked the ramparts at sunset. I imagined being the wife of a corsair, waiting for the ship to come back. Each day we ate seafood, crepes, varied items drenched in sea-salt caramel. We asked for and ate a lot of butter on bread, because the butter in France is utterly delicious, full of flavor, with an amount of salt that perfectly complements bread.
For our first rainy day, we headed to Mont St. Michel which I had visited once before and which I remembered for its stunning beauty and dramatic vistas.
Even though it was a gray day, it was still lovely. For those who love photography, the winding spiral path to the top offers a new perspective every few feet. Once we reached the Abbey at the top, the challenge got more daunting, with sweeping views and dramatic angles. We visited twice, once at the end of the day, and again at night. The nighttime visit was more whimsical, with projected light shows and lone candlelight musicians in different rooms. The harp, flute, and viola we heard each sounded both spooky and ethereal. These were holy spaces, so I pondered the experience of silence and beauty for the monks and nuns who had crossed these halls over the centuries.
On our last day, we took a culinary excursion to Cancale, home of the amazing oysters we had been served in St. Malo.