29 September 2009
I know Michael can identify with this rueful remark (in bold type, last paragraph) by Thomas Sutcliffe in a short piece from The Independent.
You can't beat John Lewis
I don't think John Lewis should worry too much about the mischievous ad campaign that suggests people should take advantage of their customer service to research a purchase and then buy it online instead (the competitors shall remain nameless as punishment).
I mentioned this casually to a group of colleagues and provoked a spontaneous clamour of indignation on the store's behalf, John Lewis clearly figuring in the middle-class heart as an organisation so cherishable you could only match its appeal if you mated a giant panda with David Attenborough.
Shortly afterwards I experienced just why this should be when ordering some bedroom blinds. "You'll have the measurements on file," I told the salesman, explaining that the ones I was ordering were a replacement for a set delivered only a few weeks before that had turned out to be an unsuitable colour. I could have lived with this error of judgement until the cost was amortized but my wife has higher standards (think princess and pea). "Bring them back in", said the salesmen, without prompting, "and I'll give you half the cost back". Try getting that kind of service from gazunder.co.uk.
Illustration by Taunton-raised artist Emily Golden (http://www.pollingerltd.com/clients/emily_golden.htm)
28 September 2009
Rain! Normandy, and later in the day Brittany, are rather different from good old Languedoc-Roussillon. Wetter but greener, crops rather than vineyards, a cuisine based on cream and butter not olive oil.
Pleased we had taken photos of the hotel garden the evening before, we scurry damply through it from our modern annex to the original building. The copper and brass collection there is extraordinary; top photo is of the pot I most coveted.
All our breakfasts were hotel buffets: baguettes, croissants, jams, juices, cheeses, cold meants, butter (in our previous experience of France, le petit déjeuner was the only meal when butter was served with bread, but in Normandy/Brittany, it appears at dinner as well). The orange juice here wasn't the greatest, but the dispenser was—an elegant tall glass cylinder with a central column filled with ice.
Grabbing hooded jackets and an umbrella, we set off to see a few of the sights in Avranches. Since we only had an hour or so before we needed to get on the road, we couldn't really do justice to the town. We didn't make it to the castle or the scriptorial museum or the episcopal palace, but did pass this lovely residence on our way to the famous botanical gardens.
Michael was hugely disappointed at the Jardin des Plantes because the weather meant the fabled view of Mont-St-Michel was obscured. This is what we saw:
And this is what we should have seen:
Our guidebook mentioned an inscribed paving stone, but the first girl we asked at the tourist center had never heard of this memorial (Michael was the one talking, so the problem wasn't the phrasing of the question). Her senior colleague, however, knew straight off what we were looking for, and we were directed to a remote corner of town where a cathedral had stood until 1794, when it was destroyed during the French Revolution.
near the memorial
Her nephew was about our age, spoke very good English (though in his youth he'd lost a job with Gerber in London for lack of proficiency), and, despite his sophistication, was obviously completely unconcerned with appearance, since his frequent broad smiles disclosed that he was missing his bottom two front teeth. When he heard I was from the Philadelphia area, he said, "Next time bring me a cheesesteak. I love Philly cheesesteak!"
This unexpectedly long conversation, during which we learned there are 200,000 American expats in France, meant we needed to check out quickly and get on our way to Mont-St-Michel, first glimpsed across the polders, which Michael explained was a Dutch word for a stretch of low-lying land reclaimed from the sea. The second photo below shows a few of the sheep that graze on the polders; their meat, known as l'agneau pré salé (salt meadow lamb) is prized for its unique flavor.
Turned away by the first Sables d'Or hotel we tried, we ended up at Hôtel LaVoile d'Or (from a gold cross the night before to a gold sail), rather more expensive than what we had hoped, but by this time we were both wet and tired. The sky cleared, though, and Michael went out for a bit more sand collecting. Dinner was very upmarket, with formal service and a chef with a fetish for multiple plates at each course. As seems to happen with surprising frequency these days, the best dish was the pork Michael ordered; this has been true in London and California as well. It would seem that the culinary world is paying more attention to the humble pig.
We learned another phrase when the waitress amended Michael's "Ça marche" on sampling the 2oo6 Sablet to "Ça roule!" Below is the dessert spread, mine variations on an apple theme, Michael's chocolate. The photo at the bottom is of the tray wheeled to the table when Michael had his coffee.
27 September 2009
Our trip started with a train ride to Portsmouth (for future reference: destination for coming & going should be Portsmouth & Southsea, not Portsmouth Harbour), where we spent the night at the cheap and cheerful Ibis Hotel before catching a ferry to Cherbourg the next morning. The poor waitress behind the hotel bar that slow Sunday evening had the unenviable task of being chief cook and bottlewasher as well as taking orders. As someone who waited on tables during college, I'm generally a pretty good tipper—especially by British standards—but this girl deserved even more than I usually leave. Somehow she managed to produced a pretty good pizza for Michael and a really good risotto, complete with shaved rather than grated parmesan, for me. The wonders of modern microwaving!
Our 6 a.m. wake-up call the next morning didn't come through, but Michael's alarm clocks, external and internal did, so we were up by 5:35. A taxi took us to the ferry terminal, where we were whisked quickly through into a waiting room and shortly after onto the boat. We haven't crossed the channel by ferry since boarding the hovercraft we took with my parents and Geretha for Cheri and Hans-Jörg's wedding.
While I was impressed by the croissants, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and comfortable seats (so different from Ryanair), Michael was pacing the deck for the best views of the mighty show of naval vessels in the harbor. As the ferry pulled away, we caught a glimpse of Nelson's Victory (better images plus history at the HMS Victory website) . . .
. . . in stark contrast to the sleek lines of a modern warship:
Even older than the Victory is the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship that sank during a battle with the French fleet in 1545. All we could see of this was the huge plastic tent under which restoration work is still being done after its discovery (1966—before divers knew exactly which ship they had found) and removal from the seabed (1982).
A reminder of the ongoing animosity between England and France is this fort, one of several in the Solent (a quick look at images on Google makes me think this is Spitbank Fort). We assumed the forts dated from the Napoleonic Wars, but no, they were built over about a twenty-year period from 1860. One forgets how recently these two nations, staring at each other across the Channel--or La Manche--have each considered the other a dangerous enemy.
As an aside here, the story, perhaps apocryphal, that I've always felt best embodied this Anglo-French rivalry is the sad tale of the Hartlepool (pronounced Hart-lee-pool, as Michael just corrected me) monkey. I'll just copy the saga off the town website. Even today, their football team is nicknamed the "Monkey Hangers."
The Hartlepool Monkey
The best known tradition and legend associated with the fishermen of Hartlepool is the story of the hanging of the monkey. Tradition attributes this legend to the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was a December day and the coast at Hartlepool was subject to a heavy battering of gales and snow, through which a French vessel called the Chasse Maree could be vaguely seen just off the Hartlepool headland.
The fisherfolk of Hartlepool fearing an invasion kept a close watch on the French vessel as it struggled against the storm but when the vessel was severely battered and sunk they turned their attention to the wreckage washed ashore. Among the wreckage lay one wet and sorrowful looking survivor, the ship's pet monkey dressed to amuse in a military style uniform.
The fishermen apparently questioned the monkey and held a beach-based trial. Unfamiliar with what a Frenchman looked like they came to the conclusion that this monkey was a French spy and should be sentenced to death. The unfortunate creature was to die by hanging, with the mast of a fishing boat (a coble) providing a convenient gallows.
In former times, when war and strife
The French invasion threaten'd life
An' all was armed to the knife
The Fisherman hung the monkey O !
The Fishermen with courage high,
Siezed on the monkey for a French spy;
"Hang him !" says one; "he's to die"
They did and they hung the monkey Oh!
They tried every means to make him speak
And tortured the monkey till loud he did speak;
Says yen "thats french" says another "its Greek"
For the fishermen had got druncky oh!
Back to our trip.
The port of Cherbourg is not in any way romantic. I've put the film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) in my Amazon shopping cart to see if that 1964 musical shows any of the rather seedy reality we were looking at in 2009.
The good news was that the ferry was a bit early and we arrived in Cherbourg before noon—critical in France since everything shuts down then for a two-hour lunchbreak. The bad news was that Michael left a file in the car rental office we were driven to that had all our reservation documents for the trip. He realized his error before we drove off, but in those few minutes, the agent had shut up shop. Two hours to kill. . . . [I, of course, was not-so-secretly delighted that it was my husband who had made a mistake for a change.]
This turned out to be a most providential bit of absent-mindedness. Because we were freed of the compulsion to get straight on our way to Brittany, we were able to head west to the Normandy beaches. Our good friend Chet Bonar, born on 14 September, was on Eisenhower's staff for Operation Overlord, so the timing couldn't have been better.
DD tanks: Nearly all of these swimming tanks made the beach because they were launched half as far out as at Omaha and were able to steer into the current more effectively to avoid swamping in the rough seas. [Wikipedia]
The German pillboxes in our photos were a bit inland, not right on the beach. The landing here was accidental—and lucky, given the weak defenses. Strong currents swept the landing crafts a mile south of their intended destination.
this memorial reads (literally and stiltedly translated line by line):
6 JUNE 1944
AT DAYBREAK THE
The second part of the inscription honors French general Leclerc, who arrived with his 2nd armored division on 1 August. Although there's a lot of controversy over whether Eisenhower held Patton back so that the French could themselves liberate Paris, it seems to be universally agreed that LeClerc is the outstanding French leader from that period, even though we Americans have usually only heard of de Gaulle. For a bit more about this honorable man (I can't find a properly biographical site), click here and here.
After a quick omelette at a small café in Quinéville, we headed back to the National Citer office for our file. The countryside in this part of Normandy is very like Dorset. Unfortunately we didn't take snaps of some of the lovely stone farmhouses we passed amidst hedgerows and sunken lanes, thinking they'd be the first of many. Wrong. We never saw anything like them again.
Our target, like Patton's, was the town of Avranches, where Michael had arranged for us to stay in a 17th-century relais du poste, or coaching inn, the Hôtel de la Croix d'Or. It was charming, though our room was oddly like a time warp from the brown-dominated 1970s:
FROM 31 JULY
TO 10 AUGUST
our amuse-bouche of duck à l'orange tartare arrived
Michael had a cheese course. Years ago I smiled when an aristocrat in Diane Johnson's Le Divorce commented that French culture had died when menus were printed with fromage ou dessert instead of fromage et dessert (or vs. and). Well, in this part of France culture is alive and well; both were on offer as part of our fixed price meal. The two cheeses that we now need to look out for are Coutances and Gaperon. Michael finished our bottle of a 2006 Sancerre, a red (pinot noir) rather than the more customary white.
For dessert, Michael had a fabulous apple and Calvados sorbet. I ordered "le délice Normand," which turned out to be a tart filled with caramel and cider mousse, with (in the small glass shown) a fabulous syrupy fruit concoction of flambéed apples, caramel, and Pommeau. Tiny meringues and chocolate mousse cups then appeared with Michael's coffee. The waitress's cheery "bonne continuation" early on in the evening had been an understatement of what was to come.
26 September 2009
Kate's captions in brown, my additions in black:
A couple of pics [I've included just my favorite] of the happy eaters (as suspected Grandma was very drawn to the Yorkshire puddings and Grandpa couldn't help picking at the steak):
Grandpa didn't bring a camera, so he managed to get one on mine impressively. I think my silly face this time is to do with watching him attempt to adjust to watch the screen instead of putting his eye up to it.
Grandma figuring out her new toy. I also have a nice flip video of the opening etc... [Unlike me, Robert registered the fact that the 16th was an anniversary as well as a birthday. Kate and he bought and filled a digital photo frame with archival images—a perfect gift.]