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Published:August 7th, 2009 13:17 EST
Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: Bastille Day

Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: Bastille Day

By Christine Stoddard

July 14 is sort of the French version of July 4. It`s therefore ironic that I missed celebrating Independence Day back home because I was in France for the holiday but had the opportunity to experience the French model. Needless to say, it lacked BBQ.

Instead, my host mother prepared salmon and spinach, which I can`t imagine most Americans eating on July 4th. While it was a good meal, it was more hoity-toity than the hot dog or hamburger and baked beans I probably would`ve eaten for July 4. To their credit, though, the French don`t skimp on fireworks. My host father, younger host sister, and I went to see the city`s display and I almost had seizures afterwards because the lights were as bright as Japanese video game`s. The most surprising were fireworks in the form of mini parachutes; I thought midgets were invading us. I taped most of the spectacle to show my sick host mother and eventually my real family. The mother had to lounge around pathetically back home thanks to a nasty ear infection. The situation was even worse, however, because a famous French singer--one of her favorite--had personally invited her to his after-party that night. It was the final day of the Francofolie and she couldn`t go thanks to oh-so-cruel Mother Nature. Or karma. But I`d rather not villainize a lady who bakes me the best apricot tarts I`ve ever eaten, even if we`re all guilty of minor sins from time to time. 

I did not spend the whole day anticipating the fireworks, as excited as I was about seeing colorful lights reflecting upon the ocean. I was too busy enjoying Ile de Ré for most of Bastille Day. Quick geography lesson: Ile de Ré is a 30 km long island near La Rochelle. Its capital is St. Martin, which I was lucky enough to visit. They produce a bunch of salt and several movie stars and politicians own houses there. 

I began the day by boarding the bus at 7:45 a.m. Well, it was supposed to be 7:45 a.m., but the driver was on French time, so it was probably ten or fifteen minutes later. If that hour sounds painfully early for a college student`s summertime, consider that I normally catch my class bus at 7:19 a.m. It was actually a relief then that I didn`t have to be at the bus station `til twenty minutes later. It meant I could stare at the ceiling for a couple of minutes before rolling out of bed, a much missed pleasure from back home. I am definitely a ceiling examiner. 
Anyway, I raced over to the bus station on my bike, carrying my bag o` tricks (a plastic dragon, a video camera, a still camera, a French dictionary, my makeshift lunch of apricots and Mont Blanc desserts, and an English novel.) I finished eating the rest of my breakfast once I arrived at the bus station. That meant I stuffed my face with chocolate-filled croissants and the like. When the bus pulled up--it`s called Mouettes, which means sea gull but sounds like it means something much funnier--I hopped up, paid for my ticket, and sat down. I chatted about this and that with three other girls from my class during the ride. We discussed French and France in general, including our host families and shopping. Apparently one of the girls had the unpleasant experience of a boutique associate telling her not to try on a dress because she was too big for it. In case you need further translation, the woman essentially called her own customer fat. Sadly, this corresponds with the snobby image many Americans hold of the French. Such associates deserve to have baguettes shoved up their--ahem, anyway, my group and I got out of the bus when we spotted our teachers waving at us. My Sup de Co teacher often wears tropical colors and therefore sticks out like a fly floating around in...oh, I don`t know, the mint cucumber soup-in-a-carton I saw advertised at one of the bus stops. The French are interesting people indeed. 

Fast forward about an hour. Our teachers have just blabbed at us about Huguenots (La Rochelle) and Catholics (Ile de Ré), we`ve walked around a stone fortification commissioned by the infamous Sun King, and we`ve all taken a million photos to pass the time. After the tour, our teachers sent us out on a scavenger hunt. A scavenger hunt in a foreign language probably sounds very intimidating: you can get lost, lured into exotic candy stores, and kidnapped. The hunt, however, was not so treacherous. The questions were pretty straight-forward and the town is not big. The funny, confusing part came when we were instructed to ask random passersby historical questions. My group encountered a storekeeper who began by saying that she knew nothing about the island`s history yet she proceeded with, "Oh, actually..." and then answered everything on our sheet. That would have been fine and dandy if the answers had been correct, but apparently most of them were wrong. Either she was desperately trying to be helpful or wanted to have a laugh at our expense. Or she`s crazy. There are a bunch of crazy people in France. Why else would culottes be all the rage there right now? 

My group finished the scavenger hunt fairly fast, but not without discovering a few oddities first. Let me begin by announcing that Smurf and Oyster flavored ice creams exist in St. Martin. Now I know that Smurfs taste like almond extract. I did not have the courage to try Oyster, but I believed my classmate when he called it "gross." I also found out that Ile de Ré is full of asses. Smart asses, maybe, but I`m referring to burros for sure. These burros wear checkered pants (blue for boys, pink for girls) to protect themselves from the mosquitos that swarm around the salt fields. Thus, almost every boutique in St. Martin sells plush burros (which my Sup de Co teacher mistakenly called `teddy donkeys` in English), ceramic burro saltshakers, burro T-shirts, burro postcards, etc. If you like asses, it`s the place to be...oh, dear, that did not come out right at all. 

Don`t think I lived through Bastille Day ceremony-free, though. After the scavenger hunt and the necessary shopping (I scored a dress and a gift for my lovely mother), my group was required to attend what you would expect: French people waving a French drapeau around and singing "La Marseillaise." The mayor, who wore surprisingly casual clothes, was there, along with war veterans, firefighters, policemen, and local politicians. Strangely, very few townspeople not involved in the ceremony were there. We American students outnumbered the French spectators by far. Needless to say that when the filmmaker there realized the crowd was made up mostly of Americans, he was a little disappointed. His documentary is supposed to be about the history and culture of St. Martin; my Sup de Co teacher really, really, really tried to persuade him to keep the footage, though, and said he could use it to demonstrate what a popular tourist destination St. Martin is. 
After the requisite ceremony, we went to the town hall to drink wine (ugh, orange juice for me, please) and eat peanuts. The mayor lumbered over to my corner where I sat with two or three other students and my teacher. My teacher asked why he had not given a speech; he basically found a diplomatic way to say he didn`t feel like it. I did learn, however, that all of the French mayors` speeches are the same. The federal government writes them and distributes them to mayors across the country so all towns receive the same official notice. Maybe it`s just the writer in me, but I call that cheating. 

The day continued and included a stop at a local boulangerie, where I saw desserts precious enough to grace the covers of Hallmark cards. I, being boring and practical, ordered a mini pizza since I had already packed most of my lunch. I lived vicariously through a classmate who ordered an eclair. After having eaten an eclair at my French family`s house, I promise you that they taste nothing like ones in America. That is a good, no, a great thing, considering how much I dislike eclairs back home. French eclairs aren`t made up of bad donut bread and fake chocolate that contains -0.0000008% cocoa. 

Once we finished eating, my classmates and I shopped some more and then checked out the beach. I hadn`t brought my bathing suit because the water is too cold and I don`t like frying my skin, so I explored tidal pools with a classmate instead. We saw teeny crabs and even teenier fish. There were also periwinkles and piles of kelp everywhere. More intriguingly, however, were the random gelatinous balls everywhere. At first we thought they were jellyfish, but they...weren`t. I think they may have been egg sacs, but I`m not sure what kind. I can always say they were Teletubby brains. In addition to poking around the beach, my classmate and I made an itty-bitty film. Until I am finished editing it, all I will say is that a dragon, a sandstorm, and the hands of God are involved. I hope that is vague enough. 

Shortly after, my group boarded the bus back to La Rochelle. I went home and found approximately a million ways to kill time before the fireworks. It was a tad annoying to discover that for all that waiting, the show only last about fifteen minutes, but I did record the spectacle for posterity. My younger host sister caught onto this very quickly and immediately wanted to watch the video when we got home. The fact that she had just seen the real thing twenty minutes ago did not seem to phase her. Days later, she still asks to watch it. Oh, French children...