August 9th, 2009 14:32 EST
Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: Finding Other Diversions
The little girl in me needed no other persuasion when I heard that my university group was scheduled to visit palaces and medieval castles relatively close to La Rochelle. Considering that I have wanted to be a princess since I knew what a princess was (minus the beheading peasants part), I was very excited to see Amboise, Chenonceau, and Clos LucÃ© (the last place Leonardo da Vinci lived) with students from VCU, U. Minnesota-Mankato, and the University of Richmond. The fact that I had to board a bus at 7 a.m. was completely worth it, though under any other circumstances I definitely would have grumbled. Okay, that makes it sound like I didn`t whine at all. I did complain about how painfully early the charter bus left that gray Saturday morning (especially since I had spent the previous day at La Braderie, La Rochelle`s annual summer sale, and bar-hopping until an hour I won`t mention), but I didn`t whine as much as I would have had we been scheduled to, say, visit a candle factory. Somehow candles don`t compare to the mind-boggling decadence of iron-work windows large enough for elephants to walk through without scraping themselves. The sheer wealth of all the royalty and aristocrats who passed through those manors is at once wondrous and disgusting. Instead of helping to feed the surrounding peasants, they shelled out their gold coins for things like pheasant roasts and mirkins.
Needless to say, I took photos of my favorite 6`` plastic dragon in these beautiful historical locations. She would have resented me if I had not. Besides, I couldn`t have created more realistic scenery for Lenore myself if I had raided A.C. Moore and the Museum of London. The stone, the velvet, the oil paintings, the views from towers and terraces--everything was incredible with that perfect old-timey aesthetic. My favorite site was Amboise, though, because it was the oldest and most Gothic. Everything looked dangerously pointy, thanks to exquisite curly-cues and, well, points. I was not surprised to hear the tour guide say that Charles II supposedly died by knocking his head against one of the stone doorways and suffering from internal bleeding. Amboise`s rooms were spacious and the period furniture allowed me to visualize myself in a time before forks had been invented. As I walked through the castle, I felt the spirits of a hundred dead men call to me, breathe on me, and feel as real as if they had been standing right next to me, digging their impatient elbows into my ribs like modern Frenchmen in line at La Rochelle`s Dragon Cinema. Furthermore, I couldn`t resist all of the stonework animals in the estate`s St. Hubert chapel, ranging from monkeys to goats to frogs to serpents. It was a Middle Ages version of "Littlest Pet Shop."
My time since celebrating Bastille Day has consisted of more than castle visits, however. I know I could easily spend a whole month in France during nothing but touring castles, but that would not be the most well-rounded view of the country. I have to escape fairyland sometimes.
As usual, I have class everyday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., where I learn about everything from French scatology ("crottin" is just one of many words reserved specifically for animal dung) to translating American satire about French culture. I have also discovered that dental floss is always placed by condoms in the few French stores that actually carry dental floss and that the French sometimes hold pancake or flu parties. At pancake, or crÃªpe, parties, the host puts a hot plate on the table and allows each guest to pour his portion of batter onto the plate.
Everybody then watches their pancake cook. Apparently it`s very riveting, assuming you`re five-years old or you`ve already had a lot of wine. Flu parties are organized to help the French build immunity against the disease. Someone with the flu invites his friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and perhaps random hobos on the street (in the spirit of "convivalitÃ©") to get everyone they know sick. It sounds like a wonderful, cheese-and-fruit filled way to start an epidemic, rather than a science-based solution for minimizing people`s reaction to the flu bug in the fall. Of course, maybe I don`t understand because I`m American.
With my university group, I have also seen a WWII Nazi bunker, built when the Germans occupied France. The bunker is located in a La Rochellais hotel but it not the least bit advertised. The owner is rather secretive about it, I suppose because he wants to preserve the space and artifacts as well as possible. Thankfully my school has a good relationship with him and he was happy to open up his Nazi cave for us. Plenty of WWII paraphernalia from all over La Rochelle layered the walls and tables. Imagine scores of maps, jackets, helmets, guns, letters, submarine parts, and photographs everywhere. My favorite artifact was a garishly false Nazi propaganda poster that showed a map of France with cities full of flames to indicate where Anglo-American forces had supposedly attacked. Uh-huh. Nice try. Funny that all of those cities should appear in the Western part of the country, the part the Germans occupied. (Correlation? Um...)
Anyway, following the bunker came a trip to La Rochelle`s Natural History Museum. To put it bluntly, it was a building full of dead things. Considering how morbid I can be, that fact delighted me. I basically wanted to take home every glass globe of stuffed songbirds, even if they were far beyond the point of being able to sing. I wasn`t bothered by the dead animals themselves; many of them were gorgeous. I was bothered by how the tortoises and gazelles and owls had to sacrifice their lives for human`s vain obsession with science. The museum wasn`t in any way remarkable; it was like any other natural history museum I`d ever seen, except much, much, much smaller and with virtually no multi-media. (Then again, I grew up fewer than nine miles from the Smithsonian Institution`s Natural History Museum, so it`s hard to impress me.) At least now I can say I have seen a French science museum, where the specimens were beautiful but the collection was not as grand as I wished.
Besides the palaces, the bunker, and the history museum, I`ve made time for other tourist traps, ahem, sites, as well. I`ve been to the MusÃ©e des Automates, which is full of mechanical dolls from the 1700 through early 1900s. The dolls come in a variety of sizes and forms, but all have one thing in common: they move. They not only move but they move with an eerie stiffness. Nothing about them is realistic because they`re way too freaky. Their eyes are glass, their clothes are perfectly tailored (though in some cases moth-eaten), and their skin lacks the softness of true humans. I love them nonetheless. That could just mean that I like scary things but I think the fact that the museum even exists and that it was completely crowded when I went shows that others find them enchanting. It`s astounding to realize that these motorized dolls have existed in some shape or form since Ancient Egypt. Apparently Egyptians still had energy left over after erecting pyramids and mummifying pharaohs (ha, wait, slaves did that) to tinker with creepy dolls. I was especially drawn to the Baroque and Victorian dolls, but I generally am. The dolls nearly drowned in their velvet, pearls, silk, lace, and feathers. One scene of motorized dolls depicted two women in a parasol shop, right down to the wallpaper. The shopkeeper bent slightly to hand the customer a parasol. Another one showed a bunch of Baroque boys and girls dressed up for a ball. Right after visiting the MusÃ©e des Automates, I went to the MusÃ©e des ModÃ¨les RÃ©duits, which was full of tiny cars and boats. Needless to say, it did not excite me the same way the motorized the dolls did. My favorite boat was named, "Le Pourquoi Pas," the Why Not?, which I found funny. Names like those just prove that a kingdom CAN have too much money. There were a couple of pretty Chinese junk boats, as well. A classmate and I also walked to "Jardin des Plantes" [Garden of Plants]; apparently the French see a need to specify what a garden entails. It was enjoyable but nothing spectacular. The only point worth mentioning is that whoever designed the garden chose to include both a Greco-Roman style statue and a massive Oceania head. I`m not sure why.
I`ve watched a few movies since Bastille Day, too. I took my host sister to see the sixth Harry Potter in French. Yes, they do change the names and, yes, it is hilarious to hear the French voices in place of the original British ones. I also saw "Les Beaux Gosses" [The Good-Looking Kids] with a classmate. It`s a French comedy about two nerdy fourteen-year olds trying to navigate through all the pains of adolescence as they transition from middle to high school. There`s a huge emphasis on, as you would imagine, first kisses and the early stages of dating. It was funny, vulgar, and a smart introduction to current French slang. I`ve also gone out of my way to watch movies at the Mediatheque. Luckily, I got to see "Sweetie" (1989), an Australian Cannes winner, and "You Only Live Once" (1937).
Obviously I`ve snuck shopping into the past week. My most notable retail adventure was to Carrefour, the equivalent of a French Wal-Mart or Target. They sell everything a discount department store normally carries in the United States (except sporting goods) with a very expanded food section. I saw everything from octopus packaged like deli meat to chocolate-covered truffles to fresh fish to mussels.They also had several fruit samples; my classmate and I spat out our bites of passion fruit in unison. I ended up buying a dress, two pairs of shoes, and a gift for my host sister because the prices were astonishingly low by European standards. I didn`t even visit during La Braderie, when prices are supposed to be jaw-droppingly cheap and it was still inexpensive.
Afterward Carrefour, the classmate who I`d come with was hungry, so we wandered around the nearby mall a bit. Nothing in the food court seemed nearly as good as what we were accustomed to seeing downtown, where most of the food is prepared fresh daily. At least he spotted a pocket watch brandishing a mini motorcycle. Eventually he and I settled for a bar just outside of the mall. I ordered strawberry juice (it doesn`t taste quite as sweet as plain strawberries) and he ordered a beer. I`m not sure if it`s because La Rochelle is a tourist city or not, but it seems that so long as a restaurant is open, you can buy alcohol regardless of the time of day. I had praline ice cream, too. Sadly, it was not like the ambrosia I order at Ernest`s, the parlor with the most flavors in all of La Rochelle. There I have tried two types of chocolate, including a kind of African dark chocolate and Oriental Chocolate. Oriental Chocolate contains sesame seeds, honey, and maybe a touch of ginger. I`m not sure it exists anywhere else.
I`m also happy to announce that my host mother`s birthday took place this week. It was fun to serenade her from my host sister`s bedroom window. She was doing laundry in the courtyard when my host sister nudged me to croon. We burst out in a round of "Joyeux anniversaire." Then I attempted to help my host sister choose her outfit for that evening`s dinner, but it is never easy to placate an eleven-year old, French or otherwise. I tried crayfish and sea snails for the first time at a quaint restaurant located in the countryside, where the host family too me to celebrate the mother`s 46th. (Yes, the crayfish looked like big bugs and, no, they did not taste gross, but it is hard to remove all of their legs). Apparently, it`s my host mother`s favorite restaurant, even though she repeatedly described it as simple. It wasn`t by any means fancy, but the food was top-notch. For dessert, I even tried black currant ice cream, which was quite possibly the best fruit ice cream I have ever tasted in my life. The rustic touches added to the restaurant`s charm. Instead of setting a water pitcher on the table, they gave us a glass wine bottle (full of water, not wine). They also put rocks marked "Reserved" on our table to prevent anyone else from sitting there. I couldn`t exactly complain about having a clear view of the Atlantic Ocean, either. I should also mention that during this past week, I`ve had the opportunity to meet a few other people my age, all European. To get an idea of how the rest of the world views America, let me briefly list a small number of the questions and statements European teenagers and young adults have muttered to me recently: "Is it true that over 80% of all maps in America are of the United States and no other country?"; "Is it true that it`s illegal to be gay in America?"; "Is it true that they don`t eat fruits and vegetables in America?"; "Do most kids wait until they`re 21 to start drinking in America?"; "Is it true that in America you don`t have [row] houses?"; "Young Americans are so much politer than British kids."; "America is so religious."; "Americans eat McDonald`s all the time"; "Americans don`t know much about other countries and only like to study their history and culture"; "Americans are big." I`m only going to comment upon those words in saying that they are offensive, but I realize that Americans harbor plenty of stereotypes about the French. According to most Americans, the French only shower about once a week (Fact: They shower once a day, but take shorter, more economical showers than most Americans because hot water is expensive.); they don`t wear deodorant (Fact: Many Frenchies do wear deodorant, but they aren`t as obsessive as Americans are about re-applying it throughout the day. Some of them simply use perfume instead of deodorant but I haven`t died from smelling anyone`s stench yet.); they drink all the time (Fact: the French do drink more frequently than Americans traditionally do because they have so many wines for so many gastronomical purposes, but most do not drink very much per sitting because getting drunk is perceived as rather pitiful.); and Frenchies are skinny (Fact: Fat French people do exist, but, overall, there are fewer big people in this country than the United States because they eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and walk/ride bikes more often).
It`s satisfying to review everything I`ve done simply since Bastille Day--and this is merely an overview. I can`t possibly list all of the details (ranging from bike rides with a crazy French eleven-year old to conversations with my host mother about love and marriage to flipping through a picture-free, French version of the Karma Sutra to asking four different Frenchies how to get to the city`s bird park only to hear four different responses), while still making time to revel in all the Frenchness that surrounds me. But I`ve given you the snapshot of my past seven days in La Rochelle. Fortunately, I still have seven more. The negative side is that I still have so much more I want to do, see, and experience.