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Published:August 10th, 2009 17:57 EST
Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: My Last Weekend in La Rochelle

Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: My Last Weekend in La Rochelle

By Christine Stoddard

(July 26, 2009)


I`m trying to avoid thinking about the fact that I will be sitting at home in one week--my very real and American home, not my dreamy, host home. Shock, not sadness, would more accurately describe my emotions right now. I can`t believe that nearly a month has passed already, despite my occasional bouts of homesickness. Yet this has also been one of the fullest months of my life, so it seems like a week and a quarter of a year at the same time. I wish I could stay longer but I acknowledge that it`s probably healthier for me not to stay stuck in French fairyland forever. Thankfully I have an interesting and rewarding lifestyle awaiting me, otherwise I`d kick and scream at the airport. Well, I`ll probably kick and scream at Charles de Gaulle, anyway, but not because I`m upset about leaving the world of cheese snobs. I`ll kick and scream because the employees there are remarkably clueless. 
Anyway, I should recount how I spent my final weekend in La Rochelle. I tried to profit--a word the French employ at every opportunity, so they can stop criticizing American capitalism as if they`re not guilty of some of the same crimes--from the sunshine and blue skies without becoming a total beach bum. The weekend began five minutes before class generally lets out at 12:30 p.m. We wrapped up a French version of the board game Taboo (one classmate had to get his team to guess the word toilet water during the Pictionary portion) and then wandered off to the main lobby to scarf down lunch. I had packed whatever was lying around my host family`s kitchen, from apricots to chocolate mousse, and then bought a sandwich in one of the school vending machines. The option of buying a pre-wrapped sandwich from a machine known for selling candy and soda surprised me, but I figured I might as well try it. The bread, a rich wheat, was delicious. Unfortunately, the rest of the sandwich, was not. It contained chicken, way too much mayo (again, the French can stop criticize America for O.D.ing on condiments), and crudités. Crudités are raw vegetables, but you have to be careful anytime you see the word "raw" in this country. You`d be surprised by what this country doesn`t cook. They did, after all, serve as raw hamburger meat in the university cafeteria one day like it was sanitary and even appetizing. I politely insisted that they cook it. Mad Cow Disease doesn`t sound like a fun malady. 

Once we finished our lunches, we boarded the charter bus headed for Cognac. The ride was over an hour, so I grabbed my own row, as most of the students did, and curled up with a book. When I decided to rest my eyes, I videotaped scenes from the countryside. Let it be known that France grows many, many sunflowers. Van Gogh wasn`t hallucinating. Or if he was, at least he imagined very realistic scenery. 

Finally we arrived in the City of Cognac, right outside of the Hennessy headquarters. A few of my classmates and I explored the figmental town for about thirty minutes before our scheduled tour of the distillery. For a non-drinker, visiting land famous for producing liqueur definitely has the potential to be boring. I, on the other hand, considered my visit to Hennessy nothing short of a success. I got to go on a boat, literally just to cross a canal barely wider than the C&O. My whole class laughed because when the tour guide instructed us to get on the boat, we assumed we`d go down the canal, not across it. Non. Our ride lasted five minutes, including the time it took to dock the boat. 

We got out and followed our tour guide. She was about 5`6``, brunette, and young, probably in her late twenties or early thirties. She wore a chocolate-colored suit from head to toe and spoke English with a very heavy accent that was not entirely French. I`m convinced that French was her early second language and English was her very late third, but I couldn`t determine what her native one was. Normally our school requests all-French tours for us, but somehow we got mixed up with a bunch of British tourists, so the tour couldn`t be conducted in Frog. The British can make fun of Americans for not knowing foreign languages, but it doesn`t seem like many of them can utter words outside of the realm of "bullocks" and "sprocket," either. Only two English people I have met on this trip have been able to adequately express themselves in another language. Otherwise, they know French the way many Americans know Spanish: "Yo quiero Taco Bell" and "Living the Vida Loca." 

The Hennessy distillery was full of bulbous machines and big barrels and baskets containing alcohol from the 1800s. Black fungus, which the tour guide called angels, also covered the interior and exterior walls of most of the buildings. The fungus eats most of the alcohol that evaporates during the fermentation process. Once the tour guide finished explaining how they manufactured their cognac--using the finest ingredients, of course!--we headed over to the bar and shop. I tried cognac for the first time and nearly choked. A classmate captured its essence when she said it tasted the way rubbing alcohol smells. I gave the rest of my sample to someone who actually liked it. 

I saw not one but two cognac producing companies, including an independently-owned family business. Hennesey`s plant was grander and their store featured crystal bottles, but the family business won my approval because it radiated to much more charm. The estate was only six hectares big and featured a four-hundred year old family home made of stone. The tour guide was a tiny French grandma who bought the vineyard with her husband back around World War II, but apparently the land has been used for cognac and pinot production for the past couple hundred years. I tried pinot for the first time and, while it was not as strong as the cognac, I did not love it. I could only tolerate it. It smelled lovely, though. The highlight of that tasting portion came when a classmate bought nearly three-hundred Euros worth of cognac. Her father`s a huge fan. The school representative who has organized the excursion--a British lady who looks like Princess Di--kept laughing at the purchase. She asked over and over again how the girl intended to bring that all back to America, to which the girl responded she had brought an entire extra suitcase just to bring back gifts from the trip. Apparently when the girl went to her host mother`s later that evening, the city bus driver honked at her and made a drinking motion when she got off. It`s ironic because she`s such a responsible drinker, but she looked like an alcoholic carrying all of those bottles. 

The rest of the evening was supposed to involve me eating one of the pre-packed dinners my host mother had made with the aforementioned cognac-stocker-upper girl, watching a movie at Vieux Port, and walking around town/clubbing. Yet some plans remain nothing more than plans. 

My host family was out for the weekend because the mother`s sister was going married, which meant I was all alone. I invited my classmate over for dinner because my host mother had left me with far more food than I could possibly eat alone and, besides, I wanted company in the big, old house. I sort of live in the boonies, so the bus to my neighborhood does not run especially often. By that hour Friday night (8 o`clock or so), it had stopped running altogether, so my classmate and I walked all the way from the bus station to my host family`s house. We chatted about the Cognac excursion, how the study abroad trip was going altogether, and how eager we were about our plans for that evening. When we finally reached my host family`s house, I unlocked the gate, wove through all the clutter in the courtyard, and straight to the house door. It was locked. I wiggled the handle again, just in case it was stuck. Ha, no, it was completely locked, when my host family always leaves the door unlocked. The previous night, they had said they would either leave the door unlocked (like usual) or put a key out for me. They didn`t leave a key out for me the next morning, so I assumed that the door would be unlocked like always. I wake up earlier than anyone, so there was nobody to ask before I left for school on Friday morning. I wasn`t worried about it, however. I hadn`t had a key up until that point during my stay, anyway. 

I cracked. Everything I needed was in the house. I had packed an especially light purse that day because I didn`t want to drag around my life on the Cognac field trip. My classmate stood there helplessly as I desperately tried the other doors and searched around the courtyard for a key. Pas de chance. She did her best to calm me down, but I was so nervous about not being able to get to my belongings until Monday. I rushed over to my host family`s tenant who rents a room separate from the rest of the house. I was thrilled to discover that he spoke Spanish because I was so upset that my French had nearly escaped me by that point. I explained the situation to him, but he didn`t have the family`s cell phone number or an extra key. He guided me to a neighbor across the street, so I had to switch back to French. Those neighbors barely knew my family, but pointed to the house next door. I knocked on the neighbor`s gate because they had no doorbell. Nobody answered. I raced over to the photographer who lived in front of my family because the host mother had referred to him as a close friend. He answered the door but was of no help, either. By this point, I was practically hyperventilating. That`s when I rushed back to the courtyard, where my classmate and the tenant stood. The tenant pointed to a window. It was my bedroom window, but I hadn`t even thought of trying it because I knew I had locked the shutters that morning. The optimist in me won over, though. 

I seized a chair and stepped on it. Then I began fiddling with the shutter lock. This involved me bending my arm and folding my hand in very uncomfortable positions. Somehow I wiggled my little hand in there and, though I nearly cut myself in the process, unlatched the shutters. Thank Buddha I had not locked the window. I crawled in and immediately sprinted to unlock the front door. I thanked the tenant and my classmate came inside. I still did not have a key, but at least I was safe, inside, and close to my valuables. My classmate tried to get me to breathe. I searched for our VCU professor`s phone number and she called her while I searched for keys. I crossed my fingers that there were spare ones somewhere in the house because I was afraid of leaving the house unlocked the whole weekend. It`s the Washingtonian in me to think someone is going to creep into my house in the middle of the night. Besides, I was responsible for the house while my host family was away. Call me paranoid, but if anybody unwelcome came in, I would be in huge trouble. My classmate pointed out some keys hanging near the family computer, keys nobody in the family had told me were there. Most of them appeared to be car keys but I grabbed the ones that weren`t. I asked her to lock the front door so I could test out the keys while she continued talking to our professor. Eventually I found the right one. The professor was very understanding and apologized. She said if I had been truly locked out for the weekend, I would have of course been allowed to stay with her. She also coached me in what to say when my family returned. She told me a story of a French woman staying in a British or American`s home. The woman knocked a vase off a table and then blamed it on the hostess, saying that the vase was in the way and that it was probably broken to begin with. Denial is very French. My professor then ordered me to have a nice evening. She told me to take a taxi with my classmate and go have a nice dinner; she would re-imburse me for the cost. 
God, I should get locked out more often. 

I called a taxi. The receptionist said the car would arrive in five to ten minutes, but this is France. Half an hour later, my classmate and I got into the taxi and asked to go to Vieux Port. When we interrogated the driver about good restaurants in the area, he mentioned one called L`Annexe and offered to drop us off there. The answer was, `Yes, please, because we are starving.` 

My classmate and I sat ourselves down, to the chagrin of one of the waitresses. She was wearing that mildly perturbed face I`ve seen many French servers wear. She gave us menus and my classmate and I spent the next several minutes choosing the components of our formule, which included an appetizer, an entry, and a dessert. I went for something with chorizo, honey duck, and brioche with chocolate ice cream. My classmate chose cream of asparagus soup, veal head, and chocolate lava cake. I am, of course, giving you the short English names for everything. The actual French names were long and very descriptive. The French don`t have brevity in mind when they write menus...or anything. 
Whatever my appetizer was, it wasn`t Spanish sausage like I requested. It was some kind of mollusk with diced tomatoes. I didn`t care because I was so hungry and ate it anyway. My classmate won in that arena, however. Her appetizer was great. I kept dunking bread into it (Note: I`ve noticed the French like eating hard, almost stale bread.) I won for the entree, though. My duck included mashed potatoes and baked apples with a thick honey sauce. Dark green salad with vinegrette came on the side. My classmate`s veal head was, as she said, "mooshy." Dessert was fantastic, too, but I think my classmate won in that department. Hers was ultra-chocolatey. Mine was more buttery. The only unpleasant part of the evening came when I pulled the tiny table next to us up to ours. Our table was so small that we couldn`t fit all of our plates on it. I figured it was late, nobody was going to sit there, and that the staff wouldn`t mind. Wrong. They did mind. A waiter said, "Non, non, non" very quickly and pulled the table back to his place. Uh-oh. Faux pas on my part. I probably annoyed him further that evening when I made prolonged eye contact with him when I wanted the check. You can`t wave or smile at French waiters when you need something. I`m pretty sure it`s a law. So the man probably thought I staring at him. 

By the time my classmate and I were done with dinner, it was far too late to watch a movie, but we walked over to the Grosse Horlage, a giant clock, where we had agreed to meet other classmates to go strolling/bar-hopping/clubbing. Only one was there, despite the fact that we were ten minutes late. The classmate who I ate dinner with went home almost right after because she was so exhausted. That left me alone with the other classmate, who wondered why we hadn`t come to the movie. 

He and I spent the next three and a half hours trolling La Rochelle. He bought very bad beer at a convenience store and then we laughed at all of the empty discotheques (apparently the clubs don`t get started until 4 or 5 a.m.!). Everywhere we went, the dance floors were either empty or full of weird lounge lizard types. The only place that was happening took us forever to find, charged a cover, and was so packed that there was a huge line to get in. I wasn`t in the mood for paying to unintentionally grind against sweaty Spanish tourists. The highlight of the evening came when he and I raided a garbage pile and I found a bunch of old homework and gay porn. It was hilarious to read through some French high school kid`s English homework ("I like dolphins.") and go through naughty French photos of over-eager men starring in pun-filled DVDs. When I went home, I watched a French cartoon called "Naftaline la fete." 

Saturday was the highlight of the weekend. My VCU professor took my group on a boat ride to Ile d`Aix. We saw Fort Boyard, the location of a very popular French reality TV show, on the way. All throughout the ride, we saw puffy clouds, sailboats, and long stretches of blue-green sea. The island was postcard perfect, with quaint houses, a combination of sandy and rocky beaches brimming with tidal pools, woodsy paths, and cute shops and cafes. My group enjoyed a long, French picnic of cherries, peaches, cheese, cookies, baguette, cheese, turkey, salad, and who knows what else. I ate far more than my body`s designed to eat, but it was lovely to discuss race in American and French contexts, and comparing American and French school systems. Then we went for a walk that ended in a rocky beach before we split up. I wandered a little before running into my professor and another classmate. The three of us went to a cafe and discussed everything from bargaining in French stores to French mothers` sexualization of their sons. We were there maybe an hour, with me sipping my apricot juice, my classmate drinking lemonade (citronade!), and my professor stirring her ice coffee. Then we hit gift shops. My professor and I bought similar wooden watches. Mine was brown with African motifs. 

When we returned to La Rochelle, one of my classmates and I checked out a precious boutique full of fantasy sundresses and tunics that were all far out of our price league. The style was definitely mine, though. Then we went to a much more affordable shop a couple of storefronts down. While their summer clothes were on sale, I was eyeing their fall collection. It was full of purple, black, and gray, which I all wear very often. As tantalizing as the Victorian and 1980s details were, I resisted. Maybe I`ll go back my last day and splurge. After lusting after beautiful clothes, I left my classmate for Monoprix. I took a while comparing all the different French hair dyes before I found one I thought was safe. I had never died my hair before (only used sun-reactive highlighting spray), so I was a bit nervous, but I wanted to come home with a new look. I was lucky to find a color I liked with easy-to-understand instructions. Afterwards, I went home and relaxed. 

Two classmates and I met up later that evening to go clubbing, but we just couldn`t stay out that late. I was so tired from my long and fabulous weekend that I was in even less of a mood to dance with Spanish tourists. I went home and watched "Les Chorlistes" for the first time. It was around 3 a.m. or so by the time I collapsed in bed. 

Sunday was much mellower. I stayed home, dyed my hair with the coloring I bought at Monoprix after the boat ride, and met up with classmates for lunch and a movie. We saw "Une Semaine Sur Deux," which is about two kids whose parents get divorced and try to find new love at the same time the daughter begins to date. Then I worked on my presentation on the nation`s cinema while noshing on a French TV dinner. It`s strange how quickly La Rochelle is beginning to feel like a second home.