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Published: December 14th 2009
On mon Scooter, doing my finest Michael Dukakis impression...
…I see another alley to my left, and with a few good turns of luck, I stumble easily upon the place I’m staying.
Bonnetable is a charming country town with about 10,000 people.
As I arrive at Le Charme (the farm estates in France are identified by name, not by a random/approximate address like 17500), Franc is outside to greet me. He flashes a grin and recognizes me as his unmistakable American traveler and house guest.
Though most places in Europe gently ask you to remove your shoes, out in the country they often have stone floors and don’t really bother with it. The home is more than 100 years old, and situated in the between huge expanses of agricultural fields that must have fed the village generations ago. Franc planted most of the trees on his property, when he moved there 24 years ago. He also built the rudimentary fences that keep his cheval penned in.
Franc and Christine live with their daughters Claire, 17, and Marion, 22. I am just in time for dejeuner. I do have impeccable timing! As soon as Christine arrives, we all sit down near the wooden box that holds the morning’s fresh chicken eggs,
and enjoy a meal while they wring my story out of me.
Marion is only in town for the day, before she flies to Quebec to do apprentice training with autistic children. This is the beginning of a continuing theme regarding Quebec. It seems nearly every person I meet in France has either lived in Quebec, or else their children are attending school there.
Marion and I make use of our only day together by playing a game of tennis at the school where her parents both teach physical education. She has one of the best backhanded shots in history, and we both end up wearing each other out.
Next I take a tour of the school with Christine. In a new building on campus she shows me the absolute LAST thing I expect to see at this small-town country school - a massive room with 12 championship ping-pong tables. Ironically, the name of the town - Bonnetable - means "good table"; now they have 12 of them. The building is named after a French ping-pong champion. Christine explained that the town and the local ping-pong club had been complaining for years about their poor facilities and applied for a
Brennan at Choral practice, singing christmas songs in French
European Union upgrade grant. To get a grant, rather than a LOAN, they needed to apply for an arena capable of hosting regional trials - otherwise they would have to payback a loan to a financial institution. So it was either REALLY BIG and FREE, or mediocre and expensive.
Christine took my by the chateau (castle) in Bonnetable. For years the chateau was accessible to the townspeople. Located in the center of the village, at the river crossing, it was a measure of their pride. In the last decade an Austrian millionaire (a brewer) purchased it, and locked it up. According to Christine, he simply “wanted to own a castle.” Though his wife sometimes visits, he does not. I told her the brewer is what we call in English and “ass-hole.”
When she was introducing me to the staff at her school, I was having a chat with the English teacher, Violaine. Christine asked me if I’d like anything to drink, and I asked for a glass of juice. She handed me a glass and I took a sip while I was speaking. I stopped mid-sentence and exclaimed something to the effect of, “Ow, lawdy mamma!” This was the most
My hosts, the Blanchards
incredible pineapple (d’anana) juice I had ever experienced. I demanded to see the carton it came out of, and sure enough, 100% unbastardized pineapple juice. It’s amazing to think that with all that natural sugar, it actually ISN’T necessary to add a whole bunch of sugar to pineapple juice like we do in America! And even more amazing is that it actually doesn’t need all that water either! It was so good that I demanded that we stop on the way home so that I could purchase a carton of it.
We had soup and delicious local pork for dinner. Afterwards there was the obligatory French tour de Fromage, which is going to make it very difficult to leave this country. No matter where I go, that is a habit I am determined to keep.
The family has a skinny, affectionate and rambunctious cat, that is 1) always hungry, and 2) always trying to break into the house during wintertime. I love this cat, of course.
My ancestral village of Ige is a tiny country town of about 800 people. I didn’t expect to find anyone speaking English there, and since my French is still pretty bad (honestly), Christine wrote
Christine playing badmitten
up a note for me to carry (like a mute person asking for change) that explained my situation, and asked people to explain about the town for me to record in French. Franc would translate this for me later, and I’d get the full story out of them. She included the name of my ancestor, Francoise Rotier. It just so happens that there is a lady by that name living TODAY in Ige, and as soon as the townsfolk saw that name, they freaked out and demanded that I follow them to her house. Suddenly I was confronted with my long-lost cousin, who seemed very kind about it but had no time because you see, she had to go to work. She referred me to her/my other cousin, the town mayor (mairie). After the lady at the grocery store called him, up the mayor arrived in his little car, and he proceeded to tell me about the town.
I won’t bore you with the details, but for starters, the town was founded before America was discovered. It used to have double the population it does now, before half of the town moved to Quebec, seeking better opportunities.
An additional note:
Take kids to an activity anywhere...and all they want to do is play video games
this town of 800 people has a factory that produces SPRINGS, employing 80 people. I think that’s more people making springs in Ige than you will find in any city in America. France has NOT exported all it’s manufacturing jobs. Franc would later describe how terrible the production situation in the small town of Bonnetable was - they only had 4 industrial plants. Only four…
On my last day, I was invited to the local badminton club’s weekly practice. The school’s gym was filled with young and old wobbling their birdies over the net. I struggle to imagine so many people in Oregon showing up for community badminton night, but these people enjoyed it. That is, except for the teenagers, who sat up on the bleachers playing their PSPs or GBAs. Some things are exactly the same over here.
After badminton we drove across the street to Christine’s choral practice. Many years ago she helped found this group with just a couple other members. Today it is a room full of about 20 people, with an amusing vocal director. They are working on French Christmas songs, of course. Christine told me that the men in the group frustrate her, as
Helping a student (Gendreau) with her letter to her English pen pal
they don’t pay attention or sing what they are supposed to. As evidence, I observed the male-bari part of one of the songs getting reduced from three lines to just one. If given the choice, the ladies would probably send the spotted old fools home altogether.
Sophia, the choral director is a spirited 30-something, with the most unusual warm up exercises I’d ever seen. First she had everyone slow to a stop and massage themselves all over their head, neck and chest. Then we found our heartbeat on our chest, and listened to it. Then vocal warm-ups with sounds I’d never heard American choirs make… “zhoo, zhoo, zhoooo, zhoo zhooo.”
I spent a good deal of time at the high school (college). Violaine, the English teacher invited me to speak to the kids in her three English classes, and I was very happy to oblige. I really want to know what experience French children receive in the classroom and elsewhere.
Visiting the English classes was a wonderful experience. I hope to repeat all over Europe. There were bright young people, with all these images in their heads about what America is like - oh how I love working a canvas.
Did you get this in your school lunch? A TROUT. A fresh, freaking TROUT
I twisted their heads around and corrected some of the very improper perceptions. There were many good questions, mostly about why an American is riding a tiny scooter across the continent. I’ll let you know when I have a simple answer for that. One of Violaine’s classes had just four French students who were learning English as a Second Language (ESL). That would seem quite normal - if their first language of instruction wasn’t GERMAN!
Yes, these French kids are learning German as their first language, and English as their second! One of the students also speaks some Italian. I’m so jealous. Here I am at 28, changing my life for the chance to have a sabbatical and learn additional languages through immersion - and these kids will speak three languages by the time they are 15!
For physical education, they have a full rock-climbing wall in their gymnasium that the students use a couple of times each week. They have judo classes, running classes, and spend at least three hours per week exercising in school. This is one of at least two reasons that only 15% of French children are obese or overweight. Every time I tell the kids
that the number is 60% in America --- they are completely floored. They can’t even imagine a society where MOST people are overweight. I didn’t even go into our “fat acceptance” societies.
The OTHER reason they aren’t obese is because of the lunches that they eat in school. Now, I’m sure you all know SOMETHING about nutrition. If you wanted to give kids the absolute BEST CHANCE to do well in school, what would you feed them? How about feeding their brain, with a FRESH TROUT? Yes, I received my own whole trout, eyes and all. There was fresh bread, GOAT CHEESE, yogurt, a delicious freshly made pear dessert, a soup made from butternut squash, shrimp, rice or pasta salad. Just when I thought it couldn’t get ANY BETTER, I was told as I dined with the teachers in their room, that on special occasions (for teachers) there is a little wine to go along with the fine food.
I was happy, appreciated, and very well fed in Bonnetable. As I reflected on this, I carried my lunch tray back to the dishwasher in the cafeteria. I rested the tray on the metal shelf, and waited for my chance to
On my scooter at Le Charme
hand it in.
The person ahead of me laughed and chatted happily with the dishwasher. She leaned forward and I saw a disaster approaching. As her porcelain plates began to slide off her tray, I could imagine them breaking on the hard tiles underneath.
I became spider man. I lunged forward, hands outstretched to catch the plates as they fell through the gaps in the metal shelf. Instead, the plates hit the shelf and shattered as they hurled toward my hands.
One split in half sharply, transforming it into a dangerous weapon. It pierced the base of my right thumb, penetrating at least two centimeters into my hand.
The blood sp…
To be continued…
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