Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Paris to Langeville

On my last morning in Paris, I packed up, crammed myself onto the tiny Tiquetonne elevator and departed for Gare Montparnasse, arriving ridiculously early as is usual for me and rather frantic for a washroom. The place was packed and my train not yet on the board so I got a fabulous coffee and watched the scene as I waited. Twice I got into longish conversations with people asking me questions about the trains...French people, in French! Guess I have succeeded in not looking too much like a tourist. The train was finally posted - about 20 minutes before departure - and I headed down the platform. The 2nd class cars are always the farthest from the main station so I no longer panic when it seems like I might have to walk all the way to my destination. It was a quiet trip except for an incident just past Le Mans when a suitcase fell from the overhead rack a couple of seats ahead of mine and clobbered the poor woman sitting below. The French despite their celebrated reserve, flocked to help her and she was well fussed over for the rest of the journey. Yet another reason to pick the window seat...

My friend Françoise was waiting faithfully for me on the platform at Les Sables d'Olonne, a minor miracle in my view since we hadn't been in touch for weeks....nothing since "my train arrives at 2:30 on Sunday, the 7th". This is the third time we have met in France like this so I'm less nervous now about it actually coming to pass although I had the "de rigueur" thought, what would be my next step if she doesn't show? We did a little vehicle tour of Les Sables d'Olonne, a beach town with some interesting buildings from the 30's and many seashell mosaics along the walls of the narrow streets, kitschy but old enough to be cool too. There was a parade being marshalled at the waterfront with some modest floats and a flock of local girls wearing clogs, colourful folk costumes and lace coifs on their heads. Local boys were also dressed up in folk costume and were practising their music on the Breton style bagpipes and horns, quite thrilling to hear in that context but not what everyone would call tuneful, a harsh, compelling sound. The beach was spectacular, a long curve of white sand around the bay bordered with low rise hotels and apartments, some art deco but most newer and pretty cheesy up close. The beach is obviously the main attraction here as the town doesn't have a whole lot of character. It was a gorgeous sunny day but the wind was strong and blowing sand made it less than pleasant near the water so we didn't wait around for the parade to begin and headed off to Langeville where Françoise's family owns a summer home.

Beach near Langeville

As I would learn, Langeville looks pretty much the same as most of the towns in the area: tidy, white stucco houses with blue shutters, red tile roofs, all in the low lying flat landscape of the Vendée shoreline. There didn't seem to be much to do or see in walking distance aside from the beach which was again, spectacular: miles of white sand backed by dunes backed in turn by deciduous forest. Here and there, crumbling blockhouses from World War II poke up out of the dunes. Although sunny the weather was a bit on the cool side so most houses remained shuttered and it was very quiet. The house was lovely and comfortable, full of antique French country furniture, beautiful linens on the beds and the accumulations of a much-loved and long-used family retreat. Françoise has been summering here since she was a teenager so it is pretty much in her blood.

White stucco, blue shutters and red tile roofs at La Tranche-sur-Mer

We spent the week walking, reading, napping, eating, lying on the beach, drinking wine and in my case, knitting while listening to audiobooks on my iPod. Each evening there was the almost ritual closing of the shutters once we were ready to go to bed, often before sunset. With no daylight saving and it being almost the solstice, it was daylight until almost 11PM. Between the tranquility, the gentle rhythm of the days, the comfortable bed and the darkness that only shutters on the windows can provide, I slept like a child, wakening to bird song. The second day of our stay, there was a huge windstorm and we actually lit a fire in the fireplace and hunkered down under blankets, quite content. When we walked through the forest the next day there were branches on the path and the beach was covered in fluffy white foam from the pounding waves of the day before.

Foamy beach at Jard-sur-Mer

The week slid by, serene, quietly delightful, laid-back. On the last day, Françoise drove me to La Rochelle where I was to fly to Dublin to meet my guy. It was a very hot day and it was farther than anticipated - partly because of poor navigation on my part. La Rochelle is a lovely city, reminding me of St. Malo but built of white stone rather than grey, giving it a sunny southern aspect. Much of the new world exploration in the age of discovery left from here and the city was celebrating its links with Quebec this summer...I was pleasantly surprised to see the Quebec flag flying at the harbour.
Exposition at La Rochelle on the expeditions to New France

Quebec flag flies over the harbour at La Rochelle

After a nice lunch outside the cathedral, we wandered the back streets of the old city, climbed the ramparts at the mouth of the harbour and enjoyed the cool shady arcades until it was time for my flight.
Harbour gate, La Rochelle

Inner harbour, La Rochelle

Ramparts of La Rochelle

The La Rochelle-Ile de Ré airport was tiny with nowhere to sit, packed full of people with questions and no staff to provide answers, everyone overheated and anxious. People in Ryanair uniforms sailed busily about the room, unresponsive to pleas for assistance. Guess that's how Ryanair is able to offer those low fares, not that my fare was particularly a bargain. I had dutifully checked in online the day before using my iPhone and was assured on the website that I could print my boarding pass at the airport. At the airport there appeared to be no facility for printing and as for staff to clarify my next step, see above. Nothing for it but to wait with growing apprehension then make sure I was at the front of the line when the flight was called. I couldn't even settle down enough to knit, which is really saying something for me, in spite of it being World Wide Knitting in Public Day.
The agent barely listened to my story, sending me with a form to a different desk to "pay for printing my boarding pass" (30 euros!!!) and to "have my visa checked" (what visa!??)! By the time the stone faced woman at the counter deigned to serve me, my patience had quite evaporated. Speaking French was beyond me and while I didn't raise my voice, I was very firm. I laid out the sorry tale ending with "now it seems I have to pay another 30 euros and I am not happy". She met my eye, assessing my outrage, I glared back, she kind of hitched one shoulder in that French way, rolled her eyes, pounded a "Paid" stamp on my form, and shooed me away, all without uttering a word. For a minute, I couldn't quite believe I'd managed to get my way. The lesson? Have your say, don't yell, don't back down and to hell with polite and accommodating.

Too bad my France sojourn had to end on this sour note. It will be a long time before I put myself in the hands of Ryanair again. Mostly I've had exceptionally good experiences with the budget airlines in Europe. They fly between smaller cities without routing through the large airport hubs and while the fares are not all that small once all the extras are added on, they make it up in convenience. At least I got in my knitting, finishing up the first of what I'm calling my Langeville Sunset Socks in the mercifully cool departure lounge and during the flight to Dublin.

...and next, Ireland...

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