Due to our many visits to France traveling on our own and actually living in France, we experienced so many unusual experiences most tourists do not share. Hope you enjoy these two short stories. Read on!
A Private Museum/Chateau Visit
In 2002, my wife Freddie and I rented a gite in Celles, France. From this gite we toured the Loire Valley and its endless, magnificent chateaux as well as a plethora of villages and towns. One of our most unusual visits was only a few blocks away from our gite—a huge chateau. We walked to the chateau, and we were the only visitors there. Our guide, a young woman, led us for the tour. We had the whole chateau and guide to ourselves— how good was that! The guide, who spoke only French, gave us the history as we viewed large rooms covered with relics of the Middle Ages such as swords, crossbows, axes, armor, etc. The guide noticed I was closely observing a vest of chainmail. She asked, “Do you want to try it on? I could not believe it—museums do not let tourists wear the relics. I said that I would love to. I picked it off the wall and noted it was heavier than I thought it would be. I put it on, and it was a good fit. I wondered about the person who wore this vest in the middle ages. Was he protected, was his head chopped off, or did he die of disease. This was a special experience for me.
We then toured the grounds of the chateau. We could see arrow slits all over the exterior walls as we wondered how many times invaders attacked this chateau. The guide took us to a small canal about 50 yards from the chateau. She asked us to stand on a particular 2 square-foot area. We did. She then told us this was where Joan of Arc stood as she asked the Lord of the manor for sleeping accommodations for the night. The Lord refused her request as he told her that a girl leading an army of men could not possibly be virtuous. Joan ended up finding accommodations in town — the very location and house where our gite was! What a coincidence!
For the summer of 2002, my wife Freddie and I agreed to a home exchange near the city of Rennes. This exchange would enrich us with so many wonderful and authentic French experiences. After a few days, a local firefighter invited us to a block party the following week.
The events started with an aperitif at a neighbor’s ancient farmhouse. He took us outside too see the communal oven in which chicken and potatoes were roasting. The oven was about 200 years old, and in the past, the community once shared it to bake bread. The thick-walled stone structure, about eight feet in diameter, looked like a gray igloo. In the past, part of the community would bring their bread for baking on designated days; this was much more efficient than each family firing up an oven to bake a few loaves of bread.
After aperitifs, sixteen adults, sat at the table for the main event as a few children and a handful of dogs roamed around. The first course was a terrine of rabbit, paté, and rillettes. Of course, there was plenty of wine to accompany every bite. Our hosts were so gracious. They had an American flag hung in our honor, and they served Freddie and me first for each course. The host, Regine, saw to it that Freddie was comfortable and provided her with a warm sweater when she got chilly.
Next was oven-baked chicken along with salad, cheeses, side dishes and the wonderful wines that combined to create a wonderful party between our tongues and palates. Bottles of fantastic Bordeaux wines seemed to materialize on the table out of nowhere to replace the dead soldiers. These wines would have been extremely costly in the US and were not cheap in France either. The natives told a plethora of jokes and sang many of their Britannic folk songs as the merry making continued.
At this time, I felt that I should speak to the group to express my and Freddie’s profound appreciation for this reception. I went on to tell them that we were especially pleased because as tourists, we seldom get the opportunity to meet the real people. Even as a French speaking person, I normally didn’t get to say more than “good day” or “how much does it cost,” and “the bill, please.” However, here, I had extensive conversations and truly communicated in depth with many people. I also gave them a little background on Cajun History, its language, and the differences from standard French. Finally, I thanked everyone profusely and assured our new friends that we would never forget this wonderful experience as it was our most enjoyable trip to France ever. There was generous applause as I sat down.
For the first time, I looked at my watch and was shocked. It was almost two in the morning and it was not over yet. Out came the dessert—three types of pie. We ate and talked some more. At 3:00 AM, the reception finally ended. We had been eating and drinking for eight hours! A friend told us that these soirées sometimes last until seven o’clock in the morning, but for us who usually finish dinner within less than one hour, eight hours of eating and drinking was enough.
After getting home, we washed up and were in bed by 3:30. We had never stayed up this late before since we had been together. What a full and exciting day. The soirée imprinted our minds with images and feelings that would follow us home and live with us for a long time. Our minds were reeling, and only our exhaustion allowed sleep to arrive. We did not tour much the next day.
Many of my readers believe that we visit only France on our vacations. While France is certainly our favorite destination, we have visited many other countries. One such country was Italy in 2011 when we visited Pompeii, the famous city destroyed and preserved by Mount Vesuvius. This was a harrowing experience for us, but would become a good and funny story years later.
Lost in Pompeii
We all had our earphones and receiving units on, and we followed our guide to the ruins. We walked a path lined with beautiful oleander bushes with double flowers that we had never seen before. There was a plethora of other flowers and plants as well as graceful, huge umbrella pines. As we walked, we could see the outer walls of Pompeii only a few yards away, a sign that we were about to enter into an era of
antiquity. We got to the entry gate and we could see a huge city that archeologists had literally dug up from the ground. Some buildings were three stories, and the volcanic material covered them so completely that the city was lost to man’s memory for almost 1800 years. The streets were on a grid pattern, unlike middle age cities that were to come later. As we walked through the excavated city, we saw streets paved with huge cobblestones with sidewalks on both sides. We could see the worn ruts in the cobblestones left by carts driven there over 2000 years ago. There were holes in the sidewalk curbs that were once used to tie up horses. We saw all types of structures – homes, temples to different gods, monuments, houses of prostitution, and even a fast food area where Romans could buy a bite of pizza, salad, olives, fruit, bread, etc. We went to the Forum, which was a meeting place for businesspersons, merchants, or other influential men. One could see that this was once a strikingly beautiful city and still threatened by the towering, ominous Vesuvius in the background.
We visited a Roman Bath, which was once a work of beauty and officiousness embellished with mosaics and sculptures, and originally, with painted walls. We saw a theater that was quite complete and once held about 5000 people. Originally, this bathhouse had marble walls that made it an impressive and luxurious facility before the eruption.
Pompeii was once a city of about 20,000 people and very prosperous due to trade and commerce. Additionally, wealthy Romans chose to live in this area because of its climate and beauty.
We continued our tour as the temperature began rising rapidly. When we could, we stood in what little shade we could find. We were about two thirds of the way through our tour when we looked at a mosaic of a dog that we could see through a barred door. The message of the mosaic was the equivalent of “Bad Dog” of today. Indeed, the dog in the mosaic looked like a ferocious wolf. I wanted to take a picture of the mosaic and had to wait my turn, as we could not all get a picture at the same time. I got my turn, but unfortunately, the light was not good and my picture was not satisfactory. Even more unsatisfactory was that when I looked up, my group, and Freddie were gone. This started a little saga that we will remember for a long time.
There were hoards of people all around me – different tours from other ships, European visitors, as well as other groups from our ship. I still could hear our guide in my earphone, but could not tell what direction it was coming from. There were so many directions the group could have gone, and so many structures they could have entered. I walked up the street a short distance and the voice got a little clearer, indicating that they were not too far away. I walked some more and the voice got weaker and broken up. I did hear Freddie worriedly telling the guide that I was no longer with the group. I walked back near where we were which was near a little restaurant for tourists. I thought this was where we were to have lunch after our tour, but there were no longer any
voices in my earphones. I was very irritated with Freddie because I thought that she should have been looking out for me as I took the picture. I did see two others who were separated from my group. They continued on, and I took a chance that my group would return to the restaurant. I waited, and it was close to noon and not even a sound on the earphone. I saw two police officers nearby and asked if they spoke English, one said, “a little.” I told him my situation and he looked and made a phone call, but he got no results. He asked a woman who was a tour guide and she said she saw our group #26 up the street. I was relieved but my hopes were dashed as I realized that group was a “26” but from another ship.
Then, I told the police officer I thought the best place for me to return was to where we started the tour, find the bus driver and have him call the group guide. For some reason, he was slow to react to that suggestion – might have been a language problem. Had this happened in France, it would not have been a problem. Finally, I asked him how to get to the starting point of the tours. He pointed the direction and I started to walk when he said, “Wait, I will go with you.” That turned out to be good and not good. I was extremely worried about Freddie because she would be frantic. We walked toward the area of our start point, but the police officer did not walk fast enough for me – after all, he was not the one who was lost. We finally got to the area he wanted to get to, but while it was near our start point, it was about 200 feet from there. There were groups there starting tours, but they were from other groups. We waited several minutes and finally asked a man, and the man told him it was at another location near Victoria Hotel. We started walking there and before we did 20 steps, I heard Freddie’s voice on my earphones loud and clear; she was telling the leader she could not leave because I would not know where she was. We soon got to the start point, and I saw Freddie as she saw me – she wanted to kill me! You would think that she would have been happy to see the return of the prodigal husband. I was happy just to get there in time, as they were 30 minutes late and were about to leave. Part of Freddie’s problem was that she could not go to the bathroom because she had no Euros, and could not get something to eat for the same reason. There was no time for Freddie to go to the restroom or get something to eat. We walked with our group to our bus. Freddie’s reception continued to be unlike the father’s reception of the prodigal son. I really can’t say that I blamed her.
By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun In France
Climbing Mt. Vesuvius
The next stop after my getting lost in Pompeii was Mt. Vesuvius, the 4000 foot high volcano that destroyed Pompeii. Our plan was to climb to the top of the volcano to see the crater and to view Naples and the island of Capri. The bus would take us up 3000 feet and we would have to climb up the last 1000 feet. The ride up was extraordinary as we rode past upper scale homes and gardens. I got glimpses of our cruise ship, the seashore and the Isle of Capri. I had my recurring thought: why do people continue to live in an area where another Pompeii could almost certainly happen again. The consequences would be more tragic with almost 2,000,000 people living there now. Vesuvius last erupted in 1942 and has had activity, on the average, every 50 years. According to the average, activity is now overdue. My most eminent desire was for the volcano not to erupt in the next couple of hours.
We rode as high as we could in the bus, and we got off. We had a challenge before we could do the first foot of climbing. We had no lunch and it was 1:30. There was food at shops at the stop, but one can’t eat a big meal just before major physical exertion. I bought us each a banana, and we headed to the start of our climb. As we started, there were a couple of men offering rather crude walking sticks for climbing. I said “no” but the man said we could use them and just give them a tip when we came down. We each took a stick.
We started walking up the road to the volcano’s peak. We did about 200 yards, and I could see that the climb would be too difficult for Freddie. The roadway had a lot of loose gravel that made walking much more difficult and dangerous, and, it was much too steep and too long for her to attempt. With her bunion, it would be too painful, and with her weak knees, it would invite the possibility of a bad injury. We stopped to rest, and I convinced her that she should not try to continue. She encouraged me to go on, and she would wait for me near the shops. I took her walking stick and started walking up the path to the top.
As I went up, I could see and feel that this would be a good challenge for me –a lifelong flat lander. The path was steep and to climb 1000 feet, one has to walk much more that that distance. I immediately saw that the walking sticks would be a great help. I had never used sticks before. They helped me use my upper body and arms to assist the legs in climbing. I was moving up pretty fast, and I could feel my pulse rate go up. I realized that I would have to pace myself and stop every so often. Luckily, there was a good breeze to cool me down some. The path, covered with volcanic rocks, curved around the volcano, so I could not see how far I had left to go.
Perhaps that was not all bad because if I knew how much more I had to climb, I might have given up. As I was going up, there were scores of people of all types making the climb. Some were young children, some were fit adolescents, some were old- like me, some were overweight, and many had poor shoes- like sandals, to make the climb. The amazing thing was that most everyone was making the climb successfully, some slower than others. I had been climbing for a good while when I asked a man coming down how much I had left to go. He said, “Not much, and that the rest of the way would be less steep.” That was encouraging. I got to the first snack/water shack and took some pictures of the area, but conditions were less than ideal for photos due to the haze caused by the heat.
I continued to walk and the man was right, it was easier. I got to the rim of the volcano and looked down — it was quite a sight as I took pictures. The crater was deep and covered with loose stones and pebbles. In a few places, there were signs of beginning vegetation. There was no sign of volcanic activity at this time. It looked harmless and dead, but this volcano could erupt at any time. Fumes surface from time to time. I continued walking around the rim to get different perspectives of the crater and the surrounding area. Again, the haze made seeing great distances difficult. I got someone from my tour group to take my picture so I could prove to Freddie and all others that I had indeed made it up to the top. It was also reassuring that I was not the only one from my group here, as I didn’t want to be left behind again.
I then began making my descent as it was getting close to the bus’s departure time. I knew that the descent would be easier that the ascent. I also knew that coming down would work different muscles and would present more opportunities to lose footing in the loose rocks – not that one could fall off the path and down the volcano, but one could pull a muscle or get scratched up with a fall. The walking sticks were a great help coming down as they helped to secure foothold by offering 4 points of contact with the ground instead of two. I made it back down in about 35 – 40 minutes. When I got to the walking stick people, I was so appreciative of their sticks that I gave them 5 Euros. Freddie was at the gate waiting when I got there, still unhappy because of the Pompeii incident. The bus was ready to leave, and we headed back to the ship.
Though my climb would leave me with some sore legs for a few days, and the haze occluded the views, it was well worth the effort. I did get to look into a volcanic crater for the first time, and I felt good about meeting the challenge even though I realize that was not a short roll call. When I got back home, not many of my acquaintances will be able to say that they climbed Mt. Vesuvius. Only regret: they could at least have a T-Shirt available with “I Climbed Mt. Vesuvius” in bold print. They would have such a shirt in the New Orleans French Quarter for doing much less.
Travel in foreign countries provides many opportunities for unusual experiences. These can be positive or negative. Ironically, we often remember and recount most often the ones which at the time may have been anxious moments, but in retrospect make very funny or interesting stories. Many of our experiences were made possible due to my French fluency which enabled us to really know the French citizens and interact with them. All total, we spent a year in France which etched scores of indelible memories into our minds.
Freddie and I, during our many visits to France took copious notes and many photos documenting our experiences. We will share these adventures with you in the form of episodes which will be renewed from time to time. Enjoy, and feel to free enter your comments and/or questions.
THE PIGEON DROP
After having a dream-like experience in Provence the previous year, Pierre and Freddie wanted to return to continue the dream, so they planned a home exchange with a young couple whose home was near Aix-en-Provence, and back they went. Last year, they had run out of time and had not visited Arles, a major attraction in Provence, so this would be their first excursion.
They got an early start and arrived in Arles around ten o’clock. By coincidence, they almost literally ran into Arles remarkable Roman amphitheater. They entered the theater for a visit. As they walked around, they thought about all the drama that had taken place on the theater floor, all the lives lost in the bloody gladiatorial contests while the bloodthirsty crowds roared their approval. They could imagine the thousands of toga-clad spectators in the seats cheering their favorite thespians or gladiators. Human life was cheap at that time, especially if one was not Roman. From trying to imagine what it was like in Roman times, they realized how much they depended on movie depictions to form their mental images.
After the amphitheater visit, they moved on and were doing the obligatory shopping nearby when they realized it was getting close to lunchtime, and a search for a suitable restaurant was in order. They began their touristic amble (a slow, mindless, irregular walk with no particular destination in mind while searching for points of interest) up a street toward the city’s center where they expected to select a restaurant from several choices. As they walked, they took in everything around them—the people, the shops, the narrow streets, and especially the wonderful architecture. The French-blue skies were typically impeccable, the sun was warm, they were about to eat and drink something good, and they were in Provence. What contentment—life was good!
Then it happened. As they stopped to look up to focus on some unusual architectural details, Pierre caught, through the corner of his eye, a blur of something falling and felt something warm hit him on his right shoulder. Almost simultaneously, he detected a very foul odor. Freddie, as she shrank away from him, shouted, “Look at you, it’s awful, you are covered with pigeon doo-doo!” He looked at his right shoulder and saw that his new green and white awning-striped shirt and new travel vest liberally covered with a generous portion of a multicolored, runny, horrible-smelling liquid. He was now less than hungry. Despite having lived in New Orleans Metro for many years where pigeons abound and visiting many of the great pigeon-infested cities of Europe, this was his first avian baptism. To compound matters, this was one sick pigeon. Freddie was just standing there saying, “Ooh, ooh, ooh.” Not helpful!
After overcoming the initial shock, his first thought was that he needed to find a restroom where perhaps he could clean, to some degree, his shirt and vest as soon as possible. No longer in the touristic mode, they walked up the street in search of soap and water. Freddie, like a pre-World War II Japanese bride, walked behind him. The crowds on the street seemingly parted like the Red Sea to avoid him and the atmosphere surrounding him. He felt like a leper—abandoned, and shunned by all. He wondered if Van Gogh had suffered the same ignoble treatment in the streets of Arles.
Of course, they could not find a public restroom. Has anyone ever found a public restroom while on vacation when in need? Feeling hapless, and helpless, they continued walking up the street. He was thinking, “Why me? Of all the other people on the street, why me? Is it because my awning-striped shirt made me an inviting target?” If this happens at or near home, solutions are readily available; however, in a foreign country, the situation is more challenging.
Then, a miracle happened. As they neared a restaurant, a waitress, recognizing his plight, came out on the street and offered to help him. Her name was Sylvie. Sylvie got some paper towels and removed most of the droppings as she muttered, “Ces pigeons sont détestables.” He emphatically agreed with that statement as he had wishful images of pigeons going the way of the dodo bird. He felt somewhat better as she informed him that this happened to others quite often and that if the droppings were not washed out immediately, the acids could ruin clothing. If the acids were as powerful as the scent, he could believe that. She then brought him inside the restaurant where she got a towel and hot water to clean further the violated areas of his clothing. He had never been so grateful. As Sylvie worked on his clothing, she asked him if his wife minded her cleaning his shirt and vest. He assured her that Freddie did not mind at all. Who says the French are not nice?
Relatively clean and somewhat deodorized, they decided to eat at the waitress’s restaurant. Still having some remnants of paranoia, they sat down at a table under an umbrella. Freddie had a quiche, and he got a pizza and salad. They washed everything down with a bottle of chilled rosé. As he finished with an espresso, he told Freddie that Sylvie recognized a handsome, young man in distress. She responded, “Yeah, right!” All of this in the shade of plane trees and surrounded by an ambiance that only a long history can achieve. As they departed, he left the server an extra big tip and thanked her profusely again. Perhaps if all of the proverbially surly garçons were replaced by waitresses, waiters in France would have a different reputation. As she walked away, he was almost certain he saw angel wings on her back. “Thanks, and bless you, Sylvie,” Pierre thought.
Excerpt from A Cajun In France by Sidney P. Bellard
Some unusual experiences take place in the realms of our minds rather than specific geographic locations.
Beginning with my earliest visits to France, I noticed the presence of carousels almost everywhere—towns, cities and sometimes even in small villages. That was unusual as carousels had been rather scarce in the United States. For unknown reasons, I felt compelled to take a picture of every carousel I encountered. They made great pictures with their brilliant colors and artistic decorations. The happy sounds made by the grinning children also seemed to attract my attention, but I did not know why.
Later, perhaps in the 90’s tiny carousels were produced as decorative whatnots and jewelry. It seemed that every home had a little carousel in their whatnot cabinets, shelves or tabletops. I felt relieved to know that I was not the only one with this fascination for carousels; however, I was still was not sure why they had always caught my attention.
In 2015 and 2016, when I wrote A Cajun in France, I had planned to include my story about carousels, but my book grew to more pages than I expected, and I had to exclude some of my experiences. Excluded were the roots of my fascination with carousels that I realized while writing my book. I will share these with you now.
As a young boy during my third, fourth and fifth grade years, I had very few opportunities to experience “fun things” except when my father took my sister and me to the movies. All family visits were to relatives or others like us. Vacations were unknown for most people at that time and certainly, we had never been to a circus. Life was very simple.
One of the few exceptions was the annual “street fair” that came to Port Barré in the fall. The street fair set up its mini amusement park between the Kenwood Club (the wild west-like saloon) and Dick’s Pool Hall. It seemed that everyone in the little town and the whole countryside and the woods converged at the fair.
The fair was a very exciting event for the many children like me who had very limited fun times. My friends and I were dazzled by the bright lights, the strange music, cotton candy, popcorn, and the most exciting of all—the carousel! The lines were long to get on the carousel, but once we straddled the colorful galloping ponies, paradise began. We laughed and giggled as we galloped up and down on the ponies. After what seemed to us a one minute ride, the ponies came to a gradual stop. Paradise lost; we reluctantly stepped down. For many of us there would be only one ride. A few rode repeatedly. After my carousel ride, I might get a cotton candy or a bag of popcorn to complete the night’s entertainment. Many would have to wait until next fall to repeat these happy moments.
By the time I was in fifth grade, I began to understand the games of chance that were prevalent at these fairs. Games like knocking over milk bottles with a baseball, throwing a ring around a peg or post, throwing darts at balloon and hitting moving targets with a BB gun were examples. The goal for the player was to win a prize, and there were tempting samples of prizes that players could win. These enticed players to try repeatedly to win, but they won few of these flashy prizes—the games were rigged. A few won occasional prizes like stuffed animals, many of which were rather raggedy.Also in fifth grade, I began to see that the fair was really a shabby outfit. The colorful galloping ponies were faded, worn, and needed fresh paint. The people that worked the fair were rather seedy characters. The street fair had lost its allure for me.
I did attend the larger Tri-Parish Fair in the 8th and 9th grades. The fair was a school holiday and school buses transported the students to the huge event. Rides like the Ferris wheel, larger carousel, and other thrill rides entertained the huge crowds. This carousel was so pretty and gave me fond memories of my elementary days. I paused for a moment to hear the children’s glee and watched the carousel make a few revolutions, but I did not ride it, that would not have been cool at my age. With my limited money, I rode the Ferris wheel, did the haunted house, and ate a hotdog and a cotton candy. My money having run out, my friend, John, and I just walked around until the bus took us home. The carousel ride I did not do that day would be buried in my psyche and exhumed 58 years later when I wrote my book.
By Sidney P. Bellard, Author of A Cajun in France
Our First extended visit to France
We made our first extended Trip to France in the summer of 1999. We rented this quaint little gite in the town of Celles sur Cher, a medieval town not far from the Loire Valley. After a journey of planes, trains, taxis and 20 plus hours, we reached Blois where we rented a car to travel to Avranches, a town on the English Channel, before we would move into our gite (a rented house with furnishings). We rented a little Ford Festiva and the adventures began immediately. The car had a manual transmission— I had not driven such a car in many years. I stalled the car three times before leaving the lot. I just knew everyone on the lot was thinking something like “Crazy Americans.” At the intersections, I expected four cars to hit us simultaneously and compress the little Festiva into a cubic foot of steel— with us in it. This was not an auspicious beginning for a journey of six hours.We drove a few blocks and our problems compounded. This was my first time driving in France. Traffic lights were much smaller than in the States, and they were likely to be anywhere — on a post, on the side of a building or any side of the street. I kept stalling the car while shifting and drivers behind me expressed their irritation with their hands and fingers. Then there were the roundabouts – felt like five million of them and my first time seeing these things. We found ourselves missing turns off the roundabouts and going around several times like a merry go round before making our turns. Fellow drivers were not amused—and we weren’t either.
As the miles went by, my driving improved. We entered a city and encountered a detour. This was a problem because there were no other signs to tell where to detour to. So of course we got lost, and I committed the unforgivable sin for a man —I stopped and asked a lady for directions. She said, “Go up the street, turn first right, then second left, then second left. We took off and the first right led us into what I thought was an alley. I thought no way this could be right; Never-the-less, I kept going forward. The next turn was left and even narrower than the first street. There was barely an inch clearance on each side of the tiny car. We crept on and reached the last left turn, took it and a large street appeared. It took us right out of town.
We finally made it to Avranches and had a wonderful time visiting Mont St. Michel (spectacular) and towns along the English Channel.
After a couple of marvelous days, we began our journey to Celles where our gite was. We arrived at the interesting and historic city of Le Mans. Again we ran into a detour sign with no other sign to detour to —we got lost again. There was no GPS then. We drove around to find our way out of the city. We got to a barricade sign at the cross section of a street. We paused to look at our maps. Then we heard a high-pitched, snarling, whining noise getting louder and louder. Then it happened. The roar peaked as colorful and numbered cars flashed past us about 10 feet away at perhaps 150 mph. The snarling roar diminished instantly as the cars disappeared. It was the historic 24 hour Le Mans auto race.
We finally made it to Celles and saw the gite where we would spend the next two weeks. The small, ancient two story stone cottage, almost completely covered with broad-leafed vines stood before us looking much like a Thomas Kinkade painting. The land lady was nice, English and a joy to talk to. This was good for Freddie as there was someone she could to talk to besides me.
From this gite we toured the Loire Valley and its endless, magnificent chateaux as well as a plethora of villages and towns. One of our most unusual visits was only a few blocks away from our gite — a huge chateau. We walked to the chateau, and we were the only visitors there. Our guide, a young woman, led us for the tour. We had the whole chateau and guide to ourselves— how good was that! The guide, who spoke only French, gave us the history as we viewed large rooms covered with relics of the Middle Ages such as swords, crossbows, axes, armor, etc. The guide noticed I was closely observing a chain-mail vest. She asked, “Do you want to try it on?” I couldn’t believe it—museums don’t let tourists wear the relics. I said that I would love to. I picked it off the wall and noted it was heavier than I thought it would be. I put it on and it was a good fit. I wondered about the person who wore this vest in the middle ages. Was he protected, or was his head chopped off, or did he die of disease. This was a very special experience for me.
We then toured the grounds of the chateau. We could see arrow slits all over the exterior as we wondered how many times this chateau was attacked. The guide took us to a small canal about 50 yards from the chateau. She asked us to stand on a particular 2 square foot area. We did. She then told us this was where Joan of Arc stood as she asked the Lord of the manor for sleeping accommodations for the night. The Lord refused her request as he told her that a lady leading an army of men could not possibly be virtuous. Joan ended up finding accommodations in town — the very location and house where our gite was! What a coincidence!
Excerpt from a Cajun in France, by Sidney P. Bellard
Les Vieux Papillons
One of our unusual France experiences originated in a most unlikely place—Opelousas, Louisiana at a class reunion. I met Gail for the first time since high school graduation. I did know that she had spent some time in France, so I was anxious to share experiences with her. After some conversation, we learned that she and her husband Walt had been living in France on a riverboat. They found a location they wanted to explore and moored there for however long it took to achieve their objectives. I was so envious of their life style. My ultimate dream was to be able to spend that much time in France in such a manner; however, I knew that was not possible for me due to my profession and other considerations. She invited us to spend some time with them when we returned to France. It so happened we had made plans to visit Toulouse, France, that summer which was not far from where they moored their boat. We made plans to meet.
After a few days in Toulouse that summer, we left town to visit Gail and Walt. In an hour and 45 minutes, we were in the town of Buzet sur Blaise where they lived. The GPS took us to the correct Street, Rue de la Republique, (most French towns and cities will have a “Rue de la Repubilque”). Gail was waiting for us at the appointed place in front of a restaurant, and she hopped into our car and guided us to the boat while pointing out points of interest. The area was very nice and scenic as well as historic. We could see why they had chosen this location to live their annual 9 months in France. We got to the riverboat that was moored in one of the many canals that crisscross France. The location was idyllic and peaceful with its sluggish canal lined with the green of plane and willow trees. Others had boats docked nearby. Up on the bank from the boat was an ancient stone home that was nestled in a grove of willow trees and other plants. Near the boat was a small restaurant that we would find out much more about later. The center and jewel of this location was the riverboat itself – Les Vieux Papillons (The Old Butterflies). What a suitable name for a riverboat in France— we think of images of the slow moving, colorful butterfly just flitting about extracting nectar from a rainbow of beautiful flowers that is analogous to Gail and Walt slowly cruising the rivers and canals of France extracting and absorbing the cultural, artistic, and gastronomical wonders of this delightful country. What a life.
The Les Vieux Papillion was indeed as attractive as a butterfly. Walt had just given it a fresh coat of black and yellow paint. Their home was indeed well maintained. It was about 100 feet long and capped with a top deck punctuated by beautiful, potted flowers and an umbrella-covered sitting area. We met Walt and he gave us a tour of the boat. It was super nice with a kitchen (galley), living room – with a fireplace no less, and two bedrooms – one at each end of the boat, and a dining room. What a home from which to have a permanent vacation.
After our tour of the boat, we went up on the deck under the umbrella to have champagne, much conversation, then a bottle of white wine and much more conversation along with Walt’s wonderful cheese dish. Due to our common interests, we had so much to discuss. They then took us in Walt’s car to a quaint town named Viane. His car was a beautiful, red Peugeot that looked like new to me. It was the same size as my Altima and got 50 miles to a gallon of diesel. He got it used for $10,000 — wished I could get a car like that in the US for that price. Viane is a planned town (bastide) built by Richelieu during the 17th century to house people in southwest France. Unlike other towns of the period, the streets were laid out in grid patterns much like modern cities of today. It was strange to be able to see blocks lined up north, south, east, and west as opposed to other cities of the period that had non-parallel streets – much like random cow trails that became streets. Anyway, we went to a restaurant in the town square that had many outdoor tables. We had coffee (helped to neutralize the wine and champagne by becoming alert drunks) and some more conversation. It was nice to sit and observe people as they went about their daily lives—wonder if they observed us—just thinking. A friend of theirs came by, sat, and chatted with us for a while.
After our coffee, we went back to the boat for the beginning of a dinner event, and what an event it was to be. We all had a shot of premium tequila after a ritual of salt on the hand and lime juice. Though not accustomed to straight tequila, this one was smooth, but did not do much for our mental lucidity. We began with a crab appetizer that was superb. Next, was an entrée of gumbo that I thought might be interesting. Walt, from Texas, had done all the cooking and had lived in various parts of the US. My thoughts were what kind of gumbo could this guy make—perhaps some weak, seafood flavored broth. I was reassured some by realizing that Gail knew gumbo and would not tolerate anything less than good. When Walt handed the cups up to us from the galley, I caught an aroma like real thing. We all got our bowls, and I tasted mine. It took only a millisecond to determine that this was the real stuff. It was simply exquisite with good body and a wonderful taste of shrimp, fish and scallops. I have never made or tasted a better seafood gumbo. Walt really understood the nuances of good cooking and seasoning. I was so impressed that I had two bowls of that entrée. Of course, as we ravished our appetizer, wonderful bottles of white wine kept materializing on the table.
Our main dish was a wonderful, spicy, seafood pasta dish that was just delectable, but alas, we were so stuffed that we could not finish our plates. I felt bad about this, but less so when Gail and Walt could not finish theirs either. We knew that sometime in the future, when we were hungry, we would regret not finishing our pasta and shrimp.
Around this time, Sara, wife of Kevin, the chef of the restaurant next to the boat, came in. She delightfully finished a couple of the leftover plates of pasta— another real compliment to Walt’s prowess in the kitchen. Sara was a teacher of English to French students and complained about how difficult the students were to teach due to a lack of effort and interest. Seems like an international problem. Kevin then came in and joined the fun. We had some more wine and then did a cheese cake which was so good that we could eat it despite our distended stomachs that were threatening to pop our buttons and belts.
The final event was the digestive which consisted of a choice of one half dozen liqueurs. I had a little Cointreau (a Norman, apple cider based liqueur) and a little Grand Mariner (an orange flavored liqueur). Everyone else had various liqueurs of his/her choice.
By the time the dinner was over, we had covered our table with at least 8—10 empty bottles of liquor, and a huge number of glasses. We took a picture of it and it resembled the remnants of a Saturday night dance at our hometown Kenwood Club in the 1950’s. We also took pictures of everyone there.
We helped Gail and Walt pick up and wash the dishes. With four of us working, we quickly washed and put away the mountain of dishes, pots and pans. It was now between 11:00 and 12:00 pm and we were ready to retire for the night. We went down to our room and prepared for bed. Except for cruise ships, this was the first time I slept on a boat. Within a few minutes, a French sandman dumped a load of sand into our eyes, and we were out. What a wonderful, memorable day.
Excerpt from A Cajun in France, by Sidney P. Bellard