Friday, June 10 through Sunday, June 12, 2011, Bayeux to Le Mans to Saumur, France
Re-reading my travel journals not only reminds me of what I learned about my novel protagonist and about time travel, but returns me to that foreign place where I tried to speak another language and was not understood, then stumbled my way through the streets. The discomfort wraps its arms around me once more.
It was tricky for me to balance the need to interact with strangers on a daily basis with constant travel and changes of venue. No one was there to compare stories with at the end of the day. I often went to bed completely drained, yet I did not always sleep well. I would toss and turn on unfamiliar mattresses, rehashing the days activities. I needed people, yet when I tried to express myself to folks who did not understand my language nor me theirs, it was exhausting—just to ask for the check, let alone to have a normal conversation. There was no easy banter, few real personal connections. I had to actively study facial expressions and body language to understand if people were neutral, happy, or upset.
The result of all this was that by the time I left Bayeux, I was becoming a Grumpy Gus. But I was only halfway through my journey. There would be more challenges ahead. I had to protect myself. I had to create a more robust barrier between myself and others. But even as I hid behind emotional armor, I was able to learn from my interaction with one person and act on that knowledge with the next, sometimes later that same day. At times I could even drop the armor when I met people who took extra care to try to make me feel comfortable. And help me forget the jerks.
To help reinforce my armor for when I did need it, I had a regular routine in every town: I ate a lot, slept in, walked miles through and around old city centers, and talked with family and friends back home through the magic of the internet, . Friends' comments on pictures I posted on social media were priceless. Facebook allowed me to have conversations with my peeps thousands of miles away. And, of course, my phone chats with husband Dave were essential to my sanity. An occasional Australian met on the road was a real treat as well. Those I met were full of good, wry humor. I began to see the humor myself in this crazy "stranger in a strange land" situation I was in. But I also began to see the irony in it.
In the United States when I meet someone who does not speak English, I assume without thinking that she is uneducated and not on "my level." I am not proud of this. I mean, I like people! But I am, like most folks, lazy. It is too much effort and time to pay close attention to get the details about a new person we meet in passing. Our brains have been evolved to make quick judgements on matters that are not immediately critical. We decide whether this person is a threat or not, and if not, move on. The quick dismissal also protects us by moving on before a stranger can get too close.
In Europe. I was the ignorant "less than" person, the potential yet rejected threat. I got the message, whether it was sent intentionally or not.
My journey from Bayeux to Saumur was stressful for all the reasons I've mentioned. I first backtracked to Le Mans by train before I could make a connection to Saumur. It was a long day. I met several kind people, two rude people, and a person who helped me but wouldn't look me in the eye.
Journal Excerpt, Saturday, June 11, 2011, Hotel Mecure Bords de Loire Saumur, France: In Saumur. Had great difficulty pronouncing the name of this city. It is something like "Sah-uh-muhr—but get your lips out and linger on the "uhs." I usually say "Sam-UR." The man at the train station in Le Mans could not understand me at all. A gentlemen in line understood, but he did not look at me, just at the SCNF train guy. "Sahuh-muhr," he told him. I felt like I was almost beneath his notice. But because I butchered the language, he had to do something.
I thought I would never make it to Saumur. It turned out not to be a train I connected to at Le Mans, but an "autobus." I could have taken a train to Angers and then another to Saumur, but as the SCNF man said, the bus left sooner and I could just relax for the nearly two-hour ride. So, I took the bus. It seemed obvious and it worked out well, too. I had planned to walk to the hotel, but when the bus pulled up at the end of the line and I got off, I was so tired and felt so alienated from lack of communication, I asked the bus driver, a huge truck driver of a man with animated features, "Je voudrais un taxi. Oo?" He motioned that one must call, but after a few phrases in heavy French in his booming bass voice, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed. "Oo?" he asked me. "L'otel Mecure," I said. I heard him repeat this into the phone. He chatted for a moment and I heard him say, "Anglais." Yep. That's me. Then he patted me on the head—on top of my white sun hat—and said. "En la chapeau blanc." Okay, he was making fun of me a bit, but what a funny scene. I could never interact with the natives this way if I'd been traveling with someone else. He was awfully kind to me. I got my taxi and another 5.03 euros later I was at my hotel.
(Editor's note: It was only after I re-read my journal, that I realized the bus driver had mistaken me for an English woman. I'll take it!)
Earlier that morning, when I caught the train from Caen to Le Mans, I underwent trial by fire as I attempted to speak French. Now I realize that experience helped me have a pleasant interaction with the bus driver in the afternoon. When I got on the train I headed for an empty seat next to a young woman sitting at the window. I asked if I could sit next to her, and we took several moments to come to a conclusion that I could sit there. She asked me where I was getting off the train and I was so tired, I couldn't process her repeated, "Oo? Oo?" Finally she listed the names of the stops and I heard "Luh Mahng."
"Oui! Le Man," I said. She sighed and slumped back in her seat. She pulled out a tablet of paper, pens, a ruler, and an exercise book and began rapidly writing in earnest, slouched over on my side so that I had to shift toward the aisle to keep her off of me.
Somewhere in my brain I knew she had meant, "Where?" as in "Where are you getting off?" but I could not process it. I was too intimidated by her bossy manner. She gave up completely on my ability to speak sensibly in French. This exchange was so exhausting for her that, when she needed to get off the train (in only three or four stops) all she manage to do was poke me in the arm and gesture for me to move. If she wasn't going to be on the train for long, why did she care where I got off? How did this information affect her life in any way? If she was getting off well after me, than nothing had to change because I would be the first one to get off. Because she was getting off before me, this information should have impelled her to change seats with me so that she wouldn't disturb me when she got off the train. But she changed nothing after gaining her hard-won information. She remained at the window so that I had to get up to let her off. My only conclusion was that she was not a nice person. Which is unfortunate. Later I realized that she was very young, and I let it go. Mostly. But not before awarding her the nick-name, "Rude Girl."
Journal Excerpt, Saturday, June 11, 2011, Hotel Mecure Bords de Loire Saumur, (continued): On the train to Le Mans, I introduced myself to the English-speaking gentleman who took a seat after Rude Girl got off. He was from Nairobi, lived in Atlanta, Georgia and had been in the states for 16 years. He was touring Europe for the first time, visiting relatives and friends who lived in France and Germany. Anthony. He pronounced it, "Ant-ehlt-oni," which is prettier than how I was saying it.
When we were nearing my stop, I got up with my pack and moved to the doorway. I met a gentleman standing by the door named Paul who is from New Mexico and who had been living in France for one year. He now hails from Angers—maybe I'll run into him while I'm there. He lived in Denver for a while and knew Boulder and Longmont. He looked very native American. He teaches indigenous culture courses. I don't know if he is associated with a school or not. Who woulda thunk?
Truly makes up for Rude Girl. It even makes up for the difficult communication I had with the Hotel Mecure night clerk twice—both on the phone before I arrived and in person when I walked into lobby after traveling over 5 1/2 hours (real glad I took the taxi at the end). I just had enough energy to give my name, hand over the hotel voucher from the travel agency, get the key, wonder for a minute at the French the woman rattled at me, give up understanding it because I couldn't get her attention again (she kept avoiding my eyes), and head to the elevator. I still don't know why she pointed at the number on the back of the card the key hangs on. It couldn't be my room number because that was on the front...
(Editor's Note: I determined afterward that the number on the back of the card was was the code for the front door, which was locked after hours. Good thing I never needed it.)
It was true. When I got to my hotel in Saumur, my challenges were not over. It was 8:00pm by the time I was settled into my room, and I was starving. I had not eaten since a tiny lunch in Le Mans. So I went downstairs to order room service instead of attempting to communicate over the phone. I got the young woman's attention at the front desk and pointed to items on the menu to put in my order. The woman just shook her head and muttered something I didn't understand. I tried to clarify. I was proud that I was able to piece together the phrase in French, "Is it too late?" But she shook her head. "Por qua?" I asked. She did not answer. I lost my cool a bit, flung out my arms, and marched back to my room. Too tired to go out, I went to bed hungry. Before I pulled the curtain, I could see the glowing moon hanging above the chateau across the river. The sky was midnight blue and the water shimmered with waves of moonlight. It was almost enough to make me forget the nasty concierge.
(Editor's Note: More of this story can be found in the blog entry, "My Dinners with Julia.")
The main reason I came to Saumur, was not its awesome position on a hill above the river on the western edge of the Loire River Valley, but to experience a traditional European market. It also put me close to the Abbey at Fontevraud, a must see for me because it was the place where Eleanor of Aquitaine lived her final days and where she was buried.
Saturday was the day of the week when the biggest, most traditional market opened in Saumur. To make sure I landed there on Saturday, my travel agent manipulated my schedule. Even though Le Mans, the Plantagenet City, was on my way to Saumur from Bayeux, she had me by-pass it. I would have to come back to it later. And I had to stay in Saumur a day or two longer than needed to make it all work. Of course, I can imagine a much worse fate than having to spend leisure days in the Loire Valley. I made the most of it, exploring wine caves and vineyards, and walking the city from top to bottom.
Saturday morning I slept in, exhausted after my long travels and communication difficulties. I ate a good breakfast and caught up on my journaling. By late morning, I was headed to the center of town. The old city was half a mile southwest and across the river from my hotel. I was looking forward to exploring the chateau, its vineyards, and other surrounds later that day. But first, I would take in as much of the market as I could.
It was a gorgeous June day. I walked across the grand bridge and noodled around until I found Place St Pierre where they were setting up tables. I was early for the market, so I hiked up toward the chateau and got a lovely view of the river valley from the old town. When I came back, the market was in full flush. Tables covered in cheeses and grains and dried beans and herbs extended up the cobble streets. Across from that stood huge bundles of flowers: lilies, yarrow, campenella, and delphiniums. I stood aside and absorbed it all. A young man with a toddler in a carrier on his back approached a table and stared at the rounds of cheese, eventually picking out several varieties. I guessed they would be heading to the ice cream cart across the way soon.
Red, orange-and-white, and green canopies protected fresh vegetables from the sun: carrots, garlic and turnip bulbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, cabbages, artichokes, radishes, onions, leeks, peppers, and fresh parsley. There were also melons and rhubarb. It was a bit early in the season for most other fruit. This market was similar to the farmer's markets in Boulder County. What was different was the incredible variety of cheeses, some unwrapped and inviting you to just taste, and row upon row of sacks opened to reveal the vivid colors and textures of their contents: cumin, sage, basil, tandoori, anise, green and black peppercorns, parsley, cinnamon sticks, and so much more. Another table displayed many styles of olives.
After visiting the marketplace, I stopped at the Guinness pub at the bottom of the hill and ordered a sandwich and a Guinness, then sat looking out at the Loire. I could have been in Dresden Germany sitting next to the Elbe again. But this valley was flatter and more open. No towering cliffs and ancient fortresses atop them. From reading I knew that there were such edifices further east. I would not be seeing much of that, I thought. But I would be wrong.
Journal Excerpt, Later that night, Saturday, June 11, 2011, Saumur, France: Saumur is known for the military equestrian academy. Jury is out on it IMHO. Looks like a bunch of horse tricks to me. Do the horses enjoy that?
After eating, I wandered up to the chateau and did the tour. The original castle was built in the 10th century to defend against the Normans, destroyed in the 11th by the Normans, then transferred in the 12th to the House of Plantagenet and rebuilt by Henry Plantagenet (Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine's husband). The vineyard was lovely and the views of the valley were lush from the summit. As I stood on the ramparts I saw a collection of men on horses with colorful caraprices moving in formations in a field below. I got closer and saw that they had set up bleachers around the grounds. Apparently it was a rehearsal for a "luminary" or theatrical drama with lights, which, in this case, also included horses. Turns out, Saumur has a long equestrian tradition and is the home to a famous military equestrian academy.
After watching the maneuvers for a while, I went back to my hotel for a nap to reclaim some energy before heading out for dinner.
Journal Excerpt, Sunday, June 12, 2011 Saumur France: I feel I'm in that restaurant I was at in Chicago, part of a chain called Ed Debevic's. Their motto is, “Eat and Get Out!” Except it is the entire country of France. I am not to ask for anything. I am to follow a set of rules that are not expressly set out. The woman who is the night clerk at my hotel seems unwilling to make allowances for the fact that I need a little extra help. And the woman in the hotel bar at breakfast who “yelled” at me—I do not know how else to describe it—as I was finishing my breakfast after a couple of trips to the bar...? It was closing time for the buffet, but I was not asking for more food, so all I could imagine was that she thought I was going to want more food because I did not know they were about to close? Or I took too much food? I am starting to not care so much after a better night's sleep and a good tasse de cafe or tasse aux cafe? I don't know.
It's funny. I see the humor in it now although no one else here seems to. Got to find some Australians to laugh with. I sat down at this cafe along the river. I needed to get out of a steady and breezy sprinkle. But apparently I sat at the wrong table. A woman yells at me. I don't understand exactly what she says except “cafe.” I say, “oui, un cafe, sils vous plais.” She gestures generally to the other side of the cafe and says something else I can't understand. She yells at me again. Oops. So, I head to the undressed tables at the side, realizing now that the dressed tables are set for the afternoon bar/brasserie traffic and I am just odering a coffee. I feel I should have gone to the Celtic pub straightaway—they were serving cafe there. I didn't even see this woman—she was sitting outside at the entrance to the bar eating her breakfast or lunch. I don't understand the rules here. I will try to be more polite and ask before I sit down in general. At a cafe, when I just want coffee, I mean.
The irony here is that, although few people speak English and some people treat me as subhuman because I don't speak French, I hear American music everywhere. At breakfast this morning it was Scott Joplin, Gershwin, Bernstein. As I was walking through the city center, I heard Cyndi Lauper belting out “Girls just want to to have fun!” Mixed message?
My strolls were lonely in Saumur. On Sunday, I was literally by myself on the streets, probably because of the constant drizzle. But I was not walking on a tourist track, either. After resting out of the rain at the cafe table for a while, I traveled around the city. I had time to kill. I discovered some hidden treasures, including the Dolmen de Bagneux. I had to walk a half mile or more out of town to the suburb of Bagneux to see it, but it was worth it. This stone is the only evidence left of the first settlement on the site of modern Saumur and is about 5,000 years old. It is considered a "megalith," which is defined in Merriam Websters as a very large usually rough stone used in prehistoric cultures as a monument or building block. Structures built of such stones use no mortar or concrete. The Dolmen de Bagneux is the second largest dolmen uncovered. No one knows for sure who built these dolmens throughout Britain and Europe, but they are likely remnants of burial chambers. Some of them might have been originally covered in earth and small pebbles.
I also visited the Louis de Greneville Cave (winery) where they make great sparkling wine. The caves are underground tufa (limestone). Some of the bottles here are over 100 years old. Saumur is part of the Loire Valley wine country, and they are very proud of their wine. I entered the store front at Louis de Greneville and was greeted by a young woman who spoke English. She understood my situation and put me at the end of a tour that was just starting, telling me that, although the tour group was French, the tour guide would be happy to answer any questions in English when the formal tour was finished. She was and she did. I tasted several sparkling white wines and rose wines, and I loved them all. I enquired, and found that it was difficult to get these wines in the USA. This seems to be true of most small, local wineries in western Europe. So, I focused I enjoying them in place.
When I got back to my hotel, I crashed for a while, then grabbed a brief dinner. But soon I was back at my hotel and in bed. I wanted to be fresh for my tour of the Abbey at Fontevraud the next day with my guide, Pierre.
My experience in Saumur wasn't over, but the worst of my stress in that city was. I would encounter other difficulties in other cities before I made it back home, but my days were also peppered with pleasant and fun experiences, including meeting kind people like my bus driver. And I was touring incredibly beautiful countryside full of a rich and interesting heritage. I was still a grump at times, but I usually met challenges head on and gained much from the experience.
My feelings of alienation in this and in other cities throughout my journey has convinced me to work to change my automatic thinking about "foreigners" and non-English speakers in my own country, and to be more charitable toward them. I feel I gained only an inkling of what it might be like to be an immigrant. I hope that now, if I meet a traveler from another country or a U.S. Citizen who doesn't speak much English, I will remember my lessons from Europe and meet her with kindness instead of judgement. Even if I have to fight my usual impatience and rash conclusions.