My place on the TGV to Nantes is next to a French lady who teaches English to high school students, and we abruptly fall into conversation after I stutter a nervous “Anglais?” while stumbling into the seat.
The 2 hours fly by La Loire en route to Angers St. laud and Nantes; soon enough we arrive in Nantes with a neck ache acquired from the awkward chatting position on the train.
The French lady helpfully translates the conversation that is going around us – a man a few seats in front speaks loudly on his mobile, predicting wrongly that we would arrive early; a woman travels for the first time in great astonishment at her well-behaved terrier; a group of suit-donning executives discuss animatedly the difficulty of ironing shirts.
It is good to know that the French can be as comfortingly nonsensical as mere mortals.
For the longest time, I was under the impression that Nantes was my last stop in France, and Stephanie had been rather vague about where she and her family actually stayed. I have 2 hours in Nantes, and take off for the town centre after hurriedly stuffing my all unnecessaries in the train station lockers.
The Familie Guery meets me at the Gare SNCF in Nantes, but only a family member speaks English. The rest is communicated through primitive gestures and single words that rival the vocabulary of toddlers.
Only half knowing what the actual itinerary was, I sit in the back seat while we race past vineyard after vineyard, and end up for a short while in the Clisson Valley that sits on the edge of the Loire-Atlantique, Vendee and Anjou regions. The medieval village itself is architecturally mimetic of Italian and Britannic styles, and celebrates its 600th anniversary this year; it would have been a stronger tourist magnet if not for its relative inaccessibility.
The Clisson Valley disappears behind us as we take to the road again, this time to their home in a village that is not even found on the map. Under today’s azure sky (read: hot weather), I realise that the French countryside experience is authenticated not by the number of rolling hills and haystacks but by the impassable language barrier.
In the village of Jallais (approximately 45 minutes drive from Nantes, so small that it is unmapped) where virtually no English is spoken, lives the Familie Guery on the narrow Rue du Grand Pre, my hosts for today and tomorrow. The family is at present, experiencing a flurry of activity: Stephanie has taken ill for a while and stays with her parents until she recovers, her sister Sabrina returns tomorrow night for an impromptu 10-day visit, and by the strangest turn of events, I find myself plonked in the midst of an unplanned family reunion.
We get mauled by the uber-excited Rudy (dog) as we step in. Exhibiting rather alarming French traits, Rudy eats cheese and likes to play with bread.
The practicalities make themselves known in no time – I need to do laundry and only then, realise belatedly that I have forgotten to bring extra clothes – the only ones I have are wet ones.
Roger, Stephanie’s father, is both a supporter of Arsenal and Formula One. The cornerstone of the conversation is oddly enough, Thierry Henry and rumours about his move to Barcelona to help fund the new Emirates Stadium.
Her mother, Anne Marie, is constantly at the stove, mostly with the greens harvested from her large garden.
I made a foregone prediction that dinner was going to be beyond words and was filled with belated horror at the amount they piled on my plate, and with even greater horror, I managed to eat them all.
In this order, we had:
1. Bread, Butter with slices of baby radish
2. Cold cuts of ham
3. Salad greens with a dressing mixed with mustard, 8 different oils, several types of vinegars, shallots and garlic.
4. Zuchini Scrambled Eggs
I ask curiously about the salad dressing, to which Roger Guery replies proudly that only the men in the family mix them. He quips that it is a secret blend but immediately takes out an array of oils that I never knew existed and recoils when I suggest supermarket salad dressing.
Is the best way of protecting a secret recipe not to render it as difficult as possible to obtain the ingredients so that one gets intimidated sufficiently to not try one’s hand at it?
The dinner spread was not yet complete. Dessert consisted of:
1. Rhubarb Pie
2. Eggless Chocolate Mousse
3. Strawberries and Raspberries in Chantilly
The quasi-farming lifestyle has produced the salad greens, radish, zucchini, rhubarb, and the berries. For the first and hopefully not only time in my life, my taste buds encounter raspberries that are outrageously sweet.
In reply to my rather embarrassed enquiry halfway through the meal if her mother cooked like that much only for guests, Stephanie confirms with amusement that this happens nearly daily. Mealtimes are still hallowed in the countryside. I confess openly that it was the best I’ve eaten in a long time. The compliment is dutifully translated for the chef, and Anne Marie takes a small bow.
We trade stories with quite a bit of difficulty; post-meal times revolve around an incomprehensible barrage of words which I assume to be a recount of Roger and Anne Marie’s recent holiday in the French Riviera, Monaco and the Pyrenees. Ridiculously picture-perfect postcards that are meant solely for the consumption of the tourist gaze nevertheless shake my lingering prejudice that France is much more than poor English communication, croissants, Lancôme, Audrey Tautou and snooty chefs.
Photograph albums are next in line and their intimate nature prompt anecdotes every couple of flips. Some stories behind the photos are hilarious: they contain pictures of various family members posing next to unknown women for reasons that range from lecherous to more lecherous – from taking a photo next to 2 pretty blondes graduating girls, to capturing an unsuspecting woman’s mini-skirt by a public telephone. There is another photo of Roger sitting nonchalantly in the London Tube looking over someone else’s newspaper, pretending to understand English perfectly.
Cloistered in her sister’s room, the quiet that is found here is suddenly unsettling after my jaunt through the large cities. It is the thick silence of the countryside that defers only to the flora and fauna, and cannot be replicated – or so I think, until some stranger’s extraordinarily bad singing outside my bedroom awakens me.
We eat yet again – thankfully breakfast was simple. But the lunch menu was:
1. Fresh greens with rice, tomatoes, kiwi, basil and palm fruit with crusty bread
2. Beetroot and some salad dressing.
3. Chicken in Soya, cream and herbs, with 3 different kinds of mustard sauce to choose from.
4. Baked potatoes, Flat beans and carrots.
Out came the Emmenthal and other soft cheeses after we finished the main course. Last night’s berries with Chantilly and Chocolate Mousse magically reappeared as well.
I learn that the Christmas tradition involves 13 different kinds of dessert.
We say goodbye and goodnight all at once – my train leaves for Paris at 7am the next morning, and the drive to Nantes takes a good hour. Stephanie reminds me for the umpteenth time that there are essential places on the map I have missed this time around.
“You will need to return to France,” she tells me rather seriously.
“Or you just have to visit me,” I quip back cheekily.