Friday, September 7, 2012

Day 6 - Family Time

Since meeting with André and Nicole on Saturday, I had been looking forward to seeing them again on Wednesday. I wanted to enjoy each day in France, and I wanted the time to go by slowly, but I was anxious for Wednesday to come. Finally, it was Wednesday and we were on our way to Argentan for the night, where we’d get to meet my cousin Catherine, and spend more time with Andre and Nicole.

The drive was a breeze, there was no traffic and we took only one wrong turn which lost us all but 2 minutes. We arrived in Argentan around 12:30pm, it was a grey out and it felt a bit more like mid October than early September. Argentan is a small city in lower Normandy, about half an hour or so from Caen, and an hour from Courseulles where we were staying. Is it considered a suburb? If it is, it’s nothing like the suburbs back home. It has the lovely old feeling that most French cities and towns have, only lots if it was destroyed during the war, so there are bits that are “new”. New being from the fifties onwards. There were buildings that sort of reminded me of Berlin, but not as many new buildings as in Berlin. It still looked very French. I didn’t know what I was expecting when we pulled in the drive. There was a wooden gate at the entrance of the driveway and a narrow stone alley which lead up to the house. To me, the house reminded me of a 70s style house, but it is quaint and European-looking, with nice vines growing on it and flowers outside.

We were greeted by my cousin, Catherine. Now, when I say “cousin” I don’t mean first cousin, I mean she is actually my grandfather’s first cousin, but nowhere near his age and he passed away in 1992 at 68 years old. We were all happy to see each other, and I was only a little bit wanting to cry. I held it together this time. I had first contacted Catherine about 7 or 8 years ago when I was just nearing the end of my third year at George Brown. I had “plans” on going to London and meeting with her once I was finished school. Those plans fell through of course, and I didn’t end up traveling to Europe until I was 29. So this meeting was a long time coming, and I mean beyond those 8 years because I have ALWAYS wanted to come to France to meet Andre and the rest of my European family.

The house smelled good, like incense and warmth. I don’t know if incense had been burning or if it was the smell of the wood burning fireplace mixed with the lunch cooking. Either way, it smelled fantastic. When you first walk in the house, you’re technically in the basement, it’s a raised bungalow I guess. Up a flight of stairs was where the living space was. The house is very charming, full of a lifetime’s worth of stuff. Books, artwork, nick-knacks, family photos… but not in a cluttered, disorganized manner. In a way that tells a story and shows that this family holds their memories close and these ‘things’ are important aspects to those stories.

The hallway looking towards the living area.


Beautiful people.

The first things I noticed when I walked in the living room was the lovely fire burning, then André sitting at a meticulously set table, and behind him, paintings that I initially recognized. They were the same pieces of art that I have seen growing up, in my great grandparent’s house and currently in my aunt’s basement. Only the ones back home were replicas that my great grandfather Pierre had done of these originals in France, which HIS grandfather had initially created. I come from a long line of artists, and really really impressive ones (not being biased) These paintings on the wall were portraits of my great GREAT grandfather, Aimée and HIS father, Urbain – both painted by Aimee. I’m guessing in the early 1900’s? I don’t expect my non-family readers to grasp this, because it took a few explanations and drawn out family tree maps to even explain it to Jamie. It’s hard to keep track when you have a large family and when you have this great history and lineage at-hand. When I saw those pieces of art, my heart skipped a beat. It was so touching and heart-warming to see some art pieces I knew from home, but across the ocean, at our family’s house in France. Up beside Andre was a large beeeeautiful painting of Aimée (his father) but this was painted by a known artist who he was friends with back in the day. There are stories behind all of the art up on the walls, but I won’t go into any of them.

Awesome fireplace.

Large portrait of Aimee, my great great grandfather.

Portrait of Urbain, my great great GREAT grandfather.
Aimee, again.

So so good.

The table was set up perfectly, with the proper cutlery in the proper order, wine glasses where they should be and one candle burning in the middle. It was just a perfect, warm, picturesque setting for a pivotal moment in our lives. We chatted about life, had our glasses filled with amazing family-made Chablis wine and began lunch.

First, was a porcini mushroom soup.. a thick soup in a little cup. You will never have soup like this because you will never have Nicole’s soup. It was phenominal, I didn’t need to add salt or croutons anything.  Andre taught us about the wine we were drinking and Catherine spoke about a little frog her (grown) son had brought home after a jog in a park in London. (heh heh) I will definitely not go into a play by play of our conversations, I’m just feeling like I’m in a story telling mood at the moment so get over it. Don’t worry it will pass.

After the soup came a homemade fois gras terrine with mango chutney (I know, you’re blown away right now) some greens, a fresh fig slice and fresh French bread. We all cleaned our plates.

French home-cooking is delicate and rich, made with care and so full of taste. You don’t feel gorged and gross afterwards because you don’t have giant plates of “meh” food, you have nice-sized portions with full taste, different colours and tastes from the region, with bits of bread here and there. F-word yum.

The main course came out: monkfish with a creamy tomato sauce and basmati rice. Andre said the sauce tasted best with lobster, but they chose monkfish because Jamie is allergic to shellfish. Very sweet of them to accommodate that seeing as we were in the land of seafood up in Normandy. It was so goddam good, and the port I drank with it was just… delicious. I didn’t even know I liked port until Wednesday. It was my great grandmother’s favourite drink.

I couldn't wait. Took a bite before photo, sorry!

After a main course in France, is cheese time. Time to eat bits of cheese with your wine and cleanse the palette for dessert. How annoyed are you right now with my writing? There was Norman Camembert and two types of goat cheese. All very wonderful, all local. Oh, I forgot to mention that each course is served on it’s own plate. Meaning the fois gras was served on a plate with ducks on it, the fish with fish, and the cheese with nice floral designs and the word “fromages” painted on in nice calligraphy. Seriously, how perfect can one meal get?

Need some of these plates.

Yup, c'est ca.

Dessert was fresh strawberries chilled with sugar, and cute little French pastries, including one macaron which I ate. Yes, the strawberries went in a bowl with strawberries on it. Le swoon sigh. I need me some of these dishes and I needs ta learn me some French cookin.

mm yes please!

We continued to enjoy the wine and the company. We shared stories and Catherine was great with translating for all of us. Time just flew by because before we knew it, it was after 4pm.

Chatting and chatting...

The connection of one family right there.

It was time for a little tour of Argentan.

Catherine took us by the house she grew up in. It was a large house, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it. It’s towards the downtown and it was connected to the buildings around it. The house was above Andre’s medical practice; he was an Ophthalmologist. She showed us which room was which (all from the car window) and showed us where her friend lived down the street. We drove along, she showed us the schools she and her brother attended, and we drove off towards the country roads. We were headed to a castle.
Catherine said her friend used to live in that house to the left, and her dolls had their own little tower! (middle) amazing!

We drove up a windy road, in the field there was a horse pulling a family along for a ride. They were excited and waved at us. I waved back then realized they were probably waving at the van that was passing us the other way. How embahrasing. We pulled through the gates, it wasn’t a typical castle though. It looked more like a ‘manor’ or a really big old French mansion. It had these two little cottages out front. The doors were open and I walked in one, thinking it was an exhibit of some sort Only to realize I had actually walked into someone’s cottage because there was a baguette on the table and a modern bag on the ground. I thught for a second it was a staged museum type thing with fake bread, but then I was confused about the jar of Nutella on the table. I hope no one noticed and luckily there wasn’t anyone walking around in their britches.
Waving at this family who wasn't waving at me.

ohh ahhh

This is where I let myself in.

We walked through a lovely forest and talked, (it’s not called ‘the bush’ in France, it’s called the forest – so much more endearin innit) Catherine collected feathers from what seemed to be some mega bird carnage and Jamie took photos. There were dirt paths through the woods and one was made of broken bits of an old building; pieces of terracotta and stone, some still had markings on them. I kept my head down looking at the bits hoping to find one with a cool print on it. I did:

The bessssst find. So appropriate.

I'm expecting Robin hood to pop out any time.

mm hmm. and the Friar.

Very tall trees. What have they seen??

It was getting late, so we figured we should go back before they close the gates on us. There was no one there, really. Aside from that family whose cottage I walked into – eep eep. So we drove back ‘home’. One of my favourite quotes of the night happened along this drive:

Catherine: “see, here is where cops will probably catch you for speeding. (it was a 50 zone that came straight from a 90 or a 70 and we had been talking about cops earlier)
“they will pull you over and take points off your license or something. But….. mine’s expired.” It was funny. Catherine speaks with a French-English accent. It’s exactly how I imagined it, like a French person who has been taught English in London (truth). It’s a cool accent. Give it to me! She also looks cool chilling in her chair smoking her rolled cigarettes not giving a single eff and talking about spiritual things, making jewelry and about dancing. Have I mentioned I love it here?

Catherine and Jamie.

Nicole holding a photo of young Marcus, Catherine's son.

We went back to the house and Andre had a bunch of documents out on the table. Old, old letters and certificates, dating back to the early 1800s. No shit. He told us about them and we learned about some family history. I shared photos form my laptop of the family and they pointed out who’s who in old family shots.

It was getting late and we had to head out to the restaurant. They shut restaurants early here so we hustled on over to… wait for it.. a Chinese buffet!! A Propah Chinese buffet in friggin France. Awesome. They have the same stuff at home, but the seafood is fresh, plus there are baguettes and frog’s legs. Andre wanted me to eat frog legs so when I came back to the table with a plate SANS frogs legs, he says: “I don’t see any frogs legs on your plate!” conveniently he had some on his so I took one. It is true, my friends, they DO taste like chicken. But they look like frogs legs so I don’t think I’ll be eating them again. Frogs are my friends and I kind of felt like I was eating a cat. But I’m glad I experienced it. While I was eating I saw Andre lean over to Nicole and say something to her while watching my hands. He repeated it: “Les mains de Aimée”. He says I have my great grandfather’s hands. And when I think of it, my hands don’t look like either of my parents’. Yes my finger tips are very much like my dad’s, but the rest, I thought were all my own. Turns out they are like my great great grandfather’s - Andre’s father, Amiee. For the record, I don’t have man-hands ok? But I do have long boney fingers, to match my long not-so-boney body. And they may or may not be slightly webbed, like my friends the frogs.

We went home and learned more about family. I drank some alcohol that was packaged in shotgun slugs and it was almost strong enough to make me blind. Then Andre told us about a memory he had, which I had to concentrate hard in order not to cry. He said he remembered the last time he saw Pierre, his brother, my great grandfather. He said he dropped him off at the airport from his visit in Argentan, waved goodbye and drove away in his little car. That made me sad because it just showed me that he loved him and we all have this family connection. There was a big age gap between himself and his brother, and they lived miles away in an age without internet, quick phone calls and skype. But there was love there, and that is a memory he won’t forget: the last time he saw his brother in the late 70s. Friggin sad, man. So many emotions happened this day, all naturally and all in a positive way, although there were sad feelings present as well. I didn’t want this day to end but.. you know, time is never ever on our side.

Books my great great grandfather illustrated.

a medal given to my great great great GREAT grandfather by napoleon the third? fourth? help me out here.

a letter from the early 1800's.

Illustration of fungus by gr gr grandather.

Cameos carved by gr gr gr grandfather.

In the morning we had coffee, croissants and bread – not regular bread but more of a sweet pastry bread. Jamie and I had some places left to visit so we were going to head out early afternoon.

A bust of my great great grandfather. We are so lucky to come from a family so rich in history, art and talent.

I put some eye makeup on because I figured we’d take some photos. Turns out I shouldn’t have even bothered. When I went out to say goodbye, Andre had these old family photos out on the table. From the 70s.. 80s.. of my family. My mom and my aunts/uncles as kids, my great grandmother in her late 20s feeding a deer at Algonquin park, another shot of him doing the same when he was in his visiting them at the time.. one of my mom at her wedding. I knew it. I knew I was going to friggin cry again, I could feel it choking men and pushing it’s way through my eyes. There was NOTHING I could focus on to avoid it, not stupid rabbits or pantyhose or Seinfeld..

my gr grandfather, Pierre. 

We started saying thank you for everything (note: in Normandy they kiss four times on the cheeks). He started saying thank you and this is when I lost it. He said, “please thank your family for sending a specimen from Canada over…” All in a sweet French accent, thought out and true. That was it, sob fest. I couldn’t hold it back.. with all those family photos, the long journey to see them and the short period we spent together.. I couldn’t take it. Luckily Nicole had left to go swimming and I held it together saying bye to her. But I just couldn’t stay normal saying bye to him.

My gr grandfather (second upper left) as a POW in WWI.

Postcard Pierre sent over to France - artwork done by him.

Andre in Algonquin.

We went downstairs to take some final photos and say our last goodbyes with Catherine and Andre. And again, I couldn’t hold it together. This time I made everyone cry, happy and sad tears.

I am so happy this happened, I’m so glad I’ve connected with these people. I don’t like the thought of never seeing them again, although I know I’ll be back to France next year, but not soon enough of course. This has absolutely been the best vacation of my life. I’m leaving with souvenirs I could never have bought at a crappy gift shop or boutique store. Strangely enough I haven’t had the need to buy stuff to bring home because the memories and knowledge I gained while here are so unbelievable priceless. I am coming home with some special keepsakes and very precious things, but nothing that can ever be purchased or replaced.

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