Continuing from last time ...
At this point we experienced a few more typical and much less inspiring quirks of travelling - snagging the worst (i.e. slowest) check-in counter at the airport, throwing things into the rubbish bin out of my too-heavy suitcase, waiting throughout the dead wee hours at Charles de Gaulle airport along with a few homeless people, dazedly catching the right train(s - there were two, and then the tram) and finally ending up in Reims, Champagne. The breakfast croissants at the train-station cafe did help although subsequent experience has proven our initial impression that the French don't really have coffee down to a tee like NZ does (like rugby I suppose ... har har).
In Reims' was our first friend from NZ. Going somewhere you know people is quite different from just plunging into an unknown city. Within a day or so one of his friends drove us all to a forest where we wandered among branches and bark and leaves and picked the last of the season's lily-of-the-valley. On our first night we went to watch another friend's band play at a bar and I ended up singing a sort of karaoke version of "Stand By Me" with a girl called Elodie and a band made up of short, potbellied, greying and very jolly men.
We did also explore the city's main tourist attraction, its very own 800 year old Notre Dame. This is no copy-cat cathedral - Reims used to be the capital of France and many a French king was crowned here. The cathedral received more than its fair share of bombing during various wars, especially WWI and WWII, but is still standing and pretty magnificent, if a little battered. The other night there was a light-show projected onto it (as part of a festival in honour of Joan of Arc, who is much loved here) and it was spectacular. Accompanied by music, it depicted the cathedral being built, the men and the scaffolding, the wars, and the apparently original colours it was painted all those years ago (something I didn't know ... the architecture is always so impressive that I never imagined these massive works of art would actually have been painted, too).
We spent a few days in Reims (where we began our ongoing discovery of the the delights of French supermarket and bakery shopping) and then hopped on a train again to get to a tiny French village that most French people haven't heard of, called Carignan. This is L's hometown and we loved it so much we stayed nearly two weeks instead of four days. L's parents welcomed us with absolute warmth and also with foie gras (chicken liver pate), escargot (snails) and plenty of champagne.
During our time there we visited the neighbouring towns. Sedan, home to Europe's largest castle from the Middle Ages at 35,000 square metres. Here we explored dark narrow passage ways and wandered rooms that housed kings and queens and soldiers. Charleville-Mézières, which hosted the Fete de la Biere (beer fest) that we attended. I'm sure you can all imagine what a beer fest involves so suffice to say I got to know Chimay beer quite intimately and that we made friends with some people from Reunion Island. Also that we saw a pretty amazing Victorian/zombie dance to Michael Jackson's Thriller, which was (I'm sorry, I just can't help it) thrilling.
|Bouillon, view from the castle|
Carignan is actually closer to Belgium than it is to any decent sized town in France. M and I exhibited typical NZ delight when L said "let's go to Belgium to watch the football game tonight". Going to another country just to watch the game! Going to another country and coming back within just a few hours! As it turns out French people in the area go to Belgium regularly as many things are much cheaper there than in France. In fact most of the time it was quite unnoticeable that we had passed into another country (no border crossing as such). We ended up making a few trips to Florenville (to watch the game), Orval (to try Orval beer and glimpse the abbey whose monks came up with it) and Bouillon. Bouillon was very picturesque and also housed a huge castle, owned by Godfrey (or Godefroy) of Bouillon who later went on to lead the First Crusade and become the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (or "defender of the Holy Sepulcher"). Of course he also ended up having a beer named after him, which we sampled in the hot sun at a cafe close to the river.
One of the most memorable parts of our visit to Carignan was visiting a fort on the Maginot line. The first and only one to be captured in fighting with the Germans. The Maginot line runs from Dunkirk to Corsica across the entire length of the French - German border (and also the French - Italian one), was built over decades and considered genius. This fort was the only one in which all soldiers protecting it died, many from asphyxiation.
By coincidence we visit on the 72nd anniversary of the day they died, 19 May 1940. On this day we are lead through the first weapon block by a young guy dressed in an old soldier's uniform, who is very passionate about the fort and its story. We see the weapons, the kitchen block, how eletricity was generated and the rows of bunk beds. We see the steel doors blown apart by the force of explosions and are told about all the different things that went wrong and why. Later we descend a square spiral of stairs until we are 25 metres underground. Then we walk a concrete tunnel not wider than a metre and a half and very long. The tunnel connects the two weapon blocks and it's where most of the soldiers ended up trapped. There are 107 dead and dying men around us, panicking and praying and remembering their families. I feel claustraphobic and profoundly sad and I can't wait to get out into the fresh air.
I guess that sounds like I hated it but actually I found it very interesting and very moving.
On a less sombre note ... another highlight of our visit was the kindness of the people we met. L's father, P, was recovering from a foot operation and therefore at home during the day with us. He didn't speak a word of English, M's French was about the same (it's since improved) and mine was quite limited. Nonetheless we formed a good friendship that involved a lot of hand gestures and pointing. Watching P and M cook a barbecue or cheer on the same team together was both funny and really quite cool. It turns out you don't need to speak the same language to understand what the other is saying. L's mother turned out to have a level of English that surprised everyone including herself (her initial would also be M ... very confusing), but I still had plenty of chances to practice my high school French with her and others.
Anyway, their kindness and openness was abundant. On our first evening we were taken down to one of the village's three or four bars, the Cafe de la Place, to share a drink with the locals (who we were to see more than once after that). I think it was from this point that we began to feel at home. We also loved getting into the practice of having "apero" (short for aperitif), i.e. a drink and nibbles before dinner, which really is already within both our natures.
L's parents were good friends with their neighbours who owned the "Friterie" down the road. This means a caravan where burgers and all their ingredients in various different forms are served, as well as fries. When I pictured French food I did not envisage myself eating a long bun which is practically obscured due to all the fries in and around it, but admittedly this dish is called an "Amercain". At any rate Friteries seem to be quite common in the north-east of France but this one was special. Philippe and Sylvie (who, again, spoke no English whatsoever) were lively and warm with, from what I gathered, a slightly dirty sense of humour and raucous, contagious laughs that made regular appearances. On our last night we were invited into their home for farewell champagne and encouragement to come back any time and as soon as we liked - preferably in time for their son's wedding the following weekend.