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Posts Tagged ‘Normandy’

Geoff and I are standing at the edge of a hotel dining room. Around us, a couple of dozen other guests stride about with confidence, clearly knowing what they are doing. We, of course, don’t, which is why we are frozen to the spot trying to pick up on the general vibe of being dab hands at the business of a self-service breakfast.

It’s not easy, this lark, especially as the whole scenario is being conducted in French, by French people, and we are a long way from home. We’re staying in Normandy in a far-too-smart-for-us hotel whose special offer price includes breakfast.

This is not to be sniffed at, since we don’t plan to eat again until supper – and nor, by the loaded-up plates parading around us, does anyone else. We try and decide what the etiquette is here: do we find a table first and one of us sit at it while the other goes off hunting and gathering, or get something first to put on a table, thus claiming it as ours.

We decide on the latter, and coffee is the obvious choice. We have to tackle a hissing, gurgling contraption for this task, but we think if we can manage that then we can probably get the better of the intimidating-looking toaster later on.

I volunteer to go first with the coffee as I have brought my specs with me. Even so, despite trying to outwit its Gallic non-logic, it all goes horribly wrong and within a couple of minutes a lake of murky liquid is lapping across the table on which the contraption sits and I have nothing in my cup except a few drops of clear water.

A woman in a uniform appears and barks something at 100mph that I don’t grasp. I bleat back, pointlessly, in my default foreign language of Italian. She surrenders, retreating to the kitchen to bang her head in amazement at zee thick English.

Eventually, Geoff and I encourage the contraption to deliver and we carry our cups like world champs to claim a table.

Now, with our own territory, it’s time to colonise it with food. I can see it would be easy to go crazy and gather up a bit of everything from this veritable half-acre of petit dejeuner delights, but, unlike the majority around us, we choose to show a little decorum. Besides, who would willingly make a spectacle of themselves in the certainty of being labelled a glutton?

I can manage that by subterfuge, balancing larger things on top of smaller things, secreting bits here and there on a plate whose dimensions suddenly grow in a quite magical way. Thus it is that on my first morning I tuck away probably more than I have in a month of breakfasts, including a slice of French apple flan, two servings of fresh fruit and a torrent of granola that spills from a dispenser with a sensitive overdrive.

Old hands now, we challenge the contraption to deliver us each a second cup of coffee, and we are rewarded. I drink mine while observing our fellow guests.

Several have small children with them, exploding like firecrackers after being cooped up with TV cartoons in their family room, a few others are so loved-up they must be on a clandestine break from their respective spouses, and then there are the achingly slim women who pose about in everyone’s way while making a clear statement that they are Not Eating In The Face Of This Vile Temptation.

More fool them, I think, as I glance across in the direction of that flan.

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What a remarkable thing serendipity is: a chance encounter, a crossing of Fate’s alignments, that puts a zing into life.

Geoff and I were heading home earlier this week from our lovely holiday in southern Brittany. We were feeling deeply imbued with Frenchness after being entrenched as natives for the duration of our stay.

We cranked up our language skills as the days went by so that we were able to have conversations with Monsieur, our landlord, and only lapse into Italian at every third word, as opposed to every second word, as it had been at the start.

The sound of our hands slapping our foreheads in frustration as the horrible realisation dawned of yet another faux pas became all-too familiar.

But we managed, and we made ourselves understood wherever we went – even to the French couple who stopped us on our first evening to ask where they could park their camper van. We gave them a Gallic shrug, a few variations on the useful word “Bouff”, and they soon got the message.

We also conducted exchanges with stall holders in the most fantastic food market, so big and so colourful that I’d like to have just stood and stared for hours. Instead, there were choices to be made and provisions to be bought before the best stalls sold out.

Later, I tortured the most heavenly ingredients into a meal in the one pan on the one hot plate in our kitchen. Haute cuisine it was not.

We felt, on the whole, that we had become as French as we could get without actually wearing a beret and a striped top. It was far too hot for dressing up.

Driving ferry-wards through northern France, we stopped for lunch in a small town we’d identified earlier on the map as being a must-see. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a mustn’t-eat, as one restaurant was full, another closed for the day and a third had gone out of business very recently.

We walked around and a local woman gave us a recommendation, naming a place up a hill in the next village. By the time we got back into the car we had, of course, forgotten her directions, so we just pootled along, not encountering a hill, until we came to a hamlet and saw a small hotel with people sitting outside under shade eating lunch.

This’ll do, we decided, even if it isn’t the one we were recommended. We enjoyed a tasty plât du jour, followed by coffee, at which point we fell into conversation with an English man at the next table. His inquiry if we were Brits did rather break our spell of being convincing natives, albeit natives with Italian accents.

Geoff and I were amazed to discover that this chap, resident in Normandy for the past 16 years (”and I still don’t speak a word of French” – shame on him) was the retired licensee of a pub that we knew well.

We knew many people in common, among them his former partner, and we learnt that he dreams of returning to live on the Jurassic coast.

Financial constraints are unlikely to allow this to happen, meaning he will probably see out his days in Normandy.

He didn’t seem too upset by this prospect, even if, by his own admission, he rarely has a clue of anything going on around him.

Whether or not that’s a good thing, I don’t know, but now I’m back home and the usual depressing news is coming from all angles, I can see it has its attractions.

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