For two weeks encompassing Christmas and New Year we went to Max's parents' (Philip and Jackie) house in Saint-Juire-Champgillon, France. St. Juire is a tiny village of only 300 people and is in a midwest département (county) called Vendée in the Pays-de-la-Loire region. The closest towns like Luçon and Sainte-Hermine are a 20-30 minute drive and the largest are La Rochelle and Nantes, both about 1 hour away. The Vendée département is best known for its seafood like langoustines and small clams called lavangnon, lamb raised on the salt marshes, duck, brioche, the goat cheese Trois Cornes De Vendée, sweetly smoked gammon, and small white haricot beans simmered slowly for hours known as "mogette". Vendée wine is "notoriously shit" as Max says, but nearby are the Anjou and Muscadet wine regions. It is a microclimate similar to that of the Côte d'Azur, although in the past few years rainfall has increased considerably and flooding is becoming a serious problem. While we were there whole areas were so severely flooded that parts of it looked like vast lakes.
The symbol of Vendée is two intertwining hearts.
I have been to France three times before. Once in January of 1999, only two months after Max and I met. We spent one of the most romantic weeks of my life alone at the house in St. Juire and the rest of the time castle and cathedral hunting (which isn't very difficult) and exploring the countryside and villages like Mont-Saint-Michel (this is a monastery build on an island which is only accessible at low tide), Saint-Malo, La Rochelle, Saint-Emilion, etc. My favorite memory from this time was our first morning in the house wrapped up naked in bed with the sun streaming through the shutters.
The second visit was in April 99' to visit Max's parents in the house for a week. It was the same day as the London Soho nail bombing and we were thoroughly searched at the ferry terminal. We took a day trip to Cognac and toured a cognac factory.
While we were in St. Juire Max's grandmother "Mamie" suddenly became ill so we all drove up to Laval, his mother's hometown, to visit her in the hospital and stayed with Max's uncle, Jean-Pierre, and his wife and daughter, Dede and Josephine. Jean-Pierre took a liking to me and called me his "queen". He was also able to say "I love you" and "roast beef" in English and showed me the proper way to pull the heads off langoustines. A few days later we took a trip to a vineyard, Château du Fresne, in the Anjou wine region that his family have been visiting for over 40 years. I had never been wine tasting before and I still have the card on which I wrote down my thoughts on each of the wines. We bought a half a case (6 bottles) of 1993 and 1997 Anjou rouge. The man who helped run the winery gave us a taste of dessert wine made from nearly rotten grapes. It was the sweetest wine I have ever tasted. He also gave us a complimentary bottle of Rosé de Loire, which is the specialty of the area. His parents and JP also bought several boxes and the poor little Fiat was so weighed down its ass nearly scraped the road every time we hit a bump.
We visited again later on my 19th birthday in August of 99', although this time the reason was more somber as it was for Max's grandmother's funeral in Laval. I met the rest of Max's French family there, sadly under unpleasant circumstances. It was pouring down rain and as we approached the cathedral I was suddenly struck with how surreal it all was. The wet cobblestones, the darkly swathed people crying, the loud clang of the cathedral bell - everything felt so alien. The funeral was an intense bonding experience for both of us and I was grateful I was able to be there for him and his parents (even though the entire service was in French and I was unsure of what was being said.) I was sitting in the front row in the aisle and at one point during the service the Catholic priest dipped a pestle into a bowl of water and handed it to me. I froze in panic, what was I supposed to do with this? Would I mess up and do something that would offend everyone? I'm not religious so I have no idea about most religious ceremonies.To my relief Max whispered into my ear, "Shake it over the coffin and say a blessing, then hand it to me and walk down the aisle." I did as he said and I didn't appear to offend anyone. After the funeral the whole family went to a restaurant for lunch. Out of about 30 people everyone spoke French except for me and I felt lost at times, but it did make me realize how much can be understood from paying close attention to facial expressions and body gestures.
This last visit was the longest yet. My father flew from Seattle to London to visit with us for a few days and we drove with him and Max's parents to Portsmouth to catch an overnight P&O ferry to Cherbourg. Philip and Jackie are P&O shareholders since they travel to France all the time to visit Jackie's family, so we had a major discount and my father was able to travel with us for free (except for the £5 he paid for a recliner chair.) As my father was travelling with us on short notice we didn't have room for him in the car for the 5 hour drive from Cherbourg to St. Juire so he caught a train to Nantes and we picked him up there a few hours after we arrived in St. Juire.
It was fun showing him the village and the surrounding area. We took a few day trips to La Rochelle, Fontenay-le-Comte, La Roche-sur-Yon, Luçon, La Tranche-sur-Mer, etc.
Jackie cooked seafood most nights, including a few local specialities like mouclade which is mussles in crème fraîche, a local breed of trout (the name escapes me) with wild mushrooms, and langoustines.
The day before Christmas we went to the large farmer's market in Luçon to pick up food for our Christmas dinner.
It was the first Christmas Max and I have spent together in the 5 years we've been a couple. Philip and Jackie brought us breakfast in bed - croissants, raspberry jam, and bucks fizz with freshly squeezed clementine juice and champagne. I should be tipsy every Christmas morning. :)
My grandma mailed me two tree ornaments from my childhood which I hung on the tree. I received some good booty (director's cut dvd of my favorite film Amadeus and White Mughals by William Dalrymple) on Christmas morning and we spent most of the day lounging around the fireplace with wine and chocolate. For our Christmas eve and Christmas day dinners we had foie gras (it was my first time eating foie gras and it was too rich for me so I don't think I'll eat it again, which is fine by me since it's tortured goose liver), oysters, lavangnon with roast garlic (my favorite), roast duck, a copious amount of cheese (chèvre, cantal, roquefort, Prèsident camembert from Laval, real Port Salut which is called le Chaussée aux Moines now since the rights to the name were bought from the monks who make it), and a lemon soufflè for dessert that sank while I photographed it. There was so much wine I can't even remember what we had, although I remember drinking an incredible Beaujolais at one point.
Jean-Pierre visited us for a couple days and on the first day we ate a lunch of merguez, spicy north African lamb sausages, in baguettes. Later that same day we drove my father to the train station in La Roche-sur-Yon so he could catch the train to Paris and then the overnight train to Torino, Italy where he would be living for the next 2 months (he just flew back to the US a few weeks ago in order to sort out a work visa and then he will return to Italy later this year.)
The next day we took a trip to the Muscadet region to hunt down a vineyard that was open during winter. At one point we drove through a beautiful town called Clisson which we vowed to return to in the summer. We finally found a vineyard called Château des Montys which is approximately 1,000 years old. We wine tasted for an hour and finally settled on a half a case of Gros Plant and a half a case of 2000 Muscadet.
We didn't eat dinner out often since we had Jackie's wonderful cooking, but one evening we drove to Chantonnay to eat at an Italian (yes, yes, but a good Italian/French mix!) restaurant. I ordered a salad and a trois fromage pizza. I opted out of pizza topped with potatoes and watery crème fraîche, which is a French invention
A few British couples have houses in St. Juire, but none of them mingle very much. However on New Years Eve day we ran into one of the couples and they invited us to their house for drinks. Their house was by the church on the hill and when we knocked on the door they had friends over and everyone was dressed in costumes for a party they were going to in Sainte-Gemme-la-Plaine later. The couple were from Worcester, he was tall with a thick red beard dressed as Henry Higgins and she was plump and merry dressed as Eliza Doolittle. They both had a love of motorcyles and would often take trips together through Europe. I mainly talked to them and a small blonde elfin woman dressed in a green Scottish tartan. She had rosy cheeks, was quick to laugh, and had a very crass sense of humor. The only person who I didn't get a chance to talk to was a tall stand-offish man dressed as the Phantom of the Opera.
We later said our goodbyes and went back to the house to celebrate New Years Eve. It was also the first New Years Max and I have spent together, so I enjoyed finally kissing him at midnight.
One thing I always associate with Northern France are trees weighed down by mistletoe.
As we prepared for the trip back to England the weather became worse - more rain and extensive flooding. There was an immensely high bridge that we had to pass over and traffic was slow because visibility was low and a big rig truck had jackknifed on the apex. We finally made it back over the stormy English Channel to Portsmouth and spent the night in Southampton then drove back to London the next day.
Many more photos forthcoming.
No "u". I think I'm having an identity crisis with my spelling and pronunciation lately. I shift between American and British frequently. I would have no problem sticking with what I learned while growing up in the US, but when I'm in the UK I'm constantly mocked for my spelling and pronunciation so I subconciously start saying and spelling things the British way. :)
Thank you. I haven't made it to Paris yet somehow, despite it only being a few hours away from where we were and a city I've been longing to visit for years. I will make it there eventually.
My father and I used to watch Amadeus together once or twice every year since I was about 4 years old. I continue to watch it at least that much, it's a film I never tire of. It's interesting how the director's cut changes the movie in several ways, like the depths Salieri goes to get to Mozart through Constanze. I love the extra footage, but I think the director's cut is probably only suitable for established fans.
one of the things i've always really liked about your journal, and that sets it apart from any of the others i read, is how it seems like you're not merely imagining pretty lives or words to live within, but more actually living a life, a real and breathing beautiful and full one, and documenting it and letting me peek a bit. your adventures are always inspiring!
take care and thanks again for sharing.
fabulous. I could look at your photos all day long, especially those of france. these photos make me miss france so much! I love the streets & the shops...and the food, cannot forget the food.
thank you SO much for sharing. you just transported me out of the US & back to france.