All over France there are green routes or voies vertes that let you explore the country on two wheels – without contending with traffic. The cycle roads are well signposted and often built over old rail routes. These pictures were taken along the route between Evreux and the abbey at Le Bec Hellouin, in Normandy.
What’s better than an attic full of the things someone once treasured, then grew up or turned in another direction, and now here’s the thing, dusty and worn yet special in some way just waiting to be discovered. Ebay thrives on this market of lost things but it isn’t the same, is it. There isn’t that physical thrill you get when you’ve sorted through the junk to find the very thing, shined it up with the palm of your hand, and imagined it into your life.
Maybe that’s why the brocante still thrives in France, this most sensory of cultures being reluctant to part with the thrill that comes with the hunt. Here are our latest finds, from consignment brocante type shop La Grange de Janna, just relocated from Honfleur to Pont-Audemer and helpfully open every day. Furniture, books, electronics, audio, vintage and modern – it’s all here in a cavernous warehouse.
At Les Iris the walls are fairly bare and we’re always looking for pictures that connect to our lives here in Normandy, while small enough to suit the cottage’s dimensions. The miniature oil of a vase of flowers will be perfect. The fashion plate will remind our daughters not to complain about the clothes they have to wear.
And the mandolin – an impulse purchase, redolent of Picasso, southern summers, Shakespearean serenades. It needs re-stringing and a polish, but is in good shape, and made by Masspacher in Paris. A fine old thing will get new life.
I’ve spent the last two days sampling the shopping experiences in Upper Normandy: the well-heeled, global brand-packed district behind Rouen’s cathedral; the adorable rows of independent shops that line the narrow medieval streets of Pont-Audemer; and a weekly market where farmers from all around set out their stalls.
The thing that’s struck me is how beautifully everything is presented. From the windows of Hermes to the humblest confectionary, each shopkeeper has taken time to make his or her little piece of window the most seasonal and eye-catching it can be. Even the opticians had a full-on Easter menagerie on show. And this display of colour and shape and texture makes it fun to shop in France, a sensual pleasure.
I am trying to remember if the shops were ever so lovely on the UK high street or in the American mall. When did it become purely functional? Maybe that’s why we shop online so much: it’s no fun in person any more.
This seems to me the wrong formula. Why shouldn’t shopping, whether online or on the high street, be a pleasure? Why don’t we demand that our shopkeepers, whether digital or not, curate their stalls with care and stimulate a little bit of desire before we get down to the grubby business of parting with our money?
One of the joys of spending time in Normandy is visiting the area’s bountiful food markets. Our local market, held on a Friday, never disappoints: but in those weeks when we’re traveling or otherwise occupied on a Friday, a close second best is exploring the other markets of Upper Normandy and Calvados. This month we made our way to Pont-l’Évêque, where the weekly market is held on a Monday. It’s home to the eponymous cheese, and to a lovely church which survived wartime bombing.
The point of local markets is they change every time. You go for the seasonal produce and for the individual sellers. It’s the opposite of supermarkets, where it’s downright inconvenient when the aisles are changed around adding a precious few minutes to your already too-long shopping time.
In the first week of November, there were chestnuts, quinces, and the alien-fabulous chou romanesco. I’ve never cooked any of these, although the guests at our cottage the week before had collected chestnuts in the forest and roasted them over the open hearth. I’ll have to try that, and here’s how.
And the chrysanthemums were flying: you could see them lining the village streets, and all around around the cemeteries where families were marking November 1st, a day of remembrance. We left some by the cottage gateposts: I wonder how far into the winter they’ll last.
The significance of November 1st may be all but forgotten, little more than a hangover after the revelry of Halloween, in many places. But in France–where Halloween is observed as a holiday only for children—it’s Le Toussaint, All Saints Day on November 1st, that is widely marked. As one blogger explains, it’s a holiday when everyone goes home to be with their family and remember their loved ones who have died.
So it felt just right to mark 1st November this year with a family meal. We were joined by friends we’d not seen much in recent years, since they moved away from our London neighbourhood back to Paris with their four children. To mark the occasion I made Susan Loomis’s hearty lamb stew from her memoir-cookbook about moving to Normandy, On Rue Tatin: The Simple Pleasures of Life in a Small French Town, followed by David Lebovitz’s ever reliable Chocolate Mousse I from The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious–And Perplexing–City.
Something dreadful happened in the village this year. I’m not ready to write about it yet, may never be. It gave some peace and much-needed pleasure to prepare and then eat together at the cheerful looking table; to take a postpandrial walk in the woods together; to share with friends the downs and ups of busy lives in our different cities. It was indeed a day to remember, as well as to celebrate the lives we have.
I was lucky enough recently to spend a few days in New Jersey, before the hurricane hit. The trees were magnificent in their autumn colours. I had forgotten how heartbreakingly beautiful an East Coast autumn can be, all flame red trees and bright blue skies.The town I stayed in (home to a lifetime friend and writer who blogs wonderfully at New Jersey Seoul) was dressed for the season, all orange pumpkins against white clapboard, as New England as you can get.
I then spent two days in the trendiest part of Brooklyn which was, in its own way, dressed for Halloween.
This delighted me, because I would spend the following week, including Halloween, in Normandy. What kind of Halloween could you expect in a rural village that’s about as far away as you can get from a Starbucks in the developed world?
In fact: a very normal Halloween. The houses were dressed for Halloween. There were even pumpkins. I should have known. Which country, after all, did Cinderella come from.
There were few differences. First, it’s for the little children. There’s none of the adult-dressing-up stuff, and none of the wild tricking you get with teenagers in the US. (Although just after I left New Jersey it wasn’t the teenagers, it was Hurricane Sandy that played the worst possible trick, was the Grinch that stole Halloween for a million candy-laden, powerless towns across the midlantic states).
Second, it’s a village-managed event, coordinated and strictly regulated. It happens on a day that’s convenient for the village (it may not even be 31 October!). The children are invited to gather at the Mairie (town hall). They will then progress around the village to collect their candy, politely thanking the householders and closely monitored by a legion of parents who afterwards gather for a reconstituting glass of wine in the village hall.
I was sneaky, I confess. I had brought back from the US a bag of American candy: Taffy and Nerds and Sweet Tarts. What’s this? cried the children, seemingly disgusted. But the basket was nearly emptied, and my children told me that it was the American candy (below right), not the beautiful French candy (below left) that went first as the children gorged themselves afterwards.
Some things remain the same, wherever they happen.