Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Vive La France

Bonjour from La Roche-sur-Yon in Western France, possibly famous only for being the residence of my good friends Nate and Alex.

After a short return to Mainz from Copenhagen, I headed to Nantes, France via Ryan Air on Saturday, February 10th, where I promptly missed my train by a matter of seconds to La Roche-sur-Yon.

"It's a good thing I have Nate's number to warn him of me arriving four hours later than anticipated," I thought to myself.

Now all I had to do was buy a phone card.

"Thankfully, Nantes is a large city, so the convenient store clerk in the train station should understand English," I said to myself.

Wrong. Not only did she not speak English (it was also my fault for not knowing French too, I might add), but the cheapest phone card they sold cost $15 USD.

"Just what I need for a 5-minute phone call," I snickered.

After successfully navigating the French call-back phone card system-- a feat that only took 15 minutes-- I was finally able to call Nate to warn him of my delay. The anticipation of finally being able to speak to my good friend after nearly five years had reached near agony as I carefully dialed his digits.

I slowly dialed the last digit and began to think of something clever to say to my friend-- an old catch phrase perhaps. I held my breath as the phone went silent for what seemed like forever.

"The phone number you are trying to dial is not reachable," said the lady on the other end of the phone.

"Had I dialed the number correctly?," I wondered.

I dialed again. The same response.

"Perhaps he is on the Internet," I said to myself.

"I'll try again in a few minutes."

Again unsuccessful.

I wondered what arrival time I had given my friend in my last e-mail. Would he really have to wait the more than four hours until the next train arrived? The answer would soon come... I decided to take a quick stroll around the area next to the Nantes central train station.

I visited the city's famous cathedral and Chateau of the Duke of Brittany. Nantes seemed to have a lot to offer.

After a short walk to the sites, I headed back to the main train station and to La Roche-sur-Yon, where upon my arrival I could see my good friend waiting patiently for me. I was elated! (He had given me an old phone number.)

I practically leaped into my long lost friend's arms as I gave him one of the biggest hugs anyone could possibly give. We were finally together again after what seemed like a decade of absolutely no contact. But, alas, the time seemed to be non-existent as we began to catch up on lost time. So seems to be the case between good friends.

After a 20-minute brisk walk to Nate's abode, I greeted Nate's wife Alex in nearly the same fashion. Dinner was on our minds, however, and we quickly headed back into the city after dropping my bag to have what was to be one of many French delectables we devoured during the course of my three-day sojourn to France.

Upon arriving at the Napoleon statue, located in the square that holds La Roche-sur-Yon's only other tourist attraction, the cathedral, we met Nate and Alex's friend Matt, a fellow teacher from Pittsburgh.

A la Ferme was the restaurant of choice that evening. It came highly recommended by the group-- the only problem? They were expecting a large group later in the evening, and we only had an hour and a half to finish our meal-- a feat for any local, but not for us Americans!

Alex graciously translated the menu and made a few recommendations to me. I decided to order the tartiflette.

When my main course arrived, it was at that point that I had a revelation. I was in love with French cuisine and my stay with Nate and Alex was going to be far better than I ever could have imagined.

As I salivated over the bowl of cheese, potatoes, and meat that sat in front of me, I debated how long it would take me to want to start to learn French. As I took my first bite and accompanied it with a sip of white wine, I thought to myself, "not long."

After finishing my meal in what seemed as though a matter of minutes-- we were being rushed, of course-- we ordered our desserts. I chose the ice cream sundae, as the restaurant no longer had tart tatin, another French specialty recommended to me by Nate and Alex. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. The sundae was easily one of the best I had ever tasted.

As we finished our desserts, the expected large group of people arrived-- perfect timing. We headed to our next locale-- a bar where many of Nate and Alex's friends were planning to meet us.

When we arrived at the bar, nearly all of Nate and Alex's friends were already there, each welcoming me graciously to join them for drinks. Nate had a craving for cognac, so we ordered two and found a place near the action.

My friend started to tell me about his new-found knowledge of the source of cognac-- champagne. I struggled to believe him as I tasted my first cognac. I denounced his claim politely, thus sparking a two-day debate that only ended after Wikipedia came to our rescue. (Cognac is made from brandy.)

As our calm debate cooled, we found ourselves separating from the group and catching up on the past five years. It felt so good to be in La Roche-sur-Yon with my friend and his wife.

Alas, our good time came to an end when the bar we inhabited became over-crowded and smoky. Our party decided to leave, and we all went our separate ways-- just as a torrential rain began to fall. Strangely, however, walking in the rain seemed like a good fit to evening.

The next day I awoke to the sun shining brightly through Nate and Alex's curtains and to my friend's suggestion that crepes would be a good start to the day. How could I resist?

In what seemed like a dash, Nate had whipped up a batch, then another, of thin, fluffy crepes, which were complemented with jam, butter, and chocolate and coffee. As my stomach glowed in enjoyment, my thoughts of learning French crept back into my head. I was in heaven. (Perhaps the old saying is true: the way to a man's heart is through his stomach...)

After breakfast, I decided to go for a run, which Nate thought was a splendid idea, so he joined me. I had started to run again for the first time in over ten years while I was in Denmark in preparation for my trip to Nepal. My progress had started slowly and this day was no exception.

As Nate and I began to run, the sun shone through the partly cloudy skies, as if it was welcoming us to join it. I learned that Nate had run cross country in high school (I had run track), but like me, had not run in years as well; however, unlike he, my lack of conditioning apparent.

After completing a 20-minute run to the nearby hospital and back, we showered and all took a walk into the city. We caught up more on the on-goings of our mutual friends and respective families before finding a cafe to settle in for a drink and, hopefully, a tart tatin.

Nate and Alex found a traditional cafe that on this bright Sunday afternoon was filled with couples and families beginning their early dinner sampling. One couple was busy eating a heaping plate-full of escargot, while others, like us, were simply ordering drinks and dessert.

Alex suggested that I try a traditional French drink, kir, as Nate sampled a Kronenbourg. We were also in luck-- the cafe served tart tatin, ala mode no less! As our drinks arrived, we toasted to our friendship and to being together again after all of these years and Nate toasted me and my upcoming trip. As I took my first sip of kir (I had made it before but never tasted it), my tongue began to tingle as I tasted the slight bitterness of the white wine, followed by the sweetness of the creme de cassis. Yummy!

The tart tatin arrived a few minutes later, and I knew I was in for a treat. I could smell the caramel and apples stewing inside, as the French vanilla ice cream slowly melted next to it. As I took my first bite, my eyes couldn't help but roll themselves backward into my head. The crispness of the sweet apples mixed with the bronzed caramel and cool, creamy ice cream was absolute heaven with every bite. "When could I start to learn French again?," I thought to myself.

As I slowly savored each bite, Nate turned our conversation to dinner; food, the staple of our existence and the profound theme of my visit.

Nate mentioned that he was working on perfecting his Boeuf Bourguignon recipe, a traditional French stew consisting of beef, garlic, onions, carrots and potatoes, cooked in burgundy. I could hardly wait to partake in dinner, even though I had just finished dessert, as Nate described how the meal was made and, more so, how it tasted. We slowly made our way back to Nate and Alex's apartment, our stomachs filled with delight and already dreaming of the splendor yet to come.

Nate is the designated cook in his marriage, while Alex ensures that everything is cleaned afterward. As with breakfast, I found myself in the kitchen with Nate, learning how to make this French masterpiece.

I found out that Nate had been to a restaurant in Copenhagen the previous summer, where they had been visiting Alex's relatives, and had discovered the best and most tender Boeuf Bourguignon of his life. He asked the chef what his secret was. The answer: the beef had been simmering for a few days in the burgundy.

We did not have that type of convenience at our disposal, but we sure made the best of with what we had. As I helped to cut the ingredients, Nate was busy preparing everything so that it was just right, while Alex was setting the tone for the night-- jazz.

As Nate added the final ingredient to the stew-- the burgundy-- we all waited in increasing anticipation as the aroma from the beef and vegetables simmered in the sweet burgundy.

After three hours of constant temptation, it was time to devour our creation.

As Nate placed each bowl of delight in front of us, the steam from the stew rose and our noses met it blissfully. One could smell all of the simmered vegetables inside, but, moreover, the sweet, yet strong flavor of the beef and the burgundy.

As I took my first sip of the deliciously sweet beef broth, one of the best I had ever tasted, I had hardly finished it before my craving for trying the beef had overcome me. "If the broth was this good, just how tender must the beef be?," I thought to myself.

I soon found out.

I took my first nibble of the beef-- so tender that it nearly split in two pieces before I was able to place it into my now watering mouth. Wow.

I love North American stews just fine, but this was like no other. Perhaps it was the difference in the texture of the vegetables or, more probably, the burgundy, but I when I tasted the splendor of the meal, I could do nothing more than sit in my chair quietly, look at Nate, and shake my head to acknowledge my state of pure ecstasy. I was absolutely blown away.

After devouring several bowls of Boeuf Bourguignon, along with our fair portion of baguette, Nate brought out a small salad and dessert-- a traditional French cheese platter.

I am a cheese-lover and always have been, by American standards, mind you, and I know that European cheeses tend to be hit or miss with me, but I wanted to each selection, regardless of appearance and potency. Nate's selection pushed me to the limit, ranging from a mild Camembert to a blue cheese (not a favorite of mine) to a potent chevre cheese, which was actually quite tasty, although the green mold that had been growing on it was not.

The remainder of the evening Nate, Alex, and I chatted and talked about the day's events. I was quite impressed by Nate's culinary skill and expertise and was very thankful to be in my good friend's company.

On Monday morning I left with Nate to accompany him part way on his daily walk to school. I wanted to buy my train ticket so that I didn't have to worry about it the next morning, my departure date. After an unsuccessful purchase, I headed back to my friends' apartment to catch up on some e-mail and spend a little time with Alex, who had the day off.

Nate and Alex are both teaching English this year to elementary school children in La Roche-sur-Yon. Both are working mainly with underprivileged and/or misbehaved children, although Alex's students come from various types of non-traditional family backgrounds.

In their spare time, however, both Nate and Alex are working on their respective writing projects. Nate is working on a fantasy trilogy and is nearly complete with his first edition. Alex is working on a semi-biographical project that incorporates her family's history and Venezuelan heritage. She has been working diligently for months interviewing her aunt in Venezuela in order to complete her research.

On this Monday, I had the opportunity to see Alex at work, compiling her massive amount of data. I couldn't help but be impressed.

I met Nate for a quick lunch near the Napoleon statue-- baguette sandwiches, what else! He was having a rough day in class, and I think the break helped to ease some of his tension. Naturally, we talked about dinner as well and decided that French onion soup would be on the menu.

I met Nate at home after his classes were complete and went shopping for the ingredients, along with a few bottles of Bordeaux wine ($2 USD/bottle-- Vive la France!). In a flash we were at home busy chopping up the ingredients over a now open bottle of Bordeaux.

Soon the ingredients were simmering, and I remembered that I had put off my run for the day. In a semi-drunken stooper, I informed Nate that I was going to take a quick run, to which he insisted that I have another glass of wine; I am sure to compel me not to go. No problem. I sipped the glass empty then dashed out the door, running full steam ahead toward the train station-- a slight up grade the entire way. In fifteen minutes time I had reached my destination, exhausted with delicious wine pumping through my veins.

I bought a few postcards for my mutual friends of Nate and headed home. In ten minutes I was back. As I opened the door to the apartment, I smelled only the sweetness of the soup simmering on the stove. After I had changed, dinner was ready to be served. My stomach and I could hardly wait!

As with dinner the previous night, a delicious fresh baguette accompanied our French onion soup, but it found itself a distant second to the main course. As I dipped my spoon into the golden brown broth of the soup, the tender onions limped over the edge of the spoon, many falling directly into its place of origin. I could smell the sweet caramelized broth and onions as I took my first sip.

"How can something so simple taste so good?," I asked myself as I tasted the delicate meal.

All that was missing was the bread bowl that is customary in the States, but that was not important at this point in time. I could only focus on the mouth-watering food and the need for me to get the recipes from the prior days meals (or the need to become Nate's assistant chef!).

After finishing a few bowls of soup, Nate reminded me that leftover Boeuf Bourguignon awaited us and stated that it was going to be even more tender than the night before due to it having marinated overnight in its juices. Wow-- was he right!!!

We ate ourselves full in absolute delight with soup, stew, and baguette before taking on our traditional cheese plate from the night before.

Dessert was followed up by Shakira and a best of three game of horse- indoor Nerf style. A nightcap of multiple rounds of our favorite 80's videos on Youtube followed.

The next morning Alex awoke to give me a proper send off, while Nate accompanied me to the train station. We bought my ticket, had a delicious cup of espresso, recapped our amazing visit, embraced and I was off to Nantes, hoping that I would see my good friend again sooner rather than later.

Due to the irregularity of the trains between La Roche-sur-Yon and Nantes, I was able to take a few hours to see the lovely Jardin des Plantes, one of the most famous botanical gardens in all of France. Luckily, it was a gorgeous Tuesday morning and all of the flowers were in bloom.

As I strolled through the park, I couldn't help but be thankful for the three days I had spent in France and feel lucky to have such wonderful friends. The garden was truly the capper to a splendid weekend.

Thank you Nate and Alex for inviting me to France and welcoming me into your home. I had an absolute blast in La Roche-sur-Yon with you! You are truly both wonderful people, and I am so happy to have you as my friends. Good luck on your respective writing projects (and staying sane with the children). Please stay in touch!!!

Nate, I hope that one day you will look deep inside yourself and find a way to realize that I am not solely responsible for the outcome of Game Seven of the 1997 World Series and for Jose Mesa's poor performance. I hope that one day we are able to watch a baseball game together again, hopefully, in the confines of Wrigley Field or Jacobs Field. Even better would be a World Series match-up. (And have no fear, I think a Billy Goat holds more power over one team than me...)

Nate and me on the town my first night in La Roche-sur-Yon.

Nate making one of his many delicious specialties- crepes.

Nate and I after our run.

Possibly La Roche-sur-Yon's only tourist attraction (besides Nate and Alex)-- Napoleon and the cathedral (that was closed during my entire visit).
The main attraction in La Roche-sur-Yon.

Nate and me enjoying his savory Boeuf Bourguignon with some fine French wine, of course.

Nate and me enjoying Kronenbourg and kir.

Alex and me enjoying our kir.

Nate preparing to dig into his mouth-watering French onion soup.

La Jardin des Plantes in Nantes-- one of the most famous botanical gardens in France.

Some of its flowers.

A waterfall looking toward the Japanese garden.


BillBow Baggins said...


I love you and will never forgive you. I wish I was a bigger person. Thanks for the post though. It was equally good for us to have you. Like sunshine in this shitty town.

Anonymous said...

Hi CJ!
Wow, great work on your blog. I have been dying to see some updates, and now we get to read all about your trips to France and Denmark as well as Nepal! Hey, just yesterday Christoph saw a guy who beared some resemblance to you and he started shouting out, "CJ! CJ! CJ!" I was impressed. I just now showed him a picture of you here on your blog, and he recognized you again. You see, you really made an impression on two little boys! Take care...glad to hear you are having such a wonderful time. Would you believe that Andre re-ruptured his Achilles and is in the hospital again! They cut open the same spot from last time and sewed it back together again. This time he will be in the hospital for 2 weeks (hopefully out this Friday). That is such a bugger! The boys and I will be travelling to the US alone next month... Bye for now... Our thoughts are with you!