Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day One, Part 2

Tuesday, 6 December, 1988
Oxford to Caen

LA MANCHE, 5:05 PM-- I did get a cab right quick out front. I was in good time for the station and the train to Portsmouth Harbor. Changed at Reading. I regret to say the luggage is beastly heavy, especially with me trying to get a cold and having had no sleep and no food to speak of. Providentially, I keep finding people who volunteer to carry my bag for me, for which I am grateful.

The countryside between Oxford and Portsmouth was lovely, the sun shining and the fields an intense but mellowed shade of yellow green. There was an old man in the train from Reading, where I had to change, who lives near Portsmouth and was telling me about how he used to go camping with the Boy Scouts on the Isle of Wight. He pointed out the castle at Portchester, I think it was, and said it dated from the 1000s.

The ferry was late coming in, due to choppy seas. We didn’t get underway till way after 4:00 (3:00 PM is proper sailing time) and shan’t be in to harbour till very late. I do hope the bus into Caen is still running.

This is a French ship, the Tregastel. It’s like Montréal on board, in that the staff all speak French primarily but since their English has to be good, too, I feel a little foolish practicing my rudimentary French. Thus far I have been mixing it, and not adding in any Russian. We will see how I handle it when it comes time to buy dinner.

It’s a pity we got started so late. It’s quite dark now and I won’t be able to get a view of the open sea. There is a bit of a swell, producing a feeling as if the ship were making a continual righthand veer and rather as if one had gotten pleasantly tiddly. It’s making me quite sleepy . . . .

10:20 PM, FRENCH TIME-- Did you know the French are an hour ahead of the Brits? Whether it’s got to do with the country’s longitude east or if they just never go off Daylight Savings Time, I don’t know. Well, that’ll give me longer to see things in the afternoons, though an hour less sleep tonight. If I’d known we’d be this late I’d’ve hired a cabin and stretched out. As it was, I nearly fell asleep sitting at a cafeteria table before dinner.

Turned out I had no option about using French when trying to get something to eat. The chef-cum-server didn’t have any English. English food though: fried fish and chips, all luxuriously greasy. Poisson et frites, s’il-vous-plait!

When I was finished and started to unwrap the chocolate angel Friedhelm* gave me the other day (I remembered to take it with me at the very last minute and ate it this evening so it wouldn’t get squished in my new satchel), the man who carried my suitcase onboard for me this afternoon came by my table and asked me, in French, if I were French and returning home.

No, I told him, je suis une Americaine.

He eventually sat down and we had a nice long chat. He had no English at all and you know about my French. We did communicate after a fashion and I think I got the gist of most of it, if not the details. It was hard to tell if, when I couldn’t follow him, it was due to my lack of vocabulary or to his digressive style.

I think the latter, in the case of his telling me about his friend who has a fishing boat in Brittany and then getting off on the tale of all the American tankers that’ve broken up and left oil slicks all over the Bretagne beaches. Maybe I missed something about how the fishing wasn’t as good as it used to be.

He lives in a suburb of Caen, had just been over to England for the day, and was now coming back. Likes boats. He says there’re about seventy hotels around Caen. I just hope I can find one whose proprietor won’t be angry at being rousted out at midnight.

It shouldn’t be much longer now. I’ve been seeing lights on the horizon for over a half hour and we appear to be drawing even, as I write.

(It’s 11:10 PM.)

CAEN, 1:10 AM-- My Norman helper continued to keep me company off the ferry and into Caen, until he’d seen me into a hotel pres de la gare ["close to the train station"]. I never got his name. Though I suppose I could’ve, if I’d been quicker on the uptake. For some reason on the bus from the ferry port he was trying to tell me his birthday and ask me mine, and when I didn’t understand he showed me his entry permit, which certainly had his name on it. The interesting thing is that his permit said he was born in 1948. My apologies, but I would’ve said he was nearly ten years older than that. That’s a year younger than Eric* [a former (single) architectural employer]. But then, Eric’s always been a handsome cuss. That’s why I put up with him for so long.

Continued fun with the French language. I have to work on my numbers and stop adding them up in the air in front of me.

He asked me if I’d been speaking French in the US. No . . . (only to myself and in writing, which I want to express untoward thoughts towards ineligible objects . . . ).

Passed the château on the way here. Lit up at night. It was William the Conqueror’s. Of course! Survived the bombing in WWII, apparently.

Settled on a hotel near the station. Whole string of them here. This one is called L’Hôtel du Depart. Up the street a ways is L’Hôtel du Arrive. Humorous people, these Normans.

This place strikes me as odd, but I think I’ve discovered why it doesn’t seem quite as nice as it could be. It’s because this whole street (or place) is totally packed with hotels and brasseries, and I think subconsciously I was affected by thoughts of Honolulu’s Hotel Street, famous from Magnum and Hawaii 5-O. And it is not a nice place.

This is setting me back 100F [about $20 at the time], with a sink and a bidet in the room and WC down the hall, just like at Coverdale*-- except for the bidet. I can’t find the light for the washroom, but that’s like Coverdale, too, where according to time-honored Oxford tradition, the mirror is small and in the darkest corner of the room.‡ I can see how God has used this past fall to get me used to such major trials and tribulations as these.††

Speaking of WCs, I’d read of how casual the French are about bathrooms and I witnessed that one on the boat.

Actually, I made the first faux pas. Just after I’d gotten on board I saw a sign saying Toilet and so I went and used it. On the way out I noticed the urinals and wondered if it were a coed john, again like Coverdale-- until I got to the door and noticed it had a pictograph for "Men" on it. I was glad no one else was around to see.

But then just before dinner, I was in a bona fide ladies' room, getting ready to wash my hands, when a man came in and quite matter-of-factly headed for one of the stalls to use the stool. (Stall door closed, of course.) I quickly stepped out into the passage to verify that I hadn’t made the same mistake twice--no . . . So I (mentally) said ok! and went back to the sink to do what I was doing. My nonchalance may’ve had something to do with yesterday evening, when I was the casual witness to the scene of several future vicars stripping to their briefs and changing into their pantomime costumes in front of God and all the rest of the cast. Nic Chistlethwaite* had some really brief black ones on but he’s no good for a cheap thrill-- he’s too skinny.

The decor here is basic Motel-6 in a blue version (chenille bedspread exactly like the ones at Covers) but the plumbing fixtures are new and nicely-designed. And I am greatly enlivened to see that the closet door is fitted with one of those plastic and metal foil recessed pulls, from Häfele or Ironmonger, such as we found to be useless at the Griffons’ [a residential project I'd been working on in the States]. Here they solved the problem by fastening a screw straight through the middle and into the wood. Tacky-- but effective.
†NB-- I'll translate the French, German, etc., only if I think the meaning may not be obvious. But unsupplied translations cheerfully made upon request!

‡Dorothy L. Sayers allusion, from Chapter 1 of Gaudy Night
††Warning! Major self-deprecatory sarcasm alert!!


whiskers said...

Oh, my! You did have an adventure getting to France!

My French now is about where yours was then. May I assume that yours improves somewhat over the course of your voyages?


St. Blogwen said...

On this one, yes and no. On future trips, with companions, my French got much better. We could encourage one another and make light of our mistakes.

Sandy said...

I just about fell off my chair when I read the words "cheap thrill"! I can't help it. It just struck me so funny!

I am a Lemieux and speak practically no French. Sigh. It is such a beautiful language.