Tuesday, December 23, 2008


This is from my before-blog archives, but I thought you might enjoy it.

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone. Or maybe not; I don’t know. It has been a supercharged September in Clermont-Ferrand. A new class to prepare and teach, students with their oral presentations, deadlines for abstracts and manuscripts, meetings. It’s been one thing after another for the past six weeks. I need a breather, because October will be just the same.
Today: meeting in Paris. Not until two, so the eight o’clock train gives me plenty of time for lunch. The problem is the cats. Natalie came in like a good girl this morning, but Pandemonium and Sienne did not. Normally Pan is at my window bright and early, eager for catfood and the possibility of a spot of milk. Sienne hangs around with him or sticks close to home, but this morning I call them and even go looking for them, but no grey swirly tiger cats appear. I’m going to miss my train if I don’t get going. They’ve spent the day outside before. I’ll just call Olivier and have him let them in tonight after work. They’ll be fine. A bit peckish, but maybe that’ll teach ‘em.

Full train today. There should be a rule about train travel: everybody has to bathe first and wear clean clothes. The man next to me is just bearable, but only just. At least he’s not a smoker, with his clothes and hair all saturated with tobacco stink. And he’s not my summer student Pierre L., who seemed never to have learned about toothpaste. No, I really shouldn’t complain too much, as I myself have occasionally taken a train, usually at the end of a weekend, in a less than savory state. Home from Langeac, for instance, after a day’s hike. Sometimes you can’t really help being less than daisy-fresh.
After my usual lunch at the usual place – pasta gratinee at the Vesuvio, across from the station, I go early to the meeting because Rue Tolbiac is a long street and I don’t know which end of it number 101 is at. No matter, it’s a nice day and I could use a bit of a walk after sitting still all morning barely able to cross and uncross my legs. The FLNCC building turns out to be in a kind of neighborhood so common in Paris: 19th and 20th century boring. Concrete. Graffiti, boarded up shops. A piece of the Sorbonne University, falling to pieces. But there are three – three! – open Vietnamese restaurants. And two closed ones. But Mmmmmm, next time this particular meeting comes around I’ll be lunching over here. Who knew?
But the next meeting if this series will be in Montpellier, we decide, since everybody will be down there for the big genetics bash in January anyway. We decide to have a dinner meeting, at a place our southern colleagues know well.
In a flurry of understated efficiency, we end early. Now how often does that happen?

So early in fact, that I have hopes of catching an early train to Le Havre, but it isn’t to be. There’s no good metro route from here to the Gare St Lazare on the north side of Paris. There’s a bus, stopping just a few blocks over, though of course we have to deal with crossing the heart of the city just as rush hour starts to build up. What’s more, the first bus to come along isn’t even going all the way to the station. Whatever. I have until 6:40, and I picked up my ticket before lunch so there’s not even that to mess with.
Outside St Lazare in the large square there’s a little fair going on. Dozens of little booths of products from India and Peru and Pakistan and Senegal. Jewelry and pashminas (I’ve got such a collection of scarves already, but it’s hard to resist!) and cookies and baby clothes and food cooking in the last aisle. Ah, that smells wonderful! I’m tempted in a hundred ways, but in the end I think of the weight my bag will have on my way home Saturday even if I add nothing at all, and I resist. If this is still going on on my way home, I just might…
Again the train is filled to the last seat. Many places have a little yellow card stuck into a slot above the window, indicating reservations. People throw their stuff on the overhead rack and sit down. Other people come and say a word and the early people get up, collect their stuff and leave so that the process can begin again. Apparently all of the reservations are showing up, like me, and that’s unusual.

It’s 6:40, and two hours to Le Havre. This is practically a commuter train. People are reading, doing crosswords, sleeping. It’s quiet but for the significant rail noise of an old train. My seatmate has his cellphone out on his fold-down tray as if he’s expecting a Big Call any second. He has the window but instead of looking out, he dozes. I think, if he doesn’t appreciate it, he should let me have it. Not that there’s much to see just now in the lame outskirts of Paris, but later there will be countryside. Towns. Fields of cows. Castles maybe.
Sigh, no castles. Not any that can be seen from the train, at least, and not much countryside, either. Why do they line the railway with trees and thick bushes? We bored travelers don’t get to see anything at all!
The train empties out at Rouen, in spite of most of the little yellow tickets saying Paris-Le Havre. Why would you pay for a ticket all the way to Le Havre and then get off the train ¾ of the way there? Curious.
I have the window now. Now that there’s nothing to see but my reflection against the dark.
At the end of the line I stop to call Olivier. I get his machine. I hope he gets the message not too late.

I’ve read that Le Havre is not worth seeing. Thoroughly destroyed in WWII, it’s all 20th century concrete now. That one can see the main cathedral from all over town is considered ‘unfortunate’ by Lonely Planet.
The area right around the station is typical train-station run down, but I look among the hotels along the main street. My train out is at 8am, and I don’t want to have to rush in the morning.
Here’s a chain-hotel advertising rooms at 39 euros a night. Nobody responds to the bell, though. I hang around and notice that only four rooms in the whole place go for that price. Another ring, a little patience, still nobody, I’m out the door.
Next there are rooms for 35, but the ‘complet’ sign is out. Then it’s up the block off the station square. Above a narrow walkway blinks ‘Hotel’. One star, but I sneak a peek down the walk and it’s nicely landscaped, opening onto a small courtyard with a two-part stairway sweeping elegantly up to the entrance. A modest, family-run place holding out against the impersonal cookie-cutter chains. I like that, and I like the price even more.
Up in the room, however, I wonder if I shouldn’t try to get my money back and keep looking. Immediately it smells of smoke. A point for the chains - you can usually get a non-smoking room these days. I can probably live with this if I cover the pillow with my spare shirt, and avoid hugging the covers up to my chin. The floor is uneven, but I just won’t go barefoot. The door has been damaged around the lock, which has been replaced and appears to work fine. The bed, well, what did I expect for 25 a night? Why didn’t the clerk at the other place answer the damned bell?
Finally I decide that I won’t ask to get my money back, which is on my credit card so I won’t be sure the transaction is annulled until I actually don’t get billed for it and if I do it’ll be too late; I’ll just stay in a dive one last time. Last time I did this, I swore I would give it up.

Outside looking for dinner I’m hoping for Chinese (all I really want is a large bowl of soup) but all there is is kabob take-out or eat with plastic forks in smoky, grungy, you don’t want to know places, plus one brasserie.
This brasserie has got to be the best-lit restaurant in all of France. It’s blindingly bright. It’s like a warning for all the shadow-loving, kebab-eating people to Stay Out, and an invitation for tired, civilization-seeking travelers with unfortunately early trains to find haven.
The food is indifferent, the music Hotel California, but I linger and finish my wine because I don’t savor a late evening walk just here and my room is not worth going back to until I’m ready to sleep.

It’s not a comfortable night, and I’m still tired when the phone rings at 7. Already? It’s dark out.
I’m on vacation here – it’s not right to get up just as early as ever.
But I have an 8:10 train to Fécamp. Le Havre being just a place to crash, I don’t want to lose any time; I'd rather be seeing the small-town coast, and walking along the beach to the sound of breakers and seagulls. That’s the fun part.
Fécamp is bigger than I imagined. On the map, and in my Lonely Planet that must date to the early 90’s at best, it’s this really small town, barely more than a village. But Fécamp turns out to be quite substantial, though not less nice for all that. It has its touristy side, with a row of beachfront hotels mostly closed for the season, and an equal row of restaurants and high-end clothing stores along the pleasure port. And its summer-home side, with vacation homes on the slopes and spots with a view, is also mostly vacated for the season. Hey, with the ‘season’ so obviously over, why do I still have to pay the high-season rate for my room? Because it’s Sept 30, not Oct 1.

Quandary of the day: do I buy an umbrella. I left mine at home quite deliberately. It’s a yard-long, non-folding model, and I tend to leave it places as soon as I don’t need it over my head. A great umbrella, but a burden. My last folding umbrella I was fully justified in throwing into the nearest trash bin.
The weather fits and starts here on the coast. A few drops, starts to look serious, then nothing, back to the sullen grey sky.
Nix on the umbrella. Not only do I not see any obvious place to buy one, but the wind right on the beach would make one impractical.
After wandering around the port a while I decide to head east along the coast. Only you can’t, along the water: there’s no beach that way. So what about higher up. On the bluff. Question is how to get there, but I find the GR21 trail marks at last. Takes me right up to the old abbey overlooking the town and the sea. Most of the complex is a hotel and restaurant now, both rather out of my range. The church is still a church, more just a chapel, and bizarrely there’s a grill keeping casual visitors out except for mass. It's rare to not have access to churches in France. Much of the rest is falling into ruin.
Just seaward of the abbey complex is a military installation, quite small but with a large communications tower brandishing all sorts of dishes and antennae and what have you. It’s an odd complement to the architecture of the abbey-hotel.
Just beyond that, when you don’t think there should be anything more, is an assortment of WWII blochaus, torn up and gutted now, installed by the Germans in 1940. What a place. Each gun emplacement has a great vacationers’ view, naturally. Sheep are grazing among the ruins, as is a small fat pony. The sheep seem quite used to people wandering around their eating grounds, though they don’t let me get too close. There’s a particular brown one with magnificent horns that I can’t get quite the right camera angle on. He keeps turning his butt to me and moving away. The pony, on the other hand, probably associates people with sweets and headscratching, so it crops grass closer and closer to me until its brown eye entirely fills my viewfinder. Well, with the zoom on full.

Eventually I have company, another person come to gaze wistfully out to sea. We nod in greetings, and I move off through the blackberry patches to see some of the other German ruins and look over Fécamp and the cliffs curving away west. There’s a good width of beach for some hundreds of yards, so walking that direction should get me down to the water. And there’s a town down the coast I might be able to reach, though the water looks like it comes right up to the cliffs in spots.
I toy with following the GR21 east a while, to see if it will take me to picturesque villages and dramatic views over the rocky beach. It probably will do that, but it doesn’t do it in the first half hour, which is filled with grey skies and fallow fields and a huge pit of construction work with a crane and all. So I go back. Some day I should hike the GR21 from Dieppe to Le Havre.

Walking along the beach in Normandy is fun, and it demands effort and attention. In places it’s made from stones from pebble-sized to fist-sized, piled so deep you can’t tell how deep. This part of the beach makes a wonderful noise. If you get near enough the water, when the waves go out and all the stones clatter against each other by the millions it sounds like applause. And then the waves come crashing back in, foaming, sinking into the rocks and pulling them out to sea again. All this is punctuated with occasional cries from the gulls flying by.
Farther on, the rocks get bigger and you have to pay more attention to how you put your feet. They’re pretty rocks, in white and grey with surprising patches of blue. Chunks of sandstone are multicolored yellow and orange and nearly red. And they sparkle, uncovered by the receding tide and kept wet by the determined drizzle. I pocket one, and keep changing it when I find a better one. Whichever one I take I know that as soon as it dries it won’t look anything like it does now, and I’ll wonder why I’m hauling some stupid rock around.
The cliffs are truly impressive up close. From far away you get an idea that they have some kind of horizontal striping. As they do. Between layers of chalky white, regular and quite parallel to the ground, there are thin bands of glossy black-grey rock, something itself laid down in layers that give an interesting banding to the dark layers. This thinner layer wears away less easily than the white sandstone, so it sticks out in chunks, but it’s brittle and flakes away under the slightest blow, leaving a smooth new surface.
Up high, the cliffs look nearly white, but near the bottom, probably as high as the tide ever gets, they’re stained bright yellow-orange. Every mile or so there’s been a piece of cliff broken off that’s lying still in heaps of rubble that interrupt the sweeping line of the beach. The waves are slowly taking the debris away, dissolving the while limestone and leaving the darker smooth round hard stones behind.
The tide goes way, way out, leaving a plain of rocky tide pools behind, filled with seaweed and shellfish and anemonies. Two people with buckets are out at the waterline, collecting, bent over to the work. One is accompanied by a large white dog jumping and playing in the edge of the surf.

It’s so quiet, but there’s a lot to listen to. The tide is so far out now that the waves are a low background grumble. Seagulls heading busily somewhere talk among themselves. And suddenly it sounds like somebody left a shower going. It’s the cliff. It’s leaking. Huge growths of moss cover the leakage and act like a great sponge overhanging the beach. The water comes right out the bottom, making it rain below all the time, 24-7.
I can’t see it all the time because of the thick clouds, but I know there’s a town up ahead. Yport, I think it is, according to the map, but it might be some smaller, unmentioned village. 14km by road, and I don’t think I’ll get there today. Slogging through these rocks is slow going. Some day: Dieppe to Le Havre on foot.
On the way back toward Fécamp there’s a break in the wall where they’ve put a stairway and then a paved path to the top-end. I don’t see a village name anywhere, but there’s a friendly-looking auberge and restaurant, not doing any obvious business today, and a boarded-up church, and farther on fields of corn and cattle. Several houses are in the middle of restoration, the radios turned up to compete with the sounds of sawing and electric drills.
Here’s the GR21 again. Back to town on paved and semi-paved roads takes a fraction of the time that walking along the beach would.
Exploring Fécamp is quickly done. For such a large place it doesn’t have many shops. There are ruins of a castle from William the Conquerer’s day, though you’re not allowed to go play there. The two very large churches are cold and dank. Restoration projects are underway at the cathedral. That makes me wonder, as usual, why the church finds fit to pour so many millions into keeping up these (admittedly impressive) dinosaurs if its real mission is to help people. Don’t get me started on that. The bigger buildings all belong to the French state anyway, and are kept up with public money. Time for a shower and dinner.
Fécamp to me is very English-looking. It’s the brick and stone rowhouses, mostly, making a solid façade of homes from one streetcorner to the next. Elsewhere in France you’d see a lot more variation in the decoration, if not the style, of these housefronts, but here they’ve left the local stone to show through the brick outlines on every house. It’s a nice effect, working with the glossy dark stone as well as the lighter colors quarried nearby, but overall it becomes somber and dreary. Though that impression may be due partly to the weather today. Curtains in windows are uniformly white. Doors are mostly proudly carved wood stained dark, rather than painted bright colors.
That’s in the center or town, the mostly 19th century part. The houses with flower-filled yards ranged all up the hillsides are modern, with light colors and big picture windows.
On my way to one of several seafood places along the port, I stop in a particular bar to buy a couple of postcards. I stopped in earlier, attracted by some oversized panoramics that are quite pretty, but bought nothing at the time. I was on my way to my beach walk, and they would have gotten terribly beat up in my sack with my camera gear and my rocks. The fat old guy behind the counter was rather insulted, though, that I would come in, paw through his postcard collection, even pick two, and then put them back and leave without spending a centime.
With my bright red scarf and oversized leather jacket, he might remember me now. See, monsieur. I’m buying your postcards. Just later. I had thought to get my cards and then spend some time over a kir, writing them, as it is somewhat early for dinner. But the nasty smoke of French cigarettes drives me back outside.

In the restaurant down the block, too, they seem to have never heard of the ‘Evin’ law forbidding smoking in public buildings, in effect five years now. But it’s early for dinner, as I said, and nobody’s lit up yet. The smokers dine later, at about the time I’m starting dessert.
I learn something new at dinner. I know when you eat a potful of mussels it’s usual to use your fingers. I’ve always used one hand to pick up a mussel and then a fork in the other to detach it from the shell for eating, because I find bringing the shell to my mouth too messy. But aha, the people at the next table don’t use a fork, they use an empty shell as a pincer. That works pretty well, and has the advantage of transporting some of the tasty bouillion, with its herbs and onions, to the mouth as well. Good idea.
Saturday starts out partly cloudy. I could kick something – if only we’d had this weather yesterday! There’s not sun all the time, but enough to wait for and appreciate. And the clouds there are aren’t as big and dark-making, and they especially don’t leak. My hat and jacket are still damp from yesterday. My train is at ten, and my bag newly charged with a couple of rocks and a bottle of that local product, Benedictine, so I linger over my coffee instead of hauling that around in a rush trying to see something new. A turn around the port in the sun is enough.
Our train back to Le Havre is another of those delightful one-car jobs, spanking new and almost empty. Our driver is a young woman in a red and white striped t-shirt who jokes with the ticket controller in the cab. My ticket says I have to descend at Bréauté and wait almost an hour for the connection to Le Havre, but this train seems to be going all the way to Le Havre itself. Odd.
I consider staying on, maybe catching an early train to Paris, and then an early train home. Or I can see Bréauté for 48 minutes.

Bréauté is a two-horse town in the middle of corn and dairy Normandy. The only reason it has a station is because of the rail spur heading to Fécamp and the tourist coast off the Paris-Le Havre line. There’s one Hotel-Restaurant, serving a seasonal traveling clientele, closed just now. And then cows, fields of yellow mustard, manor houses overlooking farm complexes built up over centuries. It’s a pleasant walk around.
The next train arrives and my delight fades. Not a nice, sparkly one-car from Fécamp and spots local, but the big one from Paris. The kind with the grey and mint-green interior, and windows that haven’t been washed in a decade. Oh, well.

We pull in to Le Havre at 11:18, and I notice there’s a train for Paris at noon. I could go early, or I could lunch here and take my train at 2. I don’t especially feel like picnicking on a crowded, stinky train like the one I just quit, so I decide to go see a bit of Le Havre.
I catch a bus downtown, which is only a few stops away, and get off when we come to the beach front. It’s a wide, rocky beach. Much broader than at Fécamp but with the same fist-sized stones worn smooth, as deep as you could dig down. And there’s wind here. Very strong wind. Out and about, walking their dogs or their children, are the regulars who don’t seem to notice. I do, so I go wander about town in search of lunch.
While it’s true that Le Havre is not a very interesting place architecturally, and it does have a series of really awful concrete apartment blocks in the center, it’s not all that bad. It has some nice parks, good bus service, and it’s clean and well-kept, at least around here. It does lack for restaurants, alas, except for on-the-beach tourist traps, and takeaway kebabs around the station. I do eventually find a place and have a very nice salad and salmon filet. No time for dessert, gotta get back to my train.
It’s an icky old train, I can see that from here. Lined up across the beginning of the quay are six train agents, not allowing anyone on early. With fifteen minutes to go we’re allowed forward, but to pass them we have to show our tickets. Security, hmmm. You can do that when there’s only one train leaving in the next half hour. Just try it in Paris; the SNCF would go broke hiring enough agents.
Underway, I see it really is a secure train. A pack of three uniformed and armed soldiers pass up and down the aisle. I recall that yesterday morning waiting for my 8:10 there was a soldier with a dog checking out the tracks rather seriously I wonder what’s going on or maybe in a port city they do this all the time so that nothing will go on.
Here’s Bréauté again. This morning I stood in that field and watched an earlier version of this train go by. And Rouen, and eventually Paris, the metro, Gare de Lyon. I look into an early departure to Clermont, but there’s nothing left but seats in smoking or first class. The extra thirty euros isn’t worth it, so I sit around in a café, nursing a kir. It’ll be a long trip home, but I’ve got all day Sunday to hang around doing nothing but petting the cats.


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