Wednesday, 2 September 2009

13. French classes and Nantes

I changed French schools a few weeks ago because the one I was at was all self-taught – I would pick up a module that explained a particular point and I would sit there doing the exercises until the centime dropped. It was all a bit soul-destroying so Madame said I’d be better off in a class with a teacher. So I had my first lesson in the new school. After a few minutes the teacher said that I should be in the Woodwork class oops, a higher level group.. But it was a lot better than the previous school.

A few weekends ago we were up in Brittany staying with our friends P and M-A in Nantes. On the Sunday morning before lunch, they took us on a lightning tour around the centre of Nantes. I don’t think Nantes is that well known in England but I think it deserves better. It suffered bomb damage in the war but the old part, which contains a magnificent castle, is still largely intact.
The castle was the former capital of the kingdom of Brittany in olden times and following its recent complete restoration, its stones are now gleaming white and it looked fully functional. Really impressive.

The old part of Nantes reminded us of parts of Paris with its beautiful old squares, elegant public buildings and Baron Haussman-esque apartment buildings. It was much more of a city than I’d expected. It has topped the polls in France for the last few years as being the city with the best overall quality of life. It's full of smart shops and restaurants, antique shops, old book stores and many individual shops that (almost) made me want to stop and have a look.

By comparison, Bayonne is much smaller. But then here there’s St Jean de Luz, Biarritz, Anglet and Bayonne all in very close proximity to each other - each with its own distinctive character and attractions – and over the border in Spain there’s San Sebastian which is very stylish. St Jean de Luz is Madame’s favourite and, as I’ve said before, I think when we get a bit older, we’ll probably think about looking for a flat in the centre there. We often go for a walk in St Jean and it suits us both very well. It’s flat (unlike Biarritz which is quite hilly), compact (so everything is in within easy reach) and the beach is only at one remove from the centre of town.

We’ll see. Think Nantes would be a good place to work but I think down here is the better place for retirement because there’s the seaside, the much warmer climate, the mountains (skiing and walking), fishing, cycling (lots of cycle paths), golf (must be half a dozen golf courses at least around here), and, of course, there’s Spain just over the border. We also noticed that autumn was a lot more advanced up around Nantes – not many leaves left on the trees – whereas here just a few trees have started to change colour and drop their leaves.

Madame always says that the River Loire (which Nantes is at the mouth of) is the big divide in France as far as climate is concerned – north of it and you’ve got all the clouds, rain and mist and to the south of it you’ve got the sunshine. In theory!

We also went into the restored cathedral in the centre of Nantes which looked as though it was built only last week. There’d been a fire in 1972 which totally destroyed the roof and all the old medieval stained glass windows were lost as they exploded out in the intense heat. The replacement stained glass windows were a bit different too – instead of the usual scenes of saints, Eddie Stobart and co etc, they’d been designed to look like flames – and each window showed a different level of intensity of the fire. Some looked very good but others not so. The fire was caused apparently by some workmen who were working up on the roof with blowlamps setting fire to pigeons or something.

We didn’t have much time to spend looking around as the next stop was the huge Talensac food market. Apparently, this is one of the biggest and best in France and you would just not believe the range, variety, quality and prices of all the food products – poultry of all types and sizes, seafood, all kinds of meat products and fruit and veg on show. I wished I had my camera as at one point I spotted a smartly dressed lady in a queue at a till waiting to pay. She had her money in one hand and she was holding two large nasty-looking live crabs in the other.. Can’t imagine ever seeing that in England.

Thinking about that I was reminded of the other day when we had some oysters for lunch in Bayonne. On one side, there was a lady on her own tucking in to a dozen oysters and a whole bottle of white wine (I think I might struggle with that..) and on the other side, there were two ladies having lunch together – again, tucking into a pile of oysters with a bottle of white wine in an ice bucket. I remember thinking now there’s another sight you’d never see in England.. (and why not..?) If you are visiting France and have yet to try an oyster, don't let anyone tell you that they're slimy - they are anything but. Loosen the oyster from its shell, squeeze some lemon juice over the oyster and raise the shell to your lips and slide the oyster into your mouth accompanied by a sip (or two) of Chablis, Muscadet sur Lie or Sancerre.. Mmm! Please, no Guinness or Tabasco sauce - these kill the taste in my view. If you are new to oysters I'd suggest starting with No 4s. The number refers to the size - with a No 1 (close to the size of a horse's hoof) being the largest.
We also stopped briefly to look in the window of a cake shop… Ye gods… you would not believe how good everything looked. But there was not an Eccles cake or a custard slice to be seen for love nor money!

So, back to Tuesday… at my new French class this morning, there were four of us – J (a Sarth Efrican woman), L (a young Mexican hom) and O, a Spanish speaking chap from somewhere in Central America. J has been here since April and her husband commutes from Biarritz to London a few days a week then returns here for a long weekend. Think they’ve been watching too many of these House Abroad shows on TV. Crazy. She doesn’t speak a word of French and even if she could, no-one would understand her. She told me that she didn’t do it at school. Her pronunciation is just about the worst I’ve ever heard – worse even than mine! She pronounced vous gagnez as “vooze gagg nezz” and mieux as “my ucks” – think she has a long way to go. I subsequently was moved up to a higher level class and so I've lost track of how J was doing.. I wish her well!

My new group - a mixed class of around 10 - consisted of Germans, Argentinians, Mexicans, a Pole, a Kosovan and me.

Wonder what the French is for Eccles cake?

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