Saturday, March 14, 2015

Detours: The Flight to France, and the Drive from Nantes to La Rochelle

Michael and his brother chez Phillip
Today there would be no sightseeing. After ordering omelets in the Pembroke’s breakfast room, we went back upstairs to completely repack, putting only what we would need for the next three nights into our smaller bags, and everything else in our bigger ones. The big bags we checked with the clerk at the hotel; the others were going with us on the plane to France. More than twenty years after our last visit to their home, we were going to see Michael’s brother Phillip and his family in La Rochelle.

Ryanair, the Ireland-based carrier that specializes in short, cheap flights around Europe, has very tight size-and-weight baggage restrictions, and since we didn’t want to pay any overweight or second-bag charges, we had to pack carefully. One of our carry-on bags had to be filled with dirty laundry because we would be in France on Monday--and Monday, as you know, is wash day.
Dublin’s mid-morning traffic wasn’t too bad, so we made it to the airport in plenty of time to turn in the trusty Nissan Micra that had carried us all over Ireland, get through airport security, and then through customs. Traveling from one E.U. country to another on holiday doesn’t seem to require much more than a cursory passport check.

As it turned out, enforcement of Ryanair’s luggage policy was not as strict we had been led to believe. They offered to check Nancy's carry-on case without an extra fee, and would have let us check another one if we had wanted to. As we boarded the plane, we saw a lot of roll-aboards and duffle bags that exceeded the official size limitations going up the steps and into the cabin with other passengers.

Michael had naively thought that there would be few other people on our flight, because who flies from Dublin to Nantes? A lot of people, apparently, because the Boeing 737 was completely full. On board with us were two groups of teenage students, so we kind of felt like we were on a school bus chaperoning a field trip—except that all the kids were speaking French. The flight went quickly, as did getting through immigration: a functionary in Nantes glanced at our passports, stamped them, and then waved us through without asking a single question.

At the car rental desk, Michael’s French was put on trial as the young woman on the other side made no effort to speak English. But the real test came when we got on the road and tried to understand the female voice coming out of the Garmin GPS device that we had rented along with the car. (The data plan on Michael’s phone is good only for Ireland, so we can’t use Google Maps in France.) Michael had asked the clerk to set the Garmin for English, but the instructions that came out of it did not sound like English at all. Every now and then we thought we heard the voice say, “Go left,” or “Go right,” but the phrases were so heavily accented that it was impossible to know which language was being spoken. All numbers were given in French, so unless you knew that “Ah, quatre-vingt-trois” meant highway A-83, you would be completely lost. And then there were the street names. French street names tend to be long, and they also tend not to be posted at every intersection, so a direction that says: “En cinqcents metres, à le chemin du Ponte de l’Arche de Mauves, go left” is not extremely helpful when you come to the   expected crossroads in 500 meters and find two signs: one that says “Centre Ville,” and another that says “Toutes Directions”—and neither is pointing left. Adding to all this navigational confusion was the fact that Michael was trying to remember that it was now OK to drive on the right side of the road again.

The first place we needed to find was the train station in the center of Nantes, where we were supposed to pick up Michael's brother.  Phil had taken the train to Nantes from La Rochelle and was planning to drive back with us in order to show us the way to his home. Now, Michael had been to this train station several times before, having spent a few months in Nantes as a missionary. Naturally, we understood that things in Nantes might have changed a little bit in the forty years since his mission, which is why we were trying to use the Garmin. (How Nancy wished Michael had asked the car rental clerk for a map, too!)

The first change we discovered is that Nantes now has a Gare Nord (North Station) and a Gare Sud (South Station): two distinct buildings separated by a wide swath of train tracks. Phil had told us to meet him at the “main entrance” to the station, so, figuring that if he had come from La Rochelle, which is south of Nantes, he must be at the South Station, that’s where we went to look for him.

Our ultimate destination
Michael pulled up to the passenger-pickup area in front of the Gare Sud . We couldn’t see Phil, and we couldn’t call him because he doesn’t own a mobile phone, so Nancy got out of the car and went inside to look for him. No Phil. She looked all through the waiting area, in the café, down the hall to the tracks. No Phil. She retraced all her steps, and then retraced them again. Still no Phil. When she returned to the curb to tell Michael that Phil must be waiting somewhere else, she found that there was no Michael, either. Of course he had had to move the car since he had let her off in a no- parking zone, but she couldn’t see him anywhere. And what, exactly, did that new rental car look like, anyway? She recalled that it was a Peugeot, but what model? And had it been silver, or a darker gray? She couldn’t remember. As the minutes ticked by, she got a little worried. She’d left her purse in the car, so she had no money, no ID, no phone (which wouldn’t have worked, anyway), and even though she can still understand un peu de franҫais, she can’t remember how to say much in French anymore. Where had Michael gone? Where was Phil waiting? Should she keep looking around inside for him, or stay outside where Michael could see her when he returned?

Phillip's wife Patricia
She was much relieved when a dark gray Peugeot pulled up to the curb across the street and the driver beckoned to her. Michael was back, but he hadn’t found Phil, either. While Nancy was searching the station, he had called Phil’s wife, Patricia, to make sure Phil had gotten on the train. He had—and he had called Patricia from a pay phone to let her know that he had arrived in Nantes. “If Michael calls, tell him that I’ll be waiting at the main entrance,” he had said.

Well, Phil had figured that since Michael had lived in Nantes years ago, he would remember the old main entrance, now the entrance to the Gare Nord, so that’s where he went to wait for us. Meanwhile, we had been searching the Gare Sud. We’re still not quite sure exactly how we found each other, but eventually we did—only two hours after we were supposed to meet.

By 5:30, the three of us were in the Peugeot and on our way to La Rochelle, with Phil navigating. However, we had hardly gotten out of Nantes before Michael and Nancy realized that Phil's sense of direction was challenged and that he was not confident of the route to La Rochelle. We didn’t want to offend him—or further confuse the situation—by turning on the Garmin, so we just let him give directions as best he could.

Patricia's mother, Mamina
“We want to take the big highway—the one with the blue signs—but we don’t want to take the one to Poitiers. I think we want the one that goes to Niort,” he said. “Or, wait, I think we take the one to Poitiers as far as Cholet, but then get off and head toward La Roche-sur-Yon on the road with green signs. But before we get to La Roche-sur-Yon there should be a turn-off to Niort. We take that road and then look for signs that point to Marans—I think Patricia said Marans. She might have said Luҫon, but I think it was Marans. Anyway, once we get to Marans—or Luҫon—then it should be a straight shot from there down to La Rochelle. At least, that’s what Patricia said—she’s the one who really knows the way. Oh dear—I think that was the highway entrance we just passed. Was that sign blue?”
Daughter Astrid and granddaughter Sancie

Three hours later, having followed—or not followed—a lot of blue and green signs, and passed through a number of little towns and a wide expanse of empty marshland, we finally arrived at Phil and Patricia’s home in l’Houmeau, a seaside village outside La Rochelle.

Son-in-law Geoffrey
Since we were supposed to have met Phil at the train station about 3:30, and since the drive from there to l’Houmeau should not have taken much more than an hour and a half, Patricia had been expecting us to arrive by 6:30—and it was now nearly 8:30. She had been concerned not only about our safety, but—as a true French maîtresse de maison—perhaps even more that the lovely dinner she had prepared for us would be ruined by the time we finally sat down to eat it. Another concern was that their daughter Astrid and son-in-law Geoffrey had come from Saumur for the weekend with their five-month-old daughter, and although they had tried to keep little Sancie awake until we arrived, we were so late that they finally gave up and put her to bed. Patricia’s mother, known to us as “Mamina,” who has lived with Phil and Patricia ever since they returned to France in 1985, also gave up and went to bed, but son Sinclair, a third-year student at the local university, was still eagerly awaiting us—and his dinner. (Phil and Patricia have another daughter who is away at school in Lyon; we are sorry that we won’t be able to see Lauren on this trip.)

Son Sinclair
After we had brought our bags inside, Patricia finally was able to serve hors d'oeuvres in the living room. She then invited everyone into the dining room for the four remaining courses: leek soup garnished with tiny scallops, followed by roasted quail with cherry sauce over foie gras on toast; next came a salad, and finally, individual dishes of crème brulée. One of the most unforgettable features of our last visit to La Rochelle was Patricia’s cooking—and if this dinner was any indication, we could look forward to another series of masterpiece meals in the coming days.

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