Sunday, March 15, 2015

La Rochelle: A Sweet Sunday

The hand-embroidered monogram on this
curtain is only one of many graceful artistic
touches Patricia has added to their home
Phillip and Patricia have graciously given us the use of their own bedroom during our stay, explaining that since Astrid and Geoffrey are spending the weekend in Astrid’s old room, the only other option for us would have been Lauren’s room, which, in her absence, has been taken over by her cat—and they didn’t want to subject us to any unwelcome feline companionship. Although we do like cats, we don’t like trying to sleep with them (our own Puck gets shut in the basement every night before we go to bed), so we deeply appreciate Phil and Patricia’s sacrifice on our behalf. So, having rested well in their bed—which combines the antique charm of our first bed at Belleek Castle with the width and comfort of our second—we woke to a beautiful Sabbath morning. Downstairs we found an equally beautiful table set with a continental breakfast: fresh croissants, pains au chocolate, a brioche with butter and homemade jams, and bowls of hot chocolate to dunk everything in. And, as a polite concession to the peculiar habits of her American family, Patricia also had provided a carafe of orange juice.

On our way to attend LDS worship services in La Rochelle with Phil, we found our route blocked by a marathon running through the middle of town (any race beyond a sprint is a “marathon” for our French hosts, no matter what the distance), so by the time we arrived at church it was too late to partake of the sacrament, but not too late to hear the talks. Nancy was gratified that she could understand nearly every word of the first one—until she realized that the speaker was an American missionary with a French vocabulary probably as limited as hers. (That senior missionary, Elder Fitt, turned out to be the uncle of a friend of ours who used to live in Cincinnati.) Nancy had more trouble following the second talk, delivered by a native French speaker, but at least she understood that the woman was expressing faith in Christ and encouraging us to become more like him by serving others. Michael was feeling pretty good about his French comprehension skills until the last sermon, given by the bishop. Like that of many people who haven’t trained as public speakers, his articulation was a little sloppy and his presentation somewhat rambling, but even though neither of us caught the whole gist of his message, we could feel the sincerity of his spirit.

The last time we had attended Sunday meetings in La Rochelle, the LDS congregation here had been a small branch, with maybe two or three dozen active members. Since our visit in 1993, however, La Rochelle has become a ward—which means that local membership has grown enough for the community to have its own meetinghouse rather than rented storefront space. None of the congregations we met with in Ireland were large enough to be wards. Unlike those branches, the La Rochelle Ward is led by a bishop, and is part of a stake (comparable to a Catholic diocese) administered by local leaders rather than a district overseen by the mission presidency. When Michael and Phillip were serving as missionaries in France during the 1970s (yes, both were called to the same mission, though not at the same time), there were no wards anywhere in the country, so LDS membership throughout France has grown quite a bit in the last forty years. Phil’s family are not part of that growth, as they have chosen to remain Catholic, practicing enough to attend Mass once or twice a month. Phil does what he can to maintain a connection with the LDS community in La Rochelle while respecting the religious traditions and observances of his family.

Des huitres: avant
We did not stay for Sunday School or other meetings because Patricia was preparing a traditional Sunday dinner for us, to be served as soon as we got home. Both Michael and Nancy were looking forward to this with some trepidation ever since we learned that it is a local family custom to send someone down to the nearby beach every Sunday morning to buy oysters fresh from their beds, and then swallow them down at dinnertime.

Des huitres: pendant
Now, while Nancy considers herself “shellfish tolerant” (i.e., she will politely eat and sometimes even enjoy crab, shrimp, clams, and mussels when they are served to her), and while Michael rather likes crab, shrimp, clams, and mussels, the idea and practice of oysters has never appealed to either of us. Michael tried oysters once as a missionary; Nancy has successfully avoided them her whole life. Today, however, refusal would be unforgivable—not to mention cowardly. So, after proper instruction, we screwed our courage to the sticking place and prepared to swallow. 

 Des huitres: apres
Geoffrey gleefully grabbed our camera and captured the moment for posterity, so you can examine the photos yourself and decide how we reacted. It helped that the oysters had been out of the water for only a few hours. Michael ate three more, and Nancy gamely emptied two more shells herself. We probably won’t order them on any future restaurant visits (although, who knows?) but at least we will no longer dismiss oysters as disgusting—as long as we can be sure that they are as fresh as the ones we had today.

Baby Sancie with her mother
When we had finished this appetizer, Patricia brought out the main course: blanquette de veau (a delicious veal stew with carrots and potatoes). That was followed by a salad course (mixed greens with a balsamic vinaigrette), a cheese course (including a bleu, a Gruyere, two kinds of Chevres, and a semi-hard mountain cheese whose name we have forgotten), and finally a dessert course: a fantastic raspberry Charlotte.

Raspberry Charlotte

Sancie with her father and grandmother

The beach at l'Houmeau

An Oyster Shack 

After that repast, which took at least two hours to finish, and after some of us had had a little nap, we all walked down to the beach and along the shore only a few blocks away. The tide was low, so we had a clear view of the oyster beds as well as the nearby island. We opted to not walk all the way to the lighthouse at the point, since Astrid and Geoffrey needed to gather their things and feed baby Sancie before starting their two-hour drive back home.
Low tide exposed the oyster beds along the Pertuis d'Antioche

Geoffrey begins Sancie's education
in English literature
Uncle and great-uncle share Sancie's attention

Proud grandparents

Sinclair and Astrid

After they left, Michael, Nancy, Phillip, and Patricia drove to the centre ville and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling under the arched walkways of La Rochelle’s old quarter and around its ancient harbor. Currently moored at the quay is a reproduction of L’Hermione, the frigate that had carried the Marquis de Lafayette to Virginia in 1780 when American revolutionaries needed French assistance in their war of independence. The recently completed ship is about to embark on a journey across the Atlantic to commemorate Lafayette’s voyage and our countries' successful joint venture against the British. L’Hermione also has special significance for our nephew Sinclair, who has eagerly watched its construction in a nearby shipyard since he was a young boy. Because the vessel was finished at about the same time he completed his schooling at the lycée, Sinclair celebrated both by attending L’Hermione’s dedication ceremony a couple of years ago.
La Rochelle's Harbor
Nautical Detail on the City Center Building 
La Rochelle’s sidewalk cafés were brimming on this sunny Sunday afternoon. As the shadows got longer and the air a little chillier, we decided to sit down for a hot drink ourselves. Michael, Nancy, and Phil warmed up with some chocolate viennoise  (topped with whipped cream); Patricia ordered a citron chaud (hot lemonade).

When we returned home, it didn’t take Patricia long to prepare a “simple” supper of spinach and artichoke soup, steamed shrimp, salad, bread, and cheese. This was followed by a soft dessert cheese similar in consistency to yogurt but not as tart, and some salted-caramel brownies that Patricia apologized for serving because they had been made two days earlier. (Their supposed lack of freshness did not diminish their scrumptiousness.) By the time we finished eating, it was just after 9:00, so after relaxing a while in the living room with cups of chamomile tea, we were ready for bed.

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