Tuesday, March 17, 2015

L'Houmeau, then back to Dublin for St Patrick's Day

Patricia outside her garden wall in l'Houmeau
Another bright, glorious day! Phillip had to get Sinclair to the university early again this morning, but was able to come back and share breakfast with us. Sinclair does not yet have a driver’s license but is working on it, and hopes to obtain one by June. The whole licensing process is convoluted and seems to take a long time to complete—like everything else in France!

Phillip’s description of French workers’ rights and his own employment situation further demonstrates the inscrutability of this unique society. As department chair in a state-run university, Phil teaches only one class a semester.  As delegate to the teacher’s union, he gets additional pay to attend to union duties three days a month. As coordinator of educational exchanges between his university and a sister institution in Morocco, he gets paid to visit North Africa a couple of times a year. Another of his auxiliary responsibilities is to work with all the international students at his school, making sure they complete required forms and procedures. For each of these various roles and functions, Phil is entitled to be paid for a fixed number of days—whether his duties require work on that many days or not. Bottom line: He seems to have a very cushy job, bringing home a modest salary for not a whole lot of daily work. This morning, he actually did have some official duties to attend to, so we had to bid him an early farewell.

Michael dans le chambre principeaux
Because we still had a couple of hours before we had to leave for the airport, we walked with Patricia to l‘Houmeau’s tiny village center. Our main objective was to get a loaf of bread, although the local boulangerie closed several years ago. It is a testament to how much the world has changed that Patricia would consent to buy baguettes from a news agency and convenience store; but when there are no other options, even the French do what they have to do.

For all of Phillip’s French family, the formation of the European Union has been a mixed blessing.  After listening to them debate the merits of membership while complaining about losing uniquely French customs all weekend, our own assessment is that the French face the same struggle we do in the U.S. regarding states’ rights and local control versus the expediencies of federal programs.  There are benefits to having common procedures and national (or international) standards; but in order to achieve convenient unities, one has to give up some local prerogatives and even some of those features which make each community unique. For all of us, it’s a hard balance to strike.

Institute of Marine Studies in the village of  l'Houmeau
Our short walk to the village took us through a park where a manmade hill tries to hide the remains of a World War II bunker, and past a building that was once a religious seminary but now is home to an institute of marine studies. Back at home, we made ourselves some sandwiches with the not-as-fresh-as-it-used-to-be bread, and packed our Ryanair-compliant bags for the flight back to Dublin.

The back of the house in l'Houmeau
Before we left, we took a last look around Phillip and Patricia’s home. Since we were there for that memorable Christmas when all our children were young, the dining room has been enlarged, the bathroom expanded, and an entire floor added upstairs. The house has changed a lot, but it retains all the charm of the provincial cottage it once was. In centuries past, Patricia’s family had been wealthy landowners, with vast vineyards and several residences scattered around western France. After the Revolution, when the nobility began struggling along with everyone else, the family’s holdings inevitably shrank. About twenty years ago, Beaunant, the small ch√Ęteau where Patricia had spent many happy summers as a child, had to be sold because of enormous maintenance costs. It was a heartbreaking decision, mitigated somewhat by the fact that Patricia and her mother saved as many of Beaunant’s antique treasures as they could and brought them to the little house in l’Houmeau. They even dug up prized flowers and shrubs from the garden, transplanting them where they could remind the family of past pleasures. Patricia—like her mother, an accomplished artist—has beautifully decorated their home with handmade draperies, chair coverings, and painted flourishes that complement the priceless heirloom furnishings and museum-quality artwork. As much as any castle we have toured on our trip, this home is a monument to the enduring heritage of an ancient family—and the people who live there today are no less noble than their ancestors.

This life-size head of Louis IX, patron saint of
La Rochelle, rests in Phil and Patricia's living room.
(His sister-in-law, Sancie of Provence, inspired
the name of their granddaughter)
Having loaded the car and said goodbye to Patricia and Mamina, we headed toward Nantes. This time, even though we had checked a map and Patricia had given us her directions to the airport, we decided to trust the GPS. Since our first experience with the Garmin, Nancy had figured out how to make it show our actual position rather than just plot a route, so it was easier to follow even though the audible directions were no more comprehensible than they had been on Saturday. The result was that the trip that had taken three hours by Phil’s instructions took us only 100 minutes today.

The flight back to Dublin didn’t take much longer. Because it’s St. Patrick’s Day, we weren’t sure what to expect when we got here. Many of the passengers on our plane were dressed in green, with a few in leprechaun hats; a handful of rowdy Frenchmen were obviously preparing for a good time in Irish pubs. After we arrived in Dublin, we were glad to see the loud crowd boarding the bus for the city center rather than the 702 to Ballsbridge, which would take us within a block of the Pembroke Townhouse.

Stairs to our private loft

The view from our bed at the Pembroke Townhouse

Our new room at the Pembroke is at the front of the building instead of the back, with eight-foot-tall windows overlooking the street. The view from the bed is even more spectacular; the ceiling must be sixteen feet overhead. We have a chandelier, and our own private stairway leading to a loft with a comfortable little sitting room. It’s quite the place!

Asian serenader singing Don McLean in Dublin
Having been warned to stay away from the Temple Bar area this evening, and suspecting that any pub in central Dublin might be filled with carousing tourists, we decided to find somewhere close to the hotel for dinner. Fodor had recommended Choi Yo, an Asian restaurant only a kilometer up Pembroke Road, where Michael chose the stir-fried cashew chicken and Nancy the beef teriyaki. When the waiter brought our food, we were afraid we had over-ordered, but apparently we didn’t realize how hungry we were because we not only managed to finish both plates, but we also had enough room for ice cream. Few other tourists had chosen to eat Chinese at the Choi Yo on St. Patrick’s Day; a party of young Dubliners sat at the only other occupied table in the downstairs dining room, but they were celebrating a birthday instead of Saint Paddy. As we were finishing the last bites on our plates (hard to do with slippery plastic chopsticks), an Asian man with a guitar slung around his neck came by to serenade us with “Starry, Starry Night,” a lovely but rather sad ballad by Don McLean.

Many Dublin pubs were decorated for St. Patrick's Day, but we had
 the feeling that they were doing it mostly for the benfit of the tourists
Although we passed a couple of pubs on the way back to the hotel, we didn’t notice any more revelry than usual. We have to agree with those who had told us that St. Patrick’s Day is a bigger deal in Boston, New York, and Chicago—even in Cincinnati—than it is in Dublin. Maybe that’s because Americans use the holiday as an excuse to drink. In Ireland, no excuses are needed.

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