French Friday: Le Tour de France and a Château in Normandy

Based on American newspapers, magazines, novels, and even children’s books you’d think that France is Paris and southern France. But when I meet ordinary Americans I find them equally, if not more, interested by Normandy, my home region, and the Tour de France than the City of Lights and the Riviera.

Last week, I bumped into a couple of middle aged Americans who assumed that I was a seasoned cyclist because I was born and grew up in France.

“My dream,” the man said on a confidential tone, “is to see the Tour de France.”

“I’ve seen several,” I blurted out.

I hadn’t intended to appear blasé, so I described how I got to watch the yearly race with my family.

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For years, the Tour de France ran past my home, so we could stay inside until the last minute and rush out when people started to shout, “Les voilà!”

Most often, however, we would line up on both sides of the road and wait with our neighbors while the anticipation and excitement grew. Back then summers were sunny but rarely hot. I still remember the breeze on my bare arms and legs. The ambiance was festive and low-key. Adults made money-free bets, based on the results from the previous days but mostly on their favorite cyclist. My mother, as so many French people, favored the underdog Raymond Poulidor over Eddie Merckx as she had in the past when Jacques Anquetil was Poulidor’s competitor. Poulidor nicknamed Poupou never won the Tour de France and remained the eternal #2, without ever losing French people’s sympathy.

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When my sister and I were small my father would alternatively carry us on his shoulders so we could spot the arrival of the cyclists. Except for the one who wore the yellow jersey – le maillot jaune, symbolizing his victorious previous races, these cyclists were so incredibly fast that I was never able to distinguish one cyclist from another in the pack– le peloton. I would just watch, breathless and impressed. Whoa!

I loved my bike and adored the few descents along the neighboring back road where my parents had just allowed me to bike with my younger sister and classmates. But these cyclists were faster than the most daring of us. To this day I remember the whooshing sound of their wheels and how the spokes left me dizzy as they zoomed past us.

Above all, the Tour de France remains for me the joyful exhilaration that preceded the distribution of small gifts. Thrown from the voiture balai or sweeping car that followed the caravan of bikes, these candies, visors, whistles, and balloons took the appearance of the most precious treasures.

“That must have been lots of fun,” concluded the middle-aged couple.

I had never realized until I moved to the US that few people saw the Tour de France from their doormat.

 

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Right after I met this American couple, I spotted Valerie Davis’s latest post: Tour de France.

There she shared her 1950 Tour de France as well as her stay in Paris and in a provincial château, when she was a twelve-year-old British girl.

Which prompted some of my own childhood memories, some twenty years later, in another château located in my native Normandy.

For privacy reasons this is not the château of my post but another one, quite similar, in Normandy. Photo courtesy cotecaen.fr

Three of my cousins lived in the most unusual setting because their parents were the caretakers of a large property including a medieval château.

I lived half an hour away and yet a world separated us.

Which is why I equally loved and disliked this place.

The natural beauty was irresistible. The land was planted with centennial poplars, oaks, chestnut trees, and fir trees. Stonewalls covered with moss and ivy surrounded the château and the extensive grounds. Iron wrought gates opened on a long pebbled driveway that split at some point toward my cousins’ farmhouse and the château. Only a short walking distance separated them, so my uncle and aunt could easily go from one place to another.

Well-kept paths and trails that I’ve rarely seen away from France led to more forest-like fields and moreover to the river where my cousins camped in the summer. Regardless of the seasons the land was gorgeous, alternatively covered with snow, daffodils, wild flowers, and golden grass. On the way to the river stood a small chapel where the count, countess and children could attend mass when they stayed over during long weekends and school vacations.

Courtesy to Pinterest

My cousins were accustomed to aristocracy. I was not.

Why would the nobles, I wondered, enjoy privileges and these châteaux, while French people who didn’t belong to the aristocracy lived in small houses, often in tiny flats they couldn’t afford buying?

So I started my own small rebellion. When my cousins reminded me to call the count and countess’ children Monsieur and Mademoiselle before their first name, I did my best to talk to them without ever addressing them directly. Which was not that hard. What was impossible, however, was to never say “you.” In French, we have two pronouns for “you.” If you address a person you know well, a child, a family member or friend you use “tu.” But if you address someone you don’t know and is older than you, or anyone who deserves respect such as a teacher or a boss, you use “vous.”

Apparently “vous” was also mandatory when addressing aristocrats, even if they were my age or younger.

And that was a real issue with me. No way could I use the formal “vous” when talking to a girl younger than me or a boy my exact age.

Now these kids were fun and I loved playing with them. Since our games took place on this historic property we even had a real château to protect from the enemy or attack depending on which side we were.

Adjacent to my cousins’ farmhouse stood a tower where my uncle stored hay for the cows and steers.

The tower was more modest and had only one front door and a top opening, but it was still a tower. Courtesy Pinterest

We were about twelve kids, aristocrats and commoners, split between two armies who fought either from the ground or from the top of the tower. Our weapons: dry cow dung.

During these wild battles, my cousins bombarded the young counts and countess without ever losing their good manners.

“Prenez ça, Monsieur! Vous êtes mort!”

“Et vlan, c’est pour vous Mademoiselle!”

On my front, things were more complicated. The tower was the Bastille and I had to free the prisonners. The ultimate goal was to reach Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. I was young but understood that no amount of dry cow dung would ever be enough. So my only attempt to change a system I found unjust was to fight in silence, with occasional groans but no monsieur, no mademoiselle, and no vous.

In her post, Valerie writes about her memories of eating gouter at the château. The French afternoon snack time, served mostly to kids, either after school or around four p.m., comes from the verb gouter or to taste. So a gouter is never a big meal.

At my aunt’s, after those long days spent mostly outside, gouter was not limited to two cookies or an apple. My aunt sliced the large loaf of country bread she bought every morning at the village bakery. She buttered the thick slices and either spread confiture (jam) or gelée de groseilles (redcurrant jelly) or still shaved some dark chocolate on top. Which was my favorite way to enjoy my gouter.

My aunt used much thicker bread but the concept has not changed. From Chef Simon

The gouter at my aunt was pretty much a All-You-Can-Eat buffet. Dinner would be served much later when she would be back from the château where she helped at the kitchen.

We know that we tend to embellish our memories, one way or another, as time goes by.

It was probably tiring to wait for the Tour de France. The small gifts were cheap tokens. The cyclists were so fast that they were gone in the blink of an eye.

But after an afternoon of playing war with dry cow dung, I don’t exaggerate if I say that this simple, restorative gouter brought civilization back to our lives. Sometimes commoners and aristocrats shared this meal together. There was then no need for Monsieur, Mademoiselle, and vous.

We were equally ravenous, equally pooped, equally dirty, equally silent as we devoured our gouter. In my young mind, in these moments it looked like we were also equally French.

 

 

Comments

  1. First, Evelyne, I have friends who would die to have the Tour de France run by their doorstep

  2. Sorry, Evelyne. My finger hit a wrong key, something to always be avoided on WP. Anyway, these friends, and there are several, are glued to their TV sets whenever the tour takes place.
    I’d be right there beside you on the title issue. Something in my nature rebels against any hint of aristocracy.
    As for throwing dry cow paddies, I did my share. FYI… they make great frisbees. 🙂 –Curt

    • I love biking and use my bicycle as often as I can. But I wouldn’t enjoy racing. I admire people who go long distances, like you’ve done in the past. Part of the appeal of the Tour de France is also the scenery. When the cyclists race in the mountains, for example, they take us to gorgeous regions. One thing that did change this yearly event is the doping issue. It’s affecting all sport categories but it has been a hot topic with the Tour de France.
      Despite that I know also many people who would love to see it in person. The arrival in Paris is also quite something.
      I get what you mean about aristocracy and royalty…
      We kind of threw the dry cow paddies like frisbees 🙂

      • The main thing about my 10,000 mile trip was the scenery, Evelyne. Like you, I’ve never had any desire to race.
        I think I read once that they have contests with seeing who can throw a cow paddy the farthest, but that may be my imagination working overtime. 🙂 –Curt

  3. Quite an interesting post Evelyne – you brought to life the ying and yang of life, especially during your childhood. In the end when taking off the finery or rags we’re just all humans, so sad that the separations have to be so deep and passed on from generation-to-generation.

  4. I enjoyed this post very much.

    Class and class-like issues continue to divide people, even in what is supposed to be classless (too many meanings) America. I love reading about your rebellious spirit and your inherent sense of what is right and necessary, and what is not.

    As for having the tour go past your house, if even close enough to walk to, such a treat. I have always loved riding my bike. I’ve never raced but I’ve been in tours and it’s fun.

    • Thank you, Dan. Yes, even though the class issue is supposedly not American we all know it’s not the case. Being from France where we still have “old” families, the divide was deeper and appeared unjust to young me. Still does 🙂
      I’m glad for the experience I had to encounter such a diverse group of people when I was a kid. No doubt these moments forge our character.
      I also love my bike and use it as much as I can. But as much as I like physical activity I’m not competitive, so racing against others is not my thing either. The Tour was neat, I agreee. Have a great weekend!

  5. That was a wonderful post. I felt transported. This is nothing like my life growing up, and so of course, it’s all fascinating to me. Your details were spot on, too.

    • It’s strange sometimes to realize that I talk to people or read their blogs and that our previous lives had almost nothing in common. And yet we connect. I’m also fascinated when Americans friends tell me of their own childhood. Especially when we are the same age, it is funny to realize how France was lagging behind in terms of modern comfort for example or how music came mostly from the US. However, France was leading in terms of health care and public education. And we had the Tour de France and the gouter 🙂
      Thank you, Joey. I always enjoy reading your comments and your posts too.

  6. Nice having a world-renowned race in ones front yard 🙂 We used to live very close to Fenway Park. Not THAT close, but less than a mile away, so we saw a lot of games. After we moved to the country, it ended.

    I’m grateful English doesn’t have the complications of French. Americans have trouble creating a simple sentence structure including nouns and verbs. They’d never survive the other parts 😀

    • The first time we visited Boston we stayed close to Fenway. A little too close in fact since there was a game that night 🙂
      But living a mile away is perfect to watch the games for sure.
      Yeah, French is tricky. Recently I translated a few phrases for an author and realized how impossible it is to justify certain grammatical rules. Besides there are always exceptions to the rule 🙂
      When it’s your own language you’ve learned this kind of things in an organic way, so you stop thinking of them. But for a non-native speaker it’s a nightmare.
      Thank you for stopping by, Marilyn. I appreciate your loyalty.

  7. What a treat Evelyne, to read your childhood memories… so vivid, and deeply felt….children do feel in-equalities and judgements. I even remember my first day school, and knowing immediately that the teacher didn’t like me, and preferred my younger sister !!! (and thank you for mentioning my blog..)

    • I had thought of writing about the Tour de France in the past and then I met these people and read your post. Your recollection of this trip to France and the chateau brought back much more than the tour. So I had to link to your blog 🙂
      And I agree with you that we feel injustice and inequalities at a very young age. We cannot always express these feelings but we certainly experience them.

  8. These are such interesting memories Evelyne – we take things for granted that are on our doorstep never realising they’re actually quite special 🙂

  9. I had no idea one had to use “vous” for the aristocratic peer children! Wonder if that’s still true now in the 21st century in France?? Loved your memoir vignette.

    • I would need to doublecheck but it’s highly possible. I’ve even met a French woman in California who used “vous” when she addressed her mother. She was from the “haute bourgeoisie.”
      Yep, France is a weird country 🙂
      Thank you so much, Jean for stopping by and liking this post. You must have enjoyed the cycling part too 🙂

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