June 25, 2010
My high school French teacher once told me that with my southern accent and feeble attempts at pronunciation, I would be better served attending more English classes than foreign language courses. It certainly wasn’t her fault that I never picked up on the language. I spent a fair amount of my time reading the novel Lonesome Dove rather than paying attention in class. As a result, one of the only French expressions that I have been able to recall over the years is, “Je ne parle pas Français.” Fortunately for English speakers, this is a very helpful sentence that you can use when traveling in France.
Rouen, France, is an ancient town located in the northern portion of France known as Normandy. It is a picturesque, medieval town with several examples of fine gothic architecture and a rich history. Some Americans will know Rouen because of the role it played in both World Wars, especially during the Battle of Normandy in 1944. By the time of its liberation by the Canadians, almost half of the city had been destroyed. Another of its claims to fame is that it was the site of Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake in 1431. After reading Desmond Seward’s The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453, I knew I had to visit Rouen despite Mr. Seward’s obvious difficulties with mathematics.
After an early morning, two-hour train ride from Paris to Rouen, Karen and I walked immediately to our hotel to check our bags at the front desk until our 3 o’clock check-in time. The Cardinal Hotel is located adjacent to the spectacular church that dominates the center of town, the Rouen Cathedral. This is yet another jewel of France’s gothic architecture and was featured in a series of Claude Monet paintings.
In addition to the Cathedral, we visited the Church and Abbey of Saint Ouen, the gothic Saint Maclou church, and the 600-year-old astronomical clock known as the Gros Horloge (large clock). We also visited the dungeon and tower in the Rouen Castle where Joan of Arc was threatened with torture after her capture during the Hundred Years War. We had a café lunch near the spot where the future saint went up in flames, which is now the site of a modern church built in the shape of an overturned Viking ship. This town kicks ass.
Rouen has maintained a medieval feel while embracing the modern world. One thousand-year-old streets are lined with shops and boutiques filled with tourists buying iPhones, perfume, Monet posters, dresses, scarves, and pastries. During the late afternoon, Karen and I walked into a wine shop and proceeded to buy ten bottles of French wine and two bottles of Calvados (apple brandy made in Normandy) to bring back home. The proprietors of the shop acted as if they had something important to tell us, but they did not speak English. After trying to communicate with each other using primitive sign language, one of the gentlemen asked Karen to accompany him to the nearest post office where they found an interpreter. This is when we found out that you can only bring two bottles of wine or liquor in your luggage on flights back to the US. It is also the first known instance of Karen using a French word appropriately. That word was “merde.”
When Karen and the owner returned, we managed to negate the wine purchase despite our language barrier. I kept the two bottles of Calvados and did indeed bring them back to the States. We found many more instances of kindness like the owners of this wine shop showed to us during our visit to France. The myth of French rudeness was nowhere to be found for us during our stay.
Late that night while sleeping in our very comfortable room, I heard the sound of birds in the trees near our hotel and the cathedral. The sound then turned to one of children playing and running. It then turned into the orderly stamps of platoons of soldiers marching in time through the streets of Rouen. We spent the night in our hotel under the imposing spires of the cathedral and the ghosts of Normandy’s past.
I normally do not remember my dreams, but I attribute the night’s hallucinations on the “sausage” that I had for dinner. Just as Karen and I sat down at an outdoor café that evening, I realized I had forgotten to bring my food glossary with me. With a sense of adventure, we poured through the French-only menu to find words that looked familiar. One dish that caught my eye was Saucisse Andouillette, which to me sounded very much like andouille sausage, a spicy sausage known in the U.S. as a Louisiana Cajun delicacy. It took me about three bites to realize that “andouillette” can best be translated to English as pork chitterling.
Don’t get me wrong; eating pig intestines is not necessarily an unappetizing meal. With the right wine pairing and “mother sauce,” a properly trained French chef can make a bowl of catfish anuses taste like what a Ravel sonata sounds like. However, when you are expecting something very different, it can be quite shocking. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that this Son of the South had his first taste of “chittlins” in northern France.
Looking back on my time in high school, now thirty years gone, I would like to apologize to the very talented Madame Mixon for not paying attention in her class, especially when we studied cuisine. I would also like to apologize to Ms. Allen, my twelfth-grade English teacher, who specifically told me to never use the phrase “catfish anuses” in an essay.
Until next time…ramble on.