May 18, 2014 – A charming British couple invited Jim and me to dinner. If you are counting, this was our third invitation to socialize in joyeuse compagnie comme invités d’honneur. Are you astonished that the two of us would receive a R.S.V.P. from nice, unsuspecting folks in France? They may still be laughing about the Alabama couple who came for dinner and said, “You might be a redneck if you ask for Budweiser or Dr. Pepper when Chardonnay is offered.” Oh, you know we wouldn’t have committed that faux pas!
First, we had to drive to their stone-built home tucked away on a narrow lane in St. Jouin de Marnes in the Poitou-Charente region. We had never explored this area, so we left our rental cottage after breakfast allowing enough time to locate their home which was about an hour’s drive to the southwest. Then, after finding our dinner location we would ramble in nearby villages until time to join Peter and Jean, our lovely host and hostess.
Driving west, we went through Richelieu, that favorite little town of mine. Well, it isn’t mine in the truest sense, but I do like it very much. My eyes were glued to the passing scenery of the moat surrounding the medieval buildings and the tall sycamore trees shading the roadway. The charming scene was left in our dust much too quickly. Then, we drove miles and miles and miles on straight roads, flatter than a flitter with not a cute village in sight and only a few trees in small support groups alone in wide open fields. I asked Jim, “Why would they want to live here? This is boring out of your mind. Even the crops are hanging over in misery.” After a few detours, we located St. Jouin de Marnes on a hill high above the flat, monotonous, straight roads in the valley.
Things were looking up! A monumental church was an impressive architectural sight as we entered the town. I later found the history dated earlier than 843 when monks fled the Norwegians for safety here and took possession of the abbey. It was an opulent abbey in the middle ages. While no longer with its former grandeur, the architecture was worth a ramble around on the windswept hillside. The road led on to a pretty square in the center of the town with trees and benches where we stopped to stretch and gain the lay of the town.
We had Mapquest directions from the French website, converted to English which worked fine with the instructions of when to turn right and left etc. on the roadway. But when we were in the town, we needed to find the street name in French, not English. Notice an example of my problem: A French real estate advertisement is translated on a website to English showing two bedrooms, salon and naked cuisine. Aha! What are you expecting in the kitchen? It simply means: no appliances!
Back to my translated directions, I was trying to do my own Google translate in my head when Jim said, “Whoa! I’ve found the street for our house!” Surprised and annoyed, I asked: “Huh, what are you talking about?” He quickly pointed to a street name posted on a building and said, “See, that one right there. The ‘Ha – Ha’ Street!” He laughed his way up the hill, proud of his funny discovery.
In my best school teacher voice, I lectured Jim about the ha-ha’s meaning saying, “A ha-ha (or ha-ha wall) is a recessed landscape design element that slopes down sharply, typically with a masonry retaining wall. This design prevents access to a garden without blocking views. The name ‘ha-ha’ comes from the unexpected funny moment of discovering the invisible recessed wall. I read about this garden design in one of Frances Mayes’ books, and I read more in other areas such as the BBC history page on-line.(Cartoon from the BBC site) With a quick Google search of images for the ha-ha, pictures of Homer Simpson popped up right there in the spread of garden pictures. You would have especially liked one of the pictures without old Homer.”
“Two horses stood talking to each other. One of the horses with an upset and angry face said to the other, ‘I’m not very happy with my hip replacement!’ His left, hind portion was a zebra’s leg!!! I wouldn’t want to be the veterinarian who had to visit for the post-op exam!”
I finished my educational lecture and said, “Now where are we? I’ve lost my bearings and still haven’t found their street.” Student Jim replied, “See, that’s what happens when you read and learn all of that useless information!”
We found the terraced home on a quiet back street near the ha-ha and then continued on our merry way to explore the new region. The first town along the road was Airvault. We stopped and parked next to the market hall, which holds a market on Saturday mornings. The town has many timber-framed houses and narrow cobbled streets. The Thouet River runs past the edge of the town with a twelfth-century bridge. A story is told that an aristocratic lady fell into the river over 1000 years ago. When she was near to drowning, she prayed and made a promise to build a church if she was saved. This story is an old legend and could be fiction, but nonetheless a church was built and the town grew to have one of the largest Augustinian Abbeys in the Poitou region.
Our lunchtime stop was at St. Loup-sur-Thouet, the most picturesque village that we visited on our jaunt around the area. We found a small café where truck drivers and other local people were enjoying lunch in the sunshine, and after a light lunch we set off to see the ancient town set alongside the Thouet River. My camera had a workout with the many beautiful doorways, climbing roses, sweet grannies in the shade with their crochet work and narrow lanes to photograph.At the far side of the village we found the magnificent Chateau de St. Loup, and it was closed!! What a disappointment! Jim and I stood at the extravagantly grand entryway wishing we could go inside for a tour of the castle and the expansive grounds. I voiced my frustration, “I just wish that I could walk through and see the gardens and orangerie. They certainly have an impressive deterrent for unwanted visitors with the moat and the sharp protective ironwork.”
Jim replied, “They may need to string around some barbed wire instead of putting too much stock in the moat to protect them against outlaws because I read about a fellow who diverted a river fast as you could say ‘ME’NE, ME’NE, TE’KEL AND PAR’SIN. See! I read, and I’ve got smarts!”
I rolled my eyes and quickly decided that was enough of that conversation. I walked away hoping we didn’t disturb the gentleman with the skinny legs in the paisley Bermuda shorts who was lounging by the pool. Jim put his arm around me and said, “I’m really sorry that you didn’t get to see the pretty garden. Who knows? Maybe you would have spotted a ha-ha.” Yeah, I think I already did!
I told Jim that I was looking forward to talking with Jean and asking about her beautiful shoes. She wears colorful shoes with very pretty designs such as lacing around the ankles, unlike anything I would ever wear. Jean is a former French teacher with a cheerful personality. Peter is intelligent and a very nice-looking fellow with his white hair and charming British accent. He probably doesn’t watch television shows about ugly fish. I brought this to Jim’s attention, hoping he would take the hint. Deep inside I knew it wouldn’t work, and he would probably just ruin Peter’s dapper image instead.
We entered their large living room and then on to the kitchen where the small range was working at full-capacity with every burner boiling, frying or simmering delicious food. Jean took me along to the courtyard garden with its high stone walls. I would love to have a medium-sized courtyard garden with room for outdoor dining among the vegetables and flowers. I would trade my huge labor-intensive yard any day. Even now, while I am writing Jim is mowing the lawn in the heat. He deserves many hugs and kisses for his long labor on hot days in the sun. And, I would do it pronto, but he’s awfully sweaty and smells to high heaven after riding rough-shod on the lawnmower!
We took our seats around the table to enjoy perfect steaks and delicious vegetables. Surprisingly, from out of nowhere a storm rolled into view. I do mean view because a large skylight was just above the table, and large windows were just across from the table. I tried to keep up with the conversation, but the roaring wind and crashing thunder distracted my thoughts. I shouldn’t have watched those weather shows with Jim, seeing tornadoes and earthquakes. Do earthquakes happen in France? Scenes of powerful storms tragically wiping away towns played through my head. I remembered the wide-open fields and imagined the strong winds raging across to ravage the little town. I read about a storm in France where rivers flooded and roads were destroyed. People drowned. Old buildings toppled over on the inhabitants. A horrible thought popped into my head: “Oh, no, we might have to spend the night with Peter and Jean if the storm continues! They are not ready to see me without benefit of a toothbrush, hairbrush and makeup!”
Thankfully, the storm calmed, and we enjoyed melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake and strawberries. My worries were over with Peter and Jean’s kind hospitality. We drove the long roads in the pitch black darkness with only patches of light here and there. This time we were thankful for the straight roads with no ha-ha moments to plunge us into a ravine!
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