Friday, March 8, 2013

A Series of Firsts

I've had a lot of firsts since arriving in Normandy.  I'll share a few of my favorites, or rather, a few I won't soon forget.

1.  Riding a horse: I'm pretty sure I rode a pony around in a circle when I was little.  I think it was some kind of field trip.  Or maybe that was a dream I had.  Either way, I'd never really been on a horse until coming here.  My fascination with horses has grown; what started as a vague interest mixed with a hint of fear has turned into more of an affectionate liking.  I remember just walking in the horses' field while they were in it for the first time.  I kept watching them over my shoulder, waiting for one to come trample me.  Two did get rather frisky then thundered by us.  Then the time came for me to climb on top.  Alex was a good teacher.  I helped her groom and prepare them for an hour before, then I got my helmet in place and led Madison outside.  I used a short concrete wall, and after a quick briefing, heaved myself up and over.  I looked around, smiling, feeling unexpectedly comfortable and relieved. Alex led Madison and me into what she calls the school, a small track of sand, then as the situations arose, she explained how to communicate with the horse.  I practiced telling him to go, stop, turn left, and so on.  She gave me some directions, then I did my best to coax Madison through them.  After a bit, Alex called out, "Okay, great! Do you want to try trotting?" I just said yes, not wanting to sound stupid for not knowing exactly what trotting meant.  She used her little whip and gave Madison a command.  He started trotting along (I realized quickly what trotting means), and I bounced easily in the saddle.  We made a few laps around then slowed to a walk.  Alex exploded in her congratulations for us both.  I did one final test leading Madison around the sand, then we called it a day.  I flung my right leg over his enormous backside, then slid to the ground with a stomp.  I thanked him with a lot of pats and a few treats.

(These photos are courtesy of Ed)

2.  Watching cows being milked: This was one of my least favorite things.  When Ed and Alex were out of their stock of local cream, they asked if we'd like to accompany them to refresh their milk pail and have a look at the milking process.  We both were curious.  The dairy farm nearby milks by a system that's about as close to doing it by hand as anyone does around here.  We dropped in on a Friday night when the teenage son was finishing up his last few lines of cows.  He wore a rubber apron with sleeves and giant green Wellies.  Splatters of thick white liquid dotted the back of his neck and chest. We walked into the barn and were immediately faced with a huge silver vat with pipes extending from it in several directions.  We walked into the next room into a stench so foul I thought I could feel my hair curling.  Half of the room contained the milking equipment, the rest housed the lady cows.  In the front portion there were two main lanes for the cows to enter, running parallel to the barn walls.  Each lane then had eight perpendicular stalls for the cows to stand in.  They stood staring at the walls, and the milker waits in the large open area between just one story below.  In his hand he held a bottle of disinfectant with the top grooved inwards just perfectly to fit over the teats.  The boy shoved the device onto each utter one by one, then clamped each utter in four places with what looked like a gas mask with four tubes.  This device connected up to the pipes running along the ceiling and into the tank in the other room.  If the cows were ill or on any medication, a switch was flipped to send the milk off to be dumped.  After all the udders were clamped, a rhythmic pulse began throughout the lines.  Some of the cows stomped around a bit, one released an enormous amount of urine, with the boy just out of the splash zone.  When the pressure in the tubes changed drastically and for a certain period of time, they released automatically.  When all the tubes had released, the udders were disinfected again, then freed.  Another lot filed in soon after and so it went on.  After one line, we had seen and smelled enough.  The rubber suit and fluorescent lighting added to the eerie feel of the barn.  We stepped outside and began gulping down the crisp, clean air.

3.  Eating escargots:  Pushing the nearly full shopping cart and half-jogging to keep up with Alex swerving through every aisle, she called back, "I've just got to find the escargots." She noted my reaction immediately and said, "What you've never tried them?" Well, of course not!  A few nights later she said she'd be making a dozen as the starter, and we were welcome to try one.  I agreed to one and only one.  Kyle did, too.  She came out with a silver plate shaped like a snail with a dozen shells coiling into the center.  Oily green sauce bubbled out of the openings.  Warm olive oil and garlic filled the room as she divided the steaming snails.  Following Ed's direction, I used my two-pronged fork to pluck the mass from inside the shell.  It was so hot I could barely steady it between my fingers.  When it finally came out, I stared at it for a minute, asked if I was meant to chew or swallow it whole, then popped it into my mouth.  The chewy texture reminded me instantly of mushrooms, which is all my brain would allow me to accept.  It really tasted like a chewy, garlicky mushroom.  Thank God.  I had another for good measure, then sopped up the extra oil with a slice of baguette.  Certainly not the worst thing I've tasted (thanks for the sloppy joe pancakes, Mom), I don't think I'll be ordering them anytime soon!

4.  Dining in a traditional French workman's cafe:  There are two cafes in the village, one visited by office workers and another by more grisly manual laborers.  We went to the latter, owned by the neighbor's uncle.  There is no menu; he cooks one meal a day, usually consisting of four courses and complimentary wine and cider.  Depending on what sort of day the cook is having (what is it they say about him..."he has a liking for the bottle"? or something like this), the food is either marvelous or mediocre.  We walked up to the house with nothing more than a "Restaurant" sign displayed out front.  After a maze of doors, we came to the main dining area, just big enough for two large dining tables and two smaller ones.  We seated ourselves, and the cook's wife came in to take our order.  Well, it was either a cold meal of leftovers from the previous day, or the hot meal he was preparing that very day.  We all took the hot meal.  She served the cider, wine, bread, and butter.  Out came the starter, on a tray at the woman's shoulder level.  She leaned forward to display the four plates, and all the meals of Korea came flooding back.  Minus the head and tail fin, half of a herring on a bed of potato lumps plopped onto my place mat.  The fish was cold and marinated with many of the smaller bones still contained.  I chewed cautiously and focused on getting as much down as I could.  It tasted pretty good, but something about cold fish makes me hesitant.  I washed it down with a glass of cider.  Next she brought a roasting pan with basically roast beef, whole potatoes and carrots.  We served ourselves then chewed the dense meat with the accompaniments, dill pickles and spicy mustard.  We nearly emptied the pan and cleaned our plates with extra slices of bread.  Ed started pouring glasses of wine, and after we had our fill, the woman cleared the dishes and brought the cheese plate.  Again, we helped ourselves to various hard and soft cheeses, with the mandatory Camembert among other less memorable wheels.  At last, she cleared this and brought a tray of dessert choices, apple tart or egg creme.  The crust was soft and buttery, and the apples tart.  I didn't taste it, but Kyle said he enjoyed the egg creme.  Everything was washed down with coffee. The food was decent, but the interesting parts came after. 

As we ate, we were surrounded by tables of men in work clothes, dirt and grime coating their fingers that only a week away from work would fade. Their gazes followed us as we walked in, then quickly turned back to their meals.  When we started talking, their necks turned again at the sound of a foreign language; Alex was translating everything for us.  After awhile they became bored with us and generally seemed to forget we were there.  Though we hadn't so much as exchanged a word with them, they all nodded and mumbled "Au revoir," on their way out.  As we were finishing the last of our courses, the husband cook and wife waitress came out with another worker or two and sat at a table behind us.  They dug into their pickled herring and nodded our way.  The cook's nephew is dating Alex's daughter, so they made a few jokes about that.  It was strange to hear such a range of voices speaking French and so gruffly. One man had a deep, raspy voice that almost sounded painful to use.  The cook's words were barely discernible.  One large man got to talking with Ed about horses, so the cook grew bored.  He looked around at the rest of us until his eye's landed on me.  I tried to look away quickly without being rude.  Please don't speak to me... Please don't speak to me... (I'm not even confident saying, "I don't speak French" in French).  He gargled out some phrase, and my eyes grew wide and apologetic.  I did my best to paint a clear expression on my face as I looked to Kyle, "HELP."  Kyle just smirked and looked over at the cook.  He answered the man's initial question, then chuckled explaining that I don't speak French.  No one could understand what we were doing in a small village in Normandy unable to speak French.  I suppose if I ran into a person in Wadsworth, OH who couldn't speak English I'd be pretty confused as well.  We thanked our hosts graciously and returned to the car for the short drive back to our work at the hedge.

Believe it or not, we were served at an actual restaurant in these clothes

Shadow and Gin hoping to tag along
 5.  Witnessing (and assisting) a calf being butchered: Alex's back was bothering her, and last time they got their half-a-calf from the butcher she said Ed asked too many questions and got everything disorganized.  She said she'd rather take me to help label the freezer bags and sort everything out.  I figured I may as well season my life experiences as much as possible while I can.  We drove for awhile down curving, bouncing single-lane roads then pulled up to a small house.  We backed up to one of the rear barns, then unloaded our supplies: three sizes of freezer bags, pens, plastic tubs, and twistie ties.  We pushed open the barn door slowly where a man with an enormous knife and a plastic apron stood half-squatting as he pulled chunks of flesh apart.  He reached for a decent-sized hand-saw and started sawing through bone.  What appeared to be a quarter of a calf's carcass lay on the table in front of him.  Alex chatted to him quickly in French, then we set up on the table next to him.  There already were about 3 or 4 rows of varying cuts of meat displayed.  It was cold and damp in the barn with a faint smell of raw meat.  Alex began organizing immediately, instructing me what size bag to pull off and what to write on the label.  A system emerged quickly between us; I listened and wrote, handed her the bag, then she filled it and pushed it aside.  When the present pile ran out, we twisted up the bags and stuffed them into the plastic tub.  When that filled up, I heaved it into my arms and staggered out to the car for a replacement.  During any spare second, I peered over my shoulder at the butcher, memorized by his work, hardly aware we were even present.  Some of the cuts Alex only knew in French, so I asked politely for a spelling.  I scrawled words like, escalopes, poupillets, shoulder roasts, roasts with the bone, chops, and so on.  I soon got into the job not unlike the butcher, rhythmically tearing bags, writing, and holding tight to the opening as I spun the thing closed.  Then, thud! A huge mass dropped out of the butcher's hold onto the table right in front of me.  I think a splatter of blood hit my cheek.  The calf's face, with all the important organs plucked out, stared into mine.  Pale, folded flesh and ears were just at waist level.  Alex started laughing immediately, I suspect by the look on my face.  I relaxed and laughed, too, though I can't say I'll soon forget how startling it was.  Since then, I've been threatened with the calf's hooves, brain, head, and other things loosely labeled as sweetbreads.  I tried the escargots; that's enough for one trip!

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