The train pulled away from the station and we were off. Slowly, the view out the window changed from ugly towers of low income housing to green fields, ancient stone houses and trees with leaves the color of fire. It felt good to escape from the city if only for just the weekend. The smog, the honking horns and the hurried masses of people were now far away.
When we arrived in Montargis my heart began to flutter with anticipation. I hadn’t seen my host parents for nearly seven years, and now they would meet my new husband. I recognized my host mother right away, standing on the platform looking around for us with a big smile. We all kissed “bonjour” and jumped into the car, on our way to see their new home.
Now that my host parents have retired, they sold the farm that they had lived on in Chantecoq back when I came to stay with them as a shy high school student almost ten years ago. They had a home constructed in Villemandeur, a village not far from Montargis, and this is where we would be staying.
The same little dogs greeted us hello as they had greeted me all those years ago. The house had a large open kitchen which one of my host brothers had designed himself and a large backyard with a garden full of lettuce and zucchini plants, herbs, strawberry and blackberry plants, plus a few apple trees and plenty of space for all of the grandchildren to play in when they come to visit.
We took a little walk to the downtown area, which consisted of a single road lined with a butcher, a baker, a police station, and of course a bar. My host parents seemed to know everyone in the village as we said “bonjour” and stopped to chat with the locals.
That evening, one of my host brothers who lives down the street stopped by for the aperitif before heading off to a friend’s birthday party. Before he left, he invited us to stay with him for a weekend of clubbing and quad. Then, more family came over for dinner. As we went around saying hello and doing la bise (the kiss on both cheeks) with everyone, I noticed that my American husband seemed like a giant compared to my petite French family, but no one seemed to care. We toasted with champagne and enjoyed seafood-stuffed puff pastries for an appetizer, followed by baby goat (a first for my husband and I as well as a few others!) with stewed carrots and a nice Bordeaux. My host mother explained that chevreau, or kid, is a popular Portuguese dish, which is where the wife of one of my host brothers is from. Next came the cheese platter, and for dessert a lovely apple tart that my host mother made herself. After coffee, the men got my husband to taste some pungent Eau de Vie and Armagnac, a dry brandy distilled in the district of Armagnac in southwest France. “Hope he doesn’t snore after this!” Someone joked. My husband looked a bit tired, but it was more from the non-stop French than from the alcohol. Nevertheless, we were both having a wonderful time.
The next day we went to go see the farm in Chantecoq. I was devastated to learn that a freeway had since been built clear across one of the fields, chopping it in two, and the tenant renting out the farm had let the property fall into disarray. All the plants were overgrown, and the pathway that led to the house had become invisible. I had such fond memories of this place; it broke my heart to see it in such a state. Luckily, one of the brothers is in the process of taking back the fields. I am confident that he will get them looking as they once did.
Unlike the farm, to my delight, some things hadn’t changed at all. Down the street from the farm still lives my host mother’s brother with his family, one of my host brothers, and their paternal grandmother. This is a 15 minute drive from my host parents’ new home, which is also a short walk to the maternal grandmother’s apartment. I really admire the strong bonds that this family has kept with one another. At any time of day a family member might stop by for a visit, and you are likely to run into someone you know while walking down the street to the boulangerie. It’s always somebody’s birthday or someone is getting married or having a baby; there is always a reason to celebrate. Coming from living in big, lonely cities like New York and Paris, this tight knit community seems mythical to us.
We stopped by a local artisanal fair to admire the goods: homemade cakes, local wines, woodwork, hand-knit clothing, kitchenware, and even freshly made boudin, blood sausage. I bought a pair of carved wooden coquetiers (egg holders) to make oeufs à la coque, soft-boiled eggs. Unlike in Paris, everyone was so friendly and welcoming to us foreigners. I’m sure it helped that we had a nice family to introduce us and guide us through.
When it was time for lunch, we returned home and my host mother began cooking again. We toasted with glasses of kir and started the feast all over again. This time it was some sort of sliced fish pâté for the appetizer served with mayonnaise and bread, although we Americans preferred it with moutarde. Next my host father uncorked a bottle of Boujoulais Nouveau, since it had just been released several days prior. For the main course, we savored a juicy roast beef with fries fresh from their own fryer. After the cheese course, my host mother presented us with a divine chocolate fondant cake accompanied by crème anglaise that she had made herself, bien sûr. This was the life.
As the time of our departure drew near, we were bestowed with a toaster oven that the grandmother didn’t need anymore, some scented tea lights, a jar of homemade peach jam, a wooden egg timer to go with my egg cups, and best of all, an invitation to come back for Christmas. My husband and I simply can’t wait to return to this friendly village to spend the holidays with the family that reminds me why I fell in love with France in the first place.
© 2011 Pasa’s Paris