There are places you’ve been to a thousand times and people you know so well it just picks up where you left off even when you’ve not seen them for months.
We start Saturday with a trip to Rouen’s best market on Place Saint-Marc. Stalls are sprawling under great blue metal arches and all over the square (sparse, compared to the big Sunday market); it smells of flowers and roasting chickens and fishmongers’ ice and spices from the Maghreb, and other less precise smells of decay and dirt. Eliza is a little overwhelmed in her pram, there’s too much to see and too much sun and she’s crabby. We grab some oysters from St-Vaast-la-Hougue, some rabbit sausages from a local farmer, a bunch of baguettes, a celeriac, some Lebanese hummus.
That makes for a frankly delicious, sun-drenched lunch at home – I am delighting in the warmth of the sun, my mother somehow manages to cut and eat her sausages one-handed with Eliza on her lap, industrial quantities of drool are being produced by the baby.
In the afternoon, we’re off to see my friends from school, the ones I’ve known for more than twenty years (!) – we drive to Bihorel, a quiet suburb of Rouen which it turns out is remarkable for it’s super steep, super narrow scary little streets. I park the car frighteningly close to a bin and a wall before we climb a steep flight of stairs to Lucie’s house.
There’s Lucie with a baby bump I didn’t know about, Helene, and Constance with her little Felix who’s just turned one year old. It’s strange and it’s familiar at the same time. We’re now sitting together like we’ve sat so many times before, in front of crepes and drinks, but there’s babies and baby things everywhere. There are many in-jokes too, from times that seem centuries ago. Seeing Constance is always a great pleasure and being near her is easy, because we know each other so well; it’s like a lovely and melancholy reel of souvenirs, all the way back from age seventeen when our first kiss (and my first lesbian kiss) happened in the midst of a standing ovation at a contemporary dance gala we’d gone to see together – with such a theatrical start, it’s no wonder it made such an impression on me! Now we’ve got a kid each, and somehow our lives continue to have many similarities – she plays roller derby too, we still listen to Vivaldi. We spend a truly summer-like afternoon watching Felix’ antics (involving mostly food and stagnant water) and chatting happily.
Sunday morning it’s time to see more familiar faces in Caen where we’re meeting my aunt and uncle, cousins and grand-parents for a great feast and a presentation of baby Eliza to the tribe! We pick up my sister Claire, whose alarm hasn’t rung and who’s feeling a bit rough after a birthday celebration last night. Then it’s a couple of hours down the motorway to Caen, where we stop to pick up my grandparents. While we wait, we decide to give Eliza a little snack of milk… but when it’s time to go again, Zaza treats us to her worst temper tantrum ever with full on screaming, tears streaming down her red angry face and soaking the baby seat, and breathless shuddery wailing – the whole way to my aunt’s. Everyone in the car offers suggestions, more or less shouted to cover the screeching baby: “Take her in your arms, poor thing!” (my nan); “Mum, I told you it is NOT ALLOWED!” (my mum); “I think she’s screaming in French, isn’t she?” (my granddad); “THE GRAND OL’ DUKE OF YORK, HE HAD TEN THOUSAND MEN…” (Heather bravely attempting the nursery rhymes from baby and toddler group in rather strained voice to cover it all). After fifteen extremely trying minutes we finally arrive at Marie-Pierre’s where Eliza gets the long-awaited end of her meal, and then collapses in exhaustion.
Our family feast menu:
Cheese nibbles and thin crackers
Hand foraged periwinkles from Fecamp
Caribbean blood sausage
Bread and butter
Mimosa eggs with watercress, chives and a parmesan crisp
White wine and bread to accompany
Baked cod with fennel creme and mixed vegetables
White wine and bread to accompany
Cheese course- Comte, Mimolette, Roquefort, Marotte, Tome
Red wine and bread to accompany
Home-made caramel cake
A different white wine to accompany, first testing a sweet dessert wine and deciding it ‘didn’t go’ with the dessert
Coffee, tea and a selection of three different dark chocolate bars
It’s a lovely afternoon catching up with everyone – my grandparents, after a rather mixed initial reaction to the announcement of Eliza’s conception, are fully loving meeting her (my poor blind granddad has to do with touching her with his hands) and we are all happily chattering away while consuming enormous quantities of food and wine. Looks like as usual, Claire the vegetarian just has the side vegetables to eat… France is still not ready for widespread vegetarianism.
We even watch old home movies with tiny me and tiny Claire, and young parents and grandparents. The one that was made for my grandparents’ diamond wedding anniversary, that’s like a celebration of their lives, makes me cry uncontrollably, I can’t help it, it’s silly, nobody else seems affected in any way – but it feels tragic how much their lives now are different from what we’re seeing on the screen. Then it’s time for the cousins to go, for the grandparents to return to their residence, and we stay with Marie-Pierre and Philippe for a “light” dinner of sea snails, salad, roast chicken and creamy potato and cauliflower gratin, cheese course and dessert. I’m happy and spent and exhausted, and I fall gratefully into bed.
On Monday we spend a rather lazy day getting back to Rouen and hanging out at the house, before a short walk in the woods to pick some daffodils and a dinner of nettle soup and “galettes”, the breton buckwheat crepes I love the most.