C’est Chaud à Rouen – Hotting up for the Armada


The cherry-pickers were out on Monday putting up ‘Armada’ bunting across the main street through Rouen, rue Jean d’Arc. There is a charged atmosphere about the city, expectant, and ready. The first Armada tall ships will hopefully arrive in Rouen next Wednesday evening, passing below the Pont Flaubert, the tallest lifting bridge in the world, which will be raised for the occasion.

But for today I was meeting another boat, and was there on the quayside just as The Viking moored after its gradual journey down the Seine from Paris. Should I have been worried? The last time Vikings were seen on the Seine, the city suffered from total destruction, pillaging, and Normandy was handed over to them. Thankfully for me, this Viking ship contained 120 American tourists who were keener on admiring our treasures, than plundering them. This is after all 2013 and not 841.

I am envious of the Americans, for when they continue their journey towards Le Havre, they will have the pleasure of watching the Armada ships sailing up the Seine from an excellent vantage point, the Seine itself. But for us, we have a week of ceremony, free access to the ships, fireworks and a ‘maritime Sunday mass’ ahead of us.

Tourists and visitors are arriving in their masses to watch the spectacle, the hotels are bursting at their seams, and everywhere you chose to look  there are people carrying poles atopped with a shiny red disc denoting ‘group 2A, 2B, or 2C’. I should know, today I was one of them guiding the many tourists around the great monuments of Rouen, trying not to lose Americans in the general hubub and swirling crowds, and trying to keep count of 30 heads whilst at the same time telling them how the leaders of the Harelle riot lost theirs in 1382, and how we lost Jean of Arc for ever.

My diary is crammed with tour dates, many of the guides are running at three a day,  but for some of us, we have to somehow fit in the picking up and dropping off of our children who are incorporated into choirs for both the rehearsals and the the sunday maritime mass, and find the time to provide them with brightly coloured teeshirts (with no buttons or logo) for their performance in front of the cameras. as the 640 strong choir will be televised.

One place I shall certainly be, with my boys,  will be on one of the many bridges spanning the Seine watching the fireworks display at 11.30 on Friday night, which are rumoured to be outstanding. Having missed the great British Guy Fawkes night for the past two years, and inexplicably been out of France for every 14th July, this is an event we cannot miss.

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So if you are at a loose end next week, Rouen is where you need to be, and if you see a numbered ‘lolly stick’ waggling above the heads of the crowds, you never know, it could just be me!

A fortnight from now we may just catch a breath for a brief moment, before the ‘City of Impressionists’ festival begins…

But that’s another story!

All photos thanks to google

The Kermesse, The French School Fête.


Today was the day of the Kermesse, otherwise known as the school fête. A day filled with bonhomie, bonbons and “ah bon?” (what really?)

The day started early, and at approximately ten this morning – my ‘otherwise-asleep’ adolescent was clamouring for his croissants in order to meet up with his friends in the school ‘cour’ (playground). They had a basketball stand to manage!

The school has devised a pretty neat system for paying for activities and refreshments, a large ‘welcome’ tent manned by parents selling booklets of ten tickets for ten euros, and thereafter a money-free day for children and parents alike. A second row of parents selling ‘ticket repas’with a choice of two possible menus, budget and gastronomique!

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Today as I headed into the crowd to find my children with their meal tickets, It did occur to me that I might be being a little over ambitious – After being confronted by the following stalls, it was pretty self-evident that by lunchtime they wouldn’t be hungry!

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Une toute petite (?) boule de Barbe à Papa!

A little ball of Candy floss – otherwise know as Grandpa’s beard!

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No really, there aren’t enough to chose from….

Mais oui, Madame, ily a un autre rang. But yes, Madame, there’s another row!

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Ah bon?  Really?

Bon Bon!

Did I mention how French parents are natural crèpe makers! No shortage of parent helpers for this stall! No lemon and sugar for the French, but a huge bowl of molten chocolate to spread over…liberally!

Under the trees thirty long tables are set out to await the parents, Maman qui ne mange pas entre les repas – French maman who doesn’t eat between meals – et papa qui a grand faim – And French papa who is a gastronome! And me, well because the menu gastronomique  has been cooked by a French chef and it’s good.

A midi, the parents discard their children and seat in huge gregarious groups n’importe ou (no-one minds where), the length of the tables, pulling in extra chairs for stragglers, serving friends, husband, wife, mamie (granny)or papie (grandpa) glasses of wine or sparkling water in gobelets (plastic cups – it sounds better in French doesn’t it!) whilst tucking into the menu budget, or gastronomique.

Frites merguez for the impoverished, (chips and spicy sausages)

Melon, dressed salad, Paella (chicken, mussels, merguez) and of course frites for the discerning!

Finally, a good hour and a half later, the parents rise, replete with bonhomie, a year’s worth of conversation and a contented stomach to search out their wandering children. Let the afternoon begin!

Monsieur ‘La chasse’ is once more on the scene. The hunt, an essential part of the French lifestyle is introduced early, and a necessary feature of the school fête, even though one wonders about the presence of authentic air rifles and lead pellets passing any sort of ‘health and safety’ guidelines.

I had already noted the stripey ‘Police – Do Not Cross This Line’ tape surrounding the sweet stand – curiously absent here!

Monsieur La Chasse turns away to help a six year old handle the rifle, leaving my nine year old wielding his!

Ah Bon?

The day is not complete before all the classes of primary have  entertained their parents under the ‘Grand Preaux’

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The space men sing us a little ditty. The performances last all afternoon and parents come and go to watch their ‘petite pousse‘ (little ‘growing thing) do his bit!

Enfin, the tombola; first prize, dinner and a night for two at the 5 star Renaissance Hotel Bourgtheroulde in Rouen (complete with spa and underground swimming-pool). It is of no great suprise that I don’t win!

A last throw of the basket ball…

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and we head home happy, our pockets full of silly 1€ plastic toys that will probably only just survive till the morning!

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Salut!

Christmas – French School Style


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I used to bemoan the fact that French schools didn’t put the same emphasis on art as English ones. In some ways I am right and others wrong. Art is a very small part of the school curriculum but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a means for artistic expression. There are some very talented artists beavering away all over France to bring art to school children.

I have to take my hat off to the extraordinary talent of Madame Corruble, an active parent at our kid’s school, St Dominique in Rouen. Last year my son in 3ième had the great fortune to study KT (religeous studies) under her and they spent the time making the most amazing Crèche de Noel as seen above. I never believed it could be improved upon. But this year they have done….

IMG_20121213_155022My mobile camera really doesn’t do it justice – but this is the creation of the historic buildings of the Vieux Marché. What you don’t see in this photo is how the students have coloured all the windows as stained glass. The effect is amazing.

IMG_20121213_155116In the centre, the oldest auberge in France, now in minature.

IMG_20121213_155103surrounded by its neighbours.

IMG_20121213_155050Not to be outdone, we parents decided to get creative and make ‘couronnes’ (crowns) of foliage for gates and doorways, to sell at the school Marché de Noel.

I had great satisfaction in making all the French mamans say ‘wreath’ – a tongue twisting impossibility for them to match my recent failure to pronounce ‘canalisation, a word that i’ve needed to use a lot thanks to the leak in my smelly toilet and my landlord’s misguidedly hopeful request that my assurer pays up!

Mais NON, monsieur!

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Anyway – along with all the good humoured banter we managed to make a good dozen or so, all for sale at the Marché. I nearly managed to pinch my friend’s much coveted bit of ribbon for my wreath, but she caught me just as I was attempting to attach it!

At 3, we were invited into school to hear the 6ièmes singing a rendition of Spanish and English carols, and to eat all the lovely ‘gouters’ we parents spent half the night before baking. Of course nothing so simple as giving me some English recipes to bake, I was dealt a handful of Spanish delicacies, for which I was missing half the ingredients at approximately 8pm! Apparently most of the French mamans were in the same boat, as on the table for the sing-a-long were about ten versions of the same recipes, the more complex ones having been discarded.

We discovered where all the missing reindeer had gone!

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One little girl piped up “My mum made the christmas pudding because my dad doesn’t like English people”, and whilst the staff  busied themselves trying to restore what they imagined irrevocably damaged ango-french relations, I was laughing uproariously in the corner.

Carols over, we made our way to the Marché de Noel….

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…..where the children were blowing all our hard-earned pennies. Mine were delighted at the vast quantities of sweets on offer, but forgot the point was to buy ‘maman’ a christmas present. Sigh!

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Did you spot the lavender fish in the basket at the back? My youngest tells me he was all ready to buy one for me before the lure of the sweet table became too strong. He knew it was the kind of thing I liked, he said. But that could be because he saw me sewing them all over the last few weeks! december 2012 009

After school I am able to go and collect my christmas tree from the school garden, as the school buy in bulk and the proceeds go towards residential school trips for the kids who can’t normally afford to go.

If you spot a bedraggled woman (it’s raining ‘comme un chien’ today) dragging her tree through the centre of Rouen, that will be me!

And if you see three boys dragging bags of sweets, christmas hats and sparkly decorations, ring me quickly so that I get time to bar the door until the sugar ‘rush’ is over!

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La Fète du Ventre à Rouen – The Festival of the Stomach.


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My ‘husband à l’etranger’ flew into France yesterday, and what better way to re-immerse him into French culture and gastronomie than the Fète de Ventre. I love that the French can name a fète directly after ‘the stomach’.

After the rains of Nigeria, Normandie welcomed him back to a day of  leaden skies and endless drizzle . The damp weather didn’t hold back the crowds though, and by mid afternoon it was almost impossible to make our way through the street.

Of course one of the nicest aspects of such a fète are the ‘petits goûters’ (little tastes) on offer.

and the make-shift oyster bars were busy…

with a well placed beer bar next door!

But  there were far too many distractions to stop straight away to eat, though we did eat extremely well a bit later on!

A mobile bread oven,

and bubbling chouxcroute,

The watercress (cresson) is grown on a beautiful small-holding on the edge of the smallest river in France, right along-side the riverside path at Veules les Roses. A definite must on the ‘day-trip’ list in early summer. If you are really lucky, fresh watercress can be bought directly from the farmer tending his crop and picked from its watery meadow, ready to be made into fresh watercress soup for lunch.

But it was the chocolatier that led me astray,

and not just with his charm and good looks!

…where else would you find molten chocolate being expertly fabricated into truffles on a rainy street?

Or a whole pig wearing a bib?

Fresh vegetables,

and locally produced preserves.

‘Husband à l’etranger’ raved over the honey cake….

… and then continued on to sample the flaky pastry with goats cheese and apple.

Sadly there were no hot and oozing garlicy ‘escargots’, only ones to take away. And then we came upon the apple press..

and the finished product.

The smell of freshly baked bread coming from a second mobile bread oven drew us in.

And there, amongst all these french producers, the lone Englishman with a range of beers brewed near the Mont Saint Michel; a business started four years ago and successfully growing year on year. Because the truth of it is that as much as we adore the traditional French products and their local artisans, the French also love traditional English products, and what’s more unusual than traditional British Mobsby’s beer brewed locally in Normandy.

And after all that tasting and sampling, it was time to settle at a café for sunday lunch. It was, after all..

…The Fète of the Stomach!

Bon appetit!

Egg Hunt at Miromesnil and a Souris of Lamb.


What to do with a couple of adolescents on a  damp Easter sunday afternoon? Offer plentiful chocolate  with a ‘catch’ of course.

I had been promising myself a trip out to the Chateau de Miromesnil, near Dieppe since I first came to France. Its potager is legendary; and what better opportunity than an Easter egg hunt to make the visit accessible  and appealing to adults and adolescents alike!

It was disappointing  to wake up to a Normand mist this morning after a week of glorious sunshine.  It was the kind of mist that seeps into every corner and dampens every last bit of undergrowth, plant and flower, and yet sparkles on spiders webs without a drop of rain actually falling.

The Chateau of Miromesnil, near Tourville sur Arques is famous as the birthplace of Guy de Maupassant in 1850. I have just put down ‘Pierre et Jean’, his novel written in 1887, wonderful for his depiction of the values and hardships of society, and his colourful descriptions of  the towns and villages of Normandy in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

The chateau was built in 1600 in the style of Louis XIII. The generosity of Armand Thomas Hue de Miromesnil, its owner during the 18th century, to the local population allowed the chateau to pass unscathed through the Revolution.

Plan in hand we headed off to decipher the first clue.

Enticed by the knowledge that 2kg of  cacao were used to create the prize draw chocolate egg, the adolescents of the party engaged internet access on their mobiles to determine the exact distance from the chapel to the chateau. ….400m.

The goats were protecting the pink eggs hidden in the undergrowth….and the next clue was hidden behind the woodpile.

The identity of the ‘recolte des tetes blanches en été’ (gathering of white heads in summer) gave us a few problems…. we narrowed it down to mushrooms. Another family asked us for the french translation for dandilion. (Aren’t dandilions yellow?) There was some foot shifting, no-one was quite sure whether to discuss the clues.  The prize egg was, after all, pretty enticing. We were inclined to give them the translation rather than share the mushroom theory.

Google translate and Wikipedia came in very handy in determining the vegetable under the plant genus ‘Alliacé’ ….. onion. We noticed another competitor reach for his mobile.

Over to the younger members of the family to count the  54 shutters on the rear face of the chateau which the butler had had to close daily. Though by the looks of the concentrated expressions, the adolescents were keen to check the numbers.

The spring garden was in full bloom.

and I caught my first glimpse of the potager…

and admired the view back to the park where we’d collected the moss, bark and feather.

We changed our mind about the mushrooms and decided on garlic, before impressing on the staff that we live just down the road and that collection of said egg would not be a problem…..

‘Were we really there two hours’, said the adolescents ‘ we thought it was only one!’

The beauty of a good day out is to arrive home damp but rosy cheeked to find dinner ready and waiting. What better than slow roast ‘Souris d’Agneau’, with tomato and avocado salsa, couscous and mint yoghurt, and a generous glass of wine.

As for pudding, we’re waiting for the phone to ring…

Happy Easter!