Northward ho!

posted 10 April 2005

Written3 May 2005, ca. 11:00 p.m.

Thursday morning (28 April) at 8:45 a.m., the airport limo arrived to take us to Berlin. Teresa came, above and beyond the call of duty, to see us off. The limo was a five-passenger van with plenty of luggage space, so there was just room for us, two other passengers (neither of whom said a word during the trip), and the driver. We went through drive-through passport control at the German border, just a few miles outside Szczecin, and were whisked to Berlin Tegel airport in two hours. The countryside was agricultural and very green, and it was dotted here and there with fields of windmills—not the oldfashion conical ones with broad sails but ultra-modern electricity generators, each on a tall, slender, white pylon and equipped with computer control of pitch, which kept the three long, slender, back-curving blades turning at the optimal speed, regardless of wind velocity. As they had been in Poland, many fields were planted in a member of the mustard family, in bright yellow bloom. David thinks it was oil-seed rape, but the plants were much shorter and stockier than the oil-seed rape in France (also in full bloom just now—gorgeous from the air), so either it was a different variety (for cultivation farther north) or they were just growing mustard.

The flights from Berlin to Paris to Nice went without a hitch. We arrived only a few minutes late in Nice, and Laurence picked us up at the airport and, by prearrangement, took us to her place for dinner. She made "paupiettes" of veal—cutlets wrapped around cinnamon sticks, then wrapped in bacon and braised with carrots and tomatoes; I'm going to have to get that recipe. The appetizer was head cheese, which—to my great surprise—David liked. He's come a long way!

I never did get around to making marmelade from Laurence's surplus of grapefruit—she has two trees but considers the fruit inedible. She was so emphatic about it's being miserably sour and worthless that she had convinced me there was something wrong with it. I was curious, though, so I asked if I could take a few from the heap on her garden bench, just to see what they were like. I cut one up for breakfast the next morning, and it was delicious! I'm not usually a fan of white grapefruit, prefering (as Laurence does) Indian River reds, but this one was seedless, juicy, tender, and with a little sugar, as good as any I can get in Florida.

Friday morning, we set out to see who would win the bet. David had worried endlessly that we wouldn't have time to pack everything for the trip to Brest, so he kept negotiating with the management at Pierre & Vacances for later and later departure times on Saturday. I thought the packing would be a piece of cake but that we'd never fit it all in the car. We started packing, with the goal of finishing in time to go to the lab about 3:00 p.m. to wind up loose ends there. We finished with time to spare, but it still didn't look to me as though it would fit in the Clio. A trial run of the packing wasn't really feasible, as there was no way to get the car any closer than 200 yards and a flight of stairs. and we didn't dare leave anything in the car overnight or even for the trip to the lab. David had packed one box to be mailed back to the U.S., and we decided to ship two boxes to ourselves in Brest, "just to take the pressure off," as David put it. Getting those packages sent off took an hour, so it was just about 3:00 p.m. when we got to the lab.

We got our business done there in time to meet Nancy for dinner. She took us to "Les Ponchettes" for a pre-dinner drink at a sidewalk table, then to La Voglia (a brand new Italian place where she knows the owners) for dinner, and finally Pinochio's for ice cream. The dinner was terrific. We split two starters—Parma ham with melon and and antipasto mixture—three ways. Then David had the "elephant ear" veal chop (a chop pounded thin to form the "ear" with the curved bone still attached to form the "trunk"). I had "frito misto di pesce" (a huge heap of shrimp, squid, and whole small fish fried in a crisp, almost tempura-like batter, with tartare sauce). The restaurant is owned and run by a family that already have several other successful restaurants in Nice, and this one is sure to be a hit.

David's fears about packing time allayed, came Saturday morning and the moment of truth—could we get it all into the car? Almost, with some pushing and pulling, and tucking of small things into chinks. In the end, we had to abandon a few disposable foil baking pans, my hard-won collection of empty jars and plastic tubs for refrigerator storage, and one plant (which we presented to the trainee on duty at reception, who was delighted with it). We had already passed left-over perishables on to Nancy.

We actually hit the road about about 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, 30 April, and headed for Brittany, via Marseilles, Montpellier, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Saintes, Nantes, Vannes, and Quimper. The drive was largely uneventful, but the scenery was lovely. Fields and fields of oil-seed rape were in bright-yellow bloom. Beside the roads, scotch broom (also in bright yellow bloom) gradually gave way to its close and equally colorful but much pricklier relative gorse. In the southern parts, black locust trees were draped with wisteria-like clusters of white flowers and were gradually replaced as we moved northward by a yellow-flowered relative (laburnum maybe?). The horsechestnuts were in bloom. miles of vineyards were just leafing out, and many other fields were planted in wheat and other grains, all at the tall-grass stage. At a rest area on the first day, I saw a truck driver park, set up a little folding camp stool in front of a metal box the size of a steamer trunk that was attached to the underside of his truck, behind the last pair of tires, and open the box to reveal a large carboy of water, a portable propane stove, a couple of bottles of wine, and shelves stocked with saucepans, onions, bread, and other ingredients, with which he proceded to cook himself a hot lunch!

Written 8 May 2005

We stopped for the night in Toulouse, at the airport Sofitel. On French freeways, neatly organized signs announce all the brands, and even the prices of gas and diesel in advance of each exit, but there are no billboards, and no announcement is made of where lodging is available. We figured the airport was the best bet for a selection of hotels and motels, and we were right, but the traffic pattern was in chaos because of construction, so none of the direction signs was right, and we had trouble reaching buildings we could clearly see! We hadn't intended to stay anywhere as pricy as the Sofitel (it's Accor's top-of-the-line-brand, two steps above Mercur), but it was the first one we could actually find the entrance to, and as it turned out, it was a good choice because it had a locked and supervised parking lot, so we didn't have to unpack and repack the entire car as we had planned. Of course, the AC was broken and the restaurant closed (it was a holiday weekend), but we had quite a passable dinner of grilled duck steak and "boulangère" potatoes in the bar, we got the room for half price, and we slept with the window open.

Sunday evening, 1612 km from Villefranche, we arrived in the village of Plougonvelin, about 20 km west of Brest, where we are now comfortably installed in a little stone cottage attached to the side of an old farmhouse occupied by our landlords, Patrick and Patricia Doll, behind the yellow gate at 16 route de Gorréquéar.

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