Written 15 May 2005, ca. 11:00 p.m.
The Monday of Pentacost has become a major subject of controvery in France. It has long been a paid national holiday, but this year, someone in the government had the bright idea of making it unpaid workday instead, "to show solidarity with the elderly and handicapped." We have not been able to get a very straight answer as to how it's actually supposed to work (We don't have TV these days, and only occasionally get a newspaper), but ideally, I think the pay that would have gone to the workers if the holiday had simply been cancelled is supposed to go, instead, to help the elderly and handicapped. I've heard considerable skepticism expressed.
A counter-movement has arisen that is encouraging everyone to "strike" on that day, i.e., to refuse to work for nothing, claiming that the elderly and handicapped can better be helped in other ways. We were leafletted on the subject as we entered the Ifremer grounds on Friday morning, but I've only skimmed the materials. The government seems to think that a strike day is just as good as any other unpaid work day and says, go right ahead. Our bakery has gone so far as to post a notice that it will be closed on Pentecost Monday, even though it is, in fact, closed every Monday and has never bothered to post that information (or its regular hours). The supermarket will be open normal hours. The Ifremer lab will be open as normal, but few people are expected to show up. We'll be there, since Pentacost Monday has never been a holiday in the U.S., and not showing up would benefit no one and cost me a vacation day. It will be interesting to see whether I have to explain that to picketers at the gate.
Left-over crab: It's crab season in Brittany, and how! In the waters off New England, the disappearance of large cod, a favorable climatic regime shift, and the subsidy provided by tons of bait have combined to cause a boom in the lobster populations. Here, on the other hand, lobsters are extremely rare and expensive. The slack seems, instead, to have been taken up by crabs: "tourteaux" (picture a large smooth Dungeness with a shell and coloration more like a stone crab) and "araignées de mer" ("sea spiders," king-crab look-alikes with spiky bodies from softball to volleyball size and long, gangly, spiky legs). They're everywhere—tons of them. The supermarkets sell them cold, ready-cooked. The fishmarket next to our Intermarché has heaps of them: cheap tourteaux that are missing legs and more expensive perfect ones; "mousses," the baby (softball size) araignées that are supposed to be the best and the less expensive adults, which are easier to shuck. At least six vendors at the St. Renan market were pushing them, and fishermen on the dock today in Roscoff were sorting barrels of them into size classes.
Our landlord has traps of his own, and had promised to bring us some fresh-caught crabs, but for several days, he hasn't been able to pull them because the wind was wrong—he couldn't get his boat out of the harbor. I had reconnoitred and planned ahead, however, so on Friday, we stopped at the fish market on the way home, and I bought a tourteaux, an arraignée, two clusters of "pousse pieds" (goose-neck barnacles), and a dozen "pétoncles" (small scallops) (joking all the while that if Patrick met us at the door with fresh-caught crabs, I would leave the store-bought ones in the trunk until he left. The fish lady assured me that the crabs should be cooked just like lobsters—20 minutes in boiling salted water. The barncles only needed three minutes. I boiled them all up (a complicated operation, since we don't have a pot large enough to hold both the tourteau and the araigée, and while they were cooking, I opened the pétoncles, extracted the muscle and the roe, discarded the rest, put them back on the half-shell, covered each with a little mayonnaise, and broiled them. I heated bread. I melted butter and added lemon. And just as we were sitting down to the table heaped with seafood, Patrick and Patricia appeared at the glass door, in plain view of the table, to present us with a mousse and invite us over for a drink. Ah, well, no hiding anything. We all had a good laugh over the coincidence, and the drink was deferred until another night.
I admit to finding the idea of eatng barnacles a little odd, but I concentrated on getting it into my head that they really are crustaceans, just like shrimp, crab, and lobsters. Once they're boiled, you twist each one off at the "root," then twist off the shell-covered "barnacle" part at the other end, using your thumbnail to pierce the skin where it joins the shell. The whole skin slips off, revealing a tube of pinkish meat a little smaller and shorter than my little finger. You dip that in the lemon butter and bite it off where it joins the shell. They're pretty good! Even David thinks so. The taste is crustacean-like, but the texture is more like that of a tender clam neck. The pétoncles came out great, as did the crab, but those suckers are big, so we had plenty left over for lunch the text day.
Written 17 May 2005
In search of a laundromat: Our gîte has a washing machine but no dryer, and drying outdoors can be a little chancy around here. If you're going to be home all day and the weather is sunny, it works fine, but you can't dry overnight (because the dew falls, and the clothes wind up wetter than when you started), and if you're going to be away, you can't depend on the sun to stay out—it often alternates sun and rain several times a day. So I looked up laundromats on the web, in the French national yellow pages, and found that the nearest ones were in downtown Brest. A nuisance but not insurmountable. My idea was to spend a weekday morning at the laundromat each week, working away on my little folding computer table while the machines churned. The first week, though, we both drove into town together, so as to reconnoitre laundromats and to check out the many used bookstores that the yellow pages showed clustering around the same area. Not a big success. We had rather a large load of laundry (all the sheets and towels as well as a backlog from the travel to Poland, etc., and it had been raining pretty steadily since our arrival in Brittany), so we used the giant washer, which held it all just fine but which offered low water temperature only in conjunction with low spin (on the assumption that you would only use warm or cold water on delicate woolens that shouldn't be spun hard). So the clothes finished their wash cycle much wetter than usual, and it took hours to get them dry, even with the temperature set higher than I would have liked. David and I took turns babysitting the machines while the other one explored the area, shopped for postcards, checked out the local downtown supermarket, bought flowers for the people who had invited us to dinner, priced consumer electronics, etc., etc. We would up spending the entire day (and not a bad lunch at a little Lyonnaise-themed restaurant) just getting the dratted laundry done. That's why I was surprised to see a laundomat in St. Renan until I realized that only those equipped with telephones would be in the yellow pages. Since the Laundry Debacle of Brest, we've explained the problem to Patrick and Patricia, who promptly equipped the gîte with a deluxe indoor drying rack (we had initially despaired of that solution as well, as the very walls seemed to exude humidity, but the place has dried out nicely since we've had the heat on), so we've done okay without another trip to the laundromat, but it's nice to have a back-up plan!
Golf: On the day we arrived in Brittany, as we cruised out the D789 looking for the turn to Plougonvelin, we passed a sign advertising the "Golf de Brest, 18 trous, suivre St. Renan" (Brest Golf, 18 holes, take the route toward St. Renan), so I studied the Michelin map, which shows everything (except laundromats, of course) if you use a big enough magnifying glass, and found what must be it, near Plouarzel. At first opportunity, we drove out there and found it, only about 20 minutes from our place. It calls itself "Golfy de Brest les Abers," (because it belongs to a network of courses called (wince) "Golfy"; an "aber" is a long deep fjord-like inlet of the sea, but fortunately, the course is not actually close enough to one to use it as a hazard) and it proudly proclaims itself the westernmost golf course in France. (The photo, added later, shows me on the fourth tee in the normal light breeze, my Tilly hat firmly strapped on and flapping about my ears. The wind is usually tolerable, but one day we played in a 40-knot gale, and that was a bit much. Drives turned 90 degrees in mid air, and you had to allow for windage when putting. Another day, we played in intermittent light rain, which no one else seemed to be paying the least attention to.)
We hadn't swung clubs since early December, back in Tallahassee, but the layoff definitely helped my game. I went around in 118, a new personal best (!) even considering that the course is only par 70. Granted, the hazards are all quite small (except for the many head-high gorse thickets), but I cleared all the gullies and water hazards on the first try, and if I hadn't wasted four strokes getting out of one particularly deep patch of rough and richocheted one ball off a boulder (right beside the green, darn it) into impenetrable gorse, I would have beaten David! If I'd been putting decently, I would have broken 100.
The course itself is gorgeous. In addition to frequent outcrops of granite bedrock, it's dotted with actual standing stones. I don't think the tee boxes are really barrows, but a lot of them sure look like it. Wildflowers are everywhere, even in the mowed fairways, where those tiny little marguerite daisies and shiny yellow buttercups keep their heads down below mower height. In many places, the paths from greens to the following tees lead through 8-ft-high forest of Scotch broom, all in brilliant flower. Foxgloves are coming out everywhere, and the roughs are a mass of flowers of all colors. From the high spots on the course there are beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, dotted with villages, each marked by a steeple, grazing cattle, bright-yellow fields of blooming oil-seed rape. Wonderful.
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