Normandie “fort et vert” (for-e-ver)

After being a typical American tourist for a few days in Paris (already wrote alll about that in my previous post), I was warmly welcomed at my friend’s/roommate’s family home in Potigny, a French municipality located in the department of Calvados in Basse-Normandie (Lower Normandy). One thing I didn’t realize before arriving was that the town Marion lives in is SO rural and so small! According to Wikipedia, Potigny has less than 1800 inhabitants…. a far lower number than the 30,000-odd people living in Lexington, MA! Initially, I was also extremely but pleasantly surprised to see a great expanse of farmland and cows RIGHT across the street from Marion’s house!

Although I definitely wouldn’t want to live in such a small town, it was pretty nice to take a break from small city-life in Santiago and spend time relaxing in a small village. Everyone in Potigny seemed to know each other and it was really nice to see that Marion’s extended family was so tight-knit, with relatives all living within 20 minutes from one another. Her family has also been there for generations — on my last full day in Normandy, Marion brought me to the extremely old farmhouse that her great-grandparents used to live in and told me stories about how the family was forced out of the house during WWII and had to live in a small shed for months while the Germans were occupying France.

Anywho, we arrived in Potigny on Christmas Eve, so right away I was privy to a very nice, multiple-course Christmas Eve dinner with Marion, her brother,  Frédéric, her brother’s girlfriend, Erika, her mom, Brigitte, her dad, Thierry, and her grandma, Pauline. For Christmas Eve dinner, Marion’s mom made a point to cook some dishes typical of Normandy so that I could get a taste for Norman cuisine, which was really nice of her. (Dishes will be listed a little further down in the post 🙂 ) Not only that, but when everyone went to open Christmas presents (on Christmas Eve… I guess they couldn’t wait until Christmas day), Marion’s brother’s girlfriend, Erika, surprised me by saying that there were three gifts under the tree for me, too! SO UNBELIEVABLY SWEET OF THEM! Not only did her parents agree to host me for almost two weeks, but they got me Christmas gifts, too? BAH. Love them. Oh, and they also used markers to draw and write holiday related messages/pictures on their sliding door and they wrote things in English just for me so that I’d feel somewhat at home 🙂

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Yes, I am definitely proud to be Jewish, but there is something so magical about Christmas and it was so exciting to celebrate it the first time… especially in France!

Even though we ate WAYYYY TOO MUCH at the dinner for Christmas Eve (see below), I was warned that the Christmas Day lunch would be an even greater feast at Marion’s grandmother’s house. But, first,

THE CHRISTMAS EVE DINNER MENU (Norman-style meal):

ENTRÉES

  • pâte en croute (tastes sooooooo goooooooood… translates to “meat pie”); –toasts avec (1) oeufs de lump, (2) saucisson, (3) anchois, et (4) surimi (small pieces of bread with (1) lumpfish roe (caviar?), (2), sausage, (3) anchovies, and (4) surimi)

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  • feuilleté d’andouille, pommes et camembert (flaky pastry with sausage, apples, and camembert cheese)
    • a typical Norman dish — (who would think pork, cheese, and warm apples with a wrapped in a croissant-like  dough would be such a delicious combination?!)

PLAT PRINCIPAL

  • poulet (de gallina) a la crème (hen meat (chicken) with cream)
  • pommes de terre avec des carottes et poireaux (potatoes with carrots and leeks)

FROMAGE (much of which was made in Normandy)

  • e.g. Camembert, Pont-l’Evêque

DESSERT

  • bûche glacée crème brulée 
    • a crème brulé-flavored ice cream cake that looks like firewood

Okay, now we can talk about the REST of the food I ate in celebration of baby Jesus 🙂 Here’s the menu from Christmas Day:

CHRISTMAS DAY LUNCH MENU (French-style meal)

DRANKSSSSS

  • champagne

ENTRÉES

  • toasts (petits-fours) avec du beurre, saucisson, mousse de foie, anchois, rillettes de poulet (small pieces of bread with butter, sausage, liver mousse (?), anchovies, chicken spread from a can (?))
  • saumon et jambon serrano (smoked salmon and serrano jam)
  • saucisses et boudin blanc (sausage and white sausage)
  • une salade (salad)

PLAT PRINCIPAL

  • marrons (roasted chestnuts), haricots verts (green beans) dinde (turkey), pommes duchesse (French piped potatoes, a.k.a. fried potato balls)

FROMAGE

DESSERT

  • bûche de mousse du chocolat (chocolate mousse cake)
  • café/thé (coffee/tea)
  • calvados avec du sucre et l’eau chaude (Calvados is a type of liquor (apple brandy) from the region of Basse-Normandie, where Marion’s family lives, that people sometimes drink before, during, and after a meal. During the meal, it’s supposed to help with digestion so that you can fill your stomach with more food. You can take a shot of it or mix it with hot water and sugar)
  • clémentine et du raisin (clementines and grapes)
  • chocolat

I thoroughly enjoyed my first Christmas ever. Not only was the food delicious, but the 15-20 guests at Marion’s grandma’s house were all very friendly. Sure, I could only communicate with two or three of them, but whaaaaatever. Okay, to be honest, I did feel pretty out of place there. Sure, everyone was very friendly and we always smiled at each other, but it was really difficult to be in another country at someone’s grandma’s house with strangers and not be able to understand what people were saying to me and to each other. Although I did take a semester of French my senior year at American, I reallllly didn’t remember all that much from the class, so I didn’t really know what to do other than eat at the dinner. Hah and after the dinner was finally over, I was invited to play a board game with several of Marion’s family members… it was a t.v./movie trivia game. It was nice of them to invite me to play, but how am I supposed to be of any help to my team when everyone is rapidly reading clues and shouting out answers in French?! Oh well, I did what I could 🙂

We ended up staying at the house from noon until likeeee 10 p.m. and actually had more food for dinner… as if we needed any more food! Overall, it was a very nice day and first Christmas and I’m really lucky to have had the experience I did.

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After resting for two days and taking it easy, on Saturday we went to a nearby town called Falaise where one of William the Conqueror’s castles can be found. William the Conqueror was a French Duke and in 1066 took over the English throne as king.

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After visiting the castle, we went out for lunch in the town and then we went on a car ride through the rolling hills of Norman Switzerland (still in Normandy, but so-called because apparently the landscape looks a lot like those of Switzerland). It was beautifullllll.

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Then we went over Marion’s friend’s (Gail’s) place for a fondue dinner. So very French of us 🙂

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The next day, we drove for about an hour and a half to get to Mont Saint-Michel, this amazing island and tiny town in Normandy. It seriously looks like paradise. The story goes that the archangel Saint-Michel told a bishop/priest (I don’t even know the difference…) to build an abbey on the site of this mountain and now, at the top of the montain, there is an abbey where monks live and pray and do what monks do. About 80 people live on the island… even though it’s beautiful, I can’t imagine living there, given how isolated it is! Buttttt, the place is seriously a wonder to look at and walk about. It helped that Marion worked there for the two past summers so she was my own personal tour guide 🙂

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After seeing Mont Saint-Michel we went to a the nearby Biscuiterie Saint-Michel to buy delicciiiiiiiiiious cookies. BAH. I want more.

Finally, we drove about 40 minutes into neighboring Brittany to try to check out the fortified city, Saint-Malo. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find parking by the fortress, so after about half an hour, we just parked really far away and got something to eat. I had a galette de sarassin á l’oeuf et jambon (egg and ham) (similar to a crepe, but the crepe-like stuff is made from a darker type of wheat). Nom nom nom.

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On New Year’s Eve, we went to the D-day landing beaches (specifically, Omaha Beach, where American troops landed on June 6, 1944), and to the museum/memorial and then the American cemetary. We also went to Juno Beach for a bit to see German battery artillery still left over from the war. I’m really glad I got to see all of this in person because I feel like I can absorb more information about historical events when I actually can be at the places where they happened and read/hear facts about what happened during that time.

Below are pictures of Omaha beach, some images from the museum, the American cemetery, and Juno Beach.

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After that somber visit, it was still New Year’s Eve, so we had to celebrate that, of course! We decided to stay in, as Marion’s aunt and uncle were visiting and I am a homebody and prefer to celebrate with a small group of people in a warm home 🙂 Marion’s mom and aunt prepared an amazing feast (I ate so much food in Normandy…. oy!) And, for New Year’s Eve, I threw all caution to the wind (ok, that’s a little dramatic) and tried all new types of food (mostly shellfish which I never had the opportunity or desire to try)

NEW YEAR’S EVE MENU

toasts w/ surimi, chorizo, etc. and pâte en croute
les crevettes (3 types of shrimp, heads and tails intact…), huîtres (oysters) au beurre d’escargot (with herbs and butter), l’escargot de mer (sea snails), crab (except everyone ended up being too full for the monster crab so they were saved for the following day)
-calva(dos)
-fromage
-ice cream cake

(I’m getting a little lazy trying to name everything we ate)

ANYWAY, I TRIED SNAIL FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER. I’m so wild. I definitely wouldn’t order it in a restaurant, but it wasn’t bad. The texture may not appeal to me, but it was kind of fun to use special utensils to pull the meat out of the shell and eat it. I also tried SHRIMP, which I am sorry (but not really sorry) to say that I’m not a fan of. I can’t handle dealing with the whole bodies of each little shrimpie with the legs and the heads and the eyeballs and the tail and the shell. BLAH. Luckily, Marion’s uncle was a great sport and for one of the bigger shrimps I tried, he took off the head for me… I was too squeamish to do it myself. I also “manned” up and took off the legs and shells/skin and tails myself and squeezed lemon on the shrimp and ate everything on my plate. I probably could have eaten more of each shrimp on my plate, but after I was done taking each one apart, there was like barely any meat for me to eat haha.

OKAY, surprise of the night was I really liked the cooked OYSTERS that I was served. There was this really tasty sauce over the meat (called snail butter, but it’s not actually snail butter… it’s just called that?) and yum yum yum. At everyone’s insistence, I also tried ONE raw oyster and again, Marion’s uncle prepared it for me by draining out the juice and separating the meat from the shell so that all I had to do was slurp it down. It wasn’t bad, and it helped that it was salty because then I didn’t have to think so much about the squishiness of the meat, but I definiiiiitely prefer the cooked oysters! At least I gave it a try though, right?

My first real shellfish dining experience. Ahhhhh!
les huîtres au beurre d’escargot (oysters) -- YUM
l'escargot de mer!

SUMMARY OF MY TRIP TO NORMANDY:

Immediately upon stepping into Marion’s house, her family kindly welcomed me and made me feel at home. I am/was definitely a bit homesick, and even though it wasn’t MY family I was staying with, there was still something so comforting about being able to spend the holidays in a home with a family. My whole time there, her family was so sweet to me — they fed me, fixed up her brother’s room for me to sleep in, offered me anything I needed and they made my stay truly memorable. They really went above and beyond.

Staying with a family over winter break was exactly what I needed – it’s hard not being home for the holidays, but I was very happy to spend time with someone else’s family, although there was definitely a language barrier! Note to self: learn French for the next time I travel to France. But, Marion’s mom was adorable and spoke pretty good English and I also found out that Marion is actually not bad at English either! She’d only said a few words of English to me in Santiago, so I didn’t think she knew much of the language, but she understands almost everything people say in English and can speak it a bit, too! I’m glad she chooses not to speak English in Spain though…  I need to improve my Spanish and being forced to speak Spanish is the only way that can happen!

It was awesome being able to celebrate Christmas, not to mention in France(!), not only because I’d never celebrated the holiday before (that type of thing doesn’t tend to happen when you are Jewish), but also because I got to see how the holiday is celebrate outside the U.S.

Final Thoughts: GREAT winter vacation. I’m very happy I decided to spend two weeks in France with my roommate rather than travel every 3 days to a different city in a different country. BUT, don’t worry. I still have many trips to plan this year 🙂

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Little Facts I learned while in Normandy:

“cu cu” = hello
-instead of the typical one kiss on each cheek, Normans give 4 kisses... given I’m already awkward when I try to do the double kiss, I’m infinitely more awkward when I try to do 4 kisses with glasses on… can’t we just HUG? 🙂

ANSWER: No. We can’t just hug. No one really hugs in France to show affection 😦 And from what I’ve seen so far in Europe, Europeans in generally don’t tend to hug! It’s so sad…. hugs release endorphins and other thingies that make you feel happy! I need more hugs!

-it rains a helluva lot! BUT, I was kind of confused because Marion told me that Normans usually don’t carry umbrellas or wear rainboots… I guess they just loooove the rain and are so used to it that they don’t care about getting wet?
-LOTS of cows, green pastures, rolling hills, dairy products made in the region
English is actually a mix of the ancient Norman language and ancient English (as a result of William the Conqueror becoming the King of England in 1066)
-only old people speak the ancient Norman language (it’s basically just a different accent and way of speaking) — the language used to be more different from French but now it is more similar to the French language… however, there are still ancient Norman words in French dictionaries
Suisse Normande (Norman Switzerland) is BEAUTIFUL: picture rolling hills, small winding roads, greenery everywhere, etc.
-something interesting: because the death penalty got outlawed in France, now a mass murderer might spend a max of 25 years in jail and then be released… whether the death penalty should be legal obviously does not have an easy answer, but the idea of murderers being released after so little time is really scary!

OKAY. That’s all. I definitely left a lot out. Maybe I’ll update later… but for now, this is what you get 🙂

ADIÓS!

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