Ch. 15 – Social November
I would like to ask you to reserve the following dates in you agenda:
1. The weekend of November 11 (the afternoon of the 10th, and all day on the 11th)
2. The evening of November 22, 7:30 PM
In a small town called La Fleche, situated between Angers and Le Mans, there is a very active association: France-Louisiane. This club, dedicated to preserving the liaison between Louisiana and her mother country is directed by Doctor Leroux. Every year, this association invites the students from Louisiana to spend the weekend with families in La Fleche. The date chosen this year is November 10 – 11. The families will come to pick you up in Angers the afternoon of the 10th, and will bring you back on the 11th. That’s the first date.
There is another association, very active in Angers, called France-Etats-Unis. In honor of your American family holiday, Thanksgiving, this group would like to invite you to join them for an American Thanksgiving meal. This meal will be held at the cafeteria of the Palais de Congres on November 22 at 7:30 P.M. The menu will be as follows:
Dinde rotie avec marrons et airelles
Tarte aux pommes et au potiron
Pichet de vin
You are asked to contribute to the cost of the meal. It will be 50 francs for children and students, 70 francs for members of the association, and 90 francs for those who are interested, yet not members or students. Participants may pay a supplement for other drinks and for two other dishes of their choice.
I am very happy that, far from home, you would be so invited, and that, in France, there are people who think about Louisiana. I am counting on your enthusiastic participation.
Please believe in my best sentiments,
This was pretty exciting news for us. It was almost as if we were celebrities in a foreign country! Interestingly enough, we had been coached on the advantages of mentioning that we were from Louisiana – even in favor of claiming to be “just plain Americans.” We were aware of the possibility of being treated rudely because we were Americans, but we weren’t sure as to the reason. Those reasons would become clearer as the year unfolded.
There were a couple of reasons for the French people’s tendency to favor those who come from Louisiana. The position of Louisiana, and in particular the Acadian region, as a part of the francophone world was well known in France. This was the time of strong Cajun cultural renaissance, and preservation of the Cajun language was high on the agenda of the community around my hometown of Lafayette. With the help of chefs like Paul Prudhomme, the fame of Cajun cuisine had spread nationwide, and even worldwide. Whereas my British roommate had to be coached on just where Louisiana was located on the continent of North America, the French were aware of us, and approved of our push to keep our Francophone identity. Of course, only one of our group was truly a Cajun – Trisha was, and she played it to the hilt.
In the 1970’s, a French author named Maurice Denuziere wrote a novel set in Louisiana during the antebellum period. It was entitled Louisiane, simply enough. I believe that it was basically your standard bodice-ripper, with plantations, slaves, and cotton. I think that there was also emphasis on both the Creole and Cajun cultures. This book was so popular that it was followed by a sequel, called Fausse Riviere (False River is a place north of Acadiana), and then by 3 more books. I am sure that movies were also made about it. I remember buying the book and trying to read it, but I didn’t get far.
At the time, we didn’t give much thought to the relationship that had been developed by CODOFIL, our sponsoring association, between the schools, as well as with the associations that would be friendly to students from Louisiana. Mr. Broussard had gone back to Louisiana, but it was obvious that this was a program that had been in place for years. We would have social obligations that went with this program designed to continue these relationships. We were the current ambassadors of good will from Louisiana to France. Nobody had really made this fact clear to us.
The weekend in La Fleche was a lot of fun. The families came to pick us up, as arranged. We rode in random cars, unaware as to where we would be lodging for the night. When we arrived in town, there was a reception given in our honor with wine and hors d’oeuvres. Then, we went off with our respective families. Keesha and I stayed with a veterinarian named Jean-Louis, and his wife, Christiane. They had a six-year-old daughter and lived in the center of town. We helped Christiane do the shopping, then went over to a friend’s house for dinner.
The next morning, we awoke to a parade going through town. It was Armistice Day. There is an old military school situated in La Fleche called La Prytanee (the school was founded in the 15th century by Henri IV) and the students were marching. They passed right below our windows. The town is situated on the Loir river, which runs into the Loire of Chateaux fame. Still, there were picturesque old buildings, and a beautiful church in town. It was idyllic.
We were treated to a demonstration of the regional sport, called boule de fort. In France, the game of boules, also called petanque, is very popular (In Italy, it is called bocce ball). It is generally associated with sleepy villages in the south of France, picturesquely played by old men in berets in the town square. The game is played with four steel balls – heavy, but not so large that they don’t fit in the palm of the hand for tossing – and one wooden ball. The wooden ball, called the cochon (pig), is small and is thrown onto the court or lawn first. The object of the game is to get one of your metal balls to be the closest one to the cochon.
In boule de fort, a special indoor bowling alley is required. We were taken into a “men’s club” used for this purpose. On one side, there was a platform for standing and watching the game – I think we also may have had to remove our shoes. Beyond the platform was the special alley, concave and long. It was about 10-15 feet wide and 20 feet long. Instead of the round steel balls used in traditional petanque, a peculiar, stubby, wheel-shaped ball was used. The object of the game was not to roll the “ball” directly to the cochon. Rather, the ball was sent at an angle, to zig-zag toward its target. It was very strange, and difficult, but I succeeded in getting the ball the closest and quit while I was ahead!
We had a large lunch, served picnic style from big baskets packed by our host families. On our way back to Angers, we stopped in Saumur for a tour of the chateau – and of the equestrian museum. I had a blast. We also were taken on a tour of the maisons troglodytes – houses built into the sides of the limestone cliffs along the Maine River. The region of Saumur is well known for its wines and also for it’s mushrooms. We were given a tour of a winery and also of an underground mushroom farm.
The stay was a lot of fun. We were fortunate to have these activities arranged for us, since we would probably not have met as many French people on our own. We were a pretty self-sufficient group, and enjoyed spending time together. As a group, we Americans were very intimidating to the French, and those that sought our company were the exceptions. Some of my fellow students made an effort and were invited back for other weekends to stay with their La Fleche families. We were also assured that another group activity would be arranged in the spring.
The families of the Angers chapter of France-Etats-Unis had already welcomed us. In fact, the week before the proposed Thanksgiving dinner, a group of us were invited to the house of the current president. Sophie was the wife of a dentist, and we made their acquaintance at a soiree given in our honor the month before. Her husband, Henri, came to pick up Robert, Trisha, Chuck, Carol, and I at the dorm. There were five other guests invited, friends of Henri and Sophie. Obviously, dentistry was paying off, because their house was gorgeous. They went to a lot of trouble to prepare a wonderful meal, and they served a couple of different wines, taking the time to educate us on their properties.
For Thanksgiving, we were treated to a rainstorm so fierce that my cheap umbrella was useless – the wind kept turning it wrong side out. We walked together to the Palais de Congres to meet our France-Etats-Unis families. The dinner was a thoughtful gesture, with a couple of misfires. The turkey was fine, of course, as were the vegetables. The French are fond of chestnuts, and used these to stuff the bird, which we were unaccustomed to. The cranberry sauce was a little tart, because it was homemade. The tarte de potiron (pumpkin pie) was a joke. Friends of mine had once explained the challenge of making this American delicacy. Pumpkin puree is not available in Europe – our hosts had taken slices of pumpkin squash, laid them in a tart shell, and covered them with a clear gel. It was not good. But there was plenty of wine!
The French people at my table asked if this was what I was used to eating at home for Thanksgiving, and I tried to explain about cornbread dressing and minced meat pie. I barely knew what minced meat was made from in English, so I couldn’t explain it in French. We had a great time. The “cafeteria” of the Palais de Congres was actually banquet room and was decorated beautifully. The association had sprung for a disc jockey, and there was music and dancing until 3 in the morning – something we definitely don’t do chez nous.