We have been to see Zandra and Jacques today. Zandra, celebrated her 70th birthday and they had both turned their home into a theme of the sea for the day, because she likes anything to do with it, and so the setting for her party planned to immitate quayside café, “Le Café des Marins”.
On arrival, after the short drive to Louzy in les Deux-Sêvre, we found all her family and friends dressed in marine attire of various outfits looking like, Sailors, Captain Birds-Eye, Swashbucklers and even Buccaneers. Others were wearing blue and white striped naval collars and anything else simply blue and white which looked appropriate. Little children were showing off wearing blue berets with red pom poms playing with paper boats made by aunties and uncles to keep them amused! Brian went along in his old sailing clobber and I had spent a couple of weeks searching for a nautical looking tee-shirt.
The garage had indeed been cleverly been transformed into a little Quayside Café! Over recent months, murals of the sea had been painted onto wall hangings, fishermen’s nets draped from the ceiling and sea shells scattered onto the blue table cloths to create an ambiance. It certainly felt very real and we imagined ourselves transported inside a little port somewhere, it was magic! In fact it felt somewhat odd that the view was of Jacque’s vegetable garden and not of colourful little boats bobbing up and down with the waves but it didn’t matter.
And so, after many, many home-made aperitifs, mainly Pineau, a boson’s whistle was sounded by Jacque and we were slowly ushered from the garage through the house and into the dining room where 30 odd people were to sit around in a “U” shape. Our names had been carefully placed on the tables decorated with blue linen tablecloths and, again, scattered everywhere were sea shells. Another giant mural with exactly the same view of tiny boats bobbing up and down on the sea, which we saw in the garage, covered all of one wall this time, and we were told it had been hand painted over recent months by Zandra’s friends specially for her big day. There were bouquets of flowers and gifts scattered on a side table.
After settling down into position, large, decorative, boat shaped dishes, around a metre long, were brought in (one to about every four guests), completely overflowing with Fruit de Mer. Everyone started to help themselves and much skill was demonstrated with little sharp pointed knives opening the Oysters of varying sizes. Actually, I felt more comfortable with the, Crevettes and Bulots. Brian and our neighbour, Robert, were doing most of the damage besides helping themselves liberally to the bottles of chilled, fresh, Muscadet which had suddenly appeared on the table. And when, by some mysterious, magnetic force all the partly emptied boats floated down to our end of the table, they were quickly and efficiently unloaded by our two heroic dock-workers. The dishes were then removed, kilos of empty shells disposed of, plates wiped clean with huge chunks of baguette and then immediately refilled by poisson sauced with beurre blanc and, when we thought that was going to be it, there was a short pause, mainly used to sample the bottles of Vin de Thouarsais, (this wine is a VDQS, a sort of country cousin of the better known Anjou or Saumur Rouge), but was hearty, rich and fruity, being ideal for the large helpings of braised lamb aromatized in a rich, brown sauce which was plonked on the tables in huge cast-iron stew pots accompanied by kilos of delectable, young haricot beans. Following that were wooden boards of fresh cheeses of various shapes, to be accompanied by the Thouarsais Rouge but with delicious Coteaux du Layon, to be drunk with the Blue d’Avergne. Just when we thought that was the end, le glace enrobed in Poire William spirit appeared and spooned into tiny glasses. The climax, of course, was the ‘Grande Gateaux’, and the popping of many bottles of Saumur Sparkling Brut for the toast and a hearty chorus of ‘Bonne Anniversaire’ then a short silence as I think everyone was wondering how they were ever going to be able to move from the table afterwards!
The many hours of eating and drinking were interspersed with the telling of jokes or a tuneful song! Each contribution was introduced by Zandra’s husband Jacques or his “frere”, mimicking a trumpet fanfare to introduce each song or joke with a, ‘d d d d dah’ before the respective person stood up. Each person spoke or sung simply but movingly and on completion, a courteous bow was given to gracefully accept the many bravo’s and encore’s which were despatched from the audience. Then a strange clapping game would ensue in a kind of two slow claps and three quick ones kind of rhythm, at ever increasing speed, no-one quite knowing when to stop and, of course, it was important to concentrate because if one didn’t finish on time and you accidentally continued with one too many, then the dreaded forfeit was to perform a song!!! Brian got caught out! His brave contribution? A rendition of ‘’La Mere’’! But he had not come unprepared and had actually learned the song, en Francaise, and, soon after starting, he had the whole room singing along to this wonderful evocative song.
The words are below but, if you want to hear it sung in its original version by Charles Trénet, then clich here .
(Brian reckons it isn’t as good as his version but he is rather biased).
Here’s the words if you fancy singing along:
Qu’on voit danser le long des golfes clairs
A des reflets d’argent
Des reflets changeants
Sous la pluie
Au ciel d’été confond
Ses blancs moutons
Avec les anges si purs
bergère d’azur infinie.
Près des étangs
Ces grands roseaux mouillés.
Ces oiseaux blancs
Et ces maisons rouillées.
Les a bercés
Le long des golfes clairs
Et d’une chanson d’amour
A bercé mon cœur pour la vie’’.
Or, in English, (although it doesn’t scan)
which we see dancing along the clear gulfs
has silver reflections.
has changing reflections
Under the rain.
To the summer sky’s confuses her white sheep
With angels so pure.
Shepherdess of infinite blue.
Next to the ponds
Those tall wet reeds.
Those white birds
And those rusty houses.
Has rocked them
Along the clear gulfs
And with a love song
Has rocked my heart for life”.-
It is indeed a very emotional song, now deeply engrained in the French physic and there was a silence afterwards for a few seconds of contemplation, quickly followed by loud applauds and cheers ‘Vous chante bien Francaise Monsieur Brian’, tres tres bien, bravo!!! More like ‘brave oh’, I thought….. My heart had been pounding for him as I was aware thirty French people were concentrating on his accent Française !!!, (On the other hand Brian may as well have been in the Rose and Crown, in our little village back in the Staffordshire Moorlands, for all the concern that he showed. I don’t know whether it was the copious amounts of wine or simply confidence)! However, he appeared to have passed the test and Zandra, our host, was truly enchanted by his effort, and came over to give us both a big hug and for some strange reason awarded Brian with a blue cushion to take home afterwards! (Apparently the awarding of a cushion shows appreciation when there is nothing else to give as a “cadeau”)! I have to say though, that I thought his ever more flowery bows were a little over the top. I am sure he was envisaging himself milking the applause at La Scala!
The hearty singing continued and after several ‘unknown’ French songs ……which we did our best to keep up with, came an old favourite, the Beatle’s, “Yellow Submarine”, which caused us a bit of a puzzle because the words were ‘Nous somme habite sur a Submarine Vert! (a green “vert”submarine was because yellow -“jaune” submarine simply doesn’t scan). We tried to explain, ‘’No, no, it has always been jaune’’!! Brian, being a bit of a Beatles anorak, insisted that Lennon and McCartney never envisaged a green submarine and it had to be yellow. At which point he sang it in English, word for word, with everyone joining in manfully with the chorus which, to tell the, “véritié”, they managed very well indeed ‘’Zee all liffe on a yellow soobmarenne!! Well, there you go …..it’s probably a lot better than my French accent! Apparently the rather confused, elderly gentleman sitting near to Brian afterwards asked, “Et la sous-marin vert, il va où”? (And the green submarine, it went where)?
It was late now in the afternoon and time for the customary promenade around the village to stretch ones legs for those who felt up to it. Alternatively, a quick game of Belote for those not so energetic or, just a leisurely viewing of the television for the journal and a quick shuteye!
It was maybe a couple of hours afterwards, we had another whistle call from the boson for a second aperitif in the Café de la Marine au Garage, followed by a second sitting at the tables to continue with yet more plates of food, this time of charcuterie, jambon, rillauds, more cheese, baskets of pomme, and yet more bottles of wine. This took us up to well past midnight, (we had been there since midday)! The evening finally culminated with rich, black coffee which Jacques enhanced by retrieving bottles of his special Eaux-de-Vie from his wine cave, pouring it with great expertise and pride into the tiny glasses! Zandra gave out little sachets of sea salt tied in white net parcels and pretty ribbons to take home as a little memento of this jolly day, which, for us had been a wonderful phenomenon both gastronomically and culturally!
On looking around I fear at this late hour, sailors and captains who had looked so elegant at the start of the day, were now beginning to look a wee bit worse for wear I thought, although many were obviously living the part or, at least, they were wobbling about on sea-legs. It had been a tough day at Zandra and Jacque’s Café!
After thanking our hosts, we say bonne nuit with endless bisous and walking out down the tiny rue, we found the sky peppered with stars. We slowed our pace to enjoy the milky-way, a broad, sparkling highway crossing the clear sky, but we were not too worn out to appreciate the beauty of it. Sometimes, after days like this we have to stand back and absorb how privileged we have been. We forget that we are guests in this country and perhaps we now take it too much for granted; the sociability of everyone towards us, making new friends and enjoying this warm and welcoming culture. It had been a truly fabulous day for Zandra (and Jacques who had worked so hard behind the scenes for her), but we too had taken away something with us that will stay in our minds for a long time to come. It had been a “Hard Days Night” indeed!
Viva La Mer!!
Sheila and Brian