Sunday, June 9, 2013

J'aime Rouen

When we got to Rouen, I sent a text message (j'ai envoyé un SMS) to Sebastian in Tours, just to let him know where we were. "I love Rouen !!!" was his immediate reply. After a week there, I think I could agree. The central old town area is a fun place to sit or shop or stroll around, though I'm not sure what it would be like living in the more industrial outskirts. A bit like living in outer Tours or Paris, probably. We were staying close in, so everything was a few minutes' walk from the front door, and we went on several walks in town, either to find specific sites or to just see nonspecific sights.

There are a dozen luthiers just within a five-minute walk of the cathedral, and I saw two or three instrument rental shops as well. There is a music conservatory at Rouen and a large music department at the main secondary school and at least one well-equipped organization offering group and individual music lessons, but I can't find any information on why there's such a concentration of musical opportunity in this town. It's another good reason to live there, though.

While parts of the town are definitely tourist-oriented, the luthiers and the china-painters have been there for centuries, and apparently the textile industry was (is?) also a major part of the economy for a long time. To get goods to Paris from England using the Seine, you have to go right through Rouen, so it's perfectly placed to be a shipping and commercial center. Some of the buildings have decorative tile incorporated into their façades.

They aren't the elegant iron-scrolled bâtiments of Paris, or the warm yellow-rose of the homes in Provence, but the half-timbered houses in Normandy have their own funky charm. We wondered, though, if in the older buildings some of that charm would translate into sloping floors, questionable plumbing, or lack of heat. Mom commented that all of the public housing apartment blocks were new and probably had all the amenities, and that it was funny that the people without much money got the nice places to live, while all the narrow-windowed tilting we-were-built-before-indoor-toilets places in the old section of town were the ones that would require a lot of money to keep up.

One of the town attractions is the Gros-Horloge, constructed in the 14th century and housed in a decorative structure from the 16th century. It reminded me of the main street in Totnes, England, where there's also an arch and a clock that have been there for many many years, and how both that town and this one really haven't changed much over time, even with wars and revolutions (industrial and otherwise). I know I've said this before, but as much as I enjoyed the freedom in the United States to pick up and move on, to tear down and build again, there is definitely an advantage to staying put and working with what you have. Improve buildings rather than razing them; learn to live with your neighbors rather than relocating to a place where everyone agrees with you. Feel the comfort of history in the stone cobbles beneath your feet and don't get impatient when it means the pedestrians walk more slowly over them. Learn to walk everywhere yourself, rather than depending on a car, or do without what you'd need a car to go and get. Or grow or make it yourself, or trade others for it. Yes, there's some idealization in this attitude, and I know just a few posts ago I was saying how nice it was to have a car to drive around and see things, in a country where not all that long ago people in villages that are now an hour apart by train would possibly never meet, and might even have different dialects. But there's something to be said for the perspective you get from looking down a street and knowing that it looked almost the same a hundred years before, or more. The clock marks the time as we pass under it, just some of the centuries of passers-by lost in dust and anonymity.

Musing on all that dry history gives a greater appreciation for the daily pleasures of food and drink and company, and when the sun comes out in Rouen, the sidewalk tables front of all of the cafés are packed. Time enough to work later - the tasks, like the buildings and the cobblestones, are not going anywhere. Take a minute or two, or twenty, to relax with friends and turn your face up to the sunlight.

We only had the outdoor street café experience once, but that was due to the weather, which really didn't encourage lingering outdoors much, those three weeks. And then there are the smokers. While it's been illegal to smoke inside restaurants and bars since 2006, and those laws have actually been enforced since oh, 2010 or so, that just means that the outside tables are hazed with clouds of nicotine, especially on sunny days. I've gotten into the habit of checking wind direction as well as menu items when I consider getting something to eat in such places.

But there are always places inside to explore, like the Hôtel de Ville with its grand staircase leading up to bureaucratic offices and its enigmatic pile of kitchenware.

You never know what you're going to find around the corner in Rouen.

People work hard in France, but it's generally not something that occupies all their time and thoughts. Although economic reality sometimes interferes with this attitude, the people I've met have all been fairly relaxed about their jobs and schedules. Last month there were two jours fériés in the week, on Wednesday and Thursday, and from what I can tell many people just decided to take Friday off as well and make it a long, long weekend. My impression is that this was often simply telling the boss that they wouldn't be in - if the boss was even going to be there. Signs saying "fermeture exceptionnelle" appeared at many store entrances, and the buses in Tours were suddenly half empty. Why work, when you could be playing cards with friends?

A school group had gone to the Musée des Beaux Arts for lunch and/or a tour of the exhibits, and when we came out of the museum we saw them playing "Duck Duck Goose" or its French equivalent. One girl was in the middle chanting something I couldn't hear and the group would respond "moi aussi!" after several of the lines, then the child walking around the edge of the circle would touch one of the seated kids and they would both run for the empty place? Or maybe the girl in the middle chose who would run? I couldn't tell, but they were having fun, and all of the adults in the courtyard were smiling and laughing too.

The farmer's market at Place Saint Marc was small on Tuesday when I went to pick up some essentials, large on Friday when we went shopping for weekend dinners, and huge on Sunday, covering all of the square. There were no local goat cheeses for sale anywhere, as there aren't really any local goat cheeses made. Normandy is the land of cows, and the soft-ripened Neufchâtel (more like a Brie and nothing like the cream-cheese product sold in the US) is the local specialty. On Sunday we found some little sausage bites for our apéritif that evening, as we finished up the last of the wines from Provence (except for the bottle of red that John took back home). Local celery root and potatoes were piled up next to green beans from Morocco, and we got some of each. We had our choice of three or four butchers and delis just on the street heading back to the apartment, and an equal number of bakeries. And Mom was wondering why I haven't lost weight here in France, with all the walking I do ...

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