Feast of the Assumption – France

Feast of the Assumption
France

We piled into the car at 3 a.m. in order to beat the crowds. By 4, the autoroutes were heavily populated. By 4:30, anxious female voices on the radio prophesied much heavier traffic and alerted us to the trouble spots. Our comments like, “We just have to make it past Bordeaux before sunrise” made me feel a bit like we were an army trying to gain ground before the enemy was awake.

It was the Friday before the Feast of the Assumption and the people of France were piling onto trains, cars and planes to capitalize on the long weekend. This holiday, marking the day when the Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven, is solemnly celebrated in France by barbecuing, playing petanque and lounging around at the beach.

I’d arranged to travel with some friends from Paris to a villa in Southwestern France. My boyfriend and I stayed the previous week with some of his Swedish cousins.

My friend’s car was equipped with a breathy francophone GPS device that narrated our trip. He had christened her Germaine. Tournez à gauche, Germaine would urge. And, as we came up to the turn, she would become more emphatic: Tournez à gauche immediatement. When we finally turned into the driveway of the villa, after 9 hours of traffic and autoroutes, she seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as she informed us, Vous êtes arrivés.


The day of the 3 a.m. car trip was our fourth day of vacation, our first day in France. That morning we had awoken in the Swedish countryside.

If I am ever captured by a fiendish villain who threatens to kill me unless I can tell him how Swedes clean mushrooms, I will be in luck. The instrument in question has a soft brush on one side and a small paring knife on the other. Instead of running them under water, people carefully, carefully brush away all the dirt and use the paring knife to remove nastier bits.

I used such an instrument after an idyllic walk through a forest outside of Stockholm with my host and his three toddlers. The girls chattered away in Swedish, occasionally exclaiming over a chanterelle or a cèpe they spied at the edge of the trail. The bushes were heavy with raspberries and I honed my non-verbal communication skills by feeding handfuls of them to the children.

Dinner that night was heavy on handpicked mushrooms and berries. We ate near a window overlooking the Baltic Sea and the barren, lichen-covered landscape of the Swedish coast. The pale twilight lingered until well past 9 p.m.

The next day we boarded a bus to Stockholm to begin our trip to les Landes in France’s Aquitaine region.

Southwest France is a very bad place to be a duck. It’s the land of fois gras and confit de canard. Fois gras is made by force-feeding unsuspecting ducks and then serving their engorged livers to gastronomes. In a farmside restaurant the proprietor had hung a photograph of a salt-of-the-earth type French woman pouring corn down a tube in the throat of an uncomfortable-looking duck. After the fourth course of the meal, I looked up at the picture and realized the double meaning of the picture…

We had a bit more of a crash course in the cuisine typique of Gascony than we had intended. When arrived in les Landes, it was Saturday evening. In France, supermarkets are closed on Sunday and holidays. So on Saturday night, we were looking at a night and two whole days without proper food. We headed into Dax, a nearby city, in hopes that we might find an open supermarket. No such luck. We looked high and low; we asked policemen; we followed people carrying plastic bags that looked like supermarket bags; but to no avail. There was a huge festival going on, though, so while we couldn’t find any milk, we could console ourselves with an abundance of cheap beer and grilled duck heart sandwiches.

The only stores selling food were the “regional cuisine” stores which sold only confit de canard, an artery-hardening delicacy of duck preserved in its own fat, pâté de fois gras and floc, a port-like aperitif beverage. Monday night, after three days of traditional Southwestern food, we started to have unusual cravings for salad and vegetables.

Monday, we took a ride a nearby beach. The beaches of les Landes are not what you might call “swimmer friendly”; they are better for surfing. Nearby Biarritz takes advantage of the strong waves with annual surfing competitions. Going to the beach in les Landes is less like swimming than being in a mosh pit at a biker rally. People stand at the edge of the water and try to keep standing as strong waves pound them. The very strong and heavy are able to withstand the onslaught of the tattooed biker waves, while children and small people like myself are made short work of. As the waves receded, I would find myself sitting on the sand with a mouthful of water, surrounded by prone, exhausted-looking children.

On Monday night, after a digestif of armagnac, we walked into the center of our small town for the festival of the Ascension. When we got to the town square, we found a modest crowd of mostly teenagers dancing to music from a DJ booth set up in front of the post office. Vendors sold cotton candy, crèpes and beer. The beer came in repurposed liter-sized milk jugs. After a few of those, dancing almost seemed like a good idea.

Towards the end of the night most of the dancers sat in a line on the square with their arms held up, inviting everyone else to launch themselves on top and try to ride to the end. I made it all the way!

The next day I decided that the beach wasn’t for me and went in search of a gentler pastime. I found it next to the local gas station in the form of a shop advertising location des vélos. Les Landes is famously flat, so it’s not surprising that bicycling is very popular. There is even a kind of bicycle autoroute (a piste cyclable) that joins nearby towns. It’s possible to get caught in bicycle traffic! I spent the rest of my vacation peacefully cycling from town to town on the narrow pistes, shaded by giant pine trees.

One night we went a few towns over to see “les vaches.” I wasn’t really sure what to expect, though I knew that the Landes region is only nominally French; Landais culture freely incorporates Basque and Spanish elements. So a bullfight, or “cow fight” didn’t seem out of left field.

The courses landaises might best be described as “bullfighting lite.” The animals are not bulls, but rather horned cows with rubber bulbs attached to their horns so that no one gets gored. White-clad men summon the cows with red flags, then perform acrobatic flips over them as they charge. A live brass band plays from flower-decked bleachers. The young men in the audience are periodically summoned to test their mettle in the ring. The resulting farce – shorts-clad vacationers climbing over the walls of the ring with angry cows in hot pursuit – got the most enthusiastic reaction from the audience.

Later that night, after Germaine guided us home, we prepared a big grilled dinner on the patio. As we sat over coffee and a twilight petanque game, a stray Ascension firework lit up the sky. The words of Germaine came to mind: Vous êtes arrivée.

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