Saturday, May 27, 2006

from Le Bourget du Lac : in search of something

It became clear as anything that, in spite of my purchasing a year’s subscription to France’s Internet (no, I am not moving here; this was the shortest and cheapest way to link with the world from the apartment I am about to inhabit), I need more equipment to proceed. I need the special, ridiculously idiosyncratic French phone plug. Their sockets appear to be (sometimes) different from ours.

And so the day was allocated to a morning of work and an afternoon of bus travel to big Chambery (not that big by our standards, but certainly bigger than, say, Janesville) where I was to acquire a phone transformer-connector-whatever, words fail me as I continue my search for a more stable solution to my Internet problem.

I purchased the phone plug immediately, but I stayed in Chambery for a while. The town is enchanting.

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The entire region of Savoie is France as you imagine France to be and Chambery is as you imagine a French town would be on a fantastically sunny Friday afternoon. People fit the stereotype here. Shops sell fantastic pastries, waiters stand around caressing their girlfriends and people in general do nothing, brilliantly.

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I noticed that France has changed me. It is no longer even a question. I eat lunch here. I read the descriptions of their salades on posted menus and I rush to order one. Today, after great deliberation, I settled for the one with warm, toasted local chevre. I am in Savoie, damn it, I must do as the Savoieuse do (I’ll pass on kissing waiters; not that they don’t tempt, but there such a thing as trying too hard to fit in).

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One thing has not changed though: my love of clothes shopping here. I find the stores in this country far too tempting for my own good. Maybe it has something to do with admiring the French sense of style. Maybe I have a hidden desire to be like them, to look, move, speak like them. They seemed to have mastered the art of presentation so well. In any event, when the stores start pulling up the shutters at three to reopen for an afternoon of business, it’s best that I leave town.

And so I head for the Tourist Office and pose what I think is a natural question:
Can you suggest a trip into the true Savoie countryside? Like I see in posters? You know, with fields and goats and spring flowers and stuff?
The woman behind the desk takes it in stride. She must be used to tourists asking ridiculous things. But there are limits to what they can offer us. I haven’t a car and it is getting late in the day. Their mind is probably already on where to eat le diner, not on where to seek out pastures and poppies.

Still, the French are resourceful. I am told to take a bus from the station to the village of Challes-les-Eaux. Not too far. From there I can walk into the vraie Savoie.

I am a fan of French buses. They are inexpensive, clean, comfortable, they run on schedule and the bus driver not only greets every passenger, but also bids him or her a cheerful au revoir and bonne journee at the end of the ride. And since passengers get off toward the rear, the bus is filled constantly with hearty back and forth wishes for pleasant afternoons and good days. It’s all rather reassuring and motivating. It makes you want to step down and try your hardest to indeed have the finest day possible.

In the village of Challes-les-Eaux I think I should solicit advice. True Savoie countryside doesn’t just throw itself at you, you have to state your claim and head up the proper paths. And so I seek out the tiny regional office of tourism. That this office is underused and overstaffed is possibly the understatement of the day. I would bet anything they had not had walk-in inquiries for weeks. Madame could hardly move herself from her comfy chair to the front desk. She was not used to dealing with, well, people.

But behind that tired from doing nothing countenance there was a person with knowledge. As I went into my pathetic I want to see poppies and cows and pastures and farms and true Savoie countryside little jingle she sat back and studied me in the way that one does when one is trying to determine if the person is serious.

You know, we have a flying school not too far. You could see a lot from up in a little plane… Can I direct you to it?
My God, no. I want to step on soil, smell the hay... Ultimately, we settled for something more down to the ground. She took out a map, worked her little highlighter all over it and directed me to exactly what I had been searching for. Something that fit my images of what Savoie countryside is all about: cows against the backdrop of the Alps. Beehives, poppies, fields of wheat. Poplars and blooming acacia. Windows with lace curtains and flowerboxes. If you look for it, you will find it.

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Several bus rides and another hike later, I was back at my corner table at Atmospheres restaurant. Evening was setting in. The doors and windows were open so that the sweet fragrance of acacia blooms and roses from the outside came in to tangle with the savory kitchen smells. Alain outdid himself. I ordered from the standard menu: an appetizer, fish, meat, cheese and dessert, but Alain threw in extras. I ate and people watched for hours. It was a good thing fresh plates of food appeared on a regular basis or I would have dozed off in sheer contentment. Fresh country air, great food, Savoie wine, doing nothing. Mellows you out completely.

Just two photos, of two desserts – one blending basil with berries and the other blending a hot chocolate soufflĂ© cake with a cold icecream on a stick. Perfection.

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