Sunday, April 08, 2007

from l’Ile de Re: the ride

Whatever made me do this*?? Insane. I should act my age and bake cookies in my free time. Or in the alternative, sip a nice noisette and watch people go by all day long.

I’m thinking this as I push myself to go up the bridge that will put me back on the mainland. I hate precipitous drops (it doesn’t help that it’s into the ocean) and I dislike uphill pedaling, but there is no other way to return except to cross that bridge once again.


It was a clever idea, I thought: rent un velo and bike over to l’Ile de Re. The island is maybe a dozen kilometers up north from La Rochelle and it is connected to the mainland by a bridge. (I hadn’t quite realized that it’s a three-kilometer bridge.) Once you survive the crossing, you are in a beautiful setting – a 35 kilometer long stretch of land, with fishing villages, beaches, oyster beds and small vineyards – all that prettiness for me to enjoy on a beautiful, sunny day.

I thought: what’s 80 kilometers of biking in a day… Tough Polish peasant stock here. I can keep up with the French bikers. Surely.

There was an issue though. The bike had to be back at the shop by 4:30. They close then and by the time they reopen, I’ll be back in Madison teaching a class.

But so what. I will watch the hours and tell myself, halfway through: time is up! Now turn around and go back.

In the meantime, it feels tremendously wonderful out there on l’Ile de Re. A dazzling little place.



…and because it’s near lunchtime, I pass many happy people eating at the countless brasseries and bistros that line village harbors.

how many French people does it take to fill a café table? (ten here)

And so I am tempted. And I sit down. And I order a wonderful, best ever salad, with some shrimp on the side…

with endive!

…and I lose track of time. Monsieur and madame at the table next to mine engage me in a conversation and I listen with a smile to their recounting of when they visited America.

I have family there, you know. It’s a fascinating place! I love California! (Predictable. All French people love California, especially the vineyards.) Are you on vacation?
Sort of. I took my work along, but I am on a week long spring break now.
We here in France get two weeks off for Easter, two weeks for Christmas and six weeks in the summer. And then some other holidays as well.
(I know, I know. That's what the French think of us: we are crazy workaholics over in the States.)
So you are also on spring break?
Yes, we like to travel in France in the winter and spring. Too crowded everywhere during the summer. We’re from Toulouse. You know Toulouse?
Foie gras land.
Yes! But the food is good here as well.
(They are eating heaping plates of seafood.)
When we were in the States, it was for a family reunion with our cousins who moved there a long time ago. We all say “let’s have lunch,” and the Americans open the refrigerator and take out some things to eat! You eat a quick lunch, no? Here, we make a big deal of it. We sit down and take our time.

Yes, and while in France, I take my time as well. So much so that I neglect to count back the time that I need to bike to La Rochelle.

Madness. It’s madness. The wind is in my face, the hills which seemed insignificant before seem monstrous now. I ache, but I cannot stop.

Okay, I do sometimes stop. A photo opportunity! How can I resist? I’ll pedal harder when I am done, surely that’ll put me back on track.

It is not inconsequential that I take photos of men fishing. I like to take photos of people fishing. Here, they do it variously. But they all have this in common: they are not in a rush. I should learn from them.




Through absolutely hellish maneuvers and a hair-raising sprint through the crowded downtown, I do in fact make it back to the shop at 4:29. I promise, you, it was that close.

seconds before closing

And afterwards? Do I collapse in my pretty little room with the crisp white everything? Hell no. I go for my blow out meal at Richard Coutanceau – one that defies a recount. If you are within a thousand miles of the place, you should make a point of going there. (I do not know where people on a budget would be without French fixed price menus. They are what allows the likes of me to occasionally enter the great culinary halls like this one.)

Let me just show you the dessert: tomatoes, leeks, some orange peel, cardamom ice cream. And yes, the combination works! Mildly sweet, but with a delicious zest to it. Beautiful.


I have previously admitted to my absolute bedazzlement when I meet a renowned chef. It’s very adolescent, really. Richard, with his Michelin rosettes may be the highest in the French hierarchy to ever shake my hand and chat me up. I am certain I mumbled something totally incoherent. I blame it on still being in a trance after the velo madness.

* One reason for the velo challenge now is to test my skills in anticipation of a two-week bike ride. Coming up in May. Check in then!