Monday, 23 April 2012

La Grande Reunion?!

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...well, Rotherham back in 1973 to be exact! (*gasps of horror at how long ago that was*), I did a school exchange trip to La Mayenne in France and was lucky enough to be randomly paired with Claudine. We hit it off straight away and became firm friends, we shared secrets, shared friends  and became part of each other's family. We continued to visit each other independently every summer right through our teenage years (but some of our exploits should not be discussed in polite company, especially as our offspring can read my blog!). My parents went to Claudine's wedding to Gerard - I was in Canada at the time so I couldn't go. Claudine and Gerard came to my sister's wedding and, later, to my wedding with Himself 25 years ago.....and that was the last time I saw her, even though we stayed in contact until about 15 years ago when young children and house moves on both sides of the channel meant that we lost touch :-(

                                         Ower Dave, Claudine and me in 1976
Fast forward to last year. I had long wanted to find Claudine again as she and her family had been a large and important part of my life. I had tried all sorts of things without success then, one day, a spark of inspiration hit me....that doesn't happen very often, so I have to go with it when it does!! Knowing the names and approximate ages of her sons, I searched for them on Facebook!
RESULT! Within 24 hours her First-Born son had replied to me saying that Claudine was so happy  to hear from me again she had cried least I think that's what he said! :-P

Claudine and Gerard came to visit us for a couple of days last November. It was a wonderful and easy visit, but Himself and I wimped out big time on speaking French! Anyway, when the invite came to visit them in Paris AND to go back to La Mayenne to see the rest of the family (who Himself had never met), we just had to do it.....and, given that the majority of the family don't speak any English, we set ourselves the task of getting our French and our confidence up to scratch!

Me and Himself have very different learning styles (surprise, surprise!). Himself went for the Michel Thomas CDs, with all the rules explained - well, he IS a mathematician after all! I went to the French Assistant at school! Himself loved finally understanding all the rules and how to build up the language. I loved chattering away in (frequently corrected!) French and, surprisingly, doing my homework each week!

Thus sorted and confidence (mostly) built, we tootled off on Eurostar for our Easter break en La belle France avec la famille! I was excited and nervous in just about equal measures as it was 32 years since I'd last seen the family and, let's face it, I'd always had a bit of a crush on Didier - Claudine's older brother!!!

 Claudine and Nutty Gnome chez mamie (Gerard's mum)

 Gerard, Claudine, Nutty Gnome and Himself

La famille as I remember them - a larger version of this photo was on the wall in Claudine's parents' house whenever I visited, so seeing this one brought so many memories flooding back...and you've got to admit that Didier was rather cute!

I'd always called Claudine's parents Monsieur et Madame, never by their Christian names (Sacre Blue, il n'etait pas possible!) and, even now 32 years on, Monsieur et Madame they remain! We were greeted with such warmth - 4 kisses...full family honours, and Monsieur's assurances that he would have known me anywhere....I could have cried with joy!  
Saturday night saw us at a birthday party in the village hall  for one of the granddaughters. There were 37 of us in total, and it was a scary moment walking in to a sea of familiar faces spanning 4 generations - the genes run strong in that family!  We spent about 90% of our time with la famille speaking French. Himself was a revelation - for someone who is generally quite reticent and quiet when meeting groups of new people, he amazed me by chattering away quite happily AND making jokes in French with complete strangers. It. Was. Awesome!   HE was awesome!                                          
Monsieur et Madame et moi :-D

Most of La Famille of my generation. One brother couldn't come and one was still at work when the photo was taken. Not quite as neat as the other family photo!

 Moi et Didier! That's all I'm saying!!! (but he's a grandad  now!)

On Easter Sunday 24 of  the clan gathered chez Monsieur et Madame for lunch. I got a touch of vegetable garden envy....and coveted Monsieur's chickens and sheep!

There was the obligatory Easter egg hunt for the great-grandchildren (or was it the adults?!)

...and a very slow, careful ride on a quad bike for a much loved nephew

before champagne aperitifs and a 4 hour barbecue lunch in the garage, with Monsieur plying us with wine and making us laugh as each new bottle he produced went up in quality from 'good' to 'better' to 'best' to 'superior', before he brought out the big guns of the home distilled calvados, or Calva as it is locally known. Good job there were lots of bottles of water on the table or we'd have been under it!
It was wonderful and to be there and to be part of the love, laughter and warmth of la famille was a real privilege - it was so like when my own family are all together, only with double the people and in French!
We stayed at La Fleurie, Gerard's mum's farm. It's out on the edge of the village.....

 so it doesn't matter how noisy the neighbours are!

 Mamie is an amazing woman and almost as sprightly as I remembered her, in spite of her being 91 now - and only giving up milking a few years ago although she still checks on the herd daily. She also did us the very great honour of giving us a bottle of her husband's home distilled Calva - a gift not to be taken lightly as the bottle is around 50+ years old! It tastes amazing :-)
Himself, Elisabet (one of Gerard's sisters), mamie, Nutty Gnome

Monday saw us return to Paris and the rain, accompanied by Gerard's niece. I'm suspecting it was her parents rather than Melanie, who thought a couple of days with us would be good for her English. That's a laugh! Who wants to learn English with a Yorkshire accent?!

We spent Tuesday doing the sights, but didn't go up the Eiffel Tower as there was a 1&1/2 hour wait to walk up it or a 3 hour queue to go up in the lift! 
                                         La Seine in the rain
 I still have the photo of me pushing the Eiffel Tower over when I was 20, so it just had to be done again - much to Himself's despair!
 Parisienne flower shop
 Garden near Notre Dame
 Notre Dame
 Part of the queue to go in Notre Dame...didn't bother to join that one either!
 Bikes for hire to use round Paris - a bit like Boris's bikes in London although these don't seem to get nicked and end up in Romania!

You can also hire electric cars to use in the city, but I didn't have chance to look at how much it costs or what deposit you have to pay.
 I love French shutters and balconies
 We went by the Moulin Rouge, but weren't prepared to pay bucket loads to go in so we had to make do with looking at the paintings above the entrance!

 A random Paris side street.

 French food shops....mmmmm!
 Heading up towards Sacre Cour
 It's a bit of a climb, but at least the view is good!
 After Sacre Cour, which we did go inside, we went to Montmatre to have a look at the rather soggy street artists,
 have a little beer whilst giving Melanie an English lesson(!)
 and looked at a few more paintings
 before falling in love with une petite maison on the way back home.
 Our final day in Paris took us to the Champs Elysees to  look at the shops. We ventured into the Louis Vuitton shop to look at the world's most expensive - and most hideous handbags.  I definitely prefer my (much cheaper) gorgeous leather bag that I haggled for in the souk in Marrakesh last year! We also spotted a shop with shoes I could fall off!
 Time for a last photo call
 or two

before heading for the Gare du Nord, the Eurostar and home, very, very happy with the reunion! It won't be 32 years before we're back next time!


Anonymous said...

Hi Liz,

A lovely blog post and happy end to the story :)
I think I shed a tear or two for you; big ole softie I am.

Freda Cameron said...

What a delightful and lovely visit with your longtime friend. I applaud you and your husband for taking on a French refresher.

Wish we'd known you were in Paris at the same time as us. Our apartment on Île Saint-Louis was just across the pedestrian bridge from the garden at the back of Notre Dame.


Rob (ourfrenchgarden) said...


What a fantastic re-union. I can imagine the trepidation and the frantic French learning leading up to the event - I hear you. And then the most wonderful time. Brilliant story Liz.

Himself's command of French sounds like it quickly became quite good. These bloody genius's, they're all the same.

Anyway, the whole thing sounds wonderful, except the weather, which has p***ed down practically the whole of April!!!

Finally, I don't like/do queues either.

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Liz. Glad you liked it. It was a fantastic few days and both Claudine and I shed a few tears as we you're not the only softie! :)

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Cameron, the French has continued since we got back. I was listening to a speaking book in French yesterday whilst I was cooking....but I may have to listen to that chapter again!Can I blame it on the reader having a different accent to Claudine's?! My conversation sessions also continue, but the Assistant goes back to France at the end of May so I'll have to find someone else....the mother of one of Last-Born's friends is French, so she may be a possibility!

Oah, we were so close - what a pity we didn't know the other was there! What fun it would have been to meet up....especially as we had a wander round the garden at the back of Notre Dame in the short time that it wasn't raining!
Next time Cameron, next time!...or you could get the Eurostar and come to see us?!

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Rob, 6 days of constant French was exhausting as I've not spoken so much, so consistently for years - but I even dreamt in French one night!!!
Himself's French had always been better than he thought but he always compared it to mine and decided it was lacking! Now though, his French is more accurate than mine because he can remember the rules and I still struggle with the assorted past tenses! :-P

You're right - I was nervous and full of trepidation but it did keep me focused on improving my French again! I couldn't have asked for the visit to go any won't be 25 years before we see them again, that's for sure!

La Mayenne was cool but dry, Paris was cool but very wet most of the time! I don't do queues when it's dry, not a chance when it's peeing it down!!!

Sue@G.L. Allotments said...

Must admit I don't speak French by the rukes either but - as one French person once told me - neither do the French!

I too have had a French penfriend since school days although we have only ever actually met once!

The Idiot Gardener said...

I went on an exchange visit with a toerag named Eric Tossi. I believe I blogged about him once! I'm glad your relationship has lasted. Eric and I failed to connect, although I do wish, with hindsight, I'd beaten him senseless!

Brigitta Huegel said...

Dear Nutty Gnome,
what a wonderful reunion! So interesting to see people after such a long period, and then, after a while, feel quite familiar again. Facebook gives us a lot of chances to revitalize old connections (a cousin of mine wrote from Canada), and an Easter visit in France is lovely.

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Sue, at least the French don't mind when we don't stick to the rules...and they still understand what I'm on about!
Don't you have the urge to meet your French penfriend again?

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi IG - yes, I remember your post about Eric Tossi. I was convinced you'd made his name up! :-P

I dropped so lucky with Claudine as I really do think students were paired up by drawing names out of a hat - and it could have ended up so differently!
2 years after the 1st exchange trip only 3 of us were still in contact with our exchangees and 5 years on, I was the only 1. Interestingly, I did get a request from an old schoolfriend asking me to ask Claudine if she knew where her old exchange friend was...she didn't!

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Britta. It was very easy very quickly with Claudine and Gerard and with Didier and Florence (Claudine's sister) as they were the ones I'd known best. It took a little longer with the 2 younger brothers as they'd only been 15 and 11 when I last saw them!
The whole big family meal on the Sunday was very familiar though - and great fun!

Anonymous said...

Hi Liz!
What a wonderful heart-warming story. I'm so glad you've found your friend.
Very nice pictures, too!
And how envy I am of your and Andy's determination in (re) learning French. Well done! I've wanted to learn French since I was a teenager. Even bought 2 audio-courses... that have been collecting dust on the shelves for couple of years now :( - shame on me.


catmint said...

...sigh ... would it be horrible of me to admit to just a little bit of envy? I haven't been to France since the 60s (!) but through you feel I've had a little taste of it again. Anyway ... I'm pleased the reunion and trip were so successful and I think Himself looks much cuter than Didier!

Sue@G.L. Allotments said...

I would like to meet up with her again but we never seem to be in a place where that could happen - for a while she was living in French Guyana. WE have sort of drifted to cards and notes etc.

Kathryn said...

Awwww. This is such a sweet reunion story that I got teary. :) I'm so happy for you all! Your Paris story is lovely as well. Well done, dear!

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Olga. We did very little French when the girls were young too, so don't beat yourself up over not using the audio courses!!!
Maybe that's not the right learning style for you anyway? It doesn't work as well for me as it does for Andy as I much prefer the interaction with someone else!
Perhaps I should just speak in French with you when we have coffee soon?!!

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Catmint, no,no, you're fine - envy away! :-)I love France and it's a bit like going home wherever in France we go...but this really was going home!!

I agree - Didier was seriuosly cute when he was younger, but Himself wins hands down now!!!

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Sue...French Guyana eh? Tricky!
If my experience is anything to go by, it'd be well worth the effort to pick up the relationship again :-)

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Kathryn - I got all teary at the Gare du Nord station as we left, but at least I know we'll see them again soon! :-)

joey said...

Crazy me in life to finally get to this fabulous/heartwarming post, dear Liz. (And I knew you were going ... ) Sounds like all was perfect and a well- deserved reunion with cherished friends. So enjoyed the trip beside you, fun friend. Love the Eiffel Tower Shots and the last shot of you two is endearing!

How cute were you in your 'heyday' and still are! Your zest for life is contagious, dear Liz. One day my dream is to see the 'Ho-Hum Housewife', Mr. Ho-Hum, Nutty Gnome, and Himself posing together in a photo :) We have talked of this ... perhaps one day to come true.

Nutty Gnome said...

I'm glad you got here in the end Joeyluv! I bet life with the peepers has been keeping you busy?! :-)

The trip was wonderful and I too love that last photo of me and Himself - we don't often get a good one of both of us! Shows what a happy, relaxed trip it was.

Not sure I was ever cute (or had a heyday for that matter!), but I do love life and you can see it only too well my dear friend!

I can imagine the 4 of us posing for a photo too - but laughing and talking too much at the same time! :-D ....we will make our shared dream come true at some point in the not too distant future Joey, I can feel it in my bones!!!

BilboWaggins said...

Hi Nutty, sorry I didn't comment before - I meant to :{

Lovely to read your account of the trip, it really comes across how much it meant to yo and what a wonderful reunion you had.

Hope your next trip is as successful (gulp - out of practice at making scones and the home-grown strawberries won't be ready)

Woody Wilbury said...

That's a wonderful post and a wonderful story; one of your best, in a blog which sets the bar pretty high. Great stuff.

Nutty Gnome said...

Ey up Bilbo!You've got it sussed - it was very important to me to have found Claudine and her family again. They were such an important part of my teenage years.
The reunion was initially nerve wracking, but I really couldn't have hoped for it to have gone any better! :)

Haha - don't fret. Our next trip will also be wonderful - a meeting of minds and mad midgets!!! Feed us G&T and the scones can be rock hard and we won't care! :)
Can't wait to come up regardless of lack of strawberries!

Nutty Gnome said...

Aaawh, Thanks Woody *blushes*!!!

Pondside said...

What a great trip that must have been. I've often imagined finding my pen pal from Singapore - I never met her, but was connected with her by her brother who was studying in Canada.

Nutty Gnome said...

Hi Pondside. You really ought to try and find her again, it'd be such fun!

larry smith said...

Great to know the -- in depth from this blog.This will really help for my forward steps to be taken.

Nutty Gnome said...

Thank you for visiting my bloga dn for your kind message Larry. I hope to see you again soon :-)