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French Impressions The Loire Valley    

( George East )

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Once again our hero takes to the road to bring us his unique perspective on a region of France. This time the East caravan pitches up in the Valley of Kings, as the Pays de la Loire area is known to some visitors because of the three hundred-plus castles along the River Loire. To others, the Loire Valley is known as the Garden of France. Those of the six million yearly visitors who have fallen foul of rapacious restaurant and hotel owners may be forgiven for dubbing the area as The We Saw You Coming. In this latest example of George’s unusual and searingly honest take on places, people and Life, we travel with the Easts from where the Loire exits into the Atlantic Ocean and on across the length of the Pays de la Loire, calling in on historic towns like Nantes, Angers, Tours and Orleans on route. As well as a wealth of information on the culture, history and food and drink of the region, the new French Impressions book contains recipes for such traditional Loirean dishes as frogs’ legs, coq au vin and roasted swan

 

Extract

 

French Impressions:
The Loire Valley

 

 

Blois to Orléans

Another month and another wake for a Briton who will forever occupy some corner of a foreign field or crematorium.

According to the official statistics, 1.2 million homes in other parts of the world are owned by Britons, and at 40 percent of that total, France is by far the most popular country in which to have a holiday or permanent home. In recent years, many thousands of older Britons have cashed in on the property price differential to sell in the UK, buy in France and live off the interest on their new nest egg. At least that was the plan.

For some it proved a good move. Others missed their children, grandchildren and the ready availability of proper English food like curry and kebabs. For whatever reasons, a lot of new British expatriates simply did not like living in a foreign country. Some would be able to move back to familiar surroundings; others had no choice but to stay where they did not want to be for the rest of their lives. As we have observed, dying in France can be as different and complicated as living here.

 Donella spoke to the latest widow and said she appears to be handling the tragedy well. The lady had made no secret of the fact that the couple being forced to live in close confinement in a foreign country had put a strain on their marriage, and there were some positive aspects to her husband’s passing-on. Her pension would not be reduced, there would now be one less mouth to feed and no weekly drinks and cigarette bill to settle. Best of all, her husband had collapsed and breathed his last in the Foods of the World section of their local LeClerc supermarket. 

According to her and because of a peculiarity in French law, people dying in public places have their funeral expenses paid for by the state. This meant a saving of several thousand euros, and a small but additional bonus was that she had not been charged for the groceries in the full trolley her husband had been pushing.

She was obviously not celebrating the circumstances or occasion of her husband’s death, but would be e-mailing a number of women friends of a similar age to tell them of the possible advantages of going shopping together when their husbands looked particularly dicky.

 *

The wake for the deceased expat went fairly well, except for the fear, loathing and sometimes severe trauma that a typical English buffet usually induces in French guests.

 The event was staged at Didier’s bar and the catering was supplied by the friends of the departed. This arrangement meant there was bound to be a lot of food politics. The idea of each attendee bringing an example of their favourite party snack is increasingly popular at Brit bashes, but can lead to outbreaks of over-competitiveness or even sabotage.

 Any such gathering will also bring out the xenophobia which seems to lie within all expats of any race. The progression is usually to a set pattern, starting with the Brits trying hard to be nice about their host country, but ending with a savage attack on the shortcomings of the nation’s way with a sausage, cup of tea or chip.

 Another peculiarity observed at these gatherings is that the longer many British expatriates live in a country, the less of its language they speak, or agree to speak. This is most noticeable in Spain, but applies more and more in France. One recently widowed lady told me she intends marrying again, but will choose a French man because she will then not have to bother to learn the language.

 A particular problem with the wake being held at Didier’s was that thanks to our weekly sessions, he now speaks better or more colloquial English than most of the guests, so understood all their veiled attacks. The highlight of the evening was when he stopped the local expat bore and soak in full flow by accusing him of being a cenosillicaphobic. It was not till I got home and looked it up that I realised the term meant having a fear of an empty glass.

Amboise

We and the handful of other visitors emerge into the grounds of Clos Lucé, each of us clearly stunned by what we have seen and learned. We thought we had known who Leonardo da Vinci was and what he did, but the range and scale of his inventiveness almost confounds belief. As with the works of Shakespeare, it is understandable that people would ask how one man could be capable of such things.

The tour began unimpressively as we walked around the house. Then, we passed through a kitchen and down to the basement where he would think up a new way to revolutionise the world and the way people lived. It is sad he did so much to make killing-machines more effective, but one has to remember the times and who his sponsors were.

In the small basement where he worked till his death, the evidence of his genius is everywhere. Plans for and models of a machine gun and tank sit next to a wind-up horseless carriage and, unbelievably, what looks like a modern-day touring bicycle, complete with chain. And this more than two hundred years before someone else came up with the Penny-Farthing as the best way to get around on two wheels. Overhead is a very modern-looking hang glider and parachute. In another room, a system of gear wheels and ball-bearings have been devised to transfer motion and power, and next door there is a steam-driven sledge hammer. Further on a diving helmet and bell, and a way to literally walk on water. The display made it clear that the inventor was a complete master of mechanical engineering, with a creative genius’s eye for how to apply his knowledge for astonishing practical effect. 

 We were not alone in being awestruck by this testament to what the human mind can conceive, and it is the first time I have heard gasps and even cries of awe, wonder and astonishment in a small and otherwise unremarkable museum.

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