When last I left you, Jen and I had just visited the Louvre andthe Musee D’orsay. Here is what happened since …
Our visit to the Musee D’orsay (a converted train station which now showcases the creme-de-la-creme of French and European painters, including Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Monet) over, Jen (my sister) and I made our way to the Paris Austerlitz station to catch a train back to Limoges, a three-hour trip that would take us back to family and a few days rest.
Mum and Aunt Kate met us at the train station at Limoges, a city of just under 140,000 in central France, and we were whisked away to a buffet restaurant named Flunch. My new-found command of the French language was no more use here than in Paris – especially since my use of the term “command” actually means mumbling a few badly-pronounced French words (“uhh, je voudrais, uhh, steak?”) then clumsily explaining myself in a mix of English and hand signals.
Following a poor dinner selection (mostly my own fault given the language barrier), we made our way to the town of Eymoutiers, a village no bigger than Kerikeri in which an aunt and uncle own a large, gorgeous bed-n-breakfast type house that is a temporary home to nine of us.
As it was quite late when we arrived in town, I didn’t get my first real look at Eymoutiers until the following morning when I ventured into the town centre to check out the weekly markets. Eymoutiers is little more than a few streets of old stone buildings punctuated by small planters full of colourful flowers and a water fountain, but it has a charm which transcends its relatively-small size; beside the large-scale tourist attractions of Paris, Eymoutiers is quint-essential France. It’s quite lovely.
The town is populated by older folk, all of whom nod and smile as you pass them in the street, and is home to a handful of small shops. The only big-name store (a Casino “supermarche”) is on the outskirts of town, and the village centre is made up of a couple of “tabacs” and “patissiers” (dairies and bakeries, for the folk at home), as well as the usual bookshops, boutiques and real estate offices.
Thursday morning is also market day, and the village is full of folding tables covered in goods, with amateur salesmen selling everything from clothing to giant wheels of cheese, and watches to fresh vegetables. I’m hesitant to use the word cute, but it really is. I end up picking up a new watch at one stall, before heading into two separate patissiers for a croissant and a pain au chocolat.
For dinner, the family – made up of Mum, Jen and I, plus three pairs of aunts and uncles, and a Czechoslovakian friend of the family – head to a restaurant on the shores of Lac De Vassiviere, a man-made reservoir spreading over 10 square kilometres, that I’m told was designed by Nazis during WW2 but constructed after the war by local French workers.
This fact underpins something else that I’ve noticed about France: whether positive or negative, the French embrace their history. For example, rather than scrap plans for the reservoir and burying the fact that Nazis were involved in its design, the locals now wear that fact like a badge of honour. Local train stations bear plaques that identify them as sites where Jews were shipped off to concentration camps, and we saw these plaques at both Eymoutiers tiny station and the huge Paris Austerlitz station. In a weird way, this display of history is like that one friend who likes to show off his scars; “I got this one when I fell off my bike, and got this one when civil war nearly tore our country apart”. Hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
Friday morning starts slowly with a lazy breakfast, but around lunchtime Mum, Jen and I – accompanied by one of my aunts – head in to Limoges for a bit of shopping; I was after a new pair of shoes since the pair I brought with me turned out to be half a size too small and their temporary replacements had gotten more and more uncomfortable over two days. I was also after some item of clothing that would commemorate my time in France, settling on a Paris Saint-Germain soccer shirt (PSG were playing on a television in the restaurant where Jen and I had dinner on the Tuesday night).
After returning to Eymoutiers, we have a few minutes before a French couple, friends of my aunt and uncle who own the house in Eymoutiers, arrive for dinner. Wine is consumed, fantastic food is eaten, songs from all over the world are sung, and new friends are made. It all makes for a fantastic night.
Saturday is our day to move on, with Mum, Jen and I catching back-to-back flights from Limoges to Stansted and Stansted to Belfast. As we have only around 90 or so minutes, we can’t afford any delays getting from one flight to the next … so, naturally, Jen and I end up stuck in the queue for UK customs for 40 minutes (I know these people have no obligation to help us meet our flight, but it was ludicrous how slow they were processing the queue of international travellers), learn that we have to exit the arrivals gate then enter back through Stansted security for our second flight (a completely redundant process) and Jen gets pulled over by security to have her bag checked thanks to a rogue bottle of contact lens fluid.
Fortunately we made our connecting flight on time, getting to the gate a few minutes after final check-in but slightly before they had started boarding the flight. We were on our way to Belfast, Mum’s home town and a place I had visited many times as a child, but not at all since 1991.
If I’m being honest, I actually got a little misty eyed after my first site of land in Northern Ireland. I have so fewmemories of my childhood, and only vague impressions of the family I haven’t seen in 21 years, yet this is a place where I spent a good portion of my childhood – but the fact that the people and places feel so foreign to me now, to the point where I’m conflicted by the feeling that this should be a return of sorts despite not actually feeling anything, is a little overwhelming.
All of that changed, however, a few minutes after landing in Belfast. Mum, Jen and I disembark our flight and arrange a hire car, then meet an aunt and cousin down the road. And as I exited the hire car on the side of the road and went in for a massive hug from an aunt and cousin – neither of whom I had really talked to, much less seen in person, in over 21 years – and as I spied a blackberry bush on the side of the road, I was suddenly struck by the feeling that this was a place I belonged and these were people who were important to me, and who I was important to. It was a great feeling.
We followed the aunt and cousin back to the aunts house and met an uncle I hadn’t seen in just as long, saying our hellos and settling in to our temporary home, before spending the evening together catching up on two decades of life over a feast of Chinese food. It might sound silly, but it was blissful in its own way.
I awoke on Sunday morning to find that I had actually slept in quite late, so hurriedly got dressed and quickly ate some breafast before heading out with Mum and Jen to meet another aunt and uncle. Unlike when we arrived on Saturday, and I found that some deep part of my brain was able to remember where we were and remember that I had been there before, I didn’t recognise where we were going – yet, as I went in for another big hug and took in the smell of the house, I knew that the place (and the people) was special and important to me.
Later that afternoon, we met up with a large contingent of family – 17 adults and 11 children, by my count – for that most Belfast-ian of dining experiences: dinner at the hotel. As has been the case all through this trip, I found that the family members (and their partners) are a kind of kindred spirit; I can’t articulate it, but there is something that connects us beyond mere ancestry, subtle similarities that show themselves and that identify us as one and the same.
Yet, at the same time, dinner was oddly overwhelming – and not just because there were so many faces, old and new, to be acquainted and reacquainted with. While the older family members, the aunts and uncles, were much how I had remembered them, the cousins were a different story. For example, prior to this trip, one cousin existed as a memory of a ginger-haired 7 year old with a mischievous grin. Now, that same cousin is a 28 year old man with a wife, a job, and three kids of his own.
The challenge of reconciling the memory and the reality is a real shock to the system, one that I haven’t quite come to terms with just yet. Every family member I meet is at once a joy and a jolt; a joy to be reunited with someone who was once, and still is, so precious, and a jolt from the dream state in which they previously existed to me.
I guess that is just something I’ll have to get used to on this trip.
Anyway, that is enough from me for today – I have a few more thoughts on Belfast and the reality of the social situation here, as compared with the perception I had of Belfast and the social situation here, but I’ll save those until my next update after I get them in order and spend a few more days in this wonderfully interesting city. Until then …