Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.
My seatmate in car 7, seat 44, gave me a discreet nod before the train made its introductory lurch out of Paris. At a cruising speed of 300 kilometres an hour, our TGV would be in southwestern France in about three hours, during which time the landscape would evolve from urban to rural and from grey to bright as we charged our way south across the Loire River, the magic middle of France. Making this trip side by side, or at least in parallel formation, my seatmate and I owed each other an instant of mutual acknowledgement, the stuff of minimal courtesy appropriate for French train behaviour. This would be the barely perceptible nod.
We had nothing in common, of course. He was a budding, awkward young man, unformed enough to be called a girl had he been a woman. And I was…well…I could have been his teacher, his guidance counsellor, his maiden aunt as far as he was concerned, the one with the funny hat on her head and garden shears in her hands. Nevertheless, we would be cast together within inches of each other for the next three or so hours in various poses of repose, paying attention not to rub elbows while in the vaguely abandoned state of fragmented sleep.
I had brought along the Times, filling my morning with the dusty despair of thousands of refugees, going from bad to worse. He, on the other hand, had a girlie magazine and filled his incredulous eyes with any number of feminine forms of curves and roundness. Peu importe. Every now and then, I cast a side-long glance over his shoulder and caught an unsettling vision of unclothed “naturelle.” But maybe he was surreptitiously eyeing an article about the stock market on my newspaper’s back page for all I know, seeking to improve his English as he made out the tiny numbers recording the ups and downs of our lives.
I switched to my novel, an important work of the 20th century, but I bogged down in the preface. He grabbed L’Equipe, the French sports daily whose readership tops all other dailies in France. Manchester was in trouble. So were the Parmesans. A number of promising teams had uninspired coaches, coaches suspected of corruption, coaches no longer in control, coaches liable to lash out.
My stomach started to growl. Not a problem. I turned to my pack of madeleines, so smartly purchased before the TGV’s take-off from Montparnasse. I had unearthed them at the newspaper stand before trying to make sense of the profusion of platforms and confusion of tracks offering Parisians an escape into the fair provinces. True, my seat in second-class was a far cry from Marcel Proust’s velvety sickroom. There was no dreamy view onto a lone linden tree through a voile-curtained window, nor would there be a hand-crocheted table runner for me to ponder as I sipped my tea. But a madeleine was a madeleine and just what I needed at that point. I clawed at the packaging until its crinkly paper yielded under my insistent manhandling. Six small industrially-produced madeleines lay in wait, encased in an egg carton-type configuration. Let’s see, which one first? Quelle décision. But then, remembering my manners, I turned to my neighbour and offered up some of my precious bounty: “Voulez-vous une madeleine?”
He looked up from his article, taken aback by my intrusion, but only for a moment. “Non, merci,” he answered, with a pleasant smile.
What a nice smile, I thought. Of course, he wouldn’t want a madeleine. He’s not some old lady whose main deal in life is a quest for a good dunker. He’s probably more a beer and pretzels kind of guy anyway.
“But that’s very kind of you,” he added as an afterthought.
Très gentil à vous? Well, isn’t he just the sweetest thing? Bless his little ol’ heart. I extracted my first madeleine and started to munch away, turning to gaze out the window at some faraway stone farmhouses. Perfectly rounded little Fisher Price sheep dotted a rolling hill as if carefully placed by the hands of an intent child. No linden trees in sight, but soon we’d be hitting the region of plane trees, whose majestic branches and silvery trunks would make a welcome vision for the weary traveller bound for the South. We chugged along. Certainly, we were very far from the literary salons frequented by Marcel Proust and his cohorts, the bons mots tossed off in bemused nonchalance within a buzzing hubbub of artists and intellectuals. But I didn’t feel neglected or envious. Not one bit. Even the workaday world of the 21st century could still cast a hint of elegance.
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A native Californian, Meredith Escudier has lived in France for over 35 years, teaching, translating and raising a family. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Imitation Fruit, Writers Workshop Review, Alimentum, New Verse News, Persimmon Tree, The Bluebird Word and others. She is the author of Scene in France…from A to Z, an Abecedarian from which her essay – V is for Voulez-vous – is drawn.
Lead photo credit : A TGV speeding through the French countryside © olrat / shutterstock
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