Carnet de Voyage: When is an Oven not an Oven? 

Carnet de Voyage: When is an Oven not an Oven? 

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.

“How do you work this thing?”  My wife was squatting down in the kitchen of our place in Lanvallay, in Brittany’s Côtes d’Armor, trying to get this crazy oven to re-heat our dinner. We had been on the go all day, it was late and a nice, simple meal at home was all we wanted. The French do a lot of things well but making household appliances that Americans can understand is not one of them.  

We have known this since our first visit to France many years ago and have yet to master a single kitchen or laundry machine on any of our subsequent visits. Even the owners of the little cottages and apartments we rent can’t explain all of the functions on their appliances. They usually point to one setting and tell us to “Just use this one”. The washing machine in the Lanvallay apartment had over thirty options. Jean-Jacques, the owner of this ancient house, pointed to the setting that said Everyday and said, “Just use this one”.  

Dinan by night © Michael Harrelson

When we first arrived in Lanvallay Jean-Jacques gave us a tour of our digs which included, of course, how to work the appliances. We had the top two floors of this four-story 16th century stone house. As he showed us around the place he launched into a long explanation of how he and his brother had taken their ancient family home and created the perfect mix of old and new. The smile on his face as he pointed out their work was evidence of the pride he took in this huge accomplishment. Some of the walls and window casements were exposed, raw, no-mortar, stone blocks two feet thick. Other walls were seamlessly covered in a false front with the plumbing and wiring behind.  The super modern induction stovetop was set back into an old, oversized fireplace and the other kitchen appliances ran along the adjacent outside wall. It was all pretty cool, really.  

We had solidly booked every moment of our eight-day stay in Brittany and never had time for either market day or one of my famous seat-of-the-pants French dinners. Cheeses, a baguette and wine on the couch made up most of our evening meals. Wanting something more substantial, we had crossed the old stone bridge over the Rance River into Dinan, Lanvallay’s better-known sister city, and bought some prepared items from a traiteur. The lovely little storefront market was long and narrow with a kitchen in the back where they made all of the items sold. Up front the food was presented in white ceramic tureens or steel trays and regardless of what caught your eye – a piece of chocolate cake, croissants, a slice of pâté, veal chops – everything was priced by weight. It was a true cornucopia of Breton fare and a feast for the eyes. We chose a baked chicken, roasted fingerling potatoes, Greek salad and an incredible Pavlova. We walked our dinner home, stored it in the mini-fridge and immediately set off on the long drive into the French countryside to see this bizarre outdoor museum in Lizio created by The Junkyard Poet, Robert Coudray. Tonight, when we returned, we would get our chance to see if anything Jean-Jacques told us about the oven actually sank in. 

The Museum of the Iron Poet © Michael Harrelson

It was after 19h when we parked our rented Renault along the Rance. We were beat. We made our way up the winding staircase and poured a glass of wine while we settled in to warm up our chicken and potatoes. There was, however, the issue of operating the oven. I joined my wife in front of the slick black plastic appliance door and we began… 

“How do you work this thing?” 

“I don’t know. I’m sure we have to find the ON switch first.” 

“Did he say that was the button with the line or the circle?” 


“Alright, we have lights on the panel!” 

“How do you set the temperature?” 

“I think you have to choose a function first. Pick the one with the pot and the wavy lines.” 

“Nothing. I’m going to push the Eco button.” 

“Fine. It looks like you set the temperature with the knob.” 

“It only goes up to 80 degrees. What’s that in Fahrenheit?” 

“The iPad says that’s 176 degrees. Are you sure it doesn’t go higher? Try changing the function. Try the wavy line pot one.” 

“Nope. Eighty is as high as it goes.” 

“That doesn’t make any sense but I don’t care. Start it up and we’ll just keep an eye on it. I think that’s the circle one.” 

“Hey, it’s going.  Hand me my wine.” 

(Long pause) 

“Do you hear water running?” 

“Oh, Mike, that’s the dishwasher!” 

Microwave to the rescue.   

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here

Michael Harrelson is a retired “orthophonist” and has chosen to dedicate his travels almost exclusively to France and, always, Paris. Michael and his wife, Nancy live in San Diego, California. They have explored most of the regions of France and love the small village of Semur-en-Auxois; quiet, beautiful and the perfect place to contemplate the slow moving Armançon River and write.

Lead photo credit : The River Rance flowing through Dinan © Michael Harrelson

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Michael Harrelson, 73, is retired and has chosen to dedicate his travels to primarily France and, always, Paris. Michael and his wife, Nancy, were both “orthophonistes” who worked in the public schools of San Diego, California. They have explored most of the regions of France and love the small village of Semur-en-Auxois; quiet, beautiful and the perfect place to contemplate the slow moving Armançon River and write.

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  • Pamela Cook
    2023-10-05 10:45:33
    Pamela Cook
    Sympathies with the washing machine etc! My own machine has 15 options of which I only use 2! Why do manufacturers feel the need to include every option they can think of? Another of life's little mysteries.


  • Peter Stonehouse
    2023-10-05 10:39:04
    Peter Stonehouse
    Amusing; and I'm sure many people will relate to the question of "how to" appliances; and mixing up the dishwasher with the oven? Not likely, but I'm not an American. Most rental properties would make available the appliance instruction manuals, at least that's what I used to do, but there's always someone who places a metal item in the Microwave......


  • Kathleen P
    2023-10-04 05:43:09
    Kathleen P
    Loved this! We have used many washing machines in France and never have understood any of them! It’s a miracle our clothes got clean.


    • Michael Harrelson
      2023-10-06 02:15:09
      Michael Harrelson
      Thank you. I appreciate your kind words. We once rented a lovely apartment in Lyon with a combo washer/dryer - throw in a load then walk away. It seemed pretty cool. The only timed we used it we put in a medium sized pile of dirty clothes and went on a day trip outside of the city. We came home 14 hours later and the machine had not finished! We ended up just pulling out the still damp clothes and hanging them around the place. Funny thing, we are in Paris right now. Great weather but a lot of people because it’s Fashion Week.