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Am I on vacation yet?

So this morning I woke up at 4:15, took a shower, finished packing, and hopped in a cab for Montparnasse, which took no longer than ten minutes. I got my tickets and killed an hour in the station. Ever wonder what Gare Montparnasse looks like at 5:15 AM?


Suffice it to say, it was empty. The trains were completely uneventful (comfortable, reasonably speedy, and I didn’t miss my connection), so I’ll skip over that part. I got to Surgères right on time at 9 AM; a gentleman came over to me and asked if I was there for “la stage,” I said yes, and he led me to what was actually the filthiest car I think I have ever encountered. Luckily it smelled all right.

I had been planning on getting a pastry or something in the station in Paris, but since it was 5 AM, nothing was open yet, and I didn’t even have enough small change for the vending machine. So instead I had an apple…and then some almonds…and then some dried fruit…I was intending to hold out until lunch at 1, but that was not even close to an option. When we parked in front of the church in St. Sauveur d’Aunis, I told my escort that I needed to run to the grocery store. But this is a very, very small town, and the grocery store had nothing I was interested in eating except what I pretty much already had. I had noticed a bakery open on the way into town (as well as a charcuterie, which smelled absolutely stunning), so I wandered in and asked the woman behind the counter if she could break a 50 euro bill. She could. (NB: This has consistently been one of my biggest worries in Paris. I almost never take out more than 30 euro at a time, for fear that the ATM will give me a 50 and no one will be able to break it.) Anyway, I think Paris needs to step up its pastry game.


I think the only chocolatine I’ve had in France that rivals this one is the one I had in St. Yrieix last summer–also an exceptionally small town. This one wasn’t warm anymore, but somehow the chocolate was still liquidy. How do they do it?! Meryl Streep probably knows the secret, and it’s probably complicated.

Anyway. It always makes me sad to realize that not all of France is as picturesque and charming as I think it will be. St. Sauveur d’Aunis is decidedly not a pretty town, though it does have its bright spots (and in its defense, it was cloudy and gray when I made my first impressions).





And then la stage started. Actually, it started out well. I really enjoyed the whole morning, even though it was incredibly challenging because I have actually never been taught to read neusmes, which are these:

We warmed up slowly, working on breathing and relaxing first, and then singing one phrase of Hildegard von Bingen’s “O rubor” on the breath and in different keys. Then we started the “déchiffrage,” or sight-reading. There’s a pattern to the way the notes are set up, and once you figure it out it becomes a lot easier–scratch that, it becomes possible to read medieval notation, at least the kind with square neusmes.

It felt really good to use my voice in a different way, even if I didn’t understand a lot of what Fabienne, the teacher, was explaining to me. (I later found out that most of the French people in the room didn’t understand either, so I felt better.) We sight-read Hildegard and some easier, more standard Gregorian chants, all morning, until it was time for lunch at 1.

The class is a really interesting mix of people, and all female. Two of them, Catherine and Marie-Geneviève (I love these hyphenated French names! Since arriving here, I’ve met a Marie-Renée, an Anne-Chantal, a Marie-Ève, a Marie-Geneviève, and more) had taken classes from Fabienne before, and one had done a master class with Catherine Schroeder. Then there was a trio of older ladies from Normandy who could have been a sitcom, I swear. I want to write a short story or something about them. Jennifer moved to France from England with her French husband years ago and never left; she’s tall and practical-looking, in very sensible shoes. Nelly is a teeny-tiny, utterly chic Frenchwoman, who, except for her singing voice which is quite lovely, reminds me forcibly of Madame Edith:

And Kate is a California hippie in harem pants who, when I asked her what she did, said, “Oh, you know, different things, art, literature, music.” Sounds like a good life, I thought.

In the class there is also a woman who, if I was understanding her correctly, is highly sensitive to light. We kept having to turn the lights off, or she would have to go stand in the darkest corner of the room. She complained non-stop about all of her maladies and her problems with her apartment’s heating and termites and oh la la, pfft. Catherine and Marie-Geneviève (who drove me to La Rochelle) thought she probably had some psychological issues to work out.

The teacher, Fabienne, is incredibly talented, and managed to hold my interest all the way through lunchtime. But after lunch, her enthusiasm began to be a bit much, and it was even harder to take than rah-rah enthusiasm, because it was more a sort of serene glow of fascination with her subject. It’s tough to make fun of somebody whose only thought is to make you love Gregorian chant as much as she does, which was probably never going to happen anyway, but I had also been awake since 4:15, and after a rather heavy French lunch (the French, by the way, know how to do a picnic. There is always bread and cheese and chocolate, and it’s always the tiniest, most stylish Frenchwoman who brings the best dessert) and a whole morning of sight-reading neusmes and struggling to understand explanations in French, I was completely épuisée.

Around 4, we headed over to the church, which would have been really glorious if it hadn’t been a solid ten degrees colder than it was outside (the room we had been in before started out so warm that I changed out of my boots into flats, and by the time we left to go to the church, I was wearing my coat and two sweaters). We all stood, bundled up, singing “O rubor” over and over again. Fabienne made to leave and said, “Unless you would rather stay,” and Jennifer, hardy Englishwoman that she is, replied, “Maybe just a little while longer.” Oy vey. At this point Catherine and I marched ourselves out of the church and back to the semi-heated room where we had been working. Fabienne told us when the rest of the class came back that there was to be a concert at 6 PM, and we were all welcome to stay and participate…but I was utterly relieved when Catherine and Marie-Geneviève, my rides to La Rochelle, preferred to leave.

I don’t think I have ever been so happy to get into a hotel room in my life. It’s a Hotel Ibis, which means that it might not be the most beautiful room, it has a very comfortable queen-sized bed and free wi-fi. I was really hoping for a bathtub, but by the time I got to the hotel and was handed a key by the smiling woman behind the counter, I was just hoping for clean and quiet, and I got both. Since a bath wasn’t an option, I got under the covers and slept from 6 to 8, then had dinner and went out to see La Rochelle at night. With a Nutella crèpe:


I’m going to take some more pictures of the center of La Rochelle, where I’m staying, in the morning when it’s light out (well, okay, lighter), but here are some preliminaries. It’s really a nice town. Obviously, sleepier than Paris (what isn’t?), but unlike say, Vienna, it feels like it’s the locals who are out and about in the center of the city on a Saturday night. And of course, it’s right on the coast.