Saturday, May 23, 2009

Rambles in the Haute Savoie with Old Friends

Thursday, May 21. 2009
Rumilly, Annecy and St. Felix in the Haute Savoie

Thursday dawned on what was Ascension Day—a long weekend in Catholic France. With the kids and Genevieve at home, it was the perfect day for us to go on a long drive to the Haute Savoie region which sits at the base of the French Alps. It was here that Genevieve was born and raised in a small village called Rumilly and it was here that I had spent several weeks one summer, about 23 years ago with her lovely family members. Though her dad Raymond passed away about 12 years ago, her lovely mum Lisette still lives in the village and it was her with whom I have often corresponded through the years that Genevieve was too busy raising her family.

On the Road to Rumilly:
Genevieve and I chatted non-stop all the way to Rumilly as she drove. There was so much with which we had to catch up—she wanted to know all about my family members, my past Indian students some of whom she remembered well from our tours of North India and my neighbors in Bandra, Bombay. I wanted to know about her family members and the many friends to whom she had introduced me when I had traveled with her in France (both in the Haute Savoie and then in Paris and Lyon). Before we knew it, we were in the lovely green clad foothills of the Alps passing by the picturesque villages that dot the landscape all the way across the border into neighboring Switzerland. Indeed, this drive took my mind back to so many years ago when Genevieve had driven me through so many parts of France from the south where we had visited her cousins in Provence and then the South of France where in the chic cities of Nice and Cannes and St. Tropez, I had spent time with her sister Chantal.

When we did arrive in Rumilly on Rue du Stade, I received a lovely warm welcome from her mother Lisette. No doubt the years have taken their toll on her. The bustling busy person I remembered has been replaced by a frail and rather slow woman whose voice has changed very much but who exuded the same hospitality and generosity of spirit that I remembered so well. Both of us hugged warmly, delighted to be seeing each other again.

I am most impressed by Lisette’s computer skills, the fact that she regularly visits my website, reads this blog daily in its French translation and is the one who gives Genevieve my annual family news that she receives through my annual holiday newsletter! She very proudly took me into her office to show me the space she has set up for herself with her computer and her printer. It is here, at the age of 80 plus that she communicates with her grand child in far away Ireland. How marvelous it was to share this aspect of her life with her!

We moved then into the kitchen for an aperitif, a rosé wine, as Lisette got ready for lunch. It was her immense generosity that had led her to invite me to lunch at a nearby restaurant and them to include her children (the ones who could make it), so that they could meet me. She had made reservations in the village of St. Felix at a lovely wayside place called Le Pot au Feu and it was there that I met the other Tougnes—Henri (Genevieve’s brother) and his daughter Julie, Brigitte (Genevieve’s sister) and her husband Jean-Claude.

We were a merry party indeed as we settled ourselves down to a marvelous typically French meal that included deep fried frog legs served in a lemon and parsley sauce (delicious) and a dessert of raspberry tart with a tasty custard center. Red wine flowed as did bread and the conversation was scintillating as we had so much to say to each other. They wanted to know about my assignment in London, the attitude and impressions of Americans towards the French and about my family in India and the US. It was lovely indeed and I was pleased that Lisette was able to join us fully in the happy conversation. When we had spent several hours eating and drinking at one of those French meals that always seem to go on forever, we finally stood up to leave.

On to Annecy:

Genevieve and I said our goodbyes to the rest of the company as we were headed to the beautiful Alpine town of Annecy where Lisette had taken me so many years ago by train from Rumilly and which I remembered with deep affection. It was great to be able to visit this place again and I was pleased that it was only a fifteen-minute ride away. Genevieve found parking easily and we walked a few meters on to the Old Town where the atmosphere has been well preserved to reflect the quaintness of an earlier era.

We spent a lovely two hours together in this beautiful town. Genevieve had not been to Annecy in a very long time while I remembered so many parts of it—from its island prison, its lake (le Lac d’Annecy), its Bridge of Lovers (Pont des Amants) and the medieval quality of its wrought-iron bridges as well as its hill-top fortress.

What I did not remember were the crowds for the long Bank Holiday weekend had attracted hordes of tourists and holidaymakers all of whom brought a lively energy to the place. In fact, Lake Annecy was full of boats and paddle craft and in the warm sunshine of a summer-like afternoon, so many folks had taken to the water. But like all such resorts, whether seaside or mountainside, Annecy is expensive and a small piece of handmade soap weighing no more than 100 grams cost almost 10 euros as I discovered to my great surprise!

Back to Rumilly:
On our way back to her mother’s place, Genevieve gave me a driving tour of Rumilly, the little village I remembered so well. Not much seems to have changed in this little sleepy place and on this holiday weekend, it appeared particularly deserted. Both Genevieve’s mother and brother live here and with her sister not too far, you can say that the family has stayed very close to its roots. I did recall its church, its lively market square with its weekly market from which Genevieve’s mother had once purchased strawberries (the first ones I had ever tasted) and some wonderful goat cheese and it was these memories that stayed with me as we drove around.

We were soon back at Genevieve’s mother’s place where we were able to say our final goodbyes. I do not know when I will see Lisette Tougne again and I was grateful that it was through her diligent correspondence with me that I have been able to stay in touch with Genevieve for so many years of our lives.

We took many pictures in Lisette’s lovely garden with its lavender irises and its blood red roses that climbed on a trellis all along one side of the house. Behind, in the back garden, Lisette has created a small hen coup where two beautiful hens were strutting around. They provide the eggs she eats as well as fruitful occupation through which she passes her days.

Dinner at Flunch:
The Ducote boys and Frederic eagerly awaited our arrival for we returned to St. Didier far later than we had expected. It had been decided that we would go out to dinner (much to the delight of the boys who love to eat out) and the Ducotes chose a self-service place called Flunch—a chain that is usually found near large supermarkets.

Driving past St. Didier, I was able to see its center square that surrounds its pretty church—it is always the church that creates the meeting point for folks in European villages in France as well as Italy. At Flunch, where we arrived just a few minutes later, we chose a variety of foods from salads to cold cuts to entrees, grilled foods (no marks for guessing that the boys went for hamburgers as they seem to be deeply enamored with American food--the grass is always greener on the other side, isn’t it?) and a number of desserts. Since both Genevieve and I were still full with the lunch we had eaten, we chose a selection of salads and vegetables, all of which were very tasty indeed.

Once again, I did not go off to sleep for a very long while. But I stopped letting it bother me, focusing instead of the marvelous opportunity I had been presented to spend a day with my old French friends with whom I go back so many years and to savor the experience of having spent such wonderful quality time with them. I know it will provide me with memories that I will carry with me into the next twenty-odd years.

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