A and I were supposed to take a trip last week, because our Eurail passes were to expire soon. (Mine still has an unacceptably clean cover. The association of European train companies is pointing and laughing at me, right now). We went back and forth over where to go, finally settling on a small place in France itself, in the extreme north of the country, namely Etretat.
I wonder why more people do not go wild about Etretat in the way that they are about, say the cliffs of Marseilles. You see, Etretat is a tiny, cute townlet (it’s halfway between a town and a village) upon the seaside. The sea in question is of course the English Channel, which if I remember my sixth standard French lessons correctly is called La Manche by the locals. That literally means “the sleeve”. As in, “The French weather always has some tricks up its sleeve.”
Of course, one doesn’t go to Etretat to get a sun tan (or rather, a cold-wind-burn), but to admire the set of wild cliffs that one nearly walks into 300 m from the main bus stop. They’ve been admired, painted, and generally made love to for centuries. A long time ago when said bus stop was merely a gleam in some yet-to-be-born town planner’s eye, a French painter called Courbet decided that the cliffs were the perfect place for his Realist composition, The Cliffs at Etretat after the Storm:
Upon which, of course, Claude Monet went ahead and painted several versions of his own. “My Impressionist cliffs are better than your Realist lumps of rock! Take that!”
One cannot reach Etretat directly by train from Paris. Instead, one has to get down from a Haute Normandie Regional train at a depressing town called Le Havre, and take an hour’s bus ride from there. We stepped into the said train to find all the seats done up in the most incredibly cheering purple colored plushy stuff. When combined with the bright green and pink headrests, the compartment looked like a child’s bedroom.
“This is the cutest train I have ever seen,” I exclaimed, ” and I never thought I’d use the adjective “cute” to describe a train.”
The atmosphere was made even more fair-like by the presence of two extremely chirpy children who kept running up and down the corridor and distracting their mother from her copy of Cosmopolitan.
This was good, because Le Havre struck us with depression the moment we set foot into it. It is a sleepy little town (I don’t think we saw more than four people on the streets at the same time) where everyone seems to be either too old or too young, with the too-old faction predominant. The town’s chief place of entertainment seemed to be the mall, which is actually the converted docks. A mall in a former docks. Brilliant. Once upon a time, in the days of glory before air travel became inexpensive, Le Havre was where passengers on the chief New York-Paris and other Atlantic liners would disembark, and the train line we just came on would have been one of the busiest in France.
Anyway, we were not going to stay for long in the town (or so we thought). Unfortunately, due to a bit of negligence on our part, it turned out that we would have to wait about two hours for our bus to Etretat, instead of the half-hour we had accounted for. This information was relayed to us by a middle-aged lady in the information desk who at first spoke so fast and so strangely that I wondered why I couldn’t understand basic French anymore. Then it dawned on me that we were in Normandy where the pronunciation of the simplest French words is different enough from “Standard” French to be confusing.
<Start pretentious linguistic observation>
(For example, vingt in French means “twenty” and is pronounced vanh(t), approximately; whereas people here kept pronouncing it as vankt.) They also tend to have an un-French, almost English preference for the K-sound over the sh-sound: “cow: is “vac” rather than “vache” Not surprising.)
<End pretentious linguistic observation>
So A and I were stuck for more time than we wanted to in Le Havre, which time was utilized by us in
- Freezing half to death
- Going to the nearest Carrefour and getting us stuff to eat
- Freaking out over the location of the bus
- Eating tortilla chips (see 3)
- Freaking out over the fact that we were taking a much later bus than we had bargained for, and would therefore only be able to come back to Le Havre by the very last bus from Etretat. At 6:40. Failing this, we would be stuck there. Even this would not have worried us so much if it hadn’t been for the fact that the last train from Le Havre to Paris was at…wait for it…6:55.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of waiting in a gloomy town, the bus arrived. The big white vehicle lumbered down the road and then gently crashed into the side of a small green car that was just pulling away from the stop, denting it rather badly. The occupant of the green car looked up in exasperation.
The bus driver didn’t seem put out at all. She beamed all over her pretty, round face, tucked some of her blonde hair back behind her ears and very heartily said something – an apology I suppose- to the man in the car, who shrugged. We heard her mentioning the accident over her intercom but she remained as cheerful as ever while handing us our tickets.
“If she blunders into every damned lamppost on the way to Etretat, we’re doomed,” I muttered. (Old stereotypes die hard.)
“We’ll have to hope and pray that she doesn’t do something like this on the way back,” murmured A, frowning anxiously. “Otherwise we’ll have to spend the night at the station, which I do not exactly fancy doing.”
Old Man William Had A Cliff
We got onto the bus and almost promptly fell asleep, while it ambled at a leisurely pace through gentle, rolling countryside featuring unpronounceable villages like Octeville-sur-Mer and Heucqueville. Normandy is full of place names derived from long-dead Norwegian invaders. (Like, 1000-years-long-dead.) It also appears to be full of cows. And horses. At one point, I saw a bunch of kids riding some extremely fat ponies by the side of the road, as though to forcibly emphasize the fact that we were in the country. I cannot lie and say that I did not envy them a little bit. Imagine owning a pony as a pet.
We finally reached Etretat and were almost sorry to bid our extremely cheerful bus driver good-bye. Then we trudged up the small main road of the town, wondering where the famous cliffs were.
“I’m sure it’s a twenty minute walk,” I said. And the next moment…
The beach was full of pebbles rather than sand, which is actually nice because pebbles don’t get inside your shoes. We floundered about a bit on the said pebbles, were requested by a young Frenchman and his Asian girlfriend to take photos, and then climbed up onto the cliffs. At that height, the wind is so fierce and cold that one’s exposed face starts feeling very, very unhappy. You begin to toy seriously with the idea of clown-style nose warmers, and you begin to understand why people wear scarves that you can tie under the chin instead of stupid hats that seem to want to fly off into the breeze and become One with Nature. Or you start looking at animals (who never seem to feel the cold) with envy, like the two identical black dogs that came up to the cliff with their owners and obediently posed for pictures together, like a pair of human twins.
We wandered around the town, which was as small a town as any small town whose only source of income is tourism. At one house, I stopped, looked at the door, and laughed.
“What’s the matter ?” A asked. I pointed to the sign, which said:
“No. 17 – Le Bengali”
Chhe Chaalis ki Last Local
At the bus stop, a group of slightly nervous Chinese tourists – all girls- were waiting with us too.
“If the bus doesn’t come on time, we’ll have to beat them to the nearest hotel,” said A in Hindi. I giggled. But we were half-serious.
Mademoiselle the Bus Driver appeared on time, though everyone was ready at the stop almost twenty minutes earlier. She smiled at us again and we waltzed into the countryside. This time, she seemed aware that the bus was full of anxious passengers who’d probably start making a terrific fuss if they missed the 6:50 train to Paris.
Ten minutes away from Le Havre, disaster (almost) struck in the shape of a traffic jam. A traffic jam. On a highway. In France.
Somehow, our blessed bus driver managed to extricate us out of it and we set off again. Thankfully, no one stopped or got off at the intermediate stops. Before the passengers all rushed off to the platform, a spontaneous cheer went up for Mademoiselle. We made it to the cute train with several minutes to spare.
So who says girls can’t drive ?