Saturday, August 15, 2015


We've spent the past week in the Loire Valley, at the Château de Grésillon near Baugé-en-Anjou. This has been an Esperanto retreat since the 1950s; my penpal Ghislaine used to come here in the 1960s. In the summer they have weeklong events with different themes. Because of the timing and our liking for being with Esperanto children, we selected the week geared to families. Many of the families come back every year for this particular week.

We took a train from Paris to Le Mans, where we spent a night. We had a chance to see some of the old town, which dates from Roman times. The next day we took a bus to Baugé. We thought that there might be others on the bus headed to Grésillon, and—sure enough—a woman from China and her granddaughter joined us. She didn't speak any French, so we were able to help her purchase her ticket and get on the right bus. In turn she helped us out once we got to Baugé; we were prepared to walk the 3 kilometers to the chateau, but she had arranged for a friend, already there, to pick her up at the bus stop, and he luckily had enough room for us also.

Château de Grésillon

Grésillon reminded me a lot of the overnight camps I used to attend as a child. It's way out in the country, a half-hour walk from the nearest village, with lizards and ticks and tiny frogs and such. There were 43 of us, including about 15 children aged 2 to 16. We ate our (very good) meals together in the dining room, family style, and took turns helping to set and clear the tables. We had our own room in the chateau, with the bathroom down the hall and a sink and bidet in the room. (The first time I saw a bidet was in Paris 50 years ago, and I didn't know what the heck it was.) The grounds were large and diverse, with many parts converted to new uses.

Erstwhile pig stalls now used for toilets and showers for those camping in the fields

Like camp, there was some structure, but—unlike camp—we were free to do what we wanted at all times. In the mornings four Esperanto classes, at different levels, were held, but some people elected to not do any. I enjoyed my class very much, especially the many fun games we played, all designed to increase vocabulary and speaking ability.

In the afternoons some people went in cars to a nearby swimming lake, while others attended workshops (e.g. juggling), or did parachute games, or just had a nap. (Ha ha, Les and I did the naps a lot; the warm weather and country quiet seemed conducive.) I enjoyed two workshops about doing fast mental math; for instance I can say in seconds how much is 42 times 48, or what day of the week it was when you were born. Every day before supper we had 90 minutes of group singing. After supper were various forms of entertainment and talks. Twice I gave slide shows; it used to be one show, but now that we have over three months behind us, I've had to split it into two: "Living on a houseboat" and "Our long trip in Esperantujo".

I made bracelets out of little rubber bands

Les took advantage of a couple of the native French participants to improve his French. One of them is a teacher of French as a second language. It seemed fitting to be learning French in that region, because the Loire Valley is known as the cradle of the French language.

Speaking of French speakers, it was interesting to see the problems they face in learning Esperanto. I'm used to the challenges for English speakers, such as getting the "r" sound right, but I hadn't thought about the fact that other nationalities have their own difficulties. The French speakers who are relatively new to Esperanto, for instance, tend to accent the last syllable of each word (as is common in French), instead of the next-to-last syllable which is the rule for every single Esperanto word. And they tend to drop the "h" on the front of a word because that's what they do in French.

The children slept together in boys' and girls' dorms, and mostly kept to themselves, but I got to know Lucie very well. Rather than sitting at the children's table, she ate at the "vegetarian" table. She was attending with her grandmother (not at our table), who had taught her Esperanto, and she spoke very well. She sought me out because her mother had advised her to make friends with the non-French people in order to get the most out of the experience. She conducted herself so easily among the adults that I assumed she was at least 13, so was very surprised to find out that she was only ten! When I mentioned this to a French woman, she was surprised that I was surprised; apparently it's common in France for children to be comfortable speaking with adults, including initiating the conversation and showing interest in the adult. Lucie led some of the children each day in the cup game which was new to me; at Lucie's behest I tried it, but saw immediately that it was hopeless.

Lucie and friend

A few years ago I read a book called French Kids Eat Everything, and now I saw it in action. It was so refreshing to see all the children (even the three-year-olds) contentedly eating what the adults ate. Maybe they didn't eat everything, but I never heard whining or "but I don't like that" or "ugh".

I don't know whether I can generalize from a single experience, but it seemed like the European parents and grandparents (many children had come with grandparents instead of parents, and a 13-year-old boy was there completely by himself) had a much more laid-back attitude, espousing the "free range children" idea. For example, when I saw two 3-year-olds gleefully flinging sand and small rocks at each other, I thought "this is going to end in injury or at least a lot of crying". I looked around for caregivers to alert them, but there were no other adults in sight. The game, fortunately, ended without problems. Crying, actually, was very rare. The children were so infrequently with their guardians that even at the end of the week—when I knew many adults fairly well, and some of the children a bit—I still didn't know which children went with which parents or grandparents.

The children often gathered in this spot

The children played with a large parachute

Les finally had time to research the bird he's come to love ever since Scotland. Its call sounds like a Morse code "R", which signifies "OK" or "Roger". We've heard the bird in every country in Europe, but we never saw what bird made the sound. Les narrowed it down to a type of dove, and on a long solitary walk he finally got to see the bird making the call. It's a Eurasian collared dove.

The weather was generally very pleasant, warm but not hot. Twice there were torrential downpours, and one night thunder and lightning, very different from the drizzles we're used to in Seattle. But the rain was refreshing, and made us feel cozy in our chateau.

A cartoon hanging in one of the bathrooms at Grésillon

With the manageable number of people, and seven days together, it was easy to get to know well a lot of the others. As always, we met some very nice people, mostly from France, but also from Sweden, Germany, China, Serbia, Ukraine, and Brazil. I sometimes wish that I had an Esperanto name, because a lot of foreigners have trouble pronouncing Arlyn; even after several days the French people especially were tentative when addressing me. "Airlyeen?" I should have chosen some name like Masha, that's easy in any language, thirty years ago. It feels like it's too late now.

For me, this was the most relaxing week of our trip so far. And more than any other Esperanto event this summer, I'm already feeling like I miss a whole group of new friends, rather than just one or two individuals.

We had a couple of chances to explore the nearby town of Baugé during the week. It's very attractive, dating from 1000 years ago. We're back in Le Mans now, and tomorrow we'll leave France after 23 days, and head for Geneva.

Scene in downtown Baugé