Friday, August 7, 2015

Trélon, Paris, and Le Mans

After the weeklong Esperanto convention in Lille we took a train to Trélon, a French village close to the Belgian border. Our goal there was to finally meet my first Esperanto penpal, with whom I've been corresponding by snail-mail, then e-mail, for 29 years!

Les and I bonded immediately with Ghislaine and her husband Houcein. They were kind to us beyond words, anticipating our needs and doing all they could to make us happy. They have a wonderful garden, in which Houcein raises dozens of specimens of fuchsias, as well as vegetables and berries. He refers to the garden as "mon paradis", and it really is a haven of peace and beauty.

A few of the many fuchsias in Houcein's "paradis"

The garden was a peaceful place to work on our photos. In the picture below, behind Les on the clothesline are our freshly washed clothes. As far as I can remember (European friends will possibly be amazed), this is the first time in my life that I've hung laundry outside on a line; maybe my mother occasionally did that when I was very young, but I've never had an indoor or outdoor clothesline.

Les working in the garden

Ghislaine and Houcein took us to two very interesting museums. One is a former glass factory, where they originally made bottles for champagne, then for perfumes. The old pot furnaces are still there, and they demonstrated the glass-making process.

Old glass furnaces

The other museum, housed in a former spinning mill, has the old equipment for every step of wool-making (from raw wool to wool fabrics), much of it in working order and used for demonstrations. This area was once the world's main producer of combed wool yarn. The museum also has a restored main street with shops from the 1880s, and lots of exhibits on the history and former life of the region. In both museums Ghislaine translated the guides' French explanations into Esperanto for us.

Tour of the textile museum

We had a short look at ValJoly, a huge "holiday park" with swimming, boating, horseback riding, and dozens of other activities. A family could happily rent a cabin here for a week and find lots to do each day.

We had some wonderful meals with Ghislaine and Houcein, with produce from the garden contributing to salads and potages and jams. The manager of the hotel where we stayed in Lille, on hearing that we were headed to Trélon, had said that we must try the local cheese there, called Maroilles. And, by golly, at our first meal Ghislaine presented us with a tarte made with that very cheese—très délicieuse.

Houcein preparing the Maroilles cheese

After the tarte, appeared a cake for Les! It said "Ĝojan Naskiĝtagon", Esperanto for "Happy Birthday". What a nice surprise!

Les' 71st birthday

Some friends came over for a meal in the garden, and despite the language differences, we had a great time. As we've found all over Europe, it's a U.S. myth that almost everyone speaks English; very few people seem to speak it at all. (Ghislaine says that those who speak it are either in the sciences or need it for their job.) But Les is doing very well in French, and recruited Houcein to be his teacher while we were there, constantly asking for the names of things (birds, berries, nuts, etc.) and for advice on points of grammar.

When we were learning Esperanto, a lot of words were easy because they were so close to French words: "dormi" for "to sleep" and "lito" for "bed", etc. Now, after 30 years of building up a pretty extensive Esperanto vocabulary, the situation is reversed; we recognize lots of French words from knowing the Esperanto words.
sidewalk (Eng), trotuaro (Esp), trottoir (Fr)
blackbird, merlo, merle
spoon, kulero, cuillère
blueberry, mirtelo, myrtille
ladybug, kokcinelo, coccinelle
Of course, in French you also need to know whether it's "le" or "la". And it dawned on us (duh), after 30 years, that the "bo" in Esperanto, a prefix meaning "in-law", is taken directly from the French "beau" for "in-law".

Friends dining in the garden

Les, by the way, learns languages so well because he's fearless about using them with whatever ability he has. While I give up after ten seconds of trying to find the words to tell a clerk at the boulangerie that I want whole wheat bread, and just randomly pick one of the ten bread types, Les is willing to spend two minutes describing what whole wheat bread is until he gets the person to understand. (It turns out to be pretty easy, actually: pain complet.)

Ghislaine organized a meeting at the local community center for me to give a slide show about living on the houseboat and about our long trip. About 20 people came. At first I spoke in Esperanto, with Ghislaine translating to French; then at the behest of some teenage girls who were studying English, I switched to English, and Fabrice translated that to French. Fabrice, a wonderful fellow we'd already met, has been teaching French and Spanish in Brighton, England, for many years, and was back home for a short visit. Les, as always, was very concerned ahead of time about being able to show our slides, because our new computer isn't compatible with older projectors, but it worked in the end and the talk went well.

My talk at the community center

Fabrice was worried about getting back home to Brighton because the ferries were on strike and getting through the tunnel from Calais to England has become problematic because of thousands of illegal immigrants trying to make their way to the U.K. When we drove past Calais a few days earlier during one of our bus excursions, we saw some of the tent camps.

At a restaurant meal in Trélon I had my first profiteroles—yummy! All over France we've been enjoying pain au chocolat and other pastries.

I know at least ten couples who have met through Esperanto, almost always at international meetings like the one we attended last week in Lille. Ghislaine and Houcein met through Esperanto, but in a unique way. Ghislaine, after 11 years of trying to learn English and not yet being able to even ask for directions, was convinced by a friend to study Esperanto. This was a language she was able to master. Meantime Houcein, in Morocco, loved learning languages. He learned French on his own while he was a student in Egypt. Back in Morocco, he found an Esperanto book and took it up. The book told how to get a penpal, so he applied and received five names. He chose Ghislaine's. For three years they wrote to each other, actually switching to French pretty soon. One time Houcein was vacationing in Prague, where it kept snowing, so he thought, "My penpal lives in France, I'll go there and meet her." He did, they fell in love, and soon married. So Houcein jokes that Esperanto brought them together! They're approaching their 45th anniversary.

We hated to leave Ghislaine and Houcein, and the feeling was mutual. We'll certainly try to get back to see them, either in Trélon or in Marrakech, Morocco, where they spend a few months every winter.

We next spent two days in Paris. Neither of us was anxious to go, not liking large cities, and even thought of just taking the train through without stopping. But we decided to come and take it easy, just getting a taste rather than trying to see a lot, and we did enjoy our time there.


We visited Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, which I recalled as my favorite place from my time in Paris 50 years ago. We walked around Notre Dame, Saint-Germain-des-Prés (I kept humming The Seine by the Kingston Trio), Tuileries, Champs-Élysées, in the distance saw the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. The perfect weather helped make Paris attractive. One slightly scary note, however, was the presence of young police officers everywhere carrying submachine guns.

The Seine

Our Paris hotel will stand out from the many others as having the smallest elevators we've seen: 28" by 30". They claim to hold a maximum of three people, but even two people need to be of average size or less, and it helps if they're on intimate terms.

We listened to a lot of Bach in Paris, thanks to our newly purchased audio cable that attaches our computer to the hotel room's TV, and to YouTube (thanks for that idea, Irma).

We took a train to Le Mans. We've started using the only Eurail pass we bought. It's good for ten travel days within a two month period, only in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. It doesn't seem like it actually saves money over ten individual trips, but it is in first class instead of second.

Le Mans, like every European town (it seems), has an interesting old city section. The only reason we're here is because tomorrow we can take an early bus from here to Grésillon, where we'll be spending the coming week.

Roman wall in Le Mans

As I write this I'm covered in mosquito bites. We didn't have any trouble until we hit Lille, but they seem to be everywhere in France.