Life is civil in a provincial French town

Posted: Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Angers is an easy town to love. It is surrounded by kilometers of fertile farmland and river valleys. Chateaux are sprinkled around the countryside, easily accessible within a day's outing.

On our first Saturday in France, a month ago now, we climbed aboard a chartered bus with 40 university students for a chateaux tour, one of the many benefits of being here as a professor's family. The castles themselves are deserving of many adjectives - imposing, splendid, gracious.

But what moved me even more were the hours spent driving through the countryside of the Loire Valley. Willow, aspen and a variety of blooming fruit trees passed by as we wound our way through the back roads of rural France. Extensive vineyards substantiated my reading about the region's increasing importance in wine production. Farm animals grazed in open pastures. Lone stone farmhouses with roofs of black slate (ardoise), for which the Anjou region is known, appeared through the mist, followed by small villages. It was an uncomfortably cold and cloudy February day and we had the landscape to ourselves.

An outdoor Saturday market brings the region's bounty nearly to our front door. Fresh goat cheese from up north, oysters and mussels from the nearby Atlantic Coast, perch and carp from the Loire River, all are offered in open stands. Add to that apples, radishes and artichokes from the surrounding farms, several varieties of sausage, hot roasted chicken and even strawberries from Spain. Flower stands overflow with tulips, daffodils and sweet-smelling freesia. Magnolia trees are in bloom and the city's gardens are full of crocus, pansies, and camellia bushes.

Located in the conservative region of Anjou, Angers has retained many of the customs Americans have come to associate with France. As a rule, city center shops don't open until 10 a.m., and then close between noon and two. The streets begin to come alive again and are buzzing with activity between 3 and 7 p.m., when the shops close for the night. Restaurants and bars then take over the scene until midnight - much later on weekends. Virtually everything is closed on Sunday, though we have found a nearby "convenience store" for emergency buys, such as milk for morning coffee. Sundays have become our day for long walks through quiet streets, along the river or in the Jardin des Plantes.

Upon entering an establishment, it is customary, indeed expected, that a greeting of "Bonjour" is exchanged. No more is required or really welcome. On the occasions when I have ventured to go further, for instance inquiring "a va?", the response is generally a confused look, as if to say, "You are here to buy bread, why are you asking me how I am?" As my 10-year-old would say, "fair point," and I now play by the script. Similarly, when leaving, whether or not a purchase is made, one says "Bonne journée. Au revoir." It may be old fashioned, but I find these rituals delightfully civil.

My custom of waking early provides me with a pre-dawn view of Angers's Gothic cathedral, St. Maurice, from our small balcony. I observe that every morning brings some form of maintenance that gives the central shopping district its Disneyland-fresh appearance and reminds me that it doesn't happen by chance. Garbage is collected from stoops and curbsides on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The streets are swept on Monday, washed on Tuesday and again on Saturday.

Thursday is my favorite morning as it brings the wood supplier to the renowned boulangerie, La Cocagne, directly across the street. He pulls up in his aging flatbed truck loaded with split wood, about the right size for a campfire at Auk Rec, and opens a side door, exposing a metal rack which he fills with wood, piece by piece, until he is lifting each log above his head. When this rack is full he slides it sideways, exposing yet another rack, which he fills in the same methodical fashion. The bread tastes better knowing that it is baked in ovens heated by the wood that I watch transferred from truck to rack on quiet Thursday mornings from my third-floor balcony.

Ours is a postcard view of a beautiful provincial French town and, like any postcard, exposes only the best angle. It may not be complete but, as with any postcard, it is still pretty and fun to read.

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