Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Risking Disappointment at L’Isle-Adam/part 1

L’Isle d’Adam. Val d’Oise. Unexpected pleasures are what most satisfy the well-traveled tourist, and the risk of a return visit becoming a big letdown is the dark side of such serendipities. One of my most memorable lucky breaks happened three years ago when I was checking out the newest Van Gogh attraction, the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers sur Oise, where the Dutch painter had spent his last few tortured, but gloriously productive, months in 1890.

Later I will replay the marvels of that visit, but first the unanticipated joys. As my friend and I got out of her car in front of the Auberge, we noticed colorful banners flapping in the fresh breeze: JAZZ FESTIVAL aboard the Dauphine. “Heh,” my mind clicked, “that’s tonight!” Inside, smacking our lips over an exquisite, if pricey, lunch, we learned from the chef two things; hotel rooms were very scarce thereabouts and that the jazz concert was indeed aboard a vessel docked on the river Oise, half way between Auvers and L’Isle-Adam, a small village started over a millennium ago on a bend in the river.

He started all these forthcoming astonishments by booking me into its only hotel, the Cabouillet (the name of a crawfish long since disappeared). My oh my! My room opened right onto the Oise, a heavenly view heightened by the not very ordinary red wine I had downed a little too much of at lunch. I succumbed to a nap while my friend drove back to Paris with her moppet daughter, the hours of the jazz festival not being compatible to her napping schedule.

I awoke eager for festivities. I had the front desk book me a cab to the Dauphine, and the only fly in this lovely ointment appeared in the form of the taxi driver who nicked me 200 francs ($40) for a $10 trip. Me, who never fails to warn new travelers to get the price before they set foot in the cab. Such are the discombobulations of anticipating a jazz feast.

My miff soon lifted like a mist on the Oise as I settled in on the Bateau Dauphine. Local businessmen and jazz buffs had created a regular jazz tradition on the boat to satisfy their hunger for that music without having to drive 20 miles into Paris and scrabble around for a parking space in the night club districts. It was glorious—their professional amateurism was almost as satisfying as the performances themselves. Two hours of The Christian Darre Quartet, Chris on piano, Jean-Louis Alba on bass, Ramon Lopez on drums, and Francois Continaud sax.

Francois got the evening’s spirit perfectly when he signed my souvenir poster: “By Hasard / a neat pun, pointing out our accidental meeting, courtesy of Van Gogh / For music of Universe and for human being.” All for 60 francs and a cash bar. Their jazz was a mite cerebral, too much conservatory, too little night club. But, as they say, it was a lovely way to spend an evening—on the gently rocking Oise.

Professional cheap skate that I am, I refused to be victimized twice by the Terrible Taximan of the Oise. So I cadged a ride back to my hotel with an insurance agent and his family, including their twelve year-old daughter who had already plugged into her fantasy of becoming a jazz pianist. I yawned a happy “Merci!” as I climbed out of the back of their Peugeot and began to traipse over to the hotel entrance.

But as their engine noise began to disappear on the late evening air, my ear picked up another frequency, namely, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five!,” emanating cross the street from what looked like a run of the mill restaurant with the engaging name of ‘Black Banana.” Holey Moley, not more jazz. I followed my ears and before you could say “Encore” I was plopped down in the table of honor next to the Saturday night trio, which made up in grittiness what the Bateau Dauphine gang lacked. I hadn’t had such an excess of access since my interviewing Dizzy Gillespie at his table at the Great American Music Hall for KALW / San Francisco.

Alas, I had imbibed just enough red aboard the boat to have the wit to record the names of these performers whose anonymous gig ran to three o’clock in the morning. (Local law says shut down at midnight, but the proprietor, a successful importer bored with his day job, ordered the curtains pulled for a late late night soiree.) The tenor player was especially good, not to be distracted by his Lester Young pork pie hat, and the Prez would surely have admired his admirer.

So how does a perfectly memorable day end? Zzzzzzing in my Oise-overlooking chamber, eh? So I sauntered across the street, ambled up to the entrance—and found the hotel locked tighter than a snare drum, with nary a light in sight! Gulp. I scampered back across the street to the Black Banana just as the sleepy patron was locking up his place. Yow. What to do? The boss yawned sweetly, and started flicking the lights back on. He telephoned the hotel, and the phone rang and rang and rang. I was about to ask my benefactor if he had a room to rent, or would he let me sleep it off in his linen closet.

Just then, a groggy and none too happy concierge answered the hotel phone. Le patron tried to mollify the rudely awakened keeper of the keys. Finally, he hung up with a smirk. “I calmed him down. Dormez bien.” And did I ever sleep well. To awaken about ten, hanging out my magical window watching the ethereal December mist grace the Oise. They even served me a late (and my favorite French) breakfast—petit pain au beurre, and raspberry jam to kill for.

I spent two hours ambling around the mainly shuttered town: the “Roman Catholic” French may not all go to Sunday Mass these days, but don’t try to interrupt their day off. It’s a very sacred secular ritual. Everything closed. I vowed to come back as soon as circumstances allowed, when everything would be open. So I sought out the train station, one it shares with Parmain literally on the other side of the tracks and Oise—which by the way has the finest Art Deco post office I’ve yet seen in France. It also has a twelfth century church.

Being a certified roamer after Romanesque, I set out to follow the signs for a mile or so. Lovely. Trying my still kindergarten French out on the locals. It’s plumb easy to ask directions. The trick is in understanding their answers! Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it did get me a lot of friendly French smiles at my Philly French accent. By the way, the Hotel de Gare is an easy 100 franc answer to the area’s lack of hotels. The Isle-Adamers are too snooty to think of Parmain as a place to stay.

And while I waited for a train to Gare St. Lazare, I subscribed to the so-called Passe Vermeil (Say, ver-MAY-yuh). For 295 francs, travelers over 62 can ride 50% off during “blue periods” (basically, everything but Friday afternoons, Sunday evenings, Monday mornings). 30% off during those “white periods” and 25% off on international rail routes in the Eurail system. On my last two week trip to France last month, I more than made back that cost, and I’ve still got eleven more months to go.

Another surprise: when a TGV is an hour late, you get a 25% rebate! (Heh, AMTRAK, note.) Over an hour, and you get a 50% rebate. Our high speed train to Avignon was stopped when another TGV engine caught on fire. A rare event, the stationmaster at Avignon insisted, handing me a franked envelope for his train’s tardiness. Incidentally, I had read on the train the feature story on the French railroad’s financial crisis in that week’s issue of “The European.” They have put all their money on the TGV system, and the local trains have gone to pot.

They weren’t kidding. To get from Toulouse Lautrec’s Albi to Limoges, I had to make two loose transfers on milk trains. Even that has possibilities. If I had not been forced to find a place to eat in Freijac, one of the connections, I never would have stumbled open the Café des Voyageurs, where the patron / chef schmoozed non-stop while he whipped me up a tasty ham omelette. You not only see a lot of unique scenery on the milk trains, you also get an unparalleled opportunity to interact with locals—students on their way to school (more and more of them are articulate in English), workers off to their jobs, elderlies goofing off like me.

So back in Paris, checking into the Hotel Normandie right across the Gare St. Lazare, I noodled about risking disappointment by going to L’Isle-Adam once again. I went into the station to buy the daily Herald Trib (that’s one thing the small train stations don’t stock), and to check out the train schedules. There was one to Pontoise at 5:45 and another at 6:15 a.m. I left a wake up call for 5:30, and watched French TV for kicques.

I was already dressed when the front desk called so I took the 5:45. Maybe I’m thick, but as I was having a croissant and café noir at the station in Pontoise, the origin of the town’s name came like a flash—bridge over the Oise! Heh, etymology is geriatric sex. (You’ll see, someday.) So I was in L’Isle by seven a.m. noting on my way to the Hotel Cabouillet a statue which honored the memory of a local count who had held off the Germans here on the islet during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.

Alas, there was no overnight room for me at Le Cabouillet this time. I reminded Mme Guillerm of my last visit. (She seemed to flinch at the recollection.) I asked her what was the number (5) and cost of my magical chamber (320 francs, breakfast 40 more) I noted on their card that while the hotel was a two star, their restaurant was four star. I confirm that.

No room this trip, but I had a tastier, longer second breakfast reading LeFigaro and palavering with the businessman who I heard speaking English. It turned out one was Italian, one French, so our English was, so to speak, their lingua franca.

About the only thing really open at that hour was the church, St. Martin’s. So I snuck in with the guiltiness of the lapsed Catholic. No matter, it was a High Mass—and in Latin. And the priest could really do his Gregorian chant. The old altar boy in me bloomed, and I hummed those old familiar tunes (quietly, so as not to scandalize, as I hoovered the plaques and other historical mementos).

The Adam alluded to in the town’s name was not Eve’s buddy, but a nobleman who gifted a monastery nearby in the eleventh century. But the current structure dated only from 1567. And there was a problem for this Philadelphian: it said that the archbishop of Philadelphia joined the Cardinal from Paris in the dedication ceremonies of the current St. Martin’s.

Huh? Willy Penn didn’t get his Quaker thing going until 1682. And those Irish and German Catholics didn’t show up before the nineteenth century in sufficient numbers for the Vatican to cardinalize them. What gives? I decided to brave the covey of middle aged French ladies buzzing about the priest. “Parlez-vous anglais, pere?” I intoned over the bobbling heads of the sacristans. “Sure do,” Father Roland Pascal replied a trice too jauntily, explaining that he had spent several years in London while a seminarian. I explained my puzzle at their Philadelphia story. “Oh, that’s easy."

To be continued.

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