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Another French lesson

Eric Nicolai is from Corsica. His wife, Frederique, is from Paris. They own Le Vieux Gréement in La Couarde Sur Mer. Frederique runs the front desk and Eric runs the bar. A lovely arrangement, I think. Sometimes in the afternoon I’ll sit reading a book in the hotel’s courtyard garden, shaded by linden trees, and if Eric doesn’t have anything better to do, he’ll share a glass of wine with me.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Yesterday we were sitting in the garden when Eric’s youngest son, who is 8, came up to show his father a drawing of England he’d done. He asked his father if the drawing was beautiful. Eric said no. “It is perfectly fine, but it is not beautiful. Beauty is something else all together,” he told him.

“Like my mother?” asked the little boy.

Eric smiled. “Exactly,” he said. “Like your mother.”

Why donkeys wear pants

Yesterday I was lolling about the harbor of St-Martin, sitting on the thick limestone walls near the little lighthouse, just hanging out. It’s a great people-watching spot.

Anyway, at some point I noticed that in the park there was a guy who had a bunch of donkeys and kids were getting on the donkeys and riding them in a little loop around the park. Okay, no big deal. Lots of parks have horse rides for kids, right? Here in France they do donkeys. Same-same.

Except there was something odd about these donkeys. They were all wearing gingham pantaloons. Which, I’m sorry, is just not a natural look for donkeys (or anyone for that matter). So I went over and talked to the donkey guy, whose name was Régis Léau, and we had a very difficult conversation, half in broken English, half in broken French, and I think this is what he told me:

These are a special type of donkey called Baudets du Poitou, a type of purebred (is that even possible with donkeys?) island beast of burden used in the fields of Île de Ré a hundred years ago. And the reason they wear pants is because of the salt marshes, where nasty flies and mosquitoes were so abundant. The gingham pants were designed to protect the donkeys from insect bites.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Okay, so that all makes sense. But they don’t use the donkeys in the fields anymore so I don’t know why they need to put pants on these guys. Except the kids seem to like it. “Hey, dad, can we ride the donkeys with pants?”

I wonder how long it takes a donkey to get dressed in the morning? And do donkeys put on their pants one leg at a time? My French is not good enough to ask Régis these  questions. But one does wonder. 

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The moon over my bed

Having decided late in the afternoon that dinner was out of the question, that I needed to purge my body of its salt-infused diet, that it would be good for me to take a break from all things liquid related, including wine, I find myself inexplicably hungry at 7. So I compromise with myself by riding my bike to Ars near sunset and ordering a snack at Bistrot de Bernard—a dozen oysters, a risotto of langostinos, and a half bottle of wine.

Well, what did you expect? There are no villages on Île de Ré named St.-David, in my honor, nor will there be after my visit.

Ars is quieter than St.-Martin. In the cafes and bistros, voices are as subdued as the rust-colored light at dusk.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


The oysters are marvelous but I’m not happy with the wine, some cloying rose from Aix-en-Provence. I am forced to order another demi-bottle of the island rose, chiding myself for not knowing better.

Local food, local wine.

To keep the wine company, I order an assorted plate of cheese. Suddenly it’s dark out. My bike ride home is, shall we say, interesting (can you get arrested in France for being intoxicated on a bike?). But the bike path glows from the reflection of a full moon guiding me like a lighthouse beacon to safe harbor.

Eventually I find my way home and lie in bed, iPod stuck in my ears, listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Paprika Plains” (I’m floating into dreams/I’m floating off/I’m floating into my dreams). Over my bed is a moonroof that automatically opens to the night sky and right in the middle of it sits a dazzling full moon, like a luminescent pearl.

I’m floating off/I’m floating into my dreams.

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The market in Ars

Yesterday was the opening day of hunting season. All morning long the fields and woods around St. Clément echoed with the boom of shotguns blasting away at small birds. At breakfast, I asked Natacha what kind of birds the hunters were killing.

 “Pigeons,” she said, pronouncing it pee-JHANS.

After breakfast I went to the salt museum, the Ecomusée du marais salant, in Loix. In order to avoid the hunters, I rode my bike through the Lizay forest, a protected bird sanctuary. It was cool and silent here, the pine trees muffling the faraway boom of birds being blasted out of the sky.

Once out of the forest, the paved trail took me past white stone houses with red tile roofs tucked behind waist-high walls of limestone. Every garden seemed to have fig trees, all busting with rich black fruit, and pear trees laden with fall-colored orbs.

I rode past fields of wild fennel, the licorice smell mingling with the brine from the ocean, and brambles of blackberries and currants, also wild. There were even wild grape vines climbing willy-nilly up the trunks of the forest pines, spilling thick clumps of bright green fruit across the branches.

Then down through Ars where schools of cyclists darted left and right, ringing their bicycle bells as they hurried towards the morning market where they wove through shoppers nibbling on samples of Emmental, saucisson alla fleur de sel, and brined olives. Atop mounds of ice were just-caught sardines, lobsters, sole, and, of course, oysters. Bushels and bushels of oysters, the delicate ones labeled fin and the fat, juicy fin de claires.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

At least a dozen vendors were selling the island’s famed salt. It is either gray (called gros, from the clay of the salt pond) or pure white (fleur de sel) and comes in plastic bags mixed with herbs—basil, parsley, fennel, thyme—or in little crock pots with wooden spoons attached.

People on the island have been farming the salt since the Middle Ages. And then, about 20 years ago, the industry died out. The salt farmers couldn’t compete with the commercial producers. But in order to process salt on a large scale, chemicals are needed to make the salt edible. And the salt ends up bland or with an unnatural taste. So 10 or 15 years ago, people on the island started working the salt ponds again. They found that there were people who would buy their salt because it was naturally produced, without chemicals, and they liked its taste. Now there are almost 100 salt workers on the island, most of them young people.

I’m wondering if Natacha has any friends who work in the salt ponds.

There is a corpulent man at the Bistro Marin in St. Martin, his arms folded across his thick chest, sleeping with his nose almost in his beer. Along the sea wall, couples walk slowly, aimlessly. They sit on green benches looking at the ocean, arms wrapped around each other, not talking. Reluctantly they stand up, return the way they came, always looking out to sea.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


Everyone here looks longingly out to sea.

Here is the thing: I have fallen in to doing nothing on Île de Ré.


I find a bench and sit for awhile—facing the ocean—and then move on. To a café where I order a glass of the local white wine, Le Royal, and breathe in the marine air. I sit on the seawall watching the fishermen with their long poles. Or the kids diving from the old fortress wall into the ocean. Hours pass this way.


Sometimes I have to force myself to move. Even if only to another bench, another café chair.

Soon I may not have the energy to leave Île de Ré. 

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