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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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I’m at the car-rental counter inside the Bordeaux airport, pondering a map of France. Feeling a bit groggy, I nonetheless notice that my destination—a small island somewhere off the western coast of mainland France called Île de Ré—doesn’t exist. At least, not on this map. There’s the obvious brown thing, France, and the blue thing to the left, which must be the Atlantic Ocean, but nothing in between. No little obvious speck to suggest an isle. Is Île de Ré some sort of oceanic Oz?

Excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît,” I say to the perky car-rental gal whose name tag, I swear to God, says Glenda. “How do I get to Île de Ré ?”

The petite French people behind the counter giggle at this question, but Glenda only smiles and says, “Why that’s simple. Just follow the road to Paris.”

“Follow the road to Paris?”

“Yes, follow the road to Paris.”

Shall we all chime in now?

So off I go to…the road to Paris. There are no lions and tigers and bears, but there are swaying fields of gigantic sunflowers, a frightening thunderstorm and a forest of confusing road signs pointing thither and yon that only leads me in circles. Five hours into a journey that Glenda assured me would take no more than three, I finally find the yellow brick road: a swooping, nearly two-mile-long bridge connecting the port city of La Rochelle, on the west coast of the mainland, to Île de Ré .

The sun is just beginning to set and the bridge sparkles, disappearing into a haze at the other end, appearing to drop precipitously down into the sea. Is there really land on the other side? As I cross the bridge in my cool little Citroën, hurtling through puffy, dark clouds, I feel as if I am falling through the sky. A swirling American plummeting toward a magical French isle.

Listen, I don’t like little yappy dogs, and I’m not from Kansas. I’ve always lived near the ocean, but I seldom swim in it. The sea both mesmerizes and terrifies me. When I am in it, I am always aware of the enormity of the unknown beneath me and the downward pull. Being in the ocean reminds me all too well that I am little more than a stressed, frantic sardine who spends most of his time darting in circles with no clear destination in mind. I worry that, sooner or later, I will grow tired of all this movement and slip beneath a wave. In short, I sometimes feel like a drowning man.

I am never completely satisfied when I travel and my friends say, What is it you want? Here’s what I want: I want to be somewhere like Île de Ré long enough that I not only know how to properly say huîtres without embarrassing myself but know precisely who, on the island, sells the best. I want to know when market day is in every village and be on good enough terms with the fish monger that she holds the best hommard back, knowing I will ask for it. I want the waiter at my favorite café to greet me warmly when I show up on a busy mid-August evening and to pull a table in off the street and have it set, even though he has been telling everyone else for an hour that the restaurant is complet.

I want to know the difference between saucisson noix and saucisson noisettes. In short, I don’t want to go to the aquarium and lean against the glass, staring at the fascinating fish that are so close but so inaccessible. I want to immerse myself in the tank. I want to dive in and joint them. Despite my fear of water.

Is that too much to ask?

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Almondine the salt farmer

There is not much to see at the salt museum, housed in an old farmhouse on the edge of Loix. Actually, it looks more like a small classroom where students have set up their science exhibits. A few old photos, rusty tools, and modest displays showing the process for farming salt. All in all it takes no more than 10 minutes to go through the whole thing.

But there is a salt pond behind the museum where I sat on the bank, watching a young woman named Almondine pull a wooden rake through the shallow water, bringing the gray salt from the floor of the pond to the berm where she carefully piled it into two-foot-high pyramids to dry.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


Almondine is from Paris and has a degree in psychology so I asked her why she did this work on this little island. “I like being out here in the marshes,” she said. “It is very beautiful and quiet.”

And it was. Just the cries of gulls overhead and the soft sound of the wind rustling the dead stalks of wild mustard along the banks. Because the salt ponds are all in protected habitats, there is a lot of wildlife out here if you take the time to notice. More than 300 species of birds in fact, like the egret standing stoically just yards away from where Almondine worked.

We walked to the lowest pond where a thin crust of very fine salt had formed on the surface. This was the fleur de sel—flower of salt—which you can only get when the weather is hot and windy and the salt doesn’t sink but floats on top of the pond, giving it a naturally white color and a delicate taste. So delicate you can, as I did, taste it straight from the marsh.

“What does it taste like?” Almondine asked me.

“Like life,” I said.

She smiled. ”Oui, comme la vie. Très bon.”

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A cruise on the Seine

Cruise on the Seine in Paris

Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

In Paris, I’m attending Localization World, which is basically concerned with how to make money in other languages, or at least other cultures. Part of the backstage production involves how to get attendees from the conference venue to our cruise for dinner. We’re paying nearly 100 euros for this dinner cruise on Le Paquebot, supposedly the biggest ship on the Seine, so we’re expecting good service.

There are busses all arranged, and I go down and find them outside the Palais des Congres without too much trouble. So far, so good. I jump in. It’s egregiously hot inside, and the Italian man across from me starts to complain. I run to the front of the bus and ask the driver to turn the air on. He obliges, and we’re off.

We pass the Arc de Triomphe, and make our way to the Eiffel tower. We descend to a small quay and the driver stops. Everyone gets out. Unfortunately, where there should be a luxurious dinner boat, there is nothing. Everyone stands around waiting for something to happen. I go off to the nearest boat to see if maybe they’ve forgotten to put out the welcome sign for us, but it’s locked. By the time I get back, someone has figured out that we’re on the wrong quay. The bus driver is attempting to explain this in English, but it isn’t working very well. I step in, and he switches to French, pointing down to where the boat is actually waiting. I can’t go there easily in a bus, he tells me, but it’s a three-minute walk, just on the other side of the Parisian miniature of the Statue of Liberty.

So I lead the crowd to the boat, where there’s a whole committee standing with plastered-on smiles and a strained look in their eye. We’re the first bus to make it to the destination, which is not a promising sign.

We wait for awhile, and others trickle in, some on foot, some by way of the busses. Apparently, their busses got lost as well, but the drivers were able to work it out to close proximity. Soon, there is only one bus missing. Someone checks Twitter. There’s a tweet from a passenger: the bus has gotten stopped by the police because the driver was talking on his cell phone trying to work out where exactly the quay was. At this point, a group of passengers decided to take matters into their own hands, got off the bus in the middle of traffic, and started walking. In the wrong direction.

Chastised by the police, but duly notified of where to go, the last bus driver escorts his remaining passengers to the boat. They get out. The welcome committee waits for the last twenty people or so, nervously checking the time. The boat is almost two hours behind schedule. It starts to rain. Ten more minutes, they say. We’re only waiting ten more minutes.

The last twenty appear down the alleyway, dressed for dinner in their heels and ruffles. They approach, clop-clop-clop, and march down the gangplank, plunk-plunk-plunk. They are hungry, as is everyone else, but dinner hasn’t been served yet, because the boat hasn’t left.

When it is served, it’s a bit sparse, although it’s tasty. We float past Notre Dame, we float under the Pont Neuf, we have prolonged views of the glittering Eiffel tower. I decide that the price of entry must have been for the experience. Paris by night isn’t bad, even in the rain.

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