Daniel and Marie-José open their house to us
Australian visitors, friends of friends of theirs,
this anniversary-week in Caen
50 years since D-Day, the Normandy Landing,
Caen full of American tourists, the grands magasins
overflowing onto the pavements with
commemorative T-shirts, army fatigues,
camouflage caps, carry bags with slogans:
Bienvenue Back Home in Normandy.
Our hosts both teach—they lived
for seven years in Sydney, travelling
the countryside—French specialists
for the Education Department.
They have many stories
which we hear over meals
(Marie-José and Daniel feed us
with great, though understated aplomb)
—their first Australian country lunch invitation:
arriving expectant, they find their thongs-
and-shorts-clad host dispensing beers from l’Esky,
not a sign of food of any kind. Without
warning, after half an hour or so, he leaps
aboard the Kingswood, waves cheerily,
disappears in a cloud of dust. Nonplussed,
they are attempting Gallic nonchalance
when host returns, laden with huge parcels
wrapped in newspaper. These he deposits
on the table, and announces lunch served.
Fish and chips. Their first. Fantastic.
On this tale they have dined out many times.
The Merouns’ house, a sixteenth-century
salt-barn, rendered three-storey merveilleuse
close to the city’s heart, was once attached
to an abbey or convent. They tell us, as
food appears with minimum fuss—a tart
or pie assembled from silver-foiled balls
of pastry (made on the weekend), layered
with salmon, onion, eggs and herbs—about
the princess affianced to some king, the abbey
built to compensate for breach of promise
when she was given to someone else instead
by her brother William the Conqueror…
Webs of story bear up the meal, like a
tracery tablecloth. They remember the motel
where everything on the menu is meat
and great alarm is caused when the foreigners
ask for dessert. Daniel gives us a barbecue.
It, too, seems indefinably French, though this,
they protest, is an Australian habit they have kept.
During the daytimes, we wander the streets—
one can’t say ‘of old Caen’—since the city was
reduced to rubble, probably needlessly, shortly
before the Allied rescue whose birthday it is.
In Caen’s city square we eat the best pizza
of the trip: carpaccio with a whole egg
and chilli oil. Overfed foreigners, not us
especially, mostly the Rescuers, or their
children, crowd the streets. Some days, food
does seem de trop, especially the day we go to
the museum and look at pictures of the town
in ‘44, when every block was blitzed to shards
and our senses reel with imagined assault
the smell and colour of hot bitumen.
Image credit: Zairon