Leaving Cognac and the angels’ share behind, we take the RN141 to Saintes then join the N137 directly to La Rochelle. Our day has been perfect so far, no getting lost en route or missing appointments, we feel happy and relaxed, no doubt aided by a couple of glasses of Cognac for breakfast.
I doze off in the car until the approach to La Rochelle. Our primary reason for visiting is not to see the ancient streets centred around its picturesque vieux port, or the bridge connecting it to Ile de Ré or to attend the Francofolies music festival. La Rochelle is situated approximately ten kilometres from Dompierre-sur-Mer, home of one of my cousins and her family.
We follow the coastline to the newly built marina at La Rochelle. Elegant pleasure boats bob in the water as far as the eye can see. A map in the car park directs us to Hotel Trianon et de la Plage near the harbour where we check in, change and go down to the lounge.
Cousine G greets us in the lobby. There could have been screams of excitements as hugs and kisses are interchanged, three times on the cheek. “Ici, trois fois!” I have not seen her for 18 years! Was she always this short? Did she really change in eighteen years? Would she have recognised me in the street? I ask the whereabouts of her daughter, my namesake, and she tells me after being restless all day, she fell asleep.
Cousine G takes us for a short drive around La Rochelle. We stop at a few sites to take photographs. The Vieux Port with its boats and pleasure crafts is the hub of the town. Tour St-Nicholas on the left and Tour de la Chaine on the right offers a postcard view of the harbour. Cafés and restaurants dot the area. There is a small beach nearby and the French here are en vacances. We stop briefly at the marina and the site of the beaches where people are gathered.
The splendid train station is welcoming the TGV to La Rochelle with a Bienvenue a l’Aquitaine, informing that the trip from Paris takes about four hours.
A short drive later, we are on the bridge linking La Rochelle with Ile de Re, charging a hefty tollway. Nearby, the industrial area is somewhat quiet. We take a detour and get a little lost along the way. Mr G is content in taking a back seat to the driving and looks relaxed. We stop near a few shops to collect dry cleaning before reaching the white wooden gates of 6 Bis.
Walking towards the front door, I notice a young woman who looks vaguely familiar. No sooner do we set foot inside, that I see my favourite uncle from Paris, Tonton J, wearing a big smile, arms extended in a welcoming gesture, saying my name with a French accent.
We hug and kiss many times, totally ecstatic in the reunion and completely lost in the moment. Then a man’s voice interrupts, “Well, what about me?”
I turn around and I see my Cousin H from the United States, his wife M and their daughters P and C. P was the familiar looking girl I spotted earlier. She’s all gown up! The house must have been shaking from the jubilant noise we’re all creating. Mr G is quickly introduced and welcomed by all as if they have known him for years. Among the uproar of adult voices, a shy little one is trying to get through. I finally meet my namesake, a seven year old dark haired little beauty with a sparkle in her eyes and a flirtatious expression. Feeling overwhelmed with emotion, someone called out, “There is more.” I can’t remember who said,
“We’re all going to Paris for four days to be with you at the end of your Tour de France. Cousine D from Italy and her family will also be meeting us there.”
I think I let out a tiny scream, totally overcome with emotion. It turns out that when I sent our itinerary to Cousine D in Italy, she sent it to Cousin H in the USA and between them, they organised this surprise reunion with Cousine G from Dompierre and Tonton J from Paris.
Soon, I am hurled on the phone to another aunt and two cousins from different parts of the world and in a matter of minutes, I have spoken to an entire branch of my family.
“Would anyone like a Pineau?” Cousine G proposes.
“Pineau des Charentes?” I ask. A few eyebrows are raised in surprise. I have heard of the local aperitif and I was very keen to try it.
We drink a toast to our family reunion and to the person who will be so thrilled when he learns of this reunion, my father who is their uncle.
Getting re-acquainted with the family is an enlightening experience. As the youngest, all my cousins are far older than me, and this is the first time I am an adult in their company.
We soon realise it is ten pm. Among all the excitement and fun of drinking under the stars, we call for taxis and head to the port of La Rochelle for dinner.
The region prides itself on the best in seafood, specifically oysters, huitres from Marennes. Unfortunately, due to being late, not may restaurants can accommodate such a large group and after half an hour of walking around, we find Il Vesuvio.
We sit en plein air, under the stars, facing the night-illuminated harbour. Mr G and I order the same, a soupe au poisson served with croutons and rouille, followed by Coquilles St-Jacques that come served on a bed of rice. A few glasses of Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur Loire 1992 accompanies the meal. Although we hardly ate during the day, we pass on dessert. We are simply too excited.
How does one catch up with family in one evening? We try our best. We all talk at once. We swap stories. We shift from one language to another. In a space of a few hours, we get reacquainted.
The waiters start putting away the tables and chairs, giving us a subtle hint to leave. Our enjoyable soiree is about to end but nobody is keen on moving. They put out the lights as a final reminder so we leave. With the twinkle of the night lights of the old port, we say au revoir. Until we all meet again in just a few days. Until Paris.
… continues tomorrow
‘Le Tour de France Gourmantic’ series is the story of a young couple from Australia who took to the French roads on a whirlwind Tour of France back when the internet wasn’t at everyone’s fingertips, phones were still attached to sockets, GPS was an unfamiliar acronym, digital cameras were a pipe dream and the Euro hadn’t replaced French Francs. With just one fold-out map of France and boundless enthusiasm, they took their Renault 19 and went on a cultural and culinary discovery.
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