It was a beautiful sight. The sun was going down after a hot and sultry day, a scarlet mass, and the sky was a bright orange with shades of yellow and azure above. There were some clouds languidly moving ahead. A flock of sea-gulls dived and swirled around in the distance. The only noise you heard was that of the waves that swept along the shores of France from the Atlantic.
We were in the western island of Oleron. This island lies in the vicinity of the Charente river, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It has a population of 17,500 inhabitants. We’d driven from Freiburg in south-west Germany in two cars along the French country roads to the isle. Martin and Annette were in one Renault and Yvonne and I were in our tomato-red Peugeot. Dusk set in by the time we crossed the long bridge, Pont d’ Oleron, to the island. It was a relatively small, flat island (175 sq km) with a network of roads, the main town being St. Pierre (3000 inhabitants), located in the middle of the island. The island is known for its wine, fishery, oyster cultivation, salt-extraction and naturally tourist sights.
A wonderful white villa with a fireplace, a sprawling garden with apple, cherry and pine trees awaited us. We’d been invited by Annette, who’s father had bought the villa and where her family spent their holidays. Yvonne said, “Oh, I can smell the salt-water.” I’m afraid my olfactory glands registered nothing, for I had a cold. After we put our belongings in the villa and had refreshed ourselves, we decided to take a walk along the beach. Right behind the villa were the sand-dunes, with tufts of dry grass. And suddenly, after you’d crossed a small mound, you saw the Atlantic Ocean roaring ahead of you. I was quite overwhelmed by the sight.
I’d been to Bombay often and taken walks along the crowded beaches enjoying the mercifully cool breeze of the Arabian Sea, but this was different. There weren’t any hawkers around, and everything looked so serene and romantic. The beach was long and was broken in places by rocks. It was a bit windy, but we braved it and went to explore the rocks: there were outsized crabs, snails, anemones, shell-fish, sea-weed and myriads of mussels. A microcosm for hobby-biologists. One watched with fascination and awe, as an anemone caught a snail with its tentacles. I’d studied Zoology and Botany and we’d dissected a lot of dead animals in the afternoon practical-classes, but here was marine biology live. I felt like a kid, curiously looking what lay beneath the green, slimy rocks. We were the shell-seekers…
It was a beautiful experience to watch the sun go down in the horizon. I’d seen sunsets in the eastern Himalayas with the Kanchenjunga massif looming over us, but this was another experience. To the right you saw a strip of land jutting out into the sea with a candy-striped lighthouse on the top. We left the shore reluctantly. Back in the villa we made a fire and talked about life in France and Germany till we started yawning.
Come morning and we had a typical French breakfast with cheese, fresh croissants, strawberry marmalade and coffee and milk from a bowl (the French don’t use cups). One had to drive three kilometres to the Boulangerie (bakery) though. It was a pleasant drive through green fields, vineyards and tree-lined avenues with a faintly blue sky, with touches of yellow. At the bakery Yvonne and I were greeted with a friendly “Bon jour Mesdames! ” A pretty little blonde child walked out of the Boulangerie with a baguette as big as herself. The French and even the Germans love those long-breads.
We took a drive around the isle beginning with the north-west side. None of the Robinson Crusoe stuff. It was a wonderful ride to the north of the island, where there was a conspicuous white-black striped lighthouse. It was ebb-time and the water was receding in the distance. You saw occasionally ships and trawlers plying to and from La Rochelle, a major sea-town in the distance. La Rochelle was a strategically important harbour for the Germans in the Second World War.
A visit to St. Denis d’ Oleron proved to be interesting. A lazy town, with lots of fishermen’s taverns, nets hanging out to be dried, and a motley array of trawlers being painted, dried or just lying on their sides. And thousands of oysters stacked in the rusted metal carriers. The water was shallow and was used as a breeding-ground for oysters and clams.
There were quite a lot of bust-up concrete bunkers along the west coast, I must admit, to thwart off English warships and war-planes. They’d served their purpose, and now they were only relicts, reminders of a traumatic holocaust some fifty years ago. One bumped into busloads of American and French tourists inspecting the blown-off, empty and mute bunkers. Perhaps veterans among them were revisiting the place and trying to recapitulate and reconstruct how the ‘krauts or jerries’ had peered out of the slits and manned their massive guns against the Allied dangers that lurked from the vast Atlantic.
Then we headed for Le Chateau d’ Oleron, another fishing town with a citadel overlooking the coast of France. We went to the citadel, which was a mere ruins of what must have been an impressive and well-fortified enclave. You could look from the roofless, broken walls and windows of the citadel out to the sea. And directly beneath the cliff lay the picturesque and serene harbour.
To the south of Le Chateau, lay the town of St. Trojan and further to the west coast: La Grande Plage, the big beach. The southern area was thickly wooded. It being May, there weren’t many tourists around. Mostly the locals. The big beach was indeed grand, with an incredibly long mound to act as a shelter against the fierce Atlantic wind. And here we pitched our gaudy umbrellas. The European tendency is to bathe in the pink, what the Germans casually call FKK: free body culture.
At the Grande Plage one espied some French men and women gathering mussels, clams, shell-fish and snails one evening. They had small plastic buckets and were wearing gum-boots. I talked to a French guy, who explained that he was gathering his dinner, and that he did it very often during the ebb. What a wonderful prospect. If you felt hungry, all you had to do was go to the shore and gather your choice of sea-food. He already had half a bucket full of snails and shell-fish. I could almost imagine him and his family at dinnertime gulping down their crustacians and mollusks with morsels of baguette and swigs of red table wine.
La Cotiniere was my favourite harbour town in the isle. It was a picturesque place, with a lighthouse on a tract of land stretching out like a tongue from the bay. When the trawlers came into the harbour with the flood, there was always a flock of people eager to see what they’d hauled in. The crates of sorted fish would be placed on the pier, and we’d all peer at the contents: crabs, shrimps, langouste, squids, sea-eels, plaice and so forth. Sometime, even a dog-fish or a sting-ray. Then they’d be transported to the adjoining auction-hall and sold there. There was even a gallery for the visitors in the hall. The smell of fish rose along with the French voices as the buyers outbid each other. The fishermen wore blue overalls and yellow gum-boots and were given a bite and drink on their arrival.
We took a day off to do a bit of sight-seeing in La Rochelle, a harbour town in a protected bay of the Atlantic coast. It was the capital of the Aunis, and now is the seat of the Department Charante- Maritime, and has a population of 74,000. It’s incidentally one of France’s most important trading and fishing harbours. In the 16th century La Rochelle was strongly fortified and was one of the main strongholds of the Hugenotts. And in the World War II, it was a major U-boat base. But today it’s a bustling tourist-resort. The waterfront scenery was colourful, and we took a boat-ride to the outskirts of the harbour. There were scores of sailing ships, boats, yachts and even half a dozen streamlined catermerans.
In the evening we went to one of the open-air sea-food restaurants. It was a bit crowded but nevertheless romantic. It was a big experience for me, for the dishes were a zoologist’s delight. With deliciously creamy fish-soup, truncated crabs, orange lobsters, fresh oysters, unopened clams, stubborn shell-fish, soft snails and armoured shrimps. The whole dish was decorated on a huge plate with glistening sea-weed. One eats with the eyes, goes a German saying. And lots of baguette and French wine to wash it down. The oysters were easy to open using a knife, and then you had to squeeze the lemon over it, and eat the wobbly oyster with the salt water, lemon-drops and if you had bad luck a bit of calcium carbonate from the shell.
The crabs were delicious. One had to use pincers that were provided to crack them. There was an arsenal of pins, nails, pincers and other ‘surgical’ instruments mounted on a cork to finish-off the cooked gastropods and crusteceans. The snails were a cinch. They’d hide when you went in with a pin. It seems you had to let the snail relax and let it stretch its foot out of the house– and that’s the moment to strike, one was told by a friendly waiter who reminded me of P. G. Wodehouse’s butler Jeeves. The clams were tasty, adductor muscles and all. And you had to use an empty one as forceps to pull out the other clams from their shells.
The rich food, the good wine, the pleasant company, the colourfully clad people, the harbour lights, the shimmering waterfront, the music from an accordion and a haunting voice like that of Edith Piaf from the nearby street singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” still rings in my ears.
No, I don’t regret it either.
About the Author: Satis Shroff is a writer and poet based in Freiburg (poems, fiction, non-fiction) who also writes on ethno-medical, culture-ethnological themes, and writes regularly for The American Chronicle (www.Amchron.com), and is a contributing writer on http://www.boloji.com and also Blog.ch. He has studied Zoology and Botany in Nepal, Medicine and Social Science in Germany and Creative Writing in Freiburg and Manchester. He describes himself as a mediator between western and eastern cultures and sees his future as a writer and poet. Satis Shroff was awarded the German Academic Exchange Prize.He is a lecturer in Basle (Switzerland).
Since 1974 I have been living on and off in Nepal, writing articles and publishing books about Nepal– this beautiful Himalayan country. Even before I knew Satis Shroff personally (later) I was deeply impressed by his articles, which helped me very much to deepen my knowledge about Nepal.Satis Shroff is one of the very few Nepalese writers being able to compare ecology, development and modernisation in the ‘Third’ and ‘First’ World. He is doing this with great enthusiasm, competence and intelligence, showing his great concern for the development of his own country. (Ludmilla Tüting, journalist and publisher, Berlin).
Due to his very pleasant personality and in-depth experience in both South Asian, as well as Western workstyles and living, Satis Shroff brings with him a cultural sensitivity that is refined. His writings have always reflected the positive attributes of optimism, tolerance, and a need to explain and to describe without looking down on either his subject or his reader. (Kanak Mani Dixit, Himal Southasia, Kathmandu)
Satis Shroff writes with intelligence, wit and grace. (Bruce Dobler, Associate Professor in Creative Writing MFA, University of Iowa).