01 February 2013

Rouen, February 1, 2003

Ten years ago today, I was spending some time in the Normandy city of Rouen. I had friends there who let me stay in a little apartment in their building that they owned but didn't use much. Walt and I had been in Saint-Aignan a couple of months earlier and had signed what is called the promesse de vente (shouldn't it be called the promesse d'achat?) on the house we live in now. We'd already sent in the down payment.

Rouen and Normandy were clearly a different world compared to San Francisco and California.

Walt still had a job in California, and he stayed back there to continue getting our San Francisco house ready for showings and eventual sale. I came to France to work out some details of the real estate transaction with the notaire in Montrichard. To give myself time to get over jet lag before arriving here, I stopped to see my friends in Rouen.

That February 1, I wandered the streets of Rouen with my camera. Since I was staying
in an apartment with an equipped kitchen, I could visit the shops
to buy food I remembered enjoying 30 years earlier.

As you can see, it was snowy in Rouen that winter. Snow there is not entirely unusual, but it doesn't happen as often as you'd think, considering how far north Normandy is compared to the U.S. Rouen is farther north than Quebec City, but it, like France overall and the British Isles, benefits from a maritime climate warmed by the Gulf Stream. Well, "warmed" is an exaggeration. "Moderated" might be a better term.

The sidewalks were treacherous but the town was picturesque and inviting.

As I was thinking about February 1, 2003, and looking at old photos on my computer this morning, it dawned on me that I was also in Rouen 40 years ago today, on February 1, 1973. My 24th birthday was rapidly approaching, and I was spending the year working as an English-language teaching assistant in the Lycée Corneille in Rouen. Back then in Rouen was the stay in France when I realized I had become pretty much fluent in the language.

The narrow streets of the old town are essentially alleyways. This is near the
Eglise Saint-Maclou, behind the grandiose Cathédrale de Rouen.

In 1972-73, I lived in a little apartment with no bathroom except a toilet that was in a tiny (water) closet on a stair landing. I had to share the WC with other tenants of the building. My apartment was near the train station, a 15-minute walk from the school where I worked. I don't remember snow that year, but I do remember a lot of rain. What they told me then was: A Rouen, il ne pleut pas beaucoup. Mais il pleut souvent.


  1. I was surprised one day when I looked at the figures for here that the rainfall is much the same here in the Touraine as in London -- the difference is it rains on twice as many days in London -- so Rouen is the same -- when it rains you don't get a lot in one go, but cumulatively, it all adds up. The Touraine is more prone to heavier rain, but on fewer days.

    Is it the Normandy tourist office that positively celebrates the rain, with T-shirts and everything? I forget which one of the north eastern regions it is, but like Ireland does, pointing out that it wouldn't be nearly so green and beautiful if it didn't rain every day.

  2. I enjoyed re-living these memories with you Ken.

  3. Lovely photos, and I, too, enjoyed reading your memories. :)

  4. There’s another saying, not as nice but probably better known by outsiders, “Rouen is the chamber pot of Normandy.”

    Tomorrow is Chandeleur, Groundhog’s day for my friends here in the U.S. Don’t forget to make crêpes and flip them while holding a coin [gold would be best!] in the other hand so you will have money the whole year. As I said before I’m not superstitious because it brings bad luck!

  5. Gosh, that snow looks cold. Which is a silly thing to say but that kind of thin, wet snow makes me feel so miserably cold. We get a lot of that here.
    But the shops looks so warm and inviting. Great photos, taken at a time when you were embarking on such an exciting change in your life.

  6. It's good to see 10 years back, would love to have seen 40 years ago!

  7. Ken... Pauline and I have passed through Rouen many times since the A28 opened... but never visited the centre... that lane looks great... a bit like York... designed for a laden donkey or a 2CV. [And that's a very nice looking extra-white deuche in the second from last pic.]
    Susan... you are right in your guess at the Normandy T.O. celebrating rain... there are a lovely selection of cards, mugs, place-mats... etc. at the "Aire du Haras" on the A28... last aire from here before you get into Rouen... also a lot of Normandy 2CV owners have painted similar comic scenes on their cars...
    The North West of Boggy Bonnie Scotland has a similar range of cards...
    but also celebrates the MIDGE!

  8. Tim, if you haven't been into old Rouen, the centre-ville, then you have really missed a special place. You can't go 'through Rouen' without going through the town itself -- otherwise you've been 'around Rouen'...

  9. Bonjour CHM,
    We're having several French friends over to celebrate (le lendemain de) la Chandeleur on Sunday.
    We're making our crêpes on our electric Tibos crêpière (amazingly, still made in Pluguffan). Will I receive a year of prosperity if I'm flipping with a spatula and not using a traditional crêpe pan? (I'm also fresh out of Louis d'or.)
    Bonjour Ken,
    What camera did you use to take the photos of Rouen? How do the megapixels of that camera compare to your current one? It's interesting to see the much better resolution of your recent photos.

  10. Dean, back in 2002 I was using a Kodak DC4800 3.1-megapixel digital camera. I kind of like the soft focus of that lens.

  11. And yet another expression I remember from my year in Rouen: il pleut comme vache qui pisse.

  12. Bonjour Dean,

    You’re a cheat. It won’t work. The flipping has to be done on Chandeleur’s Day and with an old-fashioned pan. You could use non-stick, if you want. Of course, the flipping is tricky and that’s why, if you’re successful, you’re rewarded with an undisclosed amount of money for a whole year. As I said if you flip your crêpes the day after and with a spatula it won’t work. But whether you flip crêpes on that day or not remember that, “À la Chandeleur, l’hiver finit ou reprend rigueur.”

  13. Never been to Rouen, but it looks really nice. Who knows? Maybe someday.

  14. Bonsoir CHM,
    Voici un très vieux dicton français (que je viens d'inventer):
    "Garantie aux tricheurs de la Chandeleur, une année pleine de bonheur".

  15. Bonsoir Dean,
    Très joli. Vous êtes un poète, non?

  16. 40 years of France is quite some time. Becoming fluent must have felt really good.

    I get a lot of pleasure just from knowing a few words and hearing French spoken.


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