02 February 2013

Rouen reminiscences

My '72-'73 Rouen adventure was my second stay in France. Earlier, I had lived in Aix-en-Provence, way down south, where I was a student for 6 months in the winter and spring of 1970. When I got a chance to go back to France and spend a year in Rouen as a teaching assistant, I didn't hesitate. I was 23 years old. In my naïve mind, I thought I was going back to Aix, with its sunshine, wind, and dry climate. I was in for a big surprise.

Shopping in 2003 on the rue Cauchoise in Rouen, near the Vieux Marché, in 2003

I don't know why I thought the weather in Normandy would be like the weather in Provence. It wasn't a conscious thing, and I didn't realize I had that expectation until after I arrived in Rouen in September 1972 and experienced the gray and damp days of the northern maritime climate. I had spent two weeks in Paris in March or April 1970, and it had been gray, rainy, and even snowy there. But I guess I wasn't in Paris long enough to really get a feel for the variety of French climate zones.

I did manage to scrape together enough francs to have an infrequent dinner or an ice cream at the Drugstore in Rouen back in '72-'73 (it's a pizzeria now, but hamburgers, club sandwiches, and banana splits were its specialities back then). And I might have shopped at the Charcuterie Hardy on the place du Vieux Marché once in a while too. The photos are from 2003.

Anyway, I loved Rouen despite nearly dying of the flu at Christmastime and not having decent heat or a bathroom in my apartment. Central heat was being installed in the building when I moved in in September, but it didn't actually start working until mid-January. I had a little gas heater with a bottle of butane as fuel, and by January a bottle was lasting only about two weeks. To get a new one, I had to walk across town with the bottle on my shoulder and buy a new one.

The cathedral in Rouen is famous for having been painted so many times by Monet. And the modern
Eglise Jeanne d'Arc on the place du Vieux Marché didn't yet exist when I lived in Rouen.

The funny thing about that bouteille de butane is that I probably bought the replacements from the business owned and operated by my friend Marie's father. I didn't actually meet Marie until 2001, however (she comments here as Mary07 once in a while). Carrying that empty metal gas canister across town was a chore, but carrying a full one back through the slippery, dark steets to my apartment, and up the two flights of stairs was a Herculean task. It weighed a ton. It was not fun.

Restaurants like this one in old Rouen were out of my price range when I lived there.

My life that year revolved around the Lycée Corneille, of course, because I worked there and also went and took showers there in the boys' dormitory a few times a week, when the students were in class. And I spent a lot of time in Le Vieux Marché (the city's old market square), where I went shopping for food.

Rouen in Normandy, 01 February 2003

I didn't make enough money as a teaching assistant to be able to afford to eat in restaurants, so I was forced to develop my cooking skills. All the food in the shops looked so appetizing that I wanted to be able to prepare it properly. Luckily, by November 1972 I had been "adopted" by the family of one of my students — those were the friends who let me stay in their apartment in 2003. The student's mother showed me how to prepare a lot of the delicious food that came out of her kitchen.


  1. Nice to read your memories of those first visits to France.
    And also funny about the weather, it's true that one gets an idea based on something one has lived years ago, or in a far place. Then we believe that years later, or 500 kilometres to the west, will be the same :P
    And Normandy... has its own climate!! Even at summer scares me swimmin on its beach!!

    I also loved that the fact that you can't eat in certain restaurants, did encourage you to improve your culinary skills. That's always good, and well, you found the way to solve your problems!!

  2. I bet it was grueling at the time, but you seem to look back on the whole experience fondly. Learning to cook was an unexpected bonus.

  3. I'm glad that family adopted you! We've learned a few things since being 23.

    Rouen is such a beautiful old city, Aix is nice also, but the two cities are so different.

    Did you have a chance to visit Paris that year?

  4. I've never seen Aix, but I went on a one-day visit to Rouen back in 1981. I love the half-timber buildings (in any town).

    How nice that a family of a student took such an interest in you!

  5. I was in Rouen for a few hours in June 2001 as a part of a 15-day tour of France. The whole tour was just enough to let me see that I must go back and spend longer at each place we visited!

  6. As Margaret probably knows (coming from the same town in N.C.), and Evelyn knows, and Judy because she knows about my life in Paris, the lap of luxury has never been chez moi. I did fine in Rouen and I do still have fond memories of the town. I wish I could go there more often.

  7. You have had some really amazing adventures in France.

  8. Ken, the lap of luxury can be boring, don't you think? :) Imagine, seriously, if you had been spoiled so much your whole life that you needed and expected everything to be the height of comfort and luxury.


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