Wednesday, May 4, 2011


soulac turret

Eric and I took a spontaneous trip to the Atlantic coast last weekend. Spontaneous in that we knew for weeks we wanted to go somewhere but couldn't make plans until exactly one hour before leaving. "Let's go to Soulac-sur-Mer", Eric suggested. He'd mentioned the place before. I had been looking at the Ile de Re further up the coast near La Rochelle, or Cadaques on the Mediterranean, on the way to Barcelona. But the drives were a little long - Soulac is a short ferry ride away from Royan, which is an easy two hour drive to the west.

soulac sculpture

After the hills and valleys, cows and old stone of the Limousin, the Atlantic Coast is like going forward in time from the sixteenth century to the part of the twentieth century when France resembles the France I imagined from new wave films. Royan was bombed at the end of World War II and it's now mostly white modern 50's buildings, brisk and stylish so you want to turn your shirt collar up, toss a sweater over your shoulders and put on some big sunglasses. Which is what most of the people on the ferry across the Gironde estuary had done, that very definite French way of declaring "It's the weekend now, and we are, tous, at ease. "They look like a SpecSavers ad," Eric said.

Soulac is a pretty little beachside town, with brick cottages built at the beginning of the 20th century. It felt like a bit of a secret, with very few hotels and a small commercial district with shops and restaurants. A large covered market building, mairie and ancient church. With a lot of the houses still closed up for the winter, it had an air of mystery and possibility that made it the perfect getaway; I immediately started imagining our new life there.

souvenir soulac

Dangerous, traveling without instruments. With only an overnight bag each and two rusty bicycles, a person starts getting ideas:

Eric's a rogue handyman with a glamorous past. Is he English? No one knows for sure, but he has a Hemingway air as he cycles around with his toolkit, wearing movie star shades bought, in another life, in Los Angeles.

I'm a disheveled seaside painter, with fraying vintage jackets and paint-spattered jeans, hair perpetually tangled from the salt air. I pedal my bike in gold antique platform sandals, rumored to have belonged to Carole Lombard.


Together we own a junk shop, and this being a seaside resort town, none of the junk is cheap. We drive a Mehari and live in the one block long "poor side of town" in a beatnik shack with a gravel garden. Every few months, we take a ferry back to civilization and break out the guitars, performing to an adoring crowd.

soulac porch


But, after eating at a couple of good restaurants, locating the hipster-ish bar, biking in the direction of the "naturist" beach but giving up because it was too far, walking one more time down all the streets of the town and bumping into the same people again and again, it was time to go.

We drove back through the Medoc, passing chateau after chateau - not the rustic, humble chateaux I'm used to seeing daily but huge, imposing structures, each attached to a famous vineyard: Lafite Rothschild, Latour. Like the war memorial and the gun turret painted with a cheery beach scene in Soulac, I made a note to "look all that up". If I got it together, all the looking up of battles and chateaux, historical artifacts and memorials (churches, not so much, maybe I spent too much time in them as a kid for them to hold any interest or magic), I'd reconstruct the Second World War and probably the one before that too, and the last several centuries.

Back home, I wondered if property in Soulac was really as expensive as they say (it is) and whether it might be a little bit sleepy in a town whose population shrinks to under 2000 in the winter (it would). But I held on to my beach life fantasy for two days, until Pilates class. Annie the instructor had us in an upside down pose where she came around asking each person a question, to make sure you were holding your neck correctly.

"What did you do this past week?" she asked Julia. "A lot of cooking and gardening and a lot of laundry and cleaning," Julia answered. A pause. "A lot of drinking."

"How many new lambs this spring?" she asked Helen. "28! A pretty good year." I was momentarily in an episode of The Archers.

I half-prepared an answer, about a weekend holiday in Soulac. It was like back when Sister Mary George would come around and sing to each fifth grader "What did you have for break-fast?" and you had to sing back "Orange juice and instant oat-meal!" even if you had rocky road ice cream mashed up in a glass of milk.

But I knew deep down what my question would be: "When's the next concert, Amy?"

Relieved to have my own special question, relieved to return to my familiar role (I've got a gig, therefore, I have a purpose in life) but a little sad to see the gold platforms vanish in a puff of smoke, I answered: "This Friday at the tea shop in Piegut - it's gonna be great!"

gold shoes


kpf said...

Love! Yes, you and Eric look like people with a story - but what exactly is it?? Oh yes, Carole Lombard wore those sandals - with her Satin clingy hostess gown.

Neil Storey said...

Brilliant... and you won't miss France?! Feeling the distance now and wanting / no, really wanting to come back... nearly four years away is enough, enough... I miss the shambolic madness of a small village, le m'sieur opposite (the Constant Gardener); the stone mason wih the impossibly big hands with the Fig Tree that overhung my garden - he didn't like figs, 'eat all you like!'; the chasse-hounds down the lane; asperges-bloke at Brantome market - he'll be there about now on a Friday... a kilo, a baguette from sing song lady at the best boulangerie in town and a bottle of the well-chilled - a lunch fit for kings. Yeah, from concrete canyons, it feels like time to come home.

Richard said...

This really made me want to jump in a camper van and drive down to Soulac. Lovely stuff!

Amy said...

I'm wishing/hoping we could go back, Richard. Lots of bike paths, campgrounds, and some excellent food (and still too early to be crowded - wouldn't want to be there in August!)

Neil, based on what you've written here I am missing it and I haven't even left yet. Really lovely. I wonder will I miss it like that too...I'm sure I'll fondly remember "those 5 years in France". Though it being tax month here, there's plenty to remind me how impossible and aggravating it can all be.

That's what I picture every time I get them out and put them on Kate. They are amazingly comfortable.

Jim S said...

Somehow you make everywhere you go sound interesting! Although I'm not sure even you and Eric could have done much with South Shields in the rain this afternoon...

But you would have loved Laura Cantrell in Gateshead tonight.


Amy said...

Or Swindon on a Sunday...

Thanks, Jim. Would love to see Laura play again! And I always have a swell time in Newcastle/Gateshead.

Mike said...

Amy, I felt like I was lost in an Eric ROhmer movie.

Amy said...

Me too, Mike - at last! I've seen so many of his films, the one called "Summer" in America (Le Rayon Vert in France) really stuck with me...