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  • Writer's pictureCharles Ogilvie-Lee

Blog 18 - Escaping Paris! My trip to Sete!

My ex-husband, who wasn't my ex then, and my three younger children lived in the small coastal fishing village of Sete in the south of France in 2005. It was there that we befriended the delightful Patricia, originally from Paris, and the exuberant Julien, originally from Spain. Going to stay with them brought me comfort, and at times I wanted to whisper to Pat, "Please let me stay until I leave." However, like the trooper my better self tries to be, I knew I had to complete my sentence in Paris to calm the replay button of my life in the years ahead.


My trip to Sete began at the Gare de Lyon, a terrifying place for a grown-up baby. There are many vast halls, and my train will leave from one of them, but it’s a secret until 10 minutes before the train leaves. As I stand gazing at the flashing destination bulbs, I meet a New Zealandophile (if there is such a word?) called Fabienne, whom I discover has been to the small remote island of Ua Pou in the Marquesas Islands where I would wager no other person in the whole Gare de Lyon at that moment has been to.Discovering this most random of coincidences makes us lifelong friends.

Fabienne, unlike Patricia, who has no time for weakness, senses my terror of large railway stations and touches my arm, saying, "Calme toi, I will make sure you get your train." When Perpignan comes up, she says, "There it is," as Sete is a stop before the final destination. I feel a pang of neglect in my care from Patricia, who presumes a worldliness about me I simply don’t have. Fabienne, however, seems intuitively to know I am somewhat special, and she takes me all the way to my seat on the train, even having to flirt with the guard to get on my platform. He jumps straight into action when he sees a woman trying to get on a platform without a ticket, and after gesticulating madly at the impossibility of such a thing, he lets her through. After she has tucked me into my seat, Fabienne leaves me, insisting I come to visit her in Dijon and eat mustard, and promising to come to Paris before I leave.

When I arrive in Sete, Patricia is standing on the platform like the Statue of Liberty. Julien is waiting outside the station in his Jaguar, a symbol of wealth that a good socialist disapproves of. Julien sighs, saying, "Pat calls me a sad boy, but he excuses his materialistic weakness, 'Ashlee, once I only live, and yes, I have a big house, swimming pool, flashy car, big motorbike, but in my heart, I am a socialist.'" We arrive at their dear familiar Spanish-style house, which stands on a cliff overlooking the sea. Books written by French philosophers and poets line the bookshelves, like those at Maryse’s house, their soft unillustrated covers exuding an air of intellectual importance.

A cheery note on the blackboard says 'Viellir est apprendre a perdre, et a se organiser l'isolement tue,' which roughly translates as 'When you are getting old, you must organize things so you won't be alone as isolation kills.'

I eat some tomato soup, and Patricia takes me down the swirly marble staircase that makes you feel seasick to my bedroom. I climb into a soft double bed where huge doors open to the darkness, and palm trees sway me to sleep, and I think happily how shallow I am in requiring material comforts to not feel sorry for myself.

In the morning, I wake in paradise and start plotting to stay here until I leave for New Zealand and never return to my charmless school and bizarre life with Maryse.

My daily routine goes like this: I make coffee in the Delonghi coffee machine every morning and eat some baguette with jam or butter, but never both, and then write until lunchtime. At 12:30, I go up the marble staircase to see what delights my hosts have prepared for lunch, the main meal of the day. The sharing of food is important. To the French, eating alone makes them sad, like a child in the corner of a playground alone with his peanut-free lunchbox.

Lunch is a drawn-out affair for every taste, like a scent or a note, must be honored. Flavors and textures should not compete, no cold with hot, and quelle horreur, no Heinz tomato sauce. It is only now that I am older that I realize how my poor French mother suffered as I drowned all my food, even boiled eggs, in tomato sauce. I wonder if the neglected middle child was just crying for attention.

The first course of our lunch is a solitary green vegetable elevated from a nutritional extra to kingly status; asparagus, artichoke, green beans, or broccoli (that they prefer yellowing) is served with a simple vinaigrette. Then there is a tasty little something like a cod pie called a Brandade, a shrimp and chorizo curry, or a tortilla which is a cold omelette with potatoes inside. Julien says if a woman makes a good tortilla, a man will marry her. In between courses, we munch on lettuce leaves with a hint of dressing invented by the French. My daughter, who spends a lot of time warding off suspected diabetes because my elderly father showed vague signs of it in his declining years, says eating raw greens before something sweet or tasty protects organs from damage. Then there is brebis (ewe) cheese or goat cheese, the smellier the better, served with baguette, and finally, a little sweet tart with fresh apricots or raspberries.

Dinner is again divided into courses but more simple. Sete is a fishing village, so we might have prawns or oysters and a little omelette (my French grandmother used to say, 'When there is an egg in the house, there is a meal,') or the leftovers of the lunch the day before, watermelon and strawberries, and of course, always the lettuce, baguette, and a little glass of wine. Everything in moderation.

Julien insists on speaking English, and his accent is so pronounced I can’t help thinking he is having me on. 'Juju,' Patricia gently chastises him with the resigned indulgence of the infant teacher she once was, 'you must not speak English, Ashlee is here to learn French.' 'Yes, my love, what chance I have to meet you?' Julien replies in English.

'In France, Ashlee, man cook, women read the paper, as the future of men is women,' (quoting Louis Aragon).

When I particularly like something I am eating, Julien asks Pat how much they have of it, telling me he is afraid of not having enough. 'It’s from my young age when I had nothing,' he explains. Julien’s father’s brother was killed when the Germans bombed Madrid, and after the Republicans were defeated, he escaped to France.

He was in the resistance and was arrested by the French police, the chief of whom, Petain, was in collaboration with the Nazis. He was put in Dachau in 1943, and Julien shows me the spoon his father made when he was prisoner number 73615 in Dachau. It says 22.3.1945. After liberation, he went on to make plane engines out of the same metal as he made his spoon. Julien was an only child, and his mother was illiterate, but through sheer hard work and motivation, Julien has done alright for himself and can now afford all those things he dreamt about when he was small and poor. However, he has to weather Pat's disapproval of consumerism.

Pat and I walk on the beach with her friend Isabelle, and a red rose washes up on the sand. They say it means I will find love. They try to match me off with an old doctor with a beard who is sitting on a makeshift stool, refusing to throw a ball to his frantic dog. I am tired of all men being seen as possibilities. It is like I am a walking firelighter looking for a fire. When I walk in the park at home and I say to a man, "What a nice dog you have," he says, "Yes, we love her," "we" being the pronoun for when one exists as a couple, not an individual anymore. Just like "lel" is the new neopronoun in French as an alternative to "elle" and "il."

One Saturday, Pat and I go to the food cooperative where Pat volunteers 2 hours a month. It is a very serious place, and the food and the volunteers have the air of soldiers against frivolity. When we get back to our little electric car, there are police around it, but Pat and the policewoman kiss each other, and she assures Pat she won’t get a ticket because Pat used to teach her daughter, and they don’t ticket electric cars.

We go to the markets where lobsters are alive on ice and people eat oysters and drink wine at 10 am. We walk in the town past the centre ville where, instead of a symbol of the revolution, there is a large statue of an octopus.

I buy a few things and every little thing is wrapped up beautifully with ribbon, as giving presents is a national pastime for the French. We watch the protests against a new carpark, and Pat smiles proudly at her compatriots standing up for the just and the good. We pass a photo exhibition celebrating non-binary, and Pat says she doesn’t know why I stress myself with writing.

We return home to paradise, and my days pass in a haze of contentment. Lulu plays the piano. The sun shines. Juju cooks and does the dishes. The cat stares at the cupboard where his food is. The birds sing in French. The sea and the sky embrace. Nana visits with her boyfriend and infects us all with her laughter.

One day, Julien makes paella on his outside barbecue for Florence, who once tried to teach my boys French along with a class full of Arab migrants, many of whom had never been in a classroom before and did not like a female teacher. One boy pulled a knife out from under his desk, and my boys were thrilled and loved their classes with Florence. When Florence and her husband, Alain, first arrive, we all stand around awkwardly for a good half an hour in a weird deferred gratification ritual that has taken place in all my five social events in France. Florence serves the most delicious eclairs (profiteroles), and Julien picks up his plate and makes a big show of licking it and says, "This is the best compliment you can give the chef."

One afternoon, we go to neighbour Guillaume’s house. He has a cactus with one huge asparagus that has erupted out of it. This one asparagus takes 35 years to appear, and then the plant dies. I think this is very noble and tragic, but Guillaume shrugs his shoulders and says he won’t get it again, as what good is a plant that dies after 35 years? We all stand around in the traditional uncomfortable warm-up, and then Guillaume produces a delicious tart which he has made where the fruit is on the top. Guillaume says the cook who invented this tart dropped it 300 years ago, so it is now served upside down. Pat says all the men cook in France, which is why I must find a French man. Guillaume is very welcoming, but his girlfriend, like Florence, is reserved and severe, with her grey bun. French women like to be taken seriously, and the men have a joviality about them that the women make a big show of putting up with. Leaving a get-together takes as long as arriving. I stand there like a child, not really understanding what the grown-ups are saying. I almost feel like standing on one foot and rubbing my foot up the back of my leg to see if I fall over.

On my last day, we eat oysters and drink wine in Bouziges. We then stroll along the seashore and eat ice cream, and I buy a silver metal duck from a lazy Asian woman who doesn't even get out of her car to do the transaction. My silver duck sits on my little desk in my bedroom, and when I look out my window at the sky tower, I see it, and I see Sete and Julien and Patricia, and I feel proud of myself to have such friends because they embody that elusive ingredient that we go to France to find. They are little drops of gold on the rainbow of my life.

Enjoy the photos!

La Gare de Lyon.

Waiting for the train.


French ticket inspector.


Julien and Patrica and a French salad.

The glory of an artichoke

Julien cooks while the women read newspapers.

The spoon made by Julien's father

La plage.

The co-op.

IEL the new pronoun

No ticket for Patrica!

Live lobsters on ice

The protest

Lulu at the piano

The cat and the cupboard

Nana and her boyfriend

Julien's paella

Allain and Florence

Les profiteroles

Julien licking his plate

Guillaume and the upside down cake!

93 views4 comments

4 ความคิดเห็น

08 ต.ค. 2566

Darling I've just read your

blog about Sete. It is su ch a lovely story and says so much about your state of mind. You were very unhappy and understandably so. But you were very lucky to meet Maryse for whom you brought a momentary glimpse of renewed happiness. You really write very well and should start thinking of putting your writing in order. Perhaps in the New Year. Congratulations!




13 ก.ย. 2566

I've LOVED reading this Ash! You write beautifully and it brings back happy memories for me of the time we spent with Patricia and Julien both in Sete and in Melb! Look forward to catching up with you next month...Susie RW


10 ก.ย. 2566

Your writing gets better and better.... Joxo


09 ก.ย. 2566

Wonderful writing Ash. So pleased they looked after you well ❤️

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