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Peacocks in Normandie

Updated on: 11 June,2023 07:35 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

Phew! So I spent a few days relaxing in Paris after, nipping away for two days to rural Normandie, before returning home to Mumbai.

Peacocks in Normandie

Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeWhat are the chances, that you drive into a spectacular farmhouse estate in Normandie—that’s how the French spell Normandy—two-three hours by train, west of Paris, and are greeted by a familiar Indian mewing—of a peahen-peacock pair called Laxmi and Narayan? My ears did a double take. I was so utterly exhausted after the Cannes Film Festival—I had been invited on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival’s Semaine de la Critique/Critics’ Week, but since we had only seven films in Competition, in my free time, I did seven video interviews of all the Indian/ South Asian filmmakers selected at Cannes, and wrote three Sunday mid-day columns. Phew! So I spent a few days relaxing in Paris after, nipping away for two days to rural Normandie, before returning home to Mumbai.

And what are the chances that your host is a Franco-Bengali couple, let’s call them Andre and Anil, who lived in Delhi for 10 years, before moving to this estate near Lisieux, Normandie, since 12 years? All the scenes from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which is partly set in Normandy during World War II, that flashed in my head, were swiftly erased, as I rode through the bracing countryside to the estate. Then I noticed/remembered that peacocks don’t peacock, they mew like cats. They have a major identity crisis—they must have been busy taking selfies when the ID badges were handed out. I laugh when I discover they are called Laxmi and Narayan, after Indian gods, as Indians are wont to name farm animals, whereas Europeans usually, creepily give animals just numbers, say 3024 for a cow. Sigh!

This is a glorious eight-acre property, with an imposing, three-part farmhouse manor, an orchard with over 500 apple trees, massive rose bushes of different colours and irises everywhere, guras, red rhododendrons, at the doorway, and red geraniums on the windowsill. And the summer air was still clean and crisp, and filled with the sweetest birdsong all day. It was just wonderful! My Bombay lungs were in catatonic shock with the appalling amounts of oxygen. The air is so clean, that in summer, the colours of the countryside seemed more intense than ever. No wonder Normandie has drawn the rich and famous—Andre said these included French actor Gerard Depardieu, the Aga Khan and British artist David Hockney.

More delights from the menagerie follow—I meet two golu-molu New Zealand pigs with beautiful, long, white, silken ears, who are, at a pinch, even adorable. But it must be a tone deaf twit who sub-titles their most guttural grunts as the charming “Oink.” The pigs loved to have the back of their ears scratched; they impatiently DIY scratched their ears on your ankles while you chatted, and got mighty irritated if you budged. There were 36 sheep on the farm, three goats, a few cocks and hens, and lots of ducks and ducklings (a fox kept making off with ducks in the night). And there’s an adorable blind cat, Billu, who loves to curl up on the kitchen muda cane stool.

Lunch was a redolent dejeuner sur l’herbe—a delicious, hearty, four-course meal under a fig tree in the garden grass. A salad with beets, eggs, corn, cheese and greens, a baked pie with potato, mushrooms and eggs, a platter of four local Normandie cheeses—camembert, livarot, neufchâtel and pont-l’eveque—a crème brûlee for dessert, refreshing, cold, homemade apple cider throughout—and the best part, a hot masala chai to finish. Uff! I could barely stand after, so I dozed off in a lounge chair under the trees, fanned by the breeze, my senses reeling with the sweet scent of summer roses. It was a day in heaven.

Later, Andre and Anil drove me to the seaside town of Houlgate nearby, pausing en route at a picture postcard Norman town called Beuvron en Auge, with half-timbered houses, that the Germans call Fachwerk. Houlgate has a marvellous beach, ringed with grand bungalows that were shut or get weekend visitors from Paris and around: most of the towns here have emptied into the cities, with mostly older people left behind. We saw a German bunker on the beach, sprayed with graffiti, a remnant of World War II, flags of the Allies at street corners and war cemeteries.

Dropping me to Lisieux station for my train to Paris, Andre offers to show me the famous Basilica of St Therèse there, but I decline: I’d rather savour the countryside longer, and let the smells, sounds and tastes linger. Au revoir!

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. 
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