Sunday, March 25, 2012

Madame Jarnay

Madame Jarnay

War grows out of the desire for the individual to gain advantage at the expense of his fellow man.  ~ Napoleon Hill

It was an unplanned stop on our canal itinerary, a small village that was barely a dot on the map and whose name I cannot remember.  We had been cruising all day without a stop and could use a chance to stretch our muscles, so we pulled up to the village dock in mid-afternoon, tied up the boat and grabbed our bikes for a ride on the country roads.  After pedaling through the small village and the neighboring farm lands, we stopped at a small cafe with outdoor seating and gathered under the shade of an umbrella.  It was a warm day and the bike ride had made us hot and sticky – a cold beer or glass of apple cider sounded wonderful right now!  We pulled out our cards, ordered our drinks and began to deal a hand of rummy 500.  Before long it was early evening and we began to think about our dinner plans.  

We asked the owner of the café what she recommended and she shrugged.  It was off-season, she explained, and many of the restaurants in the village were closed.  “You can try next door,” she said, gesturing to the small hotel next to her café, “Madame Jarnay runs the hotel there and she will cook dinner for guests.  She doesn’t have anyone staying there right now though, so she might not be prepared to serve.”  We thanked her, paid our bill and wandered next door to explore this small hotel / bar / restaurant. 

We stepped inside and looked around – it was dead quiet and no one was in sight.  A large old brown dog lay on the floor of the restaurant and he raised his head to look at us curiously.  “Bon Jour” we called.  Soon we heard someone moving in the back room and a swinging door burst open and a small woman with gray-blonde hair emerged into the dining room.  “Bon Jour”, she answered, then proceeded to ask us questions in French.  Jan did her best to explain that the café owner next door had directed us here for dinner.  Madame Jarnay seemed pleased and asked us to be seated.  We looked around – there was no one else here and it seemed a bit intrusive for us to ask her to cook for four guests only.  We thanked her for the hospitality but explained that if she did not have other guests to cook for, we would not want to take up her evening just for us.  She would have nothing of the sort and insisted we sit at a small wooden table, adorned with a single flower in a vase, cloth napkins and delicate china dishes.  We felt uncomfortable and a bit guilty, but at her insistence we sat down.

Madame Jarnay handed us menus then stood aside expectantly as we reviewed them and tried to interpret the French.  As we began to make our selections, she would answer “no” to each request.  She did not have the ingredients for the meals we were ordering, she explained.  Finally, we laughed and asked her what she recommended.  She smiled broadly and in French explained that she had steak, potatoes, salad and bread.  This was perfect!  We placed our order and sat back, wondering what would happen next. 

As Madame exited to the kitchen she issued a stern warning to her old dog, instructing him to stay in his place on the floor.  When she had disappeared and we could hear the sounds of pots and pans in the back, the old dog slowly stood up and ambled across the room to greet us.  We laughed and rubbed his ears and he sat next to us, occasionally glancing towards the swinging door.  When he heard his mistress approaching the door, he immediately returned to his spot on the floor, lying down complacently just as Madame entered the dining room.  She smiled at him approvingly and as she served our appetizers she explained that she had taught her dog to stay away from guests while they were eating.  We grinned and acknowledged that he was, indeed, a well trained animal.  She thanked us, expressed her approval to the dog while he thumped his tail on the floor, and then returned to the kitchen.  As soon as she disappeared, the dog was back at our side.

When Madame Jarnay came out to serve us our salads, we began to ask her questions about the area.  She shared the history of the region and told small stories about the village and its inhabitants.  She enjoyed practicing her English with us and we enjoyed trying out our French with her and between the two languages, we managed to understand the bulk of what she was saying.

Madame served us our steaks and at our request, she pulled up a chair and joined us at the table.  The food was wonderful and delicious and she produced a bottle of rich red wine to complement the steak and potatoes.  As we shared this delightful dinner and sipped the wine, her history unfolded and we became more and more engrossed in her story.

Madame was a child of 12 and living with her parents in Paris when the Nazi’s invaded the city in June of 1940.  Alarmed at what was happening, her parents quickly packed their belongings and moved to this village in the country, where her father had been raised.  The peaceful village life suited Madame’s parents and when the war ended they opted not to return to Paris, instead purchasing this hotel and building the adjoining restaurant.  They ran the hotel and restaurant until their deaths, leaving the establishment to Madame in their will.

Madame was a typical teenage girl and the country life was not as appealing to her.  She had high aspirations and wanted to become a lawyer.  She moved back to Paris when she was 18 years old and enrolled in the university law school.  She passed her bar exams and became a lawyer in Paris, working there until her parents’ death.  It was highly unusual for a woman to complete law school in 1950’s Paris and she worked hard to establish her practice and her credibility in the city.  Madame had never married – her work was her life and she quickly rose to the top of the Parisian legal ladder.   She was in her early 40’s when her parents died and she inherited the hotel and restaurant.  She found herself becoming exhausted with her city life and grueling work schedule and the idea of returning to the village and a slower life style was very appealing.

Her role as a lawyer served her well in her family village for there was no one in the town who could marry couples, solve legal disputes or provide legal advice to uphold the French laws.  She became the legal magistrate and soon, her hotel and restaurant became the place to hold weddings and receptions.  Today, Madame explained, she is 79 years old and no longer acts as the village lawyer, however, she does enjoy marrying couples and running her hotel. 

As we finished our meals we realized that we had spent over three hours with Madame Jarnay and knew that she must be exhausted although she was still talking animatedly and sharing multiple stories about her life as a lawyer in the village.  We thanked her profusely for her kindness and her stories – it brought so much context to us to hear about this village, its history and then to realize that Madame had contributed so much. 

As we walked back to our boat we were all silent with our own thoughts.  This lovely woman was 79 years old and still running a hotel and restaurant by herself. She lived through one of the most difficult times in France’s history and then bucked tradition by going to law school in the early 1950’s, a profession that is historically dominated by men.  She gave up her lucrative career in Paris to return to the village of her father’s family and continue the family business, building a new career for herself in the process.  Had we not stopped to ride our bikes in this particular village, we would never have met Madame Jarnay or heard her stories.  We were all so thankful for the unscheduled stop and the resulting friendship that we had developed.

Travel Tip:  Unscheduled stops can bring the most interesting stories and information.