From Venice to Chartres
Venice is a memory. She is a magnet, pulling me forever into her depths, a cozy, labyrinthine nest I roost in, venturing into her damp, dark streets to come home to perch every evening. Venetian food is good, but not good enough to keep me there forever. Still, it was hard to leave her. She had become my best friend, the one I wanted to cuddle up with for the rest of my life.
Every time I set foot in Venice, I forget the rest of the world. I’d forgotten about crispy baguettes and sea-salt butter and unctuous raw-milk cream from Normandy that one can eat like yogurt. I’d forgotten that the history of “my” Chartres is as old or older than that of Venice, going back as far, we know, as the Druids and Romans.
Driving from the airport through the verdant, rolling hills of the Essonne and into the flat Beauce, the wheat fields of France, the motorway lined with sweeping yellow fields of rapeseed, the red of poppies nestling up to them like children to mothers’ breasts, I wondered how I’d forgotten the sensation of open space and green, how I’d forgotten the beauty I’d discovered so long ago in the landscapes of Monet and Corot and Lorraine, long before setting foot in this Gallic land. Venice puts a stone-and-brick spell on us and it takes a while for it to wear off, but this drive did it.
Eyes wide open, I now remember why I love France. It’s about turning every corner in this city of Chartres only to find a yet-unknown remnant of the medieval ramparts, or learning that there is a Roman temple hidden under the church up the street. It’s about coming home to a spring that looks like a lovely Pissarro or Monet flower garden and remembering why I fell in love with Impressionism as a bright-eyed teenager from Kentucky. It’s about smelling the roses and mourning their going away when the first petals fall to the ground. It’s like passing an old lover in the street and remembering how I fell deeply in love with his dark, intense eyes all those years ago, and into the buttery nostalgia of my own past. It’s about Sunday morning croissants and the farmer’s wife’s jams and café au lait for breakfast and ripe and runny Camembert and the first cherries for clafoutis. It about golden fields of rapeseed and about those red poppies.
The wisteria was withered and long gone when we left Venice, but still flowering in Chartres, this land of the cool, damp north. It was like having two springtimes, going from Italian peas and asparagus to French ones.
We visit the weeping willows along what the Romans called the Autura River, known now as the Eure, and into the surrounding marshland that has been largely filled in and is now a nature reserve with miles of green footpaths and wild ducks. Marshes and canals, not unlike Venice, except for that big ship of a Gothic cathedral on top of the hill. There are no cruise ships towering above the buildings like in Venice.
Home is, quite probably, where I lay my suitcases and that changes all too often, but home is also about knowing how to fall in love with something or someone wherever and whenever I put down my bags.
I sometimes think it is as simple as a plateau de fruits de mer royal — a seafood platter with everything on it — as they call it in this northerly part of France.
Venice is but a memory half in fog.
We are moving toward the days of purple and pink hydrangea and long walks on the briny Breton coast, fresh oysters for lunch every day. I have returned to the land I fell in love with through art history surveys and then fell more in love with on first sight. Amazingly for a Kentucky girl, like Venice, France, feels like home in all its seasons, wet and dry and cold and hot, in sun and in fog.