"Lost" in France 

Plans? Maps? Signs? In France, we found another way and a frying pan.

If we hadn't gotten lost in France, I never would have found my magic frying pan.

We were trying to get from some point A to some point B when, naturally, we found ourselves on our way to some unplanned point C. You could say we were lost, but after several days of driving through the rolling farmland of Normandy, we decided we weren't capable of getting directly from any A to any B -- and that didn't matter, anyway. Some of the best stuff we had seen was on the way to point C.

It was while taking an unplanned route that we saw a sign for a town called Villedieu-les-Poeles. I knew enough French to know that Villedieu was "ville" (city) plus "dieu" (God). I didn't know the last word, so I had my dad look it up. He flipped through the pocket dictionary and said, "Frying pan." I laughed, sure he had the wrong word. It was like one of those Mad Lib books where players fill in random words and make goofy sentences like well, like "We went to God's City of Frying Pans."

It is goofy, but that's what the town is actually called. Mom looked it up in the guidebook, and apparently, in the 12th century, the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem established themselves in the area (hence God's City), and it just so happens these guys were good at working with copper. Hence, God's City of Frying Pans. They've been making copper cookware there ever since.

By this time, I had already turned the wheel straight toward God's City. I would have a frying pan of the Lord for myself!

It was like this the whole week my parents and I were driving through France. We would set out each day from, say, Honfleur, with our goal to reach, say, St. Malo. We were armed with a map, an international driver's license, a Euro-sized minivan (a Caravan could crush it with one wheel), and just enough French rattling around in my head to cause trouble. It was a recipe for, shall we say, considering alternate areas.

The French do drive on the right side of the road, which helps, but their roads tend to be as wide and straight as a garter snake. When they say to slow down for a curve, they aren't kidding: There's probably a medieval wall on your right and a tour bus coming the other way. They also have a funny way of alternating which intersection they put signs at. So you might take a well-marked right for Chinon then come to an intersection a mile later with no mention of Chinon whatsoever. We wound up in plenty of surprise destinations that way.

They do have several things figured out better than we do. For one thing, I saw no billboards. I'll say that again: no billboards. They also have traffic circles, which, Chevy Chase notwithstanding, are so superior to our intersections that you wonder where we went wrong. Not only do most cars get to keep moving most of the time in a traffic circle, they also serve as wonderful check-in points for those of us who are, um, exploring out-of-the-way areas.

Our main drawback, other than the fact that the driver didn't want to ask directions -- for reasons related to language skills and gender -- was that our map was of the whole country. That was good with bigger roads, of course, but when we got down to the equivalent of country roads, things got sketchy. Imagine handing somebody a map of the whole U.S. and expecting them to find Red Banks, Mississippi.

The thing is France has lots of villages. It appears, in fact, to be nothing but a great big village once you get outside Paris. Every bend in every road seems to have a name -- and a church -- but only something like 28 percent of those names appeared on our map. So it was not uncommon to find ourselves looking at five signs advertising five roads leading to 11 villages and none of it on our map. This led to everything from hilarity to family dysfunction, depending on the mood at the time, and plenty of what I liked to call "Places in France You Never Thought You'd See."

It was on one such occasion that we saw the sign for the holy land of frying pans. We were in a traffic circle, and I think we might have been going around a second time, for it was quite a lovely traffic circle and I wanted to see it again, and when we realized how close we were to sacred cookware, we diverged from whatever long-forgotten route we had already given up following.

And the pan? I think it really is from heaven. It's copper on the outside, stainless steel on the inside, washes easily, and cooks things to a juiciness and tenderness that couldn't come from humans. I'm actually not kidding. One night, I changed nothing in my dinner preparations except the pan, and after one bite, my guests stared slack-jawed at their plates and asked, "How did you make this so tender?"

Simple, I told them. I bought my pan the day I discovered God's City of Frying Pans.



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