The dog days of Normandy.

Summer is in full flower in Basse-Normandie, and it has brought the funniest weather I’ve ever seen. Murray and Julie joke that there’s no point to checking the weather forecast (or what the French call the météo), since it always has a bit of everything: we wake up to brisk and sunny mornings that quickly warm up to hot middays, and work through cloudy afternoons interspersed with drizzle against the windowpanes. It usually clears up in time for brilliant sunsets around 10 pm, and true darkness only descends after midnight. We’ve been keeping quite busy, with our animals and our work, but finding time somehow to admire the weather and the landscape around us.

Most days, I accompany Julie to the dog grooming salon in Livarot, a small town about 15 minutes’ drive away. Livarot is one of those towns with a main street or two, locally known for its extraordinarily stinky cheese, and The Trimming Room, which Murray and Julie have run for a decade now is located at the intersection of those main streets. It’s a pretty small operation with two rooms — Julie sometimes has someone else helping her out, but otherwise, it’s just her, and now me. When I join her in the mornings, we do three to four dogs. If I work the afternoon instead, we could get a few more than that. I usually help Julie hold the dog while she uses clippers to get most of the hair off. When it’s shaved down more, she bathes and shampoos the dog, while I sweep up the worst of the hair on the table. Afterwards, she hands it to me for drying off and points the blowdryers its way. When it is fluffy and bone-dry, I help her hold onto it again as she does the final trim. On my first day, we got three Yorkshire terriers. They are rather tiny yappy dogs, and not either of our favorites, but at least they’re small and easy to dry! I also helped her groom a black cocker spaniel who had very matted hair. After the first day or two, I have begun to believe that being a dog groomer is rather like being a dentist, where your job is really to clean up potentially disgusting messes that other people rarely see. Many dogs have a lot of knots, matted hair, a ton of dead undercoat if their owners never bother to brush them, and are extraordinarily greasy because their owners don’t bathe them! I also think it’s hard for dogs to be in grooming salons because they feel anxious without their owners, but some of these dogs go beyond anxious and fidgety, and get kind of nasty.

My favorite experience so far has to be bathing the wolfhound. Julie had reminded me that I really did need to help her in the shop on Saturday, because we had a wolfhound, which turned out to be one of the biggest dogs she had ever groomed! The Irish wolfhound, incongruously named Charlie, was at least three foot tall and approximately 80 kilograms (~176 pounds), so yes, significantly heavier than me! Fortunately, wolfhounds have a very gentle and tolerant nature, and the owner stayed to help out me and Julie. Without his help, we never would have gotten Charlie into the bath. As it was, it was a three-person job, and while washing him, both Julie and I got quite wet. He was one of those dogs who had an immense undercoat — every swipe of the brush came away laden with fur, and when we washed him and blow-dried him, hair just started going everywhere, sticking to the walls, our arms and shirts. Midway through his bath, I even started spitting out fur from my mouth. Julie kept repeating that it felt like grooming a small horse!

Every day at lunchtime, we head home for lunch, Julie picking up some bread at the local boulangerie and driving back. I usually make large sandwiches with ham and cheese, butter and mustard, and some fresh vegetables. We’ve found ourselves with bigger appetites than usual, because of all the fresh air we’ve been getting but also probably the work! While I’m at the dog salon, Steve’s been occupied with yardwork. Murray and Julie’s traditional Normandy colombage house sits on a small lot. The front of the house has a yard occupied mostly by a large kennel, with interior and exterior spaces for their large dogs. The backyard has several trees, and on one end a garden mostly overrun by weeds. In his time here, Steve (and occasionally with my help) has mowed both yards, weedwhacked the perimeter of the entire lot, uprooted a thistle plant (which has nasty thorns), and also begun to level the overrun garden. We’ve also gone after a briar patch in one corner of the yard, clipping it so that it is clear of the electric tape at the top of the fences. We have both made a close acquaintance with stinging nettles, which grows in abundance here, and should ideally be uprooted entirely instead of simply cut low. At first, being stung by a nettle feels simply like a sting from a thorny vine, but after a few seconds, the localized area just begins to tingle and burn like a bad bug bite that you might want to see a doctor about. It goes away with a day or so, but continues to tingle on and off. I’ve gotten off easy with only one or two scratches, but Steve’s hands and arms are covered in half a dozen spots.

Our reward for our 4-5 hours of yardwork and salon aiding? Lovely food and accommodation in this patch of Normandy. Murray and Julie have a great upstairs bedroom with ensuite, and our windows open up to the west. They’ve introduced us to some delicious local desserts, though being English, they cook food that we are much more used to — lasagnas, salads, pork chops, and pasta. They also make frequent trips back across the Channel to load up on British food items, and Murray introduced me to a bag of Yorkshire tea, which is strong, fragrant, and at first sniff, reminded me unequivocally of Hong Kong milk tea. They’re a little horrified about how much cream and sugar I’ve been adding to my tea, but I have to admit it’s pretty good without anyway. Murray also gave us a ride the other day to Cabourg and Dives-sur-Mer, two neighboring seaside towns on the northern coast of Normandy. Steve and I made our way to the water, saw and touched and smelled the Atlantic Ocean once more, and gazed toward the dark and blurry coastline city that is Le Havre to the north. Cabourg is a seaside town with a decidedly historical and quaint character (and a source of inspiration for Proust’s In Search of Lost Time), with a year-round population of 4,000 which balloons to 40,000 during the summer months. Dives-sur-Mer is a little bit more subdued, with a quaint historical downtown, and a stunning cathedral that dates back to the 11th century. At the end of the afternoon, we took some small regional trains back, falling asleep and being awakened by the conductor when we arrived at the exchange station of Deauville-Trouville. And we have loved spending more time in Lisieux, the biggest city in the region, just a ten minute drive from Murray and Julie’s house. It is home to the grand Basilica of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, which is a singularly beautiful yet young basilica. It is young, having been built in honor of a young saint from the late 1890s who has barely reached her own centennial, but it was stunning to visit, and the view from the lofty dome of the surrounding countryside was very pastoral. We also paid a visit to the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, or Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Lisieux, which had a very narrow but lofty layout, filled with beautiful stained glass windows.

We are headed out of here on Friday, but before that, we will take a trip with Murray to a nearby ciderie to taste the other thing beside cows that Normandy is known for: apples! And perhaps to try some of Livarot’s famously stinky cheese! It has been very nice establishing a different sort of pattern, and spending our days with their passel of tall Italian Spinoni and Braccos, six very mellow and companionable dogs who love to romp and cuddle. The two cats, named Bradley and Lance, are both tabby-calico cats with white stockinged feet and regularly brings in mice to eat quietly on their own.

The next part of our trip will bring us back to Paris for a brief two days, and then onto England and Scotland. I’m too tired right now by the thought of all of that to closely detail everything that we’re going to get up to, and will simply leave you with this anecdote. Tonight, after dinner, I took the bike out for a short ride on the rural roads. The seat was too high, the tires not quite filled up, but the snatches of sunset I saw were of  the deepest violet and brightest orange, and at one point, I cruised down a winding hillside, going faster than I ever had on Chicago streets, half-afraid a car would emerge beyond the next bend and half-exhilarated by the cool breeze on my face. I even surprised a deer in one of the fields, and made it to Saint-Pierre-des-Ifs, a small town marked by an old church with mossy graves and crosses. Later on, when I had to push my bike back up the same hill (the gradient was a little too steep and I am a little out of practice), I reflected that much like this the past week or so has been more physical work than we’ve been used to in months. But much like this bike ride, the view has definitely been worth it.

More to come,

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