21 April 2010

Silence, Shells, and Sloppiness

Part of the reason for my blogging radio silence has been a lack of internet access brought on by travel arrangements that were, um, unusual to say the least. I spent five days in St. Jacut de la Mer and I stayed at an abbey (which was run by very nice nuns who only spoke French) 100 yards from the English Channel. As if that wasn't a strange enough circumstance, I also spent 2 and a half days of my time there on a silent retreat with 9 other guests. In many ways, it was a relief; it bailed me out from having to try to explain myself or make requests to a person with whom I share a common vocabulary of approximately 40 words. (One of the only requests I did make was for WiFi--pronounced wee-fee--and that involved a lot of pointing to a printout written in French that I found in my room).

Most of the retreat was spent in solitude, but we ate all of our meals (each three courses or more--not what I expected from a monastic arrangement) together as a group--in silence. The set-up of the room where we ate our meals was a small room with one wall of windows that looked out onto a garden/children's play area. There was one chair at the head of the table that faced the windows and the rest of the chairs were oriented towards the wall so that you would have to look to your right or left in order to gaze out of the window--which was the past-time of choice at these meals. Sure, there was classical music playing, but eye-contact was still not an optimal choice, so eye-grass contact was preferred. Like high schools students who sit in the same seats out of habit everyday despite "no seating chart", we settled into a routine and one person lucked into the coveted head of the table spot. When others in the group realized what an ideal set up he had with his straight-ahead view (let's be realistic, there was lots of time to think about the ideal seating arrangement), there was quite the silent power-play to claim the coveted spot.

You also notice other things when you are eating/living in silence. For example, table manners. If you ever want to know if you REALLY have decent table manners, try eating in silence with the same people for a few days. Every slurp, every posture, every utencil practice will be exposed. Let's just say I learned a lot about my travelmates. That's all I will I say.

As previously mentioned, the food was also surprisingly good and high quality--much higher than I am used to (it was France after all). Imagine my surprise when the first course was served at one meal and the lid was taken off of what looked like the soup pot (a standard first course) and the bowl was FULL of seashells. I am not sure what kind of mussel/clam we ate exactly, but it was literally a bowl full of boiled crustacean in light sea water dished out with a big spoon. Despite my reservations, I tried them. I wanted to take a picture, but I felt it would be inappropriate in the context. But fortunately, my suspicions that I had passed hundreds of these on the beach were confirmed when I scrounged around in the sand and discovered what had been my lunch. I guess between the food selection and silence, I am one step closer to refinement.

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