- Chantez et vous trouverez votre chanson -

Life isn't about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.
     -George Bernard Shaw

It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves- in finding themselves.
      -Andre Gide

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Finding History in Honfleur

My trip to Honfleur was my "voyage a la source."  

My great-grandmother, Andree Charlotte LeBlanc was born in Honfleur - a cute, little marina town in Northern France, and visiting was my chance to see where she came from, and understand a bit more of my past than I had before.  It was my chance to put on my sleuthing shoes and fulfill my childhood dream of being a part of the Ghostwriter team (you know you loved it, too).  Well, not that serious, but I was on a bit of a wild goose chase for answers: What was her childhood in France like?  What street did she live on?  Do we have any relatives left here?  Why did her family move to the U.S.?

It was harder than I imagined to get to Honfleur without a car.  After five different buses/metros/trains, I finally arrived in Trouville... not even Honfleur.  Apparently, Honfleur doesn't have a train station, so I had to stay in the next town over.  It turned out better than expected - Trouville is a really adorable beach town with old Victorian beach houses, old-fashioned changing rooms right on the water, and plenty of good restaurants and inexpensive hotels (in the off season at least).  During the summer, Trouville and Deauville (another neighboring town) are two of the most popular weekend getaways for Parisians because they are only two hours from the city.

In the morning, I was able to jog on the beach right near my hotel, and then catch the local bus to Honfleur for only about 1.50 euro.  I came armed with an address, a name and a date.  The address: 36 Rue Lingots.  An Henri LeBlanc (we think he was maybe a cousin of my great-grandma) wrote her numerous postcards after she moved to the U.S. from this address.  The name: Laurent LeBlanc, the only LeBlanc I could find in the White Pages of Honfleur.  The date: 1898, the year my great-grandma was born.

Honfleur was smaller than I thought.  I started my day by searching for the address.  I easily found it... right near L'Eglise de Ste. Catherine, a church famous in Honfleur for being the only all-wooden Catholic Church.  It was a home-wares store on the first floor with a set of apartments upstairs.  Really cool to imagine someone sitting at one of those windows nearly 80 years ago and writing postcards that I still hold onto today...

Next, I headed over to the Hotel de Ville (town hall) to see about finding any information about my great-grandmother through the old town documents.  But, alas, the Hotel de Ville was closed daily from 12:30-2:30pm for lunch.  Yes, in France, they close things for lunch and on Sundays.  Hard for an American to get used to...  So I set out to explore the town for awhile and find lunch.  I poked around all the different shops and tiny, little roads and took plenty of pictures of the Vieux Bassin, the dock famous for all the Impressionist and Watercolor painters that have loved it over the years.  I found a restaurant serving Moules a la Normandie (mussels in cream sauce) and broke for lunch.  I treated myself to a Pommeau aperatif, an apple-based liquor popular in the Normandie region, and a Tarte Tartin (upside-down apple tarte) for dessert.  Why not?  As my trip was nearing an end, I no longer feared eating by myself and I was all about eating as much yummy French food as possible before I couldn't anymore (that may be why I feel a little extra pudge in my stomach area that wasn't there before, hmm).

Trying the Hotel de Ville again, I faced the typical French attitude... at first, they basically told me it was impossible for them to search for anything on her because I didn't know enough background info.  But, as I had learned to do during my stay, I kept inquiring, and a nice woman finally directed me to the Town Archives.  At the archives, they found her birth certificate from 1898 as well as the marriage certificate of her parents from 1896 within five minutes.  It was so exciting to see all these incredibly old documents that led to my past!  The marriage certificate explained that on the day of their marriage, my great-great grandmother's father had been missing without any news for 17 years... interesting.  The birth certificate listed the road my great-grandma's family lived on, so I was then able to find the street she grew up on until moving to the U.S. when she was four years old.  So much history in one day!

My final stop of the day was Laurent LeBlanc's address.  Who knows... maybe we were cousins?!  It turns out Laurent LeBlanc was an artist (a good one, too!) and the address I found was his gallery.  I stopped in to chat with him when there were no customers around, and unfortunately, we were not related.  His family grew up in another French town, so it looks like the Honfleur LeBlancs of my family have died out or married.  Damn.  But, I did make a friend.  We talked for awhile and he showed me all his work, and then he offered to drive me back to Trouville in an hour, since I had missed the last bus back.  Sweet deal.

I finished my Honfleur day by painting a small tableau sitting on the edge of the Vieux Bassin, just like all the artists around me and all the artists of days before, and then hitched my ride back to the hotel.  Some mysteries solved, but other questions about my family history had just begun.


bricogirl said...

Very nice story. And one can see you have quickly caught on to French ways - the old sorry we don't do that, that changes to oh alright, I guess we do. You must speak fluent French to be getting on so well. If you ever want to try out making a Tarte Tatin yourself, check out my French Apple Tart recipe.

an american girl said...

thank you so much for the recipe! one of the things i miss most now that i'm home is all the amazing french dishes i tried there. i'll have to try it out and let you know how i do... i'm not the best at baking!!

Pam said...

I was in Honfleur in June and went by Laurent LaBlanc's studio, but it was closed. I took down his website address. I have never been able to access it. I love his work. o you have any idea of how to contact him?

an american girl said...

Hi Pam,

I apologize - I just saw your comment today. I agree; Laurent's artwork is beautiful! I found some pamphlets he gave me in his studio, and I have his website as www.leblanc-honfleur.com. His phone number/fax is 02 31 89 21 53 and cell phone is 06 62 28 67 16. Good luck!