West Virginia University in Vendée, France


Sold ... American!!!...
June 11, 1999

[Again, some heavy download times today.  I hope the photos merit a little patience.]

I'm sure the above words don't echo too clearly in many ears today, but as a child growing up in South Georgia, I often heard them sung to a tune that closed the tobacco auctions in warehouses where summer temperatures reached heights surely immeasurable with human instruments.  Today's auction takes place in circumstances far different, but the music of the auctioneer, "le crieur," strikes my ear the same way.   The warehouse we visit today is refrigerated and the product is of the sea -- not of the parched fields of the southern US.   Our visit into this world is guided by Alain, who is able to give a glimpse of an auction that is seldom viewed by outsiders.  In fact, European regulations keep strict limits on the access to the ports and fisheries that feed much of this continent.

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As in all auctions, the crier's shout opens with a base price.    When two or more buyers are interested, the bid goes up.  If none bid, the crier calls the price down.   In other times, any product not bid was thrown back to the sea.  Now, European rules provide strict conditions for disposal.   Of course with the freshness and quality of most catches coming into this port, this situation is relatively rare.

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Many, many species of fish come into the port of Les Sables.   Pound for pound, though, few catches are more popular than the shellfish.   Below, Alain holds up a "Maine" lobster.  The orange and brown coloring proves that this one came from across the Atlantic.  European "Maine" lobsters, while being the same species, have a predominantly blue coloring.

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The "real" lobster, however, is pictured below.   Much bigger, it also is reputed to have a much better taste.  Prices in our local fish markets definitely reflect this "reality."

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The German army occupied the port of Les Sables during WW II and upon leaving blew up major portions of its structural ground.   This allowed other less devolopped ports along the coast to overtake and surpass this one on several domains.   Nevertheless, Les Sables is one of the principal maintenance ports for small to medium-large boats in these waters.  Below, we see some of the small ships that are in dry dock for regular repairs required by European and French law.

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Alain takes us along the docks and arranges a visit aboard the Coelocanthe.

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The Coelacanthe is a "pelagic" trawler.   Unlike single trawlers that drag nets behind and along the bottom of the sea, she works in tandem and her net is attached to a sister trawler, thus fishing at higher depths and much more selectively.  Here, we visit the bridge, which is now filled with computers, radars, and satellite communication equipment.  Just in case, there are still compasses and sextants that work as well as they did in the days of Columbus or Jacques Cartier.

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A very special part of our visit to Les Sables is today's reception at the Mairie.  Our program in Vendée owes much to the cooperation offered by the town and its officials.  Somewhat a tradition in Europe, the city and its government occupies a very special place in the French political structure -- Jacques Chirac, the President, is the former Mayor of Paris.   Below,  the Mayor of Les Sables, Monsieur Louis Guédon (center), discusses our stay with Monsieur Bernard Bonnet, a local dignitary and friend of WVU-V, and with Dr. V. Lastinger

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Monsieur Bonnet and Dr. Lastinger speak with journalists who are present to record this event.  Center left here is Géraud Héraud of Le Journal des Sables d'Olonne, this city's most important news source, and center right (reading her notes) is Laurence Monard of Ouest-France, the newspaper with the widest circulation in all of France.

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Below, Mayor Guédon, left,  poses with our 1999 WVU-Vendéens outside the Hotel de Ville.

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Our day continues with another fascinating visit, this time aboard the Mireille which takes us across waters sailed  by the Romans toward the salt marshes of the country and waters they called Olona, today's Olonne.

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Pierre, in the traditional blue shirt and white pants, is an authentic "saunier," or "salter."  Only two remain in "Olona," but they furnish a product that once was known as "l'or blanc" or "white gold."  As we noted earlier in these pages, until this century salt was the only safe means of preserving many foods over long periods of time.   Olona furnished peoples from as far north as Norway with this precious commodity.

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Our group today is joined on the Mireille by a group of visitors from around the European Union, a few of whom do not speak French.  Pierre asks Dr. V. Lastinger to provide an English translation of his explanation of the design and function of the salt bassin below.  It is amazing to think that such an ingenious design, conceived by the monks of the early Middle Ages, works so efficiently today.   Ironically, tonight on French TV there will be a documentary about an American company who has bought salt marshes in la Camargue on the Mediterranian coast and which plans to develop a modern, industrial means of producing "natural" sea salt.   The "salters" of these marshes would perhaps object that the work of their hands is an essential part of "nature."*  The difference between "industriel" and "artisanal" is in fact at the heart the French conception of useful work.

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The Heart of Vendée, we see below, is neither natural nor essential to the function of this salt bassin, but it is definitely symbolic of a desire to conserve certain traditional attitudes and ways of life.

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As we leave the marshes, our guides explain that many of the old bassins have long been abandoned by the salters.  Their functon has not, however, completely disappeared.  Some of the bassins have been dug out, providing deep pools where several species of fish and eels now provide a valuable source of income.   Below, Carolyn Graeber and Amy Workman stand beside one of the canals where this inland fishing takes place.  We see some of the equipment over Carolyn's right shoulder.

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We're off to another weekend in Les Sables, and the weather forecasts warm temperatures and sunny skies.  That's just what the salters and the WVU-Vendéens ordered!

Stay tuned to WVU-V!

Go on to June 12, 1999
Return to the 1999 Calendar
Comments to mlasting@wvu.edu

* As I publish these pages, it is just past  9:30 pm in France.  The program I mentioned above (in a text composed earlier this evening) is now being broadcast.  I look over my shoulder to the TV screen and see the salt marshes of Camargue near the Mediterranean coast being worked with French bulldozers!  Morton is the company that has bought the saltworks.   "Sold American," always an ambiguous sound to my ear, remains no less so tonight.  Caterpillar would surely be no less objectionable to the salters who shared their world with us today!!! (back)