My week at On Rue Tatin, Susan Herrmann Loomis’ cooking school in Normandy, was downright magical.
I’m not kidding.
Yes, there was the fois gras and the crème Anglaise and the moule frites and Tarte Tatin and all good things that we prepared and then ate. There were fresh pastries from a different bakery awaiting me each morning, afternoon walks through worn cobbled streets, a tuxedo cat named Coco.
Dreamy, yes. But things didn’t turn freaky deaky until late one night as we rubbed our full bellies and drank the last of the evening’s wine.
A formidable group gathered around the table. First and foremost, force of nature Susan, our hostess/guide/cooking goddess. Then there was my fellow student Doug, a lovely New Yorker who, after suffering some loss in his family, was treating himself to a week at On Rue Tatin, which had long been on his bucket list since reading Susan’s charming food memoir years before. And then there was Carolyn, an American who visits Louviers each Fall. This year, however, she was cutting her trip short to go to the South of France to study medical French for a gig with Doctors without Borders.
It gets better. She told us that she was trying to fit in a session with Martine, a local massage therapist/psychic, before she left town. The previous year, Martine told her during a treatment that in a past life Carolyn had been a Norman man who killed his brother and had to flee the country and spent his life trying to make amends and pining for Normandy. That’s why Carolyn was drawn to the region and pursuing work with Médecins sans Frontières.
Maybe it was the wine, but I had to get in on this. This trip of a lifetime would not be complete without my own session with Martine.
Fast forward to a few days later. During our afternoon break, I walked a few blocks to an apothecary shop and climbed the stairs to a small room on the second floor where Martine was waiting. A squat woman with frosted tips that made her short hair look like sparkly wheat stalks, Martine spoke essentially no English. Between my Franglais and our mutual gesturing, we figured things out. I assumed the usual massage position on the table and received an oily rubdown. Then silence. I am legally blind without my glasses so when I opened one eye, I could see her hazy figure sitting on a chair at the foot of the table. She was just watching me, or at least I think she was.
I was acutely uncomfortable, reminded of the one time I tried a meditation class. With my eyes closed for a few minutes, I got nauseous, as if my mind was trying to keep me from calm. As then, my mind and even my body started working against me. I fidgeted. Crazy thoughts raced through my head. The soles of my feet suddenly felt as if they were on fire, as if Martine had just lit a match under them. Before I left for France, I had a dream about Joan of Arc being burned at the stake in nearby Rouen so I had a brief thought that I was Jeanne d’Arc reincarnate.
Then Martine started talking. Even without my glasses, I understood what was coming out of her mouth.
“You have no confidence.”
“You don’t love the little girl inside you.”
“You are sexually shut down.”
“You don’t love yourself.”
In an hour with English not even as a second, third, or fourth language, Martine tapped into all the shame I have spent a lifetime hiding, often from myself. With her French frankness, she brought to the surface issues I only recently had been able to talk about with my leadership coach, with whom I’ve been working for a decade. She gave me some visualization exercises for each of my issues—one involving picturing a red disk the size of a CD spinning three times clockwise over my girl parts—so she didn’t think me completely hopeless.
I broke down. I barely kept it together while she was talking to me, bawling, howling, and screaming like a banshee as soon as she exited the room. The dam broke, and all my disconsolation flooded through me and out my tear ducts.
How was it possible that I was carrying all this crap around, so close to the surface that a stranger in a foreign land could pick up on all of it? I felt broken, like a doll on the Island of Misfit Toys, defective and rejected before I even had the chance to be embraced and loved.
Silently weeping, I left the apothecary shop and wandered the streets of Louviers as a light rain began to fall over the ancient roofs. I felt as old as my surroundings.
I left Normandy that week unsettled and untethered, and convinced Martine was a witch (Louviers held witch trials in the mid-17th century). Traveling solo in France with really rusty language skills, I was already out of my comfort zone. My session with Martine forced me into internal foreign territory. Maybe I needed to break down to break through my crap. And maybe unfamiliar surroundings helped me do that. I don’t know if I have figured out everything Martine was trying to tell me but I do know that I met the love of my life three weeks after my session with Martine and he makes my head, heart, and everything else spin.