Île de Ré was an arbitrary choice, an afterthought. Before we left San Francisco I asked Elissa where Parisians go on vacation, where we could lie on a beach for a few days and indulge in quiet before starting our respective classes in July. She mentioned Île de Ré, and island off the coast of La Rochelle: “It’s like the Hamptons, but less ritzy.” John booked an Airbnb, and we didn’t think about the trip again until we went to fetch our rental car and navigate through an onslaught of Peugeots to the Péripherique and, finally, out of Paris and further south still.
Or maybe that’s not entirely true. There was one passing comment, an essential piece of information she offered that called us to the island: It’s known for their oyster shacks, she said, they are lined all along the coast and they pull the shells in right from the ocean and that’s all they serve. You go and eat oysters and look at the water and drink cold white wine, and if I’m honest with myself, this is why we went to Île de Ré and not to the beachier beaches of Marseille or the lavender fields of Aix. It was the oysters.
Île de Ré is marked by its tides, low in the morning this time of year and rising throughout the day, then retreating again as the sun goes down, which it doesn’t fully until past 10 p.m. When you walk on the beach before lunch you are surprised to see boats in the distance lodged into sand, dormant. Pulled back from the shore, the low tides also expose the rows of oyster beds baking under the sun: a massive sub-aquatic garden. When it’s early you can see farmers harvesting on the strange, naked beaches: they drive down ramps into the sand on mule trucks and load them full of beds, clogged and draped with furry seaweed and algae. They drive back up before the tide rushes back, straight to their shacks where they clean the oysters, dump them in pools, and shuck them to order for sun-drenched French tourists.
Everyone recommends Ré Ostréa, a local favorite thanks to its bar, constructed of uneven wood planks and covered by straw awnings, where everyone sits on one side to face the ocean. As if in a classroom, where dirt and salt and water teach the lessons. But we were partial to Les Copains Babord, closer to our apartment in La Flotte. A sort of garage filled by a single long table and a dingy bar reminiscent of the northern Florida seafood shacks of my childhood. Screen doors obscuring the kitchen, where I can see steam erupting from pots of water when they swing open. A patio with plastic seats, carafes of water and wine wet with condensation in the damp heat. A black lab with too-long hair sunbathing lazily between flirtations with the guests. A menu offering a few different combinations of sea snails, pink shrimp, langoustines.
And the oysters. They are salty here, really salty, not like the ones from Point Reyes or Washington, and they’re bigger too, we learn, as I ask the patron to explain the different sizes in my stilted French. He is sitting down at a table when we walk in, himself dining with family, I think, and the place is mostly empty. “Famille Le Corre,” reads the sign on the face of the shack, and I imagine this particular family business: who drives out to scoop up the oysters, who shucks them and slices lemons, who manages the books and sells to the restaurants. He pushes his chair back and escorts us to a table when we walk in, but he’s in no mood for conversation about these things, I can tell. He is quick and curt and polite, and when he returns to his table he doesn’t sit down again but he laughs and smiles. This is the isolation of being a tourist, especially one with an alien language: how to explain that I want to know you and your life, your story? How to be worthy of it, even, as someone just passing through?
At the end, our plates are piled high with oyster shells and shrimp heads, and I’m grateful for the wet wipes they slip onto the edge of each plate. We pay our bill in cash (they don’t take credit cards, of course they don’t) and congratulate ourselves on the low price tag, half of what we spent on oysters at a fancy restaurant on the plaza the night before. We vow to come back tomorrow, but we don’t. We try the other place instead, with the neon chairs and the views of the ocean, and the landscape is pretty but the oysters aren’t as satisfying and the waitress never brings our water, and I’m parched and dizzy from our bike ride and there are no dogs or families here.
That’s another conundrum of travel: trust your instincts, love the place that strikes you, or keep going, searching, wondering, tasting? A week is hardly enough, nor a lifetime.