Happy from Nantes

Chronology has lost its importance, so I’ll try posting based on feelings.  And I had a lot of those when on Friday, a former Cité Berlioz comrade linked me to a video, one of many in a project called “We are Happy From…” featuring Pharrell Williams’ endlessly cheerful song “Happy” being sung and danced to by people from all corners of the world*.  Of course, it would only be a matter of time before the artistic, goofy, good-humored citizens of Nantes would team up to create their own version mais vachement à la nantaise.

I found myself calling out all of the various locations where the video was shot – Rue Crébillon!  L’île de Nantes!  Le jardin japonais!  La Cigale!  Hôtel Dieu!  Le château des ducs de Bretagne!  And then inevitably, I started thinking about the last time that I strolled the happy streets of Nantes, in late April 2013, days after I locked my casier in the salle des profs for the last time and said goodbye to my nontronnais students.  It had been just about two years since I’d last crossed into the Pays de la Loire, but as soon as I stepped onto the train platform I felt immediately à l’aize Breizh, and je me suis mise à crébillonner (petites nuances reconnues par les vrais Nantais, et par les Nantais aspirants).  Back at last!

But for me, in Nantes I am always the happiest when I am with friends.  Gracious hosts back when I was first learning how to navigate the tramway, Anne-Marie and André, just as graciously before, offered me a room in their beautiful apartment for a long weekend.  I was touched by their invitation and frankly a bit shocked to find myself walking up the staircase to their front door, their beloved épagneul breton, Pou-pou, barking at me like a stranger.  But once I crossed the threshold, I relaxed back into the habits formed there so effortlessly two years earlier – simple dinners featuring the best that Talensac has to offer; “Questions pour un champion” and tennis matches on television; casual squabbles about which bottle of wine should be uncorked next; bits of bread and jam at breakfast in a sunny kitchen; an ever faithful companion guarding her post.  Days like these are the best that Nantes has to offer and it is no surprise that Nantes is such a happy place.







*It has become increasingly clear to me that a reunion in Périgueux is needed toot sweet, so we can start filming “Happy from Dordogne”!


Royal de Luxe

Once my time was up in Albi, I got on a bus to Toulouse (which promptly broke down) and made the trip back to Nantes for the last time.  The very last time!  But before I said my final farewells to my Breton home, I was able to experience one more moment of beautiful Nantes nonsense – Le Royal de Luxe!

In collaboration with the same people responsible for Nantes’ resident elephant, le Royal de Luxe is a street theater company that has been based in Nantes since the early 1990s.  Today, it tours the world with its giant machines, and made a long-awaited stop back in Nantes on the very weekend that my parents were to arrive in town.  Lucky us!

To mark the beginning of le Royal de Luxe, a huge mural fell from the sky and landed in the middle of Place de la Bourse (ben…plus ou moins, il faut d’abord un esprit enfantin pour profiter du spectacle!).  The painting depicted the varied history of Nantes – at times triumphant and innovative, painful at others.

But no matter what, the Nantais are an enthusiastic bunch, and for cultural events they are keen to take part.  When I showed up at the mur mystérieux on Wednesday night, it seemed like all of the métropole was there, staring.  For minutes and minutes they stared and pointed and chatted with their friends about the scene.  It was really quite sweet to see them so curious about the wall – the “ouahs!” and “hou las!” echoed through the streets!

All weekend, giant puppets wandered the streets, making stops at all of Nantes’ main attractions and taking naps in the heat of the day (listen carefully, and you could even hear them snoring!).  The star of the show was “el xolo,” a Mexican dog made of light-weight steel, who was accompanied by la Pétite Géante and le Campesino.  I saw them parading down les Cours des 50-Otages, each one bigger and more complexly constructed than the last.  Teams of people were needed to maneuver each machine, the towering Campesino requiring dozens of puppeteers, called “lilliputiens.”  In order to move his huge legs, pairs of men would jump off of the platform from which Campesino was suspended, holding a rope, and the force from their fall was strong enough to bend his knee and allow him to take a step.  Then a pair controlling the other side would do the same, moving his other leg, while that first group of two would climb back up onto the platform to jump again…et patati et patata!  Fortunately there were more than two teams operating the giant’s legs, but still, what physically demanding work!  I’m thrilled that I got the chance to be in Nantes to see le Royal de Luxe in action, especially as it won’t be back for several years (and who knows where I’ll be then)!

Tour du Tarn

The weekend came around, and my former host parents found themselves with an American to entertain, their daughters both back in Toulouse taking final exams.  So, we hopped in the car and took to the hills of the northwest Tarn.  The arrondissement of Albi is dotted with ancient ruins, and the first stop on our trip was the Commanderie de Vaour, founded by the Knights Templar in 1140.  Despite its old age, it remains a fantastic relic of feudal France, its history preserved in its gray limestone bricks.  We were lucky to be the only ones there to wander around the site, and supposedly in the 12th and 13th centuries, the commandery itself only hosted a dozen or so knights at any one time, serving as an agricultural center in the region as opposed to artillery stronghold.

Moving on through the Vallée de l’Aveyron et de la Vère, we stopped at nearly ever village that we passed:

Penne, whose rocky mountaintop fortress was striking in the distance;

Bruniquel, where we climbed steep staircases to reach its medieval castel;

Puycelci, who was as scenic on the drive up as it was from the top, looking over the Vère;

Castelnau-de-Montmiral, one of « les plus beaux villages de France », where we walked the ramparts and feasted like kings at La table des consuls.

Filets de rougets marinés à la betterave et au gingembre, arame, concombres et radis en salade.

Goatfish filets marinated in beetroot and ginger, and a salad of kelp, cucumber and radish.

Filet de flétan, jus aux asperges et piment d’espelette, fèves, carottes, petits pois et asperges.

Halibut filet in asparagus and espelette pepper sauce, with fava beans, carrots, peas and asparagus.

And the best part?  There are hundreds of tiny villages still to explore in the Tarn!  Ce n’est qu’un début!  En outre, I absolutely must visit Milhars, not only to step foot in a town whose name is nearly my own, but also to find out what on earth these “rural families” are selling at the expo vente!!  Il faut que j’y aille tout de suite!

Après-midi à Toulouse

The ever-diligent Maëlle soon needed to be back in Toulouse to finish up her revisions and sit for her exams, so I accompanied her for an afternoon around the city.  I was on my own for a while, following Toulouse’s narrow, colorful streets, before meeting up with Maëlle’s sister, Anna, and her mother for a scoop of ice cream at Place du capitol, followed by dinner a few streets away.  We ate pizzas at the same open-air restaurant that they had taken me to years ago, a fact that we didn’t realize until half-way through our meal; then we remembered that on that same trip to Toulouse, we ordered bowls of sorbet in the heat of the day at the same café.

In fact, for most of the day, I intentionally and unintentionally revisited many of the sites I most associated with Toulouse from my trip there at sixteen – la mairie, l’ensemble conventuel des Jacobins, a view of the Garonne from Pont Neuf.  But, walking about town, what I remembered best from that day was how exciting it was to be in an unfamiliar place, speaking a new language, meeting wonderful people, and realizing that travel would absolutely be a priority in my life.  Mercés, Tolosa, t’estimi!  I will always have fond memories of the former capital of Languedoc (langue d’oc!), and hope that I can make the trip back soon, per Tolosa totjorn mai!

Sainte-Cécile, part 2

The Cathedral is in no way Albi’s only attraction.  While I’m one to unabashedly insist that every corner and alley requires careful study and deserves thorough appreciation, you really need only to go around to the backside of Sainte-Cécile (for a fleeting moment, Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” played in my head – what brain, what??) to see another of the city’s best sites.  The garden just behind the church is exquisite – tasteful topiaries, statues with the perfect amount of moss growing on them, and fantastic views overlooking the Tarn.  And with the weather well into the 30s, I was thankful for the shade and happily passed a large part of the afternoon admiring the other side of Cécile.


After two long days spent wandering around town, it was just as nice to come back to a place I really considered a second home, with lovely people and lovely memories.  Also nice was the air-conditioning, as even in the month of May, Albi was sweltering by Nantes standards!

Things like the sunny view from my third-floor bedroom, pictured above, were just as I had remembered them seven years before; Maëlle and I still took breakfast in the kitchen – big mugs of tea, fruit, and muesli…though Nutella and toast were welcomed guests, too, just like when we were fifteen and sixteen.  Their home is such a pleasant place, full of travel souvenirs and family photos.  And the house itself has an interesting history.  Originally two units, they were bought together in a state of complete disrepair.  There were holes in the ceilings and birds living in the rafters (which, to Maëlle, who has always had an interest in ornithology, was actually a key selling point).  Fixing up the house required a huge amount of work, and a lot of it was done by the family.  And as their home was once two free-standing buildings, they chose to incorporate both of their styles – inside and out!  Brick walls from one unit are exposed in the other and make it a really unique place.  I’m glad that I’ve been able to spend so much time there and am looking forward to the day that I can welcome the Bujauds into my own home!

But until then, I’ll delight in stuffing myself full of the most delicious cherries I have ever eaten, harvested from the trees in their backyard, on those wonderful, rare days that I am able to spend in Albi with great friends.

Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi

Left to my own devices on my second day in Albi, my adopted hometown in southern France, I took to its rosy streets, down rue Timbal to rue Mariés.  At its base, in Albi’s old town, sits Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi, the huge (really huge) brick cathedral, which was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It stands tall over the city, but narrow streets make it tough to see until you’re right in front of it.  Or maybe I was too distracted by so much of Albi’s lovely architecture and natural beauty that I didn’t I notice until Sainte-Cécile and I were face-to-face.

A path behind Sainte-Cécile follows along the Tarn and offers some wonderful views of the city.  I spent two hours on its banks, taking photos, taking a brief nap, taking un verre…And though I cringe to say it, c’est la vie!

Picking up

The time has come not for me to recognize that I’ll never be a half-way decent blogger because I lack the motivation, but instead to foolishly say I’ll give this whole thing one more try.  Four months ago, I was hoping to close the book on my year studying abroad, and today, there still remains much to be said.

At the end of May, once classes had ended for the year, I made quick plans to travel the six hundred fifty or so kilometers to Albi, in Midi-Pyrénées.  It’s where I spent one of my loveliest summers, living with a family eager to help timid, fifteen year-old me, far away from home, improve my French and appreciate life along the Tarn.  I said goodbye after a short three weeks, in much more fluent French than when I had met them, with a much deeper understanding of French life and a friendship with four of the most generous and kindhearted people I have ever known.  As Thierry, Elisabeth, Anna and Maëlle bade me farewell at the train station, I remember crying as I was handed a Nutella sandwich made on fresh brioche.  Nutella and brioche I love, of course, but I’m not particularly fond of goodbyes.

Luckily, I was eased by the knowledge that Maëlle would soon be joining me and my family in California for three weeks.  And luckier still, when my family was arranging travel plans for the following summer, we were welcomed à bras ouverts to add Albi to our itinerary, allowing both of our families to meet for the first time.

So I really shouldn’t have been so surprised when my host family invited me to come back to Albi for a visit during my year in Nantes.  I took the train, stopping briefly in Bordeaux, before continuing on to Toulouse-Matabiau, where I met Thierry and Maëlle on the station platform.  On the road to Albi, Thierry and I caught up while Maëlle, a serious veterinary student, studied for final exams in the back seat (la pauvre).  Once in town, I felt completely at home.  The following morning I set out on my own, sometimes knowing the way, sometimes getting lost.  The streets of Albi, la vraie ville rose, were warm and cobbled and led from one picturesque spot to the next.  I returned home just in time for dinner, fatigued but ready to head out and do some more exploring.

Les machines

You probably didn’t know that there is an elephant that roams the streets of Nantes.  I made the trip to see him, across the Pont Anne de Bretagne to a warehouse on l’Ile de Nantes, a couple of times with friends.  We timed our visits to see le grand éléphant stomp around for an hour or so.  He is completely mechanized – his ears flap, his head turns from side-to-side, his knees bend, and on particularly warm days, his trunk will raise and spray you with water. Les machines de l’île must be the oddest attraction in Nantes, but it is certainly the favorite of the Nantais.  C’est incontournable, and is worth a visit as you pass through Nantes.  Pachiderm pride!

Across the Loire

Remember when I posted with some regularity and timeliness?  I think I’ll try doing that again.  C’est parti!

Across the Loire River from Nantes is Trentemoult, a tiny fishing village turned utopic bobo enclave, which is easily accessed by the Navibus (part of Nante’s impressive five-boat fleet!).  Everything is either hand-painted or bejeweled or unkempt and it’s really quite a charming place.

The importance of this street?  Back in September, when I first arrived in Nantes, a friendly, well-intentioned Spaniard who lived on my dorm floor, would greet anyone entering the communal kitchen just next to his room with a booming “BOJU” [sic], which, in my opinion, is much, much better than any humdrum “bonjour.”  Just like une boîte aux lettres (‘letterbox’) that is truly une boîte…aux lettres (‘letter box’)!  Or a walk down the street that turns into a game of hopscotch!  Or a tasty dessert crêpe that is actually three tasty dessert crêpes (with a shot of espresso)!  C’est la vie trentemousine!