The rumour is true–after a couple of months living in France I can confirm with confidence that its capital is amazing. But now and then, somewhere between philosophy-inspired classes and smoke-filled cafes, the curiosity to see what lies beyond the city’s three-ring highway rises in me. Then I just have to trick my boyfriend into another trip by quickly getting online and buying the next available train tickets to anywhere.
One of the first such weekend expeditions was to Normandy, the northwestern part of France. On a grey rainy day we reached Dieppe, almost the closest seaside town. With a sprinkle of imagination you could almost see England from its white, vast, sandy beach. This fishermen’s town and its port, safely hidden from the rough winter sea, are guarded by a medieval castle. When I stood there, looking at the mysterious images the sea had painted in the sand, I felt as if I could change not only place, but time as well. As the sky cleared, we climbed the steep cliff at one end of the town to watch the scarlet sunset. I was fascinated by neat little villas that were overlooking the clustered town houses, the beach, and the infinite sea. I wished I could sit in my own room with such a view; I would surely never get bored of it in my entire lifetime.
As my boyfriend and I are both explorers by nature, we didn’t stop where the path ended, at the cold fence on the edge of the cliff. We knew we could go farther. But what we found there immediately brought my daydreaming to its end, for at the tip of the street of those neat small villas there was a pillbox, a sad leftover from World War II. On the inside it was coloured by graffiti, as if that could make it any more welcoming. Turning back toward the beach, I realized it probably served its function very well from such an elevated position. In the next moment I again travelled back in time and I did not like what I saw before me.
On another walk later in the evening I noticed memorials, commemorating the unfortunate Dieppe Raid (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dieppe_Raid) and the British and Canadian soldiers involved. This, therefore, was most certainly not a view I would like to have from my living room, I decided.
Our next quest was even further to the south. We got a great train-and-hotel weekend package in Bordeaux. I’m sure this name rings a bell–you have probably heard about, or even better tasted wine from, the vineyards of this French region. Although the wine tasting was indeed tasty and the macarons (http://www.portes-ouvertes-bdp.com/macaron-provence.htm) even more so (not spaghetti, but special cookies we happily chewed during our visit to the nearby village of Saint Emilion, known also for the biggest underground monolithic church in Europe), I was most amazed at the local feast of Arcachon. When we first walked through this seaside town, we quickly dismissed it as a huge summer station, with nothing more to offer than some pretty nice residences and another sandy beach. But just as we were about to return to the ?real city,? we heard some music from a park overlooking the town. Intrigued, we climbed the stairs and when we reached their top, a fairy tale opened up before us.
The whole park was scattered with children’s games that adults were also more than happy to try their hand at. But what games they were! Until seeing this with my own eyes, I was convinced that nowhere in the world did people throw horseshoes around a stick anymore. Or huge fir cones into wooden frames. Or use a heavy stick to get an empty bottle around obstacles from one side of a board to another without it falling.
There were even groups competing at every game and you could see who belonged to which group by the colour of the ribbon around their hats. My enthusiasm for this creative feast became even greater when, on our return to Bordeaux, the first thing we saw were the flashing neon lights of a fun fair. Without much hesitation I knew which fair I would prefer to take my children to if I had some.
Moving up on the map again, toward northwest France, we discovered Reims. The city is famous for its magnificent cathedral and sparkling champagne, but it would not mean much to me if I hadn’t known a family living there which soon became like our very own. Our friend Mathea took us to several evenings of poetry and wine, something that is non-existent in the French capital but is known to occur in my country, Slovenia. (There, though, wine usually wins over poetry.)
In Reims, however, the two are not in competition, but intertwine like a vine and a vine prop. During the readings by the authors we usually tasted three different wines and learned about their history and characteristics. Yves, Mathea’s husband, also took us to a wine fair in the nearby town of Epernay. I won’t deny it, some of its visitors did get drunk–the tasting was free and you could even take your glass home. But for me it was a great occasion to acquire at least a bit of that tacit feeling that helps you distinguish some more varieties of wine than simply red and white.
In the same region there is also Charleville-Mézières, the home town of the poet Rimbaud. It is also the town of the world puppet festival (http://www.festival-marionnette.com/) Mathea came to see from Slovenia some 15 years ago. She didn’t know then that she would marry the boy she had met on the train that took her there. On the Sunday of our visit the town was empty, the marionette school closed, and only a huge puppet came out of a wall at every full hour to tell a part of Charleville-Mézières’s history.
But the red-bricked buildings got a whole other meaning when Mathea said, ?This is where the workshops took place.? An empty restaurant was suddenly enlivened by her voice–?This is where we first ate pizza together?–and the nearby dark woods seemed to be closing in upon us–?This is where we had our first fight.? And in a blink of an eye, their daughter is turning six.
Indeed, you never quite know for sure where the train you are stepping on is going to take you, but it took me all around France and I appreciated every stop along the way.