Thursday, January 3, 2013

In Search of Lost Time: Nantes, Day 2

So I woke up on my first morning in Nantes and it’s pretty dark. I thought maybe it was still so early that my body didn’t adjust. I check the clock and it’s really 8:30am. Since I crashed at 7 the night before, I think it’s safe to say that I was now on French time. That whole not sleeping for 36 hours helped some.

I had accomplished more in my first day here than I had expected. I had a list of things I wanted to do and see during my stay and a number of them had already been checked off. So once I had eaten breakfast and was ready to hit the town, complete with cool man bag and iPad, I decided I was heading for the outskirts of the city and a “hypermarket”. But that was Saturn’s list, and once I crossed the train tracks and saw the castle and cathedral…well, Jupiter took over, since he was driving the bus on this trip.

I walked by the castle and headed through the Cour St. Pierre.  This open area behind the cathedral is a place where people were jogging and walking their dogs, but I remember there was an amazing carnival here in the fall. At around 35 degrees Fahrenheit, it was a little cold for outdoor frivolity…but the dogs seemed to enjoy themselves.

I walked around the front of the cathedral and just stood there for a little while, taking in the scene. I was concerned there might be a service going on, so I just took outdoor pictures in the morning sunlight. I even got one of myself—my bride reminded me to get in a photo every once in a while.

My travels then took me through the heart of Nantes. I picked my way through here and there, not remembering everything, but some of the main streets were familiar to me. I made it a point NOT to pull out my map often; just walking around the city was amazing, and this wasn’t a part of the city I visited regularly when I lived here.

One interesting part of my visit was that I did it entirely without listening to music while walking around. I almost always listen to music when I walk, and brought headphones with me, but I only listened to music when I was in the hotel, or on the train or plane. I’m a big auditory person, so hearing what was going on around me was a big part of the experience. Besides, listening to people speaking French around me reminded me not only where I was, but that I still have “it”, linguistically speaking, which was a fantastic feeling.

Using the Tour de Bretagne—Nantes’ tallest structure—as a landmark, I wandered through the city. I remembered that my bride had asked me to send post cards, so I needed stamps. Nantes’ main post office is in the area around the Tour, and it’s a place I knew well. I sent three boxes of books back from this very building the last time I was here, but only one arrived in the US. A small part of me wanted to say “Hey, you bitches, you lost about $300 worth of my shit about 21 years ago!” but I don’t know if it was their fault. Jupiter decided it was probably time for me to let that one go.  

Anyway, I expected to get in line and wait, the last thing that Jupiter wanted to do. I walked in and saw that it had been transformed into a much more pleasant space, very similar to the current setup of post offices here in the US. And then the shock came: As I looked around at their various offerings, someone came out from behind a counter to see what I needed.  Those of you know me personally know that I am rarely speechless, but I didn’t know what to say.

French post offices have a reputation for ineptitude, and it was a reminder to me at the time that not everything was better in France. The USPS beat the pants off of them, and probably still does. But to have someone come asking if they could help me was pretty awesome. I managed to get out that I needed some stamps for postcards to the US, and he handed me what I needed. I was on my way in under five minutes. (Of course, I forgot to mail the postcards until two days later. Jupiter isn’t too good at remembering things like that, but luckily Saturn was around to help with that one.)

I grabbed one of the new tram lines outside the post office and headed for Auchan, one of the French hypermarket chains. Now let’s talk about what hypermarket is for a moment. We have Super Wal-Mart and Target with groceries, but these establishments have been around before since before Wal-Mart and Target were everywhere. I had been to one only once during my last stay, and I was looking forward to taking a long walk through some of them during my trip. You can tell a lot about a country by how they shop.

I got off the tram and saw the huge sign for Auchan. I didn’t realize that it was in a mall; it was the ultimate “anchor store”, actually.

I’m going to try to describe one of these “hypermarkets”  for you. Imagine a Wal-Mart, a grocery store, a liquor store, and a traditional department store all in one place. They had everything here. There were over 70 aisles of products and perhaps 40 cashier stations. They had books, clothes, electronics, and appliances…I could have bought a washer dryer set there, but that would have had difficulty fitting in the overhead compartment. Overall, an impressive place. I was told that when they first came out, people were using roller skates to get around in them, and I’m not surprised. I’d say they were about 50% bigger than your Wal-Mart or Target.

These shops draw so much business that other stores open around them, even outside the mall. I visited a French office supply store (Top’Office) and a toy store in the area. What I found at the toy store was lots of toys for playing veterinarian. They had whole sets, complete with operating table and stuffed dog for aspiring animal docs. I can’t remember ever seeing those in the States, and I thought it was pretty cool.

Anyway, a few hours later, I got back on the tram and head for an old hangout, known as Quick, a French fast-food chain. I used to go there often back in the day, and they were still there, not far from my old school. It was PACKED. I wondered why so many kids were here and then I remembered: France gives its students a half-day every Wednesday. They make up for it by going later every day and having some classes Saturday mornings.

I managed to work my way into the lobby and see that you can order off machines now. Once again eschewing the British flag button (for English), I ordered my food, only to notice that some changes have occurred. The last time I was here, they didn’t have donuts—listed on the menu as “donuts”—and they didn’t have churros, either. They were in a category listed as “Finger Foods”...again, these were the words on the French menu.

I sat down and have lunch—a burger with bleu cheese which looked much better on the poster than it tasted since they had also used mayo on it—and caught up on my email and Facebook since they also have free Wifi. I also wrote a few hundred words on my novel. When inspiration hits you just go with it.

I spent the rest of the day walking around near my old school, and then headed back to the hotel. I came out later and had dinner at a fantastic crêpe place; they are a specialty in Nantes, since Nantes is the former regional capital of Brittany. I had a savory crêpe, known as a galette, for a main course and finished it with a Nutella and almond crêpe for dessert. I took a picture of this last one and sent it in a text message to Jen. It made her really jealous.

I finished my dinner and headed for a spot that hadn’t existed during my last trip: Le Tiki Bar. That is its name, and that’s what it was...a real tiki bar in France. I told my bride I’d go and check it out, and since Jupiter was driving the bus…

I went in and I was the only person in the bar for a while. The bartender was a really nice guy wearing a New York Giants hooded sweatshirt. He had never met anyone who was really into tiki or knew anything about it, so we hit it off immediately. He made a lot of his own “infusions”; you put some kind of herb or fruit into plain vodka, and like a month later you’ve got a delicious concoction. He told me a lot of French people don’t get tiki at all, and that he was trying to get to the States someday to buy stuff for the bar; he told me he's never visited us here. All in all, I had a great evening, and since I had to sample the drinks…well, let’s just say that Neptune was pretty happy that night as well.
I made my way back to the hotel and again slept well. 


  1. I don't believe that a French person WAS HELPFUL????!!!! :-D

    I've been terribly lost, driving around Nantes - got caught up in a one way system and got so frustrated that I just headed off in the direction that the road took me and I ended up in a totally unplanned for bit of France. La Rochelle, I think it was. All a bit blurry these days in the old memory!

    Look forward to reading more!

    Ali x

  2. I know, Alison...right? That's the kind of treatment you expect in the UK or the States. Of course I was speechless. And at a POST OFFICE?? CRAZY! :)

    By the way, there is a town near Nantes called "La Roche Sur Yon". La Rochelle is much further maybe La Roche sur Yon was where you ended up? :)