Tag: Nantes

Nantes

Nantes, New Year’s Eve, 1993. I think that’s Nicholas holding the wine bottle

I’ve been digitizing some old photos and stumbling onto some interesting chapters of my life. I thought it might be fun to post some here and write about them, and in that way get the creative juices flowing before moving onto other, arguably more important work.

Some ground rules:

  1. The photos will be from my fairly distant personal past
  2. There’ll be some story associated with them
  3. I won’t overthink the writing, the idea is to get the story down quickly and post it

Now, to the story behind these two photos.

France, 1993. I was studying French in Aix-en-Provence. At the beginning of the year some friends and I had gone to a social event at a place called La Cave, which I think took place upstairs at the St. Sauveur Cathedral.

There we met some French guys, who were definitely more interested in my friends than me, cuz the French guys were single, in their twenties, and my friends were largely comprised of attractive Swedish, Danish, and Scottish women, but it didn’t matter because they were decent guys and we all quickly became good friends.

The two main guys were Nicholas and Francois. Around Christmas, Nicholas invited some of us to celebrate New Year’s Eve at his place in Nantes with his friends and family. I accepted along with my friends and fellow Canadians Deborah and Doug Cameron, who are the couple you see at the end of the table facing the camera in the picture below (and with whom I had celebrated an amazing vegetarian Christmas days before the trip to Nantes).

I drove to Nantes with Francois. I had barely three months of the French language under my belt at this point, so I was always learning new words and expressions. Unlike our native languages, which it seems we just pick up organically, I remember where I was when I learned most of the French I know.

Francois and I drove under a bridge.

Comment dit ca?” I asked him, pointing at the bridge.

Pont,” he told me, and my vocabulary increased by one. This would happen several times during the trip (and indeed the entire year).

In Nantes, I switched to Nicholas’ car and Nicholas and I drove around a bit, visiting some of his friends. It was pouring rain.

Il pleut comme vaches qui pisse!” he said.

Quoi?” I said, cuz I hadn’t understood a word of that.

We almost never spoke English, so he explained it to me in French, and eventually I came to understand that he’d said that it was raining like a bunch of cows pissing.

Back at his place, which you see in the pictures, we had a great evening of delicious food, vast quantities of wine, stilted conversation in French, and even some dancing. Nicholas’ sister taught me “le Rock and Roll” which was fun, but which, months later, none of my Quebecois lady friends back in Canada would dance with me because apparently it wasn’t cool there.

Because I was having such a good time, and because I’m not very bright, I drank way too much. The next morning I woke up in Nicholas’ house with a terrible hangover. And when I say “morning” I mean “afternoon” because I slept crazy late. I knew Nicholas, and had met his sister, but I hadn’t met anyone else in his family. Aware that I was essentially in a stranger’s house extremely hungover, I didn’t want to get up and go downstairs and meet everyone, with no idea what “everyone” would consist of.

I forced myself to get up and take a shower (with a weird French shower attachment that didn’t hang on a wall, but that you held in your hand while sitting in a tub, so that afterward you would realize that you washed every part of yourself except the arm holding the shower attachment). Clean but precariously nauseated, I went downstairs, where Nicholas’ family awaited me. His Mom, Dad, and about half a dozen others. Never was quite clear who was who, but there was a four year old boy who spoke better French than me, and about half a dozen others. Nicholas father looked strikingly like Patrick Stewart, or, considering he was French, Jean-Luc Picard.

We all went out to see the French version of the movie Aladdin (with the genie played by Richard Darbois rather than Robin Williams). Trying not to woof my cookies and thus embarrass myself in front of Nicholas and his family, and new to the French language, I don’t think I understood a word of it.

Back home we ate a special New Year’s Eve meal which consisted largely of cheese and a mystery meat. I had no appetite but they insisted I try the meat. They asked me to guess what it was.

Poulet?” I guessed. “Vache?” Chicken? Cow?

Wrong.

Autruche,” I was told.

“Austrian?” I said, shocked, still trying to grapple with the language, and the possibility that I had wound up amongst cannibals.

Everyone laughed uproariously, and someone corrected me: “Ostrich!”

Despite feeling ill, I had a good time. I was embarrassed for having overindulged the night before, and for having slept so late. Nicholas family was generous and friendly. Although I thanked Nicholas, and thanked his family at the time, I feel like I never really properly thanked them for their hospitality, and unfortunately I never saw any of them again.

May this post constitute a step toward a more proper thanks, then.

Yours Truly with the beard, Deborah and Douglas Cameron at the end of the table, and sadly I’m not sure the names of the others in this photo, taken New Year’s Eve 1993 in Nantes, France

Seven Months in Provence: Part Nine (or Joe’s Brush with the Law)

Hôtel de Police – Aix en Provence, France

Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Nine:

Going to skip ahead a bit here and recount one of my more interesting days in France. It was around Christmas time, between Christmas Day and New Years. But a bit of background first.

The room we lived in was on the top floor of a small apartment complex with four floors. It was a long complex, with about three separate sections. You couldn’t get from one section to the next without going outside.

The people living in the unit beneath ours — an old man and a woman and their son — were completely intolerant of noise. The old man and woman were already so old that the word old could also be applied to their son. Their old age didn’t seem to have affected their hearing. In fact their ability to hear seemed to have only improved with age.

So it was that whenever a few of us and our friends gathered in the evening in our apartment we could count on the eventual tap on the floor (their ceiling) and a subsequent phone call. At first I never answered the phone, because these people spoke no English, and in the beginning I spoke no French.

I remember the first time Mark and I had some friends up and the doorbell rang. It was the son, who looked a bit like a Ferengi from Star Trek: The Next Generation in that he had the largest ears of any man I have ever seen. I only ever saw him once or twice, but I still have a strong mental impression of those ears.

I answered the door and the guy started in on me in French. It was pretty obvious that he was going on about the noise. My friends, some of whom spoke French well enough to understand a bit of what the guy was saying, helped me out with the translation. The fellow was a little upset but not too bad this time round. I kept saying, “D’accord, d’accord,” because “okay” was about the only thing I knew how to say in French at that point, and I thought it might help soothe him. My friends laughed over this for months to come, me trying to calm this guy down with my heavily North American accented “d’accord.”

We never really did make a lot of noise. It was rarely more than a group of people speaking, and sometimes when there was no noise at all these people would still complain. One time they rang up to complain when my flatmate Matthew dropped his pencil on the floor. Another time they rang up when we were all playing Axis & Allies (a military boardgame) in Marcus’ room. That time I answered the phone because my French was coming along and it was good practice. I was happy because I got the gist of what the guy was saying. I promised that we would be quieter. We thought that they were crazy but still strove to be respectful. In fact, the problem may have had more to do with the nature of the floor than them. Perhaps we were fortunate not to have had anybody above us.

That’s one piece of background to my interesting day. Here’s the next:

During the year I was fortunate enough to make several French friends. One of these, Francois Esnault, a researcher in the France Department of Forestry, made arrangements to meet me at a cafe called Le Festival, the usual meeting place for all of us. We were to meet at 1:00pm on this particular Friday. Francois was going to drive me to Nantes the following Monday to celebrate New Year’s Eve with other French friends.

I’ve already mentioned in these notes the problem I had with my clock radio (see Part Eight). It ran off time, but I knew how to compensate for it, and in any case I had my watch as a backup. So on this Friday morning, according to my clock radio, I woke up around ten. Because I had stayed up late the night before, and wanted to sleep in, I reset the clock radio using my watch.

I finally got up around 11:30, according to the clock radio, and got ready to go out. I felt quite rested. As I got ready to leave, Marcus told me that we had received a letter from the police saying that we had to go see them that afternoon at five. It had to do with our neighbours complaining about the noise we allegedly made. I found this quite disturbing. I thought it sounded pretty serious, having to go see the police. Apart from sorting out my Carte de Sejour I had never had to see the police before in my entire life, and now here I had to do it in a foreign country! Would they throw us out of the country? That sounded a bit extreme, but I was worried about it.

I was also worried because Marcus planned to move out. He informed me that he wasn’t going to go to the police because it didn’t concern him anymore. Mark was in London for Christmas, so he couldn’t go, and Matthew was nowhere to be seen. It looked like I would have to go to the police on my own, and my French — three months in — was still pretty limited.

With these thoughts on my mind, I left to meet Francois. The day had a strange feel to it. The light outside the apartment complex was weird; off, somehow. Halfway down the hill on my way into the city I met Matthew coming back to the apartment. He asked me if I knew about the letter from the police. I said yes, and he said that he would go with me. The appointment was for four o’clock. I was relieved that he would be there, as his French was pretty good.

He asked me when I planned to be back at the apartment. I told him that I was aiming for three.

He said, how do you expect to do that?

I said, what do you mean?

He said, it’s after three now.

I looked at my watch. It said a quarter to one. The damn thing had stopped. And I had used it to reset the alarm on my clock radio. I cursed and told Matthew that I had been supposed to meet Francois at one. He had a good laugh. I went back up the hill with him, wondering how I would explain this to Francois, and if he would believe my reasons. I felt quite badly about missing my rendezvous with Francois, as he was a really nice guy and I pictured him wasting his lunch hour waiting for me at Le Festival. Also, I knew that it would be difficult for me to explain the situation in my limited French.

Making it all worse was the fact that Francois was to drive me to Nantes the following Monday, a twelve hour drive. I hoped that he would forgive me. If not, it would be an uncomfortable ride, if he still agreed to take me at all.

Later, Matthew and I went to look for the police station, which wasn’t too far away. We discussed how we would defend ourselves. We agreed that Matthew would do most of the talking. We found the police station easily enough and were ushered in by a burly, serious looking officer. It was a small detachment, and it looked like pretty much his show. He asked us to explain our side of the situation. Matthew went on at some length about how crazy these people were, describing the pencil incident and so forth. Afterward the officer said something to the effect of, okay, try to be quiet guys, and don’t get these people too pissed off. Then he asked us how we liked France. We said it was just great. He smiled a big, broad smile and wished us a bon sejour (a good stay). Then an older fellow came into the station, and the officer looked at him with a serious expression and greeted him with a nod and a “jeune homme.” He looked at us and winked, and Matthew and I laughed, myself because I was relieved and also because I had understood the officer’s little joke. I was always quite pleased when I understood any joke in French, even a tiny one like that, because it didn’t happen often.

I phoned Francois that night from a payphone outside the apartment (we couldn’t make calls out from our phone in the apartment, we could only receive calls). I had looked up the words I would need in the dictionary beforehand, such as the word for watch: “montre”. Francois accepted my apology gracefully, and said that, yes, he had waited a bit but that it had been no big deal. I was frustrated that I couldn’t explain in English, sure that I would have come off more sincere.

But Francois still drove me to Nantes, and the drive was lots of fun, and I got a letter from the man three years later when I was back in Canada (“le temps passe vite,” he wrote) so I guess he never held it against me.

And with that we come to the end of the notes I originally made about my time in Aix-en-Provence in 1993/94. I do have some letters I plan to transcribe and a few other interesting memories (well, to me at least) so maybe I’ll get around to posting a few more stories someday. We’ll see.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

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