by Emma Wood – Brest, France
I could do nothing but throw back my head and stare when we entered the Cathedral de Nantes today. The flesh on my arms took on that sensation reserved for mornings in the silent wheatfields and the beginning of Shostakovich’s 8th quartet. Neck craned, I traced with my eyes the peculiar melange of curves and straight lines in the ceiling structure, trying to fathom the vastness above me—that empty space, space no human can occupy. In Tom Davis’ aesthetics class, we talked about man’s unique orientation to the earth: we, unlike any other creature, stand on two legs in order to look toward the heavens. Here in this manmade piece of heaven, my body did just that.
Outside the cathedral, once again in survival mode, your eyes return to the roads; as many statues, steeples, and pillars you pass, you’ll see just as many dogs—or more—and the French don’t believe in Pooper Scoopers. Paris Hilton would be appalled. Today in the pouring autumn rain, we skirted the dogs on the cobblestone streets and strained to hear our tour guide’s stories about Duke so-and-so and his lovely Duchess.
In all facets of life here, historical reverence meets the mundane: Cathedrals and dog shit. Tobacco stores in ancient plazas, student housing in old bourgeois courtyards. Covered outdoor marble walkways are lined with modern shops, and the streets are all named after French philosophers. It’s as if the physical structures of years long past remain as a membrane for modern culture that’s constantly changing within.
I walk to the student center each morning, rain or no, and on every corner, there’s a boulangerie; every person I pass clutches a baguette. I’d kill for a bean burrito these days. All the croissants in France are at my disposal, and I’d trade them for a taco truck. The vegetarian diet in France is easy: baguettes, la fromage, et la beurre. The natives give me glowing accounts of vegetarians returned home carnivorous!
Every day I have interesting mishaps. Often I simply get hopelessly lost, because the French don’t believe in square city plans: instead, it’s a patchwork of circular plazas, from which branch out anywhere between four and eight roads. I thus practice my French with the local florist, patissier, and the old lady who’s waiting for the bus: “Je cherche la Rue de Gigant, Madame. Je suis Americaine….Merci.”
In my house, too, there are variables. For the first time since high school, I’m not supposed to do my own laundry (that’s the French mother’s job). Last week I bit my nails each day at a dwindling underwear supply, when yesterday at the crucial moment I found neatly folded stacks on my bed.
I won’t be truly European until I buy myself some skinny jeans and a pair of chic black ankle boots. That, and lose the American accent….
Hope all is well in Walla Walla; shoeless, and happy. I hope you attended Writers’ Colony, and that your family didn’t get eaten by bears.