by Emma Wood – Nates, France
A good friend just wrote me that, to him, I’m living a fairytale here in Nantes, far away in the land of castles. In truth, it’s no more magical than Pioneer Park at dusk, a walk to Bright’s for peppermint sticks, or romping with glowsticks in the wheat fields. The magic of any place is its people and what they choose to do with it. I remember with what awe I listened to a friend just returned from a summer with Bolivian orphans. In my own travels, I find that no matter how far, how exotic, a place itself becomes normal, eventually; its people give it spice.
How, you ask, do these Nantais use their city? They use every inch of it. They cram restaurant patios onto the sidewalks, chairs rubbing arms with passersby, dogs and bicycles dodging the platforms. The busses ride up onto the sidewalks (I’m constantly scared for my cello and life); it really is straight out of Amelie, apartments wedged together, windows at every angle, and geranium boxes cascading down into private courtyards. It’s true that this backdrop of great stone buildings and balconies gives the place a certain grandeur that can’t but be present in the customs of its people. There’s a lingering sense of propriety, patriarchal residue.
They mark the commencement of wine season with downtown celebrations, toasts made by old men in lavish robes (a scene not unlike our own Commencement) and volunteers running around with baskets giving out grapes to cute children. Do the people of Nantes notice the magic of their city? Of course not. They’re waiting for trams, texting friends, consulting a stylist in one of a hundred tiny coiffeur shops, or buying fresh pears at the fruitier’s.
The city’s not always crusty and proper. At night, the café tables are swept inside, and the streets are cleared for the disco crowd; Centre-Ville throbs with techno beats from the early 1990s. The “boites de nuit”—literal translation: night boxes!—fill with 20-something-year-olds, French, German, Italian, and always the five or six token Americans from my program; everyone smoking and dancing and downing drinks so strong I nearly gag. The French prefer their coffee black and their liquor unadorned.
I’m the American flailing her arms in the discotheques, wearing bright turquoise in a sea of black pea coats. I am the girl smiling on subways at the subtleties in people’s faces, the mixtures of confidence and curiosity one needs no language to communicate. I’m getting used to the cobblestones, but people are enigmatic.