Wednesday, March 23, 2016

That Girl and Her Sister in Nantes

That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond

In the dirty port town of Nantes, France we find two of the most whimsical, magical, and mechanical places I’ve ever been. On a Friday, we arrive by train around two in the afternoon and have several hours to wile away before we can check into our apartment. The Nantes Cathedral is only a mile or more from the train station and that’s where we’re headed when we stumble upon Claude Ponti’s Le Jardin Déjante.

On our entry, we’re greeted by the Cloche Pots which are pot chimes that can be made to sing by the turning of a wheel. Jesse turns the wheel and I take pictures while we listen to the singing, chiming ceramic pots.
Surrounded on all sides by a wrought iron gate, and filled so full of grass and trees we forget there’s another world outside, the garden stretches out for miles, maybe, and has a building with tropical plants, a glass-enclosed cart filled with cacti, a bed full of flowers from all over the world, and trees not native to France. With statues, fountains, small forests, rows of blooming flowers, ponds and streams, and delighted children we find ourselves to be quite delighted too. As we make our way down the lane, underneath the giant park bench with giant books and a giant straw hat set on the bench as if left there while the residence giant went to go make some tea, we find a leafy green alcove with funny, painted mushroom heads, and more strangely, the sound of laughter coming from the leaves. La Polymorphiae exactisante it’s called. While disconcerting, a bit fairy, bordering the hysterical, and completely charming, the laughter is also contagious.

Laughing some ourselves, we carry on and from there see the giant, sleeping shrubbery bear. The giant, grinning shrubbery turtle with its shell of red flowers.

Taking a moment to sit on a convenient bench (not a giant one), we shrug our backpacks off our shoulders to catch a break and watch children feed bread to the birds by the lake.
Here, we can touch nature and creativity, whimsy and childishness. It’s exactly the welcome we would have wished for.

We chose to come to Nantes, birthplace of Jules Verne, because of the Isle of the Machines, a place inspired by Jules Verne’s inventiveness, creativity, writing proliferation, and subsequent fame, and which I’d discovered on the internet while coming up with options for our itinerary. And which once we knew about it, we could hardly pass up the chance to visit ourselves.

The next day, after a leisurely morning (on which we make French Press coffee in France!) we head across the road to Les Machines de L’ile.

We stand in line for our tickets and then venture into the side gallery. We’ve been told to pay attention to the time for our Giant Elephant ride starts at 1:00 and the gallery’s ticket does not allow reentry.
The moment we walk through the doors, we’re enchanted by the strange and wonderful.

Because the signs and the tour we eavesdrop upon are in French, I only catch a little bit here and there. But it’s enough. The gallery presents a world of mechanical and natural elements. It proposes a giant tree for people to live on. Transportation from the ground to the top of the tree and back down again is made by ascensors and descensors. The models in this room work and the tour guides elicit volunteers from the crowd to sit in the chairs and rise and descend.
Longer travel would be possible by stork. Branch to branch travel by inchworm. Ground travel by mechanized ant.

The idea is creative and beautifully made. All elements of this dream world have been intricately designed, most likely handcrafted, and delightfully painted.

After somewhat reluctantly leaving the gallery, we make it across the park in time to catch our ride on the Giant Elephant. At a snail’s pace it rolls across the Isle, spraying mist from its trunk, bellowing, shaking its giant head, wagging its giant ears, and carrying us all along to our point of disembarkment.

A boy up with us on the elephant calls down to his father and his still infant brother, “Papa! Augustine!” trying to keep their attention the entire trip. When the elephant lets out a wave of misty water, the boy calls down to his father to see if he’d gotten wet. The father pretends to wipe moisture from his face and the boy is sufficiently thrilled.

At some point in the day, one of says, Jesse or I, “It’s wonderful to think that there are people in the world who make things like this. Who dream up things like this. That see such beauty and possibility.”

For Nantes is the dream of an even more imaginative place. One where the machines decorate the parks, the plazas, and the street corners. Where magical gardens stretch between the tramway lines. Where grownups can remember what it was to be child again.

We stay a short time, only a day and a half, but it’s a time whose enchantment I’ll not forget.

For Nantes is imagination and the spectacular dream of what could be, what might be. What can be.

Friday, March 4, 2016

That Girl and Her Sister in Bordeaux

That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond

In Bordeaux the sun shines. The sky is a brilliant blue. The French flag flies high above us in that clear, open, blue sky. And after weeks of clouds and rain, even beautiful German rain, Czech rain, Austrian rain, we are elated to see the sun.

I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. And here I am. In France. In wine country. In Bordeaux. Bonjour. Bon appétit. Bon voyage. Bon everything.

Our apartment is bright, orange, sunny, cozy. Our host takes us up the stairs, hands over the key, and then sits on the couch in our living room to give us a map tour of the city. She circles the places of interest, saying, “Voila!” at frequent intervals, telling us the history, and the legends. “You must go see the Place de la Bourse at night,” she says. “That’s the time to see it.” Her information is better than the tidbits I’d collected before we came, than the meager notes I’d scrawled in my notebook.  

That first night, Jesse and I take a nice long walk to work out our travel stiffness. We eventually find ourselves a few blocks away at a plaza with a cathedral, some restaurants, and a parliamentary-palace like building. We find an outdoor table at one of the restaurants and order a pizza. I get my first Bordeaux wine in Bordeaux. Jesse also gets wine. One of us gets the St. Emilion, the other a Graves. I can’t remember who gets what. We both try them both.

On our way back home, we stop to look at the cathedral, stepping through the door and going along the short entry way toward the main part of the church. Inside, the pews are packed. People hover by the aisle wall, standing room only.

“Something’s going on,” we whisper to each other. “Want to stay and see what?”

We stay, standing near the entrance in case we need to beat a hasty retreat. In case we’ve stumbled accidently into another mass. At some appointed time, soon enough, a line of men and boys marches down the center aisle and takes their places at the front of the church. At a signal from the choir master who joins in with the group, they begin to sing The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lamond. Their French-accustomed voices plying gently over the English words, the Irish? The Scottish? “You take the high road and I’ll take the low.”

We’ve stumbled into some kind of choir competition or an end of semester concert. When the second group comes to the stage, not nearly as energetic as the first, after a song or two we steal out the door and back into the darkening night with smiles on our faces.

I love Bordeaux. The Gross Cloche with its solar and lunar time. The cobblestoned streets. The Garonne river. The bridges. The arches that we find like magical portals into the heart of the city. Our hostess had called them “doors” and we pass under as many of them as we can, as many as we find. I love Bordeaux for the architecture. The old Roman ruins we chance upon around some wandered corner. The giant dog we see that I dub The One Bad Wolf of Bordeaux—writing that down as a title for some future short story. The bell towers that ring when we’re at the top. The wine. “We only serve Bordeaux wines here,” we are told nearly every place we eat. And how fortunate for us, I think. That’s precisely what we’ve come to drink.

Our second night, by our host’s recommendation, we venture over to the Place de la Bourse and stand in front of the Miroir d’ Eau which first films over with a ghostly fog followed by a mist of water that covers the flat plaza area. And then, and then in the darkness against the water’s mirror-like surface the reflections of the Bourse palace appear so clearly it’s as if there’s a second, upside down palace before us. We could step onto that watery surface and be transported to that place if the night’s magic was working just the right way. But, too quickly the water glazes over and the upside down palace disappears. The fog starts up again.

Bordeaux is a place like home. I could live here in this city that feels like a welcoming village.

I feel this way until the next day when we find the Maison d’Vin. A wine tasting house. It seems a very Bordeaux region thing to do (also recommended by our host) and I’m excited by the idea. But when we walk through the Maison’s front doors, I’m intimidated by the palatial walls, the high ceilings, the sculpted heads, the stained glass. The woman at the front desk over to the right doesn’t greet us, doesn’t ask us if we’re lost, or if she can help us. And I don’t know how this works. I feel underdressed. This looks like a place for the rich. For the cultured. For those with discerning palates. I feel unworthy. Afraid to venture further in, we beat a hasty retreat.

“I’m okay not doing this,” I say looking back over my shoulder at the building. Jesse seems pleased. We stand on the curb preparing to cross the street. And while what I’ve said is true, I still kind of want to stay. It’s the wine I’ve come for. It’s the experiences of the different houses that I want to try on for size. As I’m delaying, I see a couple walk over to the Maison’s doors and stare at a menu on the wall. We’d missed it on our way in. Gathering together my sense of worth, I go read the menu. The wine can be ordered by glass and it’s affordable. Two, three, four euroes. Jesse doesn’t chide me for my change of mind, again. And we square our shoulders and go inside, past that front desk (which is either a hotel check-in or a place to store luggage, I never actually figure that out) and into the wine holy of holies, so to speak, somewhat irreverently.

The sommelier speaks more English than we speak French. I know enough about wine, terroir, and pedigree to feel ignorant, so I sit in the chair in that fancy place and listen as he explains that we can order multiple small glasses to taste or one full glass of a wine (Bordeaux wines only served here) of our choice. We both choose to have one glass. I order a Medoc. Jesse orders something else.

The Medoc is the best wine I’ve ever had. It tastes of love. Of Bordeaux, cobblestoned streets, bell towers, ancient Roman ruins, and outdoor cafes that serve the perfect café au laits. As the sommelier says the Medoc is “More powerful, more in your face.” And it is, and it’s also like a taste of a home I didn’t know I had. Until now.

We drink our wine and sit. Jesse reads. I fill out some postcards and think about the feeling of belonging. For so often, isn’t belonging simply the courage to walk through a door and past the front desk to sit in a chair in the company of a friend, a sister, and have a glass of wine?