Summering In Europe

Summering In Europe: here’s an American institution that’s weighted with unflattering baggage! Maybe I should approach this from a different angle. We have a system, I might say. Every summer Hazel and I pick a city, find a cheap sublet, and move in. We’ve done this for a few years now, on both sides of the Atlantic. This summer we settled on Nantes, France: erstwhile capital of Brittany, with a top reputation for livability and good public transport.

Our routines were predictable and pleasant. Most mornings in Nantes we would walk across the river to La Petite Boulangerie, where the lines stretched out the door and the smell of cooked butter traveled the street. Our personal bistrot was around the corner, whose proprietress, expecting our arrival, would have the key to the music school ready. She would be chatty and unharried at this hour of the day, but the place was always packed by lunchtime and we had to let her know if we wanted her to save us a table. The plat du jour—they only served one option each day—was written on a chalkboard outside.

We’d eat our pastries on the way to the music school, Diana munching on a chunk of Hazel’s croissant. The school wasn’t far, and, miraculously, had a playground out front, where I’d keep Diana distracted while Hazel got her day’s practicing done. Diana could be counted upon to fall asleep in the stroller on the way home after lunch, and that’s when I’d check my e-mail to start my workday: 8:00 am Eastern.

It’s not like you can really backpack through Cambodia with a toddler in tow, so Europe is a good compromise destination. Hazel’s orchestra gets summers off, and I can work from anywhere that has broadband internet and AC power. So we pore over the map every spring, Hazel and I, choose a city, and then try to live how we would live if we really lived there. For us, this mostly consists of chasing Diana around.

It’s not that tough, really, and you can do it too.

The hardest part is finding a cheap apartment, especially during the summer months. That’s why you look for university towns: Nantes, Uppsala, Bologna, Århus. They’re scattered all over Europe. The students travel or head home for the break, so there should be plenty of empty apartments.

Edinburgh, Tübingen, wherever. These mid-sized cities are always more pleasant than the major tourist spots in your guidebook.

Google will not help you! And nobody uses craigslist where you’re going. You will have to find the local websites, and you will have to search in the local language. Do not despair! The vocabulary of housing listings is a limited one, and once you learn all the abbreviations you’re set.

Picture Jean-Pierre. He is a university student who lives with his roommate in a small but functional apartment about halfway between downtown and campus. He just worked out an internship in a town on the coast, and he’s looking for someone to hold down his share of the rent when he’s away. It is your goal to find Jean-Pierre.

Every spring I also have the added challenge of trying to arrange a practice room for Hazel. The horn, let’s face it, it’s a loud instrument, and we want to stay on the good side of our prospective neighbors.

I found the phone number for the Conservatoire de Nantes, but got off on the wrong foot with the receptionist. I jumbled the words for “room” and “bedroom”, and ended up having a sort of debate along the lines of, we-don’t-have-any-bedrooms-here/of-course-you-must-have-practice-bedrooms. She quickly tired of such a conversation, and, failing to find any bilingual co-workers, eventually transferred me to another girl who, speaking slowly, gave me the number of another music school in town, the School of Brass.

I tried this new number out a few times, but nobody ever answered and I couldn’t quite make out the voicemail message. Eventually I found their website, which said that they are happy to receive calls so long as they were placed on Wednesday between ten and twelve in the morning. I’ll pause here to let the reader reaffirm his applicable stereotypes, but not before noting that French morning means the middle of the night in Virginia.

* * *

You’ve seen a lot of famous buildings and have been to a lot of famous museums, but are frankly sick of the big destinations. You want to understand how people live their lives, to get a feel for the quotidian. You want to adopt native worries.

So I set my alarm for 5:00 am the next Wednesday, booted up the computer downstairs and skyped the School of Brass again. By this time I’d learned the word for “practice room” and had carefully prepared a disarmingly amiable introduction. This receptionist was more charitable than the one at the conservatory, and told me to report in person upon my arrival in France, between, naturally, the hours of ten and twelve on Wednesday morning. The school was a modest operation and the receptionist’s job was not a full-time one. But, as I was to later learn, the music director’s wife happened to run a bistrot down the street and could be counted on for a key when the door was locked, six days and twenty-two hours of the week.

My high school French teachers: not a group of women towards whom I ever expected to owe a debt of gratitude. I had pretty much given up on my French after a mostly unpleasant Paris vacation during college. Six goddamn years of study, for this? was my impression of the city.

People in Paris are jerks, which I think goes a long way to explain the stereotype we keep about the French. People in Nantes, like people practically everywhere, are perfectly friendly, and my French, whose only activity since Paris had been to languish in a crestfallen corner of my brain, was pleasantly functional.

People in New York are jerks, too, and if foreign travelers were to generalize across our entire society by a trip to Manhattan I think we’d come off as a sorry bunch of bastards.

We were a little apprehensive about Jean-Pierre’s roommate, Rémy. Life with a toddler is necessarily precarious, and domestic order is paramount: one interrupted nap will ruin the day. The last thing we needed was some unemployed Frenchman smoking gauloises and cursing at the soccer game on TV during Diana’s naptime. Yet the gods of travel must be appeased, and require sacrifices at the altar of discomfort and inconvenience. A roommate became part of the deal, and we hoped for the best.

You own far too many shoes, and you long for a world where one or two pairs are all you need, so only bring one or two pairs for the summer. It’s not like there’s a lot of closet space in Jean-Pierre’s apartment.

There was no sign of Rémy when we arrived at the apartment. The neighbor who gave us the keys—a friend of Jean-Pierre’s—didn’t know where he was either. Oh, Rémy? He doesn’t have a cell phone. He is ecological, not technological. Those first few days he was a phantom presence, operating the creaks and shadows from the closed bedroom on the other side of the kitchen. Nobody knew where to find him. Had he left the country? The plates in the common room were ambiguously altering their configuration. We were living as in a haunted apartment.

You are uneasy about the calamitous excesses of everyday life in America. You worry about the faceless corporate dystopia that is insinuating itself into every corner of our lives. Or maybe you’re depressed by our ceaseless swapping of electronically mediated experience for actual human contact. In any case, you half-dream of another land, a culture overseas, where these cancers, though surely present, have not metastasized to the same reckless extent.

Here’s a scenario that never came up in French class: describe maple syrup to a grocery store clerk who has never heard of the substance; you cannot remember the word for “maple”. (“Connaissez-vous le drapeau Canadien?”) Exercise two: describe peanut butter to a grocery store clerk who has never heard of that substance, either; you cannot remember the word for “peanut”. Exercise three: assure the clerk that you are not putting him on, and that these delicious products truly exist.

The clerk will point you towards the international shelf, where the syrup and the peanut butter will be adjacent, next to tacos.

Rémy eventually returned to the apartment, on bike. As per his reputation, he did not have a car, or a cell phone, or a computer, or a job. In my eyes this made him a prince. Here is a man who hunts frogs using traditional Breton methods, who is not too proud for vin de pays, but who has strong opinions on the shortcomings of industrial cheese. In short, everything one could wish for in a Frenchman. He would disappear for days on end, returning on his bike, saddlebags laden with produce from one of his farming cooperatives, or from his parents’ farm outside of town.

Before this summer I’d only ever tasted industrial cheese.

Rémy is going to cycle the entire length of the Danube, solo, starting in July, or whenever he finishes getting his bike in order. He is not on a tight schedule, and does not own a calendar.

You happen to play the national sport of practically every country in the world—soccer—so bring your cleats and find out when the local pickup games are. Introduce yourself by saying something like, je cherche le match de mon colocateur Rémy, and even though nobody on the field will know any Rémy, you can still play with them. If you score they may say scoff and something like, tu joues assez bien, pour un Americain.

You should try to find a city with absolutely no touristic presence. If all goes well, you should be able to have the following conversation with your neighbor at the end of your trip:

So, have you seen everything there is to see in this city?

Yes, I think we’ve seen everything.

Have you been to the coast?

We spent a night in Le Croisic.

Have you seen our mechanical elephant?

Yes, the elephant.

Well, I think then that you’ve seen everything.

Yes, I think we’ve seen everything.

The whole summering scheme is quixotic, you admit. Real life in France is not the sun- and wine-drenched, cheek-kissing paradise you see in the movies. Nantes in particular has a sort of Anglo-Saxon busyness that is closer to the norm in Northern France than the brochures would have you believe. Sometimes there are farmers protesting in the streets, which is theoretically picturesque but is mostly a nuisance in practical application. This is a real city with people leading real, unromantic lives. Your life here will be mostly the same as back home, but with better bread and without the comforts of all your stuff.

Still, you are a half-dreamer, harboring half-promises. Your American house is much larger than it really needs to be. You’ve made compromises, and one day the contractors showed up to install upon you a kitchenful of Chinese granite. They told you that Chinese granite at thirty-five dollars a square foot is a no-brainer. As a practical man, you saw that you had no grounds for complaint.

* * *

France is still a revolutionary society. We Americans, for all our tree-of-liberty rhetoric, can usually be counted on to acquiesce to the political and economic powers that dictate the course of our lives. In Nantes the protests were frequent and varied. There was, to cite one example, resistance to a planned new airport, an airport with an allegedly overlarge ecological footprint; an airport that in the States would have been built without comment.

In Nantes, on the street corners, there were commentators, commenting obstreperously, wearing sandwich boards and handing out the appropriate lit. Cranks, for sure, but a whole movement of cranks is a force with political power. Part of what makes the American protester so poignant is his desperate incontinence. That same protester on a French street becomes strangely relevant.

There was also a six-week student strike that I had a difficult time understanding. So, I would ask, testing the limits of my French, when students go on strike who are they trying to impress? It’s not like society needs them to build our airplanes or drive our buses. I didn’t get many clear explanations, except that if anyone had known from the outset that it would last six weeks they would have gone on vacation at the outset. Morocco, most likely.

This is all undeniably crazy. France is a fractured society, like the States, and a querulous one. The protests serve little good but to provide a counterweight to the incessant airport-building sensibility that we equate with modernity.

Rémy was at home in the resistance. We never totally understood exactly how his finances worked: I don’t think he took a wage from his work at the campus bicycle association, and he certainly didn’t come from money. Is it easier in France to quit the grid and live without a wage? It’s a welfare state, sure, but you still have to pay your rent.

What is certainly easier in France is to find an intellectual home in the rejectionist counterculture. Rémy’s worldview was a respected one in France, even among those in the socioeconomic elite who were encased in the very trappings of success whose value Rémy denied.

You’ve read a headline or two about the working conditions in Chinese mines.

The astute reader has by now realized that Rémy is a fictional character: my mildly caricaturish alter-ego. All that ghost imagery earlier on made it pretty obvious; a cheap literary device. In short, here is a man who incarnates the ideals that I believe but do not live myself.

The astute reader is wrong! Rémy is an actual Frenchman, and at this moment is probably biking through the Balkans. He lives not by my neglected ideals, but by his own. This is what makes him his own master, if a solitary one.

The reader, rebuffed, asks: so let me get this straight. Traveling to Europe is now supposed to be an exercise in austerity? Like some crazy baguette-toting variation on Walden Pond? I went to France because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life etc. etc. Give me a break.

So I’ll circle around and put it this way: we have sort of a schtick, my wife and I. Every spring we pore over a map and try to find a place where we can live our lives.

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