Arrival in Nice

It’s still summer in Nice. Today’s high was 27 Celsius/80 Fahrenheit. It’s not just the temperature though. The sun is intense, lighting up the Mediterranean that peculiar and mesmerizing beautiful shade of turquoise

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I become seriously envious of the swimmers and sunbathers on the beach. We haven’t had time to loll sea-side, with all the settling in and information gathering we’ve had to do. Today, for example, we spent three hours at the Préfecture,  unnecessarily as it turned out, to change our address from Rennes to Nice. We still have to open a French bank account, obtain bus and train passes, apply for a Carte Vitale (French health care), in that order, and more.

It has been a jolt to arrive here after two months in Brittany. Besides the heat, the streets are much more crowded. Russian, Spanish, English, Italian and Chinese are overheard everywhere. The locals are to the point and gruff.  Many older women have invested in “anti-aging” procedures. Dress is more flamboyantly chic, or trashy. The bins are overflowing with garbage, and the city is generally dirtier.

But that’s part of Riviera culture. There’s also the sea and sun, Italianate food, the dominance of olive oil over butter, umbrella pines and orange trees. Lots of English-speakers have settled here, from which to make friends. Unlike Brittany’s medieval settings, many streets, including ours, are lined with stunning Beaux Arts buildings typical to the French Riviera.

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Serious business does go on, but people are really into enjoying themselves here. There isn’t a single café that is not packed by 5pm every day.

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Soon, we will have the time to join them. And even if the temperature falls, the sun is almost always out.

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Leaving Rennes

It’s hard to believe we’ve only been in Rennes for two months. Hasn’t it been much longer? We’ve been very active, and we’ve paid the price. We got worn down, and feel a bit tired, but overall we are happy at what we’ve seen and done. I have my favorite café, market stalls, craft beer pub, Tunisian patisserie, photo shop and cider maker. Not far from Rennes we have our preferred beach, canal walks and fish soup restaurant.

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Our main objective in spending time here was to explore smaller, less expensive and cooler (in terms of temperatures) alternatives to Nice and we succeeded. We now know they exist, and that Rennes is a good candidate. So is Nantes. And furthermore, we realize there are many such candidates if we only look. Might we become as enchanted by the Occitanie if we spend a summer there? So many smaller French cities, so little time and money.

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What we like about Rennes/Nantes:

  • smaller, less complicated to get around and manage
  • lots of countryside and natural spaces nearby
  • gorgeous coastline nearby in three directions
  • cooler summers
  • beautiful old and new architecture
  • very friendly people
  • relatively safe
  • city populations are younger than those on the Riviera, and feel more energetic, on the move
  • good airports
  • inexpensive

What makes us nervous about settling in Rennes:

  • fewer cultural offerings to our liking (only one movie theater with films in original language, not dubbed)
  • smaller social circle
  • winter weather

Our social circle in Rennes is very small, and social capital is an important criteria for where to settle. We do know one couple, Ruth and John, who helped make us feel more than welcome and at home, guiding us through various bureaucratic processes (btw, we are now official residents of France) and pointing us to choice events.

We met a few friendly expats in Nantes, and a local French woman with whom we’ll stay in touch. At least that’s a start, just in case.

It’s worth remembering that we have been under the spell of unusually fine weather, even for summer, during this stay. The normal is more rain and cooler temperatures. If we were to spend January and February here, we might feel less reluctant to leave.

No question, we have formed an attachment to Brittany. I am certain we will return, for a summer or for longer.

 

 

 

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Random notes

We’ve been here long enough that we are going past first impressions to notice patterns of French-isms. Or maybe they are Brittany-isms. Time will tell. Some you’ll recognize, as they are Gallic classics.

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Others are not. Unlike the experiences we’ve had in other parts of France, and by that I mostly mean Paris, people in Brittany are warm and friendly. Whenever I expect to have a nasty word or expression flung upon me, I receive instead a smile, a quip or a joke. I can’t think of  a single exception. We need extra help in the post office, or forget to weigh the produce at the supermarket, or confuse the small change required to pay for an item, and it’s always a friendly and relaxed “pas de problème” or “c’est pas grave” (both essentially mean “no problem”).

The “time-out” people take habitually. You see them in park benches, in cafés, along various promenades, just hanging. No, I don’t think every French person does this every day. But they sure do it more often than Americans.

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The French queue as politely as the British. They even have the proverbial stiff upper lip in certain FUBAR situations. Recently we arrived at a movie theater to learn our film “séance” was going to be more than 30 minutes late. Who has ever heard of such a thing? But there was the long line of patient movie-goers, and as the time stretched on there wasn’t a single peep of frustration except from the gauche American, yours truly.

People actually attend church services in Brittany. I started off going into churches to see if the stained glass happened to be throwing off colorful reflections, and was startled to see packed naves and aisles on Sunday mornings. It’s an officially secular country, remember. Churches are mostly empty in Italy, although it is stereotyped as Catholic.

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I have to add my pet peeve French-ism. They have an approach to toilets that I struggle to understand. In a home, the toilet is always separate from the room with the shower or bathtub. Good idea! But, I find it odd that no matter how fancy the bath room is, the toilet is like an indoor outhouse. Drab, cramped, a kind of embarrassment or afterthought. Plus, it’s weird to almost never find a sink in the toilet room.

Children seem to be loved, but not indulged. As a result, they tend to be very well-behaved in restaurants or other public places. Contrast that with the English family of three boys who loudly tore around a café while Mom and Dad were absorbed in their phones, oblivious to the pained glances from other habitués. And not all French children are obsessed with devices. In the castle town of Vitré, we saw two boys playing on their doorstep with paper models of medieval forts and castles.

boys playing medieval fort and knights Vitré Brittany

I love how, even in the case of the supermarket cashier who sees an assembly line of customers all day long, it’s a pleasant “bonjour” and “bonne journée” to begin and end our interaction. Civility counts for a lot in society, I find.

 

 

 

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Rennes 2030

You can’t be in Rennes long before you notice all the construction. Whether you enter by the train station, which is undergoing a major expansion and renovation, complete with green space for passengers awaiting departure, or by the airport, where a second metro line under construction will have a terminus, the works underway impress. Driving out of the city in any direction takes one past big apartment blocks and more going up. For the most part, they’re not bad-looking.

In the center, new public spaces and renovation of public buildings are underway. Several squares are currently under re-design, with more to come. The Place du Champs Jaquet (that’s a statue of the mayor during the French Revolution, tearing up  a list of people destined for the guillotine) will probably lose its bus traffic in its new incarnation.

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Rennes will probably have a summer beach on the banks of the Vilaine river, Paris Plage-style, by 2020. The central market will be transformed according to the model of the Time Out market in Lisbon or Eataly in Turin. There will be more fountains and trees, pedestrianized zones and cycle paths.  For a city already with fine parks, there will be even more, and different varieties. The plan is to activate the city artfully at night, too, with the help of installations by designers.

It’s all part of Rennes 2030, a re-imagining of the future of the city.

I don’t know how much of the urban planning underway takes its cues from other cities, and how much is original. But I am impressed with the strategy, creativity and intention of the program created to involve the citizens of Rennes. It has three phases over the course of five months with “urban cafés” (I think those are like the USA’s town halls), city walks with a planner, digital platforms and a diversity of other channels for citizens to choose as a means to make their opinions known. Today we were stopped by people in the central square with tablets taking surveys (we told them we weren’t eligible).

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While the plan specifically addresses “le coeur de Rennes,” the “heart” of the city, infrastructure and building works are being designed to accommodate an increase in population around the center and into the suburbs.  What are the best French cities to invest in? Rennes is near the very top of the list.

I don’t see where the mayor, Nathalie Appéré, has a plan to address the problems common to cities that also plague Rennes, such as homelessness, but maybe I haven’t found it. I don’t doubt she’s given them some thought.

homeless man, champs libres

I, for one, am looking forward to the conclusions of the Coeur de Rennes program in early 2019.

 

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St. Malo

 

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We finally made it to St. Malo. I say “finally” because it’s always loomed large-ish in my imagination. First, there’s the name. “Malo” is one of those evocative Dark Ages names no one has given their child in several centuries, like “Zeno.” I love those names.

Then there’s the city’s history of state-supported piracy by the Corsairs, who inspired Lord Byron and were romanticized in a 19th century ballet. Enormous wealth was created in St. Malo by the legal piracy, along with legitimate trade, and you can see it in the sturdy bourgeois homes that give the city its architectural character. It’s the setting for Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize awardee “All the Light We Cannot See,” which describes the rows of tall, grey buildings and the ever-present briny smell of the English Channel.

In the novel, St. Malo is blustery and wet. The Channel’s own reputation is of a dark, turbulent sea under threatening clouds, impossible to cross without a bout of seasickness. However, we were there on a sparkling sunny day of the kind you experience on the French Riviera. If we’d had time for a ferry ride to one of the English Channel Islands, it would have been a rare breeze of a sail.

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Alas, not this time. But St. Malo was a stunning experience in itself. They don’t call this part of Brittany the Emerald Coast for nothing.

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We walked the entire ramparts around the city, and then wandered “intra-muros” or the city within the walls. It’s a tourist town. Those striped mariner tops are for sale in every shop, along with corsair trinkets. If you haven’t read the Doerr novel or been acquainted with St. Malo’s history, you might be disappointed once you leave the magic of the rampart walls, but we were still enthralled. To think that those tall houses were re-built after virtually all them were bombed to bits during the last year of WWII.

At low tide, you can walk to several small rocky islands, some with old forts standing guard. We, however, stayed close enough to shore.

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These logs are submerged at high tide.

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It was too beautiful a day to head home to Rennes after we were done exploring St. Malo, so we made the short drive to neighboring Cancale, the town of oysters. The port area was crowded with oyster bars and people sipping Muscadet and shucking shells on the quai. We strolled the trail along the water, which wends around the cape if you are inclined for a day hike. It had gotten hot, so we lingered with others at town’s edge with our feet cooling off in the water, like this couple, before heading out.

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On our way home through late summer haze, we spotted the outline of Mont St. Michel in the distance, a site we will have to see on another day.

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The parks of Rennes

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One of the most endearing features of Rennes, to my mind, is its parks. The most well-known and visited, the Parc du Thabor, until the French Revolution the domain of monks, has been ranked in design with the beloved Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. It has become my favorite destination in the city. The main entrance to its six hectares (about 15 acres), through an ornate gilded iron gate, is adjacent to the church of Notre Dame de la Melaine, which rings its Sunday bells for a half hour at a time creating an other-worldly ambiance in which to enter. I’ve never been the park when it has been crowded but it’s never empty either. There are always a few runners, tourists, families and couples enjoying its many delights.

Within the park, my favorite spot is the wooden structure encompassing the dovecote and aviary (the colombier and volière).

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There are benches placed around it, at enough of a distance for the birds to be somewhat unawares of your presence. But up close, a studious onlooker might chuckle at the pecking orders being rigorously maintained, the parakeets who steal rides on the tail feathers of the pheasant (who tries to shake them off), the Diamond Mandarin couples sneaking a twig from the doves or the darting in and out of niches by the birds.

Below: Diamond Dove, Parakeet, Diamond Mandarin, Pigeon, Doves and mystery bird.

 

After spending a good hour or so there, it’s on to the various gardens within the garden: the rose, the French, the English, the Botanical. Or the teeny waterfall. There’s even a spot called L’Enfer, or Hell, today a space for outdoor concerts but once a reservoir despised by the local Bishop who gave it its name. Or to admire the Kiosque.

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There are other, less well-known parks, like the Parc Oberthür, which is smaller (three hectares) but no less lovely. Although a public botanical park, it seems private, with more shady nooks and passages, an imposing villa that once did serve as the Oberthür family home, and more solitary spaces (at least in my experience). It claims 375 trees of a variety of species and geographies, many of which are quite old.

The Breton climate is ideal for nurturing gardens, and every place we’ve been boasts a lovely, well-maintained big or small public patch of green. We’ve seen a lot of Botanical Gardens in Europe that are not cared for, and gone to ruin. Kudos to Brittany for tending to theirs so beautifully.

Parc Oberthür:

Oberthur, Rennes, iphone, Brittany, France-2

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Rennes, Nantes, Rennes, Nantes

What a treat to open the door to our garden first thing this morning, comme d’habitude, and feel an unfamiliar blast of bracing air. This is end of summer weather in Brittany, and, after a season in which I’d thought I’d never feel cold again, I was close to elated.

It also gave us an excuse to putt around the apartment rather than throw ourselves outside to accomplish something, anything.

We’ve spent some time exploring Nantes, which Bretons will tell you is really a Loire-Atlantique city. Officially, that is not true, but you do sense a cultural difference. It has throughout its history been a vital port with links to the world, and for that reason lacks the insularity common to other parts of Brittany. It’s bigger, more sophisticated. Its monuments are massive in scale and achievement. Leading artists are more apt to visit it than Rennes. We visited a James Turrell show at the art museum. You can spend hours, and breakfast, lunch and dinner, at the vast, delightful and grandly conceived Jardin des Plantes.

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Rennes and Nantes are both among Brittany’s leading cities, however, and engines of growth in one of the few regions of France to have added employment in the last decade.  Citroën was founded in Rennes, and provides an automobile tech sector that is growing, among other industry sectors. Rennes is one of France’s economic centers for telecom and electronics. Urban investment is expanding the train station to double the number of passengers and the neighborhood of the Gare is a scene of major development projects.

New housing includes this snazzy number by “starchitect” Jean Nouvel.

Nantes is growing rapidly in population, economic terms and creative enterprises. New architectural projects and other urban investments are drawing all kinds of creative and entrepreneurial talent from Paris and other parts of France, to a city that is already high on the list for livability, affordability and beauty.

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The city has its own term for start-ups: les audacieux. I would apply that term to both cities in general, for the direction they are giving these cities of the future. It would not be a mistake to live in either of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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