You can read all about Brest on Wikipedia if you want, and it probably has some kind of tourism website in English, too (come to think of it, I should probably read those myself…), so I'll skip straight to my perspective: Brest is less than I desired, but more than I imagined. By that, I mean that while I had hoped to be somewhere more vibrantly French or Breton or both, both Brest and my situation in it have proved to be better than I expected from my reading and from some of my email exchanges over the summer. If Brest is not quite as rich in history or culture as I might have wanted, or at least not in the ways I might have wanted, it still has plenty to offer in terms of things to do, places to go, and people to meet. I think Americans always have grand expectations for anywhere in Europe; if I'm willing to let go of those and accept that Brest is not going to be my beloved Tours or Avignon, let alone Paris or Nice, then it is, in fact, a perfectly fine place to live. And it is full of magpies, which I love.
Of course, it's also full of steep hills, which I love much less, despite where I grew up.
Four months ago, when I first learned I'd been placed here, I wrote that I was both relieved about the size of the city and its student population* and disappointed that I was going to wind up, yet again, in one of the few places in my chosen country that had little surviving physical evidence of its long history. In Brest's case, that's because it was almost totally leveled in WWII and was rebuilt after the war. It's a port city, with an important naval base, and in its day was filled with factories, though I'm told that much of the industry that was here is now gone. Having heard that makes me even more inclined than I already had been to play the Billy Joel song "Allentown" for my students when I talk to them about where I come from—about the only thing better than a pop culture reference to my hometown is a pop culture reference to my hometown that's potentially tailor-made for les Brestois to relate to.
Some of the city is attractive—for example, the monumental Place de la Liberte at its heart, and the broad Rue de Siam that leads from the Place down to a lovely view of the harbor, which is flanked by the castle and tower that are all that remains of medieval Brest. Much of the rest is, at best, nondescript. Concrete, barred windows, and graffiti abound. Shades of grey and white and beige are predominant, though I have seen at least a few colorful residential streets. Within the city proper, houses are small and massive apartment buildings common. Sirens are a constant, and would almost make me feel at home if the sound wasn't so different from American sirens. It took me a few days to get used to that, but now I tune them out just as easily as I do back in Bethlehem.
Despite having been destroyed, Brest seems to have managed to retain its medieval street plan, and I have yet to make much sense of it, even though I once wrote a history paper about medieval city layouts having a kind of internal logic. It's very easy for me to get turned around if I'm not paying close attention or it's too cloudy for me to tell compass directions easily (which is most of the time here). I get lost a lot anytime I stray from the most familiar routes.
A lot of streets are named after people, ranging from the vaguely creepy (Rue Robespierre? Really, Brest?) to the unintentionally humorous (I don't know who Claude le Prat was, or if the average French person would think that's a funny name, but his street sign cracks me up). Many of them, of course, are French names I don't recognize, so I get excited when I do know who a street is named for and why they deserve the honor. There are what seems like a surprising number of streets named after writers, from Rue Charles Baudelaire and Rue Victor Hugo, which I suppose are to be expected, to Rue Hemingway down by the quays. I've only seen that one on the map for the moment, but I'll have to go find it at some point, although I don't actually know whether Hemingway had any connection to Brest or not.
Brest is, despite all the not-so-flattering things I said above, a nice enough place to be, especially in the unseasonably nice weather that we had for the first week and a half I was here. The city center really is nice, although most of it is currently a treacherous, labyrinthine construction zone for the new tramway that should go into operation soon after I'm due to leave, and there are also some lovely gardens and parks, including a series of walking paths along the river that I already love, and even some tree-lined streets. The French are also very fond of landscaping with flowering plants. I am quite willing to believe, however, that during the long, dark, wet winter, this will indeed be a depressing city. In fact, I wonder if that's not as much a reason for the number of pubs here as the Irish influence on the region or the fact that except for in summer it's simply too cold and wet for all the oh-so-French sidewalk cafes.
I can't seem to stop myself thinking of Brest as the Pittsburgh of France even though that's unfair in several respects (the biggest of which being that I've spent approximately two hours in Pittsburgh in my entire life—and they were at night, in winter). In some ways, though, I think it's entirely fair: Brest is a grimy, dreary, formerly industry-heavy city of several hundred thousand that, though it has a few nice things to offer in the way of history and culture and nightlife, is a place that kind of fails to stand out and that even its inhabitants tend not to boast much about.
But hey, I work twelve hours a week, plus a little prep time, for which I get paid a ridiculous amount of money** AND get nearly eight weeks of vacation time (although I may volunteer to teach optional classes during one or two of those breaks and make even more money)—part of the point of being a language assistant is to go out and travel and do cool things away from your base city. And when I am here, there are other assistants to hang out with, museums and bars and libraries to go to, more shopping than I can handle (including a fantastic, awe-inspiring bookstore that could pose a serious hazard for me), and plenty of nice walks to take and pastries to eat. Brest may not be very glamorous, but I think I'll be plenty fond of it before it's time to leave.
(If I can remember, I'll try to update this post with pictures this weekend.)
* One night last week, a large group of assistants was sitting in what seems to have become our usual pub, and one girl observed, "The worrying thing here is that there are 17,000 students in Brest and none of them are here..."
** I did the math, actually. It works out to almost 21 euros per hour, for what will probably take very little effort on my part—in other words, over twice as much as I'd probably make doing archaeology right now, and possibly more than I'll ever make doing archaeology even if I go on to get a Ph.D. Plus, I don't have to go to work if the teacher I'm supposed to work with is sick or on strike (it's France, so the latter is bound to happen sooner or later), and it doesn't affect my salary because I don't actually get paid by the hour. It would pretty much be the best job ever even if the economy didn't suck.