Monday, November 21, 2011

More Adventures

First, une petite rant:
So that trail that winds along the coast of Brittany? It goes right through Brest, and leads west from here all the way to the Pointe St. Mathieu, which is close to the westernmost point in continental France, and boasts a neat lighthouse and a ruined abbey. I already did the section from here to St. Anne Plage, a few kilometers west of Brest. Now I want to walk the whole way to St. Mathieu. I looked it up in the trail guide at the bookstore; it'll be about a seven or eight hour hike, but if I time it properly I can either walk there and catch a bus back or take an early morning bus out there and walk back.

I don't teach on Wednesdays. I have the whole day free.

The last two Wednesdays, I've woken up early in the morning to rain. Not the kind of spotty, drizzly, on again off again rain that's standard in this region, but the kind of downpour we get occasionally that just goes on and on for hours (typically, until around lunchtime) with no sign of sunshine. Meanwhile, every other day of the week—of both weeks—had fine weather.

It's like Brest is determined not to let me accomplish this hike, and not only that, but to make the prevention as frustrating as possible.

To be fair, the first week I had pretty much already decided not to go, because I was getting over a cold and was still pretty tired, plus we had a holiday on Friday and I figured I could go then (which also didn't work, because on Friday I was getting over, well, something else, from Thursday night). So I was merely vindicated when it rained. But last week, I was definitely going. I'd already gotten a lunch and packed my backpack and set my muddy boots next to my bed to wait for me. Instead, I woke up a little late and was lying in bed trying to modify my bus strategy in my head when I thought, “What's that sound? Oh, look, it's France pissing all over my plans again,” and my boots sat and mocked me while I spent the morning watching episodes of Frasier on my computer and knitting a hat. (Because I'm so cool.)

Anyway, back to my vacation story:
So after my adventures around Erdeven (which were, for once in my life, perfectly timed—though the morning was dreary and overcast, the rain held off until I was back in town and sitting under the shelter at the bus stop), I spent a maddening number of hours taking multiple forms of transportation back to Brest, where I spent one night before heading back to the train station on Saturday to go to Rennes. I couldn't afford to go very far, because I hadn't been paid for October yet and did not arrive with as much money as most assistants because I spent last summer at an unpaid internship, but Rennes is just a little west of being a halfway point between Brest and Paris, and one of my best friends is living in a suburb of Paris, so we had agreed to meet there as a way of seeing each other and getting both of us out of our respective towns for a few days without it being too complicated for anybody.

And let me just reiterate: Even the very kindest of strangers are no substitute for a familiar face. When you've uprooted yourself and are starting over in a new place with no one you know anywhere near, being able to see and talk to someone you do already know is like a gift from heaven. As much as I truly like the other assistants in Brest, and as much as I hope that at least some of them will turn into real friends by the end of the year, being with people you've just met—even really nice, fun people—is just not the same as being with someone you've already known for years. After a month in France, during which I'd been mostly cut off from people back home because of my ongoing lack of reliable internet and the expense of international calls on my pay-as-you-go cell phone, I really needed those four days of companionship.

As for Rennes itself, it was love at first sight for me. Where Brest is a city of 1950s concrete and 21st century glass, covered in graffiti and littered with crushed cigarette packets and broken beer bottles, Rennes is France at its finest: canals and hanging flower baskets, wide plazas surrounded by Second Empire architecture and winding medieval streets lined with narrow half-timbered houses. The assistants in Brest have had several conversations about how les Brestois are too hard on their “ugly” city; Rennes made me think, “OH. THIS is why they're bitter... And also, I could just as easily have gotten a placement here. Damn.”

There's not a lot to *do* in Rennes besides walk around and gawk, and eat at multiple creperies, both of which we did, along with taking pictures of practically everything we saw. There is a Musée de Bretagne, which covers regional archaeology/history/culture as well as art, and which we did not manage to see because our timing was off. (We were there on a Sunday, when most museums are only open in the afternoons, a Monday, when most museums are closed, and All Saint's Day, when almost everything in France is closed and we spent most of the day sitting in a garden watching children throw rocks into the fountain.) It also has an excellent art museum, where we spent the entirety of Sunday afternoon. It randomly has an Egyptian wing, complete with Ptolemaic mummies, and some Greek and Etruscan ceramics, and then a small sculpture court. Most of the rest is paintings. Offhand, the only famous names I can recall are Rubens, Gauguin, and Picasso, but I'm sure there are others, and plenty of really wonderful works by lesser-known artists. For me, the highlights were a tragic, incredibly haunting painting of the Massacre of the Innocents (I didn't like it, but I thought it was amazing), a unique depiction of the death of John the Baptist in which a scantily-clad Salome watches from the background as a swordsman approaches the prophet (every other image of that story I've seen shows the moment after the beheading, not the one before), and a scene that shows Saint Luke painting a portrait of the Virgin Mary in a Renaissance studio. Both of us stood and looked at that one for a long time, and for me, at least, it was less because I liked it, per se, than because it was so unusual and intriguing.

I typically go to museums by myself (or sometimes with my parents, especially my dad), partly because I travel alone a lot and partly just because I always seem to want to linger when others are bored and vice versa. I also have a tendency to make fun of the art (it's equal opportunity mockery, mind you—pieces I actually like are not immune), which I was a little concerned would be an issue with my friend, who's probably more of an art lover than I am and definitely more educated on the subject. Fortunately, she didn't seem to mind my disrespect, or at least that's the meaning I am choosing to take from the fact that she very graciously did not insist on any more than a cursory walk through the modern art wing. I suppose it's also possible she was trying to spare herself from me, rather than me from 20th century art... But oh well. She spends all her free time in Paris surrounded by museums, so there.

On Monday, we went to Mont St. Michel. If you don't know where/what that is, Google Image it right now. It's just off the coast of Normandy, somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half from Rennes. The landscape itself is stunning; in terms of human modifications, the crowning glory is the massive abbey on top of the mountain. Below it is the medieval village, crowded together along the single cobblestone road that winds its way up the steep slope. Sadly, the whole place is today a massive tourist attraction. I don't think anyone actually lives there. The buildings hold hotels and restaurants and souvenir shops and a series of cheesy, low-quality historical museums. (We went to a house museum that was all right, but not very informative and apparently not especially concerned with the condition and care of its artifacts, and then we went to another whose original function I'm not even that sure of, where there was a bizarre assemblage of artifacts that, again, lacked identifying information and were not particularly well cared for, a laughable-in-a-bad-way little show about the history of Mont St. Michel, and a room full of mannequins depicting famous prisoners of the one-time dungeons of Mont St. Michel.) Still, crowds and tackiness aside, it was a great day. The views were beautiful, we had an awesome (if slightly expensive) lunch, and the visit to the abbey was almost worth the trip on its own—especially since France's generosity towards the young struck again and we were able to get into the abbey for free with our visas.

So, that's one more UNESCO World Heritage Site down. 15 and counting.*

* Embarrassingly,  this does not include the one that's in Philadelphia, an hour away from where I grew up.

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