The other kind of gloomy thing about Brest is that it's just not a very nice city in a lot of ways.
For the most part, people are nice and friendly and generally helpful. Which is awesome, and kind of makes some of the rest of it hard for me to understand.
First of all, as if Brest is not little enough to look at already, people do not seem very interested in keeping it as pretty as possible. I've already mentioned that graffiti is everywhere and on everything. Walls, fences, sidewalks, mailboxes, utility poles, street signs--nothing is immune. And as far as I can tell, it rarely or never gets cleaned up or painted over. It's almost like someone once gave the entire teenage population free rein for the night and then the next day the city just shrugged and went on about its business.
But the vandalism doesn't stop there: Windows are frequently broken (one at the front of the laundromat I go to has had big spiderweb cracks since before Christmas and looks like it was kicked), and I have on several occasions waited at bus shelters that had been literally smashed to bits. I've never seen any of this happening, but somebody's doing it, and it's not just a once-in-a-while problem.
Second of all, Brest is gross. All big cities are dirty to some extent, but some make more of an effort to clean up than others. Here, the sidewalks are carpeted in cigarette butts and crushed cigarette packs and empty candy and snack wrappers. Also with dog poop, although that seems to be France in general and not specifically Brest. People just don't seem to feel the need to clean up after their pets. Then again, men openly peeing in public is also not seen as a social problem, so it's hard to expect that dog poop would be.
Broken bottles and squashed beer cans also abound, which brings us to the next point (and may also be related to all the vandalism): There is so much alcohol.
There are some folks in America right now rolling their eyes and saying, "Yeah, it's Europe." But you don't understand. Most of continental Europe, despite its casualness about alcohol, has a very different attitude towards drinking from that found in Anglophone countries. It's geared more towards enjoyment (of the drink, that is, not the drunkenness) than abuse. That's not to say that people from anywhere alcohol is consumed won't go on a binge now and then, just that that's not necessarily alcohol's only or primary social function. My German/Austrian/Belgian/Spanish/Italian/whatever else friends all certainly know how to party when called upon, but Americans and Brits and Irish and Australians are more likely to habitually drink for the drinking rather than for the drinks, if you get what I mean. There's more of an attitude that drinking is a means to an end, whereas in continental Europe that's sometimes true but not inherently. Have a beer at eleven a.m. is acceptable because there's no assumption that one drink will lead to another, and therefore no assumption that day-drinking indicates a problem.
Brittany, however, forms a crossroads where the idea of drinking to get drunk (a lot, and often) meets the very French/European idea of having alcohol be incredibly cheap and prevalent to the point of ubiquity. It's asking for trouble. It's like American college kids with Keystone, only here the alcohol is better and stronger and no one cares if you have an ID.
I think I've described Brest before as "a city with a drinking problem"; it's true, and I don't think it's just Brest, I think it's the whole region.
So drunk people are a common sight. Drunk men in particular: Brest obviously has many sailors, and seems to have a higher than normal concentration of young men in general, I suppose because of the higher education options available here and what's left of the industrial jobs. (Or maybe the women just don't go out as much or travel in packs as often, and my perception is not totally in sync with reality.)
Also, the drunks in Brest do not merely haunt dark alleys and deserted midnight streets. They can be found anywhere at any hour of the day or night. I have more than once encountered drunk guys (or crazy guys, or both) hanging around bus stops in the middle of the afternoon.
My older students answer every "What did you do over the holiday?" type question with "drink" or "go out" or "make a party". They think it's okay to drive drunk.
Bar fights happen. Soccer brawls happen. I've seen at least two big fights on the street here, one of which we were actually present at, right outside a bar as it was closing. It was a few months ago now, but I remember lots of shouting and big plastic traffic barriers being thrown around and the bartender running outside to intervene, and apparently somebody got stabby with a broken bottle, although I somehow missed that part.
On New Year's Eve, while I was waiting at the bus stop with Jimena and Neala on our way downtown, a car pulled up beside us and someone inside chucked a lit firecracker at us--yes, AT us--before driving off again. It rolled off to the side, and I realized what it was and turned around and kind of shooed the other two a few steps away before it went off, and nobody got hurt. But what the hell.*
It's not often that I've actually felt unsafe walking around Brest, even by myself and even at night. But there are places I avoid, and especially avoid loitering. (I've gotten unwanted attention from men in the Place de la Liberté on two occasions, one of which was before it even got dark.) And it's also not often that I see other women walking around by themselves after dark. In fact, I don't even see women walking in groups without any men nearly as often as I see the opposite. Maybe that's just a French thing because of the gendered culture and maybe it's a Brest-specific thing because of the seemingly skewed sex ratio, I don't know, but it is what it is.
In any case, one last thing is the construction. Maybe this is nitpicky, because it doesn't actually say anything about the atmosphere in Brest, but it's had a big impact on my time here nonetheless. Brest is filled with construction work. They are putting in a new tram line across the city (to be operational more or less right after I leave), and so half the main streets have been blocked off and torn up and full of gravel and cement and barriers and construction vehicles at any given time since before I arrived. It's ugly and noisy and dusty and, quite frankly, a safety hazard a lot of the time. I'm amazed I haven't seen anyone fall into a hole yet. The whole future tram line is one giant death trap.
In addition to the tram, there are also always minor construction projects happening all over the place, with holes in the middle of streets or sidewalks torn up and barricaded, or blocked by scaffolding. Obviously, that could be anywhere, not just Brest, but it doesn't exactly earn Brest any extra attractiveness or liveability points. Meanwhile, much of the port area is rundown or abandoned or totally demolished, and also littered with construction equipment. It looks ugly even from above, and seriously sketchy when you're walking through it.
So that's where I live. (I swear I'm safe here, Mom.) I do have to say I'm somewhat glad to have grown up where I did instead of in the suburbs or some cute little town, because despite everything I just said, I don't dislike Brest and its rougher side doesn't really faze me. So now that I've spent this entire post more or less hating on Brest for no real reason, I promise a more positive update next.
* I know a few people who got egged in Cork, which is definitely mean, but at least the risk of serious injury is pretty minimal compared to freaking explosives.