I was arriving in Nantes quite late by Blablacar and was supposed to meet Carolina at the train station. For whatever reason, I was dumb enough to ask to be dropped off on the opposite side of the station, where I’d end up running nearly a mile in the wrong direction before turning back around, going to another area I shouldn’t have been in, and then getting a message from Carolina saying she would be picking me up where I’d originally been let off. Unfortunately, this was happening in a less-than-safe area of Nantes, so I got these messages:
When I finally found her, there was indeed a guy following her closely.
“He was talking to me, asking me where I was going and what I was doing, so I told him I was meeting up with my boyfriend. Then when I started walking he asked me, “Oh, you got time now to talk? What’s your name?” And wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“Holy shit. I’m sorry. That’s terrifying.”
“It happens,” she said nonchalantly. I don’t know I’d be so dapper about being followed by someone in a quiet area of town at night.
We went to a party that night with a bunch of English-speaking students from the U.S., Wales, Australia, and Canada. As house parties usually do, it descended into chaos before fizzling out in the wee hours of the morning. I managed to make a great connection with a girl from Connecticut who enjoyed toilet humor.
Over the next few days, we saw a great deal of the city with Carolina as my guide.
For some background on Nantes:
Nantes is situated at a point of the Loire river in the northwestern part of France. Originally it was inhabited in the first century by the Gauls, and taken by the Bretons in the ninth century after several hundred years of Roman influence and Frankish rule. It became the capital of the Province of Brittany and was established as the home of the Duchy of Brittany until the early 16th century, when Anne of Brittany married the French King Charles VIII and it became part of France.
At this point (1685), Nantes takes a turn for the racist and becomes a port city dealing primarily with slave and sugar trade. Along the river in the city, there are still buildings which were important for these trades, and Carolina’s friend actually lived in the building where they used to import sugar through slave labor.
Some of the city’s areas were bombed during the German occupation of Nantes during World War II, which is very evident in the walls of the castle and other parts of the city, but it’s been declared “Europe’s most liveable city” and has won a bunch of awards for being a green city and having great infrastructure. That being said, I will say it’s one of the most spatious cities I’ve been in outside of the United States– there’s actually room to walk and enough space for everyone (mostly). There’s just one tall building in the city from which you can see all the rest of the sprawling metropolitan area around Nantes.
Carolina, despite having to work and teach classes (more on that soon) made sure I was busy during my time in Nantes.
She took me up on the tall building so I could see the city:
There is also a bar on the top floor which is supposed to be a “nest,” so there is a big sculpture of a stork that runs the length of the bar, and when you look out over the city there are paintings of splattered eggs on some rooftops. The seats inside the bar look like eggs that have been cut into.
We were blessed with mostly good weather, so we made it to a lot of places around the city. We visited the castle, where we watched cool animated films about the Duchy and the history of Nantes:
And we visited the St. Peter cathedral, which is home to the tomb of Francis II, Duke of Brittany. It was a really impressive tomb; there are four figures, one at each corner, representing the four ‘Cardinal virtues,’ being temperance, prudence, justice, and courage (which is my favorite because she’s holding a dragon).
There is also a cenotaph for the General Cristophe Léon Louis Juchault de Lamorcière (say that five times fast). He was commemorated for his victory against black people and for showing courage in the face of a war in Algeria, as well as for defying Napoleon. There are obvious elements of Nantes ties to slavery in many of the sculptures and historic places in the city, but it seems to be more respected (maybe even expected) as opposed to bashfully swept under the rug as in Germany or the United States.
In terms of France in general, Nantes was historically part of Brittany but is now considered part of the Pays de la Loire — something which residents of the city have been upset about for years. As a result, there are frequent protests in the city which lead basically nowhere. But the culture and feeling of the city as some have described to me is still very “Breton,” which includes a lot of delicious buttery pastries and caramelized sugar…
Carolina made sure to do the cross thing with her hand (I’ve got no clue what it’s called– Catholics make a cross over the chest and face sometimes) when we entered churches.
“Are you religious?” I asked.
“Not very much. But I always make sure to do the cross when I go in or leave churches. It’s something I did all the time as a kid. My grandmother used to tell us we had to do it, and she still does it even when she’s just driving past a church. Like literally every time.”
Later, as we were walking through the gardens in the city, she talked about work.
“The kids here are terrible.”
“Really? Why?” I asked.
“They’re so loud and they don’t respect the teachers. But at the same time, the teachers can be pretty terrible too. I see teachers curse at their students a lot. And it’s not like the States where you’re graded and they tell you what to improve. Here, they just tell you what you did wrong and focus on your mistakes.”
I heard similar things from the Carolina’s friends. Apart from that, the administration seems to have no idea what they’re doing, which sounded just like home. It must be a universal struggle, though others in France told me similar horror stories of the school system, especially with regard to language teaching.
On another note, some of the parks in Nantes are absolutely gorgeous. We went to a Zen garden as well as one of the city parks which has a lot of areas suited for kids in that signs tell mythical stories of the plants and furniture in each zone and give you the sense that you’re walking through Wonderland.
Something else worth taking a look at is Les Machines de L’île, which is an exhibit (or something) that includes machines that are inspired by Jules Vernes’ works and Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical visions/projects/whatever they were.
There’s a giant steel elephant that walks around and sprays water on people, and a huge carousel so a bunch of sea creatures, and other things we didn’t really have time to see.
That night, we met up with the other students I’d met the first night to watch the Bruce Jenner interview (about his transition). Carolina and I were sort of nervous they would be less the open-minded about such a new social issue, but everyone was asking genuine, unoffensive questions that gave me hope for the human race.
The next day, it was time to leave Nantes. Originally I had planned to hitchhike, but I think I’ve gotten quite lazy, especially after my short time doing absolutely nothing in Paris. I just booked another Blablacar and was done with it. Off to meet up with Camille!