Les Vacances, part 1

Spring break in France was amazing. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had two weeks off, rather than the standard one week in the United States. Frankly, I didn’t know what to do with so much free time. But I’ve always been something of a homebody, I prefer to amuse myself with reading, drawing, watching Netflix. I can be just as entertained in my pajamas as I can be dressed to the nines and out with a group. So, for the first week of my spring break, which were simply known as les vacances, I did absolutely nothing.

Of course, I did somethings—like catching up on commissions for my tattoo design business and watching American series’ that I’d fallen behind on since arriving in Europe. I finished Artemis, a sci-fi/futuristic novel about a colony on the moon. I actually Facetimed my parents, which I have been neglecting—partially because of the time difference, partially because either party is always busy, and partially because I just hate Facetime. I slept as late as I wanted, left my shutters closed all day and had a movie marathon of cult-classics that I’d always wanted to watch but never had time to, like Trainspotting and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I was sinfully relaxed, especially because there were a few minor projects that I was to complete during the break. But I figured I could simply leave them for the next week.

This would turn out to be a mistake because the second week of les vacances was to be dedicated to traveling.

Leo is my friend who spent a semester in Norman, right before I came to France for my semester abroad. He lives in Bordeaux and insisted that I come to see him once I arrived. I promised I would and booked travel accommodations both to spend time with he and his family, and to meet my friends Madison and Ariel in Athens, Greece for the second half of the week. I took a bus to Bordeaux, where Leo and his mother Isabelle met me. His mother took my bags in their car back to their apartment, and Leo showed me around Bordeaux. He was really excited to see me, and I was glad that he was. The last thing anyone wants is to go half-way around the world to see a friend and have nothing to say to them.

We walked around, crossed a bridge over the river that splits the city in half. He talked about a few pubs that he’d visited with his friends, told me stories of places he’d gone with his family. He insisted that we take the boat back to the main part of the city, where the old ports, theaters, and restaurants are. Even though the boat was nearly an hour late, we waited and talked. He insisted on speaking English, which was both a relief and a little frustrating for me. I think that coming to America to practice English is probably the same, but in a different way. In Europe enough people speak English that if you find yourself unable to speak French, German, Spanish, or whatever, you can still usually accomplish your goal. But in the United States, so few people speak a second language that you have no choice but to struggle through your English until an understanding is reached. But Leo said that he was losing his ability to speak English, and he wanted to practice.

We took the ferry back to town, and Leo showed me the old Roman theater, the opera house, the fountain that commemorates the end of World War II and Germany’s occupation in France. He showed me the three-story indoor-outdoor mall, Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant, and his favorite kebab shop, where we got dinner. We took the bus out to the suburbs, and I don’t know why I never thought of there being suburbs in France. Probably because no one ever talks about the ‘burbs in well-known cities like Paris or Bordeaux. We arrived at his apartment building around midnight, and everything worked out perfectly because Leo’s younger brother, Hugo, was spending the break in Amsterdam, so I was able to sleep in his room.

A quick sweep of Hugo’s room showed me that if I ever met him, he and I would be great friends—assuming I would be able to communicate with him. Fact is, I would live in Hugo’s room. He had posters of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, a record player with Nina Simone still under the needle, his ‘wallpaper’ were stills from American movie classics like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Thelma and Louise.’ His books, scattered all over the desk, were French translations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Plato’s Republic, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; there was a three-tiered chessboard on the bookshelf. I felt right at home.

The next morning, we woke up incredibly early because Leo and his mother wanted to show me the Basque country, or Le Pays-Basque. It was during the car ride that I realized Leo and his family are communist, as we sang lots of songs about ‘the people’ on the way. I tend toward more socialist political ideology myself, so I wasn’t concerned, just surprised that they didn’t have a hint of shame when telling me their political views. We drove to a hotel that Isabelle is able to stay in for free, thanks to her job in French government. They simply had to call ahead a few days in advance and schedule their stay. It was a nice hotel, with a view of the ocean. It occurred to me that it was the first time that I’d seen the Atlantic from the other side.

We explored Basque-country and it was beautiful. The ocean, the large ornate buildings on the waterfront, the little shops selling unique wines, artisan chocolates, and dainty porcelain souvenirs. We had crêpes for lunch, and then I bought a hand-painted thimble for my grandmother, who was seamstress. We then had dinner at the home of Pascal, who was a comrade of Isabelle and her husband. I learned that Leo’s parents, alongside Pascal, were communist protestors who fought against the French and Spanish government for the liberation of Basque country. Pascal had even gone to jail once in the name of independence. Now, though, he is a professor with a swanky home full of authentic African statues and masques, a living room (which is the only one I’ve seen in any of my friend’s French apartments), and reggae music in various languages pouring out of every window. He cooked dinner for us, which was delicious, and poured us glasses of champagne, which he kept full. I thought it was very generous of him, especially since champagne is such a luxurious item in the United States. Only later when Pascal popped the fifth bottle without hesitation that champagne might be much cheaper and more plentiful in France.

There were six other people there, who were also once soldiers for Basque independence, and they hadn’t seen Leo since he returned from the United States. They asked him lots of questions, and then they turned to me. They asked me about universities in the States, and when I told them that many students go into insurmountable debt in an attempt to better themselves and earn a fighting chance to find meaningful employment. They all looked so shocked and I was just insanely jealous of the incredulity. For us, it’s a harsh reality. For them, it’s unthinkable.

The next day, we drove to Spain. And there was no border checkpoint, and hardly any signage. They simply tuned down Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe and said: “We’re in Spain now.” It was a small town that we went to, with a big, beautiful, domed church. We went to a cave that doubled as both a natural formation and a burial place for las brujas, women who were burned alive for being “witches.” It was gorgeous, enough to override any lingering creepiness that you’d think would come from such a place. That night they found out that I’d neglected to eat several quintessential French foods, like rillettes du canard, which basically a duck that’s been condensed into a can. It was surprisingly good.

The next day we went back to Spain, this time to a beach-town. We had tapas and wrote our names in the sand; Isabelle bought me so many snacks, drinks, and trinkets that I felt like I belonged to her. I told her as much, and she gladly said that she would be my maman, my ‘French mother.’ Apparently, I’m the daughter she never had. When we drove back to Bordeaux that same afternoon, we found that Leo’s father had returned from a business trip to Paris and had cooked dinner for us. Roasted chicken, foie gras, and a good Bordeaux wine. Leo said that he and his father had been planning the dinner for me for the past week, and that they wanted to make sure that I had the best that Bordeaux had to offer. I was so touched at how welcome they made me, and I was so glad to have met Leo at OU.

He showed me around Bordeaux for my last night and took me to the roof of one of the colleges at the University of Bordeaux—which I don’t think was strictly legal, but I got a lovely photo out of it anyway. Then I met some of his friends, and we went for drinks throughout the city for my last night. Even Leo’s friends were kind and inviting, and even though I didn’t understand all the French slang that passed between them, they would see my confusion and try to slow down, or sometimes switch to English all together. I had to field a few questions about Trump, which always sucks, but in the end, I was so happy to have gone.

The next morning, Leo and Isabelle took me to the airport to catch the series of flights that would take me to Rome to reunite with my friends before going to Athens. Isabelle told me to come back and see her before I returned to America, and I agreed to try. She kissed my cheeks and gave me a pain au chocolat—which is apparently known as a chocolatine in certain regions of France—and Leo handed me my bags. He waved and promised to tell me if he ever came back to the U.S., and I promised to meet him (if he wasn’t too far from wherever I end up, since flights in the States are not like Europe, where you can fly to a totally different country for the same price it takes to fly over three states.)

I hefted my duffel bag and headed off toward my next adventure.

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