(Friday) Thoughts from Places: Flashback to a Year in France

Today I was overwhelmed by memories of Strasbourg.


Hot sticky sweltering summer nights spent rolling wineglasses on uneven picnic benches under la Guinguette’s magnificent willow tree strung up with fairy lights and dwarfing all the internationalities who sipped wine and chugged beer and discussed French literature and dared each other to dance with the hot stranger over there, all to the strange wails and guitars of live foreign bands, all by the banks of the Loire.

The greying old man with deep laughter wrinkles smiles warmly at you and begins to sing as he whips up your daily crepe, lathering generous spoonfuls of Nutella and sliced banana onto the crisp, lacy crust and handing it to you, hot and fresh and sweet, with a final hum as you slide two new coins across the glass countertop.

In the lofty white stone halls of the castle-school that you liked to pretend was marble, under brassy chandeliers and around the corner from your gold-embossed classroom with creaking wooden floors, you sit playing chess with Bridget, glass pawns fighting and flickering in the sunlight that pours through the French windows with peeling white paint as your classmates on the balcony call out to friends—in English, in French, in Italian—in the courtyard below.

It’s pride that wakes you up at 6 a.m. and entreats you to pull yourself from your red-and-purple bed in your gypsy room and pull on gym clothes and tiptoe down the stairs, past the heavy wood door and out into the cool summer air of early-morning Tours, where you stretch and start jogging the slumbering stone city’s streets, past boulangeries that are filling the air with baking bread, round to the bridge and back, back to the house where you revel in the quiet and the endorphins and you brew your mug of tea and look out past the glass wall to the stone city’s most secret garden, so rich and green and in full summer bloom.


Sunny late-summer September days in bateau-mouche skimming boats and new-city walking tours, treating ourselves to expensive Italian ice cream cones and figuring out tram lines and class schedules and paths back to pink-peach gingerbread host family houses in the beautiful city that isn’t—quite yet—home.

Cold, thick Nutella milkshakes on drizzly autumn days where the heels of your very French grey boots get caked with wet orange and brown leaves and you pull your scarf a little tighter to keep out the November chill while you pop in and out of German shops looking for the perfect pair of adventure boots.

Warm grey skies promise you no rain as you wind through the forested hills in a stranger’s car, armed only with thick gloves and plastic bags and confusion as to what exactly you are “hunting” in this quiet, deadened place… until you find one hidden amongst all the fallen leaves—a chatain! of course! a smooth, round, rich brown chestnut in a spiky shell—and understanding dawns upon you and you scurry like a squirrel to outsquirrel the others in this Sunday forest race, dreaming of a steaming bowl of hot chocolate and a victory lap when you return home.

On top of the world, braving gale-force winds and far-off stormy skies and angry rams to stand here, on the very spine of the mountain that divides gleaming black-silver lakes—otherworldly—and leads down to the ocean, and you descend into the middle of beautiful nowhere, back to the bay window overlooking the sea, back to hot chocolate and homemade Shepherd’s pie, back to the roaring fire and the book stacks and the card games and the laughter after a pint or two at the only pub within an hour’s walk’s radius, back to the house without clocks, where you were all free and happy and alive.

A silver-rain day, crisp and cool—almost cold—as you peel yourself from the packed, humid tram at the chime of Gallia, following chattering friends down cobblestone streets crowded with umbrellas and cigarette smoke, and into the safe haven of Flam’s bright orange walls and dark chestnut tables and you announce, to no surprise, your typical order of les-champignons-frais, savoring the taste of the words and dreaming of the hot, familiar flavors that await you.


You dash past tourists who are sipping hot spiced wine and marveling at the fairytale lights that illuminate the charming Black Forest Christmas Market booths dotting your magical city—for you are in a rush, you are late to play the role of “teacher” to a group of EPITECH boys for a few hours—and when you leave the classroom, the booths are closed for the night, but the lights are still twinkling, and you walk slowly in the darkness next to quiet tram tracks, savoring the puff of your breath in the December night and the warm glow that comes from knowing that this is your city.

In Annecy, you are alone; you breathe the fresh, crisp air in alone and you look around, wondering if this is all a dream—these snowcapped mountains that rise from behind the glassy lake, the quiet sunset that throws the landscape into soft pinks and blues and golds, the sailboats bobbing on the water, the castle silhouetted on the hill, the frosted-over canals that you dash over in the darkness with Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” humming away in your ears—are you really here, could this place really exist?

Valentine’s Day, alone, on another adventure; you take a little unmarked path and go hiking, winding out of the village and up through the hilly vineyards, leading to the three ruined castles that sit regally above this charming Alsatian wine town with it’s colorful half-timber houses–and it is here, in the ruins of a crumbling castle, that you muster up some courage to ascend the tower (taking a winding staircase of rotting wood in the pitch blackness of that tower) and spend a quarter of an hour sitting on top of the thick stone wall, your feet dangling off the side, admiring the views of the world below.

Seven hours of switching trains, missing trains, and broken-down trains eventually spits you out in Champery, Switzerland, where you reunite with your mother for a weekend of raclettes, hot chocolates, royal kirs, skiing under blue skies, marveling at the mountains, repeating the phrase “I never want to leave,” and realizing, for the first time, the true reason why the French refuse to give up their winter ski holidays.


Warm, sunny afternoons are Place de la Republique days; you and Kat grab Lebanese from your favorite restaurant, swing by Carrefour to buy Swiss chocolate bars and cartons of fresh raspberries, and you take the tram to the busy little circle of grass and dandelions and statues that masquerades as a park, to lie out, lunch, and read lazily until the sun sets and the evening grows cold.

You spend a weekend in the South of France — as one must — visiting famous old cities, famous old church-palaces, and famous old amphitheaters, wondering if “old” and “famous” can be mutually exclusive in Europe, when you run into old friends completely out of the blue, right there outside the old amphitheater, hundreds of miles from where they are meant to be living, and the world shrinks just a little.

It’s a fine, sunny day in late May to spend hiking in the Black Forest, goofing off with Kat while pretending to listen as Malou points out all the buttercups and daisies, Queen Anne’s Lace and forget-me-nots that line the trail into the dark woods; a cafe in the middle of nowhere springs up in front of you (quite a crowded cafe for being located in the middle of a forest) and the three of you order tea and cakes before resuming your hike past waterfalls; you’re only half-listening as Malou recites ghost stories in French.

You are leaving, you are saying goodbye to the city that you now feel to be home, you are grieving; lunches with your host family grow longer and sweeter as no one wants to be the first to say au revoir; everything becomes a “last,” everything becomes imprinted to memory; a checklist is made so you don’t miss a single goodbye — a goodbye to your EPITECH students, a goodbye to Thursday tarte flambees at Flam’s, a goodbye to the bridge where you often paused and pondered, a goodbye to the stunning cathedral that acted like your North Star whenever you were lost, a goodbye to the ducks Kat was jealous of because they were allowed to stay in France — a goodbye to the life you made for yourself here; the train leaves right on time, as you knew it would.


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