Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

What do you get when you put four Americans in a car heading west with a flag tied to the roof, eating Jif To Go with Ritz Crackers and drinking A&W rootbeer?

A good old US Road Trip, of course! But in France.

We rented a car and headed out on a sunny Friday morning, blasting pop tunes and full of energy. Our first stop was Etrétat, a city known for its stunning falaises (cliffs) which attract painters from all over.

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As a bonus, it was full of Normande charm, with the characteristic architecture and signs for cidre and calvados in every restaurant.

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We spent two hours clambering up onto the cliffs and taking epic photos. It was a sunny day (a rarity in the North at the moment) and a combination of that and the fresh sea breeze put us in a stellar mood. Hikes and laughter are my jam.

Back in the car, we had an afternoon snack as we headed for Caen, to my friend Dana’s host family’s house from her study abroad in Normandy. Her host family welcomed us weary travelers with an apéro of champagne and snacks and a beautiful 2-room setup to sleep in (which can also be rented via Air BnB, if anyone is interested). After drinks, we dashed out to meet Dana’s expat friend for dinner at a cow-themed fondue restaurant and ate and talked until we had to sleep.

Day two was dedicated to Mont-St-Michel, one of the most famous sites in France. My mom had been telling me to go for ages, and this was the perfect time. We arrived the weekend after the grandes marées, the highest tides in ten years, which means that we beat the crowds; there had been roughly 30,000 people descending on the Mont the weekend before. Our day was spent wandering the quaint winding streets and the hidden corners of the Abbey, complete with a picnic lunch in the garden.

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On the way home, we stopped in St Malo. I am always stoked to return to Brittany, my regional true love, and this town didn’t dampen (despite the rain…hehe) my feelings for Western France. It is a walled city, with some of the most intact walls I’ve seen. We entered through a stone gate and climbed up to the top of the ramparts (N.B. Cities in America do not have ramparts). We were able to walk halfway around the city and were rewarded with stunning views of the west coast on one side and the Breton city on the other. It was a great stop despite the adverse weather change, although the misty rain reminded me of home.

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Saturday night was spent with Dana’s family, eating and chatting. There was a spirit of warmth and hospitality, even though we were nearly complete strangers, which reminded me of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais community where I’ve made my home this year. The only downside was the cheese choice — Camembert and Livarot, two varieties whose tastes I have yet to acquire. I can’t handle the stench…

On Sunday we made our way home, tired and discouraged by the weather, but we all agreed that it was a great trip. What surprised me most was how it felt to be among Americans again, and on the road. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like a natural version of myself in Europe, which is a huge accomplishment. And yet, something felt especially nice about being able to joke and laugh and be outrageously patriotic in “American.” It’s our cultural language that is lacking here, as is everyone else’s cultural language if they aren’t from France.

But I was also more than happy to return home to my lovely house in Val and my international friends. As a group, we have created our own subculture, with an international smorgasbord of influences. I know that when I’m back in America, I will miss that subculture more than I can express in any language. I’ll have to go on plenty of road trips (and eat jars and jars of peanut butter) to cope 😉

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

TFH Part 3 : Bretagne, the Medieval Land of Mist & Mayhem

As promised, here are some adventure tales from my trip to Bretagne with Solena, in between the Three Christmases.

Solena picked me up with her mom and little cousins from the train station in Vannes, and we embarked straightaway for some sightseeing nearby.

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First, Arradon, which is far less desolate and rainy during the summer sailing season, when it’s home to sailing competitions and becomes a tourist destination. This was my first glimpse of the sea, though, and it felt like home!

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Then, a special treat: Rochefort-en-Terre, which is a medieval village in the hills that has a fairy light display for the holidays. It was beautiful, and put me in the Christmas spirit more than anything else had. Magic, right?

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After Rochefort, we went back home to Elven, which is nearby the larger city of Vannes. I asked Solena if we could tour Vannes, so after a day of watching the kids we went to walk around on the morning of Christmas Eve! I was obsessed with the ramparts and medieval architecture.

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[The Porte de Vannes (the door of Vannes), and the ramparts (with a view of the cathedral in the background).] Entering the city, I could see how imposing it must have been when it was fully walled and the ramparts were still in use. I imagine it’s what much of France actually looked like back then.

Solena and I picked up a passenger for covoiturage (carpooling — extremely cheap, easy, and popular in Europe) named Claude. We showed up and she was wearing a full length fur coat, a red beret, and gold sparkly eyeliner. She looked to be in her thirties, and talking to her in the car revealed that she was a Canadian musician stationed in Vannes to go to the music school. She was quite a character — she gave me advice to deal with noisy neighbors in France, which was to be as cynical and sarcastic and creative as possible. Example: her upstairs neighbors in Paris would not stop throwing parties, so she showed up in pajamas and tried to join in once. They got the message. (Instead of taking her advice, I moved. But more on that later.)

We dropped her off and finished our journey in Port-Louis, Riantec, etc., the towns where Solena grew up. This is where all the Christmas parties happened. I was blown away by the beauty of this old port city.

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Our beach walk at sunset….it was amazing. Standing by the sea, I instantly felt calmer. Something about water soothes me like nothing else.

This was the endpoint of our journey, and I honestly have not seen or experienced a place quite like it. I was welcomed into Solena’s group of friends, we danced the night away, and I learned 4 or 5 Breton songs and dances, as well as just how proud the Bretons are of their regional culture. I knew that France’s regions tended to have regional pride just like we have state pride, but now I think that the North is not a great example of that. Brittany is. There’s even been talk about secession throughout history.

I also spoke in French for about 75% of the time throughout this week of adventures, and that was a victory in itself. Most of the people I met did not speak English, and every time I have a fulfilling conversation with people who don’t speak English I reaffirm my reasons for having studied French! Now I get to study it in whole new ways.

Touring the west made me want to live there. I’m exploring options for working there next year, and I’ll be super excited if that works out.

Yer’mat (cheers!), Bretagne. Until we meet again!

TFH Part 3 : Bretagne, the Medieval Land of Mist & Mayhem