For the eight years that Cynthia and I lived in Florida, we spent a lot of time looking around public places and saying, "We're the youngest people here." For the past 4 months we've been looking around and saying, "We're the oldest people here." This is definitely better but I'm still not too shot in the ass with being 60 so it's good to be living in a place that reminds me of the United States I grew up in.
Like Springdale, where I was raised, Bordeaux sits on a major river, the Garonne. It is, however, missing the array of smokestacks that bracketed both ends of town. But Springdale is missing the ruins of a third century Roman amphitheater like the one just down the street from our apartment. In fact, this city like the rest of France, has places that went up centuries before the sprouting of the trees used to built the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria. There is evidence that people lived here in the sixth century B.C. and they settled permanently a few hundred years later. The Romans came along at the time of Julius Caesar and the oldest building in town is their aforementioned amphitheater. In fact there's so much significant stuff here that Bordeaux is a UNESCO World Heritage site, an honor not likely to ever be bestowed on my hometown. But as beautiful as it is here, none of that is what takes me back.
Four months isn't enough time to start drawing any hard and fast conclusions about the natives and their attitudes. I have noticed, and already mentioned, that they don't seem to mind stepping in dog shit every five yards. And our French friends claim that "The customer is always right" hasn't really caught on here in a big way but we haven't seen much of the stereotypes we were given to expect. But is does seem to me that, apart from the architecture, there's a continuity to life here that I think is missing in the U.S.
When I was a kid, my hometown must have had a dozen little grocery and variety stores and they are all long gone. The bakery, butchers, shoemakers and hardware stores (two) are, likewise, memories. Even Shoop's, the tavern and the town meeting spot that had been there as long as my mother could remember, closed up a few years ago and downtown Pittsburgh is almost unrecognizable as the place where I went to work in 1972
Walking around Bordeaux, I can still find these sorts of places. Within spitting distance of our apartment are two different cordnonniers that look like they've been there since de Gaulle was a corporal. Every time I walk past it feels like Johnny Basilone ought to be inside. Johnny, Springdale's shoemaker, was a little guy with black curly hair who didn't say much and always had a lit Pall Mall in his lips that was generally about 2 1/2 inches of ash. I was at least 20 before I ever saw him take a drag or heard him talk. If one of these places does happen to be run by the same kind of guy smoking a Gaullois, at least I won't have to worry about talking to him.
The Wal-Martization of America seems to have made it certain that the Steve Mikus, Lou Mazolli and Pete Cincilla kinds of store are gone for good. But those places still exist here in spite of and side-by-side with mega-stores like the Auchan at Mériadeck. This French chain’s local branch takes up 3 floors and sells everything from bulk walnuts to washing machines. (I admit, though, that I love it, especially on what we've been calling Alsatian day, when they set up a big wok-like tub and cook choucroute garnie, sauerkraut with sausage, ham, potatoes and anything else they can think of, and it’s only €13 a kilo. I like to stand right beside it for a while and just breathe deeply)
But everywhere there are little épiceries, charcuteries/boucheries, patisseries, boulangeries and variety stores that I’m too lazy to look up the French word for. Sometimes there’s more than one of the same type on a block. How they stay in business, I don’t know but a few of these shops have on the wall a little photograph of the place from about a hundred years ago as the same type of business. (These pictures almost always contain at least one woman that looks like my Aunt Min, a sturdy farmer’s wife.) A hardware store near us has been in business since 1831, although it has been forced to move a couple of times.
There's a possibility that I’m over-idealizing all of this. I did, after all just have a birthday and there’s something about having that 6 on the front of it. Like all those things from my hometown, my youth is gone for good so maybe I’m just fighting against the day when I have to admit to being old. But I can tell you that being in a pâtisserie in France is just like being in the Springdale bakery when I was 9 years old. And I still can't have one of everything.
It's also occurred to me that a big part of my motivation to come here in the first place was the fear of aging. Some guys buy Harley's, some dump their wife to chase women half their age. I brought my wife to France and so spent more than one, less than the other and more wisely than both.
|Ruins of Palais Gallien|
Photos ©2013 Cynthia Hinson