April is nearly over. I hesitate to say I’ve been on holiday, because my revision books followed me like the time you broke your leg and the new puppy just wouldn’t take ‘no walkies’ for an answer. Okay, it was nothing like that.
My journey with a far-too-big suitcase and my boyfriend’s new saxophone passed smoothly. The sax didn’t talk much over lunch, and didn’t pay the bill either (my boyfriend is a musician, but I live in hope), but we bonded over a zealous security search at the airport. Two planes, a bus and a tram later, Simona the Sax and I arrived in Bordeaux.
Simona the Sax
To put this in context, my BF lives in the South of France, about seven hundred kilometres from my uni on the Scottish border. I could talk about LDRs, being eighteen and not seeing your BF for four months at a time, but I’d rather talk about France. Because Bordeaux was beautiful.
1. THE TOILETS
I always start here… French toilets haven’t impressed me in the past. Something about squatting over a hole waiting for your own filth to spray your legs seems a tad misogynistic to me. (Its hygiene is contested.) But in Bordeaux, every hundred yards along the river, ‘TOILETTE‘ flashes green from a big panelled box. You step in and a lovely lady explains in both French and English that the door will automatically unlock after fifteen minutes. Then the lift music (or ‘waiting music’, as the French call it) starts up. How nice! Did I mention these toilets are free?
Bordeaux has spent a fortune making the town a pleasant place to be. The river is flanked on the town side by a strip of pedestrian land, including gardens, kiosks, a beautiful fountained plateau called Miroir d’Eau, and an outdoor sports complex with free courts for tennis, football, basketball, racquetball, rollerblading, a massive skatepark and beach volleyball. Never seen a bigger (or cleaner) sandpit. The city is massively cycle-friendly, and cars are often banned from the centre of town.
2. THE CHURCHES
Lots of churches. Big ones. Very nice. Just accept that I enjoyed the churches because I’ve seen so many in the past two weeks I’m really regretting not taking any photos.
I loved all the squares, equally with the narrow streets, all beautifully paved—no, tiled. British streets are stone cobbles or concrete slabs. In France the streets are tiled with diamonds. Even the architecture was beautiful. Instead of red brick all the buildings were warm beige and sedimentary, with big windows and four or five floors. But open. It didn’t feel a closed city to me. I’m the first to admit I’m not a city girl. But this city wasn’t claustrophobic. I felt more at home there than I’ve ever felt in any city.
3. THE FOOD
When you spend a whole term’s budget on travel costs to see your SO (and it costs the same just to get home for the holidays), fancy meals are off the menu. But oh, gosh, the bread(s). We more or less lived off bread. And such bread… The mark of the best bread, for me, is when the crust is the best part. The way it breaks in your mouth, the flavour that ekes out with every chew, and how the texture blends with the mie: that is the soul of the bread.
Other than bread, we got our vegetables at the market, window-ate our way through a metric ton of pastries, and waxed extravagant with a tin of chestnuts to make our favourite soup.
4. THE ATMOSPHERE
Kiwi Christmas Pavlova
There’s a huge student population in Bordeaux, many of them international. We got into a big museum free with my boyfriend’s Erasmus friends, who were German but quite happy switching to English for my sake. The rest of the week we walked the river, enjoyed the sun and went to random soirées with smoking non-English-speaking French musicians.
One afternoon we met up with a New Zealand girl my boyfriend also met through Erasmus. A bunch of transactions led to her spending Christmas at my house in Guernsey, so I knew her, too. Fortunately she wasn’t that constant thirdwheeler totally interrupting our chemistry. We made kiwi pavlova, took her to midnight Mass and talked brass bands and she brought presents for my entire family. It was great to see her again. She’d joined a French drama club, and had to learn her lines for a sketch in which she was breaking up with her boyfriend. She was acting the whole thing as if it were a clown show, and didn’t understand a word. “Now I know why they laughed,” she said once we explained. But I can just see it: the foreign girl with the twangy French accent telling her boyfriend that ‘l’amour, ca ne suffit pas!’ They must’ve doubled up laughing.
We both left Bordeaux this time. Tram, bus, two more planes, another bus, and we found ourselves in Pisa. With my family we drove from Pisa to a villa in the stunning Chianti countryside, where we spent a week visiting Florence, Siena and the local sites. None of us had been to Italy before, but I have a family of language nerds and my boyfriend’s Italian beat them all.
1. THE TOILETS
Yes, I’m using the same headings. Yes, as a tourist I always compare toilets. Consult Freud if you must.
One of the nearby towns was San Gimignano, famous for its towers each some two-hundred steps high and just a few metres across. Coming from Guernsey, I’m no stranger to defence towers with walls several feet thick. These were narrow, square and very tall, like breadstick boxes, built as an expression of power but later a near-impregnable defensive strategy. Between 1199 and the end of the medieval period seventy-two towers were built between rivalling families, and a dozen of them still stand today.
Rough translation: ‘What you have in hand is not a fire hydrant and there is no fire on the ground!!!’
That might seem like a tangent, and it was, but in all seriousness I found a couple of wonderful signs in a gelateria bathroom there.
They must’ve had a problem. The floor was drain grating!
2. THE CHURCHES
Not gonna lie, I was churched out by the end of the week. Must’ve seen at least twenty of them. Big ones, small ones, bright ones covered in frescoes, sad ones with barely the remnants of their former glory. All incredibly impressive, don’t get me wrong. And so very old. Incomprehensibly old. Compared to British history, at any rate, wherein the Dark Ages after the Romans was either lost, regressive, or not interesting enough to go in school history textbooks.
Santa Maria. No image quite captures its scale, ornateness or ridiculousness. But interestingly, the interior décor was sparser than most of the other churches we visited: the greatness on the outside, but inside just peace.
But when we first saw Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence/Firenze, we all stopped and gasped. For want of a better word, its size, its dome and décor and its extravagant decoration were silly. Mad and silly: Florence in three words. We loved that Siena fifty miles south had tried to rival Florence and double the size of its cathedral, but the work was halted due to the Black Death wiping out half the population of Tuscany. The outer walls remain and are now used as a carpark. Tragic, but I love a bit of bathos.
Duomo di Siena. White and green marbled, like Santa Maria, but on a saner scale. You can see the unfinished wing on the right.
3. THE FOOD
So the bread disappointed me. Apparently Pisa withheld salt from the cities inland to maintain control, which resulted in unsalted bread and butter. Even as a palate-cleanser it was unpleasant to swallow. Indeed, Pisa was the only place fish even appeared on the menu.
Found my hero! (Fibonacci)
As a semi-anorexic fussy eater with a phobia of cheese and a hatred of uncooked tomatoes, I struggled in Italy. I really struggled. I’m used to asking for weird things, plain rice or maybe some frozen peas. But it really embarrassed me to see the waiters’ faces when I asked what came without cheese in my selfish English. Even asking for a plate of vegetables didn’t satisfy me, because I’m not at all a fan of aubergine, artichoke, courgette, peppers or any of their relatives. And whoever first put garlic butter with spinach was trying to make me cry. I used up a lot of energy anxiousing myself over my mouthfuls, but did have one or two meals that I enjoyed.
The desserts, however, do deserve a special mention. English desserts are, by and large, almost nauseatingly sweet. French are excessive and complicated. But even the Tuscan pastries full of cream or chocolate mousse were as simple and delicate as you could wish. And very, very light. Would recommend.
Overall, I had more pizza and less ice-cream than I expected.
4. THE ATMOSPHERE
As I said, Florence was too big and too silly. Pisa was delightful, but a little run-down. Siena was my favourite of the three cities: every street a backbreaking hill, with custom outdoor seating with back legs six inches longer than the front, and a charming quirkiness to its general layout. In the country we spent our hours weaving through the vineyards, following game trails and playing tennis. We saw green lizards, a deer and several wild boars (jeez, they’re massive). A fleet of vintage cars stopped by in the walled village of Monteriggioni, petrol and sexy engines in the sunshine.
We’re backgammon nerds, too. By the way, it’s not a trick. The tower really does lean. The stairs up really screw with your idea of gravity.
One night we went to a local restaurant a few miles down the dirt tracks. The owners, Petra and Mario, did all the waiting, cooking and serving themselves, and chatted between courses about the trove of exciting artefacts lining the walls. As we were leaving, conversation struck up in French, which turned out to be the language of best mutual fluency between us all. It was beautiful, in the dark in the fresh Tuscan countryside, realising that we aren’t an unremarkable family, and that we have this French understanding in common with the restaurant owners in this tiny part of the world. I want to go back there someday.
Now I’m back at university with an eye to my first year final exams. Brits in Britain exclaim over the weather because the weather is to be exclaimed about: it’s seven degrees, blizzarding snow one hour and cloudless sunshine the next. Cold, but fresh. I didn’t want to come back, but I felt curiously uplifted stepping off the train, almost against my will. I like it here.
Lilliano, Tuscany. Closest village to the villa we stayed at.