Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nantes...and in anticipation of Paris

So, I never posted about Nantes, and I apologize, but to tell you the truth, Nantes was a little...umm...disappointing. Mostly because the museums were unremarkable (particularly the art museum, which was full of super-mediocre paintings and a few obscure Kandinskys). I have to say that I'm tempted to go back later this spring because I didn't get to visit the Musee Jules Verne or the Ile des machines, which has a giant mechanical elephant that you can ride. But overall, my impression was that Nantes is just a bigger version of Angers but not nearly as quaint and welcoming. They do have a tramway, though, which Angers is working on, but from the looks of things it will be some time before the tramway is complete.

But seriously, Nantes was alright. There was the chateau and a couple beautiful cathedrals (these people don't know how to build small churches) and a band of street musicians that we happened upon (my favorite part of the trip--I'm a nerd; things like street musicians make me happy). There was also dinner: galettes and crepes with cider. I think crepes are my new favorite food. They really are a masterful creation. I'm going to have to buy a crepe pan and make them in the states when I come back.

All the photos in this post were taken in Nantes. I particularly enjoy the one above with the octopus (poulpe--my new word of the day). Most automobile artwork is disappointing, but this, I have to say, is a work of art.

The reason I have been so tardy in writing lately is because I am preparing for my voyage to Paris. I've spent the better part of the last 2 days researching where to go and how to get there. In case you're interested and are planning a trip to Paris yourself (I'm inclined to say it's one of the places you must absolutely go before you die), David Lebovitz's blog is an amazing resource. He's a pastry chef who lives in Paris, and while he focuses on the culinary aspects of Paris (why you wouldn't focus on the culinary aspects is beyond me), his blog is a great site for those traveling abroad. I also found an amazing interactive map of the Paris metro lines.

I was thinking about how easy it must have been to travel abroad back in the day before you had to jump through all these crazy hoops--passport, visa, carte de sejour. But then, can you imagine traveling abroad without planes or subways or the internet to tell you where to go and how to get there? Essentially, you can plan a trip completely in advance. That's not to say that everything will go exactly as you planned (especially if you're going to France), but it's nice to know that you have a resource and a means of checking things out before you leave home.

In other, more mundane news, I think I've finally found my cafe. By my cafe I mean a cafe that I really like that I can become a regular at. Being a regular has its advantages. You can joke around with the waiter and special order things (not something I'd do in France unless you're a regular or you don't mind a funny look). But I don't want to be a regular at just any cafe. It has to be pleasant enough for me to sit, for hours if I please, and read or bring friends or just bum around a little. It also has to have good coffee. I think I've found a place that suits me. It's a little brasserie with big windows, and thus lots of natural light. The walls are a lovely pistachio-green color, and the waiter is a really friendly old man. Not to mention that the coffee is excellent, and the chocolat chaud is the best I've found yet in Angers.

If you're not familiar with how the cafe concept works in Europe, going to a cafe can be a little daunting. Do I order at the bar or do I sit down? Do I pay as soon as I get the bill or wait until I'm ready to leave? Do I tip? Well, first of all, you do not order at the bar unless you want to sit or stand at the bar. In other words, while at most American cafes, you order at the bar and wait for your drink, here you sit down, make yourself comfortable, and wait for the waiter.

The waiter will take your order and bring your drink, usually with the bill. You are not expected to pay until you are ready to leave, and you leave whenever you want. Once you've ordered something, even if it's just a cafe, you can sit for hours if you want. Tips are included in the bill (a law was passed making the tip--pourboire--included automatically), so you are by no means obligated to tip extra, though if you are a regular or have received superb service (i.e. if you don't speak French and the waiter has been very patient in helping you or you've spilled your chocolat chaud all over the white tablecloth), leaving some small change is advised. But 10-20 centimes is plenty. Another thing to keep in mind is that most cafes do not sell snacks, so if you want a little something to eat in the afternoon along with your drink, buying something at a patisserie and taking it to a cafe is not frowned upon, though I'd try not to leave crumbs all over the table if I were you. The important thing to realize is that if you're friendly and thoughtful, you will be well taken care of.

Oh, and never, ever call the waiter over with "Garcon!" as you might see in many old films. That is extremely rude and is the equivalent of saying, "Here, boy!" If you need something, wait until the waiter is passing by and say Monsieur or Madame, as the case may well be, and tell them what you want with a s'il vous plait (please) at the end. Politeness will get you anywhere you want to go in France. Believe it or not, manners are prized here, and the basic please, thank you, and you're welcome go a long, long way. If you don't understand something, say so. Most French people are more than happy to try to explain slowly or in whatever English they know.

This morning I opened a French bank account, which was not a little frightening, since banking terms are not in my repertoire anyways. The woman who helped me was amazingly friendly and even made some pleasant small talk. Oh yeah, good manners and a willingness to try to speak French will get you a loooong way here.
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Cynthia S. said...

Hi Meg,
A post like this is really fun torment for me! Hope the Kandinskys were worth the jaunt to Nantes. Yes, I love the "poulpe" van (I was thinking of the word "pamplemousse," another good one, but no, that's grapefruit, not octopus. It has been a long time...) Enjoy the Paris trip!


meg said...

I actually really like Kandinsky, and the Nantes jaunt was fun. Most things can be fun when you're with the right people. And do I even need to say that a dinner of crepes can ameliorate anything?