Bordeaux, a couple of hours from Excideuil, is, as the tourist brochures boast, a UNESCO world heritage city. It has a grand opera house, more than 300 monuments historique –almost as many as Paris– a futuristic tram system and a beautiful quay that winds along the Garonne. I think that’s the river. Girond is the department. Anyway, plenty of reasons to make Bordeaux one of the top tourist destinations in France.
But, as I often have to remind myself, I didn’t really come to France to be a tourist. I came to write, learn French and gorge on French wine and cheese. Since I’ve been plugging away conscientiously on all –particularly the gorging — I was quite happy to take a break (from the writing, bien sur) and tag along when Luisa invited me to drive into Bordeaux with her so that she could do some errands.
First a young American house guest had to be dropped off at a tram stop. She needed to get to the airport and catch a flight back to Edinburgh where she’s attending university. Before she strolled off, suitcase wheels clattering over the cobblestones, we all met up with Luisa’s daughter, Amelia, at one of those outdoor cafes where people sip coffee at wicker tables and view the passing crowd from behind mirrored sunglasses.
Amelia, teaches an exotic form of Brazilian dance–I wrote down the name, but I lost the piece of paper, and is an avid surfer. She lives in Bayonne, a few hours south. Bayonne is France’s surf city, something I hadn’t known, but then why would I? Five years ago, Amelia was diagnosed with a melanoma. After an extensive course of treatment she’s been doing well and had an appointment with her oncologist to make sure the cancer had finally been given the boot. The oncologist looks like George Clooney, she said.
With a few hours before her appointment, and Amelia and Luisa both a bit apprehensive, we decide to hit the shops–always a good anti-anxiety remedy. We walked to Rue Saint-Catherine, Bordeaux’ main shopping street. The first shop is very familiar. H&M. One of her favorite shops, Amelia said. I’m initially curious to see whether H&M in Bordeaux has the same sort of things I’ve shopped for at H&M’s in Walnut Creek, Atlantic City, Orange County, CA and, I’m sure, a few other shopping malls. Although the women pulling clothes off the racks looked quite French to me, the clothes they were selecting didn’t.
Nothing I couldn’t live without I decided so while Luisa and Amelia shopped, I stood in the doorway watching the passing crowd and trying to understand snippets of French. I recognized the frustration in a mother’s voice as she hurried her unhappy young child along the street, but not the actual words she muttered to him. Probably, ‘just one more stop, I promise.” After H&M, we visited a couple more stores, had lunch –a gallette for me and salades au chevre for Luisa and Amelia– and then it was time for the appointment.
St. Andre Hospital sprawls over several city blocks in the middle of Bordeaux and looks very old. Inside there are high curved ceilings, painted white, and endless corridors. At the intersection of several corridors there is a small jardin bright with yellow and red poppies and tulips. While Luisa and her daughter saw the oncologist, I sat on one of the benches. A man trailing an IV wandered out and sat on a low windowsill. The woman with him wore red trousers and a black sweater. Her black hair was streaked with red–exactly the same red as her sweater. Bordeaux chic? Je ne sais pas. A blonde toddler and a little girl with dark plaits played on the grass until the girl did something that made the toddler wail. A man took the girl away. The sun was warm and I dozed off.
I knew as soon as I saw Luisa and Amelia’s broad smiles that the appointment had gone well. Now, with that over, Amelia had to catch a train back to Bayonne where she wanted to celebrate by putting her feet in the Atlantic.
After we saw Amelia on her way, Luisa and I bought ice creams–she had mango, I had rhum-au-raisin, mostly because I wanted to say rhum-au-raisin. We then met up with one of her sons, James, and his Swedish girlfriend who were visiting Bordeaux from Sweden where they both live. Next stop, a Bordeaux suburb, whose name escapes me, where another son, Archie, lives in an apartment building. Although Archie grew up in France, he is thinking about joining the British army. He used to be a bar tender in London and said he feels more English than French. No-one seems very keen on him joining the army. Archie made us tea in a new pot which he drew to Luisa’s attention. When he named the price, she gave him the sort of universal look mothers give offspring when they spend money unwisely.
On the drive back, Luisa said she was sorry that I hadn’t seen more of Bordeaux. There’s so much to do there, she said. Another time, I told her. I had an interesting and enjoyable day. That’s the thing about foreign countries, I think. About traveling, really. My day in Bordeaux might just as easily have been a day spent in Los Angeles or any other big city, but in a new environment quite ordinary things can seem extraordinary. Like shopping in the Super U I suppose. Vive la difference!