Monday, May 24, 2010

Giant Elephant Ride! (Nantes redux)

Saturday, May 22, 2010 - Medieval Nantes
What a difference 3 months make! The last time we went to Nantes and loved it, it was very cold indeed and a terrible wind was whipping everything into what turned out to be one of the worst flood disasters of the region. But we had immediately loved the dynamics of the city, this feeling that there were new and cool ideas around every corner, and we had vowed to come back when the weather was nicer and the elephant would be allowed out for a walk. Turned out to be the warmest week-end of the year thus far, the end of the Bretagne Festival focused around St. Ives (think St. Patrick's Day for the Irish abroad), and Pentecost week-end (day off Monday for everyone!), and you have the frame for our wonderful 30 hours in this fantastic city. As we boarded our little Train Touristique (always), a parade culminated in the huge open square in front of the Cathedral - you're seeing two Breton flags, a Nantes flag, and I don't know who the dragon flag signifies (dramatic, though!).

Possibly my favorite thing about the warmer weather is the re-appearance of... EuroMac! With the exception of the sunglasses and the t-shirt it's all Euro all the time. He's hip, he's comfortable, he's EuroMac! What's amazing about my beloved from Chicago is that he looks so much more like the other EuroDads than I could ever look like the EuroMoms. Eleanor's pink unicorn backpack notwithstanding. Look for more pictures of EuroMac on his travels this summer!

Oliver was feeling a bit cranky (mostly due to hot weather) and so we asked him to take the lead in finding our restaurant for dinner. That did the trick, and we wandered around the Buffay neighborhood of medieval Nantes and he picked a crêperie. I'll freely confess to feverntly hoping he'd pick one of the many beautiful Thai, Moroccan, or Vietnamese places we passed (sigh), but it was crêpes instead. My little hard-core Breton guy! But this spot was perfect - a street ending in the Sainte-Croix church behind me...

... and another street giving out onto a corner of Place du Bouffay, where a terrific trio (accordion, singer, spoons/drummer) sang throughout our dinner. Please note Oliver's crêpe of salmon with crême fraiche and ciboulette (chives) - yum! An homage to the crêpes that dear Carrie Klaus made for us right before we left for Brittany. The cider was artisanal - which meant that we thoroughly enjoyed dinner, watched the flow of humanity and... to wonder about what this plaque on the building directly across from us could possible mean. The Latin is cryptic enough: "expecto donec veniat" I would think would mean "I wait until he/she/it comes" - but what is coming? and does he/she/it have to do with a figure who might be Hermes (why only one winged foot?) holding a turtle (wasn't it Apollo who made the first lyre out of a turtle shell?). A quick check on the web just now I think is leading me astray: the phrase "expecto donec veniat" appears in a New Advent page of Job and forms part of the larger sentence "14 Shall man that is dead, do you think, live again? All the days in which I am now in warfare, I expect until my change come." (Job 14:14 - and no, I don't know what that means, either). But really, the turtle shell and winged foot signifies antiquity, no? And why the nonchalant pose? This little terracotta panel was the subject of much discussion over dinner. My favorite interpretation was Iris's, who suggested that the "bored man" was waiting for someone to bring him the plate of spaghetti in the triangle above his head. Why not? Classicists of the world (well, of my world) - any suggestions?

Sunday, May 23, 2010 - Nineteenth-Century Nantes
The only way to do justice to The Giant Elephant of the Machines de l'Île is to go to Nantes. Seriously - go to Nantes. The energy of this city is unlike any other. No it's not Paris, but Paris did its major intervention in the 19th century. Nantes is doing it right now, and it's so exciting to be there for it. Shipyards that had been in use from 1840 to 1987 are now the site of the Machines de l'Île, of parks, of restaurants. On the other side of the river, an enormous parcel of land has been cleared for what will be the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery (Nantes having made a good deal of its wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries from the slave trade). The first stone was laid down on May 10 of this year, and should be done sometime next year. (Wow! It's worth looking at the pictures of the projected site and memorial - and then having a conversation with Mac about this - his work with memorials becomes more fascinating all the time! The promenade marked by 2000 plaques each signifying a slave ship that left from Nantes bound for Africa is a pretty incredible idea - as is the 90m walk underground - there's much to talk about here, perhaps even in relation to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin - even as those human tragedies stand in stark isolation within human history - and the problem of vergangenheitsbewältigung (yes, that's German for "mastery of the past" but implying an inability to fully do so). Meanwhile, there are festivals, and concerts, and contests, and events (one involving having people read books out loud for a two-day period!), and really cool exhibits. Ok, wait - we haven't even entered the portico of the Giant Elephant (enormous metaphor for all that is daring and cool and Nantes) and we've been on several tangents already. Thus is the draw, the pull, the power, the dynamism of this city. Go to Nantes!

So the portico above (and here's we're already three stories up) is fantastic in its gloried Orientalism, and you can quickly imagine yourself about to ride with a Mughal Emperor atop his prized elephant as he surveys another swath of recently conquered India. Good thing this elephant wasn't enraged. The anticipation of stepping on was incredible - and then we noticed this Arabic writing on the surrounding banister. An homage to the Mughal empire itself? Faux Arabic (how would I know?)? Eternal phrases of Islam? Oliver has volunteered the service's of our dear friend's son, who is taking currently Arabic language classes - I hope to revisit this incredible detail.

We set out, to great machine sounds, and even a trumpeting yell from the elephant and moved surprisingly smoothly (considering we were on a good-sized two-tier tower on an elephant). The statistics on the Elephant are pretty stupendous - but the big one for me is that it's 12 meters, or 39 feet (!!!), high. Eleanor was hanging on pretty tightly in this picture, but with glee, too, at seeing all the people below. It's so cool: when the Elephant leaves the shipyard hangar, there's this great commotion, and before you know it, people gather 'round below, and there's this crowd following the Elephant the entire time.

Every detail is beautifully carved and the kids quickly found their favorite "gargoyle" animals on the sides of the main tower room. They didn't spend as much time on the upper deck of the tower - but you could move easily between the two. One of the most intriguing things about the Elephant is that everything is visible: the machinery, the stroke of the wood chisel, the gears, the ropes. It's a machine that you can actually decode with your eyes. It's like reading through one of Jules Verne's machines. And of course, Nantes' native son cannot be too far from the imaginings of the Machines de l'Île.

See what I mean about the visibility? This, I believe, looks through the head to the face of the Elephant. The animal opens its eyes, moves its trunks, sprays water - there are parts of the machinery that look like pipe organs!

Here's Eleanor pulling a lever that made the tail of the Elephant wag back and forth - yea Eleanor!

The ride was thrilling for all of its 45 minutes, and we gathered on the spiral staircase between the tiers of the tower to say goodbye. Eleanor was really, really sad to go, and you can see her stifling back tears, brave soul, by sucking her thumb. I totally get it: who would want to leave this complete world made of wood and movement, noise and steel in which you went like you'd never gone before?

But then, we found ourselves following the Elephant on its journey back from where it had dropped us off (along the row of old shipyards), and all was well. And can I point out that that trunk shoots our water? Lots and lots of it!

This might be my favorite photograph from the Elephant adventure - it also starts to give you a sense of scale (big Elephant foot, tiny girl).

So where do you go after such a ride and a great lunch at the café of the Elephant? Why across the bridge, on public transport, and up the hill to the Butte Sainte Anne to the Jules Verne Museum of course! The little boy (in bronze) seated on the bench is Jules Verne already imagining Captain Nemo (whom you see in the foreground sextant in hand). Notice Eleanor is unmoved by all this (unlike Mac), and currently taking a nap.

The Jules Verne Museum is, in a word, way cool. Lots of original editions, lots of maps charting all of his characters' travels, and (Mac and Oliver's favorites) lots and lots of maquettes (models). Here is Oliver in front of the Nautilus - Mac especially liked that the interiors of these looked like the interiors of comfortable (think a lot of burgundy velvet) 19th-century bourgeois homes - the Nautilus even came complete with an organ (for Captain Nemo to play alone, late in the night, of course)!!!

While Eleanor continued to take what turned out to be an enormous nap, the rest of us played a great board game based on Captain Nemo's travels - each square you land on is another one of his adventures, which can either move you forward or set you back. It was fast-paced fun, and of course, made us want to start reading through these books with the kids. Prolific hardly begins to acknowledge the amount of writing that Verne did (at one point he'd signed a contract to produce 2 volumes of year for the next 20 years!).

One of the leit motifs of the trip was Iris's obsession with this map, which showed you, in simplified terms, how to get from medieval Nantes out here to the Machines de l'îles, the Elephant and even the Jules Verne museum. She whipped that thing out every time we left a place to go to another destination (I cannot wait to see her in Paris, France!). Here you see Oliver and Eleanor looking a bit, um, distracted, as she explains the trajectory we'll need to take to get to....

... the incredible Jardin des Plantes!!! It was lush, it was filled with people walking slowly, it had a kid playspace!!! Even though the sun was really beating down by now, there was plenty of shade and the kids played and played. We had been sorely tempted by the renowned Musée des Beaux Arts (strong collection, cool traveling exhibits), but there was no way to begrudge the kids a chance to run around and play outside. Mac and I sat on a bench (like parents do!) and wished we'd brought novels - dream come true! But we had to do plenty of consultation for moves on the see saw, and castles being built, and more. I love being surrounded by the voices of others chatting, the words inaudible, but the conversations coming and going.

Turtles get to do just that pretty much all day, and probably have been since the 19th century. Here they are sunning themselves next to astounding flowering bushes, doing an excellent job of ignoring the ducks nearby. The thing is, the 19th century was pretty spectacular for Nantes (I'm thinking of Paris's Grand 19th Century) - but maybe it ended (even as late as 1987) more brutally (economically speaking) for Nantes. Well, this park is alive and filled with people, and I don't think it was just because it was Pentecost week-end. Nantes thrives, Nantes explores. Go to Nantes. And then, it was time for us to go - two hours in the car and home in time for omelettes for dinner. And dreams of rides on Giant Elephants, journeys on the Nautilus, and steering a great seesaw.

Monday, May 24 - Back to Josselin
Our own beautiful Bois d'Amour have much to offer in the way of promenades (although the town's actual Promenade, which culminates in the awesome war memorial crowned by the Gallic Rooster, has been turned into this weird space for a kind of endless (and thus kind of grinding) fair, complete with flashing lights and a carousel - I'm sounding completely humorless here, but I guess that we had looked forward to playing beneath the lush canopy of the Promenade's trees more than we realized. So off to the Bois d'Amour we went.). We walked this alley so many times in winter, I don't think that I'll ever get tired of seeing how it has filled out now. Brittany's numerous shades of green have just multiplied a hundred fold.

It was still good and hot, so ice cream was called for, and here you see the girls making their way down Olivier de Clisson street. They're wearing their new sun hats, which are actually Littlest Pet Shop baseball caps - Littlest Pet Shop is fairly abhorrent, and of course I wanted them to get something Breizh, but I also know that if I want them to wear their sunhats without protest every day (and I do, I do), I'd better go with the flow on this one. Choose your fashion battles, there will be many I hear. Oliver chose one with a dragon on it - medieval!

Since tomorrow is a school day (but then Wednesday is Wednesday, and Thursday Eleanor's teacher is on strike) it was Lasagna Night! The Cute Butcher had been away on May 8, and, with the Ascension holiday hadn't had time to make lasagna, so this was our first in several weeks. You can see that Oliver relished literally every last bite!

As did Iris (whom I love here, contemplating whether or not to go for it and lick the plate like Oliver did. She did) while Eleanor plays the punkette. How does she even know to screw up her little face like that? They are watching more and more French television, and between that and their little conversations at school, we are hearing some very fun phrases. This one (from Barbouille talking to some animal or another) "Donnes moi ça, sale bête!" (Give me that, filthy beast!) almost caused me to splurt my wine. We had to do some explaining about cartoons vs. life. It became clear that while Eleanor didn't know the exact meaning of the phrase (she agreed that she would never want to call anybody "except Oliver and Iris sometimes" (!!!) a filthy beast), she had absolutely understood its gist. Ah, language acquisition. But we're pretty partial to "Laisses moi faire!" (Let me do it!)

So you might have noticed there was no cheese picture, despite our actually having been to the market before taking off for Nantes on Saturday. Sigh. Two more weeks to go. But we had to do fancy desserts before school night. So there's a phenomenal Tarte au Citron at about 11 a.m. on the clock face (who knew a meringue could be so creamy? such a perfect complement to the tanginess of the lemon?); then, the beautiful piece called a Frasier, in honor of its sweet, smooth strawberry flavor; and then an apple tart with lots of cinnamon and maybe even a little caramel. I don't know what prompted me to do this (years of therapy await the kids), but I asked them to describe the desserts using any words but food words - Oliver said that the lemon tart was like lying down on a pillow in the sun (delicious! oh, no, wait - that's a food word!), and Iris said that the Fraisier was like floating down a river because the flavor kept going and going (wow!). Eleanor just ate, which was its own poetry (concrete poetry?). Good night!

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