In France, companies with 50 employees or more are required to have a comité d’entreprise, CE, works council, which not only serves as an apolitical employee union (in addition to external, non-company-limited unions), but also organizes activities, outings, tours, voyages and such, all at discounted prices since they can negotiate group reductions. My company’s CE organizes national and international trips, most of them to large cities I’ve already visited, but this year they offered a 3-day trip to the Camargue region. I’ve been to the area in the past, but it was 15 years ago, and have often wanted to return. It was all finalized recently, and having bought my TGV tickets, it’s been bringing back a wave of travel memories in France!
Very, very long-time readers (I know of at least one *waves to Chris*) may recall that back in 1995, I started writing web pages about France, the French language, and cross-cultural issues. The web has changed so much since then, veering from backlash against personal pages (I fondly recall receiving emails in the 90s treating me as a madwoman for thinking I had any business writing about France as an individual and mere student of French, the horrors!), to an influx of “blogs” viewed with a mix of incomprehension and mild derision, to what’s now seen as so normal that the phrase “get your own blog” has entered our vocabulary and people enjoy random photos and videos of cats.
La roue tourne ! So it is that as I rememorated my travels in France, my 1995 writings also came to mind, and I realized that in all that turning of the wheel of Internet fortunes, a record of my past travels had fallen into the ether. I would like to do a series of posts while approaching the trip to Camargue, beginning with a look back at my travels in France that have preceded it.
In the fall of 1994, I started my university studies as a double Russian (yes!) and music performance major. I finished a semester of Russian language and literature courses, then decided to focus on music performance. At the same time, I continued to be intrigued by the Internet: I had first gotten online several years earlier, as a mere pre-teen, via Prodigy and a local Freenet dialup that offered UNIX accounts. Those where the days of wheezing, beeping modems, BBS, and gopher. I had a thing for gopher, because you could connect to library collections across the world, in foreign languages – utterly fascinating for an up-and-coming language and literature nerd. In my forays into foreign libraries, I met people I got along with well enough to get into IRC.
Thus my first trip to France was born. I met students at a top telecoms engineering school (university level) in Brittany, got the wild teenage idea that I could up and go with cashiering money I’d earned, and so I did, in the summer of 1995. To make a very long story short, I landed in Paris, never really saw the inside of the city, and boarded a train for Lannion. Later I took trains to the opposite side of the country, Mulhouse, through Paris again, but only seeing its métro while moving from one train station to the next. The métro blew my countryside Oregonian mind. I had never even taken a public bus before! Later my hosts in Mulhouse showed me most of Alsace, as far north as Strasbourg, with hikes in the Vosges.
That fateful trip led directly to changing my major to French. I had studied it since the age of 10, stopping only for that first year of university, then fallen definitively in love with the country during my short visit. I changed my music major to a minor, threw myself into French studies, and loved every minute of it. My web presence reflected both: with Chris, the friend I waved at earlier, we ran our university’s web presence for the School of Music and especially our marching band. I also wrote pages on France, curated a list of links (back then this was something many people did), and also wrote personal entries from time to time, before “blogs” were a thing. Thoroughly enjoying my studies helped keep me at the top of my class, and so it was that I earned a scholarship and a spot as a direct exchange student for the final year of my BA.
Once again, I arrived in Paris but saw only the inside of a hotel in the middle of the night, waking up before dawn to catch a TGV to Lyon. I had met a French student there, whose family lived in the Ain, and with whom I got along very well. We all loved the outdoors, hiking, travelling, literature and language – it was a wonderful time. They drove me to Chamonix, Annecy, Bourg-en-Bresse, Gex, Ambérieu, Chambéry, Grenoble, Valence, and innumerable other villages, most of them in the Rhône valley. We went on hikes in the foothills of the Alps, and the mountains themselves. I’ll always remember taking the cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi, near Mont Blanc, and seeing the glacier. We would return some years in the future, and the glacier’s rapid disappearance was easily visible. My mother-not-quite-in-law also invited me on a week-long hike through all the peaks of the Swiss and French Jura mountains, where I took some of my favorite photos… with my old Nikon 35mm!
Our university also organized outings, my favorite being to the châteaux de la Loire. Not long afterwards, my adoptive host family drove me to southern France, passing through Marseille and Arles, and on to Nîmes. It was sensory overload – I had never seen so many incredible Roman ruins and stone castles in my life, and the countryside was simply stunning. To top it all off, my father-not-quite-in-law and I both enjoyed the same types of wines: strong reds and hefty whites, so he took us to dozens upon dozens of vineyards and filled the trunk of the family Volvo with 5-liter casks.
I saw Paris for the first time in the summer of 1998! Where Lyon was a lovely concentrate of fabric arts, cinema, and literature, Paris was everything.
In the fall of 1998, I joined my French partner, who had found a job earlier in the year in Helsinki, Finland. I did love Finland, but am focusing on France in this entry, so we’ll skip two years ahead!
I had a job interview as a web designer for a startup in Sophia Antipolis. I flew from Helsinki to Nice, and still recall my first sensation on exiting the plane: “Wow, it smells wonderful here…!” I took the bus to Sophia, the very same bus I still commute in to this day. The interview went fine, but the position wasn’t very well-defined and all the interviewers were young and terrifically ambitious, so I politely declined. Like so many web startups of the early oughts, it skyrocketed for a year or two, then floundered into nothingness.
I returned to Nice, working as a freelance translator and interpreter. I’ve visited innumerable villages in this southeastern corner of France, as well as in Provence. My favorites are the fortified hill cities so typical of this part of the world, and our sparse yet fragrant forests. When the spring and summer sun comes out after rainfall, you can smell what I now know is a lovely mixture of pine needles, wild lavender, thyme, and rosemary.
Corsica requires a mention of its own! Like the Rhône region, the island reminded me of my home state as soon as I set foot in Ile-Rousse. Wild, rocky, mountainous and wooded, with wild boar and goats roaming the countryside, it felt like seeing what the French Riviera must have looked like before its wild coastline was tamed into an immense, unbroken city. (Travelling from Nice to Cannes, there is not much separation between towns.) It was also the site of a rocambolesque horseback ride in which I started out on a horse who had wanted to go to stable for the evening. He made his displeasure at the change in schedule known by flipping his ears back at the prospect of carrying me. After much nipping of other horses’ rear ends, going straight down steep hillsides rather than using switchbacks, and stopping to nibble Corsican greenery, his final mischief was to piss off a couple of red long-haired cows. The irritated bovines took their own revenge-nips at my horse’s behind, he reared, I grabbed on for dear life, his neck couldn’t hold me, and so he managed to set me down gently, feet in the air and helmeted head on the ground, my back against an ancient stone shepherd’s lean-to while the other riders gasped and laughed.
The digital age
I forget exactly when I got my first digital camera, but starting around 2004, most of my other travels have been photographed and put online, with a few older film photos scanned as well.
Growing up, it seemed wild just to imagine visiting European capitals, much less the joyful peregrinations I’ve had the good fortune to experience in reality. I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming Camargue trip since it has been so long since I’ve been elsewhere in France, other than this southeast corner and Paris. The southwest is one part of l’Hexagone that I still haven’t seen much of.