France is not innovative enough. This is a statement I hear a great deal these days – in the newspaper, on the television, everywhere. French politicians and business leaders are deeply concerned – I’m told that something must be done to stem the tide of French innovators moving overseas, or of businesses in France being outstripped by foreign competitors. Though not a businessman myself, I do have one suggestion for the people of France – The Internet. Use it. The number of French businesses that still don’t have websites is truly baffling. Of course, some have nice, modern sites. A few also have Facebook pages and Google Maps entries. Some have sites that would entertain archaeologists, resplendent with Word Art, animated gifs and scrolling text. Trying to sift through this spotty information is usually not worth the time it takes – it’s often easier to put on my coat, leave the house and say “let’s find out”.
A great many things in France are old-fashioned like this. The usual explanation I’m given is that France is very old, stubborn and set in her ways, like an ancient crone who can’t stop herself making racist remarks at Christmas dinner every year. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to remind France that this sort of behaviour is inappropriate.
Nantes is not a small city by French standards – it’s home to nearly 300,000 people. It may therefore surprise you to learn that lined paper is extremely difficult to locate there. This is because the French don’t use ruled paper; instead they use carreaux – that is, squares. The reason for this is that they typically write in a very beautiful, very formal, very old-fashioned (sometimes very unreadable) cursive. As such, finding the type of paper I wanted is damned near impossible – particularly when the two stores you found on Google Maps have both closed down. Perhaps they both went out of business because they sold only lined paper, and the demand among the locals wasn’t sufficiently high. I may never know. The internet certainly can’t answer that question.
I spent most of my time in Nantes wandering around, taking in attractions whenever I came across them. One that’s very hard to miss is the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, an imposing fortress castle located right in the middle of town. Once upon a time, as the name suggests, this was the residence of the Duke of Brittany, before three successive marriages placed it under the control of the kings of France.
This Château was actually quite unlike the rest that I had visited in the Loire Valley – it was heavily fortified, with a moat and imposing towers with cannon emplacements. While its true that the inside was as sumptuously decorated as any other castle, it’s clear that the dukes were prepared for war. The guide also pointed out that the castle made a statement – that this wasn’t a region that was going to be taken easily. I guess that’s why the French kings used marriage as their weapon, rather than halberds and cannons.
There’s a lot to love about this place, but I must admit that it’s less obvious than in a smaller city. It has – for many centuries – been home to a huge shipping trade which has caused the city to grow. Because of this, the prettier parts of the city are curled up within a shell of industrial districts which make it a little difficult to discern its beauty at first glance. But it is there, and once I opened my mind a little, I enjoyed myself.
Some places I visited helped with this. For example, the Jardin des Plantes de Nantes is perfectly tranquil and filled with curious hedge sculptures and public art. The docks are a great place to go for a walk at sunrise or sunset and watch how the city changes from light to dark. There are lots of students there, too, and the city is well provisioned with bars and cafés, bookshops and a very efficient public transit system. It’s pretty cool.
The Museum of Natural History was another winner – I went to a guided tour which was all about the mission of the museum and how it had changed over the centuries, beginning as a simple showcase of curiosities for interested professionals and scientists, and slowly evolving into a way to keep the public in contact with science. This really wasn’t what I expected from the tour, and I loved it – the guide explained how these days, the philosophy of the museum is that as many things as possible should be available to touch and hold, to inspire and to educate. Very little is kept behind glass or out of reach, if it can be avoided. I respect that very much – and judging by the reactions of the children there, it’s working.
By contrast, the museum’s vivarium does have glass windows. I imagine this was a great comfort to the woman who got a terrible fright when a quite animated snake thumped into the glass in front of her.
One of the other attractions in Nantes is a quite unusual naval museum called the Maillé Brézé. This is a retired anti-aircraft/anti-submarine destroyer which is permanently anchored in the harbour and can be visited several times a week in the company of a guide. Previous entries have demonstrated how much I enjoy military technology and engineering, so this place was a real delight for me. The guide was also full of humorous stories and anecdotes about marine life and the history of the ship, as he showed us around the machinery and the various decks that form the ship’s structure. I learnt a lot, both about naval life and the destroyer itself. For example, the main anti-submarine armament of the ship was the Malafon; a very peculiar sort of rocket-launched torpedo with a magnetic head. It was a uniquely French design that the guide admitted wasn’t really that good, but I thought it was quite clever all the same.
One of the less pleasant aspects of my time in Nantes was the near-constant malfunctioning of my mobile phone. Mobile phone companies here are also old-fashioned, and slow to respond to complaints. After several days of being incapable of receiving text messages and spotty access to calls, I was beginning to feel quite annoyed and more than a little disconnected. Fortunately, this frustration gave rise to one of my favourite experiences in the city: I was trudging downstairs to wash my laundry when I ran into (almost literally) a woman unlocking her door on the first floor. Overcoming my timidness, I asked her if I could use her phone to check if mine was actually working. She was quite happy to let me in to do that, and I ended up hanging out at her place for over an hour, chatting about Australia and life in France. I’d been alone for a good long while by then, and this made me feel really good. I never even found out her name, but I’m very thankful to that woman for helping me, and giving me a little human contact.
All in all, I liked Nantes – it was probably the place where I did the smallest number of actual ‘things’ during my vacation, but it was nice to discover the city and observe the way my feelings changed about it over the days I was there. On the last day, I sat watching the sun set over the giant mechanised elephant of Nantes and thought about how love isn’t always at first sight – and that’s okay, too.
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