My last night in La Rochelle

La Rochelle at night

La Rochelle, one night when I remembered my camera

Well, here it is: the final night. I’ve been in La Rochelle, France for about three-and-a-half months, and it will definitely go down in my big book of Life as “an experience“.

I’m starting to gather my thoughts together. I suspect that the next weeks will be filled with many such posts, as I think over things and re-read my journal and go over my many photos (5800 so far!).

But right now, I’m thinking of today — or more, really, of tonight.

The city is starting to get more crowded now, with the real influx of tourists. I’ve heard a multitude of different accents and snatches of conversation in British accents, Dutch, German and many others I didn’t recognize.

This last day was not really all that exciting: I went downtown to pick up more stamps for postcards. (I seem to have developed a serious habit of postcarding; I might just keep that up when I return..) A potato purchased as the missing portion of my ready-to-eat meal that I prepared a few days ago — the last of my chili/pasta sauce. A few minutes spent staring here and there at alleys and streets and water and buildings and bridges and other views that I’ve visited multiple times per week for the last few months.

Strange, too.. In the city of Fredericton, where I’ve lived for 19 years, I rarely take this time to walk around semi-aimlessly and just look at things… One might argue reasonably that there are a much more dense collection of things to look at here, and I wouldn’t disagree. But I think I’ll get out a bit more when I get back.

This last night, I went for a walk. First, it was just to amble the 1-2 blocks to the post box — the only one I have found in the local area. It has now become a kind of totem, as it stands just before the quay, and just over it can be seen the view of the towers. That view draws me to it, and I can’t help but walk a bit closer, at least to stare for a while.

After dropping off yet another postcard, I decided to walk downtown at night, one last time. Naturally, I had broken my rule about keeping a camera with me at all times, which would also tend to mean that there would be something to see, something I should record.

I wasn’t wrong.

A few nights ago, I walked downtown and found the street by the quay blocked off, and crowds surrounding a collection of performers, craftspeople, restaurants/bars and snack/ice cream stands. That night I noted three different musical performing groups, each of them some variation of what might be native North American Indian or South American Indian or some other indigenous tribe somewhere. There were drums, and feathered costumes, and pan flutes, music played live but amplified with microphones and portable amplifiers, backed and filled in by digital tracks, moderated by complex mixers, all powered by portable generators.

The music was pleasant, especially when I first heard it, all mingling together as it boomed and echoed across the water of the marina, bouncing off the two towers that guard it and the blocks of ancient-foundation buildings surrounding them.

As I grew closer, however, the music seemed to grow increasingly out of sync between the three separate performing groups, and the digital backing also pushed me a little further away from appreciating it all.

Still, it was an interesting backdrop, and drew me closer, despite my natural inclination to avoid crowds entirely. I’m glad I did, for also performing that night were a French magician/comedian and a juggler/acrobat.

But that was another night, not this last night. This night began, as I said, with my moving beyond my original plans of simply dropping off mail to visiting the downtown. I haven’t done this as often as I meant to, a combination of loneliness, worries over money and my natural anti-crowd disposition successfully keeping me away. But now, on this last night, it’s now or never.

This time, things were different immediately. A little bridge allows quicker passage downtown — the bridge is connected to gates to another marina, so if no boats are passing, pedestrians can pass. (There are a couple of these here.) Just on the other side of this little bridge, with the towers highlighted behind him, a man in some sort of period costume entertained a crowd with the tale of La Rochelle.

I stood and listened for a while, although my French still misses things from time to time. In particular, one stretch went by me completely until I realized he was giving a list of famous family names of the area.

“This area grew out of salt and wine,” he said, at one point, or words to that effect. I had read that just the day before, as well as having seen evidence of it in the museums and around the city. The nearby Île de Ré was a famous producer of sea salt, and still produces large quantities of it, although perhaps more to feed tourist trade than anything.

La Rochelle is also the gateway to the more famous Bordeaux wine region, and also produces its share of wines itself. I’ve had a few bottles of the remarkably inexpensive local and Bordeaux wines since I’ve been here — it’s very good, and at about 3€ or $4 CDN per bottle, it’s incredibly cheap.

I wandered away from his story to downtown. He was still speaking when I came back later, but I don’t know if it was a new crowd or a continuation of the old one.

Two of the three native-based bands were set up when I returned, but no one was performing at that moment at either location, just the automated playback that seems inappropriate, somehow.

Instead, there were two different acts: a three-man black dance troupe and a 7-8 piece gypsy band.

The dance troupe performed a variety of twirls and locks and motion. It might have been a tale, but I never saw the whole thing. The dances were a combination of things I’ve seen or heard of before: breakdancing, capoera, pop-n-lock, flips, and much more. It was mesmerizing, because they were very good, seemingly almost tireless, tall and strong, able to move their not inconsiderable weights without seeming to take effort.

I’m not a huge dance fan, not by any stretch. But I always admire when people do something with passion, and with that practiced ease that shows it. There was so much life in that performance, and it was no wonder that the crowd stretched from one side of the street right to the edge of the quay.

The gypsy band consisted of a two clarinets (or similar straight woodwinds), a fiddle, an accordian, an upright bass, a jazz drumkit, a banjo and a singer. Unlike the other performers, who played a few live instruments over backing tracks, they were all live.

I love live performance of music. Hating crowds, however, and being generally poor for most of my life, I’ve rarely actually gone out to see anything. But I’m drawn to these free, outdoor performances, where you can hear the sound from a distance or wander closer to see the spectacle.

I’ve encountered that numerous times here. I will miss that, or seek it out a bit more. I knew I couldn’t stay long though – I have to get up very early – but I did stay for three or four songs, and I bought their CD, “Grabben Orchestra”. I’m importing it as I type, will listen to it on the train tomorrow.

The last thing from tonight’s wandering is that I bought a book. Some of you from Twitter might remember that I mentioned a local author who set his books in La Rochelle. I’ve been meaning to pick up one of the books as a memory, and as a challenge to read (they’re in French!). The author has had a large booth down by the quay, but I kept missing when it was open. Or worse, when I did get there, I always balked at the price: 15€ is a lot of money for a book!

But tonight, it’s now or never, so I bought one. Le Diable Fait Le Malin, by Pierre-Alain Mageau. The title translates roughly to “The Devil Plays The Clever Man”, and it, like this entire series of a few dozen books, takes place in La Rochelle, with a main character named “capitaine Joubert”.

I bought the book from the author. Somehow, the 15€ price tag doesn’t seem quite as high when it’s done so directly like that, like the 10€ for the music CD. He even signed it: “Pour Mark, Bonne Lecture, L’auteur, La Rochelle le 26/08/2010”.

It seems so fitting, to have it signed and dated on this last day of my stay here.

It’s not exactly been the most peaceful of voyages. I’ve wrestled with everything, it feels, from issues 5000km away, to the University here, to the fascist Internet blocking software, to the management of the building, to my computer, to my own mind and ideas.

But I respond to challenge, and get lazy without it. It creates more passion in me, even if it sometimes overwhelms and drives me to despair. I’ve reached a position of some peace, some strength, some questioning, some ideas, some hope. I’ve achieved a few things — wrote a number of short stories, even a novella; reached a breakthrough in the idea of how to demonstrate my thesis, and managed to get quite far in actually building the damn thing; started blogging more, and writing more in general, nearly filling the journal I started when I came.

The next step is to simply have what might actually be called a vacation. Some might say that my stay in the sunny, ocean-side, vacation spot of France was already a vacation, but not really. It was a place to explore, to live in, to grow in, but I didn’t do that much leisure activity, at least not the peaceful kind.

But the next few days will be spent in Paris. I shall revel in having no dishes to do, no cleaning, no responsibilities and just enough money to get by. (Not to mention the hope of a real, unblocked Internet connection!)

I shall wander over the centre of Paris and see the magnificent things there. I shall be a tourist for once, not staying long enough to get used to it at all, but staying just long enough to drink deeply from its well of culture.

Paris will likely never be real to me. It will be an event, a squished moment in time and space and memory, a whirlwind of action and sights and experiences, an overwhelming sensory explosion.

La Rochelle, however, will always be a place to me, as real as any other place I’ve lived, and I will miss it.

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