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Friday, February 12, 2016

Les souvenirs de Narbonne, Pt. 1: Places

Narbonne, my French home, is not necessarily a place many people go to visit. Most Americans have never heard of it. Occasionally tourists pass through (though you're more likely to find them at Narbonne Plage (Beach), its neighboring beach town). Frankly, there's not a lot to see.

Back when France was Gaul, Narbonne was actually quite an important city. It was settled in 118 BC right where the Via Domitia (the Roman road linking Italy to Spain, quite important, you may have heard of it) met the Via Aquitania (not quite as important, but still a major thoroughfare). At the time, the city was called Colonia Narbo Martius, or Narbo. (My friends and I lovingly adopted this nickname for our city and still use it to this day.) It was the first Roman colony in Gaul and it became the capital city of the entire Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis (which, as you can see, was named after the city). Clearly, back in the day, Narbonne was the place to be.*

Today, this is not the case.

In all honestly, the most important things to see in the city are remnants of this history dating back to Narbonne's Gallic heyday. There's also a cathedral, which is actually pretty unique in its own way. One last thing: It's the birthplace of Charles Trenet, who wrote the famous song "La Mer"** (actually in a train on the way back home to Narbonne). But when all is said and done, it's not a big tourism center in the slightest.

However, there were many places that were near and dear to my/our heart(s) that year in Narbonne, some because they were truly unique and special, and some because we were just working with what we had and they were endeared to us as a result of our ridiculous desperation.

Here are the important Narbonne places to me/us, in no particular order listed by category (because I'm me). I've written about pretty much everything, even the quotidian stuff, because I wanted to preserve my memories while I still have them. The places we truly loved are indicated with a ♥. The ones that were important out of frequent necessity are indicated with a S. (Yes, that's a tear of desperation.) You can also explore this interactive Google map I made to locate the places I've described here.

To open this interactive map full-screen in another tab, click here.

Home Sweet Home(s)

♥ / S Le Château Diderot: Lycée Général Denis Diderot was basically my life during these months. As explained in previous posts, I elected to stay in the free VERY BASIC room on campus that was offered to me rather than spending what little money I was making on rent and utilities. (I wanted to use my money to travel.) So I worked AND lived on campus. It was interesting. I shared a toilet and had no kitchen. Ask me about the things you can cook with an electric kettle sometime.

During the weeks, we (Violeta the Spanish assistant, Conchi the Spanish teacher, and Chandavy and Julie the RAs) were surrounded by des lycéens partout, partout (high schoolers everywhere, everywhere). We heard them and saw them (and sometimes smelled them, when they smoked outside the school entrance) ALL THE TIME. (Many students were boarders and were 24 hours a day from Monday morning to Friday afternoon.) It was a bit much sometimes.

During the weekends, we were surrounded by NO ONE. It was completely dead as the boarders went home to their families for the weekend and we were alone in this giant, industrial-looking double high school campus (our Lycée Général was attached to the Lycée Professionnel Gustave Eiffel). We let ourselves in and out through a set of double glass doors, of which the interior featured a lock at the BOTTOM of the door.

EXACTEMENT, Cyprien. Exactement.

We often joked about the Château Diderot (Castle Diderot) and our funny, giant, industrial home there. But in the end, I was SO thankful for the kind staff who allowed me this free little blue room so that I could travel. The opportunities I could afford because I took the free room FAR OUTWEIGHED the inconveniences I faced in living there. I told myself that year "I have the rest of my life to live in a comfy, cute home, and I have one year to live and travel in Europe." I stand by my decision. (And I got to travel to 13 countries that year, so I did put that saved money to good use!)

Photo by Philippe LeBlanc (from this article noting the fusion of the Lycée Général Denis Diderot and the Lycée Professionnel Gustave Eiffel into the new Lycée Louise Michel, starting 2015). That's right: The Château Diderot is actually the Château Michel now. Not the same ring. It'll always be Diderot to me.

That round glass building past the construction was la cantine, the cafeteria where we ate many meals and where the chefs knew and loved us. They saved us desserts when they thought we'd like them, and one of them always called me Walker Texas Ranger, or often just Texas.

the teacher's workroom where I often sat and talked with my teacher colleagues

teacher workroom; my mailbox (for school and life) was the bottom middle

My room was actually on the Gustave Eiffel side of the high school. Like I said, it was a very industrial-looking school.***

My room opened with a secret code. One time I arrived home from a trip late Sunday night to discover they'd changed the code without telling me. That was a fun night.

ma petite chambre bleue 

It's so weird how we remember things. Like, when I look at these pictures, I can remember the exact sensations of what that bathroom floor felt like under my feet and how that towel felt in my hands. I remember the exact texture of the bedspread Jill loaned me for the year. Memories are weird.

♥ La Maison Orange: La Maison Orange (the orange house) was the home of English assistants Emily, Lottie, and Charlie and Canadian assistant Zack. It was about 15 minutes from my door to theirs. We had many international dinners and dance parties there, and a few movie nights, Sunday game days, and backyard barbecues. It was also the location of my nearest available kitchen. (Yes, remember, I had no kitchen.) I have so, so many lovely memories in this little orange house with the pool we weren't able to use nearly enough (THANKS COLD), and I'm so thankful for our little friendship haven with its joyful bright orange walls.

leaving the Maison Orange for the last time :(


♥ L'Antre de l'Échoppe: This was our favorite place, and for good reason. If we had this in Fort Worth, I would take all my friends here. The couple who owned the place had a medieval shop that they ran during the day, called L'Échoppe Médiévale. On Thursday and Friday nights, they also ran "L'Antre de l'Échoppe" (antre means cave, lair, or den), which we called simply "l'Échoppe." It's an underground cave where they served only beer (mainly Belgian), including a couple of their own brews. In addition, they also had games out for patrons to play... we played lots of Dobble here, a sort of very fast-paced matching game.

Dobble explanation break, for those who care: You have to match one of several images on your card to one of the several images on the top card of the deck. In order to be able to get rid of your card, you have to name it out loud and slam your card down first. We had several versions: 1) Everyone plays (naming their items) in French. 2) Everyone plays in his/her native language. or THE MOST CHALLENGING 3) Everyone plays in a language that is neither French nor his/her native language. For example, I would have to name my items in either Spanish or German (which I would have had to pick up by playing with our Spanish and German friends). Honestly, we loved Dobble more than 20-somethings should love any kind of picture card game. I bought a set at l'Échoppe (the store, not the bar) to bring home. I've seen it here in the States, under the name "Spot it." (Why have another name? Dobble is not a French name. Dobble is nothing. Also, Dobble is everything.)

spotted (yup, I said it) at Kroger in Fort Worth

Anyway, back to l'Échoppe. We loved this place so much. It had so much character. It wasn't rare to see people dressed up in medieval costumes. In anticipation of the release of The Hobbit, there was some sort of hidden LOTR clue game afoot, and plenty of costumed fans there to participate.

Did I mention it was a cave? A tiny underground cave, with bartenders (and clients alike) in medieval garb? Just saying. Sigh. L'Échoppe.

♥ Le Botafogo: Also lovingly called "Botafuego," on rare occasion "Botafeu," but most frequently simply "Bota." Apparently it was a restaurant during normal hours, but I was never there for that. After maybe 11:00-ish (and until 6:00 am, or maybe 4:00? I can't even remember), it became the ONLY place in the city where you could go to dance. You can take a 360° virtual tour if you want, because apparently at Bota, they fancy.

That's right, we had one place. And it was Bota. The drinks were overpriced (I don't know that I ever bought a single drink there), it was always crazy crowded, and I inevitably saw students there every.single.time we went. (Luckily I was just an assistant, not a teacher, so it didn't really matter. This would be THE WORST in the States. I would die. And hide. And leave immediately. And never return.)

But it was THE BEST. There was a ground floor and a basement, and we were usually in the basement. We danced to music from pretty much everywhere, but a lot of Spanish music in particular, actually. Since Narbonne is so close to Spain, and there were lots of Spanish young people living in Narbonne at at the time due to the economic climate in Spain, Spanish culture was/is prevalent in this part of France.

We even took salsa lessons in the basement of Bota one night! Spoiler alert: I wasn't good.

Anyway, we had so many utterly ridiculous nights of dancing and singing and laughing in our one and only little boîte. Thank you, Bota. You did us good.

I took this photo from this article describing a fight in front of Bota... perfect. Seems about right.

Bota upstairs (before it was transformed into the club... by moving the tables)
(photo from the Google Maps entry for Bota)

Bota downstairs, complete with lounge areas
(photo from the Google Maps entry for Bota)

♥ Le Stade: This was the stadium for the RCNM (Racing Club Narbonne Méditerranée), Narbonne's rugby team. That's right. Though I expected to attend soccer games during my year in France, rugby was actually the most popular sport here. Our colors were black and orange, and one of the players was actually the English assistants' landlord's son-in-law. (This landlord also owned my laundromat, so I'd see this rugbyman in the laverie sometimes, fixing things. Also, I just checked the site and he still plays.)

I still don't fully understand rugby, but all of my rugby memories are happy ones. And they all take place in this stadium, as I had never watched rugby before this (and haven't since). Allez, allez! (I know that much, at least.)

Macar: Macar was a nice little wine bar we liked to go to right off the canal. We started our last Thursday night out together here (and ended at l'Échoppe, of course)! 

Wallabeer: An Australian bar we went to only a few times, but it was important because that's where we met the first night we went out with all of the assistants in October, and it was where we went to start off our last big night together.


Declan's Pub: A little Irish pub where we went when we watched soccer, or when we wanted to go out but it wasn't Thursday/Friday (so no l'Échoppe), but we weren't quite up for (or ready for) Bota.


♥ Le Cinéma: There was a mainstream movie theater on the outskirts of town, but it was too long of a bus ride so we never made it. We did frequent this little movie theater which showed foreign or more critically acclaimed films. They rarely showed any American movies, but we did see Django Unchained. One of the movies I remember the most was Blancanieves, a black-and-white silent retelling of Snow White set in 1920s Andalusia (think bullfights and flamenco).

from the website for the Agenda Culturel Aude


♥ Les Halles de Narbonne: Many cities have les halles, which are indoor markets. There's a giant Les Halles in Paris, which is now an indoor mall. Ours was not only a lovely indoor market where you could buy products from local vendors, but there were also a couple of restaurants. Chez Bebelle was a bit famous; the owner was a former rugby player, and he calls out (on a megaphone, no less) to the local butchers for whatever cuts of meat he needs. They pack them up and toss them to him to cook up. (Seriously. Watch this nice little video, which clearly I did not take.) The restaurant uses exclusively products sold inside Les Halles.

There's also a little restaurant next to Chez Bebelle, where we went with great frequency because it was cheap and there wasn't usually a line like Bebelle. We'd pick whatever meat we wanted from any of the butchers, purchase it, and go sit at one of the striped round tables in the middle of the market (you can see them in the above video). For a small fee, they'd cook it for you, served with fries and a little salad. You could get carafes de vin to share. I've never experienced anything like this in the States, but if we had it here, I'd definitely go. It was lovely. I miss this! I really have no idea what this restaurant was called. We just said "the one in the middle." On Thursdays, there was also a street market outside Les Halles. The first several pictures are the street market.

now for the real (permanent/indoor) Les Halles

♥ Les Mille Poètes: A lovely, cozy little pizza and galette restaurant where a friendly staff served beautifully presented handmade dishes. The back wall was windows, because it backed up to some rocky walls, which was visually interesting. They kept their water on the table in these local wine bottles, which I bought so just I could do the same; the bottle sits on my counter now and reminds me of this lovely little place. Other than Les Halles, this was my favorite place to eat in Narbonne.

I didn't take either of these photos; they're attached to the Mille Poètes Google Maps entry.

my daily reminder of my secret other life****

Le Côté Pub: This was a nice little place, again, for pizza, galettes, and salads. This whole area was under construction at the time, so it was a bit tricky to get around. (Actually, the ENTIRE canal area was under construction while we were there. Of course. Apparently it's really nice now. They finished summer/fall 2013... right after we had all gone. Parfait.)


Brioche du moulin: I never had any idea what this bakery's name was, we just called it la boulangerie jaune (the yellow bakery). We went there at the beginning, so we got kind of attached. It's right off the main square. It had the "home bread" sign I liked so much (poor translation, but cute).


La Boulangerie du Forum: We had another little bakery that was liked, right off the Forum. We called it "the forum bakery" (but in French), and I don't know its name. In looking at Google Maps now, I remember that it, too, was yellow. I'm not quite sure why we chose yellow as the distinguishing feature for the first bakery as it doesn't distinguish it from this one at all. Oh well. I liked their beignets, which in France are basically filled donuts (rather than New Orleans-style beignets).


King Kebab: Who doesn't love a good kebab?! Okay, maybe a vegetarian. But lamb meat from a spit on a delicious kebab with some sauce blanche is something I seriously wish I could get more easily here in Fort Worth, Texas. Could (usually) be depended on to be open on Sundays. Though sometimes, you might arrive expecting it open (and even facing the signage that it's open) only to find it closed up (in the style of those giant metal roll-down shades over the whole storefront). Well. Okay then.

fairly telling that it's closed for the Google Maps pic***

S McDonald's, aka McDo: Okay. I don't actually care much about McDo, but I included it because 1) It was a last resort sometimes. I always felt like a ridiculous cliché showing up at McDo. However, sometimes I needed WiFi, y'all. Or just ANYTHING to eat on a Sunday when I had forgotten to shop. 2) Funnily enough, McDo is the ONLY place in France where I just can't go undetected as a foreigner. The story of why has to be told by video, and so I'll have to tell it another time.

For shame.

For even more shame.

Quick: Okay, so Quick is not actually important. We only went once or MAYBE twice. It's just a French fast food burger chain, but the one significant thing is that they have boissons à l'infini, or free drink refills, which was unique. When I explained to my French students that we have free coke refills at all restaurants in the States, they would ask me, "Like Quick?!"

S Le Panini: Near the Château Diderot and the Maison Orange, there was a vending machine that sold HOT panini sandwiches. By some miracle, it cooked them while you sat there and spat out a hot sandwich complete with melty cheese. It was our only 24/7 food option, and therefore was reserved for last resort meals (or 2:00 am panini runs). If it was ever hors service when you were truly hard up for food, well, that's when you knew you had hit rock bottom. And by "rock bottom" I mean "still living it up in southern France, but with a growling stomach and no timely solution."


Les Grands Buffets: We always fantasized about going to this all-you-can-eat buffet, French-style. I actually went once; Odette, one of my Thursday evening students, treated me on one of my last nights in Narbonne! It was amazing and delicious. I had one of everything. I even tried frog legs for the first time.

L'Estagnol: I only went to this nice little restaurant by the quai once, with Édith and Alex on my last weekend in Narbonne. (Which I haven't written about yet.) I have really nice memories from that dinner and that whole weekend!



♥ Carrefour: Carrefour was a little bit out of the way (best to get the bus, but it was still walkable-ish, if you had time), but it was our main source of, well, anything. Groceries, house goods, anything. Well, anything except any kind of medicine (including Tylenol), which you have to get at the pharmacy. It was like Target, only not as nice or as nicely advertised. The store brand of clothing was called "Tex," which I thought was funny. We all waited around for payday (all of us assistants were on the same salary and the same pay day schedule, which is to say we were all struggling), and when it came? Catch the bus to Carrefour. Make it rain.

from TopTradr

8 à Huit: Our nearest grocery, which was small but good for the basics. It was called "8 to eight" for its hours, but we used to joke that it should probably be called 8:30 to 7:45ish due to its unreliable hours. I checked on Google Maps, and it's now a Carrefour Express.

RIP 8 à Huit.

Ma petite papeterie: I have no idea what this store was actually called, but it was just off the main square on the Via Domitia when it's footpath rather than a road. I send a lot of cards (I like to write, did you know?) and Carrefour didn't satisfy my needs. I found this little card shop and got to know the shopkeeper very well. His wife ran the little shop across the street. I remember that his son was in middle school and was a Mavs fan. He gave me free Narbonne/Languedoc souvenirs sometimes. If you got a card that year, it was from this little shop.

It's just down this alley, a couple of doors in on the left.

La Cave de l'Amphore: This wine cave had a BYO bottle wine service. We would often send Zack to the cave on his bike with empty 2-liter juice bottles to get wine. When I think of the cave, I think of all of us gallivanting and day drinking rosé for basically the entire month of April. It was a good month, April 2013.



♥ La Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur de Narbonne: Say that three times fast! Fun fact: Our cathedral is special because it's unfinished. Its construction was begun in 1272, but never completed due to both structural and financial factors. There was the whole Hundred Years War which kept taking the men, to boot. If it had been completed, it would have been larger than Notre Dame de Paris.

The first five of the following pictures were taken from my bathroom. 
That's right, this was my view while shower singing, people. 

cathedral and palm trees... I can dig it.

♥ Via Domitia: While renovating the main square in 1997, they discovered part of the original Via Domitia, the famous Roman Road linking Italy to Spain, running through both the Alps and the Pyrenees. They exposed it, and now you can walk down onto it. You can casually walk along a 2,000 year old Roman road when you're just, say, coming home from a drink at l'Échoppe. It's kind of surreal.

Before I realized punctuation isn't allowed in hashtags. Rookie.

In French, it's called La Voie Domitienne.

You can see the original raised sidewalk.

♥ le Palais des Archevêques & l'Hôtel de Ville: The Archbishops' Palace and City Hall were in the city center, in the main square. (Logical.) The square in front is where the exposed Via Domitia is.

entry to the Hôtel de Ville, including Narbonne's coat of arms

♥ le Canal de la Robine: Our lovely little canal through the city center, which starts at the Aude river and runs to the Mediterranean.

la Place du Forum: The square where the Forum was, when Narbo was an important city in Roman Gaul.

This is a bridge that goes over the Via Domitia's path right by the Place du Forum (which is right through this arch); it's Remus and Romulus feeding from the shewolf, one of the symbols of the Roman empire. It also says SPQR, but you can't see it here.


La Gare: The train station was, of course, the gate to all that was not Narbonne, and the gateway to all of our traveling adventures.

La Laverie Verte: The laundromat, owned by the English assistants' landlord, was where I washed all my clothes and often met crazy people.


La Poste: The post office AND my bank. A twofer.

la petite Poste (close to chez moi)***

la grande Poste off Boulevard Gambetta***

S / ♥ SPAR: This convenience store directly across the high school also had a little room with foosball tables, a TV playing NRJ music videos 24/7, and free WiFi, FILLED with high schoolers during the AM hours. You could often find us getting hit by our students' rogue foosballs while desperately trying to access WiFi when ours was out. The staff was lovely and let us in to this area even when it was closed. God bless you, SPAR people, for sheltering us and connecting us to the world when we most needed it.

That window on the left was the foosball room/WiFi sanctuary.***

Violeta's drawing, with us at SPAR (with their free WiFi and €1 coffee/tea)

Pharmacie Ducros et Gimié: This was our closest pharmacy, where I convinced the pharmacists to give me some Zyrtec equivalent without a prescription and also bought baking soda for cookies. Weird.


Les Hauts de Narbonne: This isn't really a necessity, per se, but it is where I went to tutor Charles, a terminale (high school senior) student on Wednesday afternoons. Les Hauts means "the heights;" this neighborhood was a little outside of town up on the hills with great views of the étangs (ponds) that came in from the Mediterranean. I very specifically remember tutoring him on a snowy Wednesday afternoon (it snowed twice while I was in Narbonne and that was apparently QUITE uncommon) while I watched snow falling on his patio with the Mediterranean in the background. I hope I always remember that picture.


Here are some photos from around Narbonne that remind me of what it was like to walk around there, and some from around the Aude department/the Languedoc Roussillon region (before it became the amalgamation Languedoc-Rousillon-Midi-Pyrénées in 2016) that remind me of what it was like driving (read: riding) around the area. It looks very different from Fort Worth, Texas and its surroundings.

Construction... EVERYWHERE. The whole year. It's really nice now, apparently.

And, finally, we can't forget the place that got me to most of these places: le bus.

with the crazy blue seats... clearly on the way back from Carrefour: Full bags, full heart, big smile.


I kind of love that I was assigned to a city I'd never heard of before. I love that we were all there together in our little town, which encouraged us to make our own fun. I love the Roman history and the feeling that I was strolling along antiquity when I walked home on the Via Domitia from a night out. I love that because it was smaller, we could not just isolate ourselves (either from the locals or into separate groups by language) like some larger groups of assistants in bigger cities have a tendency to do. It was easier to connect with our teacher colleagues and other locals, meaning it was easier to improve our French and increase our cultural exposure. It was forced immersion, and I wouldn't change that for a thing. Our small, quirky little town was our perfect little chez nous that year we spent together teaching, learning, and frolicking in southern France. Merci, Narbonne, for my beautiful small-town year near the Mediterranean. Je t'aime pour toujours. ♥ 

Narbonne's Coat of Arms*****

"Faithful! I stayed faithful to Narbonne, my friend." -Charles Trenet
(The slight creepiness of this mural is somewhat fitting.)

*They even mention the city of Narbo in the HBO series Rome... twice! (Episodes 1.6, and another episode, I need to rewatch to identify it)

**This song was featured on Lost (Episode 1.12)... as well as lots of movies and shows.

***These photos are all from Google Earth.

****So secret, you're reading about it on this blog on the Internet.

*****Image created for the Blazon Project of the French Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons By User:SanchoPanzaXXI

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