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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Les souvenirs de Narbonne, Pt. 2: Oddities & Quirks

When most people picture life in France, they picture walking the streets of Paris with a baguette in hand and a constant view of the Eiffel Tower. Or, maybe, living along the Riviera, going to the beach all the time and bumping shoulders with the rich & famous. Or maybe they even picture life in a small, picturesque village in Provence.  Most people do not picture life in a small-ish town of 40,000 inhabitants (60,000 including the suburbs) 9 miles from the Mediterranean where the wind blows until you feel like your soul might WHOOSH right out your ears. The latter is exactly what I was was given as my French experience, and I made the best of it and truly loved my little French home. However, there are several things that were either very interesting or even downright annoying.

Other titles considered for this post were: "Things I just can't stand about Narbonne" (as a follow-up to "Things I just can't stand about France"), as well as "You've seen the Good, now see the Bad & the Ugly." However, both of these titles invoke only negativity, when I really want to convey not just that which bugged me, but also that our little town was just a little bit... weird.

We'll say it had character. Which it did. If you're thinking to yourself, "How could she be so cynical about her French home?", I'd like to direct you to my most recent post, "Les souvenirs de Narbonne, Pt. 1: Places", in which I sing Narbonne's praises.*

Also, I'd like to inform you that I'm a realist. So, if I'm to pay fair tribute to my year in southern France, I have to be 100% honest.

Here are the things which I got quite annoyed with in Narbonne:

Le vent: The wind. Oh my gosh, the wind. The wind is absolutely insane there. The locals can tell you which winds (by name) are active or approaching by the weather conditions: the temperature, the sun, the sky, the season, the direction of the wind. It's impressive. But more than just impressive, it's an indication of what an integral part of local life and culture these winds are. This short description of the 5 SEPARATE named winds of Languedoc, le pays du vent (the land of the wind) gives a good idea of how serious the winds are. Please ignore the Comic Sans. (Pourquoi?)

There were times when I would be walking at like a 65° degree angle if I was walking against the wind. Seriously. There were times when my heavy bag would be blown back and remain horizontal and away from my body if I was walking against the wind. Are you picturing a cartoon character walking in a storm? Good. It was exactly like that. There were times in the winter when I declined going out at night because I knew I'd have to walk there and back in the wind and the cold, and I just couldn't. There were times when, in my 5th floor (or 4th floor to a European) room, I could hear the wind howling all night and I couldn't fall asleep. It never let up. It just howled, like before a hurricane,** but not in gusts. Consistently and relentlessly.

They say wind can drive you mad, and I 100% understand that. There were times when I thought I'd go mad if it didn't stop, and I feel like I lived there for a long time, I might truly go slightly insane. It's just... so much. And I've lived in Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock winds are nothing compared to this. (Though I guess there is one positive to the Narbonne winds: no gritty dirt blowing in your mouth like in Lubbock. So, at least there's that.)

This photo was taken in Leucate, where we went for the Mondial du Vent (world championship of wind) in April.***

Please note that my hair managed to be THIS windblown while it was IN A PONYTAIL. Merci, le vent. Freaking superwind.

The complete lack of green spaces: Honestly, there were no real parks to speak of within the city of Narbonne. We noticed this after a while, and thought to ourselves "There HAS to be a park somewhere. There has to be. We need some nature up in here." So we got out a map of Narbonne. There was a little green circle (roundabout, right by the kebab, we already knew about that), and we also saw a nice big green space near us! Of course, we went to check it out straight away.









 It was a cemetery. 

So, you know. It would have been really nice to be able to go somewhere green to sit and relax. Which, by the way, is something it's generally pretty easy to find in France, as the French on the whole appreciate nature. But it was not easy to find in Narbonne. Also, at that point in my life, I wasn't running yet, but I was entertaining the idea of starting. But there was nowhere nice to run! I had three choices: 1) Run around in small circles in a roundabout. 2) Run among the dead. (New series idea: The Running Dead. No?) 3) Run along boring suburban streets in the wintry cold and, of course, in the wind. (Remember I wasn't really close to downtown/the canal, which would have been a nicer place to run.)

I did a little bit of the sad cold suburban street running, but mainly I succumbed to the cold and the wind and the lack of greenery and waited til I got back to Texas to start running in earnest. Which is unfortunate, because I certainly had the time that year. And, looking back at photos, I kind of needed it to counteract the pastry intake. Oh well.

The fact that it was kind of hard to make the most of the region without a car: Okay, so comparing Narbonne to, say, Fort Worth, Texas, it's MUCH easier to get around Narbonne without a car. In Texas, as in much of the US, if you don't have a car, game over. You ain't goin' nowhere. Public transport is nonexistent unless you live in the center of a major metropolitan area.

I'm thankful for the SNCF (train system) (bum, DA dum DA dum... If you've spent any time in France, I know you just heard that in your head) so that I could get around the country. And, of course, I'm thankful for our little buses with the crazy blue seats so that I could get around Narbonne.

However, if we wanted to go to anything that was kind of peripheral to Narbonne (the big movie theater, the bowling alley, the beach, Les Hauts de Narbonne where I tutored), the bus system was pretty sketchy. Buses to all of these more remote locations were very intermittent, and you had to catch a bus TO another bus and get all the timing right, and by the time you got there it took so long you practically had to start your return journey. So that wasn't great. Luckily I got to go some places because some of our friends had cars (Corentin, Carmen, my teacher colleagues, my tutor students), and I'm thankful for that. And I am grateful for our buses, but even in the city proper, the buses stopped at 8:00 pm and on Sundays. After that, we had to fend for ourselves. Between that and the wind, it made returning from nights out interesting.

Les travaux: THE CONSTRUCTION. The portion of the canal that ran through city center was under construction the WHOLE time we were there. It was finished shortly after we left, because of course it was. It was really a bummer. I'd love to go back and see it someday now that it's all finished! Of course, we're set to have a reunion in Narbonne in July 2018, so I guess I will then! (When Dörte writes the date on torn parts of a pizza box and hands it out to everyone, you know it's official. See you guys there, only 2.5 years to go!)


The crazies: Okay. I love most everyone I knew in Narbonne. I've said many times that I'm so thankful I was in a small city where it was easier to meet people and integrate. However, sometimes the people were just... colorful. Yeah, really colorful.

Sometimes this was fun, like when it came to all of the characters we'd see at L'Échoppe dressed up in costume (who, incidentally, could sometimes be found in the middle of the day in a top hat, trench coat, crazy long beard, riding along on a kind of weird elongated bike).

Luckily, Zack took a picture of the bike. Zack saves the day. Again.

Sometimes it was just weird. I could kick myself for not keeping better track of all of our weird interactions with people. Why didn't I write them down?! I do remember a couple of instances in particular.

-One time, I was walking along the Boulevard Gambetta talking on the phone to my dad when a woman came up to me and said "Pardon, est-ce que je peux utiliser votre portable?" (Excuse me, can I use your phone?") Alright. Here's the deal. Who asks someone that WHILE THEY'RE ON THE PHONE? Also, I was speaking in fluent (and fast) English. How'd she know I even spoke French?! I just looked at her for a second, bewildered, and told her no, because I was, as it turns out, using it. She walked away, but not without huffing and puffing a bit. (Meanwhile, my dad's all "Katy? Hello? You're speaking French.")

-One time, I was sitting in the laundromat, listening to Mumford & Sons and minding my own business while I waited on my clothes, and some guy just waltzed in, sat next to me, yelled some things in French (which I didn't really hear because I had the music), and sat with his head in his hands for a little bit next to me. I'm sitting there, thinking "Be cool, Soda Pop," and also "Dear God please whisk this crazy man away from me so I'm not murdered and someone else finds all my wet clothes including my panties." Luckily, he left after only a couple of hoedown songs. But... what?!

-This isn't specific, but a really strange number of people asked me "Wait, so if you're American, how can you teach English?" Or, "Wow, that's so cool you can talk with your friends from England even though you're American!" Like, too many people. I felt like I was talking to Mean Girl Karen.

To be fair, I'm know that a lot of Americans ask foreigners ridiculous questions like this, too.

Anyway, like I said, most everyone I knew was absolutely lovely. However, there was a seemingly disproportionate number of crazies, and it was just a little bit strange. But I think I know what the explanation is: THE WIND. After all, they do say wind'll drive ya mad. And I believe 'em.

As a conclusion to this post, please accept these pictures of dogs driving a car in front of the Hôtel de Ville. 

And in a pedestrian zone, to boot!

Keep Narbonne weird.

*I also wrote "Things I LOVE about France."

**Which I can say, because I've lived through a hurricane. Gustav? I'm lookin' at you. I HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN.

***Where I casually became a famous stand-up paddler, in case you missed that.

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