Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Crazy Hall Lady

So I was spending a quiet evening at home, eating some pasta, reading Asterix et les Normands (a comic book), and minding my own business. One of my building's best features is that it is very quiet; I've never even met any of my neighbors. So on a quiet night such as I described, the only sound in my little apartment is my own giggling over the antics of Asterix and his pals.

Until a repetitive knocking sound interrupts my peaceful moment. I hesitate, attempting to discern just where on the hallway it is coming from. Although the walls are respectably thick, the doors are not, and a knock on any door on the hallway is easily heard from many doors down. I relax; it is the door next to mine that is being thumped on, not my own. I settled back onto to the bed, but the knocking continues. A short pause and then the knocking resumes, more insistent. Really! After a few tries, don't most people give up and assume no one's home? The knocker apparently was not a quitter.

A short pause, but this time when the knocks resume, they are on my door. Darn! Up I go, walk over to the door, unlock the double bolt, and open the door. If I expected to find a college student who had gotten himself locked out, I was wrong. In the hallway was an indignant middle-aged woman. Without an apology for knocking on my door so late in the evening, she proceeding to ask me if a young man lived here. Confused I replied that I lived here. She clearly had the wrong apartment, but she was not about to give up her quest. She insisted that I must know which apartment so-and-so lived in. I quite honestly did not catch the name, but it hardly mattered, because as I've said before, I've never met any of my neighbors. Furthermore, I don't see why I should be expected to know who lives in all the apartments on my hall. After all, there's a good twenty apartments on my hall alone. This woman however felt otherwise, and despite my denying knowing (presumably) her son, felt it necessary to add that he is a psychology major. That's very nice I'm sure, but it's not exactly helpful given that most of the people in my building are students. Having finally convinced her that this was not her son's apartment, and that I did not know which one was, I was finally allowed to return to Asterix and his encounters with the fearless vikings.

I was not, however, allowed to do so in peace and quiet. I could hear her going up and down the hall knocking on each and every door, frequently returning to knock on my neighbor's door, and occasionally stopping to leave phone messages. I would very much have liked to ask her two things: first, if she realized that you can speak at a normal volume while on the phone, and second, if she had considered telling her son in advance that she would stopping by. Having been privy to the entirety of the messages she left for him, I assure you there was no great emergency at hand. She was just being annoying. I also considered asking her if it had occurred to her that maybe he wasn't answering on purpose. But I kept my nose in my book.

Not for too long though, because once again the knocking has returned to my door. Sigh. Up, to the door, unlock, open. The woman babbles something incoherent that I didn't entirely understand, but which once again lacked an apology. Honestly, if you knock on a stranger's door after 10 pm a little basic politeness is in order. Her french had an odd accent to it, and she spoke very quickly, and by now I was not in the mood to try to decipher it. I got rid of her again but as I returned to the warmth of my bed, the meaning of her words came to me, as well as the source of her problem: she was looking for apartment 13. Here's the catch.

There is no apartment 13 in my building.

On every floor, there are somewhere around 20 apartments, all labeled with the floor number followed by the apartment number. They start at the left end of the hallway with 1 and go up from there one at a time, with no particular order to which numbers occur on the left or the right side of the hallway. Except that there is no number 13. It skips from 12 to 14. If you're not superstitious, the reason is simple. The elevator marks the halfway point on the hallway and is situated directly across from apartments 12 and 14. Thus the elevator (and the stairway next to it) would be counted as the 13th room. If you are superstitious, well, all I can say is my building's not old enough to be haunted.

The knocking and phone calling kept up for a bit, but eventually I was allowed to enjoy my comic book in silence. Maybe she just wrote down the apartment number wrong. Maybe her son didn't want her to find him. Maybe someone was playing a practical joke. Whatever the case, I did not see the woman when I took out the recycling (it being a Sunday night), either in the hallway or in the lobby downstairs. It's possible that she did what any sensible person would have done ages before: given up and gone home.

Or maybe she disappeared into Apartment 13.

Friday, April 12, 2013


I had heard great things about Rennes, and so I thought Rennes would be a good spot to spend a couple days doing nothing. From Le Mans I caught a 2:30 train and then checked into my hotel. Again, not fancy, but clean and warm. I was especially valuing the warm at that moment. Then out into the city. On the recommendation of a friend who had studied abroad in Rennes, I stopped at Chocolaterie Durand. It was a small place, but believe you me it was packed. The line was soon out the door, but I held out for a special prize (eaten the next day, for Easter). 

My special prize: a beautiful chocolate egg!
Then I headed over to Le Haricot Rouge (the red bean), another recommendation. The place was filled to brimming with students, all nationalities. This place offers only two things: drinks (coffee, tea, milkshakes, smoothies, and especially hot cocoa) and cookies. That's it. And they're awesome. I got a banana hot chocolate (because I wanted something "unusual") and two cookies. Can we make this a thing in the US please? Thanks. 

I then walked around a bit, and picked up emergency sandwiches for Sunday and Monday (they ended up not really being entirely necessary after all). For dinner I went to a creperie in the old (read: medieval) part of town and it was so delicious. I wolfed it down, seriously. In a 'just go for it' moment I ordered Breizh Cola, thinking it would either be really great or really gross. I ended up liking it pretty well; it was like Coca Cola but with a sort of root beer like flavor. 

One thing that struck me was the atmosphere. I remember last summer in Charleston going out to lunch with friends and admiring the character of the historic home-turned-restaurant. It struck me as funny that last summer we were having lunch in a 'historic' home and here I was having dinner in a building with timbered walls that was probably built before Charleston was even a town. It's all about perspective!

Breizh Cola, a brittany specialty

The timbered creperie
On Easter Sunday I did go to church; in fact, I went several. I even attended part of a service (before realizing that it was in latin). Mostly I walked around and enjoyed the city. Rennes is a really lovely town and I had some very nice weather. If it had been just ten degrees warmer it would have been perfect.

This is a high school...and I thought Milton was nice!

Palais St Georges
 The Palais St Georges: once an abbey residence, it has been a government building since the French Revolution.

the St. Germain church

Palais de Parlement de Bretagne

Town Hall

the Theater

A nice building

St. Aubin

Pretty colors for Easter!

The old section of town

More really old buildings

Mayor of Rennes, a really long time ago

Notre Dame de Rennes (I think)
 I spent a lot of time in the Jardin du Thabor. The grounds were once owned by the monastery and then made public after the Revolution. Different sections were added on over the years, and it's just beautiful. They have typical French gardens, big open green sections, wooded areas, and pathways to roam. I spent a good bit of time sitting on a bench enjoying the sunshine. If it had been just a little bit warmer I probably could have spent all day there.

A little bit of spring
 The cathedral St. Pierre is worth a visit if you get a chance. It's relatively modern because the old cathedral collapsed (in multiple sections) and by the mid 1800s the whole thing had been rebuilt.

the Rennes cathedral, St. Pierre

The monstrous organ of St. Pierre cathedral

The beautiful ceiling of St. Pierre

This guy. Ok, so St. Amand, according to the sign (and confirmed by the Catholic Encyclopedia online) was bishop of Rennes in the 6th century. He was from a wealthy family but ran away to be a monk, later going on to spend 15 years in complete solitude. He did the usual requisite pilgrimage to Rome and then was named a missionary bishop. He took it upon himself to convert the idolatrous people of Ghent (in northern Belgium); he was mostly persecuted and largely unsuccessful until he miraculously brought back to life a criminal who had been hanged. That tends to get attention. After setting up some monasteries there, he headed back to France to save King Dagobert from his sinful life. Dagobert apparently liked his sinful life because he subsequently banned Amand from the country. Dagobert changed his mind later and apologized and asked Amand to tutor his son. He refused, on the grounds that life at court was just too dangerous. He wandered around a bit converting people, calming storms at sea, and founding monasteries. I'm not really sure how Rennes ended up with his, uh, relics, considering he was bishop of a variety of different places. At any rate what they chose to do with his 'relics' was to encase them in a leather 'body' dressed up in bishop clothes and then display this in a glass coffin. It's the creepiest thing you've ever seen. I'm not sure I could properly focus on God with that just a few feet away.

Then there's the basilica Saint-Sauveur. It's only a minor basilica according to the catholic hierarchy, which I don't pretend to understand, but it's a pretty cool church. It's not a very large building, but has a couple points of interest. First there's the huge altar that let's you know this place is more official. Second, a 350 year old organ that is officially classified as a historic monument of France. I actually got to hear this play; I slipped in the church just as the service was letting out and their organ player (who was incredibly talented) was evidently intent on cleaning out the pipes. Third, they have a statue of the virgin Mary that some say has performed miracles. During the war of British succession, the bells of the church suddenly started ringing by themselves and the statue was found indicating a mark on the floor. When they dug there, they found a tunnel the British invaders were using in an attempt to attack the town. Then in 1720, despite a huge fire in the church that consumed the roof and a nearby building, the little wood statue survived. Many locals attributed the end of the fire to the statue. A few decades later the statue also apparently healed two people, one of a bad left knee and the other of a gangrenous foot.

Gigantic altar

Massive historic organ
Pretty stained glass
The miraculous statue has
its own dedicated chapel
Monday morning I did a little more walking and then caught a train home. I really liked Rennes; if you want a beautiful city to wander around, I'd highly recommend it. The only things I didn't get to do were to visit the museum of Rennes and the inside of the Parliament building; both were closed for the holiday. Next time!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Le Mans

My train rolled into Le Mans at 11 and I headed out to explore. In the snow. I had no set agenda for Le Mans; I just wanted to spend a couple hours wandering around. Le Mans happens to be the "sister city" of Paderborn, Germany, where I did a summer internship. Apparently it's the oldest such partnership in Europe, dating to the 800s. At first, I was a bit confused as I looked around. Le Mans felt a lot bigger than Paderborn (although it turns out they're roughly the same size), and I was having trouble seeing a connection.  And then I walked into the old part of town, and I was like, Aha! I get it. This is the old town of Le Mans:

Awesome stairway up to the medieval section

Narrow streets lined with timbered houses

An open courtyard with a great view

The aforementioned great view

Winding stairs connect different streets

Far more decorative than the ones back home

Wave to Teddy!

Awesome carvings

A typical street

I had fun meandering down streets on a whim, and slipping into cathedrals when I got too cold. The Le Mans cathedral reminded me a lot of many others I've seen, especially in terms of architecture, but it did have two outstanding features. First, it has about 50 wood carvings showing different scenes from Jesus' life and teachings dating from the Middle Ages, which are pretty impressive. Second, it has a chapel that is painted as it would have been in the Middle Ages. Back then, these cathedrals would not have been left just plain stonework; much of the walls and ceilings would have been brightly painted with angels, saints, and biblical figures. The gloomy old churches we see would once have been bright and festive.

The old clocktower on the cathedral

The tourism office was closed; no free brochures :(

Middle Ages, much?

The main Cathedral

And its impressive entrance

The house across the street

Front of the cathedral

The "newer" section

One of 50 wood carvings

The painted chapel

At one time, the whole cathedral would have look like this

The bare white walls of the sanctuary

The town hall looks practically
 brand new compared to its neighbors

Buildings in the newer part of Le Mans

It was snowing when I left Caen, and it was snowing while I explored Le Mans. It made for a lovely picturesque train ride through the French countryside; it was not fun to walk around in. I was basically a popsicle when I ducked into a cafe for lunch. House specialty: Boeuf bourguignon. It was delicious, and warm. 
Boeuf bourguignon

Leon Bollee
Before catching my train to my next destination, I ran into a statue of Leon Bollee. He was a French automobile manufacturer and inventor around the turn of the century. He invented and built various simple calculators, a steam locomotive, and started a car company in Le Mans. He was the first guy to put rubber tires on his vehicles. He was also pals with the Wright brothers; when they came to show off their planes in France, they used his factory for prep work.