Sometimes, you just have to make yourself at home in a random city in the middle of France.
That is what Maggie and I did last weekend in Limoges. My well-traveled cousin picked the city for our 24-hour vacation because, as she reasoned, she has already seen the places in France that people tend to visit. Though the Massif Central city might not pull in as many tourists as other parts of France, Maggie said, it could be nice to spend Valentines weekend somewhere unassuming and slower-paced. We would be together, wouldn’t we? Wasn’t that what mattered?
“Nobody goes to Limoges,” my host dad told me the day before I left. He then proceeded to list off some French cities that I must see, none of which I have been to.
I packed my backpack, bought a ticket exactly three minutes before my train took off, ran to the platform to the last train car as the SNCF people blew their whistles and a woman told me, “allez-y, madame,” (go ahead, ma’m), spent three point five hours on the train (the point five because it stopped once due to a tree that fell over the track), and got off of the train to find a huge domed station and my cousin only fifteen minutes behind me.
I peeked out one of the station’s arched entranceways to glimpse the Limoges skyline: big industrial hotels in the foreground; trees with knobby branches, a fountain, and French-looking buildings smattered along a gradual incline in the background.
Ten minutes and one vending machine espresso later, Maggie arrived. Outside the station, the air was peppered with rain. Maggie refused to carry an umbrella. I, meanwhile, had a new one from Monoprix ready in my bag. My old purple one, which I bought following a long inner debate, had gotten more used to being inside-out than useful, so I had gone back to the drawing board and settled for a sturdy black one.
The town was quiet in the rainy gray breeze. We crossed small roundabouts and climbed sloping sidewalks. The colorless, interest-less buildings near the station gave way to more colorful and dated ones. The houses got closer and closer together until they pushed against each other, with windows painted turquoise and yellow and powdery pink. As we neared the city center, we stumbled upon a medieval village. In the hilly neighborhood of narrow streets, everything was suddenly charming and hidden.
We searched for our airbnb, which my cousin chose for its title of “hyper-centre” on the website. It certainly was super-center. We found a modern building smashed between two medieval ones and met out French host, who handed over the keys when we did not have any additional questions. Little did he know, the two minutes we spent speaking French with him were quite enough for two recently-reunited Minnesotan girls who wanted to spend Valentines weekend pretending their language failures did not exist.
The apartment smelled like 23-year-old boy (a whiff of body odor here or there) and had videogame controllers and wine glasses at easy access points on a shelf under the TV. We left in search of food, and ended up stumbling into an old, dark church. Edging around the sanctuary to a glass case full of vases, we read the words next to the case and realized the old painted vessels held the bones and skulls of saints. “You never know when you’re going to stumble on some bones here,” I said.
Rain like anywhere
We bought sandwiches at La Mie Caline, a chain that my cousin has grown to love in her adopted hometown of Pau in southwestern France (I had never heard of it). We sat on the church’s back steps, a square space between two buildings, eating tuna and hard-boiled eggs on baguettes. It started to rain, and I tried out my black umbrella for the first time.
It opened with the push of a button, sounding like a raven taking flight. It seemed to be a strong, true umbrella. (Side note: I am too obsessed with umbrellas.)
We dodged the rain by ducking into L’Occitane en Provence, a store that can be found in exotic places like Bloomington, Minnesota, where we have been hordes of times on trips to the Mall of America. Even though it’s at MOA, Maggie said, she likes going in and smelling things. So we did just that.
The rain let up a little. We walked around the historic downtown, following skinny medieval streets past closed shops full of colorful toys and a bar advertising 2.50-euro vin chaud that everyone — high schoolers and retirees alike — seemed to be coming in and out of. We got water and peanuts at Carrefour. We hiked down the central shopping streets and went to Zara — a fast-fashion chain that can be found anywhere in Europe. It was a successful trip; Maggie got a t-shirt.
Strolling around and shopping — something the two of us could have done anywhere. It was also clear that Maggie and my host dad were right: people do not visit Limoges. But there was something gratifying about doing normal things in this new place.
Le Bangkok à emporter
It was about six o’clock p.m. We returned to our place and took a nap. We woke up at 8:30. We decided the thing we truly wanted to do was get Chinese food and eat it back in our room.
The line at Wokway was full of impatient French people who just wanted a huge box of stir fry at the end of a long day. A pregnant woman stood behind us, her hip jutting out; attitude in a pair of those popular black sneakers. Two white French guys took orders and worked the wok behind the counter.
“Bonsoir,” (Good evening), one of them said.
“Bonsoir. Le Bangkok à emporter ?” (Good evening. Can I get the Bangkok to go?”), I asked.
“Oui, vous pourriez emporter,” (Yes, you can order stuff to go here), he said.
I do not think this man was prepared for my lack of language skills, or my accent.
“Non … est-ce que je pourrais avoir le Bangkok à emporter ? le Bangkok ?” (No … could I get the Bangkok to go? The Bangkok?), I asked.
“Oh, le Bangkok ? Oui, avec des baguettes?” (Oh, the Bangkok? Do you want chopsticks with that?), he asked me.
“Baguettes?” (Are you asking me if I want a baguette? As in the long loaf of bread?), I asked, perplexed.
“Non … baguettes,” he said, pointing to a bucket of wrapped chopsticks on the counter.
I had forgotten the word for chopsticks was the same as the one for France’s most famous bread.
French interactions over, and Maggie and I had our huge, American-sized stir fry boxes. We crossed back through the calm Limoges streets, a neon movie theater sign lighting up an oval-shaped square. The covered market building off the central square was still and deserted, its art-deco tiles reflecting the dull orange light from street lamps.
Before long, we were happily back in our one-night apartment, crunching on dried onion garnish, turning over the blue-sand hourglass out host had left on the table, and braiding each other’s hair. We did this when we were kids, Maggie always much better at braiding, me making a mess of her long, shiny hair. We talked about how we have realized we are not kids anymore, and being so far from home has helped us notice this.
It has also helped us noticed how easy it is to be lonely, how frustrating it can be to not be understood, and how even though we are not kids, there is a world of things we do not know. Watching the blue sand fall through the hourglass was also an all-too-literal reminder of how fast time passes — something our aunts and uncles always said but we never really believed until now, finding ourselves halfway through a year in this country where we still do not know what we are doing.
But being with my cousin has always made me feel more at home, and with a big box of stir fry, newly braided hair, and nowhere to go on a Saturday night in Limoges, all of those other things felt far away, and we both felt at ease.
Other photos, taken in and out of Limoges (where nobody goes)