Pau, France, is so far southwest that it is six hours from Paris by train and almost in Spain (where it rains mainly in the plain, I imagine). It is also where my cousin, Maggie, has been living and studying this year. When I arrived in Paris, I thought I would be taking a trip down to Pau every other month or so. It would be an easy weekend trip to see my cousin and to become familiar with another city in France. I thought.
So why was I getting up at 4:45 a.m. on the first weekend of April to get on a train to go there for the very first time? Because there were a few things I did not realize: (1) that the au pair schedule does not easily allow for weekend trips to the south of France, (2) that six hours by train is a long way to go for a weekend (and it’s expensive), and (3) that I am a bad planner. Also, I realized that it is very difficult to leave Paris for the weekend when you live here. There is so much to do, and it is all only a metro ride away. This is a blessing and a curse.
Gliding out of Gare Montparnasse into the twinkle-lit darkness of the early morning, I was feeling pretty #blessed to be getting the heck out of Paris and — finally — en route to Pau.
Les arbres de palme
On the ride, I watched the landscape change: dank hilly countryside became lush meadows and vineyards. Industrial centers in the no-man’s land around Paris gave way to colorful buildings with orange-tiled roofs as I passed through Bordeaux. The sun came out. The earth showed signs of the sun never having left. This part of France did not know winter the same way Paris did. As a Minnesotan, I sometimes forget that there are places where things do not die between December and March. This train ride reminded me.
When the TGV stopped in Pau’s four-track station, I stepped down onto the platform and just kept walking. From the parking lot, I saw palm trees. They led up to a huge bluff full of white buildings with yellow and blue awnings. A vintage cable car waited at the base of the hill to take people from the station to Pau’s city center. This thing was called the Funicular.
Without having to stop walking, I ran into Maggie, fresh off the bus from her apartment on the other side of town. “Want to take the Funicular?” she asked.
Oh yes I did.
We squeezed in with the Bordeauxians from the train, our loud American English palpable in the small space as we recounted the awkward encounters we had had since we had last seen one another. When the car reached the top, we stepped out, turned right, and saw mountains.
Pau sits on the edge of the Pyrenees. The people who first settled there must have done a lot of climbing, found the most mystical view they could, and said, “let’s stay here.” The city center starts right at the top of the bluff with a road called simply, “the Boulevard,” which winds right against the edge of the cliff. People sit outside of cafés drinking under shady umbrellas and watching the hills come alive on the other side of the river. On a sunny day like this one, you can see spans of green meadows under the rocky peaks so clearly that if Julie Andrews were there spinning around with arms open wide, you would see her. (I did not realize that this would be the blog post where I reference Julie Andrews musicals.)
Heading away from the Boulevard and toward the heart of the city, we turned one more time to gaze at the mountains. In the middle of a square, a fat oval palm tree anchored the gateway of Pau in the foreground of the Pyrenees. When Maggie came here, her host mom picked her up at the airport. As they drove, Maggie pointed out the palm trees, describing them as arbres de palme, literally, “trees of palm.” It had been a guess, but reversing the words and slapping a de in the middle is how you say a lot of things in French. Her host mom corrected her: palmiers was actually the word.
Needless to say, this chubby old palmier gave a great welcome to Pau.
We walked through a sunny plaza flanked by huge shopping buildings in the style of Art Nouveau (but probably built more recently). A fountain dazzled in the light as its turquoise water spilled over colorful tiles and a sign saying that swimming in it was strictement interdit. A chalky carousel rolled next to a stand selling cotton candy and churros. People walked around in sunglasses and made it feel like a day at the beach.
The buildings did, too. In every pastel color with lovely shuttered windows, Pau’s architecture is clean and unassuming. Passing by apartments in blue and pink and yellow, I could not help but repeat, “this is so nice!” Pau is a nice place. It’s a simple phrase but it really is true.
“I’ll show you my favorite quadrant of the city,” Maggie said after we had eaten a lunch of salade aux crevettes (salad with shrimp on top) and stopped at her favorite bakery to buy one-euro macarons that filled the palms of our hands. (Another Southwestern France vocabulary note: there, pain au chocolat is chocolatier. So if you ever want to buy a chocolate pastry in the Pyrenees, remember that!) We turned down some especially ancient streets with especially pretty buildings. The cool air in the shady street alternated with hot bursts of sunlight when we crossed a walking bridge, skipped across the street to an old church, or rounded a corner and saw THE CASTLE.
Yes, Pau has a castle. King Henry IV was born there and Napoleon vacationed there when he was in power. The fortress is a beautiful white and brown brick structure with airy stone etchings and colorful flower gardens (which Marie Antoinette dug around in during her own stays in the castle). We stood on a bridge and took pictures.
Then we set off for our two real Pau adventures: (1) going to a wine tasting, and (2) meeting Maggie’s host mom.
Going to the wine tasting
We were four American girls on a sweaty bus going out of Pau and into Jurançon, a city just across the river. “I’ve never been over here before,” said one of Maggie’s two friends who had joined us as the houses got further apart and the grass grew taller and wilder. Soon, we got off by a complex of white buildings with a big driveway. It was la Cave de Gan-Jurançon, a wine cave that produces and sells wines made from grapes grown all over the region.
Stepping into the complex’s little shop, my cousin tried to explain to a woman behind the counter that we had booked a tour of the place. In fast, confused French, the woman explained that the office was closed on Saturdays so they did not get the message. She seemed like she wanted us to get out of there. In this part of the country, English speakers are not so common. It is a natural reaction, but some French people just do not want to deal with people like us, even if we can communicate in French. Before we made this woman too uneasy, she presented us with her only English-speaking co-worker who would give us the tour after all: Paul.
Paul was extremely attractive. Immediately, us four girls were at our coolest, laughing only when it was acceptable to laugh and pronouncing our vowels in the Frenchiest way possible. Paul led us out to the main buildings, smiling under his perfectly browned skin as he confessed, “my Eeengleesh is verhy bahd.” We told him he could speak French, and he looked relieved. On the tour, we learned about how distributors bring grapes into the building and saw the huge cylindrical vats the wines are made in, but we mostly looked at Paul. He used a lot of technical language that we pretended to know. When he paused to ask us if we understood, we all smiled and said, « Oui, pas de problème ! » Just keep talking, Paul, we all thought. Just keep being you.
Paul showed us the wine cave and then we walked back down the road toward the shop. In there, he took out a bottle of the winery’s driest white wine. “And now for the best part,” Paul said as he poured it into small glasses. While the French couple next to us lapped at their two sips of wine for minutes on end, we downed ours like shots. « Ça était ? » Paul asked, surprised that we were already done. “It was good?”
We took turns waiting for Paul to pour us more wine, tracing the spectrum from dry to sweet and eating toothpicks full of quiche and cake. Somehow, the tasting was free. As a fake Parisienne, it did not make sense to me how this could be possible, but I drank a few more samples and stopped worrying. The four of us chatted with Paul about wines from the U.S. versus from France. (“I don’t really know anything about wines from Californie,” was the general consensus we gave.) We each bought a bottle of the wine we enjoyed most from the tasting. I chose the first dry wine, which Paul had described as “aggressive.” It cost fewer than five euros — another thing I could not believe.
We bid farewell to Paul and got back on the bus, sweating out the wine as we crossed back into Pau.
Meeting Maggie’s host mom
There is another side to Pau. A few minutes outside of the charming pastel city center, we found ourselves surrounded by high rises. The streets were wide and deserted. We got off the bus and crossed through a big parking lot to Maggie’s building, a 14-story blue tower where she has been living for the past seven months with her host mom.
My cousin was initially disappointed to have been assigned to a one-person host family. I had tried to reassure her. “Don’t worry, wait and see what she’s like. You might get along really well and form a really strong bond,” I said. Wrong. Though things have gone mostly well with this woman, Maggie has clued me in over the last few months about some of her quirks that do not always go over so well.
We took the elevator up to the fifth floor, unlocking the apartment to discover the smell of something cooking. To our delight, there was a gratin aux pommes de terre (potato bake) in the oven, but no host mother. We put our wine in the fridge and headed down the road to E. Leclerc, a huge French grocery store that is a bit like Cub Foods. Maggie needed some vegetables because she does not eat a lot of those at home unless she buys them herself.
We got back to the apartment, and the TV glowed in the front room. As we unpacked our groceries, my cousin’s host mom glided into the hallway on the silent floor of the modern building. « Salut, c’est toi, Heh-lee ? Ça va ? » We exchanged la bise and she gave me a very warm welcome into her home, telling us we could eat the gratin and a tomato quiche that was in the fridge. Slight and sweet, she chatted warmly with us for a few minutes before disappearing back into the living room. She seemed very kind. How could my cousin have any problems living with her?
A few minutes later, one of her quirks presented itself. Maggie had gone into the living room and I stood in the kitchen, admiring the gratin with hungry eyes. I stooped over the dish and took a forkful of potatoes. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone. « Ça va, Heh-lee ? » The host mom had come out of nowhere and was suddenly standing next to me in the kitchen. I tried to explain why my mouth was full. We talked a bit, and she left. My cousin reappeared.
Apparently the woman does this all the time, sneaking silently through the house and creeping up on my cousin with no warming, screeching « Ça va ? » when she most wants to be left alone, and sending her heart up into her terrified Anglophone throat. She does this out of kindness, Maggie admitted, but quite frankly, it’s scary.
We tasted some of the “aggressive” wine and Skyped with our family, a bit leery for the next time the host mom would pop in unannounced. My aunt Tracy appeared on the screen, smiling next to our cousin Mary, who was back in Minnesota for her baby shower. They asked us about Pau and whether I had enjoyed a bit too much wine. I tried to explain that I had been awake since 4:45, but perhaps the wine and Paul had taken their hold on me.
“It’s great you two can be together,” Tracy said as we adjusted the phone to fit both of our faces on the screen. Before leaving Minnesota, I had never gone this long without seeing my mother’s sister. Not everyone can say that about their aunt, but most of my family is in one place, so I have always been surrounded by extended family. Here, the closet thing I have to that is the crazy spontaneous lot that is my host family, and with my umbrella and nanny bag, I am their Mary Poppins (a bit of a stretch, maybe, but I needed to fit another Julie Andrews reference in here). For Maggie, it’s a woman who sneaks up on her unannounced when she is not watching TV or cooking.
But for now, that was OK. Let’s face it: how could another blog post about being abroad in your early 20s not end that way? In this instance, it was because of palm trees, sweaty bus rides, aggressive white wine, charming towns with a sketchy other side, castles, mountains, train rides through Bordeaux, Funiculars, and talking with aunts on the other side of the planet. And being together.
“You should get some sleep,” Tracy said, laughing at my tired, fake-drunk eyes before disconnecting from Skype. We said goodnight and the house was quiet, the host mom at a safe distance (for now).
I would spend one more day in Pau and one more day with Maggie there. Next time I see her, we will be in Paris, and it will be one of her last days in France. It will also be one of the last days I have family in France.
But, like my aunt said, it’s just great we can be together.
Other photos from Paris and Pau