Summer in France is a peculiar time. Once school lets out at the beginning of July, cities tend to empty out and expressways tend to fill up with camper vans. Restaurants, gyms, and other businesses typically close at some point for a two-week break. There are traffic updates on all news reports saying whether traffic is red, orange, or green in the direction of departures or returns. (Departures and returns to where exactly, I have to wonder.)
Offices and workplaces turn into ghost towns as well. Our friend who is a post-doc in a lab in the south of Paris is taking three weeks off because the lab is so empty it feels pointless to work. One of our other friends has August off because the gym he works at is closed. My two sports teacher friends packed up their things the day after school let out and headed down south.
I’ve never had this summer reflex to leave and not come back for as long as possible, so it’s taking me some time to figure it out. J’s friends are all rock-climbers so their vacations are spent rock-climbing and sleeping in campsites or friends’ apartments. Families seem to pick two or three weeks in July or August, pack up their cars, and drive down south somewhere, to the coast or to the mountains. But the whole idea of a sort of standard family vacation taken by the entire country over the course of eight weeks seems pretty strange to me.
It’s led me to think about the family vacations we took as an American family. The closest equivalent to this type of French vacation would be the trips we took when I was little to the Arkansas state parks in the summer. My parents would rent a one-bedroom cabin and we would drive up through Texas and into Arkansas to spend a week or two. I don’t exactly remember how we filled our time. I know there was one summer on a lake when my brother and I found a couple of logs to float out on (it was totally fun, I swear). There were certainly a lot of games of hearts, as well as some hikes.
But that stopped around when I turned twelve and we started having other opportunities during the summer, like going to the Canadian Rockies or Bavaria with my parents. And eventually we started working during the summer so that these vacations feel like a very long time ago, though we probably did them four or five times.
Anyway, over this past long holiday weekend (August 15th is a public holiday), I got to experience a little of the typical French vacation and understand about what the “sens du départ” referred to on the traffic reports. J and I have a friend whose family lives in La Rochelle, an hour and a half from here, and her parents were gone for their vacation (to Alsace, just to confuse that brief “sens du départ” clarity) while she was working in town.
I’m a fan of Poitiers. It’s a pretty little medieval city with a vibrant student life during the year and concerts during the summer. But it is relatively dead once the students leave town mid-May. La Rochelle, on the other hand, was bursting with tourists till two in the morning. All along the old port, there are street artists and street vendors, and, of course, Ernest’s Ice Cream, open till past midnight.
We went back to the France 1, where I’d been with my BTS students back in May, for drinks and tapas. The France 1 is a meteorological ship that has been anchored in the La Rochelle port pretty much since meteorological ships were replaced by satellites. Now it’s part of the Musée Maritime of La Rochelle, with an exhibit on the lower decks and a bar on the upper decks. I took a tour of the France 1 with the BTS students last May, and I thought it was fascinating. Maybe I’m just a big dork but I think it’s worth a visit if you come to La Rochelle.
Besides lounging in our friend’s pool, we also managed to go to the beach, at Châtelaillon-Plage, technically not La Rochelle but very nearby.
We had excellent rum cocktails at the casino’s beach bar, La P’tit Havane. I know I said I’m not really a fan of rum, but mixed with freshly pressed orange juice, it was just the thing.
And when I mean that I now partly understood where French families go on vacation, I mean not only that I saw lots of families wandering around but also that I did end up running into some of my students. We went to the pool at Châtelaillon (I know, it’s a bit silly to go to a pool right on the beach) and I ended up seeing two of my teenage students poolside. Frankly if I hadn’t run into any the entire time in La Rochelle, I would have been surprised.
We rounded out the trip with dinner at La Fleur de Sel, including fish soup…
and a seafood lunch Sunday bought at the La Rochelle market.
As you can tell I didn’t take many pictures, so these are all from the Internets. I did successfully not get sunburned thanks to several daily applications of sun screen. In spite of living only an hour and a half from La Rochelle for four years now, I feel like I’ve finally discovered a little bit of this tourist spot these past few months, and I hope any and all readers I have get a chance to go sometime.