The morning light was gray and dappled, reflecting off the inky, rain-slicked street to illuminate the limestone masonry that made a kind of gorge of the Rue St-James. I was glad of my trench coat. We hurried past the patio of the Turkish tabac, filled with men gossiping over their morning espressos, cigarettes in hand. Their presence jutted out into the sidewalk in a way that was jolly, but did not invite newcomers. The bracing wind pushed us toward a looming, 18th-century clock tower-cum-dungeon, which we ducked under before pushing open the wide glass doors, fogged a bit from the warmth inside, of the yellow-walled coffee shop that, yesterday morning, we had dubbed “our spot.”
The problem was, I was supposed to have found “our spot” in Paris, not Bordeaux.
Paris had been the whole reason for the trip, after all. We tacked on a few other cities to make the most of the airfare, but I was there for Paris. I spent almost a year fine-tuning our itinerary, researching the best restaurants and arrondissements, and learning French in order to “do” Paris the right way.
But after all that, it was a relief to put Paris in my rearview. I tried to cram five days with a bit too much of its famed “moveable feast,” and ended up with a stomachache — literally. Something I ate didn’t agree with me, and forced me to spend three days road-tripping through Brittany, a seafood lover’s paradise, on nothing but soup and yogurt. I had tried so hard to find a little slice of Paris I could call my own that I actually made myself sick. And yet here I was, on my second morning in Bordeaux, surrounded on all sides by overflowing bookshelves and freshly baked pastry, smiling at my new husband over a steaming bowl of café au lait, and saying, “this is what I was looking for.” But I couldn’t exactly put my finger on the why. Why did Bordeaux make so much sense to me?
Leaving the cafe, aptly named Books and Coffee, we meandered our way through narrow, ancient streets that opened into lively squares. The crisp air was interrupted with the scent of warmed spices, as cafes beckoned with promises of vin chaud, a close cousin to our mulled wine. A family-owned fromagerie was neighbors with a modern lampshade designer, the first of several odd pairings I encountered as we made our way to the river. Bordeaux embraces this mix of old and new, and seems to love pitting them against each other in a kind of Darwinism that preserves the best traditions and weeds out trendy flashes-in-the-pan. It is no coincidence that a chic Bordelaise woman will pair her faded black Carhartt jacket with sleek, shiny hair. She loves a paradox, and so do I.
Mimi Thorisson, a writer and chef living in the Médoc region just outside Bordeaux, says of the city, “The bourgeois flair is mesmerizing. Some cities have a rosy tint, others have shades of gray, but Bordeaux, is well, bordeaux. It’s my favourite colour, from a juicy Chateaubriand, a perfect dress, an elegant glass of wine, Italian shoes and a cashmere scarf — all the things I like.” It’s true that Bordeaux values quality, especially in its wine, architechture, and foodstuffs, but as we crossed the wide Garonne river, our backs to the Belle Epoque monuments that tower over the right bank, and strolled along the Napoleonic Pont de Pierre that unites Bordeaux’s grand past with its avant-garde, youth-driven future, I began to realize that Bordeaux is more than fine wine and rich food.
Looking for lunch, we wandered into a partially-renovated military barracks that housed an organic grocery and food hall known as the Magasin Général, and ordered the plat du jour, which turned out to be a delicious, baked square of toothpick-thin sliced veggies, seasoned to perfection, and accompanied with a savory dressing that reminded my husband of tzaziki. It was a simple but incredibly wholesome meal — something your grandmother would whip up for a weekend lunch — and a blessing after all the steak frites.
We took advantage of the rare sunny day to explore the rest of the barracks. It contained multitudes: vintage upholstered couches had a second life as al fresco dining accoutrements, a small skate park doubled as a mural when viewed from above, roofless ruins became a maze-like party venue at night, and — towering over it all — a three-story gorilla emblazoned with the words “global warning” was breaking through its barred cage, fist raised in defiance.
The complex is part of the Darwin Eco-System, a collection of Bordelaise entrepreneurs and creatives committed to exploring new economic models that support ecological conservation and cultural education. Co-founder Jean-Marc Gancille abandoned Darwin in 2015, frustrated with the slow rate of change and pushback from the municipal government. But the hope with which he built Darwin now pervades the city that failed him four years ago.
Crossing back over the bridge into the city center, my experiences in this complex, enigmatic city precipitated into an expressible thought: when you dig a bit deeper than world-famous wines, you find that Bordeaux is at its heart an optimistic city. And not in an idle, idealistic way. Their hope is active, even a little aggressive. Bordeaux is hopepunk — my new favorite word of 2019 meaning a militant optimism that refuses to give in to oppression, climate disaster, and extremism.
I began to see it all over the city — in the environmentally-friendly public trams, the amount of people biking or walking, the emphasis on local and organic food — everyone cared. Yes, there was still trash in the parking garage where we left our rental car, and a homeless man asleep in the stairwell, but Bordeaux as a whole was making an effort.
I remember dinner that night at Symbiose — a word which refers to a mutually-beneficial relationship between two organisms — was a lovingly-crafted experience of local ingredients in unusual presentations, like cuttlefish tagliatelle with eggplant caviar. I remember the surprisingly young chef, Félix, greeting every guest at the end of the meal, shaking hands and asking which dish was a favorite. I remember a group of Bordelaise college students debating politics at a table next to us at “our spot.”
Just a few weeks later, protests broke out all over France in response to a further hike in fuel taxes. And while violence and vandalism in Paris garnered negative attention from international media, perhaps Bordeaux strikes the right balance as a city that honors its history, but is actively reaching toward a better future, armed with the radical hope that we can make a difference.
Originally published at https://www.hannahmoseleywrites.com on April 29, 2019.