Today is the first day of my fall break: congé de Toussaint (All Saint's Day Break). I slept in as late as I judged sensible (9:30), got ready in a leisurely manner, and headed to the train station. After waiting in line for half an hour, I bought a lot of train tickets: tickets to Lyon on Monday and back on Wednesday, to and from Nantes the weekend I'm going to Milan (flying from the Nantes regional airport, which is why I'm going there), and a ticket to the small Loire valley town of Le Mans for today.
Le Mans, my guidebook says, is not a very pretty town. However, the medieval part of town is beautiful enough that people like to shoot movies there, such as the famous version of Cyrano de Bergerac. There's also a cathedral and a few museums, so I figured it would be a good half-day trip.
My first impression of Le Mans corresponded exactly with the guide book: Le Mans is not pretty. I'd go as far to call it ugly, creepy, dirty, and creepy. As usual, I picked a train station exit and started to walk. Essentially, all of Le Mans except for the touristy area is one giant construction zone. Sidewalks closed everywhere, piles of sand and gravel, chunks of concrete, fences around seedy looking lots, the whole shebang. It took about fifteen minutes of walking to find a sign pointing me to downtown, and after I had been walking in that direction for four minutes or so, enter Creepy Man #1. I'm a naturally polite person, so when someone politely says, "Excuse me, miss," in an "I'm lost and need to ask for directions" sort of way, I stop and let them talk. Apparently though, he didn't need directions. In fact, he just wanted to get to know me, since he found me "tout à fait charmante." No, though thank you for the compliment. I don't give my number to random men who approach me on the street. So the creepiness factor of Le Mans had gone up a bit.
Up the street a bit further, and I saw a woman walk to... a bus stop! Buses aren't scary. I fished out some change and got onto the bus, which was full of very unhappy looking people. I got off one stop after we passed the tourist office, and saw...
...that. The St Julien Cathedral, which is beautiful. Creepiness fading... fading... nearly gone. The cathedral was surprising, since it's different from your typical French cathedral in a number of ways. First, it lacks spires. Most have two. Second, it has about four times the flying buttresses, which makes it look short and squat, though it isn't. It's also surrounded by trees and a wall, and, weirdest of all, across the street from a large parking lot and a carnival. Probably because Le Mans is on a hill, there are a lot more cars than you see in Angers.
I went in the cathedral, but couldn't stay long, since guests were going in for a wedding. The inside of the cathedral is very typical, which was surprising after the interesting exterior. Here's one of the side rose windows:
The exit I took put me right in the middle of old Le Mans, which is charming. It's got those little rocky stairways in between ivy covered medieval houses, and twisty roads, and buildings made of both stone and wood with intricate ironwork on the windows, it's wonderful.
In the middle of the old quarter is the Musée de la Reine Bérengère, which only cost about two dollars and has a large collection of paintings, home objects, and pottery covering the region's history. As far as I can tell, I was the only person there, and since no one told me not to use flash I got some decent pictures of some of the more interesting (i.e. incredibly unusual) objects.
Here's the outside of the museum, which is in one of the ancient houses:
This little thing is a "Musical Irrigator" which, according to the description, could play "Boccace vase" and "le petit Duc" when the twisty-thing is open. I find that intriguing, but to be honest I have no idea who it would be used or how it could work.
This is a covered spoon, used for taking medicines that smelled bad, to improve the taste. Ingenious.
In the center of this picture is a ceramic lion with a rather interesting look on his face. The castle on the left and the Napoleon figure are both meant to hold clocks.
It's unfortunate that this picture came out a bit blurry, because it is by far the coolest collection of pot lids I have ever seen. They were made by man who was a surgeon by day and an amateur potter by night. I suppose being a surgeon helped him to achieve the incredible level of detail. I particularly like the bottom left one, "Man and woman feeding animals." The one to its right is a man who used to have a pipe, but the pipe has been lost. Consequently, his little hole of a mouth gives him a look of surprise.
This picture mostly shows a handful of Madonnas, but what I find most interesting is the way these were glazed. A lot of the pottery was glazed in a very strange way: it's almost as if the potter just splashed on splotches of color in a haphazard way. It seems like such a childish way to glaze, though the statues themselves are very intricate and impressive. It's hard to see the detail in this photo, but the statue at the bottom is of the holy trinity. Jesus isn't actually suspended on a cross, he's being held in that position by God the Father, who has a dove on his chest. I find that unusual as well.
Anthropomorphic Pitchers!! Their hats are open on top, and they have handles coming out of their backs.
The anthropomorphic pitcher on the left looks somewhat serene. The one on the right... doesn't. It's all in the eyebrows, I think. What an expression!
Last two pictures. First is the attic, and I'm very jealous of the rafters. Second is a reconstructed room, typical of the 18th-19th centuries in the region. Everything is pretty straightforward except for the wooden coffe-table-shaped item on the right. It's a "trotteur ou promenoir, sapin, encore en usage dans les années 1950." As far as I can translate, that means that it's a sort of walker. For children?! The piece with the hole in it does slide back and forth along the sides, but the hole is rather small and I can't see how that would be humane. I'd like to think that I completely misunderstood what the thing is, but I can't see what else it could be.
After leaving the museum, I decided to head back towards the downtown area, where I had seen a building that looked suspiciously like a mall. I like those. On the way, I met... Creepy Man #2. He was with two other people, all were holding cameras and wearing suits, and when he said, "Pardon me, miss..." I assumed he was going to ask me to take a picture of them, and stopped. Quite a surprise to hear, "I was wondering if you'd like to get me a cup of tea." I'm sure I heard the m' me in there. When I looked confused, he pointed out a café and asked if I'd like to go have a drink with him. I said no and moved on, still incredibly confused. Right before I went into the mall, the newly-married couple drove past. There was much honking like in the States, but what was strange was the type of car. I'm not sure if this is typical, but they were in a very old car. Not quite Model T, but Model V or W is my estimate of the era. That was odd.
I got the seventh Harry Potter book in French at the mall, went to a bakery for a quick lunch, and walked toward the bus stop, since I wasn't in the mood to get lost. Le Mans is just plain creepy, and even though I liked the medieval part, I just didn't have any desire to stay longer than absolutely necessary. At the bus stop I saw a woman carrying a very small child with pigtails and a pink sweater. Then the "child" turned its head and I saw that it was a dog. It's amazing how the French treat their pets, and even more amazing how much this dog managed to look like a human.
I had a few minutes to relax after I got home, and then I headed downstairs to dinner with Anne, my landlord. She likes to have all the students (there are currently three of us living here: Shao Ting from China, Lucija from Croatia, and me) over for dinner every so often, to have French food in a French family environment. Anne invited a friend of hers as well, and I liked him a lot: intelligent, kind, patient with foreigner-French, our circumlocutive dialect. Anne made a potage (vegetable puree soup, it was really good), quiche lorraine (except for the fact that quiche is made with eggs, it was good), the usual French cheese course, and some sort of pudding for dessert. French dinners are very leisurely, and though we didn't eat a large quantity of food, the meal lasted two hours, with lots of chatting in between courses.
Tomorrow I have to get up moderately early to go sing at church, and Monday I have to get up at... 3:30 a.m. I need to leave for the train station (I'm walking, since it's too early for the bus) at 4:20 to go to Lyon. I don't think break will really feel like break until Friday, when I get to sleep in as late as I want.