Wish We Were There

It is eleven a.m. on a Saturday morning in February, and my brother and I are sitting in a café in Vannes, France. We have just ordered our breakfast, consisting of typical French fare: quiche, croissant, and chausson au pomme, a specialty pastry similar to an apple turnover. As we sip our coffee and satisfy our appetites, we watch the passersby and wait for the rest of our family to turn up. Like every Saturday morning in Vannes, it is market day. The heart of the city center, with its cobble stone streets and medieval wooden buildings, turns into a thriving market teeming with locals and tourists alike. Everything is sold here. The market has two halves, one devoted to food and the other to goods, such as clothing, household accessories, and jewelry. But today is no ordinary market day for me. Aside from my brother and I being the first to awake in our family, their very presence in Vannes makes this a special day. They have come to visit me on a two week tour of France.

As my mother, father, sister, and sister’s fiancé turn up, they are guided by one of my teachers at the vocational high school where I work. She has graciously offered to house them for the weekend that we spend in Vannes, and today she accompanies us to the market. While my family is drawn to the clothing and other accessories the market offers, their late arrival means we only have time to focus on the food side of the market, with its numerous vendors selling fresh fruit, vegetables, sausage, cheese, bread, and seafood. We set out to gather the various ingredients needed for tonight’s dinner, which will be our chance to provide my teacher with a taste of the South. As she has done her best to introduce us to as many local specialties as possible, we want to return the favor with one of our own: jambalaya. So we spend the next hour perusing the market, looking for shrimp, oysters, and stone crab to serve with our meal. After we wrap up our remaining purchases, we begin the walk back home for lunch.

Along the way, I cannot help but feeling that the distance between Vannes and Roswell, Georgia, my home in America, is not so far as I once thought. At first, I simply attribute this to the arrival of my family in my new home. Having them here makes me forget that I am in another country, over four thousand miles from Roswell. But I feel that there is something more to it than just having my family with me in Vannes. I reflect on a comment my brother made to me the night before, after having a drink at the local bar. As we walked through the deserted streets, silent as the night, he asked me if I felt that living in Vannes was just like living in Roswell. At the time, I had never considered the comparison, but the more I thought about this observation on our walk home from the market, the more I came to believe it.

The similiarities first appear to me on a superficial level. Making our way back to my colleague’s house, we leave the crowded city center and head out into the suburbs. Our path takes us through the various winding, narrow, and cobbled streets of historic Vannes and past the town’s beautiful, 15th-century Gothic cathedral. Along the way, we pass families, children, and grandparents walking to the market. The further we head out, the more modern the architecture becomes. Replacing the two-story, ancient wooden buildings are concrete and stucco apartments and houses; yet the streams of market-goers continue. As we walk, I cannot help but be reminded of a monthly tradition in Roswell known as “Alive After Five.” This event, held on Canton Street in historic, downtown Roswell, attracts people of all ages, for a night of shopping, fine dining, family fun, and of course, drinks for the adults. While the night only happens once a month and has a different purpose than the market in Vannes, it serves the same social function. Both events bring the community together, inspire commerce, and inject life into the heart of their respective town centers. And while the historic district in Roswell dates to the Civil War era, and therefore cannot match the ancient age of Vannes, both city-centers still serve as living reminders of their towns’ respective roots.

Despite their different relative geographical locations, perhaps the greatest comparison between Vannes and Roswell, however, lies in the people who live in these small cities. Vannes, with about 50,000 residents, is smaller than Roswell; located in the rural region of Brittany, it is one of the larger cities around. Outside of the town lie many small villages and hamlets, but mostly farmland. Roswell, a suburb of Atlanta, with a population of nearly 90,000 residents, is a sprawling urban area that continues to grow. Yet the people that inhabit both cities share many common characteristics. Vannes is often considered a bourgeois town, an affluent city ideal for raising a family; much the same could be said about Roswell, with its beautiful park system and strong schools. While those in the South often boast of the uniqueness of Southern hospitality, a similar neighborhood-friendliness exists in this small city in Brittany. A short ride on a city bus at night reveals this disposition, where every exiting passenger bids the bus a good evening before he steps onto the pavement.

My first experience with a barbershop in Vannes provided another example. I chose the barber because of his affordable prices, so when I entered the shop and saw a throng of people inside, I was dismayed. I had no desire to wait forever and a day for a haircut. However, before I could back out of my decision, I was invited to sit and enjoy a magazine. As I waited, I realized that nearly everyone here was either friends or family of the stylist. Since I was the newcomer to the group, and an American at that, I was immediately a curiosity. Yet their questions were respectful and born out of a genuine enthusiasm for knowledge. While I painfully delivered answers in French about why I was in Vannes and what I missed about America, they patiently awaited my responses and offered encouraging words about my level of French.  It was not long before my hair was cut, and along the way, I got a taste of the warmth of the residents of Vannes.

After our lunch, which consists of typical Breton fare-salty crepes filled with ham, egg, and cheese-we make our way back into town. It is a leisurely day where we stroll around the town center, peek in shops, and drink hot chocolate. That night, we return to my teacher’s house for dinner, and this time, the responsibility is on my family to prepare the menu. My brother leads the charge, as he is the jambalaya master, and under his direction the delicious meal is concocted. Here, in France, using local seafood bought at the town market, we create our own taste of America. And once again, I am reminded of my thoughts earlier in the day; I cannot escape the feeling that my life here is not unlike that of my life back home. Having my family with me, coupled with the realization that Vannes and Roswell are not so different after all, makes me feel more comfortable than I have at any point during my year in France. A week later, when their visit in France is over, I return to my apartment and prepare to start work again. This time, however, I feel relaxed. I know my new home, and even without my family it feels much like my old one.

All  photos by author.
Thomas A. Bledsoe

Thomas A. Bledsoe

Thomas Bledsoe is a resident of Atlanta, Georgia and a recent graduate of the University of Georgia. He has a degree in History, as well as minors in French and Religion. After completing his studies at UGA, Thomas moved to Vannes, France in September 2011 and will be there until May 2012. In France, he works as an English teaching assistant in a vocational high school and writes for the National Geographic France website. This is his second time living in France. In 2009, he spent a semester studying in Lyon, France as part of an exchange program. He will share his thoughts, observations, and experiences about life in France.