The heavy grey clouds besieged the earth with a feeling of antique passion and modern chemicals combined. As I sailed from this grey blanket, soaring above the French countryside, I had my first glimpse of an old land. This country had been home to the Ancient Gauls, distant relations of my own ancient Gaelic ancestors. Caesar had once marched his legions through this region, Rhône-Alps, while further south along the Rhône some two hundred years before Caesar, Hannibal the great Carthaginian general had crossed the Rhône with his massive army, war elephants and all, on their epic march across the Alps to Italy.
We landed suddenly, as though Aéroport de Saint-Exupéry were hidden in some obscure pocket of the countryside. It seemed as though it were an island of the modern world amidst the ancient green Gallic pastures. Sitting on the aisle, I was one of the first to stand, one of the first to collect my luggage from above, one of the first to disembark down the stairs and out onto the tarmac. As I stood on the top of the stairs, I beheld the line of my fellow passengers proceeding into the terminal. It looked as though we were passengers on some great Interwar flight, struggling to keep the cold, the wind, and the rain out of our skins, struggling to remain warm.
Saint-Exupéry was under heavy construction when I arrived. The airport is certainly a mix of mid-Twentieth Century architecture, presumably built for the Olympic Games, though it feels far more like an ’80s, ’90s, or 2000s edifice in many respects. After waiting about five minutes at Customs, my passport was stamped, and I was on my way along the fifteen minute walk down the winding corridors that led out of customs and to the Arrivals Hall. As my ride had yet to arrive, I proceeded upstairs into the main terminal for lunch.
There I began to use my French, which had been cultivated and prepared for this very moment for four years. Approaching the counter of a café in a food court I took a breath. “Bonjour, je voudrais le Parisien.”
“Parisien, ok,” came the matter of fact reply. “€4.20.”
I paid with a €5 and proceeded to an empty table where I was greeted by the splendidity that is the world of French sandwiches. A Parisien is a ham and butter on a baguette, something which I adored from that first introductory moment. Having finished I went exploring, walking down the terminal towards the entrance for the Rhône Express, the tram which goes into Lyon, terminating at Gare de Part-Dieu. I was supposed to be taking that tram to Part-Dieu, then boarding a TER train for Besançon Gare de Viotte, but all came to nought the evening previously with an email.
Having spent an hour wandering around my little corner of the old City of London and the big Sainsbury’s in Whitechapel, I had just returned to my semi-underground flat with a large steel funnel for siphoning off shampoo into the 70 ml bottle that I had bought for my carry-on bag. As I was doing the siphoning, an alert came through on my phone from SNCF about my journey from Lyon Part-Dieu to Besançon Viotte. I was surprised to subsequently discover that my train had been annuler, cancelled, because of a grève nationale, national strike by the railway workers.
Having finished my siphoning, I returned to my desk and took a closer look at the problem. Sure enough, I had a train ticket for Wednesday evening, but the corresponding train had been cancelled. Looking at later trains, I found that none would get me to Besançon before 22:30 or 23:00, or even before 06:20 the following day. So, I checked the bus schedule. Again, nothing. Declaring that I would not find myself spending a night in Lyon, I decided to go a bit far from my comfort zone and see what else was possible, even mentally considering hiring a private helicopter to take me to Besançon. Instead I found a website called BlaBlaCar.
Despite the rather odd, seemingly haphazard name, I was able to book a ride from Lyon to Besançon for a mere €12.30, which meant that I earned back a full Euro from the refunded train ticket! So, I would be riding in the car of a complete stranger for the entire 2.5 hours from Central Lyon to Besançon. But, things became ever more complex. Our negotiations led me to my sitting in Aéroport de Saint-Exupéry for about an hour, as my driver, Émilie, had agreed to pick me up there rather than having me come into Lyon to meet her.
I waited for a while on the broadwalk outside the entrance to Terminal 3, though as the freezing rain got heavier, I decided it would be rather intelligent if I waited indoors, seeing as I was still getting over a cold that had befallen my body two weeks prior. At about 17:15 Émilie arrived in her Renault Clio, and I found myself climbing in the back seat of a suitably small French car. Along with me were two other passengers, a woman in front whose name I never caught, and another woman in back with me named Éloise.
We swiftly proceeded out of the airport and onto the autoroute. Once on course, Émilie chatted with me briefly, asking why I was in France, how long I would stay, what I was doing in London, and finally where my ancestors came from, or at least that’s what I thought she asked. My response was quite matter-of-fact, “Irlande,” I stated quickly, to which she replied in English, “Why are you going to Besançon?”
“O!” I exclaimed, laughing internally, “Je visite une amie qui vient ma ville / I’m visiting a friend who is from the my city.”
“Ok” was the reply, as Émilie turned back around to focus on the road. The drive was pleasant, with a fine soundtrack of French music from the CD player, and those same verdant plains that I witnessed from the air. The soil of France truly has not changed much from its medieval and ancient past. Only the mechanisms by which we humans transverse that soil have changed. We may well have followed an ancient road, yet it was perhaps one of the best paved roads that I have ever been on. Not a bump, not a pothole in sight for over 100 miles.
After about an hour we stopped at a rest area. We still had about an hour and a half to go before we would arrive in Besançon, but we certainly were in the neighbourhood. The rest area was not like any that I have been to in the United States. It outdid even the finest Illinois Tollway Oases. The building was structured like a cabin, its high roof peaking some hundred feet over our heads. Its floors looked as though they were cleaned halfway through the day. The countertops were of the finest material, so much so that I could see my reflection perfectly in them like with the marble countertops at Harrods or Selfridges. While the women went their way, I made a quick stop to pick up a litre bottle of Evian, with the sincere hope of curing my horrible cough, which had been the one blemish, like an off-key horn attempting to play the Vorwärts drängend at the end of the First Movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, the Titan with the rest of the orchestra.
While waiting for the others, I got the chance to marvel at the building with Éloise. She asked how I was enjoying France, which received a “C’est un bel pays / It’s a beautiful country” in response. It seemed as though we were close in age, though I did not inquire too much about her or the others in the car.
After a smoke, Émilie was ready to return to the road. We made our way up into the foothills of the Alps as the Sun began to set. I found myself seeing more and more vehicles from elsewhere in the European Union further to the east, semi-trucks from Austria, private cars from just across the borders in Swabia and Switzerland, as well as trucks and vans from as far away as the Czech Republic. Then came the van from England carrying crates of bottled beer to Continental customers.
Around 20:00 we at last arrived in Besançon. I left Émilie and company at a car park on the eastern side of the Boucle, the old town which is aquatically bounded on three sides by Le Doubs. Walking to the northwest, I made my way along a street, passing by the tram, and into Place de la Révolution, the central square of Besançon. There I heard what sounded like a Midwesterner talking at full speed on the phone in English with a fellow American. Knowing immediately that it was my friend Eve, I decided to see if she would notice as I walked past. She didn’t, so I figured I’d leave it for a rather funny story in 30 minutes when we met for dinner.
I made my way through the square, keeping to the north side, passed Pont Battant, and walked down Rue Claude Pouillet, keeping an eye on the building numbers above the doors. Arriving at No. 25, I made the call to my hostess, who came down and welcomed me into the building. She was a kind woman, very warm hearted and full of good advice. After showing me the room and lavatory, she departed, and I set my things down, taking a quick breath before heading back downstairs to Rue Claude Pouillet and Place de la Révoultion beyond. There was Eve, still on the phone with her American contact. I made my presence known to her with a wave, then walked over to the restaurant where we would be dining, La Coudée, and had a look at the menu on the board outside the windows. As her call began to wind down I returned.
Eve hung up the phone, and a great broad smile appeared on her face. “Hi, Seán! You made it!”
“Eve! It’s so good to see you again! How are you?”
“Good, good,” she said, leading me towards La Coudée. “I’m glad you found the place.”
“Well, my apartment is just down that street there,” I said pointing towards the narrow passage that is Rue Charles Pouillet.
“O wow, so you’re basically in the centre of Besançon then!” She said, excited.
“Absolutely, it’s a great spot!” I replied, smiling as we entered the restaurant.
“Une table pour deux, s’il vous plâit,” Eve said to the hostess as we entered. She led us to a table to the left of the door, a big mirror behind it spanning the entire area of the wall.
Eve took a quick break and returned after five minutes. We talked about home, about baseball, about our classes and the stress of finishing the semester. For Eve, the end was nigh, with a final exam in French Literature the following morning. For me the end was still a month away, though the coursework nearly finished. As we looked over the menu Eve, whose French is far superior to my own, helped me figure out what I was going to order. Being an American who at this point had been on the road for nearly ten hours, I was craving a burger, and so I ordered the Burger de maison, house burger.
As our food was being prepared the conversation turned to family. I answered Eve’s questions about my own family, which she knows, at least in part back in Kansas City. She was highly enthusiastic about the largeness of my extensive Irish Catholic clan, which at this point numbers somewhere around 30 persons. This of course contributed to her expected confusion at the old game of Who’s Who when it came to keeping my kin in order mentally.
The burger was fantastic! A great mix of French and American cooking. The owner, an older soft spoken man of slender build who exuded saintly kindness and generosity came over to our table with a smile. He and Eve were acquainted, and they conversed happily in French as we ate. She introduced me as the son of the couple who she had brought to that restaurant back in September, all of which I remembered from hearing my Mom’s tales of Besançon as they drove back to Anncey after their day trip here last September.
I chose a chocolate cake for dessert, and we continued to discuss life back home. Eve would be leaving France on Sunday. She would have one week back in Kansas City before returning to her studies at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, a small railway town which sits along the junction of the BNSF and Union Pacific railroads as they wind their way across the plains towards Chicago to the east. I finished my dessert with speed, as Eve had to be on her way on the tram back to her lodgings. I paid the fair sum of €18 for my sumptuous dinner, and left with the cheery cries of “Bonsoir” exchanged between the owner, Eve, and I.
Eve led me across the square to the Révolution tram station, discussing sites that I could see in Besançon the following day. We agreed to meet for coffee after she finished her French Literature final exam, and parted ways with the customary French bise, the twin kisses on the cheeks. I walked back across the square and down Rue Claude Pouillet, stopping for a moment to detour down a close to what appeared to be a quay along the riverbank. From the quay I watched as the lights of the town twinkled on the current, as Le Doubs continued to flow, as it always does, downstream towards the Saône, into the Rhône and at last near Arles the current escapes into the Mediterranean. The fresh Alpine air filled my lungs with a sense of joy, having left thick, soupy congested London for greener fields, if only for a few days.
I returned to my apartment, called my Mom, and spent the last hour of the evening watching the first episode of Sir David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals on the BBC iPlayer before saying my evening prayers and dousing the lamps. Sleep came quickly, descending upon me like the heavy grey clouds which kept watch over the fields of France that night.