Monday, 21 November 2016
Return to Montpellier!
So, with half-term in Avignon underway, I caught a train to Montpellier. As we trundled through Languedoc-Roussillon, I listened to music and wondered how the city might have changed.
I had last been in Montpellier a year and a half before, as a stop-off in the middle of a chaotic trip to the Camargue, and I had done a training day in Montpellier during my time as a Language Assistant in Perpignan. However, both of those trips were fleeting. The last time I properly spent time in Montpellier was in 2012, when I visited with my sixth-form.
Of course, before that, there was the 2011 sixth-form trip that changed my life in so many ways. If it wasn't for that trip I very likely would not be sitting here, in the south of France, writing this blog. Montpellier was the city that made me love France and French. Needless to say, I was excited to be on my way back there.
I arrived into the gigantic Saint-Roch station and, with some difficulty, found the right exit. Out in the street I felt a thrilll of joy at the familiar sights of tramlines, bakeries and palm trees.
I made my way up to the Place de la Comédie, the main square in the city and one of my favourite places to spend time. It has a carousel, a beautiful fountain, markets and musicians. Once there, I paused to consider my options. I decided to first visit the old town, and maybe find the apartment building I stayed in during the sixth-form trips.
As I climbed up through the hilly mish-mash of streets that is Montpellier's historic centre, I began to realise how bizarre the weather and atmosphere were. The afternoon was overcast and grey, but it was more than that. The air felt heavy and tropical, and there was a vague sense of foreboding. Montpellier is known for storms and floods, but this didn't feel stormy. It was just strange.
Battle of the posh ice-creams!
What might they sell here?
Chocolate doughnut - I've missed them! They are everywhere in Montpellier and Perpignan but I never see them in Avignon
Drifting through the narrow streets, I was struck by a prickly feeling of familiarity. I was sure I had been here before, probably on the sixth-form trip, and I wondered whether I would stumble upon the place where I had stayed. I knew the address and could find it on a map if necessary, but I liked the idea that some kind of subconscious homing device might lead me back there on my own.
Eventually, I reemerged into one of the main streets leading back to the Place de la Comédie. And... I had found the apartment building! I don't want to show exactly where it is, although I took photos for myself. It was just so odd and wonderful being back there, nearly five years after last seeing it, and nearly six years after first staying there.
It was a really powerful moment, emotionally. I thought about where I am now in life, and where I was then, and how much I have achieved in five years. And how, for all that, the building and street and general area had barely changed at all. It was as if I was standing in a timeless space, with people and places and ideas moving and changing in the distance but with me in a little oasis of stillness.
Somewhat reeling from actually having found the place, I wandered back down to the Place de la Comédie, admiring flowers, fountains and half a car.
I arrived back at the Place. These photos capture the strangeness of the sky.
There were some guys in the middle of the Place who had music playing and called kids up from the crowd to dance. The audience would all cheer because they couldn't not cheer little kids. It struck me as a rather cheap way of entertaining people!
I headed to the Häagen-Dazs shop - not the one from earlier, competing with Amorino, but one just off the Place, that we hung out in during the sixth-form trips. I was happy to see it was still there, and treated myself to scoops of salted caramel and cookie dough with a dollop of cream. It was as delectable as it looks.
I wasn't really sure what to do after that; I had seen all that I had wanted to in the city centre. In the end I bought a tram ticket to Odysseum, a modern suburb with attractions such as an aquarium, LazerQuest, a planetarium and a plethora of restaurants and shops.
I didn't really have time to go round the aquarium, but I popped into the gift shop and felt nostalgic remembering our sixth-form visits there, during which some of my classmates had insisted on naming every shark. "This one's Frank, this one's Dave..."
The weird atmosphere was becoming more and more noticeable, and I knew I would be leaving Montpellier soon. I popped into a Columbus to get something to eat before the train journey. Columbus is a nice, reliable coffee shop chain - the Perpignan one was us language assistants' regular haunt. However, today, while my panini was enjoyable, my drink was a little odd!
I had asked for a raspberry milkshake, and it certainly didn't look or taste anything like raspberry! It didn't really taste like anything. Hazelnut was one of the milkshake options, so maybe it was that - but then, I had hazelnut milkshake once in Perpignan and I don't think it was like that. It's a mystery...
Maybe they escaped from the aquarium; I think I remember there being parrots like those there. Who knows! Anyway, it was just one more slightly odd happening in an odd - but not unpleasant - day out.
Back at the station I bought a trashy French celebrity magazine - if you think British ones are bad, you haven't seen what I call the "pink magazines"! They line the walls of train station shops and are all so blatantly made by the same people.
They have covers the same shade of pink, the same fonts and the same few (probably fake) stories - they just rotate which is the main story and which go on the side panel. They're fairly pointless, but for the sake of amusement and of brushing up on my colloquial French, I very occasionally get one.
So, on the train back to Avignon I read all kinds of rot about American celebrities and French reality shows, and checked out my horoscope. To their credit, they had several pages of puzzles that were actually quite enjoyable.
That was my day in Montpellier! I was glad to see that for all that has happened in the world and in my life, my favourite city seems more or less unchanged - certainly in vibe if not in exact physical appearance. Montpellier is a special place - I've never found anywhere quite like it, though every day I love Avignon more and more.
Thanks for reading,