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A Richer Bordeaux: The famed French city has found a new soul

By Ceil Miller Bouchet
Sunday, March 28, 2010; W22

It's my first day back in Bordeaux, France, and I'm following a slight man in a Panama hat as he threads through the narrow cobbled grid of the old wine-trading neighborhood. Local artist Arnaud Faugas is taking me to see his work. We emerge by the Joan of Arc statue that anchors a short parkway leading down to the riverfront. "This is where rich wine merchants built townhouses in the 1700s," he says. "Just look at that elegance, that harmony between the rounded balconies and the line of the trees." I'd like to gawk, but he's already turning onto a side street and getting out his key. The gallery's closed today, so we're alone when he turns on the lights.

His watercolors of city festivals line the long, narrow space, popping under the spotlights. A jubilant crowd lives it up at the wine festival. Quivering blossoms twirl at the flower festival. My favorite painting, though, is a Technicolor scene of Bordeaux's very serious Grand Théâtre gone crazy (must be the dance festival) with its marble statues of Roman muses come to life, shimmying atop their Corinthian columns.

Not long ago, such public joie de vivre would have been unthinkable here. Even in a painting.

"You know," Faugas says softly, bringing me back to reality, "I started painting a joyful Bordeaux even before the changes here.

"I began painting these because something had changed inside me."

He walks over to the espresso machine at the back of the gallery. "The Bordeaux of my youth was a black city," Faugas continues, "covered with soot" from pollution and exhaust that had darkened the city's limestone facades over the years.

As we sip our coffee, he reveals the rest. "What I'm doing now is thanks to my time in the States," he says. "When I left Bordeaux in my twenties, I was unhappy with my business career. When I returned to Bordeaux years later, I discovered I knew how to paint." He pauses.

"Understanding another culture freed me to become the person I wanted to be."

I nod in agreement. But it was only later that I would realize what he really meant.

***

Twilight was falling as I biked across the heavy stone bridge spanning the Garonne River. I had read earlier, on some historic marker, that "when memories fade, only stones recall past glory." Bordeaux's riverfront architecture, designed by experts sent south from Versailles in the 18th century, certainly still evokes royal power and splendor. Then, the city was Europe's busiest port, a cosmopolitan place flush with a lucrative colonial sugar trade. Today, those imposing stones form a backdrop for modern fun along the new riverfront promenade.

Near the foot of the bridge, kids splashed in the Miroir d'Eau: a vast reflecting pool that, every 15 minutes, seemed to float away as underground spouts sprayed a knee-high mist into the air. Upriver, Elvis Presley's suave baritone boomed over loudspeakers as middle-age couples twisted and swung at the quayside dance class. I was having a hard time reconciling the Bordeaux I once knew -- of traffic-choked squares, dour faces and grime-covered architectural treasures -- as I carefully avoided cocky skateboarders en route to the riverfront skate park. And then I spotted the perfect bar, ideally situated for enjoying the waterside view. Unfortunately, there was only one seat available on the terrace, next to a man drinking a draft beer. Leaning my bike against the guardrail, I quickly decided the pleasure of a cold aperitif was worth approaching a stranger.

"Monsieur, do you mind if I take this seat?" I ventured, sunglasses shading my eyes.

"No, not at all, Madame," he replied, lowering his Sud Ouest newspaper and glancing at me with slightly raised brows, surprised by my accent, before burying himself in the local news again, gray hair barely visible above the headlines.

From his appearance, I suspected he wouldn't strike up a conversation. In a country where scarves can shout your social pedigree, his white linen shirt, Bermuda shorts and Sebago boat shoes told me he was a respectable member of Bordeaux's bourgeoisie, trained to abstain from chatting with strangers. But when Monsieur folded his paper and ordered another draft, I decided to throw social convention to the wind.

"Bordeaux has really changed, hasn't it?" I said casually.

"Yes, it's magnificent," he replied, gazing out over the water.

"Are you a Bordelais?" I asked, encouragingly.

He looked at me strangely. "I've lived here for 35 years."

"You must feel very lucky," I murmured, sipping my drink with my wedding ring hand (this was France, after all) before launching into an explanation of how I'd come to rediscover my French family's home town after a decade away.

That did the trick. With our mutual affection for Bordeaux established, Monsieur told me his departed wife's family had been in the wine business. However, despite his wine connections, he didn't consider himself part of the city's wine bourgeoisie. "I'm not a winerd," he said, using a slang term for the social class that has traditionally given Bordeaux its snooty reputation among French people. "Normal folks like me are more behind the scenes. And we're the ones who really wanted a change."

In 1995, he said, the people elected a new mayor who had a vision -- and a plan -- for awaking "Sleeping Beauty," as he called his fief, and leading her onto the European stage.

"The mayor and the people made a kind of pact," Monsieur said. "We suffered through years of chaos. They blasted kilometers of vacant parking lots and abandoned warehouses that hid the river from us to make way for this." He nodded approvingly toward the stream of bikers, in-line skaters and pedestrians thronging the riverwalk. "Downtown was a war zone, too, when they were building the tramway," he continued. "You had to read the paper each morning to see which streets were under construction so you could plan your route to work."

But when the dust finally cleared by 2007, voila: Along with the redeveloped riverfront and high-tech tramway system, Bordeaux's patient citizens got vast underground parking lots, pedestrian-only historic squares and freshly cleaned building facades.

"Ahh, yes, it was all worth it," Monsieur concluded. "We got our river back."

***

Bordeaux, in French, literally means "water's edge." And by water, those who named this place weren't talking of just a stream. The city's historic lifeblood, the Garonne, is a tidal river that feeds into Europe's biggest estuary before finally spilling into the Atlantic about 40 miles away. Since Roman times, the river fed Bordeaux a rich stream of trade. But by the mid-1980s, the city-front port had silted up, and ships docked downriver, closer to the ocean.

There, in a little seaside town at the estuary's mouth, 90 miles north of Bordeaux, I first got to know my French husband's extended family. I'd met my future husband in Paris, on my junior year abroad. The French swing, smoky cafes and rowdy cheap dinners filled endless nights for me. Wild-haired professors stretched my worldview with "The Second Sex," "Waiting for Godot," "Hiroshima Mon Amour." I would sit for hours in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, dissecting its every saintly stone statue.

I was fortunate in that my new boyfriend was just as curious about American culture as I was about his country. But, for our young selves, a big part of that initial "getting to know you" had to do with decoding each other's mores. And it became clear early on that there was far more in the venerable French cultural rulebook than in the youthful American one.

His Bordeaux family was a perfect example.

In those days, the extended family was a big one, capped by 10 silver-haired, blue-eyed siblings -- the aunts and uncles who had grown up in Bordeaux during the World War II era. They welcomed this Midwestern Methodist warmly into their large Catholic clan. And with my husband's help, I mastered their traditional rules.

Here's a short list: When you are offered the last piece of apple tart, you should never accept it. The right people wear discreet colors, preferably neutrals. If you make a point, you'd best be able to defend it. And when people are "tired" don't pry, as they might be having a nervous breakdown.

Since I was a quick study, tie-dye T-shirts gave way to pastel polos. Babbling to pondering. Accepting words at face value to learning to read between the lines.

But there's a bridge to cross between adapting and understanding. As the family elders dwindled from 10 to three and I moved from youth toward middle age, returning to France for annual summer vacations at the old seaside home, I realized I'd never managed to fully cross that bridge with my French family. Or with my second country, for that matter.

***

The next evening, I took a different direction along the river, biking north toward Bacalan, a quarter on the fringes of town where immigrants, mostly escapees from Franco's Spain or poverty-stricken Portugal, settled around Bordeaux's harbor to work in local factories and docks before and after WWII, until the jobs dried up and the once-bustling port closed.

There I knew I'd find what is, perhaps, the most massive physical remnant of World War II left in France.

My French cousin Agnès recently told me how her mother, the youngest of the 10 Bordeaux siblings, remembered that time. "Maman said that when the air raid sirens started to wail, Grandmother would rush to the primary school and collect the younger kids. She'd hustle them home, where they'd huddle in the basement until the all-clear." It must have been terrifying for a 7-year-old. But it was nothing compared with the lot of two older brothers, who were captured and sent to Nazi POW camps. When Jean and Paul straggled home after Liberation, shadows of their former selves, Agnès said, the younger kids, including her mom, didn't recognize them.

This was the defining era of my Bordeaux family. Like many others of their generation, they could never, would never, speak of it.

That night, when I turned away from the river and inland toward the crouching behemoth at the end of the harbor, I finally understood why.

BETASOM, the mother of all Nazi-built bunkers sprinkled up and down France's Atlantic coast, was nearly a mile away. With no real path, I bumped my bike through pools of lemony light, across deserted lots paved with rough cobblestones riddled with railroad tracks to nowhere, past a rusted crane jutting from calm water, beside boat carcasses aloft for repair.

The hot air smelled of grilled sardines. People lived in a few old trailers and dozens of small craft that were moored a stone's throw from the concrete mountain. The towering facade leaned in over the harbor, studded with 11 watery pens where the U-boats would berth -- toothless gums in a gaping mouth. Spotlights threw thin ruby slashes onto the building, between the pens.

Earlier I'd read in a book written by Bordeaux historian Philippe Prévôt that some say ghosts howl here at night: outlandish screams of French, Spanish and Portuguese conscripts who fell to accidental death from 1941 to 1943 while building the Nazis' 12th flotilla U-boat base. Their bones are preserved somewhere among the colossal structure's 600,000 cubic meters of concrete.

But I didn't need ghostly screams to feel, for the first time, the true weight of that not-so-long-ago era.

***

"Le vin, ça conserve!" happens to be one of my French family's favorite expressions. Indeed, a glass (ahem) of Bordeaux (is there any other wine?) with lunch and dinner seems to have preserved 87-year-old Paul Bouchet, who, like his native city and its liquid namesake, has only improved with age.

On this Sunday morning, Uncle Paul is my enthusiastic guide to his former stamping grounds, the elegant Golden Triangle of broad avenues forming the core of Bordeaux's downtown renaissance. He's a fit, barely stooped, corduroy- and wool-sweater-wearing gentleman with, as the French describe generous souls, his "heart in his hand."

Uncle Paul came by tramway, and I'd left my bike at our meeting point, the Place de la Comédie. Most of Bordeaux's urban core is traced with tramway tracks or mainly reserved for pedestrians and bikers. One woman even told me she thinks this is a major reason for Bordeaux's letting down its hair: because you can't wear high heels and mini-skirts (much less remain well-coiffed) on a bike!

Without cars, even lifelong residents see Bordeaux in a new light. "I'm speechless before the city's beauty," Uncle Paul tells me, as we stroll under intricate wrought-iron balconies on sidewalks he has trod for years. I'm not speechless, though. I can't stop babbling on about how Bordeaux seems to be a "petit Paris," only better -- because it's so easy to get around in this human-scaled town of about a quarter-million people that happens to be second only to Paris in the number of classified historic monuments and sites. Uncle Paul shares my newfound passion for his city, telling me he frequently attends colloquia, using his senior pass, at the regional history museum.

We cut through the Marché des Grands-Hommes, a jewel box roundabout enlaced by chic boutiques and cafes with a sparkling glass-domed mini mall in the center. "This used to be the city's main market," Uncle Paul tells me, "where you'd come to buy your leeks, your potatoes, your bananas." Lavish lanes spoke out from the Marché, each with a philosopher's moniker: Montesquieu, Voltaire -- homage to the city's Age of Enlightenment heyday.

"Bordeaux has become more cosmopolitan," Uncle Paul says as we amble arm in arm, the autumn sun warm on our shoulders. "I remember [when] ... nobody would go out after dark. We all stayed among ourselves. But now you see people at all hours. I think the tramway has helped mix things up. People from the suburbs can easily come downtown. The city's in movement. It's good."

Uncle Paul steers me across the Place de Tourny and toward a short, tree-lined street opening onto a broad, leafy esplanade sweeping down to the riverfront. "Look, this has hardly changed at all," he says, "Some say the Esplanade des Quinconces is the most magnificent square in Europe."

Soaring above the treetops at the entrance to the esplanade, a winged bronze woman perches atop a slender marble pedestal, her arms reaching toward the clouds, poised to take flight. Paul tells me she's called Liberty Breaking Her Chains, a monument to Bordeaux's heroes of the French Revolution.

Then, pointing up to a row of windows lining the top floor of No. 1 Cours de Tournon, a sturdy limestone-clad apartment building overlooking the esplanade, Uncle Paul says, "That's where we used to live," and squeezes my arm affectionately. I exhale gratefully, deeply at ease.

***

On my last night in Bordeaux, I came eye-to-eye with the Liberty statue above the Esplanade des Quinconces. I had wandered back to the esplanade because the autumn carnival had gotten underway. Through the high-spirited throngs, I spotted a stiffly coiffed matron in Burberry-plaid pantsuit and high heels energetically trailing a couple of tween girls. She seemed out of place among the other revelers, who were mostly wearing jeans and comfortable shoes.

Following the trio past the shooting arcade, the cotton candy stands, the saucisse-frites tents, the pounding strains of Rihanna blasting from the "Octopus" ride, I was almost upon them when the woman suddenly grabbed her girls' arms, leading them to a leafy alcove next to the haunted house.

"Look!" she exclaimed, stopping at the foot of an imposing pedestal topped by a massive marble gentleman in flowing robe, frilly collar, twirled moustache and natty goatee. "Who's that?" she quizzed. Without missing a beat, her charges replied: "Michel de Montaigne," probably reading the plaque honoring the famous 16th-century essayist and Bordeaux civic leader at the statue's base.

"Parfait, les filles!" the matron crowed.

Perhaps I should have left them there on that delightful note. But the woman steered her girls toward the Ferris wheel, and I followed. With a vague sense of foreboding, I stood in line behind them and ponied up 4 and a half euros for a seat. It was early evening, and there weren't many customers, so I had a cheery yellow hanging basket to myself, next to theirs.

When the wheel started with a jerk, I wondered if, in my enthusiasm, I had made a mistake. There weren't any seatbelts! Lifted into the air, heart pounding from that familiar vertigo-induced panic, I gripped the rail, forcing myself to focus on the soothing view. There was Bordeaux's tallest structure, the spire of Saint Michel's basilica, a beacon to sailors since the 1400s. There was the city's old defensive gate, the Porte Cailhau, with its Magic Kingdom-esque turrets. There was the low, arched Pont de Pierre, or Stone Bridge, linking the city's right and left banks since Napoleon's day.

And there I was, when the Ferris wheel stopped, my basket gently swaying at the very top. Right across from Liberty Breaking Her Chains. She had been up here for more than a century, exuding insouciant grace. I, on the other hand, lost all decorum, clutching -- no, hugging -- the basket's center pole, eyes screwed shut, trying in vain to remember my yoga breathing exercises. "Madame, are you all right?" It was the matron calling from the basket just below me.

"Oui, oui, I'm just fine," I croaked, attempting to corral, without success, some remnant of self-control.

A few long seconds passed before, gently, I risked releasing the pole and opened my eyes to ponder the sweeping view.

Liberty was right there before me, throwing off her chains. Just as in one of Arnaud Faugas's crazy paintings.

The wheel swung into motion. Down we flew, over the sandy Garonne River, past Uncle Paul's former apartment building, into a town that had shed its mantle and updated its rules.

Once the wheel stopped, I didn't linger. Melding into the stream of lovely people flowing along the Golden Triangle's boulevards at nightfall, I let the city's shimmering possibility absorb me.

Ceil Miller Bouchet is moving from Chicago to Bordeaux to study wineand write a book. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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