Let me tell you the story of Marine Serpault (pronounced Serpo for all us French newbs). Marine met my great friend Bryan many years ago when they were both studying in southern France. She came to California in 2010 to visit Bryan and the Pacific West Coast. As often happens in such cases Marine made good friends with many of Bryan’s friends- I was luckily one. When I met her in SF she told me she wanted to see the capital of the great state of California. Bryan and I both warned her that she might be disappointed as there doesn’t seem to be much going on for travelers in Sacramento. But Marine insisted so I told her she was welcome to come out to Davis to arrange what she thought might be three days in Sac.
We met up in Davis and I helped her sort out getting to Sac and getting a few maps to know her way around. Off she went. About three hours later, she was back in Davis admitting that she had seen Old Sac and Capital Park and that was about all she needed to see in Sacramento. But it turned out that a bit of time in wonderful, All-American Davis was a better dose of culture anyway. We made it to a college football game, the incredible Davis Farmer’s Market and Dixon’s once world-record holding corn maze. And, despite it being a very busy time in Davis, she got to hang out with some of the Davis greats, including the amazing Steve De Nero and company.
It worked out pretty well for Marine, and of course upon her leaving I told her, like I tell many international friends I make- someday I’m coming to your continent or country or city, and it may or may not be just to visit you- if there’s room on the couch I might stay a while.
Well, there was plenty of room on the brilliantly designed IKEA fold-out for both Keith and myself. We got to Paris rather late after killing a day in Brussels, found the metro fairly easy to navigate and found Marine easily. She lives in one of the more awesome parts of Paris- near enough to the metro and a few not-to-miss sites, yet off the beaten path enough to have local wine bars a short walk away.
Soon after arriving we met her roommate Elsa who seemed to always be working, and her friend Isabella who seemed to always be up for hanging out. It was such a treat to have a home base in a nice part of town and to have Marine to tell us where to go, what to see, and how to get there. We did a few days of exploring the many tourist attractions of Paris- the Louvre, the Champs-Élysées, the Arc du Triumph, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart- just to name a few. When Marine had work, we went alone, but when she didn’t her and Isa would join us.
I’ll note one evening specifically. We sort of stumbled upon a free art exhibition in the Tuileries Garden. Korean photographer Ahae spent a year taking literally millions of pictures out of a single window. The highlights were on display in a gallery specifically built for the event. It was a cool tribute to the many forms a place can take at different times.
Accompanying the art was a live symphony concert in the park. Despite our dirty travel wear, all we had to do to get in was ask. So there we were- in one of the most renowned cities in the world, listening to world-class musicians and sipping from complementary water bottles while watching the sun set behind the Luxor Obelisk. Not a bad way to do Paris on a budget.
Of course we had a few nights out in the city. One of them started as an innocent glass of wine with a group of friends, and ended a few bottles later, walking the streets, meeting random street musicians who shared their beer, on our way to snap a few pics in front of the infamous Moulin Rouge. Another started as a BBQ with Marine’s coworkers, but again the wine continued to flow and we ended up at a crazy electro-dance party in a Parisian warehouse. So we had a taste of the Paris nightlife (again, despite our budget)- as much as either of us wanted I’ll venture to say. Mostly we were happy to have met so many kind friends of Marine and Isabella.
One thing I’ll say about Paris- grassy parks are much too few and far between. We spent a while roaming around the city with baguette, brie, and wine bottle in hand, just looking for a lawn to enjoy it on. We settled for a park bench as all we could find was grass you weren’t supposed to touch and pathetic gravel parks. By the end of our time in Paris we had to take a metro ride all the way to the edge of town to enjoy a walk and some fresh air in the Bois de Boulogne- a massive park complete with zoo, equestrian park, amusement park, and two ponds. We’d finally gotten our fix.
After Paris it was time for Keith and I to go separate ways. His trekking urges felt a strong calling from the Alps and I couldn’t say no to exploring the French countryside to visit Marine’s family and home in the Brittany region in north-western France. At the time we had a rough plan to meet up in the east if not before. So we said our goodbyes.
For Marine, Isabella, and I it was a train out of Paris to Nantes. Marine’s dad picked us up from the station and drove us deep into the rolling green hills and away from civilization. All the way down the gravel roads and into a tiny collection of farm houses known as Bourg-Jamet- a place completely the opposite of Paris. Perfect.
So far on this trip I have had some amazing hosts, but my time with the Serpault family might take the cake. Truly nothing against the wonderful hospitality that so many couch surfing hosts have shown me, but when a mother takes you in and treats you as one of her own it is truly something special. I felt incredibly welcome, despite the language barrier and ate proper home cooked meals to make even a grandmother proud. It seemed like Mrs. Serpault homemade everything- from the bread and the pâté on top of it to the yogurt and the jam mixed into it- each thing more delicious than the last.
Mr. Serpault was very eager to have people to take on the regional bike tour. We rode through all the fields, on roads both paved and not, and along the Nantes-Brest canal totaling around 45 kilometers. Of course we had to wait for the rain to pass, but once we did it was nothing but blue skies and green fields.
I think it’s safe to say that at that point in the trip the French countryside had won the most-eager-to-come-back-to-and-stay-for-a-serious-amount-of-time award. A huge part of it winning my heart had to do with the family I was staying with, but something tells me you’d have trouble finding anything but great people in such a great place.
Unfortunately I couldn’t stay forever. With many more friends and families promised a visit, I took the bus back to Nantes and the train way down to Grenoble. What a change that was. I went from borderline cold, pending rain over grassy fields and rolling hills to sweaty heat in the mountains. I spent a little time exploring Grenoble on my own. It’s famous for being the start of the Alps. I liked it right away.
It only got better after meeting Baptist and joining him, his wonderful family, and good ol’ Peter Levi for dinner. That’s right, Peter was in town- same time as me. He showed up quite sunburned after waiting for hours to watch the Tour-de-France pass by for a split second. Yet another great reunion, and what better way to celebrate it than with another home cooked meal and fireworks for Bastille Day.
Baptist has an amazingly tightly knit group of friends, I’m happy to say. They’re all awesome and they know each other insanely well. I’m pretty sure they’ve been friends since age five. Together with them, Pete, and Bap’s cousin, we found some cool stuff to do in Grenoble- from an international football match in the park to storming the local Bastille and a BBQ with a view of the alps. I had an awesome time with all those guys and feel lucky to have had a foot in the door to becoming their friends.
Again, I regretted having to leave, but Italy was calling. Those adventures are to come. Once again a thank you to my hosts. Marine- I hope you know how much I appreciate you having Keith and I in Paris and especially taking me to meet the parents in the real France. Please pass on this thank you to your parents once again. You have some great things going on in some great places and I feel fortunately that you are so generous with it all. You have a place in California anytime. Isa- you’re more than welcome as well. Baptist- I’m so glad it worked out so well that you, Pete, and I got to kick it in Grenoble. Thank you so much for everything- I can’t wait for our next chance, I’m sure it will be epic. All the best in Israel. Give your amazing family my love and tell your sister that I fell madly in love with her despite our short time together (what was it, a minute and a half maybe?).
Thanks for reading, more to come.