Friday, April 13, 2007

France, Part Deux: Julien

When I last wrote, we were preparing to make our way into Spain, and it was soon after that I realized it was nearly impossible to find time to update. And so I apologize to any who waited with bated breath up until now! Alex and I are finally home after six weeks of travelling. While it is nice to come back to a lovely house (weeds are out of control, but lovely nevertheless), in a cute neighborhood, in a lively town, next to a fantastic city, dear friends and family all around us, and a very lonely cat all too happy to see me, my heart is still in Europe. So I will do my best to cover the rest of our trip over the next few updates while the feelings and memories strongly linger somewhere far from where I am now: in my dining room, listening to a Giants vs Pirates game on the TV, instead of a soccer match or really bad German MTV in a Parisian hotel room. In the process, I hope you'll forgive me if this is a bit longwinded, but it's the first time I'm able to write about our trip in depth aside from scribbles in my sketchjournal, so it's as much for me as for anyone else!

France - March 13th - 16th

Having just left Paris, we're on a train to Rennes to meet with Julien Alday, a friend I've known through for roughly a year, but always from behind our screens, so to speak. Despite our many emails, some even in French between Alex and Julien, I'm a little nervous of meeting for the first time in person, and I wonder what the next three days will be like. I fear I've already made a bad impression, because Alex and I are late for a train - the second time on our trip - and I have to call Julien on a payphone (waking him up) to let him know we're running a little behind.

We arrive at around 1 p.m., and as we help each other equip our monstrously huge backpacks, I see Julien (immediately recognizable), sneaking along the platform, motioning me to keep quiet while he moves up behind Alex to give her a scary hello, but Alex notices me making eye contact with someone behind her, and she whips around just in time. They laugh and exchange hugs and cheek kisses. I've never shared a European hello, and when it's my turn, I awkwardly lean in, maintaining a three inch gap between our cheeks, making a pathetic kissing noise. Julien smiles and says,"No, Mike. You are in France now. Here, we touch the cheeks!" We get it right, and from that point on, all of my previous anxiety is erased.

We walk over to Julien's car, leave Rennes, and make our way to the northwest coast of France to visit the walled port city of St. Malô on the English Channel.

The city has historically been home to pirates, corsairs (or french privateers), scoundrels, and the general lowlifes of society. Nowadays, it's mostly inhabited by attorneys.... and other wealthy types but I wanted to squeeze in the lawyer joke. For a more comprehensive (and educated) history, check out the Wikepedia.

My itchy camera triggerfinger begins to twitch wildly before we even park, but first thing's first - we're all hungry and Julien has the perfect creperie to introduce to us. We walk along the city wall until we find our spot perched on high, overlooking the channel, and thankfully still serving lunch. We are seated on the patio, enjoy cornmeal crêpes served with a pitcher of cidre, which is the customary way in the Bretagne region. We share a dessert crêpe topped with chocolate, and finish our meal with coffee. Much like my moment in Elgise St. Severin, this is a scene I know I will never forget; the warm sun, a calm breeze (thanks to the window panels that shielded us from stronger winds), the waters distant below, clean air, Alex reading the front of the menu in French, and a friend I already feel I've known for ages.

As we stroll along the city walls, there is a gorgeous view at every turn, and at the same time it's easy to admire the seemingly slower pace of life here.

After a couple hours exploring the length of the city wall, we venture into the city itself.... yet for some reason, Julien and I decide we need to proceed in stealth mode. We tiptoe across the narrow walkways, signalling each other forward from corner to corner. Alex jokingly rolls her eyes,"Now I get to hang out with two overactive imaginations."

We return to Rennes and meet up with Julien's oldest and dearest friend, Laurent. We're to have drinks at the Grimoire, an old tavern that serves drinks named after folks like Tolkien... but sadly discover it to be gone. We have drinks at another local spot, where we try something called chouchen, a liquer made from local honey. We head over to Laurent and his girlfriend, Madeline's place after a couple rounds, eat a late evening dinner, and enjoy long conversations over wine, spirits, coffee... and back to spirits. We're staying here tonight as we have another trip up to the Channel coast the following morning.

On day two, we explore Le Mont St. Michel, a far busier, touristy place than St. Malô, but still a magical site, with many more areas to get lost in. All the same, I have to be a little more selective in what I photograph, as my memory card is nearly full after the hundred twenty or so shots from the previous day. Still, I manage to shoot a few:

Julien snaps Alex in an introspective moment.

Julien wants to be able to show a bit of Rennes to us while there is daylight, since this is the city he attended University in, and considers it his hometown. But even more importantly, we both want to visit his favorite comicbook shop as well as a children's bookstore. The choices are difficult, but we eventually settle on a few purchases and make our way several hours south to Julien's home near the west coast, where we get in late and crash after some dinner and wine. Julien also presents me a copy of Shaun Tan's book, The Arrival, as a 30th birthday gift.

The last full day is spent relaxing at Julien's place. We sleep in, sketch, read, do laundry, talk, enjoy early afternoon beers. For lunch, Julien prepares his specialty, ratatouille. I work on a not-so-successful painting of his house from the backyard... and you might guess, by the direction of the light, which side of my face gets sunburnt:

The evening is spent talking over a dinner prepared by Alex. The conversations throughout our few days are some of the fondest memories I have of our time with Julien, because we speak very openly about our life and art. Although it may involve a lot of "preaching to the choir", it's encouraging to find someone who shares a similar philosophy, the same goals, the same frustrations and annoyances, and yet, as Julien points out, in spite of all these similarities we express ourselves very differently in our art.

Given the opportunity, I'm sure we'd never stop talking. Unfortunately, we need some sleep. Suddenly, three days seem to have whisked by, and we find ourselves on the road at 6 a.m., en route to Bordeaux to catch a train into Spain. It's a sleepy four hour ride on an empty highway. At around seven, the sun's not yet visible, but a cool light begins to illuminate the fogbanks and marshlands of southwest France, and I am able to see for myself, the colors Monet must've seen while working on his early morning paintings, and I wonder just how early he had to wake up and how fast he had to paint to capture it all before the sun bathed it away in warmth. I know to leave the camera alone for this one.

We manage to arrive early in Bordeaux, so we eat a leisurely breakfast, half asleep, walk to the station, then realize there are no ATMs inside. This puts us in a bit of a rush, and by the time we find some money outside, the train is about five minutes from leaving and we're not even on the platform. And so in true Mike and Alex fashion, we run to catch our train, monstrously huge backbacks in tow, except that we can't seem to find a stairway to our platform, just this lift in the middle of some seemingly defunct hallway, a lift with no doors or walls, just a steel grate floor with some railing. It's the kind of box you'd see attached to a hydraulic arm on a truck, with a technician standing inside it as he operates on an electrical post or chops down overhanging limbs or anything else you can think of in the category of 'manly'. But here, we're not technicians, and this box is meant for the handicapped. And of course we don't realize it, until it slowly surfaces onto the terminal platform, where we are greeted by stares from people aboard our train.... another shining moment for us, Americans. The minute long journey eventually ends and we make our way toward the first class cars (at least we have that much going for us). Julien, who opted to find the stairs, does so and catches up with us. We're all awake at last. We share a proper European embrace and say farewell.

To read Julien's side of the story, click here to his blog entry. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed my story and will 'click in' next time for the España portion of our trip.


Julien alday said...

"when it's my turn, I awkwardly lean in, maintaining a three inch gap between our cheeks, making a pathetic kissing noise."

Hahahahahaaaaaaar ! I was close to forget that moment, thank you Mike. Don't think a single minute that you will avoid the European hello, next time we'll hang out. ;) Your words bring me a huge smile on my face. I had an amazing time with Alex and you, memories for a lifetime. Be sure we will have more time for talk this summer... Let's say in July, for exemple ? :P
Glad to read that Alex and you are back in one piece to your good ol' California. I can't wait to read the chapters relating your time in Spain and Italy. Will mail you two soon.
Peace, Love & Respect. :)
P.S: What did you think about "The Arrival" ? I personaly had a blast.

Bruce said...

That's quite a trip that you guys had and I'm glad that you made it back safe and sound. I don't envy that plane ride, though!

It's fun reading about your meeting with Julien and the fun you must have had. Looking forward to more...

singinghawk said...

Mike! You're back! I've missed your posts and comments! I am back, too, but tired so I have not read this latest post yet, but I will be back tomorrow.

Cheers, my friend.

Tom Scholes said...

Ooo. Awesome, good read.
When do we get to see more art?

Oh and why does Julien have a shopping cart in front of his house?

Ben Foster said...

Awesome awesome read. I've said before, and I'll say again, I'm sooooo jealous of your trip. (and you getting to meet Julien face to face). Looking forward to the Spain update!

singinghawk said...

Mike, your words are so eloquent. This is really a good read. Yes, it is long, but it well worth reading. I think maybe you should think seriously about becoming a writer, not that that's a way to make a living, but, my God, you are very good.

Your trip sounds wonderful! I am very jealous since I have never been overseas. My husband's first wife was a Parisian woman and he lived in France for three years. So he also is full of colorful stories and tales to tell about this beautiful country and culture. Your experience with Julien sounds as if you have met a kindred soul. It is not always easy, to say the least, to meet someone after only knowing them behind a computer screen. It would feel awkward and difficult for me. That's beautiful that your meeting him probably surpassed your expectations while behind that screen.

The photos of the places visited are beautiful. I am jealous, did I say that. I look forward to your next Spain installment.

Cheers, my friend.


singinghawk said...

by the way, even though your heart might still be in Europe, I am very happy that you are back! -- for my own selfish reasons -- like I really enjoy your posts and your comments to mine!

Mike Dutton said...

Hey Julien! - I'm very much looking forward to July. It'll be my turn to show you a little bit of my hometown before we run down to San Diego.
In response, I absolutely loved The Arrival. I think I "read" it three or four times while I had it on our trip (I eventually mailed it home with some other belongings). It's amazing how compelling the story is despite having no words at all -- even the fictional language he uses when people write (which was a nice touch). Anyone who is not sure whether or not to get it.... Get it, it's worth it.

Hey Bruce - The plane ride on the way back was actually not too bad, it was getting there that seemed unbearable - I had no sleep the night before and thought I'd sleep through the flight, but instead I tossed around uncomfortably, and the boy who sat next to me was sleeping in his mother's lap and his feet kept nudging up under the seat of my pants..... a real waker upper when you least expect it.

Tom - Julien and I did a couple collaborative sketches, but he's in charge of showing those. ;) And well, we were way too relaxed to do anything too serious. The next update will have a few more sketches, for sure.... though I've been guarding a bunch of them for now for future developing on canvas.
And Julien has a cart because he lives literally a stone's throw away from the market. It's more convenient just to keep the cart. I thought it was a humorous twist on those old vintage bicycles you usually see leaning up against rustic European houses!

Ben! - Big congratulations to you on getting into Spectrum 14! I hope they give you a full page. :)
The Spain portion is coming up soon, I hope. It's a challenge in that present life continues while I'm trying to catch up on stories about life from a month ago. :P

Ana - I'm really glad you enjoyed the read. I assume people that stick around long enough to read my rambling most likely enjoy it, but are too burnt out by the end to comment, so I appreciate your lengthy response!
My mom suggested that I publish the blog (which is pretty easy to do over at, but other than that, I don't know if writing for work is in my future... though I do enjoy writing, and am always happy to hear other people do too. :) A combination of art and writing, such as a graphic novel or childrens book, is definitely not out of the question.
"Meeting a kindred soul" is a very appropriate way to sum up my experience w/ Julien.
And thanks for humoring my silly comments on your blog from time to time. ;)

Unknown said...

Man - so amazing. I need to go on a nice long trip. Traveling is really the best. We went to Italy on our honeymoon, and I was so sad when we had to return home.
Cool that Julien gave you the Shaun Tan book. I love that guys work..I gotta get me some of that action!
-Can't wait to hear /see / read more !

Unknown said...

Hello Mike,

Great blog, love the art too.

In a hurry now, but will be back later to have a proper read.