9.  Exit Stage Right, With Very Small Steps

According to my calendar I had two cities plus Paris still to go if I continued at my current pace of travelling every other day. I had some notions kicking around in my mind, but nothing definite at first; upon passing through Neuchâtel en route to Fribourg, I’d decided I did in fact want to follow up on an inclination and return to France not by way of the usual (and relatively speedy) Geneva route but rather through one of the other historical passes of the Jura mountains. If time had permitted I would have liked to have tooled around both the eastern (Swiss) and western (French) flanks of the Jura, but then that scenario also probably would have involved a car and led to visiting more places off the train lines…all moot points, and I’m not inclined to dwell on might-have-been scenarios.

But I was ready to get back to France. I love Switzerland, but at a certain point (and this is true of most places) if I don’t have an actual definite reason to be there, whether for work-and-living or research or history-based exploration, time spent there feels almost forced. Keeping a trip alive as a voyage is as dependent on your own impulses as on unforeseen circumstances and events, and I was starting to feel like my sails weren’t catching a breeze—and when that happens I turn on the motor and let the boat propel me without too much planning, just so I can get to other waters and react to them. Besides, as I said at the close of the previous chapter, Switzerland has no laundromats; or, if there are any, they’re kept out of sight: the Rough Guide to Switzerland simply observes that “all Swiss apartment blocks have their own washing machines for residents’ use in the cellar.”

The initial leg of the journey was clear enough (Fribourg to Neuchâtel, probably via Bern), as was the gist of the next one (Neuchâtel to Pontarlier, on the French side, although the specifics weren’t clear on maps and timetables I’d seen), and the day’s likely destination (Dijon) had been tentatively chosen by the time I left Fribourg. That was enough to go on. I didn’t know it would consume the bulk of my day, however. Good thing I didn’t plan beyond this.

I’ve not travelled much off of main train lines in Europe, and certainly not through secondary mountain passes, so I didn’t anticipate how long every step would take. Not that it was tedious or tiresome—I enjoyed it, it’s just that things moved at a dreamily unhurried pace that took a little getting used to.

Website of Neuchâtael Canton

A novelty on the trip from Neuchâtel towards France was the Swissrail map printed on the little tabletops between facing seats on the train: they were interesting and handy to a point, but, being stylized (like subway maps), they didn’t answer questions I was having about which station I should be changing trains to get to Pontarlier. I had only a quick on-the-fly answer to that from a worker at Neuchâtel’s station, and it seemed like a wrong one so I worried a bit. In the end his answer proved correct if not necessarily the only possible one, but it didn’t matter: I had a voyage, and that’s what this trip had to offer regardless of absent (or unacknowledged) goals.

Following the station worker’s advice, I got off at Fleurier (“FLUHr-eeyay,” I think, pop. ~3,600) and waited for a motor coach (bus) on to Pontarlier…an hour’s wait right off the bat. But that was almost a redundancy, because when I got off the train at Fleurier time stopped. The town was silent, under a very light tree-lined-slope-clinging mist which seemed more November than April, and aside from a few cars I saw no activity on the streets, and only a few pedestrians near the train station: thankfully it felt less like “The Andromeda Strain” and more like a benign Avengers episode (alas, without the delectable Mrs Emma Peel to spice things up). There were mountains around the city, steep slopes I could see and almost feel, looming discreetly and defining the route in and out of Switzerland but never quite making Fleurier feel like a mountain village.

Instead it felt like a little town, a reasonably old one despite the fact that it’s only about as old as my home town, which is to say maybe 120 years (which is nothing in Europe, of course). It was largely residential (no surprise there), with building heights of maybe five stories near the train station and only two everywhere else I saw, and through it ran a stream large enough to warrant at least one bridge. For my lunch I bought a little sandwich at a boulangerie—the smallest bit of substantial food they had, because I had only a few bucks’ worth of Swiss currency left and couldn’t justify tapping a bank machine for what would be a minimum of around $15 when I was within minutes of leaving the country.

I ate my little sandwich in a moist park near the train station, observing in patient curiosity the adjacent presence of both a major company’s building nearby (a many-storeyed anomaly on the cityscape) and a few littered bottles in the wet grass of the park, and I pondered the connotations to be gleaned from that combination. I later discovered that building was a factory, one of the two Swiss sites of the international watchmaking company Chopard (and if you follow that link and then click on Suisse and then the Fleurier listing you’ll see an image of the building itself, which I can’t reproduce here for reasons of copyright emphatically stated on their website), which originated not far away, so perhaps it’s not completely inappropriate.

The coach trip didn’t take very long—a couple of hours, I think—and took me through the Jura mountains at a pass that didn’t feel at all high; the scenery was very nice, all misty forested mountain slopes and broad valleys (but no snow, damn it!) but never quite “dramatic” as I’d come to expect from Switzerland’s topography. The Customs post, at Verrières-de-Joux, was truly a joke, although technically we did stop (as at a stop sign). That stretch of the trip was intriguingly uninteresting…by which I mean that with any mountain pass—espeically one on a frontier between countries—I anticipate a tangible impression, whether that’s of tension, a shift in moods or appearances, or maybe some kind of proper interruption to mark the occasion.

At Pontarlier (“pone-tahr-leeAY,” pop. ~19,000) I had another wait, this time of a few hours, and I returned to the calm detachment that had served me well at both SeaTac and Arvant, placidly studying the architecture of the station (which by the way offered dancing lessons in one of the buildings between the train platforms) after getting drenched twice while attempting to look around the town a little.
(The photograph at right was taken in the photo booth at Pontarlier’s train station after I’d been repeatedly soaked by the intermittent rain…the leather jacket I’m wearing there is a medium brown when dry, and the shirt was a nice rich red; normally I don’t look quite so grim, nor do my pupils and irises so fuse, nor is my hair so apparently sparse, but I’d thought the drowned-rat look was amusing enough to commemorate when the opportunity presented itself, so here you have the only photograph of me from this trip.)

Pontarlier had no attraction for me, so I caught the next train to Dole (pop. ~26,000, and located just down the river Doubs from Besançon, where I’d had a nice brief stay in November 2003), where I transferred to Dijon so swiftly that I have no memory of the town or the station (or maybe the train continued). I was more focused on the geography and my map of the region, as I could see the train was to pass through a bit of forest just before Dole, and after that I was focused on reading up on Dijon ahead of my arrival.

I really, really liked Dijon (“dee-ZHOh[n],” pop. ~150,000).

Upon arrival (around 19h00) I consulted a city map to determine where I’d find a couple of hotels recommended by the Rough Guide to France and, armed with a general idea of the layout of not the city as a whole but merely the area southeast of the train station, plus the hotels’ addresses, I calmly set out, one bag on my shoulders and another in my hand (and of course the ones under my eyes, which I still had despite trying to check them in Seattle and “neglect” to pick them up in Paris). Strangely I didn’t feel much curiosity about the city I was walking through: at this point, I was rather focused on the task of getting a room and then seeing about food—after all, it was I think around seven or eight in the evening although still quite light (and mercifully not too warm…just about right, actually). That Dijon is largely flat was a welcome bonus, for a change.

I suppose it was only a handful of blocks I walked—it felt like less even at the time—when I got to the first address the Rough Guide cited, the Hostellerie Le Sauvage (64, rue Monge) and sure enough there was a hotel tucked away at the back of a long narrow courtyard/drive. This wasn’t a surprise, as the guide had mentioned that the place was “a former coaching inn with a lovely little courtyard for its restaurant tables.” What was more of a surprise was that there was a whole restaurant back there too on the way to the hotel’s stairs. On top of that (the surprise, I mean, not the restaurant, although actually it was both), my journey from politely confident query at the hotel desk to unpacking the next day’s garments (to begin their de-wrinkling process) set a new record for speed among my travels. I was seriously impressed—partly that they had a room handy, of course, and didn’t dissemble about vacancies, but further that they had such a lovely combination of efficiency, charm, and grace that made the process seem like it took no time at all. The cherry on the top was that the gentleman who checked me in (but, alas, not out at the same time, if you know what I mean) insisted on carrying my larger bag (again, not one of the ones under my eyes).

I turned on the little elevated/wall-mounted TV as I unpacked, just to see if there was any news on, given the hour (normally I don’t watch TV, but I’d just been newsless in Thun for two nights and had had only German TV news in Fribourg plus one Internet hookup), and indeed it was a timely move: the first image to appear was TF1’s iconic Patrick Poivre d’Arvor himself—always a treat, for me—interviewing then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy himself, one-on-one, no audience, both frankly and seriously, about France’s recent internal challenges. Specifically they were talking about the at-the-time-latest immigration issue, Sarkozy having just then addressed the question of how to resolve the internal social conflicts revealed in the previous year’s unfortunate (but hardly cut-and-dried) rioting in Paris’s northern suburb of St-Denis. This was of great interest to me, because I was very curious to hear what Sarko (as he’s nicknamed among the French) would propose—I may be in the minority in saying this, and I certainly don’t agree with him on all points, but I think he’s what France actually needs to make its next historical transition…he’s not especially popular, but he’s got the not-graceless blunt practicality nobody else on France’s political scene seems to possess at the moment to tell France about its realities, both domestically and internationally but mostly domestically, and get France striding more smoothly to the forefront of nations.

So I stopped all activity and focused on PPd’A’s interview with Sarko, and I wasn’t disappointed. Sarkozy was frank, personal, and understanding-yet-firm on the subject of immigration and his proposals for addressing the current crises and, better, the larger issues. But what led into this discussion and occasioned this particular interview was Sarko’s absolution (if I dare use such an overloaded word for what was actually only a legal application) of implication of involvement in “l’affaire Clearstream”—an odd manufactured scandal which tried to smear him in some shareholder/insider stuff involving the company Clearstream, a scandal which quickly unravelled to at least the point where it was clear that it was fictitious.

When they finished, I left the hotel in search of dining options. Right away I saw that I was in a good city for food: restaurants were abundant and quite affordable, and there was a nice range of culinary styles and informality levels…at least as I found on the hotel’s street (rue Monge) and the rue Berbisey which runs parallel to it. After exploring this neighborhood-dining spine, just looking, I realized I could easily spend a week in Dijon without dining anywhere else. I settled on La Bonne Fourchette (on rue Berbisey), and after an initial misstep (nobody seemed to be working there that night, at first) I dined quite happily on a chicken breast breaded with pain d’épice (a sort of spice bread, not quite gingerbread), one of Dijon’s local specialities. I don’t know if I’ll ever try to make that exact dish at home, but the flavoring suggested to me that I should bring allspice into play more often when I’m experimenting with ways to prepare chicken.

After an uneventful sleep on one of the hardest beds I’ve ever encountered on a trip (not a bad thing, to me), as well as the first bolster I’d seen in years, I awoke earlier than is my wont and started hunting for two things: a laundromat (remember, I’d left Switzerland partly because I needed to do laundry) and an Internet café. I wandered around a sizeable chunk of the southeast part of Dijon, without success, for nearly three hours, only to find on my way back a laundromat with an Internet place (just computers, no café) adjoining it…about two blocks from the hotel, just down the road from where I’d dined the night before. I washed all my clothes and checked email (including one which distressed me, as to the partly expected disappearance of a cat I dearly love), then dropped everything but my journal and pen at the hotel and went to see some sights (and to have lunch at the tiny but excellent pasta restaurant Le Duplex, on the place Émile Zola, near my hotel).

I know I only scraped the surface of Dijon on this trip; even so, I enjoyed the place and its mood so much that I toyed with the idea of extending my stay from two nights to four or maybe five. But when I had to make that decision, I chose to continue with the travel-every-other-day pattern, which after all was still introducing me to a variety of interesting places.

Dijon’s mood was very comfortable—a nice mix of the warm, somewhat energetic contentment I’d seen and felt in Avignon in 2003 and some of Paris’s big-city indifference and heritage. A town that was both Northern and Southern, with a sense that it had the best of both worlds and was smiling easily with that knowledge. Nearly everywhere I went (again, just the center of town and the southeast quadrant) there was an air of just-enough comfort and a feeling that conflict was uncommon here. It was gently tantalizing…but Paris is really more my speed, I like its darker shadows and its tangible vitality and cosmopolitan role. Dijon seemed to be a particularly special French town, but Paris is PARIS.

My sightseeing in Dijon consisted largely of visiting two cathedrals (the Cathédrale St-Bénigne and the Cathédral Notre Dame) and then spending a couple of hours exploring the Musée des Beaux-Arts (it would have been longer, but closing time snuck up on me). The cathedrals were nice if not especially noteworthy, but the museum (in the former Dukes’ palace) had a fascinating range of artistic histories on display; its layout was formal and grand on the first two floors but just on the safe side of wacky in its upper levels. They also had a room (slightly crowded, it must be said, but with a high ceiling in darkness) dedicated to the sculpture of François Pompon (1855–1933), of whom I’d not heard before; he had an individual style of sculpting animals, and the room was replete with his somewhat Art Deco menagerie. His polar bear, owl, and parrot were quite engrossing in both their sleek, supple beauty and their strong presence, and I had a nice introduction to his work thanks to a very nice woman who was informally posted as a guide outside the Pompon room.

Later, following up on her tip, I strolled westward to see the full-size form of Pompon’s polar bear sculpture at the entrance to the Jardin Darcy, at Dijon’s center; in that form it was less magical (a bit small for an actual polar bear, I thought, having appreciated the size of the genuine article thanks to the glass-sided pool of my employers’ polar bear habitat at Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma), probably because of the incongruity of the setting. But the park made a nice place for a breather and a little unhurried contemplation of people of Dijon—from skateboarders to pensioners, everyone seemed to be doing alright and knew it. (p.s. if you’re curious about polar bears in zoo contexts, you might check out Polar Bears International’s website.)

That gentle satisfaction was also evident in the Jardin de l’Arquebuse botanical garden (which takes its name from the musketeer-ish soldiers who did target practice on the site in the 1500s), behind the train station and the city’s Natural History museum; although the majority of the plants there weren’t in full bloom, and the long parallel rows of planting beds thus had more labels than evident plants, there were more than just desperately idle stragglers strolling through that afternoon. Certainly there was a nice variety of ducks enjoying the place, especially a little island refuge they have there.

Dinner that night was at Le Passé Composé, also on the place Émile Zola—as I said, there were abundant options for dining in this quartier; although I wore a mustard-colored shirt as a sort of a joking homage this evening, somehow I managed to dine on nothing featuring the famous local mustard at any of the three meals I had in Dijon. Le Passé Composé itself was a lovely little place, cavelike in form but painted white and adorned with images of Mediterranean locales, seating maybe 34; my serveuse (I don’t know that she was simply a waitress, not the proprietress, but she gave the impression of owning the place and being delighted to have guests, so I’m retreating to French in the face of having to decide whether “waitress” or “woman who waited on me” or anything else is least potentially erroneous or offensive), a buxom woman, exuded an ebullient grace and a sense of welcome and shared delight. I had ravioles à chèvre et du basilic with some chicken dish I recall enjoying if not writing about, with a demi of Brouilly Morillon ’04, and I alternately wrote in my journal about the day’s experiences and people-watched with ample satisfaction.

I drifted easily and contentedly back along the rue Monge to my hotel, gently cried myself to sleep about the probability of my favorite cat’s likely permanent departure from our briefly matched orbits, and slept amid an unsettled mixture of feelings.

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