Friday, May 16, 2014

Thoughts on Bordeaux

*Let me preface this by saying these are entirely my thoughts and opinions based on my experiences so far in Bordeaux.  I'm not looking to offend, just presenting my feelings at this point in time, which are always subject to change.  Also, a little warning that I may have gotten a bit longwinded and I do jump all over the place, perhaps because I wrote this over the course of three days.

Today marks one year since I landed, exhausted and jet-lagged, in Bordeaux.  And so in honor of my one-year Bordelais anniversary, I thought I would do a post about my overall thoughts, impressions and reflections on this city I now call home.

I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that Lionel and I would one day call Bordeaux home, primarily based on the fact that most of his family lives in this area.  And while I always thought that it would one day happen, I never really looked forward to that.  Overall, this is probably the area of France I’ve always felt least corresponded to my personality, character and preferences.  It’s not that I didn’t like Bordeaux or the region, but I didn’t love it either…truth be told, I didn’t have a lot of feelings at all about this city.  So, when we decided to move back to France and realized that we would be going to Bordeaux I started making lists in my head of all the positive aspects of Bordeaux and the area to try to psyche myself up and really get excited about calling this city home.  And here I am, a year after arriving, and I can’t say that my thoughts or feelings have really changed.  When it comes to Bordeaux I generally just feel indifferent.

See, with Paris I had a very love-hate relationship.  There are so many things I love about Paris and so many things I still miss, but there are also a lot of things that I hate and reasons why I know moving back wouldn’t be a good idea.  But I have never felt indifferent to Paris.  I feel very strongly about Paris whereas I just don’t feel much of anything about Bordeaux.  I like it fine enough, I haven’t really found anything I hate, but I can’t say there is anything I really love about this city.  I can think of quite a few other French cities I would choose before Bordeaux, but also a few I would never want to live in.  I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but there is something about Bordeaux that just creates a lack of feelings in me (if that is even possible).  Or maybe I still just haven't figured out how I really feel about this city.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Bordeaux is a horrible place, on the contrary, overall I’m happy here.  However, whenever someone asks me how I’m liking Bordeaux, I struggle to find an answer or to come up with anything to say, positive or negative.  I just can’t seem to form an overall opinion.  Yes, it is quite pretty, especially in the historical center, but I hate the Garonne and how wide, dangerous and ugly it is, cutting Bordeaux in half with no charm or life.  It feels more like a barrier than an integral part of the city.  Bordeaux’s location can be quite convenient with easy access to the beach and mountains along with lots to explore within a 2ish hour drive – Spain, the beautiful Dordogne region, Pays Basque, Toulouse, La Rochelle and the nearby islands, chateaux, vineyards, etc.  The list really goes on and on.  But at the same time, I’m much more interested in Germany, Belgium and Eastern Europe than Spain and Spanish culture (nothing against Spain, it’s just my preference) and from Bordeaux it is quite difficult and expensive to travel to any of the other European countries that really interest me.  And I don’t ski so the mountains in the winter are basically my nightmare.  Though I will never complain about having the beach only a 45 minute drive away.

Travel, that is a big issue for me here in Bordeaux.  I feel like you can’t go anywhere from the Bordeaux airport without paying an arm and a leg and making multiple changes.  Gone are my days of hopping the next inexpensive EasyJet flight to Eastern Europe.  Now I’m going to have to content myself with the countries that match my personality the least – Spain and Portugal.  Of course, I can also get to Italy fairly easily, but a lot of the possible destinations are places I’ve already been multiple times.  I suppose I could always plan one hell of a European road trip to get to some of my preferred and/or dream destinations.  Or hope that Lionel and I win the lottery one day, which should be quite difficult considering the fact that we don’t play.

Then there is public transportation in Bordeaux.  Apparently it is quite the hassle to get to the airport, should I ever actually have plans to travel.  And while the tram is very nice and new and clean, it is slow and there are only three lines so there are a lot of places you can’t get to without either a car or a lot of time to transfer to another tram or multiple buses.  From what I’ve heard I should be thankful I live within 15 minutes walking distance of a tram stop though, so there is that.  And luckily, since I don’t have to leave the house for work, our tram line takes me straight into the center of Bordeaux and through the administrative district, so it pretty much gets me everywhere I need to go directly, except the train station.  The Bordeaux tram system is also quite refreshing after the Paris metro.  I can usually get a seat, people aren’t constantly pushing and shoving each other, beggars aren’t harassing me left and right and people are actually polite and will give up their seats to the elderly, the injured, children and pregnant women.  It’s quite shocking!

I have found some very nice restaurants and some bars and cafés that I quite enjoy, but the lack of reasonably priced Asian food is starting to make Lionel and I go mad.  I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t found the Asian grocery store out at Bordeaux Lac making it possible to recreate most of our favorites in our own kitchen.  Plus I’m still exploring and I’m sure I’ll find other restaurants to enjoy.  I also enjoy that there are quite a few things to do in and around Bordeaux, though I wish there were some more interesting museums.

However, one of my biggest issues with Bordeaux would have to be the wine bars.  Now, if you are like me, when you think of Bordeaux the first thing that comes to mind is wine.  I mean, Bordeaux is basically the wine capital of the entire world.  So, naturally, I expected to come here and have a plethora of fabulous wine bars at my fingertips.  What I didn’t expect was that every one I would go into would require you to purchase some sort of food along with your wine.  I mean, really!?!  Perhaps I’m not hungry.  Perhaps I just want a glass (or bottle) of wine.  Perhaps I was just planning to stop in for an aperitif before dinner elsewhere.  Or perhaps I just want to grab an after dinner drink and am too stuffed from said dinner to eat any more food.  And perhaps, with all of those perhapses, I just wanted to be able to go somewhere with a great selection of wine to have that drink.  I mean, this is Bordeaux, shouldn’t I be able to have a glass of wine without having to buy food?   On a side note, if anyone who is reading this knows Bordeaux well and knows of wine bars in the center that don’t require the consumption of food, please leave a message!

And since this awful discovery about the wine bars of Bordeaux (or at least every one I’ve been to so far), I’ve also noticed the same problem present itself in some other bars and cafés.  Especially when they are in a nice location.  Like on the quais, or Place St. Pierre.  Is it really not possible to enjoy an alcoholic beverage with a nice view without eating something?  Or is it just me and I go to all the wrong places?  Though honestly, along the quais I’ve found both with and without food options, but as far as I can figure you can only have a drink on the beautiful Place St. Pierre if you are eating.  And with policies like these how is it that the Bordelais don’t all weight 100+ kilos?  This is the city of wine people, just let it flow free without any rules or regulations!

And on the subject of wine, I’m ashamed to admit it (and so please don’t tell on me) but I’m really not a huge fan of Bordeaux wines.  I mean, I’ll drink them, don’t get me wrong, I’m not crazy or anything.  But they are not at the top of my list of preferences.  Hell, they don’t even make it in the top 5.  Give me anything from the Val de Loire and I’ll be a happy camper (and so will my wallet).  However, I would never admit this to a Bordelais for fear of being thrown out of the city immediately.  In Bordeaux they sure do love their wines (though only with food apparently)!  Better to not insult them and if you are invited over to anyone’s house here in Bordeaux, it is definitely best to bring a bottle of Bordeaux.  Though sometimes I don’t just to spite them and their wine snobbery!  Even at the supermarket I am pretty much always the only person in the wine aisle not looking for a bottle in the enormous and imposing Bordeaux section.  Nope, I inconspicuously make my little American way over to the Loire section, or sometimes Rhône if I feel like a change, and happily pick out one of my preferences, though each and every time I feel like I should hide my head and be ashamed of myself.   However, slowly but surely I’m learning more about the Bordeaux wines, and who knows, maybe one day I might turn into a Bordeaux wine snob as well.  Until then I will definitely at least enjoy the pleasing sight of vineyards everywhere you turn.

Overall the Bordelais seem to be quite nice, despite their affinity for mocking my accent and their wine snobbery and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by most of my administrative encounters (though I hope I’m not putting my foot in my mouth as I still haven’t had my interview with the préfecture for my naturalization request).  I also like the fact that people don’t wear as much black as in Paris, and I’ve been noticing the influence on my wardrobe.  I certainly can’t complain about the weather in Bordeaux and I enjoy having such easy access to nature and outdoor activities, something that always was an issue for me living in Paris.  I would have to say Bordeaux is probably overall a better size city for me.  It still has the culture, restaurants and amenities of a city without being as stressful.  And well, Rasteau absolutely loves it here and since he’s our baby that is definitely important.  Though I could do without some of his furry escapades!

Nonetheless I’m a bit disappointed in how difficult it has been to find friends here.  While I’ve met a few people that I see on a regular basis and with whom I quite enjoy spending my time, by the end of June they will pretty much all have left Bordeaux, leaving me to start all over again.  Luckily we still have Lionel’s friend and his wife who live here and their group of friends who are all quite nice giving us at least some sort of permanent social life.  But I still want to make my own friends.  People who I choose to spend my time with because I met them on my own and we clicked and really enjoy each others’ company, have common interests, are in similar situations, etc.  Not just people who, in a way (and not to sound mean or anything because they are all very nice, we just don’t have a lot in common for the most part), I am sorta forced to socialize with.  And luckily we also have a lot of Lionel’s family to see as well, so we are not entirely alone.  It’s just, I need friends of my own as well, people I can relate to more and who can relate to me.  And I’ve pretty much given up on meeting other Americans here…I’m just not having any luck no matter how hard I try!  Even the American bar, which would be a surefire bet in Paris, didn’t prove fruitful.  Le sigh.

Regardless, I do appreciate the beauty of the city center, full of winding streets, beautiful churches and historic buildings.  And, even though it may not be my first pick, I’ve enjoyed having the chance to explore a new place.  While part of my frustration may be a direct consequence of my precarious social life and the fact that we don’t actually live in Bordeaux but in les banlieues proches, we do still have people to see, things to do and places to go.  And our less-than-central location at least provides quick and easy access to a lot of stores and the highway for speedy escapes when we want to get out of town.  Though unfortunately a lot of this requires driving, which we all know I am less than keen to do in France.

Overall I have to admit that I’m quite happy with my life right now, which I suppose just goes to show you that happiness doesn’t entirely depend on where you live.  Or perhaps it’s just the peace of living somewhere that doesn’t inspire heated, passionate feelings of love and hate.  Maybe it’s that lack of strong sentiments and quick fire reactions that I need…that overall feeling of indifference.  I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the past few years with our numerous international moves and I think I’ve finally come to understand exactly how I want to live my life and what is going to make me the happiest.  And while I wouldn’t currently say I’m thrilled to live in Bordeaux, I would definitely say I’m OK with it.  I find myself being more optimistic than in the past and I’m trying to focus more on the pros.  While I do just feel indifferent to this city at the moment, I do realize it has a lot to offer and that it is a perfectly fine place to live.  I also realize that nothing is forcing us to stay here forever and you never know what life will bring.  Perhaps, with time, I will begin to feel more of an affinity for this place.  Or maybe one day we will move again and who knows, in the future I might just end up in one of cities that really attract me and fit more with my personality.  So until my dreams of Tours or Strasbourg come true I’m feeling good about working to build my life in Bordeaux, hell I’m even looking forward to it.  In the end I suppose that feeling indifferent really isn’t that bad, just as long as people stop asking me how I feel about Bordeaux!


  1. I am a bit blah about our new town too, though it's only 30 minutes away from our old one (=30 minutes closer to work!) so not really that different in style/culture. But it's less young, more family-oriented, which I suppose is what we are now! But we could have gone to any other town the same distance from work and I would have felt the same. Not loving it, not hating it, just blah.

    Bordeaux wines are not my favorite either! Though that's what I usually bring back for friends in the states, since it's the one name everyone knows, but I pick at random, haha. Definitely do a post on it when you know more about the different kinds, help me out a bit, lol.

    1. I know exactly how you feel and blah is the perfect way to describe it! Just couldn't think of that word when I was writing this post, but blah would be perfect to explain my overall feelings toward Bordeaux.

      When it come to Bordeaux wines I am generally picking at random too!. Though, hopefully soon living in this town will pay off and I will have at least a bit more of an idea what I'm buying. I'll definitely have to think about doing a post to help all of us who are lost in regards to Bordeaux wines, if I ever manage to figure it all out myself!

  2. I'm a big Loire wine fan too - give me a chilled Muscadet sur Lie (which is not sweet despite the name btw) over a Bordeaux any day! I'm also a big fan of the Cremants de Loire - much cheaper than champagne and just as tasty.

    And this is maybe a dumb question, but have you checked out the USA-Bordeaux association at all? I know they do quite a few events, like 4th of July parties etc. I also thought there was a Women's Club for anglophone expats, but maybe that is not around anymore?

    1. Ah yes, Loire wines. Give me a Saumur Champigny, St. Nicolas de Bourgueil or Chinon for reds and a Vouvray (still or bubbly) for whites and I will be one happy lady! I don't need all these fancy Bordeaux wines.

      I have looked into the USA-Bordeaux association but unfortunately was not able to attend either their 4th of July or Thanksgiving event last year. Hoping to check it out for this year. But other than those two big events, from what I've seen on their website at least, it seems like they mostly just host lectures, organize book clubs and do more family oriented things and most of which are too early in the evening for me to be able to attend. So I've been hesitant to pay the membership fee, though I'm hoping to be able to do the 4th of July event this year to check it out a bit more and see if there are any younger members. Alas, I just looked and I will be out of town for their 4th of July picnic this year. No offense to the older members or families, but like I said in my post, I'm primarily looking to meet people in a similar situation and with whom I would have a lot in common. People who could be free to meet up on a regular basis. But you are right and I should probably go check it out one time when I can. I definitely don't have anything to lose. I should also look into the expat Women's Club a bit more. I know it is there but I've never seriously considered joining as I had always hoped to manage on my own.

  3. Maybe they only serve wine with food because Bordeaux wines are generally best drunk with food? Perhaps it's even a perverse way of saving their market from those rival Loire Valley wines which are much better served as aperitifs!

    1. Perhaps you are right. But it still just seems strange to me since the wine bars all offer a variety of different wines from all over France and the world, and they aren't all best served with food! Mais bon, tant pis.

  4. I agree with so many of the things you've said: I was surprised by the wine bars, public transport could be improved, there are wine snobs here, Asian food is better and cheaper in Paris, la rive droite is dead, more flights to eastern Europe.

    I really like living here, but I know what it means to live here. In my opinion, Bordeaux is not an easy city to live in for foreigners. On Tuesday my Italian friend was in tears because she had gotten a negative reply for a teaching position, one of the rare offers that she has managed to find. Finding a job in Bordeaux is not easy. And it does get lonely here, I definitely know all about that!

    But yeah, the size of this city is perfect for me as well and I like the weather here. It's flat so I can cycle around easily. And I prefer the beach to the mountains, which is good because the beach is so close. I like the food as well; I can't get enough of seafood and duck. There are so many things here that I love. But I can understand that you prefer to live elsewhere. There's nothing wrong with that.

    I agree about the museums; nothing inspires me either. Stay tuned for the new wine museum!

    One thing I've found out: I going to restaurants and eating on their terrace. The only thing is, the service and food are often not the same as what you would get in a restaurant that doesn't have a terrace. I don't think if this is a Bordeaux thing, but it really gets on my nerves.

    1. Ah yes, well we've had many talks about a lot of these points. And hopefully the transportation and flight options will improve with time. The wine bars still frustrates and confuses me, but not much I can do about it. The job situation, well at this point I prefer not to dwell too much on will just stress me out.

      I'm curious about this new wine museum you mentioned...going to have to do some investigation!

      For the rest of it, like I said, I don't hate it here, but I don't love it either. For me Bordeaux is just a city where I ended up but I'm going to try to make the most of it. I know everywhere has its faults so I'm just going to give Bordeaux a chance. And yes, having the beach so close is a definite point in Bordeaux's favor!

  5. I've never been to Bordeaux, so it's interesting to read what you have to say about it. I haven't ever found any Americans here in Picardie either (or Brits, or Aussies, I'm not picky!) and have pretty much given up; but I do regret it because my kids' English could use some more help than just I can give them. :\

    1. Yes, I imagine Picardie must be even more difficult than Bordeaux. At least there are some Americans here, I'm just struggling to really meet any around my age and in a similar situation (i.e. not students here for a few months, etc). But I have at least managed to meet some Brits. In the end I'm not too picky either!

  6. Interesting article.... I live in Tours and have been here for about 2 years now. I find it an interesting place but also find that one can get bored easily here as well... I am curious as to what you enjoyed here so much that makes you want to move back into the city.