stranger things: the hitchhiker’s guide to the auvergne

It’s a dreary early-spring day in the Auvergne region in France. At some unknown stretch along the highway, I sit at a rest-stop cafeteria table eating bad baguette sandwiches with two strangers.

We sit and chew hard bread and wilted lettuce in companionable quiet. Cold rain splats against the windows and I shiver in my damp jacket and jeans.

I have no idea where we are. I wonder what I would do in the event of separation: just me and my purse and my portable that is dead.

But I am unaffected. I am bold.

(Really, I’m desperate).

I’m a BlaBlaCar rider.

Much like raw milk cheese, BlaBlaCar is a French invention unlikely to appear in the United States. Less delicious than Mont d’Or but certainly more practical, BlaBlaCar is a service that connects riders with drivers in a searchable and safe incarnation of hitchhiking. BlaBlaCar meets a real need as a cost-effective way to travel long distances, say one to ten hours of routemont-dor

The website and app are available for free. Drivers set the price per journey, which includes one seat in the vehicle, and BlaBlaCar takes about a 12% cut. BlaBlaCar now has a presence in 18 countries, but the US is not one of them. As a Business Insider article explains, BlaBlaCar’s effectiveness depends upon a strong public transport infrastructure, making it a brilliant fit for France and Germany, while hypothetically leaving American users stranded.

Unlike Uber, which has exploded in American cities, BlaBlaCar doesn’t work like a taxi service. Drivers input their routes, say, from Paris to Lyon, and mark four or five stops they could make along the way. Rarely do they stray from meeting points, which could include a major train station in each city they pass through. Users can take a bus, tram, or metro to meet the driver and then to hop to their final destination.

This wouldn’t work well in the US, where the meeting point could be miles away from where you are; the drop-off point miles from where you want to be.

Living, as I do at the time, in a quiet corner of the already-quiet center of France, I use BlaBlaCar to fill the gaps in train schedules. Montluçon is already under-serviced in terms of transportation, and I’ve watched resentfully over the year as routes to and from major cities have simultaneously decreased in availability and risen in price.

Today, I’m using BlaBlaCar to get home from Lyon. The rest-stop sandwiches mark the halfway point.

In the morning, I sent my mom to the airport and headed with my bags to the Croix-Rousse. Traditionally the silk workers’ neighborhood, it offers a nice view of the rest of the city–or it does when it’s not pouring buckets. After several metro changes, my wet hair plastered to my face, I drag my suitcases into an old-fashioned belle-époque café where everyone knows each other, even the dogs in their raincoats, and the day’s newspaper is thrown around with cheerful abandon.

Cyril, who I know by first name and through a few staticky phone conversations, told me to meet him around the mairie of the 6 arrondissement. A BlaBlaCar truth: he who possesses the vehicle shall make the rules. Instead of meeting him at the Part-Dieu, Lyon’s major train station which is conveniently located just down the street from my hotel, I lug my bags through metro stations, across a halfhearted market, and up a hill. There it is, the city hall: I think. I inhale a couple of cappuccinos and try to warm up.

Cyril is late. He calls me every twenty minutes with updates–something about a bouchon. Finally, he arrives, driving a sinister and decidedly un-French white van. He is thirtyish with a lumberjack beard and cold-weather gear. He helps me with my bags. From the outside, it seems I’ll have plenty of room to stretch out and sleep during the trip. But when Cyril opens the door, I see that there are only three seats in the cab. As the latest addition to the van of strangers, I am relegated to the middle, feet necessarily perched on the raised platform, knees practically to my nose.

Cyril’s van and his route are highly in-demand. As we drive, Cyril makes and answers phone calls and negotiates exact pick-up times with other riders. We let a girl out in a Flunch restaurant parking lot and pick up one guy on the side of a highway.

I am still in the middle feeling like an oversized child, but I am just glad to be going home and saving fifty euros doing it. I don’t exactly have money to burn. Today’s ride was a third of the cost of the only train that would get me from Lyon to Montluçon.

Road trips are good for thinking. One thing I think about: I am not used to depending on strangers. That’s what I think, anyway, before I realize that is a totally false impression cultivated from an American sense of possibility and individualism. I am not used to depending on strangers–overtly. Really, other people make my coffee and grow my tomatoes and fix my car, yet I still maintain a sense of independence that has been stripped away while I live in France. I become very quickly aware of how often my well-being depends on the kindness of a bus driver or waiter, a random dog walker or fellow diner. And when it comes to travel, I now depend on this updated, tech-based version of hitchhiking.

I’ve ridden with Cyril, Dominic, Valérie, Fred, Karim, Arthur…sometimes Mary and I ride together and we talk about our plans as if these people are our friends. Wanna stop for espresso? Dominic’s running late. The fact that we know them only by first name points to the strange intimacy of road tripping with strangers.

Do you sit in the front or the back? Should you sleep or maintain polite conversation? How likely is it that you and your conducteur will be belting out show tunes and exchanging emails by the end of the ride?

The answer to these questions is not évident. An easy way to start a conversation is by asking about the driver’s motivation. Sometimes it’s simply money; a way to help them justify the expense of weekend trips to see a boyfriend. Sometimes it’s company, a way to spice up an eight-hour drive.

Company comes at a cost: it’s both good and awkward. There’s a strange self-consciousness that comes from the fact that the rider and driver will be publicly rating and reviewing each other after the trip. Sometimes when I scatter croissant crumbs on the seat or fail to really engage with the driver, I scramble to atone for what could be perceived as poor company. No one wants to lose at this game of Rent-a-Friend. BlaBlaCar feels a lot more personal than Uber and other comparable services.

As such, BlaBlaCar does its small part to prepare users for possible personality differences. When users create a profile, they are urged to designate their preferred level of chatter: from Bla to BlaBlaBla, or, it might be stated, the likelihood that you will annoy the person sitting next to you.

Your rating on the website could prove important: drivers can reject ride requests, and some days there might be but a single BlaBlaCar leaving from your location. There’s a small element of personal marketing when you’re competing against others for transportation rights.

Ooh, he’s cute. Mary and I discuss potential drivers (which fully illustrates the lack of thrilling activities available in our town. We joke that we’ve become really boring). Why did they reject me?!” Personal.

I wonder how often two people have met and fallen in love over the course of a BlaBlaCar ride share. It would make a lot of sense, I think. People have clicked for less than similar music tastes.

I certainly did not find love. I did, however, find a not-so-secret admirer, a good fifteen years my senior, who wrote me a review on the site. In it, he praised our belle and enrichissante conversation. I was a person both interesting and sympathique (to borrow the French syntax). And he wanted to get dinner sometime.

When I saw it, I snorted. Beautiful and enriching? He must’ve been talking about the sound of my snoring. The car was crammed with four twenty-something girls, and, sitting in the back, I could barely hear his eager questions. He tried to make eye contact in the mirror, not paying as much attention to the road as I would prefer, so I decided to feign sleep until Lyon. Still, and much to the annoyance of the very-awake Mary beside me, he wasn’t deterred. Is Jessica cold? Does she mind if I smoke? Does she have enough room back there? 

She’s asleep, came the flat response.

You won’t always click with your BlaBlaCar driver. You probably won’t find love.

But for the frequent, tired traveller, the service offers an element of humanity unmatched by the TGV. With a ride-share, you will not be spit out on the train tracks in an unknown city. You will have a chance to hear someone’s story, learn about a new region, get advice and restaurant recommendations. Unless they would rather shut up and drive. And that works too.

In a time when technology has the troublesome side effect of isolating humans into tiny virtual worlds of our own creation, I am cheered by this opportunity to, quite simply, talk to strangers. It meets a real transportation need, and a subtler need too: the need to connect with people. As a lonely American transplant, I appreciated these miscellaneous encounters.

Sometimes they were awkward or embarrassing. They were boring, or else really pleasant. They were human.

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not a french girl

I used to walk down the street terrified someone would talk to me, and lemme tell you: that is a tiring way to live. Whether it was shyness about my accent or the fear of looking someone in the eyes and understanding absolutely nothing they were saying, in France I largely kept to myself.

Though I loved speaking French, I only really spoke French with friends, peers, people I trusted. In public, it was purely perfunctory.

So when I got to Lyon last week, my excitement was mixed with the familiar stress of being l’étrangère. I remembered answering the phone, buying groceries…in French, it all made my heart pound. Sometimes (rarely), it was exhilarating. Many days, it took a lot of willpower to even leave the house. I wanted to curl up in a ball, beam myself back to the land where I wasn’t always lost. I loved France, but I didn’t love who I was there: I was fearful.

I mentioned this to Stéphane and Aline and discussed my unease about what the year ahead would hold. They told me I was welcome to spend the weekend at their house whenever I felt like it, which I really appreciated. Montluçon was still only an idea and a Google image search. Aline told me I was courageuse. But I didn’t feel brave. I felt like I was going to cry.

Then, on the subject of language, being understood, getting everything right, blending in, pressure… Stéphane said something that, while simple, really helped to change my perspective. He switched to English to say: “but Jess-ee-cah, you are not a French girl. You are an American girl in France.”

I thought about that. And I realized: I have long been too hard on myself. I walked around like I was apologizing for my foreign existence. For my accent. Or incomplete French lexicon. Or for not understanding something. I walked around like I didn’t want anyone to know I was from somewhere else.

I don’t know what I was so afraid of. Cultural diversity is a joy. When I hear someone speaking English with a foreign accent, I don’t laugh at them. Rather, I’m intrigued by them. What’s their story? I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with people from other countries, people that have somehow found their way to Clinton, Missouri or Mizzou. Friends from France, England, Norway, Montenegro and more…I realized that what I always liked about foreign exchange students was their confidence and grace. I realized I could learn something from these friends. They don’t act ashamed or embarrassed when they don’t know something, but they’re always happy to learn. They’re proud of where they’re from but they love to discover new places. I decided: no more. No more acting or even feeling apologetic. No more tiptoeing around. I will go boldly.

I will take my brand of Americanism as an asset: I like smiling at strangers and I like making friends in five minutes and I like eating pizza with my hands. I like making messes, walking barefoot outside, taking road trips and taking long showers. I don’t always act French, even in France, because, oh yeah, I’m not.

Accepting this, enjoying this, has made for a lovely first week in Montluçon. On the first day here, I realized I had a choice. I could either do what I’d always done: avoid people, avoid doing things, avoid asking for help (anything to avoid embarrassment), get stuck in a cycle of self-loathing, or I could simply…not do that.

It became surprisingly easy once I was cognizant of it. All week, I spoke to strangers in France without a second thought. I asked questions instead of resigning to figure it out myself. It was fun! I had many lovely interactions, not a one was unpleasant. People here are very friendly, and it’s freeing and motivating to know that I’m so far away from home and I have a limited amount of time to make the most of this, so pourquoi pas get out of my comfort zone?

It’s funny, all week I had a line in my head from an old children’s book I read while nannying this summer. “Anywhere you go with a smile and a wish to like people, you will find someone who will be glad to see you.”

It has already paid off. Friday night I met Mary, another American language assistant. She also studied English and French in school. She’s friendly and smart and I like her a lot. We drank wine at a brasserie and we decided to speak only French. I noticed that we were being noticed, and it didn’t bother me. We stayed for dinner, and ended up sitting next to a group of people curious where we were from. We sat outside and ate tagliatelle, protected from the pouring rain by a tiny awning, and talked to them for two hours.

Saturday, courtesy of our new connections, we visited some popular bars and then went to a discotheque. (We actually had the occasion to use French textbook-line “où est la discothèque,” which we found quite funny). We were the first Americans a group of people had ever met! It’s a chance to rep our country in a big way.

I’m excited to be an American in Montluçon, France.

J’ai hâte.

goats & grapes: I make it to montluçon

Today Stéphane (le “père adoptif”) and I embarked on a road trip. He had generously offered to take me to Montluçon to start my job, and of course I accepted, not being one for solo travel in the French countryside with over a hundred pounds of luggage.

So there we were, listening to Chérie radio and driving further and further away, it seemed, from la civilisation. At first, the cows, goats, and sheep were charming. At one point, I glanced over at a field and saw two farmers doing the faire la bise. Ah la France.

And then I started to worry. We drove through what looked like ghost towns, and more signs appeared, pointing the way to Montluçon. More skinny cows. More goats.  Closed businesses. I heard Aline in my head: ah oui, Montluçon c’est la campagne-campagne, hein ? (A translation might go something like: “that place is really out in the sticks”). I felt something like dread. When would the car stop? I kind of didn’t want it to. We could just sit here listening to Celine Dion until the end of time. Or at least until we ran out of gas. I did not wish to be a “small-town girl in a lonely world,” not even in France.

Maybe we’d get there, to this dusty abandoned hamlet where I’d have a herd of sheep for company, and I’d have to beg Stéphane to let me back in the car. Have mercy! I’d cry, or its rough French equivalent.

The drama was put on hold when we got to Montluçon and I saw that it was most certainly not a farm. Oh look, a pretty bridge. People drinking wine en terrasse. A cute movie theater.  Relief came in waves before I realized I needed to focus and help Stéphane find where we were actually going. In August, I had corresponded with someone from l’Académie de Clermont-Ferrand who gave me the contact information of an older gentleman in Montluçon who had been hosting TAPIF assistants for a good ten years. It sounded like a pretty good deal for an unbeatable price, and also, I was completely desperate. We emailed back and forth and there I was, with nothing but my bags and a few email screenshots. We put the address into the GPS and it was awhile before either of us realized there was a typo in the address I was given. We stopped several times in the busy downtown area so Stéphane could call out to someone for directions. I turned on my emergency data supply to see if my navigation could hack it, and all that got us was Siri attempting street names with absolutely horrendous pronunciation that I had to translate. After a few circles, we found the right people and were soon driving down a pretty open road just outside of town.

We were there, at a house with pink flowers and orange shutters. I rang the bell; this was it. My new landlord, who I’ll call Armand for the sake of privacy, put me right at ease, answering the door with a “Jessica ! Viens, viens, ma petite.” He’s in his seventies, I’d guess, and easily one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. He insisted we sit down and brought us beer and sirop. On my kitchen table he’d put a bowl of fresh grapes. Freshly picked from…my new backyard, where there are more muscat grapes than one person could ever eat.

The first questions he asked me:

but do you like escargot ? oh, j’adore.  cuisses de grenouille ? oui, oui, j’aime.  boudin ? j’aime bien, oui.

He seemed pleased with that. I laughed. All these foods that various hosts and friends have assumed I wouldn’t like? I totally like. Frog legs, weird meats at the bouchon… Je suis pas difficile. 

Armand showed me around the house. I’m renting the whole top floor, it turns out. He lives downstairs, in a little bachelor-pad type place that opens onto the garden. Sometimes Armand hosts several assistants but I’m the only one this year. I have a cozy room with a desk, great closet, comfy bed, and large window to let the sun in. I have a kitchen full of sunlight and a view of the backyard; a living room with a couch, TV, and dining table…wifi is set up and there’s a cabinet in the hallway with teaching materials from past assistants. He even gave me a note in a sealed envelope from an assistant from last year. I guess he likes to do that to make it easier for everyone year after year. In English, the past assistant gave some really good advice about how to make the most of the stay in Montluçon and she said that “Armand” is one of the kindest people she’s ever met.

After Armand had explained everything to me, Stéphane headed out. It was nice having him there because there were some things I had trouble understanding. Armand speaks really quickly and has an accent I’m not familiar with. But he’s so easy to talk to, I noticed my speaking ability improving in a matter of a few hours.

He gave me a tour of the garden, which he welcomed me to visit whenever I want. Growing now are: grapes, figs, pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, beets, apples, pears, peaches, spinach, lettuce, carrots, melons…there are flowers and bees and grape vines everywhere and honestly, j’adore. What’s more, it’s only a five-minute bus ride from town. Armand kept picking things and telling me to taste them, a ripe fig here, a cherry tomato there.

He had insisted to cook dinner for me as soon as I got there. “You just arrived, chérie, I’m making you an omelet!” And so I went to unpack my room in my new apartment/house and waited for the call that dinner was ready, which was quite the charming way to be welcomed into my new town thousands of miles away from home.

We ate downstairs with a friend of his, a farmer, I think. We had le potage, classic garden vegetable soup from his region of origin that he swears is the secret to good health: you must drink it twice a day. You must also drink red wine. We had Beaujolais. And when I saw the farmer pour the wine into his soup and drink it all I thought I was seeing things. Turns out, this is a thing, though I’m still not totally convinced they’re not playing a prank on me with that. They said I should try it, so of course I did. C’est…différent. It wasn’t terrible, but I think I’ll keep soup and wine in their respective receptacles from now on.

Then the aforementioned omelet. Let me tell you, this man can cook. The omelet, which we split three ways, included: eggs from the neighbor, potatoes, parsley, and garlic from the garden, and fleur de sel. Utter perfection.

Then cheese. Armand offered us either cow’s milk cheese fresh or “dry,” or goat’s milk cheese fresh or “dry.” These are also products made within mere miles. This is cheese girl heaven. We finished it off with green grapes from the garden that Armand ventured outside to pick while we ate our cheese. As local as local gets.

Because I haven’t yet had time to visit any magasin to buy food, Armand bought me a baguette and even gave me some butter, tea, and sugar cubes that he put into a little bag. I am stunned and delighted at the warm welcome.

Tomorrow I get to visit the schools where I’ll be teaching! And there are three of them. How I will manage to get myself there in an unfamiliar French town by 9:15 is another story…I don’t even know where the bus stop is.