Once I get settled into a city, it can be hard to leave–even for a visit. I attribute it to Torontonian syndrome. This means paying lip service when friends suggest you visit them in Ottawa or Kitchener, but secretly loathing the idea of taking a Greyhound out there. Those who live downtown are even worse and balk at the idea of going up to the suburbs. Somehow this complex has dogged me during my stints living in the Netherlands and Taiwan. I’m always torn between discovering the rest of the country or getting to know your city better. But this weekend, for the first time since arriving in France, I traveled outside of the Alsace region. I took two high-speed trains across France all the way to Rennes. Of course it would take a music festival to get me out west and the Transmusicales Festival, or Les Trans, was a good enough reason for me.
When I decided to do this program, for the longest time, I was convinced I was going to go to Nantes. I had met a few Nantais during my travels and was charmed by their friendliness and impossibly cute French accents in English. My logic was that if they sounded like that in English, if I learned French in Nantes, maybe I would sound like them. In the end, I ranked the Strasbourg academy as my number one choice, instead of Nantes. Since then there has always been a little pang of longing for what could have been if I had chosen to live in the Bretagne region instead of the Alsace. (I know Nantes is technically no longer a part of Bretagne, but I’m talking historically/culturally.)
Even though the festival was in Rennes, I figured this was my chance to see Celtic-influenced French culture (as opposed to the brand of German-influenced French culture over here.) I never cease to be amused by the pride the French have for their home region (or their disdain for Paris.) The Alsatians tell me their region isn’t French at all and the Bretons were only too eager to tell me the same thing. One of my students told me how in “Little Brittany,” they eat crepes and wash it down with cider. Oh cider, I thought, how very English. In the Alsace, you will never hear the words choucroute or bretzel without the words “regional specialty” attached to them. I know these things as sauerkraut and pretzels (or bretzen, since I learned the German word first.) It’s funny how at least these regional specialties are just things that, from a foreigner’s perspective, come from other countries.
I was surprised to see quite a few half-timbered style houses in Rennes, since I thought they were characteristically Alsatian. The ones in Rennes looked more rickety and purposely historic, while Alsatian ones are painted pleasant pastel colours and look like they come out of fairy tales. While I thought living in one of these houses in 2009 is quaint (Sélestat has its share), it’s nothing compared to the stone houses and medieval villages in Bretagne. I took a little excursion to Dinan and it blew my mind that medieval castle is only minutes away from the downtown. I know it’s all perfectly normal to the French, but the North American suburbanite in me is still amazed at the idea of growing up with among this kind of scenery.
The vibe from Rennes itself was the opposite of old age. I knew it had a reputation as a student city but was surprised by the extent of it. I had inklings that Strasbourg felt was a bit stuffy, but going to Rennes confirmed it. Rennes is an anomaly (like the university towns Kingston or London in Ontario) in France because of the disproportionate number of students. The youth is visibly and immediately apparent in the students littering the streets. Even the clothing stores were more interesting to me than the ones in Strasboug. The city also has a surplus of is police presence. Around downtown, especially at night, I saw on average seven carloads of police wearing special protective gear while patrolling. My friend told me these were normal patrols there to control drunken students when they spill out onto the street after last call. Since this was during Les Trans (which brings in its share of drunken tourists) it was only natural that they beef up the force.
The festival itself had a fantastic atmosphere. It was held at Parc Expo, a collection of airport hangars just outside the city. Each had its own line-up and one hangar was a dedicated bar, lounge and water bar. The tarmac was consistently full of people smoking or getting some fresh air after dancing–though these might be the same thing for the French.
I came to Les Trans was to see Fever Ray. This tour was billed as the group’s first and only tour and Rennes was the second-to-last show. Since I’ve never seen The Knife (and probably never will since they refuse to tour again), seeing Fever Ray was the next best thing. I was so close to the stage I could smell the incense, but not close enough to get a good look at Karin Dreijer, the singer of both bands. The Knife are known for their stage fright and standoffish ways and seeing Fever Ray confirmed this. Dreijer was positioned half way back on the stage, clad in full on black-and-white face makeup and a witch-like robe. The antique lamps surrounding her and her equally spookily-dressed bandmates flashed while smoke swirled around stage. It was dark, slightly unnerving and great.
I only planned on going to the festival for one day but I unexpectedly came into a ticket the night after, the techno night. Commanding most, if not all the of the hype, was Mr Oizo–best known in North America for the music video for Flat Beat. I was most excited to see the French reception for their homeboy. The first half-hour was great but it really petered out by the end. Significant numbers of the crowd were leaving and those who stayed was just because it was, well, Oizo. I was pleased that he played the Justice remix of “Blood On Our Hands” by Death From Above 1979. At times it felt like he was falling back on the popularity of other bands to keep the crowd interested. How else do you explain playing two Daft Punk songs in one set? The most memorable part of the set was a sample of a robot voice gleefully declaring to the crowd that “Nous avons le grippe A” (We have the H1N1 flu) and “Nous allons tous mourir à Rennes” (We are all going to die in Rennes.) A cheap trick for sure, but it worked. To paraphrase Morrissey, if ten-tonne truck crashes into us, to die in Rennes, well..it might be a better way to go than in Strasbourg.