After eight hours from Atlanta, the hour and a half flight from Paris to Montpellier felt like a breeze. Air France operated small flights between these major cities, and air was the most convenient option because at the time railway strikes, commonplace in France, were currently making train travel difficult. Montpellier’s airport was small. Not Alice Springs small, but nothing in comparison to Paris. The first thing noticed as soon as we left was the heat- refreshing at first after the chilling cabins in the airplanes, but the relief faded into exhaustion as soon as the sun came up and it became unbearable. Our shuttle van to Nîmes, a forty minute drive by road from Montpellier, ferried us to the city, and I made the mistake of sitting in the left window seat in hopes of getting good views of the Roman ruins of Nîmes. Unfortunately, there were no Roman ruins in sight on the roads, and instead I found myself the victim of extreme heat as the sun shone down on me. I was hot and sweaty as we rolled into the ancient city of Nîmes.
Parking at the local high school, we went upstairs to the cafeteria, where refreshments were waiting for us. Minutes later, we were introduced to our host siblings. Being the only boy in the group, it was easy to find my host brother, a teenager named Ugo. After exchanging pleasantries and talking, he told me we were heading to his house to unpack and set up my things. The Sister Cities group was dismissed, and the two of us left the front of the school and traveled on the brief walk from the city center.
I couldn’t believe what I was already seeing. We walked past palm trees, modern architecture, and classic European buildings that looked like they came from a medieval hilltop village. But what completely caught me off guard was a wall on my left that rendered me impressed. I was looking at colossal walls dating from the ancient Roman fortifications. These two thousand year old barriers were made of stone, crumbling and overgrown with foliage. A chain link fence separated the sidewalk from the uneven terrain, which was now underneath several condominiums and preserved. It turns out that these ancient Roman walls divided the ancient city from the wild outskirts. They were the first Roman ruins I had seen up close and personal- and I was impressed. I would go on to learn that Roman ruins are valued in this town. Days later I learned that in order to construct a pool or other paved structure, you have to bring in a professional who drills down into the ground to ensure no ancient Roman sites are being built over. History literally influences day to day life in Nîmes, whether it’s the walls you see from your backyard to the people making sure you don’t dump concrete over a Roman bath or temple.
Ugo’s home was close to the city center, and I soon settled in. We were alone for a little while, and then I met his mother, a schoolteacher who had just come home. She was very friendly and informed me we would be making our way to Ugo’s drum practice. Minutes later, I found myself in the shotgun seat of a small European car with only two doors- microscopic for those living in the States. We drove out into the city, and headed towards his practice studio.
From the front seats, you could see all of Nîmes in typical Provençal charm. Administratively in Languedoc-Roussillon, Nîmes is practically part of Provence in terms of culture, history, and traditions. You could see sun-drenched villas, open windows and balconies, pharmacies with green neon crosses advertising their functions, and stone railway bridges towering over small apartments and flats. The weather was hot but it did not deter people from walking around or enjoying the city. We parked at Ugo’s studio, and we entered a chamber with several guitars, a keyboard, microphones, and a drum set. I had a great time listening to Ugo (on the drums) and four other talented teenagers jam out to David Bowie’s “Heroes.” David Bowie is apparently huge in France.
On the ride back to Ugo’s home, his mother decided we take a little tour of the town by car. Squeezing back into the family vehicle, we set out from the rehearsal studio and drove through downtown. It was amazing. I could see ancient Roman ruins, temples, towers, walls, and gates. The huge Arena towers stories over downtown in a terrific roundabout. Public squares were adorned with temples and houses, some decked out with sculptures, and others filled with European tourists. I knew this was going to be a wonder of a trip.
Back at the house, I met Ugo’s father, and the parents told me they would prepare dinner so we should wait while they cooked it. In the mean time, I discovered Ugo and I were interested in the same video games, and I had a pleasant time roaming around a digital San Francisco Bay in “Watch Dogs 2” however it was strange to have the Californian police speak in fluent French as I outfoxed them in car chases. When dinner was ready, we all sat down at a wooden table, and the meal began.
First was a charcuterie plate, with sausages and slices of ham that were unlike any I’d tried before. There were also pickles and a homemade pâté made by the father himself, and they taught me how to eat it. I also tried slices of various meats, including duck. Towards the end of the dinner I was able to try goat cheese spread on baguettes, and for dessert we enjoyed strawberries that had been flavored with tart lemon juice. This was my first dinner in France, and I was already beginning to love it.
After that, I readied myself to sleep. In the morning, we would set out as a group and see the sights of Ancient Nîmes. My first trip to Europe had just begun!