Montpellier, Where I Almost Once Lived
I almost lived in Montpellier in my early 20s. At the end of college, I applied to the same English teaching program that I’m now doing and was assigned to teach in the southern France city. From what people told me at the time, it sounded like a great place to live: a student town, a California climate, near the Mediterranean.
But I didn’t take the job. At the time, I wanted to start my career, to figure out what it was I would do. I was interested in politics and policy and had gotten a couple of job offers in a D.C., had a lot of family out there, and liked the city, so that’s where I went. Though I was attracted to the idea of improving my French—maybe one day I could even be fluent!—it didn’t feel like a goal with a practical purpose. I do not regret the choice, but I always wondered what it would have been like to live and work in France.
Fast forward a number of years: I’d started taking French again (after almost 10 years away from it!), was ready for a career and life change, and was seriously thinking: what if I moved to France?. So early this past year, I re-applied to that teaching program that I almost did in my 20s. This time around, I chose to do it. I was assigned to the Bordeaux region, not too far from Montpellier. And so, as I was planning my first trip around southwest* France, Montpellier was the first place I thought to go—curious about what could have been (*and yes, technically Montpellier is more east than west). Here is how it went:
A Young City
When I arrived in Montpellier at about 8 pm at night fresh off of two trains and a bus from Bordeaux (long story) and walked the short distance from the train station to my hotel, I felt like one of the oldest people on the street. I passed a concert venue with a line about a quarter of a block long. College age students lined the patios of fast food burger and Thai restaurants. Later that night I went into a Monoprix 30 minutes before close, and streams of high school and college aged kids were mobbing the store, stocking up on alcohol, soda, and snacks as a couple of guards walked around imploring us all to make our purchases and leave.
The place I stayed was a different story. The Hotel du Grand Midi, just off the central Place de la Comédie in the old city Ecusson was a comfortable and creatively decorated hotel that was so quiet I felt like the only one staying there. (I booked the hotel using Chase Sapphire Reward card travel points getting a very good nightly rate on the room). Plus, for the first time since arriving in France, I could watch English TV stations, which meant that against my better judgement, I watched a lot of CNN over those three days.
The New City: Hôtel de Ville and Port Marianne
The next day, I walked up Rue de l’Université to Les Beaux Arts, a residential quarter just outside the old city that is supposed to be young and hip but seemed a little tranquil (nothing wrong with that). I stopped at a market to get fruit and a bakery to get one of my favorite baked goods: a mini pain au chocolat, known in my region as a chocolatine.
I then took the tram (with a 24-hour tram day pass) to the city’s Hôtel de Ville. Unlike most hôtel de villes, or city halls, which are typically old and grand, Montpellier’s is a modern, blue, blocky high-rise designed by an architect named Jean Nouvel. It is one of the many projects the city points to as part of its lineup of top architects and other designers who have shaped the city’s infrastructure, another being the trams designed by fashion designer Christian Lacroix.
I took the tram across the Lez River to Port Marianne, a neighborhood with lots of unmemorable high-rises that has only been around since the 1970s and is popular with young people. It felt pretty charmless and lacking a human scale, but a few of the more recent buildings were interesting, including the one on the right in the photo below, along the Lez.
Thus far I felt no immediate affection for Montpellier the way I had for Bordeaux, probably at least in part because of my high expectations. Plus I felt kind of old in Montpellier, it being such a young city. But I had only been there for less than a day, and there was much more to see.
France’s Oldest Botanic Gardens & a Park with an Unobstructed View
I headed back via tram to the Jardin de Plantes just outside of the center of the city and one of the oldest botanic gardens in France and a model for how others in the country are designed. This oasis was a perfect antidote to the charmless modern architecture that I’d just seen.
After studying the plants and sitting for a while, I walked to the Arc de Triomphe also known as Porte de Peyrou on the southwestern edge of the old city and walked around the Place de Royale Peyrou park across the way. The park’s panoramic views of the city and beyond have been preserved because of building restrictions set when it was completed in the 18th century under Louis XVI.
I headed after that to the Saint Anne quarter of the old city and got a happy hour cheese plate and wine at a café on one of the winding streets. There, I met up with two teaching assistants who had just arrived from Toulouse, who were both originally from Mexico and teaching Spanish in other areas of France.
We walked around the old city for a bit and ran into another teaching assistant they knew from Mexico and his friend from Colombia. The five of us spent the evening seeing many of the famed sites of Montpellier, including the L’Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle, and the Arc de Triomphe and Place de Royale Peyrou, which were a different scene altogether lit up at night.
I talked with one of the assistants about the recent election in Mexico and her excitement that voter turnout had been at record levels. I told her I understood the feeling and hoped for the same enthusiasm for our upcoming House midterm elections in the U.S. I also told her like I’ve told just about everyone I’ve met here who mentions American politics that I despise Trump. He is so horrible on so many levels that it seems quickest to just say how much I dislike him, even if it’s not the most articulate way to describe how I feel and to add that at least half of America, if not more, feels the same.
A Rainy Day at the Market, Musée Fabre, and a Gothic Cathedral
The next day, the good streak of weather I’d had so far finally came to an end. It was colder with a light but steady rain. I went to the covered, indoor market, Les Halles Castellane, had a small quiche, market vegetables, and a glass of red wine. After, I headed to the city’s best known art museum, Musée Fabre, which is the perfect size for an afternoon. In one visit, you cover everything from renaissance era still lives to contemporary installations in an easily laid out walk-through, with works from many French artists I hadn’t known of.
The rain was still going as I ducked into a few thrift shops near Rue de la Université. Always surprised at what objects of American culture make it here to France, I found a bunch of t-shirts and sweatshirts from U.S. colleges and towns in one store, including Penn State and Vail, the ski town in Colorado.
I headed toward Cathédrale Saint Pierre, a striking Gothic church with a dramatic arched entryway on one side and a giant organ on the inside. The cathedral is next to the city’s medical school—the oldest operating one in the world. The two buildings used to form a monastery.
After looking in a few more shops, I went home to enjoy some well-deserved relaxation in my bed watching TV.
Unfortunately, I turned on CNN to get the news of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The more that came in about the individuals who were killed, the sadder it became. It was strange to be taking in the news in France. One of the things I have been missing most about the U.S. and particular New York and the area outside Chicago where I grew up is being around so many other people from the Jewish community. The day before, I had taken a photo of a Jewish star on a building in the Beaux Arts neighborhood. I later identified the building as the Synagogue Mazel Tov, which also has in it several Jewish associations.
That night, I had some other teaching assistants over to my hotel room for drinks and snacks. We compared our experiences in the teaching program, amused at how inconsistent everything was—from whether we were expected to teach lessons the first weeks of class to how much we got paid (some were paid their full first month’s salary, other’s like me were paid 80 percent, with the rest coming in November).
I started to formulate a comparison between France and the United States. The U.S., I thought, is organized disorganization and France is disorganized organization. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but it seemed like something I might be able to articulate at some point. Fortunately we headed out for a couple of drinks, and I abandoned my comparison for another day.
The next day the weather had cleared somewhat and I was on to Toulouse (where it would be cold and drizzly). Montpellier had grown on me by the end of the trip. I still liked Bordeaux better, but the walkability of the old city, my time with the other teaching assistants, the beautiful monuments and botanic garden, and the comfortable hotel stay had left me with a good feeling about the city.