“Cette année-là…” sings the vaguely familiar voice of Claude François, played by a DJ on a warm November night.
The cozy Montpellier bar is packed with 20-year-olds from different parts of the globe – and even some from the region. You can feel the sweat spray onto your skin from people dancing on nearby tables. Despite the recent seasonal release of Beaujolais Nouveau, or perhaps because of it, the general atmosphere isn’t very drunk. But absolutely everyone is dancing. They are happy to be there and to be young. The laughter radiating from a group of Dutch students is contagious.
It’s 2002 and this is my Erasmus exchange year. A year filled with salsa-dancing Colombians and Mexicans, homesick Canadians and adventurous Canadians, upbeat Dutch roommates, and British students who don’t seem to wear winter coats – ever. Re-igniting a desire in me that was never really lost – a desire to keep traveling the world, even when I’m older and have inevitably settled into a steady, grown-up life.
Montpellier was magical that year. Its winding, medieval, cobblestoned streets, which seemed to slightly shift each time I walked them, forming new routes that I hadn’t yet explored. The afternoon light which ever-so-slightly changed the colors and details of buildings’ walls, revealing decorations and light yellow tones in what had seemed grey a moment earlier. The fresh, local produce, the tapenade I used on a daily basis for that brief moment of my life, the other new flavors. Montpellier is where I learned to drink coffee and it’s the only place in France where I’ve been able to find a certain Roquefort pie. I hope that bakery still exists for when I go back one day. Wait for me!
By the spring of 2003, I had become utterly spoiled with warm winter days and trips to the beach at Palavas-les-Flots and La Grande Motte. Sometimes, I’d spot wild flamingos on the way to the beach, and my eye had grown accustomed to the rustic beauty of the area. The part of me that craves aesthetic scenery had been awoken for good. I’d been to France before, but never on this scale, and I knew I was in the right place at the right time.
While movies like L’Auberge Espagnole will always bring back memories of those days, looking back now, the hopeful outlook a student has on her future life seems a bit distant to me. Am I still the same girl?
Montpellier’s location in the southern part of France, not too far from the Spanish border, honestly must be among the best there is. A short drive could land you on a beach, in the mountains, in a new town or another country. There’s a certain kind of freedom in being able to just hop into a car or on a train whenever you feel like it and visit a different place each time.
There was the fisherman’s village Sète, which could be reached by a short train ride. I found a nice, secluded beach there that I returned to. There were carefree day trips to Béziers, Cap d’Adge, Nîmes, Lyon, and the Carcassonne citadel. Visits to Barcelona were easy, with the option of returning via Andorra, just to see what it was like. There was Avignon, once home to the Pope, and Arles with the cafe that inspired the famous Van Gogh painting. And other forgotten towns.
I could see how all those 19th century artists got their inspiration. Could anything be more beautiful that the lavender fields that were pictured on all those Provence postcards they sold everywhere?
This past summer, I met up with a German friend from those days. At some point, I mentioned I was still embarrassed at how I almost missed the train to Marseille on the day we had decided to go there. I’d overslept, and knowing that she was waiting for me at the train station, I’d basically jumped into my clothes and started running the moment I woke up. Luckily, my flat wasn’t very far from the station and we made our train. I didn’t even brush my hair until I was safely on the moving train!
But my friend told me I needn’t feel bad about it. In fact, she’d always thought of it as an example of what you can do if you’ve made a promise that you really want to keep.
That made me think, what about the promises we’ve made to ourselves? The bright-eyed, naive ones from when we were younger. Do those matter at all, or do we really need to stop being silly and just grow up?
Please excuse the quality of the photos. They are pre-digital-camera era, made with a disposable camera – actually, several! Yes, digital cameras did already exist, but I was on a student’s budget, you see. So no editing, no special effects here!