On our last day in Rennes, we head over to our favorite bistro, the Bistrot Cocagne, just outside our apartment. We greet the waiter, Antoine, who we have come to know a little over the last few weeks, and then head upstairs to settle down in the old beat up turquiose upholstered chairs, which were taken (I’m sure) from someone’s grandma’s house. Plants hang from the rafters and art decorates the walls. And I feel like I’m hanging out in an old friend’s home.
We fell in love with this place right away, its chalkboard sign outside with the day’s offerings leaning up against the yellow wall, wicker backed chairs, wooden tables, and umbrellas set up outside the restaurant and groups of people gathered together, drinking a coffee or glass of wine or eating lunch. It’s a community hangout. We see people greet each other with the double kiss and conversations filled with laughter. The inside is just as cozy and welcoming with old sofas and easy chairs, along with small tables for intimate conversations. We could hear the quiet buzz and murmur of the restaurant from our apartment if we opened the windows –the perfect background noise as I read or wrote or tidied up.
I remember our first time there when I sheepishly tried to order in French, apologizing in advance for any mistakes: “Une galette avec oeuf e frommage s’il vous plait,” I said haltingly. But Antoine rewards me with a smile. “Perfect,” he says. Later I ask him the correct pronunciation for a few words and he is happy to help. He asks (in English) where we are travelling from and a few other questions and I am struck that he could so easily move back and forth between the two languages, as could most of the people we talked with. It’s such a generous act to learn multiple languages so that you can better communicate with your fellow humans.
The Bistrot Cocagne isn’t an anomaly though. There are neighborhood bistros all over the city, on every corner, people spilling out into outdoor tables and chairs and spending hours talking laughing, eating, just enjoying the day. It’s clear that this sense of community is important to the people of Rennes. Everything (except restaurants of course) closes down between 12-2 while friends and coworkers spill out of their offices and shops and homes to gather and share a meal. And then gather again when the days is done, late into the evening.
How does this sense of community make a difference? Well, from what I could see, there was a great sense of pride that priortized the care of their city. For example, there is no trash littering the streets. And while there is graffiti, I noticed that it mostly shows up on temporary structures, like plywood used at a construction site or wood that can be easily painted over – rarely on the beautiful stone buildings. I saw very few police and yet I always felt safe walking around everywhere, even late at night. As in every city, there are homeless people, but very few. I am told that they are provided services to help them get on their feet. Other residents talk with them and give them their change. They too are part of the community.
This is what I love about being able to travel to new places in the world – the possibilities that emerge. In Rennes I see a city that prioritizes community and the results of that. I see a place where the residents take care of and inhabit their public spaces as an extension of their homes, where the harmony of the city is cherished and protected, and where people of all backgrounds are welcome– even these two Americans with their limited and halting French.
At the end of our meal that afternoon, Antoine comes up to ask if we would like anything else. “Coffee?” he asks, “I will pay.” Our initial impulse is to decline such generosity, but on second thought we accept this kind gesture as the ultimate compliment. Just as you would provide coffee for guests in your home, it is clear that we have been accepted into this small community. What a beautiful city this is. What a beautiful people. What a wonderful example of what we could be.
Hello! My name is Pam Reynolds Baker and I am a mom/wife /writer and lavender farmer located in Dundee, Oregon.