“Mommy… can I have the yellow thing with the straw? Can we sit down and drink?”
I speak Mark’s language. I know exactly what he is talking about—in fact, involuntarily, I started his addiction to sipping Orangina sitting in a bar, elbows on the table. Note to self: do not ever admit to North Americans parents that a five-year-old was introduced to such seedy place. And while we’re at it, let’s not dwell on the fact we took him to the Alien exhibition either…
There is no shortage of bars in Nantes. In fact, you have to go out of your way to find a street without a watering hole, a terrace and barflies. You may even assume most French have a bit of a drinking problem and I would agree with you. Like one of my close friends used to say, “maybe it’s not completely normal to have beer for breakfast.”
I didn’t grow up in a household where wine was part of our meal routine. My mother doesn’t drink at all by choice—I think she rejects the predominant drinking culture. My father doesn’t mind alcohol but I can’t say I’ve seen him drinking much considering we never had wine or beer at home. My brother and my sister both drink socially—and as far as I know, they do so with moderation, I can’t picture them drunk. As for me, I never developed the taste for it and frankly, I have no interest in trying to.
Keep in mind we are somewhat of an oddity in France. When I turned down an alcoholic drink, people tend to assume I’m pregnant or enrolled in the AA program. Apparently, there is no other possible explanation for drinking tea, coffee or soda. “Do you drink Dr Pepper?” I ask when people insist. “No? Why don’t you? Oh, because you don’t feel like it? Well, same goes for me—I just don’t feel like drinking wine/beer/cider/vodka but really, I’m fine.”
I don’t mind people drinking, though, and I hung out in bars and cafés as much as your average French teen/young adult. I just stick to soft drinks, coffee or juice.
And it’s our shared coffee addiction that usually takes us to the Lieu unique. Sure, I could go to Starbucks… but in France, I don’t need to patronize franchises. I have other options, most of them cheaper and quirkier than the one conceptualized in Seattle and exported throughout the world.
The Lieu unique is basically the anti-Starbucks. It doesn’t have a friendly, cozy atmosphere and hundreds of customized drinks. It doesn’t have spotless washrooms, comforting sugary treats and large windows designed to let the world see how much you enjoy your €5 Frappucino.
The Lieu unique is housed in the former LU cookie factory—the manufacture was demolished in 1974 but one tower is still standing and the main building was preserved. For years, it was just one of these derelict, disused urban spaces that stood there stubbornly as a testimony of Nantes’ industrial past. But in 1999, it was converted into a “cultural centre for the contemporary arts.” Nowadays, the main building houses a bar/restaurant, a hammam, a bookstore and a large performance space and hundreds of people enjoy shitty service in a large, soulless room that always feels both cold and hip.
This summer, the main exhibition, “Seul avec la nuit,” features the work of Hans Ruedi Giger who created the Alien monster. The bar is always full and you have to share your table with a bunch of strangers. Don’t bother ordering Coke—the Lieu unique only serves Breizh Cola, a regional brand. And if you need to pee, you’ll be treated to a… ahem, unique experience in the large institutional bathrooms.
And if you see a five-year-old sipping Orangina, says hi to Mark.