I’m not sure when exactly I started to feel like one of those East India Company trading ships when traveling to France. Hell, I can’t even remember how many times I flew across the Atlantic at this stage—talk about a first-world problem…
The first few years, when I was traveling alone back and forth between France and Canada, my backpack was light. I always bought cigarettes in duty-free stores, maybe a gift for my in-laws on the way back, and that was it. Then, at one point—probably around the time I became an adult and had more than $300 in my checking account—I started to bring gifts from Canada. I had brought souvenirs from my travels before, especially from China, the land where everything is cheap, original and cute. But it took me a while to master the art of offering little pieces of Canada.
I’m a bit weird with gifts, both as a giver and a recipient. I’m not a huge fan of tacky souvenirs and I like useful presents that meet a need. I don’t buy stuff just for the sake of it, out of pure politeness, which is probably why I can never truly abide by the Chinese “keqi” rules.
This year, I mostly brought food and clothes. Like, 5 kilos of it.
We live in a globalized world and I’m sure North American staple brands can be found in France—I even spotted Oreo cookies at Monoprix—but I still brought treats. Coming from Canada, maple syrup is pretty much expected—it comes in fancy cans and glass bottles that are sturdy enough to be carried in a checked-in backpack and pretty enough to be displayed after use. I also bought a jar of peanut butter and bite-size American candy bars (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Oh Henry! And Hershey’s chocolate).
American brands are much cheaper in North America than in Europe and there are year-round sales in Canada as well as factory outlet stores selling clothes for a fraction of the regular price tag. A pair of Levi’s jeans is about €100 in France but I can find classic cuts like the 501 around $30 in Ottawa. This year, my brother got a pair of Levi’s and I also brought t-shirts, shirts and a nice pair of Gap pants for my mum.
After the very informal gift-giving ceremony, I took a walk around the city. I never expect Nantes to change much, this is not China where skyscrapers rise overnight. Yet, the city does improve year after year—tramway lines are renovated and extended, fountains are cleaned up, there are new play areas for kids, etc. This year, two Starbucks just opened. I’m not sure if I should be sad that American franchises are taken over or if I should just enjoy the fact I’ll be able to get a bigger cup of coffee when I will need it (… and I will, family holidays, you know?!)
The other noticeable difference is the number of smashed store windows. From March to early July, a series of strikes and marches over labour law changes slowed down or stopped most of the country. Some of the protests turned violent and bank and large unpopular companies bore the brunt of the anger. I don’t support resorting to violence but I can understand people’s frustration. In a way, I’m also glad this is as violent as most French get—no guns or bombs, just broken glass. It could have been worse.