Wednesday, December 12, 2012

La Belle France

Nimeño II, 1st century Nîmes arena romaine
Some people are born with the travel bug.  Some like it warm and cozy at home.  While I can appreciate and very much enjoy the warm and cozy, I’m always thinking, planning, talking about the next trip—in recent years primarily to France.  In high school, I studied the requisite Latin and added German and French.   After high school, I took advantage of the occasional French conversation class that was available wherever I lived.  A lengthy summer trip to Europe a few years after high school sealed the deal.  A few years later, a year and a half in Chile expanded my interests—linguistically and touristically.  In college, I spent a January term in France; and in my adult years, I have sought out others whose interest in improving their French skills and love of France aligns itself with mine.

Èze, near Nice

What is it about France that draws me here?  There’s no simple answer.  France has its problems just like every other country, and it solves them in much the same way we do in the U.S.  It’s different from the U.S. and yet much the same.  It’s a democracy, though the electoral and legislative structures and processes are different.  Both countries have geographic and climatic diversity.  The U.S. has states.   France has provinces and departments; and residents of those provinces and departments have unique loyalties to their regions as do residents of, say, Louisiana and Illinois. 
Lagnes at sunset
One big difference between France and the U.S. is its centralized government.  The French Armed Forces are responsible for all things military, including protection of its interests internationally and keeping the peace within the borders of France—in the cities and the countryside.  The roads are tended by a national work force of gardeners and engineers and laborers.  Child care is available from birth to three.  From three to five, most children attend nursery school, and starting at age six, education is compulsory through the age of sixteen.  Public education supports the largest number of government workers in France, which says a lot about its concern about and commitment to the nurturing of its children; and educators, including child care workers, are compensated with respect.  Health care is nationalized, and let me remind the reader that lest you believe that nationalized health care means people lose out on treatment, France has the fourteenth highest survival rate in the world (The only large countries—all with nationalized health care—that are higher on the list are Italy, Canada and Australia with all the others small principalities or islands.) as compared with the U.S., which is fifty-first on the list.  But let me get to the question of what draws me here. 
L'Isle sur le Sorgue

I live in California, thought by many to be the most beautiful state in the country, including me.  And the rest of the country is diverse and stunningly beautiful in a thousand different ways.  But France offers me something different.   It’s not just béchamel and brie.  It’s vistas of vineyards, canopies of plane trees lining the road into the distance, meandering canals, Roman ruins and medieval castles and towers—everywhere and too many to mention, homes still standing and occupied after many hundreds of years, fish plucked from the sea to the dockside to the plate in a matter of a few hours, soaring mountains, a savage ocean, and a gentle sea.  It’s also the béchamel and brie. 

Maison Carrée, 1st century, Nîmes
France struggles to hold on to customs and language as borders fade and other customs and languages are but a click away.  It still jars me to see a sign for Kaufman and Broad or Century 21.  And over the years I’ve noticed more and more English words working their way into the vernacular.  When we started traveling to France, the stop signs said “arrête.”  Now they all say “stop.”  And we see and hear “power, burger, bowling, double cheese, show business, scattershot” (of all things), and hundreds of others.   My husband claims that when we next travel to France, they’ll all be speaking English with a French accent. 

Nothing seems quite as easy as it is in the U.S. where we expect convenience at any cost to those who provide it.  In France, the post office in the larger towns opens at nine, closes for a long lunch, then remains open to six or seven.  The boulangerie in our small town opens early in the morning and closes at noon, opening again around four.  The library requires a complicated process for finding a book.  There is no browsing.  You have to know what you want.  The small shops expect permission to touch their offerings.  Almost all road signs are symbols without words—some intuitive, some absolutely mystifying.  Speed cameras are everywhere, though they are politely announced in advance.  Most stores are specialty shops and will not be able to answer questions about anything outside their realm, including comparison of their products with someone else’s similar product.  At the same time, French citizens are welcoming and helpful, friendly and generous.  Even the toll takers on the péage greet you while taking your money and bid you a good morning, afternoon, evening of travel before you leave.

All told, France fulfills a desire to be fluent in the language, treat my palate to delicious food and drink, and treat my senses to all manner of sights, sounds, and tastes.  As long as my gray cells are firing, I’ll continue challenging them with new puzzles, new adventures, new landscapes.  France offers me all that and more.

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