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Letters to home – France (A letter written in 2007)

Bonjour Cher Ami!

It is late now, and the wild cats are groaning territorially outside the patio doors. Our Villa in Romainville, ‘Ile de France,’ is a wondrous place. It boasts of two stories with a kitchen and three bathrooms, hardwood winding staircase and Italian tiles, ‘Hobbit-style’ rounded porthole windows and bright yellow French furnishings and glass coverings. I took a photo of the Marriott’s Village d’ile-de-france for you as the sun was setting, and we were wandering the gardens behind the Villa’s.

There are definitely personal lessons to remember here. So here is Lesson one:

Defensive driving is a must in France. We have rented a car. In France, the roadways are like ours; they drive on the same side of the road. We headed to Paris some days ago – an hour away – and found a phenomenon on the road ways: the French drive like maniacs. They do not ‘que’. The traffic rules simply seem to be ‘do not touch another car, there are no lines to follow, try to adhere to a red light, no order.’ Eight lanes converge into two (try this exiting the Louvre) and, somehow, they do. Traffic roundabouts abound in a maddening frenzy of cutting off, veering around, and giving in to any car that comes within a centimeter of your side doors. Drive or be driven over, give way to anyone you might have to otherwise hit, no yelling and no yielding to pedestrians. Ever. Don’t honk. Don’t look in other driver’s eyes. Motorcycles rule the road, particularly on the yellow dotted line between traffic. Somehow, order prevails and in the end, despite the hair raising experience, the reality remains that no one remembers anyone else’s traffic transgressions, the tangle of traffic has left no obvious scars on automobile skin or that of your nose, and the day has burnished into a lovely memory of savoir faire.

Lesson two: Above all (surprisingly), blend in. Buy great fashion but do not wear it in Paris. We, unwittingly, wore great outfits brought from home (shop here? My wallet is laughing), and we were certainly gazed at with curiosity.

Lesson three (for dog owners who wish to converse in English about their dogs): All dogs are called ‘caniche‘, even if they are not actually caniche (which means ‘Poodle’). “Hah!” I stated aloud whilst in the Eiffel Tower Park as we gazed up, up, up at the (in my humble opinion) ugliest structure to dominate the skyline when close up. “Why, this arrogant French woman who has shoved me aside to let her dog pass aside of me has a ‘wannabe’ caniche. I, however, own three Caniche Royale. And they have better manners than this woman and they would eat her daschund for breakfast.” To her credit, she ignored my inglorious manners and I apologized under my breath.

Lesson four: Prices for items are sort of culturally relative; they may be 10 Euro (about 13 CDN), and it would still be worth 10 dollars CDN at home. We visited Reims today, to see the Cave of Mumm Champagne; the une ambiance was remarkable. I have a new appreciation of how Champagne is made – two fermentations and great science! They had a fantastic vintage 2004 Champagne reminiscent of fresh green melon and lemons.

Lesson 5: Travel across the amazing countryside. Respect the train system and take trips, many of them. Sit and sip cafe and watch the amazing countryside as it hurtles by at 300 kph. Villages and farms and so much green space will soothe your mind and your body, rocked gently by the train for hours. Take an overnight trip. We did. Our berth was six beds stacked three and three on bunks, with less than two feet between them. It was hot, so the window was open to let in air. If you do travel on a couchette sleeper train, I hope you are fortunate enough to take the middle bed, where your feet will be just at window level. You might spend the night as I did; ever wondering if I would fly out the window on one of the many winding turns the train made as it snaked down the countryside. You may find that your blood rushes up and down and into your toes in ways you never imagined possible.

We started our overnight adventure in Cannes. As there are five of us, we shared our sleeping space with another traveller from Italy who spoke no english, at least, none we were made aware of. But hunger called, and a picnic we packed was in demand. So, our team squeezed out of our small berth into the hallway, found the only space possible to sit in; a tiny five foot area where bikes were stored and a tiny toilet area resided, and we laid a picnic blanket on the floor. There, we feasted on baguette, terrines and pates, jams, chocolate brioche, cheeses, tomatoes and small cooked potatoes. Knees to elbows, we sat on the floor and ate and laughed at our fate; this small canadian family locked into a ‘Intercites de nuit’ with no idea of what was going to happen next.

When we were finished eating, we inched down the corridor squashed between walls and windows, back to our wee berth and crawled onto beds to read and sleep until mornings light shone in Bordeaux where we emerged rumpled and bleary eyed. After a good long walk admiring the architecture in the back streets of Bordeaux, we caught the slow train to Archenaud. It is overcast and cool outside. We saw boats grounded, some laying on their sides in the low tide. We found hot chocolat, ate more baguette and caught the high speed train back to Romainville, Paris.

Oh, do check out Vélib’ system. We rented bicycles from it and cycled around Paris. We visited the Versailles Gardens yesterday. Surely all the exercise has made us all thinner in the girth but
France makes us fatter in the belly…the wine, coffee and oh the cream, and chocolate brioche with fresh squeezed jus d’orange every morning. Comfort food indeed, particularly if it is raining. Which it still is.

The time zone puts us 7 hours ahead here and the sun here is setting with glory. We visited Vimy Ridge today, and I thought of how you might feel if you were here. There was an enormous memorial set up years ago, and as I sat gazing at the mournful figures in soaring heights above me depicting the remembrance of the many who died for our freedom, I pondered my significance. What a moving, moving place this is, it has made me proud to be Canadian all over again. There is a national historic site of Canada here and maintained by Canadians at Vimy Ridge, and we saw sheep grazing on it. It felt good. From the foot of the monument, you would see Belgium in the distance.

After three hours wandering the cemeteries, kneeling at gravestones and loving the many ‘un-named’ soldiers buried in the fields therein or nearby, we drove to see the Flanders Fields in Ypres, Belgium. What a surprise to realize our own naivety; ‘flanders fields’ is not a place, but is representative of the many graves surrounding this beautiful town, which is prevalent in poppies.

You know, the farther out we are from Paris, the warmer and more tolerant the French people are with our attempts at communication. In Paris, I communicated best with two stray dogs and a horse, yet in villages on and away we were able to touch someone’s life and have theirs brush our own, and feel really good about it. This is a nice perk to travel abroad; chatting with and learning some memories from people, what they love and how they learn and then pay it forward. And here it is – the secret to travel: when you are nice, folks are more willing to open up. Money attracts money, kindness attracts kindness. Except in a grocery store in Paris, when they find out your currency is foreign.

France is a gastronomically exquisite experience of fine food and wine (wine is cheaper than our bottled water and the fresh produce and fish outnumber everything I have ever seen at Safeway). This is good! Stay upwind while enjoying the Cuisine délicieuse, since 8 out of 10 people smoke. This was particularly annoying when we visited Euro-Disney everyone smoked in lineups for rides and for food. Actually, they smoke everywhere. Smoke aside, we also noted that bread and cheese actually taste better when left in the open air, and food was delivered with finesse as long as you kept your english accent to yourself.

Ah the glory of the Louvre! We drove along the Seine River, under massive stone and steel bridges past ferries and boats and lovers kissing under laden chestnut trees.
I saw the Mona Lisa, who someone thought might be Rembrandts personal rendition of himself as a woman, but I don’t know. What I do know is that there are works of art too astounding to recant, and sculptures so life-like that one is inclined to- no – demanded upon to gaze deeply into ancient marble eyes and offer one’s respects. And ask questions. Oh, I love these galleries!
Each muscle on the sculptures (particularly of the 18th century artists) is defined and noses roman straight, most bodies naked and rounded and breasts the size of the woman’s cupped hand, whilst male sculptures sported their ‘nither-ithers’ in what must have been very chilly conditions to produce so small a statement…

Sights everywhere, and an overload of stimulus in color, texture, emotion, historical recanting and accounting and acknowledging. Morbid and moving renditions of the circle of life. The rise, the glory, the grieving and the sinking of the human civilization are revealed in a whirlwind of viewing. We are dazed, and need coffee. We left to wander the streets, and sat in a cafe on a street corner, all chairs at the tables face the sidewalk to watch the people and the espresso more expensive the closer your table was to the curb. Then, we wandered about the Eiffel tower once more only to find ourselves back at the Louvre, imaginations reborn and ending inevitably by days end brushing only the tiniest corner of the massive, world renown Museum of Wonders.

And then, before night fell and we turned to pumpkins, we drove home again, home again, jiggity jig. In one piece, automobile included. The french truly drive like maniacs. I stopped my lessons at 5, didn’t I? Ah well. The cats have stopped groaning and snoring has begun.

à bientôt,



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