7 Things That Surprised Me about France

My recent trip to Paris, Chartres, Bayeux (near D-Day landings), and Versailles was wonderful. A lot has changed since I visited decades ago—much of it in good ways.

Building across from cafe where I journaled one afternoon.

1Parisiennes don’t mind speaking English.

When I visited France years ago, I would attempt my poorly accented high school French, and whomever I was speaking to would wince and reply in heavily accented, rudimentary English. Some people would shake their heads and speak rapid French in a scolding tone, which didn’t improve my understanding. Consequently, I downloaded several phone apps, including one that would say phrases in perfectly accented French, before this trip.

During our recent visit, my “bonjour” was met with a smile, and the person I was speaking to would offer to speak English. Young people, who often staff hotels, restaurants, shops, and tourist sites like museums, were particularly fluent and gracious. Some wanted to practice their English and make sure they were speaking correctly. Wow. I never used my French app.

2. American fashion was widespread.

I expected to be surrounded by stylish Parisiennes who wore the height of fashion. Instead, I blended in, especially on the days I wore my skinny jeans. My clunky walking shoes were also mainstream. Most women wore comfortable shoes like sneakers on the metro. Maybe they had dressy office shoes in their bags? The guys wearing t-shirts branded Levi’s or U.S.A. were native French speakers, not Americans.

The small hotel where we first stayed was quite a distance from popular tourist areas, so the people I saw on streets and in the metro were natives, not tourists. It was a little dispiriting to realize how pervasive American fashion is.

3. The scale and craftsmanship of “neighborhood” parish churches was astonishing.

St. Sulpice, one of the “neighborhood” churches we saw

We made brief visits to several neighborhood Catholic churches (my husband loves architecture). Inside were soaring Gothic spaces filled with intricate mosaics and stained glass windows, elaborately carved pulpits and choir stalls, along with altars and candelabra trimmed with gold. Some dated from the 1400’s. Many took several hundred years to complete. Along with the gilt-edged art and stained glass were announcements about parish activities—in other words, these are parish churches, not just historical sites.

4. Order and geometry reign in many French gardens and parks.

We wanted to spendlots of time outdoors enjoying the September sunshine so we visited several gardens and parks, and a distinct French gardening philosophy emerged. Nature is meant to be tamed and organized, preferably into geometric shapes. I expected that in famous formal gardens like Jardin des Tuileries and at Versailles. There, short, narrow boxwood hedges enclose long strips of flower gardens. Gardens are laid out in severe, straight lines, contrary to what’s natural. There’s grass between flower beds, but walking on it is forbidden!

At Versailles, even the trees are squared off.

However, that philosophy was also apparent in Paris’ ordinary city parks like Jardins des Plantes and Jardin du Luxembourg. A vegetable garden displayed espaliered gourds trained over arches to form a green tunnel. Trees were trimmed into rectangular boxes! Perhaps in Provence gardens are looser and more natural looking.

Shrub tortured into vase shape at Versailles

Espaliered gourds and cucumbers at Jardin des Plantes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Traditional French cooking was harder to find in cafes and bistros than I expected.

When I’d visited before, every meal I ate consisted of traditional French cooking—interesting sauces, tender meat or fish, and creative sides.

This time I was surprised at how often burgers with pommes frites appeared on menus, even when we weren’t in tourist areas. Whoa, I didn’t come to Paris for a burger! Or smoked salmon on a bagel. Perhaps Parisiennes get bored with traditional cooking and want something different. We did find several classic restaurants and ate wonderful meals there. No matter where we went, the bread, pastries, coffee, wine, and cheese were excellent.

6. My high school French resurfaced.

I expected to know food words like “poulet” for chicken and “fromage” for cheese. But after a few days, I began thinking long-forgotten words and phrases: “maintenant” (now), aujourd’hui (today), dejeuner (lunch), “moi aussi” (me too). I grew comfortable smiling and saying, “Je ma-appelle Ellen” (Myname is Ellen) to waitstaff who tried to hand credit card receipts to my husband for a signature. We were using my card since it waives fees on foreign transactions. And there’s all those miles, baby!

7. Apparently, there’s no end to the number of photos of stained glass I can take.

Well, that really wasn’t a surprise. Despite my limited faith, I love churches’ stained glass windows.

Bayeux Cathedral

 

Bayeux Cathedral

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Great Cathedrals: Power, Greed and Inspiration

When my husband and I travel in the United Kingdom or Europe, we always visit some of the great cathedrals. That may seem odd, since neither of us is very religious. But cathedrals like St. Paul’s in London embody history, politics, and faith in a very visceral way and I’m very interested in history. The experience encompasses the best and worst of human nature.

The Shock and Awe of Churches

The architects and benefactors of great cathedrals intended to create a dramatic impact. And St. Paul’s does. The cathedral is an architectural marvel. The main aisle of cathedral goes on and on—while standing at one end of the church, I can see the other end, but just barely. The arched ceiling and dome soar high above the seats. Everywhere I look there are intricate decorations and many are covered with gold. I immediately feel small and insignificant in face of all the space and history, but that feeling gives way to a faint unease.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons furnished this photo of the nave. Tourist photography isn’t permitted in the church.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons furnished this photo of the nave. Tourist photography isn’t permitted in the church.

Sightseeing in a Place of Worship

Though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, that upbringing is ingrained in me. It feels odd to see the whole gamut of tourists wandering around snapping photos (where permitted), peering at inscriptions on statues, ducking into alcoves, zigzagging across aisles in front of the pulpit and behind the altar, talking and pointing. There’s something distasteful about it, although obviously, I’m a tourist doing the same thing.

The premise of sightseeing in church is complicated. Many cathedrals charge admission and I assume the money helps maintain the building. Perhaps the religious authorities are also trying to give ordinary people access to a beautiful and potentially inspiring place.

Tijou gates - Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons

Tijou gates – Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons

Incredible Excess

Cathedrals like St. Paul’s, the duomos in Florence and Siena, and St. Peter’s in Rome, all contain elaborate decorations—intricate mosaics, detailed wood and stone carvings, painted frescoes, golden candlesticks, chalices encrusted with jewels, lavishly embroidered altar cloths. The excess is fascinating but off-putting. I think about all of the money invested, perhaps for the glory of God but also as a demonstration of the power and wealth of the church, whether Anglican like St. Paul’s or Catholic like St. Peter’s in Rome. At first I am awed by the gilt and filigree, but then reminded of the greed, intolerance, and corruption that religious institutions have displayed historically.

Politics and Religion Are Intertwined in St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s was originally built as a Catholic church in 604. In 1087, it was demolished by fire. Rebuilding began in 1087 and the church was reconsecrated as a Catholic church in 1300. The Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther in 1517, in response to the corruption in the Catholic Church, swept through Europe. In 1534, King Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and established himself as head of the Church of England, so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

Politics and religion remained intertwined and turbulence continued in England until the 1660’s. During this period, St. Paul’s fell into disrepair and was used for a variety of things, including a marketplace. In 1666, King Charles II commissioned architect Christopher Wren to rebuild St. Paul’s, but the Great London fire destroyed the church and work was delayed until 1669. The church was completed in 1710. Now an Anglican church, the new St. Paul’s reflected the politics of the day.

In the dome is a mural with scenes from the life of St. Paul. It was painted in muted colors—a departure from the colorful decoration in Catholic churches. Statues and imagery of saints and angels is limited, in keeping with Protestant philosophy. Instead, statesmen like the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Lord Nelson are ensconced in huge lavish crypts. St. Paul’s remained a more somber looking place until the 1890’s, when Queen Victoria declared that it was dreary and uninspiring and asked to have mosaics installed.

wellington

Wellington monument – Photograph by George P. Landow (http://www.victorianweb.org/ sculpture/ stevens/29.html)

The influence of politics is evident in the lavish decor, which speaks of wealth and power of the monarchs, the Church of England, and England itself. It’s also obvious in the inclusion of statues of political figures instead of religious figures.

I dislike the dichotomy and wish it could simply be an inspiring place of worship. But then I recall the way thousands of people flocked to St. Paul Cathedral at the end of World War II and realize that for many ordinary people, the cathedral is a spiritual place as well as a national symbol.

God in the Details?

Then I focus on the decorative details and think of the craftsmen who spent years setting tiny tiles to create the mosaics. Or the woodcarvers who labored and fussed over the leaves in the choir stall borders. Or the metalsmiths and artists who made the Tijou gates and the chalices. Hundreds of artisans throughout the church’s history worked to create something important and lasting. I want to believe that devoting years and years of their lives to the work was an expression of their faith. Thinking of the craftsmen restores my appreciation for the cathedral.

mosaic-2

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 Detail of quire (choir) mosaics.

Wood Carving closeup.png

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Detail of wood carving in choir stalls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve Never Been a Daredevil, But . . .

As I settled into my seat at the movie theater and muted my phone, an unwelcome thought sneaked in, “Is going out to the movies risky behavior?” I stifled it quickly, “A crazed gunman in the old-fashioned Edina Theater? That’s silly.” Worrying about my safety at movie theaters never used to cross my mind. I resent having to consider it now.

It’s disturbing to realize so many of the ordinary things I do put me in the kinds of places where mentally ill people or terrorists choose to murder and wreak havoc. However, I have no intention of curtailing my activities.

Shopping at malls – I don’t spend much time in malls, but while there, I have never worried about my safety. However, the shoppers in the mall in St. Cloud, Minn. or near Seattle, Wash. probably didn’t give it a second thought either.

Tutoring at the high school – I love the work I do tutoring adult immigrants and have never felt remotely threatened by any of them. The students I know are hardworking and determined to learn, get better jobs, and live the American Dream. But schools and colleges have been the scene of mass shootings in recent years. Perhaps I should be worried, but I refuse to be.

 Visiting international cities – I enjoy traveling overseas, but because of the history of terrorism in London, Brussels, and Paris, I will have to consider my safety in airports as well as in the cities themselves when I go. Losing my luggage or getting pickpocketed seem like more realistic threats than terrorism, but I can’t help being aware of the potential for an attack.

Often, public places happen to be the settings where a personal grudge is played out—I might not be the target—but I still could be injured or killed by a stray bullet. The issue is not that one middle class white person has to think harder about her safety. It’s that no matter who you are or where you live in America, you are at risk of mass shootings, because of our gun laws and cultural tolerance of violence.

Equally troubling is that zealots with knives, trucks, and bombs threaten people across the world, not just Americans.

I remain defiant. There are no easy solutions to gun violence and terrorism. But part of the solution has to be resistance—resisting the impulse to hide and resisting the impulse to shrug and say, “Oh well, what can you do?” We have to keep fighting for change.

Although terrorism and acts of mass violence are now part of our reality, I refuse to give in to fear. I’ve never been a daredevil, but I have no intention of giving up activities I love like movies, shopping malls, tutoring, or traveling.