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

Rewind 11 Years

In the fall of 2007, our oldest son left for college. At 16, our younger son was still at home and a little dismayed about having our undivided attention. I had my marketing communications business (the Great Recession of 2008-2009 hadn’t dried up freelance work yet), but I was contemplating what the next stage might offer. Recently, while tossing old paper files, I found notes from 2007 about what I hoped my life would be like—a snapshot that surprised me.

Photo of Ireland I added to my life map — Rock of Cashel near Tipperary

 

 

 

 

 

Photo I took from the inside of the Rock of Cashel ruins

 

 

At 53, I figured I had 30 years of good health and maybe another 10 years of iffy health. It’s a little odd that I had signed up for a workshop centered around “What To Do with the Rest of Your Life” or some other dippy name. I’ve always made a lot of lists and had short-term goals like lose 5 pounds, exercise more, and write more, but my long-range goals have remained hazy. OK, the truth is that I’ve never had 5-year career plans or 5-year life plans. Mostly I’ve had vague directions and made up my life as I went along. However, with so many articles and books about the challenges of mid-life, empty nests, and retirement, I felt a pang of responsibility (like maybe I needed to act like a grownup and prepare a little), so I signed up.

The workshop focused on helping us identify our values, gifts, passions, and purpose so we could create “life maps.” The language of self-help tends to give me the vapors, but once I set aside my bad attitude, I saw that they were worthy questions, so I did my homework. Then I promptly forgot all about my life map until I recently rediscovered it.

In 2007, here’s what I envisioned—

  • Creativity – Keep writing, return to pottery and quilting, explore watercolors and stained glass. Writing, pottery, quilting—check. Watercolors and stained glass— still to come.
  • Travel – Visit Hawaii, Ireland, Paris and Provence, and return to Italy. Hawaii, Italy and Ireland – done. We plan to visit Paris next year. Provence is still to come and the list continues to grow.
  • Teaching – Instead of teaching a writing course at St. Thomas University, now I help teach immigrants English.
  • Stay close with family – Yes, definitely. However, in 2007, my parents were still in good health. I understood they were aging, but I spent no time imagining my father’s death in 2011 and my mother’s death in 2014.
  • Volunteer work – Ongoing.
  • Socializing – Continue book group – Now I participate in two of them. Have more dinner parties or start a gourmet group. Still hopeful.
  • Move to a smaller home – We have.

What surprises me is that I’ve actually done so much of what I’d envisioned, especially considering my lack of focused planning. Maybe writing out my goals helped make them more real. Maybe my goals were so modest that it wouldn’t be a stretch to complete them. Either way, I’m pleased that I’ve used my time well.

I haven’t prepared a new life map and probably won’t. However, if pressed, I would say that my long-range plans include more of the same activities and maybe some grandchildren.

Check back with me in 2029!

Time Traveling

toll road  Last week, I traveled back in time while driving to Ohio to visit my sister, brothers, and their families. The 12-hour road trip called for lots of tunes, and I found myself craving oldies that I could sing along to, even though I don’t usually like the oldies stations when I’m in Minneapolis.

Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan sent me back to college, when I hung out with my wild boyfriend, partied with his buddies, and took midnight dips in borrow ponds on hot summer nights.

The Fifth Dimension brought back high school and sleepovers in a girlfriend’s basement rec room. We danced to the “Wedding Bell Blues” and sang it at the top of our lungs. At 14, we yearned for love and passion, but for most of us, that was still a ways off.

As I drove through the neighborhood where I grew up, Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” took me back to my best friend’s pool and her mother snapping off the radio when she heard his sexy growl. She thought it was unsuitable for our 10-year-old ears.

Several times I got lost while bumping along Toledo’s crumbly blacktop roads that are scribbled with tar. I’m no longer as sure of my way around—I’ve been gone 30 years—longer than I lived there.

But inside my sibling’s homes I found myself. I became the middle sister again, the one who loves Bruce Springsteen like my sister and the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival like my brothers.

Uncomfortable in My Own Skin

A few weeks ago while in Kauai, I was reminded of events that happened during two previous visits, episodes that made me aware that I may be freer to walk in the world, because I’m white and middle-class.

During my first trip, I had an afternoon free before I had to return the rental car and fly home. I wanted to spend my last few hours in paradise at the beach. However, checkout was 11:00 a.m. I had to turn in my keys and couldn’t use the chaise lounges at the resort condos where I’d been staying.

A nearby resort routinely put out a slew of chaises on their lawn overlooking the beach. Guests didn’t have to check out chairs. I figured I could blend in with actual guests and hang out there for a few hours. I looked the part of a paying customer—I was wearing clean clothes and had a backpack, towel, and an iPad. Not the profile for a homeless person.

It was a small gamble. Who would wonder about a middle-class white lady? Turns out, no one.

Another time in Kauai, I went for a long walk to Shipwreck Beach. Along the way I enjoyed the red and yellow hibiscus, hot pink bougainvillea, and orange bird of paradise blooming in the resort gardens I passed.

On my way back, I was in full broiling sun and the walk began to seem more oppressive than fun. I could feel myself getting seriously overheated. So I decided to take a break in the air-conditioned lobby of a nearby hotel. Again, I hoped to blend in. The desk clerk smiled and nodded to me. She probably thought I was waiting for someone. After 15 minutes or so, I had cooled down enough to leave the hotel and continue on my trek.

In each case, I wasn’t bothering anyone, but I was trespassing. Perhaps that’s why I started to speculate—would I have been treated as nicely if I were a black or Latina woman? Would somebody have asked, “Can I help you?” with the imperious tone that really means, “What are you doing here?”

 

My Wish Came True

My wish came true. On my annual trip to Destin, Florida for a human resources conference, I learned at hotel check-in that my guest room would be in the Emerald Tower on the 14th floor.

I smiled.

This would be my third stay at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort Hotel and Spa. My first time with a room that high that looked out towards Florida’s Emerald Coast.

I nodded along as the receptionist explained where the elevator was located.

Once in the room, I did my usual hotel check: looking behind the shower curtain, opening the closet door that held the ironing board, kicking under the bed to hear the thud of the base, and glancing behind the couch and chair.

I slid my patio door open and stepped out. I studied the brick wall to my left and right. A person would have to rappel up to get inside my room. Who would do that?

Kids’ laughter floated up to me. I viewed the white sand, the people walking on the beach, and the boogieboarders. I leaned back breathing in the sun’s warmth. I closed my eyes to bring even closer to my core the sound of the ocean waves. Ah, this was lovely.

For a moment, I held my breath. Could I leave my patio door open and fall asleep to the ocean waves?

Looking at my hotel from the beach. My room is on the 14th floor.

It took me years to feel safe enough in my own home to fall asleep while napping on the couch. I had to work hard to not chastise myself for relinquishing my watchful eye. Growing up, it had been my job to be vigilant. Being on alert sleeping or awake was my natural way of being. I had to teach my body that it was okay to rest. I did this by using an eye mask and earplugs. My signals to my body that it was time to sleep.

Even so, it was me who woke a moment before one of the babies did. I must have heard their rustling in the crib before they started whimpering. Later, it was me who woke Jody before one of our toddlers fell out of their bed in the hotel room. I reached across from my bed where Juan Jose’ and I were sleeping to theirs. I nudged Jody, “Crystel’s falling out of bed.” She quickly scooped the child up.

I have grown to be most comfortable with Jody sleeping beside me. She is a source of comfort. I have my deepest sleep in her presence.

I travel to Grand Forks, North Dakota, one week a month for work. I can’t take Jody with me. It helps to request the same hotel room. One that doesn’t have a connecting room. I continue to use earplugs and eye shades. I take the ironing board out of the closet and set it up against the hotel door. I push the rolling chair next to the ironing board. I figure, I’ll wake before the door opens.

All of my senses told me that I was safe in my guest room at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort Hotel and Spa on the 14th floor. Could I leave my patio door open and fall asleep to the sound of ocean waves? I took a deep breath. If not now, when?

That evening after our Welcome Gathering and dinner on the Sunside deck, I retreated to my room. After completing my hotel room check, I took the ironing board out of the closet and set it up against the door, pushed the rolling chair up next to it, and put another chair against the connecting door.

I walked out to the patio, listened to the rolling ocean waves. Even in the darkness you knew the ocean was there, splashing against the shore.

In bed, I imagined the universe holding me, embracing me. A mother and her child.

For the next four nights, I slept to the sound of waves breaking against the shore. When I’d wake in the night, I’d let it lull me to sleep again.