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

Peering Past the Red Velvet Rope

While vacationing in the Hudson River Valley, my husband and I toured Kykuit, Rockefeller’s lavish summer home; Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s modest cottage; and the Hancock Shaker Community’s very plain dormitories.

Mindful of the red velvet ropes and little fences that kept us from exploring/trespassing, we craned our heads around doorways, peered into corners, and tried to imagine the lives lived there. Despite the tour guides’ colorful stories, sometimes it was hard to breathe life into those rooms. Occasionally, my mind drifted, and I entertained myself by imagining what a future tour guide would say about my home after I’ve achieved some unspecified (and as yet unattained) notoriety.

No doubt, future tourists leaning across the velvet rope blocking entrance to my office will say, “Ooooh, that’s where Ellen used to write! There’s the honey locust she used to look at while she wrote, and there’s the sad clematis on the too-big trellis—remember her blog about defensive landscaping?” 

The tour guide might add, “To preserve historical accuracy, we left the pile of mail on the loveseat. Family stories mention that she used to let it ‘age’ for up to two weeks before she dealt with it.” Visitors will chuckle and some of the more avid ones will lean in to snap photos of the mail pile.

“And over there—a see the cat bed on the radiator? Her cat, Pinky, kept her company on cold Minnesota afternoons. Maybe he was even her muse as she struggled to revise her blogs and essays.” The tourists will jostle each other to take pictures of the cat bed.

The guide will probably point out, “Some of the furniture is antique—like the Mission style oak desk. Supposedly Ellen refinished it when she first moved to Minnesota years before she moved here for good. It was the only desk she ever used.” One of the visitors will probably sigh in appreciation. “We believe that she might have been sitting in that beat-up office chair when she received the call about winning the MacArthur Genius Grant/Nobel Peace Prize/Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.” More clicking cameras and cell phones.

“Next, we come to the music room, where Ellen’s husband composed his opus . . . .” The tourists will dutifully shuffle across the hall to oooh and ah.

Capturing the Moment

Since getting my iPhone, I’ve begun taking tons of photos, especially when I’m vacationing. During the nine days I was in Kauai I took 361 photos—mostly of scenery and quirky objects, occasionally of my companions.

Near Kilauea lighthouse

near Kilauea lighthouse

Tiny shrine under banyan tree at Hindu monastery

Tiny shrine under banyan tree at Hindu monastery

That’s about 40 per day. Why not? It’s fun. Taking pictures has become a way of heightening the experience. Documenting and remembering it. But sometimes I wonder: when I’m focusing and framing shots, am I more in the moment or less?

There’s something acquisitive about taking pictures.

Click. There. Now I’ve got it. This moment and this place are mine. I can revisit them whenever I want. I’m hoarding a treasure of memories. At some future point, seeing this vista, cool object, or time with friends may be just the tonic I need.

Of course I've got a beachy sunset photo -- it's Hawaii!

Of course I’ve got a beachy sunset photo — it’s Hawaii!

Initially, I might share a handful of photos on Facebook. Snap a funny scene and text it to a friend. After I return from a trip, I fuss with the photos in Photoshop, cropping them or adjusting the lighting. It’s a second way of enjoying the sights. Sometimes I create screensavers. Once in a while I make a printed calendar.

Surfboard fence in Hanalei

Surfboard fence in Hanalei

Having photos allows me to relive the good times. Except that after my first wave of enthusiasm, I rarely do.

Bird of paradise at Allerton McBryde Gardens

Bird of paradise at Allerton McBryde Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least my photos are easy to store.

I’m grateful that I don’t have to deal with storing my collection. I think of the albums and boxes of pictures my parents had. Some of them are precious—that’s our history. My three siblings and I lined up in front of the tulip garden at Easter. There we are sprawled in swimsuits on the dock at Lake James.

But the photos from when my parents were in Hawaii? I’m glad they had the experience, but the images mean very little to me. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the stories. Is there any reason to save those prints now that my parents are gone? Similarly, my Hawaii photos won’t mean anything to my kids either. They weren’t there.

Fortunately, my fascination with photography doesn’t require much effort or upkeep. As long as I have loads of gigabytes, digital photos are easy to keep.

There’s one picture I didn’t take in Kauai.

In Hanapepe, they have a Friday night art gallery crawl. At 6:30, it was dark except for a few streetlights and the lights from shops. The air was cooling but the breeze was still gentle. A dozen shops opened their doors and a handful of food trucks gathered. Several musicians performed here and there—folk music and traditional Hawaiian music.

An old black pickup truck was parked under a streetlight. The front of it was painted with orange and yellow flames. Hot pink bougainvillea bushes were planted in the truck bed and they bloomed lavishly. Alongside the truck, a woman in a lawn chair was making leis.

I really wanted to take that photo, but it seemed wrong. Did I have the right to the photo if I didn’t want to buy the lei? Probably didn’t matter. People must do it all the time. That truck is meant to attract attention. Specifically, tourists’ attention.

After a while, she got up and shook some flowers from the tree behind the truck. Had a cigarette. A friend of hers stopped by with a brown bag of food.

I let the moment pass. It was too dark for my phone’s camera. It wouldn’t have seen all the color and details my eyes registered during the 20 minutes that I sat on the curb across the street from her eating spicy chicken curry.

I appreciate both kinds of images—the photos because they can trigger a story and the remembered images that have become vivid because I found the words to turn them into stories.

Both bring wonderful experiences to mind.