Paris – and Thereabouts
Our trip to Paris began long before we stepped out the door. We were excited, two small town Utah kids – out to travel and experience the wide world. Or at least a small slice of Europe: Paris, Geneva, and London. My wife and I worried about how we were going to pay for this adventure, we struggled to save, we fought to secure some grant money, and begged for help from the government. We spent hours surfing the blessed internet, exploring Europe virtually, booking activities, and spending copious amounts of money. The buildup was good, or maybe not – every new expense for our trip was followed by the trite phrase, “When are we ever going to go to Europe again?” We didn’t spend too much, in hindsight. But for me, the cheapskate, every single dollar seemed to be forcibly extracted from an over puckered aperture that need not be named here.
The buildup also revolved around moving out of our apartment and working too much. (I’ll never do that again, promise.) We moved out of our apartment over two days; well, I moved out of our apartment. Cassia spent her time at work and at her photography business, earning us some last minute cash. So I was stuck cleaning, boxing, carefully wrapping kitchen junk and moving it all into a ridiculous storage unit filled with rat excrement (Apologies, my piece is running to the scatological quite quickly.) The cleaning list our landlady provided read like instructions for a model airplane – long, extremely detailed, and needlessly obfuscating. Use a toothbrush to clean the window runners? Seriously? Bet you five bucks that we didn’t get our cleaning deposit back. So we finished moving out of our place at about four thirty on the morning of our flight, making enough noise to annoy the neighbors, banging my knee on the side of the truck, skinning my knuckles on the wall as we moved the last of our big crud out of our happy home. We met Cassia’s parents at their house, parked our vehicles (still completely filled with our things,) and made our way to the Salt Lake Airport. At this point I had not slept in about thirty six hours, and my torpid state prevents any recollection at the present. I woke up at Charles De Gaulle.
My wife and I decided that it would be good to pack our backpacks for the trip. Except that my pack weighed 40 lbs. And hers’ 35. As we lugged our packs from the conveyor belt at the surprisingly run down airport terminal, regret spread through our shoulders. “Let’s get a luggage cart,” my wife offered, excellent plan. We made our way to the train station, a thrill of excitement filling our conversation: we were here! We practiced what we would say to the ticket vendor, rehearsing our phrase book French, me trying to instruct my wife in a language I did not speak, and still don’t. “Je voudrais deux billets pour Paris,” we practiced. I approached the desk, and before I could even open my mouth the vendor supplied, rather abruptly “Two tickets to Paris? “Oui.” I had said my first French word to a French person, to one who looked bored of dealing with ignorant tourists for a living. I philosophized silently: “He is just like anyone at home who would have to deal with idiots all day.”
An interesting aside to the American perception of French rudeness – we seldom encountered this stereotype, at least not more frequently than anywhere else in the world. Though I will venture that most of the French tended to have a more reserved attitude, less outwardly exuberant than many Americans. Rick Steves, in his popular travel guide France 2008, writes that the French tend to view Americans as insincere and loud, and prefer to reserve pleasantries for friends. They also value quiet in public places. I first observed this phenomenon as we rode the RER to Paris, several groups of people were chatting, but no rowdy strangers. I contrasted this to my experiences on other subways: certainly different and usually filled with many colorful, and loud, characters. Stereotypes seem to be the first thing to go in the face of committed traveling. Many travelers have observed this effect of traveling, but until you experience it you don’t quite get it. Little pictures, packets, parcels of awareness that our minds create in order to make sense of the universe – packets that unfortunately limit your view of reality at times. In the face of experiencing other cultures, these parcels meld into a larger, more inclusive view of humanity, almost an expansion of awareness, a higher plane of thought – where people become part of the human family, a place where love grows and tolerance expands. My ideas previous to the trip revolved around how the French frustrate my politics, smell of garlic, eat frog legs, and surrender at the first sign of trouble. The abstract French nation and people became a little more real, a little more tangible through our travels. Now when I think of France I think of food, architecture and green, beautiful country side dotted with sheep. I remember the pastoral elegance of Versailles, the first bite of steak tartare, and the brilliance of Mass at Notre Dame. I think of the wonderful people I met, the dinner conversations I had; and I remember the importance of human relationships – putting a face on a nation and people easy for a conservative American to dislike. Not that my perceptions of Frenchiness weren’t completely invalid, but now my views may be a little more subtle and appreciative.
We sat next to an Italian family on the RER, they paid no attention to us, but I watched. From their luggage and the snippets of conversation I picked up on, this was also a tourist experience for them. Two younger women were in the company of an older man – it seemed that it was a father and his two daughters. The women were dressed fashionably, in slacks with solid color blouses. The father in chinos with a sport coat over a pastel shirt – he had hair growing in short tufts from both ears, with a receding hairline and small paunch. Yet he still managed to look good. He was distinguished; his sharp nose split his face creating a visage of refinement. Something about Europeans, they seem to care about their physical appearance so much more than the average American, they seem to spend inordinate amounts of time preparing to face the day. Are they more vain, or do they just care more? Probably both. They discussed the places they would visit: Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Champs-Elysees, and the Tour Eiffel. One daughter expressed her excitement to see her “marito” who had apparently been staying in the city. Their talk turned my thoughts to my wonderful companion resting her head on my lap. Is Paris the City of Romance, the Capital of Love? I was listening to my iPod as we rode, and Ben Gibbard sang:
I'll be the waterwings that save you if you start drowning
In an open tab when your judgment's on the brink
I'll be the phonograph that plays your favorite
Albums back as you're lying there drifting off to sleep...
I'll be the platform shoes and undo what heredity's done to you...
You won't have to strain to look into my eyes
I'll be your winter coat buttoned and zipped straight to the throat
With the collar up so you won't catch a cold1
Music has the power to enhance and create emotion – to pull out that poetic, soft, meditative feeling that undergirds the quiet brilliance of soulful moments. That emotive state of being creates the solid memories that lend themselves so well to nostalgia. A good start to the City of Love and Romance. We left the RER B line and switched to the Metro, for a short dash to our hotel’s neighborhood.
Our hotel was somewhere in the La Defense district – across the Seine, kind of an out of the way place to begin our Paris exploration, but it was the cheapest deal we could find. Beware the temptation of cheapness; sometimes convenience and comfort is invaluable. I had an address and a phone number, but no directions to the hotel. We emerged from the massive La Defense Metro station to stand in a giant square, surrounded by ultra modern shopping complexes. As we our eyes swept our surroundings our senses were assaulted by this gigantic, monstrous cube, arch, whatever it was. My first impression may have been harsh – the Arche possesses a certain loveliness that is hard to define. Modern and big, La Grande Arche was commissioned to be a compliment to the Arc de Triomphe, a new monument to humanitarian ideals instead of martial triumph. The Arche is a mountain of steel, concrete and marble, shaped in an almost perfect cube, and an imposing monument to French ideals. We walked towards it, straining with the excessive weight of our packs. We struggled to climb the steps, wondering if there was a view worth savoring from up there. We were not disappointed, we could see down the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, and had full view of the city of Paris. Thousands of cars crawled along congested streets, while the general hubbub of a busy, modern city revealed itself to our view. From where we stood it struck me that there were not many tall buildings in Paris. The sky scrapers were securely surrounding us in La Defense, not threatening the classic beauty of Paris architecture. The French are daring innovators, combining the new with the old, in fashion, architecture and social norms; though it seems that the French value the novel over the stylish – to the detriment of a more pleasing aesthetic ideal. A case in point is the ridiculous multi-hued tubular monstrosity (my well-considered opinion), known as the Georges Pompidou Center, in the classy Les Halles neighborhood of central Paris. Maybe my opinion of modern art is shallow, trite, and immature – but probably not. It seems that much of modern art has been created to simply provide a forum for the intelligentsia to proclaim from on high how smart and creative they are. Harsh.
Our first foreign adventure starts as we gaze at the city from the Arche; we soon became helplessly lost. Lugging our backpacks towards the giant, bronzed thumb in the distance (we assumed this meant taxis) we hoped to secure a ride directly to our hotel. I approached the nearest taxi driver, speaking in an absurd mixture of French and English, asking if he would take us to the address I pointed to on a slip of paper. He responded in English, “You don’t need a ride, just walk over the bridge there and straight down the road.” He dismissed me curtly and resumed pretending to look at his magazine – Cosmo, of all things. So with a little bit of faith, we took off over the bridge and began a fruitless five hour search for our hotel. After following the cabbie’s directions as closely as we thought possible, we parked our tired bodies on a park bench, while I took off, sans backpack, through the business district. There were surprisingly few people on the street – just a few young businessmen, looking like they stepped out of Men’s Vogue or GQ, all faux-hawks and fitted Gucci suits, smoking cigarettes and studiously avoiding eye contact with my hobo looking self. I forced myself to accost a couple of strangers and, finally getting a person to stop, enquired, “Pardon, je suis un peu perdu, ou est l'hotel Mercure?” After a stream of mostly unintelligible directions, I took off shakily in the direction my fellow pedestrian had pointed. After wandering another aimless half an hour, I finally spotted a Mercure sign, I excitedly followed it – and voila, there was the Mercure. I hurriedly made my way to the front desk only to discover that this was the wrong hotel, I wanted the Courbevoie Mercure in the 5th section of La Defense. Oh joy.
At this point I was devastated, defeated, tired, disgusted, and pissed. I got more “precise” directions and made my way back to my wife. We were relieved and set off for our real hotel. After another half-hour of wandering we realized we were lost once more. I made Cassia sit down in front of a police station and then I took off once again to find our destination. I walked doggedly around the neighborhood, receiving contradictory directions until there in the distance, I saw a blessed sign – the Mercure. I checked us in, and then got lost for an hour trying to find my wife. My back was slicked with sweat, my neck burned, a blister forming on the pad of my foot, my throat dry, and my head pounding. I was snappy, unhappy, and in a general foul mood. When I found my wife, she noticed as I bit her head off unnecessarily. Then that old Wendell Berry saying came unbidden to mind: “Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.” That always seems to defuse a hateful mood. So on my first day in France I experienced the full range of emotions, from the spiritual high of the train ride from the airport to the helpless feeling of wandering around a foreign city, with no help, lost and frustrated. A learning experience, and strangely, like many difficult memories, it evokes a certain nostalgia. A miserable time, but an experience I can relate to my children. But, at the time, it sucked.
We collapsed into the hotel room, stripped, showered and took a three hour nap. Exhausted, hard sleep was followed by some middling sushi for an outrageous price. Welcome to the land where the euro is king, and the dollar is worth toilet paper. Studying economics in college, while not fascinating enough to inspire me to a vocation, caused me to dwell on the small economic facts of daily life. The buying and selling, the making of a living, the decay of purchasing power in the face of inflation, and taxes, taxes, taxes. Economics is nothing more than the study of how mankind makes a living – something that all people can relate to, the only truly universal subject. Our stay in La Defense turned my mind to the different trajectories of French and Anglo market capitalism. I pondered the choice of the French people to tighten the hands of capitalism in the name of social stability. I don’t want to descend too deep into this matter, but it is worth remembering (especially for libertarians, such as myself) that power concentrated in the hands of business is as dangerous as power in the hands of government. Maybe the French have a better understanding of that than we do. But then again, probably not. Enough of that. The dollar’s weakness is due to the staggering merchandise trade deficit and the imbalanced flows of foreign direct investment in the United States. People don’t need dollars when foreign goods are more attractively priced. So we use our dollars to buy foreign exchange to purchase foreign goods, flooding the market with excess dollars. More dollars on the market leads to a lower dollar value. Seeing euro pricing similar to what we would find at home – but realizing that one euro bought 1.6 dollars, made me sick to my stomach. It was hard to spend eight bucks on a bottle of Evian for dinner, though we soon learned to order tap water. Dinner was followed by an hour of surfing French television, amusing ourselves interpreting sit-coms, and then we fell into a surprisingly comfortable bed in our cramped hotel room.
In the morning we were to meet up at Fat Tire Bike Tours, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, for a tour of the Château de Versailles. We navigated the subway system early so that we could be at the assigned place on time – we arrived right on the money. Pulling up to the building we noticed several middle-aged couples gathered around the front of the shop. About fifty blue and red bikes were lined up outside, all labeled with cute names like Dr. Evil or Greta Garbo. As we walked up my wife spotted a couple sporting BYU t-shirts, she calls out to them “Utah?” “Yep.” So we migrate over and make small talk for a couple of minutes. In the nature of small talk and casual acquaintance, I don’t even remember their names, or their faces. I am a bad person … or just a normal one. It is strange though that we naturally gravitated towards the familiar, especially with the chance to associate with a diverse and interesting group of people. I grew up overseas, in Uganda. My friends from that stage of my life live all over the world – they transition easily from the first to the third world, they are comfortable in multiple languages, and work in international business, law, finance, and government service. My friends from Union High in Roosevelt, Utah, for the most part, are living very localized lives – working in their family businesses, going to dental school to take over the family practice, marrying local girls, and fishing the same hole every year. This is not to say that one job is better than another, or that one lifestyle should be more desired than another, but only to mention that perspectives can be broadened from associating with a diverse group of people. In fact, living the small town life can be extremely satisfying; I recently spent some time with my parents, who have forsaken the international lifestyle for the simple pleasures of Blanding, Utah in the Four Corners area. We sat on their porch, relaxing in their custom made rocking chairs, taking in the view – the broad open plateau, with Sleeping Ute Mountain highlighting the horizon. All the way to Colorado. We went to church, where we sat in the pews with sunburned farmers and a healthy contingent of Navajos. We jumped in a local artesian overflow pond, surrounded on all sides by the majestic red-rock cliffs typical of southern Utah. And we luxuriated in life made beautiful by family and landscape. Of course this form of sacramental living can be had anywhere, in high-powered international careers or in farming southern Utah. Life can be had anywhere, and should be enjoyed everywhere. But getting back to the point: live life and interact with the world on a personal level, expand your boundaries by reaching out to those different from you – and then realize that people are the same the world over. We failed to grasp that opportunity on this day, and chose to not be overly friendly to anyone, but we noticed our behavior and corrected course for the future.
Soon our tour guide emerged from the office. Marcus was about five nine, 140 pounds, with a profusion of dark curls sitting atop his head, and was charmingly “colorful.” Talking at a million miles a minute, he got us quickly saddled up and had us racing through the streets of Paris to catch the train that would take us to Versailles. Our first stop at Versailles was the market. Wandering through the covered farmers market, we watched people interact, going about the regular chores of daily living, and wandered with the rest of the tourists through the market pretending to be locals. We bought sweet smelling strawberries, roasted chicken, some ewes’ milk cheese (bad choice – tasted of lye and mutton), and two fresh baguettes. I come from a farming family and it was easy to see as we walked through the market that many of these vendors worked the soil with their hands, old men with that weathered look, their hands swollen and creased with years of labor. This made me happy; it made me comfortable and turned the new more familiar. We set out from the market with our lunch strapped to the back of my bicycle, and carefully zigzagged our way through the bustle of the market towards the chateau. We approached the grounds from the back, riding along a road bordered by pasture. Distant sheep wandered on the grass, in and out of perfect sheds, and passed blue watering holes. A perfectly manicured beginning to our tour of the French Royal Palace.
Our first stop was Marie Antoinette’s “cabin,” where she got to act as a shepherdess to shampooed and perfumed sheep. We sat in the grass and listened to our excited guide explain the history of the queen’s house and the Petite Trianon, which was built by Luois XV, and presented to Marie Antoinette when she became queen. The bucolic setting was peaceful and so pretty. We rode our bikes around the Grand Canal, and picnicked on the grass with a direct view of the Chateau. My wife and I napped in the grass, feeling the warm sunshine on our skin and realizing that we were there. It felt good, it felt fulfilling. It was a warm feeling that said, “we are living our lives in a way that we have always wanted.” Extremely fulfilling.
We approached the Chateau with an expectation for a once in a lifetime experience. We wanted that experience, wanted to be wowed and impressed, but a different emotion took over, something a little surprising to us. As we wandered the halls of the Chateau, pushing our way through the throngs of tourists, looking at our opulent surroundings, gazing into the eyes of those nobles depicted in the portraiture, my thoughts turned to who these people were. The real people, the nobles who surrendered themselves to such pride and selfishness; the individuals who leached off the sweat and labor of others to please their every whim. I began to review my knowledge of the French Revolution and found understanding about the violence and terror that spread in late eighteenth century France. The Chateau was very beautiful, the gardens inspiring, but through the haze of aesthetic pleasure, we were floating in the flatulence of self-aggrandizement. I know the danger of judging historical figures against modern values. But then I remember the saying, “people are people are people.” No matter what time period, people are responsible for their own actions, and I would venture to say that the French royalty met a fair and just end, and I think that the French would mostly agree. Versailles ended, and we made our way back to our hotel in La Defense. My wife and I discussed our feelings, and explored the emotions that Versailles evoked, and we concluded that while our criticisms were valid, it might be better to enjoy the beauty of the experience and realized that the French are way beyond their absolute monarchy past.
Paris was good to us. We learned and grew, became better people, and simply enjoyed our time in one of the great cities of the world. How many people from Roosevelt, Utah can say that they have spent ten days in Paris, just wandering and living? A unique experience, and one that I will always be grateful for. 8)
France, America, Religion and Politics.
Paris was a singular experience. An old town, with a very modern vibe. To me, Paris is defined by its classic feel coupled with an avant-garde undercurrent which Parisians seem to relish. This last summer my wife and I spent ten days in Paris, exploring, wandering, trying to experience the city at a deeper level than the average point and shoot camera flyby. We wandered aimlessly through the streets trying to get lost; we spent hours in the numerous gardens, just sitting, watching amorous Parisian couples (and maybe being a little amorous ourselves.) We ate at street side dives and middling cafés. We tried to see as much of the “important” sites as possible; and did indeed participate in drive by sightings of famous artwork and monuments – definitely not my bag, but important pit stops for a sampling of the foundational influences of modern Western Culture. After our time in Paris, we spent a month in Annecy, a small town in the French Alps where we struggled to learn some French, meet new people, hike the local mountains, and just enjoy each other’s company. From Annecy we made an excursion to Geneva, one of the great cities, where we visited the United Nations and sampled fondue and chocolate. London – the most brilliant city in the world, with its healthy rivalry with Paris, ranked as my favorite city. Through all of our travels we learned to be a little more American, a little less prejudiced, a little more open to people. We ate, lived, and touched French and European life for such a fleeting, narrow moment that it only served to whet our appetites for a more cosmopolitan life. Each of our experiences shaped us in small but significant ways, reminding of the importance of people, friendship, culture and family.
We arrived in Paris under trying circumstances, exhausted and stressed from wrapping up our affairs before our trip began. And we enjoyed our first few days in Paris, wandering the streets and exploring Versailles. We had the weekend to ourselves before the rest of our group from Utah State arrived, and scheduled our time to be as unstructured and relaxing as possible. When Sunday came we traded our business hotel in La Defense for an ancient, filthy, creaky hotel on Rue St. Honore; but at least it was closer to the sights, right? My wife and I took a taxi into Paris, attended church in the morning and then made our way, underneath our huge, unnecessarily heavy backpacks, to the Hotel St. Honore. Dumping our bags in our rooms, we discovered that we were the first of our group to arrive. So, we went to lunch at a café on the corner.
Cafés are ubiquitous in Paris, usually three or four on the ground floor of seemingly every building. It appeared that café culture managed to occupy large amounts of Parisian time, as it did ours. The whole experience is one of relaxing pleasure. At first it was annoying to have to flag down the waiter anytime we needed something, or waiting that first time in a café for forty minutes before we realized that we would simply not get our bill until we asked for it. But then, with a little thought, we realized that the point of the café is to sit and enjoy the food, the coffee, and friends. The pace of life is so much slower, and it seemed that this was the way life was designed to be. Our hyper-productive lifestyles here in the United States often preclude the quiet moments afforded by just sitting and socializing. Now, that hyper-productivity has created the most envied standard of life in the world, but standard of life and quality of life can sometimes have contradictory meanings. Do we have enough time to enjoy friends, life and culture when we are just focused on being efficient and productive? Maybe I have been bathing in the juices of capitalism for too long, not realizing my need for a more sacramental approach to life. My thoughts turned to the works of that great modern Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn, who teaches the miracle of spirituality in daily living, and I daresay that my experience in France ran often to the spiritual. My inner motivation to create lasting and deep friendships with those who should already be closer to me was fertilized by these observations of café culture. How much social malaise in the United States could be healed by Americans just taking a “chill pill,” slowing down, and focusing on their relationships with people? I realize that this thought has been overdone by social sages, and that my sophomoric attempt at fishing insight from thin material may fall flat with my bored readers (and especially my euro-skeptic friends), and so I conclude with Wendell Berry: “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.” That first visit to a true Parisian café was long, in that good aforementioned way, with decent food, interesting conversation and informative people watching. The lesson of café culture for me: Live good, and relax in the face of the competitive pressures to succeed in American society.
Our group arrived, and we met. They seemed like a great group of kids. Mostly girls, with a couple of interesting guys thrown into the mix. It seems to make sense that it would be mostly girls who would sign up for a summer in France, what real American man sign up to learn the language of the French? Me. The whole wanting to learn French thing is kind of a mystery to me, why not learn a useful language like Mandarin or Spanish? I spent my childhood years in Uganda – where I was subjected to French classes my entire young life. I figured I would be better off sticking with a language I was semi-familiar with. But really, how much French can you really learn in high school? Not very much – and the opportunity to forget whatever meager personal mental attainment in high school is even greater. So with a consultation of the school catalogue, to make sure that I could get my BA through a summer study abroad, I was committed. In reality there are some compelling reasons for learning French. I have thought over the years that some sort of career touching the African scene would be a job I would be interested in – and French will get you around in Africa wherever English won’t. The appeal of working in the European Union is also very high – American’s are the biggest direct investors in Europe, and being part of international business has a certain appeal. And my genetic heritage involves many frog-legged Frenchmen; hardy French explorers who came to Canada and settled there in the mid seventeenth century. My grandmother, a full blooded French woman, has a special place in her heart for all things Frankish, and her personality is infectious. She is losing it now, but she is still wonderful. We saw her a couple of months before we left, her silver hair shining in the kitchen sunlight, her white dentures flashing from her engaging smile, and her wrinkled, though still beautiful face beaming at the sight of her grandson that she didn’t recognize – and I was inspired. She is a convert to Mormonism and was grabbed early on by her new faith’s emphasis on family history, spending the last sixty years researching her French family history. She took French courses and read exclusively in French for many years, and generally fell in love with her French heritage. We mentioned that Cassia and I would be visiting France later on in the year, and she repeated constantly, “You know, I am a full-blooded Frenchwoman.” So maybe France was the right choice – only time will tell.
The French drew me, the more relaxed pace of life, the language, food, and culture, the long, important history of the great French nation, and Catholicism. We often discussed religion with our host family, particularly our host “dad,” Roland. Religion is a topic no one really likes to discuss, especially when you don’t know your conversation partner very well. The awkwardness that can arise drives wedges between people, and can damage a fledgling friendship. Of course, I am used to answering questions about religion - I represent that strange breed of Utah Mormons. Roland was naturally curious about Mormons, and was quick to share a couple of particularly amusing polygamy jokes. But he was generally respectful and intellectually curious. One of the interesting things about our exchange was that I was able to talk a little about the LDS missionary program – explaining that Utah is somewhat unique in America with the concentration of people who know a second language. It impressed him that every one of my siblings has a second language, with my sister actually proficient in three languages. He relayed how Europeans stereotyped Americans as dumb provincials, not caring about what goes on beyond their local region. The funny thing about stereotypes is that they are often true. The conversations were give and take, and we discussed the state of French Catholicism as well.
I have always been curious about Catholicism, I was eager to explore old churches, their stately architecture, and engrossing stained glass; and I wanted a taste of the rich spiritual heritage of that ancient faith. My faith has been a very important part of my life, and questions of faith, and the spiritual, have occupied large amounts of my intellectual and spiritual capacity. France offered frequent opportunities to think of the divine, with beautiful churches everywhere we went. In Paris, we took the time to visit several churches, including the landmark Notre Dame cathedral. The gothic façade was imposing, its grey style thrusting itself upon my sight, but in a way that suggests peace, not fear. We walked around the building slowly, studying the protruding gargoyles, our eyes wandering over the dark, high arched windows, taking in the feeling of being at such a historic place. Inside the atmosphere was dark, almost smoky. The ceilings soared overhead, intricate stained glass depicting scenes from the bible and history. We wandered inside, and sat in the pews. My thoughts wandered to the spiritual, contemplating my own Christian faith, and its power for good in my life. A religion is only as good as the positive change it brings to peoples lives. Connecting with the deeper spiritual power inherent in humanity is such an integral part of my life, and sitting here in a place where millions of people, over hundreds of years have worshipped and connected with the divine, was an intensely personal and powerful experience for me. My imagination conjured pictures of the poor and the great, kneeling in prayer, struggling to make sense of their existence, struggling to raise their families, wrestling with the fate of nations and praying over their businesses and crops. The Roman Catholic Church certainly has a tumultuous history, filled with blood, torture, sex and oppression. But, at the same time – the church has always been a repository for the spiritual health of countless generations. People’s spiritual hygiene has been strengthened through thousands of prayers, confessions and masses, and the simple faith of people in spite of their darker tendencies has a certain redeeming effect on the shared soul of humanity. Catholicism embodies a heritage of faith punctuated by deep ritual and a complicated, though satisfying metaphysics. We watched as mass began: The priest coming to the altar, the soft music (familiar to any Christian), the candles, the chanting and the sermon. The service was in French, though the words were familiar: exhortations to righteousness, a call to come to Christ and prayers for our leaders and peace. Towards the end of the service we were asked to stand and shake the hands of the people sitting next to us – a pleasant surprise, a good reminder to be more Christian. We smiled at our fellow worshippers, could feel of their spirits and shared that simple pleasure of being more neighborly with smiling strangers. An experience to cherish and remember, to hold in my heart for always. But back to conversations with Roland.
Roland assumed that Americans, in general, are more religious than Europeans, which is probably true. He asked me how many people in Utah go to church on Sunday, and I figured that it was probably quite a few. Roland pulled out a sheet of paper, obviously having prepared it before dinner, which contained figures placing French church attendance at somewhere around seven percent of the adult population. Roland was an atheist, or maybe just agnostic, and he related that he was not troubled by the low numbers, in fact felt that they represented societal progression. His fascination with American religiosity was part of a general theme that I noticed among the Europeans that we befriended: a seemingly over-concern with American society.
Roland was particularly interested in American films. He seemed to think that American movies are completely trashy, uninteresting, inartistic, and a general waste of his time. He submitted to me that American culture is contemptible and unsophisticated. There may be some truth to his words, but I did my best to disarm his stereotypically European view of America. I asked him what his top five favorite movies were, and he replied with three out of five being American movies; with his current favorite that great Coen brothers’ film, based on the work of the great American author Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. Hollywood, and the indie film scene in the States, have produced brilliant and moving films, and have entertained and uplifted the world for almost a century. French films generally have little crossover appeal in the States; in fact the only French film I have ever seen was the popular movie, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, which Roland had never even heard of. He was a huge fan ofFargo, another Coen brothers’ work, and we talked extensively of other great films, from The Last of the Mohicans to American Beauty, and the great classic movies of Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and Clark Gable. Through our conversation I tried to highlight the fact that we were taking about quality American products, and that his initial statement of American movies as purely trash would probably have to be adjusted in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He grudgingly agreed that not all American films were lame, and that we might do some good things. I submitted to him that Americans have mastered the art of filmmaking like no one else. He agreed slowly, smiling softly at my efforts to change his mind. But I think his point was made, too much of Americana is concerned with the cheap and easy. American culture presents pictures of self gratification, gratuitous sex and violence, and values that most Americans don’t espouse as a guide to good character and living. Our capitalistic exports, including fast food and horrible films, cheapen cultures around the world - including our own. But, unlike some of my friends who fashion themselves as thoughtful, I am never interested in wholesale criticism of American society. I prefer criticism and praise in the same breath – focusing on the unique aspects of American culture that can uplift (or cheapen), but realizing that there is good in the American way. Our culture is based in God (and yes, sometimes in a religion packaged on television as an easy and painless salvation), family, and country. We are prolific artists, scholars, musicians, engineers and athletes. Americans are creative, wealthy, and concerned with the world, much to the amazement of Roland and his decidedly narrow view of Americans. But maybe the fault is ours. As I have said, our main exports have not been the best representation of what is good in America, and the world’s view of America may be unfairly clouded by a thin veneer of linoleum culture that we present to the world. These conversations with Roland were enlightening; I felt that through our developing friendship that some good was being done. Though at dinner one night Roland thanked us for being such good guests, and said to us, “You are not like normal Americans, you are unique, and we are grateful to have met you.” My hope was to present a personal view of Americans, not to let him think that we are some sort of unique and special Americans – I’m generic, dammit. Oh well, what are you going to do? And then there is politics.
So much of our time was spent defending American policies to acquaintances, new friends and sometimes complete strangers. The topic seemed to be hard to avoid. By answering the simple question, “What do you do for a living?” answering that I am an army officer left me open to instant attack. Or friendly questioning, but it seemed mostly hostile. Even my French instructor tried to draw out of me my opinion on the Iraq war. American policies are of interest to the whole world, and interestingly American’s general political apathy does not seem to be shared by Europeans, or at least the ones we met. Our experiences discussing politics was usually friendly; with the ability to openly discuss how we all felt. For example, we spent a lovely evening with some friends in Annecy. We had a rather poor dinner at a Chinese restaurant, wedged in the old part of town. But the food was not the point, the company was. I spent much of the evening talking with a French woman, who had grown up around the world and was very knowledgeable about global affairs. She hammered me on Iraq, over and over, asking the same questions, unsatisfied with any of my answers. I think she wanted me to admit how terrible the United States is a world player, how irresponsible and arrogant – a view shared by many Americans. I could not satisfy her, so I said pleasantly, “The U.S. may have made a mistake by invading Iraq, Bush maybe incompetent, and innocents did lose their lives, but I hope, now that the violence is down, that the blame game will cease. The only hope for the Iraqi people is a stable, democratically elected government, a country were they can raise their families in peace. And that goal is in sight, it can happen.” The idea that America could succeed in Iraq was impossible for her to grasp and indeed impossible for her to stomach. She blindly held to beliefs that prevented her from seeing the here and now – and instead she clung to the mantra, “Bush lied, people died.” Intelligent argument if I have ever heard it. We have made a disaster of Iraq, I think everyone can sensibly agree. So the pragmatic approach: How can we make sense of a horrible situation. Of course, Andrea’s opinion is by no means representative of all the French, but I felt this attitude more than I would like. The other topic that just stuck in my craw was that of Michael Moore. The French filmmaking hero. If I never hear about him again I might live happy. And that is all I really need to say about that.
Politics is always a sticky subject, as we saw in our travels in France. I understand the psychology behind a middle power’s population being a little resentful of a muscular and even arrogant superpower. And I understand the French aversion to conflict. Americans have avoided bloody conflict on its soil for one hundred and fifty years, the French have experienced two horrendous wars quite recently. America’s sins are many, but in the end, we are friends of the French, we share liberal values, we love freedom (though the French may love comfort more), and we appreciate the dangerous world that we live in, with its countless threats to our liberal western democracies. I understand.
Our trip to France was all that I thought it would be – spiritually enlightening, gastricly entertaining, and with countless opportunities to meet and enjoy new people. We wandered the streets of Paris, and climbed the mountains around Annecy. We struggled to learn French, and enjoyed ourselves as we experienced another culture like we never had before. This opportunity to travel in France was an eye opener, a beginning, a view of the life that we want to share together as a family. We grew to appreciate more fully the French – with all their perceived foibles and idiosyncrasies. We simply enjoyed our time. What a trip.
Getting on the train, I fully expected to be assaulted; my very American accent and my wife’s excessive baggage made us easy targets. It was late, it had been a long day, and we were trying to make our way through a foreign city in which we had no experience. While it wasn’t Mexico City (a dark and sometimes forbidding place), we weren’t in a safe area. Graffiti adorned the train, and late at night, as everywhere, the weirdoes emerged from whatever hell hole they hide themselves in during the day. I eyed my wife and her load narrowly, daring any thug to come near, watching for the first set of unwanted, wandering eyes. I often entertain myself with thoughts of fights with criminals, as I rescue my dear wife from attackers while getting to show off my badass skills to the lesser people (I know I’m an idiot, and none of you have ever thought such ridiculous things); and so I waited, in a ready, panther-like state. Nearly twenty minutes had passed, and we hadn’t gotten so much as a glance…from anyone. Even the inebriated old hobo, guzzling cheap wine from a cardboard box and changing his rank and yellowed socks while picking at the skin and scabs from his edema laden legs, hadn’t looked up long enough to notice us, or any of the other passengers nearly vomiting around him. I was baffled; we were virtually invisible in this crowd; I couldn’t decide if I was more relieved or offended. Thankfully, at one stop, a young man dressed in a serious business suit, blackberry in hand, winked at my wife and mouthed, in English, “call me.” Now the situation is more familiar, now I can relax. They say New York can be this way, but I have never visited there. And in my hometown – small, rural Utah, people are never invisible. The one finger salute is always obligatory, and quick conversations with strangers always appropriate. Paris is different, but maybe the same as other places where too many people live close together.
One morning, during my time in Annecy, after winning a battle with myself over whether to stay in bed, I got up to take my lazy gut for a jog. This has been a nearly constant battle for the last few months, and I usually lose, so I was filled with triumph as I set off on a jog. At first I was entirely consumed by the stunning countryside, dwarfed by the surrounding golden sun-crested Alps. I jogged around Lac D’Annecy, savoring the mountain views and glancing at the perfect water. There were few people about, and I shared the rode almost exclusively with bikers, that strange breed of Annecy biker. It seemed that everyone and their dog biked in that town, and that at least half the town must have been involved in some sort of competitive biking competitions on every weekend. The morning was lovely, and the atmosphere tremendous, and fortunately, I got plenty of time to enjoy the view since I stopped excessively, heaving for air (how I let myself get to such a state of fatness, I’ll never know. Oh wait, yes I do.) At one such stop, while doubled over, gasping for air, I received an odd expression from a passing jogger after I raised my hand in acknowledgment. I find a great deal of camaraderie in my fellow joggers, and derive a good deal of motivation from their determination. I began to find a trend in the people I passed: each gave me a similar expression. Was it really so odd for a stranger to give a simple smile or even just a nod of the head? Or is the very gesture that unnatural to so many people on the road?
Americans have a uniquely sociable culture. Rick Steves, in his immensely popular travel guide France 2008, suggests that America possesses a shallow and insincere sociability; and indeed, from personal experience, I found that many of the French that I met would share that opinion. I would argue that our way of being friendly is endearing and comforting regardless of how the French feel. Prior to our travels, I had been warned about the, well let’s say, “lack of affection” the people of France (and most European countries…ok, all other countries) feel toward Americans. (Something about how we’re all so arrogant and loud and blah blah blah, some other stuff; I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention, I’m sure I was hollering some profanity at the referee, who on some level, I’m certain, can hear me through the television. ) Being forewarned, I prepared myself for the worst (I somehow expected to be verbally assaulted for my sheer americanness) and was surprisingly and thankfully let down. Someone suggested to me that I should try to dress French while visiting and attempt not to stick out like a sore thumb, but I said to hell with it. I’ve only got western shirts and ball caps to wear (though I left my cowboy boots at home), and I wasn’t about to go out and buy a new wardrobe just to “fit in” while in Europe. Not only was I not yelled at, spat upon or jabbed in the ribs with any old lady canes, I was hardly even noticed. After meeting many more French citizens, I considered this and came to my own conclusion; it seems that American’s suppose the French to be rude because they do not mirror our gregarious gestures. Rather, the French only associate with those of whom they are directly affected by; family, friends, work associates etc. In my experience (meaning I was told by several Frenchies), I found that the French believe it to be very presumptuous for an individual to approach them or engage them in a conversation if you fall outside the circle of association.
In truth, the only truly rude person we met during our travels was a taxi driver outside of Paris. On the one hand, we couldn’t really blame whatever initial thought crossed his mind when he first saw us, carrying our luggage on our backs with the previous day’s dirt still across our faces, our bedraggled appearance suggesting our monetary condition. This taxi driver was driving a nice vehicle, a charcoal grey BMW with black rims and tinted windows. I had convinced myself that he must have had quite a profitable “side business” of either trafficking drugs or simply robbing all of his clients. I imagine that he wouldn’t want a couple of vagabonds sitting on the nice leather. As we initially approached him, broken French and all, he tried to desperately act like he couldn’t understand us…as if we usually just walk up to taxi drivers to chat. Once he finally acknowledged what we were asking him, he rolled his eyes twice, audibly sighed, and looked all around us to see if there were anyone else somewhat more appealing, but we were the only customers on the street that early on a Sunday morning, unfortunately for him. Did I miss something? Since when were taxi drivers so profitable that they were able to treat their potential clients like they are doing us a favor? What a strange cat this guy was. Unfortunately, we were just desperate enough to have to accept his begrudged nod towards the vehicle. As always, the ride was short, and the rate astronomical. But we arrived at our destination at last. Needless to say, we didn’t tip.
Everywhere we went, we used as much of our phrasebook French in order to attempt to be polite as possible. This was suggested to us nearly universally by experienced travelers we talked to. And it worked; our attempts were usually met with a laugh or a smile and then many people would speak English to us – with little of the attitude that one expects when you come to France. Many people that we met spoke at least a little English, which helped us be more comfortable. I thought about how different an experience a French traveler might have in the states. Can you imagine trying to find a French speaker outside of major metropolitan areas? It is true that there are an increasing number of Spanish speakers in the States, but that is it, especially in flyover country. English has certainly become the lingua franca of the world, and it was interesting to see how the French react to that. Just the attempt at speaking French helped smooth many of the prickly potential encounters with locals.
So do the French hate people? No. I don’t mean that at all. I am inclined to believe that the difference in cultures is just that – a small difference that does not need to separate us. I do feel that there is value in recognizing people, in acknowledging each other, just in order to say: “I see you, even if you are just a stranger.” But the French that we got to know were warm and friendly, eager to embrace friends and share their lives with us.