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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Heureusement, nous sommes en France

I’ve been to France more times than any other foreign country, except England.* We spent several days here en route to our friends near Bilbao, but we will be back. 

*One of the things I’ve quickly realized is that it’s futile to count how many countries we’ve been to. I count England, because it’s the country we started from, but T. is from England so she started counting from Wales. We could then dispute whether England, Wales and, even more controversially, Northern Ireland should all count as the U.K. Eire is obviously an independent republic, but Bretagne is not, and yet it’s one of the Celtic lands, like Cornwall in England. France seemed straightforward enough until we reached the Basque Country. Parts of it are legally within the boundaries of France and Spain, yet many Basques would not regard it as either…

Landing in France from Ireland was a culture shock. We drove around for a while to find a gas station and when T. realized the pumps were automatic, and you paid by card, she began cursing. After all, in the U.S. this means it is impossible for us to pay. We can’t use our cards in a U.S. gas pump because it always asks for our ZIP code, and of course, foreign residents don’t have a ZIP code.

Luckily, this was France. I expect that to be the refrain of the rest of our travels here. We did buy gas, didn’t get lost, used every variety of toilet imaginable at successive (and very well-maintained) rest areas, ordered café au lait, and managed to kiss new friends on both cheeks without overly offending anyone. (Cheek kissing has always posed a challenge for me. The first time I was in England, physical touch seemed to me unknown to the people there, but over the years first hugging and, more alarmingly, cheek kisses from men one knows seem to have become the norm. I never know which way to lean or whether the lips are really supposed to touch. Luckily, we were in France.)

I mentioned “speaking” French in my last post. When I say this, I do not mean in any kind of a fluent way. What I mean is that I am not too afraid to open my mouth and let French come out. That is, after all, what speaking a language is. I am sure I make all kinds of mistakes and sometimes completely fail to make myself understood, but amazingly often, whatever I am using works. And people appreciate it. One of our new French friends expressed constant concern at whether her compatriots were being nice to us, as one of the local shopkeepers had once been rude to an American relative of hers. Having been treated with nothing but politeness and charm by everyone we have met in the country so far, I began to suspect that the rude shopkeeper was being not so much anti-American as an asshole.

One of the pleasures of France, on which I have remarked before, is the little layer of politeness on everything. You can’t go into a French establishment and not say Bonjour or the equivalent, even if you just turn around and leave (saying Merci and au revoir and probably a monsieur/dame thrown in). Maybe it’s as shallow as people think the American “Have a nice day” is, but I miss it whenever it’s not there. Being spoken to, acknowledged, being made to feel a personne, is better than feeling like personne. (See what I mean?)

In the Dordogne, which is the region around Bordeaux, we saw a lot of vineyards. One thing about France that is ever so slightly confusing is that every place, road, etc. has at least two names or numbers, and sometimes several more. It’s never clear to me just how these overlap. Nonetheless, we continued not to get lost. It’s true we’re never sure when mealtimes are in other countries, but we always seemed to find what we needed anyway. 

For example in Surgères, a town with an astonishingly beautiful château, now (I think) the town hall.

Heedless of the restaurateurs who, our host kept fearing, would be rude to us Anglophones, we found ourselves at La Roma, effortlessly ordering pizza, which was as good as you would expect. T. noticed that two little girls kept creeping closer and closer behind my shoulder, unself-consciously listening to us talk. Finally one of them asked “Vous parlez français?” 

Un peu,” she replied; “nous sommes d’Angleterre.” (It’s too complicated to explain about me, even in English.)

Ah,” they exclaimed, “vous parlez anglais!” Clearly they had been trying to figure it out. It is so cool to be in a part of France that mostly French people visit, where English speakers are exotic to children who then proceed to climb trees and dance in the street. How heureuses we were to be in France.

In Ireland it was all Tidy Town competitions; here it’s all Villes Fleuries. One thing that remained the same though was that all Airbnbs have really complicated coffee. Not a single one knows a drip-style maker, or even a kettle with instant coffee. Each has a cafetière, or a pod machine more complicated than the last. We were reduced to buying coffees in paper cups from a vending machine at the supermarché. If it had only been a cafetière, I might have coped—I first encountered one of these the first time an Englishwoman made me breakfast. (You never forget the first time an Englishwoman makes you breakfast.)

As pro-American as our new French friend was, she had the same care for food and drink (and complicated coffee) that the rest of her compatriots have. A look of sheer pain crossed her face when T. confessed, hyperbolically, that the only time she drinks wine is champagne mixed with orange juice. The dear lady looked as if someone had just run the tricoleur through with a sword. “Are you English, or what?”

It may be possible to eat (or drink) badly somewhere in France, but I haven’t done so yet. We were struggling in Côte des Landes to find any place in the evening that was not serving a €23 set menu of canard, and so, three weeks into our travels, broke down and went to McDonald’s. Yet even visiting McDonald’s is not the same in France. They bring the meal to your table, and it’s served with a knife and fork. My gosh, they even bring you napkins and straws that you don’t have to pick up yourselves. Bien sûr, it cost more than McDonald’s would in North America, but then I remember from my first visit here that Coke was more expensive than wine. C’est la France. 

To be fair, we’d mainly gone into the restaurant for air conditioning. We’d been in Ireland for two weeks and weren’t accustomed to the heat yet. Nothing to do next day but hit the beach. We were obviously in the part of France that likes rugby, because both young women and young men around us had rugby balls and seemed to know how to play. 

I’ve written before about European beaches and how astonishing they are to a North American—particularly one from a landlocked state. I never saw the ocean until I was fifteen, so I don’t have a personal memory of what it’s like to be a child on American beaches, but I am fairly certain it’s different from here. For one thing, kids run around wearing anything—high-visibility swim trunks so their parents can spot them, nothing but hats, or just naked. They are completely unself-conscious about it (why shouldn’t they be?) Here in the Basque country one little kid said “Hola” cheerfully to us every time he passed by, and if he hadn’t been naked I might have mistaken him for his sister, as they both had the same luxurious long locks of hair. 

No one seems to be looking out for these kids, and yet everyone must be. Families and groups are clearly here together, yet the littlest kids all seem to play together, presumably with people they’ve met on the beach. If I were in North America, I fear their parents would be attached to them with some kind of leash, or at the very least, bathing them in sun protection. Not that Spanish kids need as much as I, pale and white, do.

The most alarming thing about being naked on the beach is not nudity, but the worry about sand. I grew up thinking the beach meant a lake and with freshwater swimming, there’s no surf to rinse sand away, so within a few seconds of entering the water you’re carrying brickloads in your swimsuit. With no suit, perhaps kids are carefree and never accumulate sand. In any case, there are showers on the edge of the beach where adults pick the littlest children up and flip them upside down, efficiently washing them without removing anything. The kids howl, but the washing is soon done. It reminded me of nothing so much as rinsing a colander.

As for adults on the beach, this is an even greater pleasure to discover. For on the French and Spanish/Basque beaches we’ve been to, the population is mostly not English or German visitors, but French or Spanish families in for the weekend or the holidays. And unlike the predominant Anglo culture, in southern Europe no one seems to care what they, or anyone else, looks like on the beach. 

I have heard grown North American women describe buying a swimsuit as if it were a unique form of torture, designed to humiliate them all summer. I don’t think French or Spanish women feel this way. To be sure, an astonishing number of them are amazingly beautiful, which helps; but every kind of person, young or old, seems equally comfortable on the beach. Women take off their tops revealing the full range of what is possible there. Maybe someone is ogling through sunglasses—I certainly notice—but no one seems to bother anybody else. An absolutely ancient grandpa happily plays Frisbee with a woman the same age; regular-looking people appear to wear whatever makes them comfortable. As a result, I am comfortable.
Happy Pride, y'all.
Oh—and one more thing factors into my high comfort level: It remains the case that never, in my entire life, has a non-English speaker mistaken my gender. At least, not that I noticed. The small politenesses of French, madame etc., are never misdirected at me—I’ve never been monsieured. Do French speakers look at my hips, rather than my haircut? Or are they just extra classy? Who knows and who cares? Life is OK dans la plage.

Of course, as we keep reminding each other, this is not a vacation. We’re in this lifestyle for the long haul, and it’s taking some time to get used to. I’ve had to learn that travel is not about checking things off in a guidebook every day, but rather experiencing the people that I meet and whatever the weather brings. The first time I visited the European continent, crossing the border from France was a proper passport experience, with police and everything; now we barely noticed we were in Spain. 

But that’s for another post. For now, I’m content with having learned one more thing about packing lists, besides that that sewing kit would have come in handy after all: I really wish I had brought my Swiss Army knife. Years of U.S. travels, necessarily involving flights, have conditioned me to fear checking luggage and therefore, not to carry anything the U.S. would ban. But I already have a nail clipper, and now, thanks to not having my knife, I have to use it to clip all the thread we’re using from the sewing kit I had to buy! Why didn’t I bring the most useful part my Swiss Army knife has: a corkscrew? It will be months before I have to worry about flying anywhere, with or without paying for luggage, and now if I want to open a bottle of wine, I have to find someone to borrow a corkscrew from!

Heureusement, nous sommes en France.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Life is OK dans la plage"--tres bien! Groove & Pop