Final thoughts on France

As our train slowly sways its way out of Gare du Nord before picking up speed bound for Cologne, I can’t help but reflect on the past 10 days we’ve spent in France. Several impressions stand out in recent memory:

For me, the food is the best thing about France, bar none. Ah, the food. I’ve already covered my love for the street markets in a prior entry, but this affection also extends to so many other items as well. I think I could eat croissants for breakfast every morning for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy about it. Perhaps a pain au chocolat thrown in here and there for a little variety. And crepes…

I almost enjoy watching crepes being made more than I do eating them. Well, almost. The way these vendors know how to pour the perfect amount of batter onto the steaming greased griddle and use their little sandbox toy-contraption to spread it out, then wiggle a long flat spatula under the whole thing, fold it and flip it to the other side without tearing the delicate golden brown crepe… it’s half master skill, half art form. My go-to crepe is one spread with a layer of melting drippy Nutella, but I also had a delicious savory version that was stuffed with ham, cheese, olives and mushrooms. The crepe master managed to position the cheese so that as it melted, it oozed out the sides, turning all crunchy and brown on the grill. He then folded the whole thing a couple times like origami, and handed it over. I was in raptures nibbling the crusty cheese away to get to the actual crepe-wrapped goodness inside.

A short list of the best things I’ve had to eat while in France would have to include the salads I made with my street market produce purchases; the breads, pastries and preserves at a place called Le Pain Quotient during our first Paris breakfast with hubby’s mom, thyme-scented rotisserie chicken from a Parisian butcher shop, a chocolate macaron with ganache filling, Brie-smeared baguettes, and the steak dinner I prepared in our Aix hotel room kitchenette.

Second thing worth mentioning: I do a hell of a lot of walking here, without even thinking about it. Contrary to popular belief, some French women DO get fat, but they’re few and far between. With the amount of passive exercise they get, it’s not difficult to see why this is so.

Since neither hubby nor I like being cooped up in a cramped hotel room, we make a big effort to get out and about on foot as much as possible. I always come home from our European adventures with looser-fitting pants and, in the words of my dear hubby, feeling fit as a racing snake. I’m blessed to have good genes that keep me fairly thin to begin with, but I walk my ass off when we’re abroad. Literally. I keep intending to bring a pedometer with me on these trips to see just how much ground I’m covering, but never manage to remember to buy one beforehand. No joke, we walk for MILES, and that doesn’t even include stairclimbing. Take it from someone who struggles with a perpetually flat-as-a-pancake booty — my butt has never looked better than it does right now. I may just have hubby take a photo of it for me to post, I’m so proud.

Not to mention, my European travel diet consists of often spotty meal planning. For example, we might arrive at a hotel late and not get to eat a decent dinner. Or, say, we sleep in and miss breakfast. Whatever the case, I rarely eat three full meals a day here. I know I’m definitely burning off way more calories than I’m taking in, so I don’t feel bad about allowing myself an extra croissant, real cream in my coffee, or a big honking chunk of bleu cheese. Which is cool, because the French don’t do low-fat. Why would they when food tastes this good? The closest I’ve seen to diet anything is Coca Light (Diet Coke), but no one seems to order it.

On the far end of the continuum, many of the pale waifish teenagers and early twenty-somethings in France are impossibly skinny, seeming to exist solely on cigarettes and espresso. They look nearly vampirish. It’s unnatural. I want to rip the smokes out of their mouths, hold them down in the bright sunlight and forcefeed them creme fraiche.

Which brings me to my next point: smoking. Still compulsory in these parts. It’s a minor victory that smoking has been banned inside restaurants and cafes, but anywhere al fresco, it’s still fair game. Bummer, because the best part of the whole café experience is sitting at one of the outdoor tables, sipping your coffee and simply watching the world go by. A little hard to do when you’re worrying about your toddler inhaling loads of second-hand smoke from the oblivious mademoiselle sitting two feet away. And the second you step off a train or out of a hotel lobby, you’re walking straight into the heart of darkness that is the unofficial smoking section. I grew irritated with seeing young women galore pushing baby strollers around, butts aglow and hanging out of the corners of their mouths. Alas… let’s move on.

I wholeheartedly admit, fashion is not my forte. Just ask the two gal-pals who came to my home and staged a wardrobe intervention earlier this year, dismissing nearly half the items in my closet as “Spongebob Squareshirts” and “grannywear.” It’s no surprise that I feel like a fish out of water in France. Paris, especially. The younger French women wear some crazy-ass stuff that I wouldn’t even attempt to get away with (or want to) back home – think bubble skirts and leggings, or jean shorts with black tights and knee boots in the dead of winter. I saw one guy wearing a pair of pants that were slung so low in the middle, even M.C. Hammer would have passed on them. Honestly. It looked like he took a dump in them and forgot to change.

However, with age comes wisdom. Many of the more mature women dress impeccably. I can’t even recall any actual outfits, but they all just seem put together in a way that appears simultaneously effortless and tres chic at the same time. A jaunty scarf (I’m telling you, these women know more creative knots than a sailor), fabulous footwear, a classic bob haircut, a swipe of red lipstick… they know how to pull it all off.

Fashion isn’t restricted to humans here, either. I’ve seen some seriously pampered pooches out and about, dressed in sweaters, raincoats and hats that probably cost more than I spend on my own clothes. The French LOVE their dogs. I just wish they would do a better job of cleaning up after them. Everywhere you look — poop. You really have to watch your step closely, lest you wind up with a soleful. To make matters worse, the piles are all but camouflaged this time of year by the brown leaves on the ground. Taking a stroll down the street is like walking through a minefield.

I somehow managed to tread in a big smear and didn’t even know it until I got back to the hotel room and started wondering where that awful shit smell was coming from. After deducing that the toddler’s diaper wasn’t to blame, I realized the bottom of my boot was caked. Even trouncing through puddles and shuffling through the grass didn’t get rid of it. I ultimately managed to scrape the merde out of all the tiny grooves with a twig. Ugh. The very next day, the toddler and I were playing in the expanse of grass across from our hotel when some woman’s yappy furry friend came bounding over to us. As he/she/it enthusiastically jumped all over me, I saw that this dog had apparently stepped in its own mess and with each bounce, was now transferring it onto the tops of my only remaining pair of clean shoes.

I certainly can’t wrap up my summation of one of the most beautiful and vibrant countries in the world talking about crap, so I’ll change the subject to a happier theme. I have this theory that cities are like people, and you can have relationships with them just like you would other human beings. To that end, I’ll attempt a little word association game to describe my impressions of the places we’ve been and seen:

Paris = Majestic. Magical. Cultural. Stylish. Feast of the senses. Out of my league.

Aix en Provence = Graceful. Friendly. Fashionable. Laid-back. Intelligent.

Marseille = Scrappy. Persevering. History. Tough talking, but with a soft side. Surprising.

And with that, I bid France adieu and au revoir, looking forward the rest of the week in Germany.

Pardon my French

I got chewed out by a bus driver yesterday. For what, I couldn’t tell you, but I think I’ve got a pretty good idea. First, I had to use a 10-euro bill to buy my 1-euro ticket and she clearly didn’t want to have to go to the trouble to make change. I gestured that the bill was all I had, she “hmphed” and counted out my coins. Not a good start.

Although we’re technically supposed to collapse the baby stroller anytime we board a bus, we never have yet and it’s not been a problem. In fact, I’ve seen quite a few other women push strollers on and off the buses without a second glance. At the time, I was by myself with the toddler and was not about to try to wrestle him and the stroller at the same time.

The bus was crowded, but the driver seemed to want me to move to the back, which was impossible. Again, another hmph and a roll of the eyes as I tried to position the stroller along the side as inconspicuously as I could. There was still plenty of room for people to get by us, mind you.

We only had a short distance to ride, thankfully. When it came time to make our exit, I started backing the stroller up to lower it off the same front entrance where we’d boarded. This, apparently, was another no-no. I was supposed to somehow muscle the stroller through the crowd of passengers all the way to the back exit to disembark there instead of getting off through the front entrance, a mere 10 feet or so from where we were standing. The driver finally just shook her head and shooed us out, mumbling God knows what kind of insults not quite under her breath. Well, excusez the hell out of moi!

I hate looking like a stereotypical stupid American tourist. I attempt to speak the language wherever we travel, I don’t expect special treatment, and I try to be as respectful of foreign cultures as possible. The bus ride wasn’t a big deal in the big picture, I suppose, but the interaction with the driver bothered me for the rest of the day.

The more time I spend in France, the easier the language gets to navigate. They say immersion is the best way of learning, and it’s true. I can sometimes sense a difference in my comprehension level literally from day to day. This does NOT mean I’ve broken the language barrier with leaps and bounds. Far from.

I find I’m able to understand more French than I’m able to actually speak. This is frustrating. Someone might make a comment to me in a store or on the street and I’ll know what they’re saying, but the correct words don’t occur to me quickly enough to respond. Or I stammer out a response, only to realize I’ve used the wrong word the second it comes flying out of my mouth. Then I feel like a doofus. OR, I end up responding with something in Italian or German instead of French (a distinct possibility when we find ourselves visiting all three countries in the same number of weeks and the phrases for “please,” “thank you,” and “where’s the toilet?” all run together in my head).

I studied French in high school for three years, but my language skills and vocabulary have obviously become rusty with more than 20 years of non-use. It’s funny the words and phrases that do come back to me at the weirdest moments, though. The sun comes out and suddenly “soleil” pops into my head unbidden. I guess it’s all still buried in there somewhere waiting to be unearthed at the right moment.

The rare occasions when I’m able to carry off a short conversation flawlessly are thrilling, I must admit, but they’re definitely the exception and not the rule. Say, I’ll check out at the grocery store without a hiccup, or actually reply to someone’s question appropriately and without a lapse. Those moments are fantastic, but then again, it’s only small talk. It will be a long, long time before I’m able to carry on an in-depth French exchange with any sort of spontaneity. Still, it’s a start.

Yesterday, the toddler and I were wandering our way through one of the ubiquitous French street markets when I stopped to trail my finger along a beautiful knit scarf. The young guy behind the table came around to coo at the toddler and noticed his differently colored eyes (one brown, one blue. I know, it’s pretty cool.). Amazed, the guy gestured to his buddy to come over and have a look. I managed to contribute some sort of stammering comment, then explained we were American. The two of them chattered back and forth excitedly before turning to me, one obviously struggling to say something and trying to find the right words. Boy, do I know that feeling. I waited patiently to hear what would come out of his mouth, and finally he said “Like David Bowie?”

I laughed, and without a second thought, replied “Oui! Comme ça!”

Which, as it turned out, was the perfect thing to say.