France: A Love-Hate-Love Story

Back while I was still in the daydreaming, will-I-actually-ever-do-this stage of planning (or not planning) this adventure last year, I doodled all the places I wanted to visit using a Sharpie. I decided that I probably want most to go to the places endowed with the most ink. Paris was drawn at a haphazard angle, large, and so were Thailand, Bhutan, Brazil, Berlin, and a few other places starting with “B.” Paris appeared to be at the top of the list, but for another “B” word that gave me pause. Going to France also seemed boring.

I have been to France four times, but not for thirteen years. In San Francisco, going to Europe seemed safe. But something in me deeply wanted to touch down in Europe again after thirteen years: to know what it would like to travel as an adult there, and to feel our peer, rival continent.

A rehearsal for the Fete des Lumiere, lights projected on one of Lyon's cathedrals

But I didn’t actually decide to go until I got a sign from God. Or rather, from my mother. My mother laid out the Sunday New York Times travel section for me; she saw a short piece about the Fete des Lumieres, or Festival of Lights, in Lyon. I had never heard of the Festival of Lights, but it turns out that Lyon, the third largest city in France, invites artists from all over the world to stage light installations using its ancient city as a backdrop. I was unsure where to go between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. I wanted to go to Bali, but the flight was 37 hours long, and that was too long. (They year 2009 required me to be there for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, or so I thought.)

I logged on to couchsurfing.org and saw that a group had organized four days of parties for the Fete des Lumieres. They even made a welcome video. I thought, OK, that’s it, and I bought a ticket. (Couchsurfing is an international web phenomena; members host travelers for free, show people around, and generally prove that people are good. I’ve met a ton of people through the site)

Whenever setting off on a trip, I feel buzzed but also nervous. One of the things I want to learn from traveling is how to make a decision and stick with it, expecting the best from it rather than fearing the worst. My indecision has a way of draining all the fun out of the anticipation.

My trip to France was a roll of the dice that worked out—despite the fact that I caught a “gastro” (as the French call an intestinal bug) in Marseille, and spent three days in a hotel bed as a result. I might have been vomiting, but I got to watch the Sex and the City movie dubbed in French. My 19 days in France were a shining example of a short but sweet trip that made an indelible impression.

I love speaking French, probably in large part because I’ve always been very good at it. I racked up many awards in junior high and high school, and as a senior, won the amazing award that came with a $1000 scholarship, Best French Speaker in Rhode Island!

In 2009, I started going to French meetups in San Francisco to speak French for the pleasure of it and to meet other Francophiles. But I wasn’t sure if I qualify as a Francophile because despite my love for the language, I wasn’t sure I really liked French people. I couldn’t say I had ever met a French person that I loved.

Most French people seemed humorless and stuffy to me. They also made me feel insecure. Where that came from, I am not sure. That I didn’t know how to use cutlery properly, or how to pair food and wine, or how to tie a scarf? I did two monthong homestays with families when I was 14 and 16, in Pessac (a suburb of Bordeaux) and Paris, respectively. But now I’m older, more confident. I can find people to hang out with rather than be stuck with a family. And maybe I can even tie a scarf.

I was resolved to get to the bottom of France this time, or at least to the bottom of some wine glasses.

The trip started in glorious style and reminded me of what I had been missing all these years. My Air France flight to Paris, which then connected to Lyon, was decadent. The flight attendants were handsome young men served chicken, carrots, and a sophisticatedly dressed couscous type grain, baguette, cheese. At dinner, the flight attendant served champagne and wine. I was embarrassed to accept both, but he smiled and waved me on, as if it were perfectly natural to drink wine and champagne with dinner. Enjoy! Profite! I felt giddy.

Couchsurfing friends: my first couchsurfing host ever and moi

I booked a hotel for my first night to recover from the overnight flight, and then I was going to couchsurf for the first time in my life in Vieux Lyon, right in the middle of the Fete des Lumieres, with someone who had never hosted before. Damien and I were both couchsurfing virgins. Although I have met a lot of people through the site, I had never actually stayed with anyone. I was nervous but a couchsurfing ambassador (someone who takes on extra responsibility to help travelers) reassured me she had met Damien and he was good people. I got very lucky. Damien was very sweet in fact, and let me sleep in his bed while he took the couch, cooked us a cauliflour casserole, and introduced me to all his friends at a party during the festival.

My friend Regis and I met for dinner my first night in Lyon. We met in Rio the previous year on December 31. I was there on a very short trip, staying with friends, enjoying a cheap fare. (I feel like such a jetsetter saying we met in Rio.) He was traveling the world for six months, a rare 44-year-old architect on extended travel. I love meeting older people traveling who disrupt the stereotype of the post-college gap year.

Regis was a fantastic guide. He told me the history of the Fete des Lumieres, a four-night long festival in early December that has only been staged on a grand scale for four years. Originally, the Lyonnaise tradition was very simple: for everyone to put candles in their windows on an early Monday in December. In 2006, the city expanded one night into a festival. Lyon sponsors artists from all over the world to stage art shows involving light across dozens of beautiful squares in Lyon, against cathedrals, hills, and other grand buildings. Hundreds of thousands of people from across France and Europe mill about day and night drinking mulled wine (vin chaud). There are also bands and puppet shows and lots of drunken revelry.

Fiats speaking the language of love to each other in Lyon's Fete des Lumieres

One of my favorite installations was staged inside an ancient hospital square. Two cars emitting sound and light acted out flirtatious dialogue from a Fellini movie, girl car/boy car. A car he said, she said, but the characters are Fiats. France always impresses me with the civic commitment to the arts. It was kind of like a civic-sponsored, family-friendly Burning Man.

I also spent four nights in Marseille, a mixing point for Arab, African, and European culture, and a week in Paris, where it snowed!

The sheer beauty of Paris overwhelmed me. Everyone talked constantly about how disconnected Parisians are, how impossible it is to date or make friends, how expats only meet other expats. But I still felt like I wanted to live in Paris six months at least, to feel that beauty on a daily basis. Once, while eating lunch alone, I eavesdropped on an English software consultant talking to a French man talking about their need for a product manager at one bistro and nearly suggested myself.

During my trip, I visited a Turkish hamman (bath) in Paris and I hiked the Calanques outside Marseille (spectacular rock formations on the Mediterranean). What defined the trip most of all was the conversation. French love to sit at tables for a long time eating, drinking, smoking cigars or cigarettes, eating profiteroles and cheese and not getting fat, and pondering.

Here’s one that I jotted down in my journal. It helped me to pinpoint why the holidays have become more of an obligation than a source of joy as I get older. Regis and I were talking about why Christmas feels strange if you don’t have children. “Fundamentally Christmas is a lie. It’s a lie we tell children about Pere Noel, and when you are an adult, you have two options: you can have children and continue the lie, or you keep trying to adapt to the lie to your life as a childless adult.” Yes, a lie, and maybe that’s why it has always felt so weird that my mother keeps hanging up our stockings. Maybe this is all very profound, or maybe it just felt more profound because it was all in French.

France always makes me wonder about what it is to be an American. French-ness is so well-defined. At least my ideas of Frenchness are: their style, intellectualism, knowledge of food and wine, limits on work, and love for the belle vie.

What defines being an American? Is it individualism, innovation, a restless spirit, a demand for convenience, insularity, sincerity? I realized that for me, the essense of Americanness, as opposed to Frenchness, is a certain casual nature. I grab coffee and drink it on the run rather than sitting at a small table sipping espresso with a friend at a prearranged date. I drop into yoga classes rather than sign up for an 8-week “cours” (every time I tried to go to yoga in France I was thwarted; they mostly required a commitment).

A potluck exemplifies American casualness—we all bring random dishes, the host doesn’t know what the spread will look like. French culture has set prescriptions about how to eat and how to pair food. American cuisine seems to be constantly reinventing itself and is not fixed. The same goes for work. We don’t stay in a job or career for twenty or thirty years the way many French expect they will. Everyone makes up their own way in our micro-targeted, micro-marketed culture.

I wanted to explain this idea of casualness and started to search for the French word for casual. I found no exact match. There are words to describe casual clothing, sex, or this, that, or the other. But I really mean an overarching casualness, an improvisation, making it up as you go along, lack of obedience to rules, and there’s no one word for that—the best I found is décontraté.

I explain this to Regis and he finds it strange, thinking that the American family he stayed with as a teenager in Alabama were actually very rules-based. When I really think this through, I have to ask, am I describing my country or just me? Or my family? Or San Francisco?

My British friend Colin who has lived in France for 8 years has many complaints about France, though he loves it too, and gets a high out of living in Paris. One of his main complaints: They don’t like to recognize differences. “Take schools, it’s obvious that the schools in the poshest districts of Paris are better than the schools in the suburbs, but they don’t want to admit it. They want to say that everything is the same.”

I heard talk of “Bobos” (bourgeois bohemians) everywhere. The American writer David Brooks coined the term in Bobos in Paradise, but the term appears to have greater currency in France. In Montmartre, I heard again and again about Bobo invastion after Amelie came out and popularized the district. The grocery store featured in Amelie is now a tourist attraction. Adrien, a PR consultant who hosted a Spanish-speaking CS party one night in his small apartment in Montmartre, told me “bourgeois” has more resonance in France since it’s a more Marxist country. And they are more boho than we are too!

In Marseille, a group of us from Couchsurfing went to the most eco-groovy bar in the world. The Café Equitable is a collective bar selling only “bio” (organic) wine and beer (I got a blueberry beer). My CS friend Vincent told me Cafe Equitable was a place for bobos. Honestly, I thought the patrons were grungy. (Now that I think of it, “bobo” means silly in Brazilian Portuguese.)

Parisians are famous for being a culture of complaint. My Polish friend (who has been living in Paris for 13 years) said Paris is like a cold, beautiful, woman. She, her French-Moroccan friend Aurelie and I went to coffee in the Marais one frigid Saturday afternoon. Her lawyer friend despaired of the Parisian bourgeois that surrounds her at her firm. I suppose she was talking about all the stuffy people that I associated France with.

Aurelie says doesn’t want “la belle vie”: meaning what, I am not sure? French savoir-faire, food, cheese, wine, relaxation. She wanted strong experiences. In a very familiar conversation, we talked about being single and whether it is necessary to have the love of a man to die feeling your life was well lived. Aurelie said would feel something big would be missing from her life if she died without being loved by a man. Honestly I would die still wanting that too, but I don’t want to sit in a café and talk about how my life is incomplete. It’s a downer. I argued that the most important way to evaluate your life was how much joy you experience, but she wasn’t buying it.

I find it ironic and interesting that Rio and Paris, two massive cities I have been most attracted to so far, as of late, are such opposites. In Rio, complaining is socially scripted out of conversation, and in Paris, complaint is de rigeur.

I met an Australian woman Mariana while traveling in Brazil. Mariana has lived in Paris for six years. I asked her if she ever gets tired of the beauty and doesn’t notice it anymore. She said it was hard to make friends, but she always appreciated the beauty. I would hope the same would be true for me. That if I lived in Paris, I would never let its beauty blur into the background, taken-for-granted.

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