Tuesday, October 28, 2014

France: A thoroughly awesome trip and some final random observations

We left Avignon around 10:00 Saturday morning and headed back to Paris' CDG airport via the TGV. We're still amazed that you can get from Avignon to Paris in just over three hours. This distance is comparable to going from Prague to Budapest, and that takes nearly seven hours on a regular train. So, we love the TGV, despite the fact that it's pricey and you have to buy your tickets kind of far in advance. If only they had some kind of high-speed rail system in central Europe.

From there we embarked on the two-hour flight to Vienna, then the hour-long bus ride to cold, grey, gloomy Bratislava.

And with that, we said goodbye to France. This was a thoroughly amazing, fun, and beautiful vacation for both of us, despite catching nasty colds and having to endure a few lousy meals. Easily among the most memorable three weeks either of us have ever experienced.

For Terezia, Paris was simply the most amazing city she'd ever been to. Not only is it stunningly beautiful, but it pulses with life and feels like a truly culturally switched-on and cosmopolitan place. With the gorgeous buildings, the dizzying collections of art, the diverse array of people, the fascinating layers of history, and some of the food, this city simply never gets boring. Getting to see Paris was a genuinely eye-opening experience for Terezia, who now feels like we wasted our time living in Bratislava for three years. If we could live anywhere in the world, Paris would probably be our first choice.

Exploring Provence was a major highlight for both of us. We were floored by everything we saw, every town we visited. It was also great to leave Provence for the end of the trip: coming after the energy of Paris, then ramping down a bit with Lyon, it felt wonderful to readjust to the slower, more relaxed pace of life in Provence.

Renting a car and driving around Provence was an especially awesome way to explore the region, and we'd happily do it again. Getting to see stuff like Les Baux-de-Provence, Pont du Gard, and the gorgeous hill towns in the Luberon region was a truly eye-opening experience.

We found the range of ethnic diversity refreshing (especially after living in homogenized Slovakia for three years); not just in Paris, but just about everywhere else we ventured. It's this kind of diversity that makes cities and towns much more exciting and enriching places to be in, and it's definitely something we need in any place that we would call home.

We feel like we got to experience a fairly good cross-section of France, and I'm happy that after all these years I finally got the chance to start getting to know this country the way I've gotten to know Italy.

We're already thinking about which new places to go on the next trip to France, with the Dordogne and the Ardeche River/Gorges at the top of the list, and perhaps some of the less touristy, upscale areas along the Mediterranean coast (are there still any left?). We're also curious about Marseille. And I still need to see the Gothic cathedrals in Chartres, Reims, and Amiens.

I've been inserting random observations about France in some of my posts, and I thought I'd close this out with a few more.

Putting an end to French stereotypes

You know the stereotype: that the French - especially Parisians - hate Americans, refuse to speak English (or at least do so with disdain), act condescending when foreigners butcher their language, and display a general air of rudeness.

I didn't encounter any of this behavior in 2009, and we certainly didn't experience it this time either. Pretty much everyone we dealt with in restaurants or shops was friendly, patient, and totally willing to speak English, especially when explaining menu items we didn't understand, and never resentful about doing so. We made a point of starting all communication in French, however rudimentary, and as soon as it became clear that my vocabulary was limited, the restaurant server or shop clerk would switch over to English without batting an eye.

And yet, this stereotype still seems to persist in some circles, and while there may have been some truth to it decades ago, today it's time to lay this sucker to rest. The French appear to have accepted the fact that English has become the lingua franca for people from all over the world (and that learning it these days is pretty much mandatory for people in numerous career fields), and I think it's possible that the younger generations today simply may not have any of the hang-ups or resentments that the older generations might have harbored.

But we always try to be polite and we always make our best attempt to initiate communication in French. I'm sure there exists a breed of fussy, rude, or inflexible Americans who make life difficult for hotel or restaurant staff, and perhaps the French reserve their ire for them. But the interactions we had were nothing but polite and friendly.

And I'll end with this: we've encountered infinitely worse customer service here in Slovakia than anywhere in France. France has Slovakia beat in the customer service department by a profoundly significant degree.

The Paris Metro

My brother lived in Paris for over a year in 2009-2010, and when he moved to San Francisco, he was quickly overcome by a deep depression. The reason? After getting accustomed to zipping to any corner of Paris with ease on the Metro, he had come to the realization that San Francisco's public transportation system stinks.

He found himself stymied by perpetually delayed buses that share the roads (and the traffic jams) with the cars; he was unwilling to rely solely on his bike in a city with such steep hills and car-related congestion; and he was bummed out about having to drive everywhere and spend an eternity searching for parking. In short, he had been spoiled by the Paris Metro system, and San Francisco's pitiful excuse for public transit was seriously getting him down and tainting his impression of what is otherwise a city with a lot to offer.

If you live in Paris there is absolutely no reason to own a car. The Metro's complex web can get you pretty much anywhere, and if it doesn't, your destination is usually within walking distance, and there is a system of buses to fill in the gaps.

We are also amazed by the intricate warren of tunnels and passageways that lead in and out of and around the underground stations, especially those with connecting lines. You lose all sense of direction when you're under there, and you just have to follow the signs, which are usually clearly marked and easy to find. The system map looks daunting at first, but you get the hang of it quickly and then it's a breeze.

Since we were there for more than a week, we both got a Navigo card - a magnetic card/pass that beeps when you flash it at the turnstile and lets you through. You pay about 20 euros for a week of totally unlimited use within the city's system, and if you're using the metro a fair amount, it's really the best and most convenient way to go. (The only catch is that when you charge a Navigo for a week, it starts on Monday morning and ends Sunday at midnight, so if you fill your card on, say, a Wednesday, you won't get a full week's use because it'll still expire Sunday.)

More on the several life-altering and the few lousy restaurant meals we had on the trip

I know we griped about a few of those lousy meals, but we did have several outstanding ones, a few of which we'll probably remember for the remainder of our lives. That lamb saddle with wild mushrooms dish we had the very first night of the trip was never quite topped, and it certainly set expectations high, but we had plenty of other meals that were extremely memorable.

Awesome dish from Le Comptoir du Relais in Paris
The most mind-blowing mussels ever from A Cote in Arles

But Terezia was genuinely shocked by some of those less-than-stellar (or downright horrible) meals we had. I think she was expecting that more chefs/restaurants would maintain a higher standard, and she was surprised to see a couple places (which were highly rated, non-touristy establishments) churning out some truly awful stuff, especially in a country with such an unparalleled reputation for its cuisine.

The under seasoning was especially strange to her. She doesn't understand how a chef could live in a country with every herb imaginable readily available, and yet insist on totally under seasoning his/her dishes. Part of the art of cooking is knowing how to use herbs, and how to strike the perfect balance so that they elevate and enhance the flavors; not eschewing herbs altogether so as to produce bland and unexciting food. If we'd wanted bland food, we'd go to Scandinavia, or we'd eat out more in Slovakia! Terezia would've gotten an 'F' if she had tried to prepare a few of these bizarrely under seasoned dishes at the school where she trained to be a chef.

But again, we did have numerous meals that totally met or even exceeded our high expectations, and you're always bound to run into some degree of inconsistency no matter how much research you do. At least there still seem to be plenty of chefs who 'get' how to cook in a way that makes the flavors pop - it's just a matter of finding them!

Amazing tagliatelle with truffles from Le Petit Gourmand in Avignon

My French

In a word: pathetic. But, since Terezia's knowledge of French was zilch, we had to rely on my pitifully rusty, barely existent French to get by. She kind of got a kick out of this since I'd become so reliant on her in Slovakia and on our numerous travels to the Czech Republic. Fortunately, things worked out OK.

We had a few instances where I needed to sort out a minor problem in French, and in most cases, as I mentioned above, the people we dealt with spoke decent English and had absolutely no qualms about doing so.

In a grocery store I had to ask a clerk whether they sell wine bottle openers, since we didn't have one, but I didn't know the actual word for that. So, I had to stupidly ask, "Avez-vous la chose pour ouvrir une bouteille de vin?" ("Do you have the thing for opening a bottle of wine?")

Or when Terezia's Navigo card stopped working (only temporarily, it turned out) because she didn't hear the beep of the turnstile and hesitated too long when going through it, I had to explain to the station agent: "Nous avons achete ce Navigo hier, mais ce ne marche pas aujourd'hui" (We bought this Navigo yesterday, but it's not working today). I didn't always know the most common or eloquent way to phrase things, but I gave it my best shot, and the conversation would usually transition to English anyway.

Still, I'd really like to brush up on my French before the next time we go back so that I can feel a bit more confident about communicating in certain situations. My main fear is speaking to someone in French but then not understanding what that person says back to me and feeling like an idiot. I could understand anywhere from 15-50% of the French that I heard around me, depending on numerous factors, but when attempting to speak the language, it is exceedingly difficult for me to recall the words from my failing memory and get them from my brain to my mouth.

I fared better with my Italian when we were in Italy back in 2011, but since then my Italian has faded alarmingly fast! But sometimes when trying to remember how to say something in French, I could only think of how to say it in Italian. So, I'm basically completely useless when it comes to foreign languages!

At any rate, we're now back in Slovakia attempting to navigate the bureaucratic obstacle course involved in tying everything up here before we move back to California (I'll write more about the fun we're having with state offices and the super happy fun people who work in them soon!). As for France, we're still reflecting back on the trip constantly, and we wish we'd made it there sooner!

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