Monday, December 19, 2011

Back in France

Add to Google Reader or HomepageReturning to France makes me smile. I smile at the changes I know are going to be part of our lives for the next six months.

The topography always strikes me first. Flying to Marseilles over the Mediterranean and seeing the small uninhabitable islands jutting out of the water. Then there is Marseilles and the backdrop of steep limestone hills. Along this section of the Mediterranean, the hills start at the water and climb as cliffs up to plateaus. You leave the airport and get on the autoroute heading north. The autoroute mostly follows the Rhone valley and minutes after leaving the congestion of Marseilles, one is surrounded by vineyards and farms and more vineyards. Olive trees, with their silver-green leaves, break up the scenery.

Blue sky, green pastures, blue/gray clay under the vines (the leaves are gone), limestone cliffs and the meandering Rhone river make a stunning tableau. Gorgeous. Conversely, I was struck by the amount of smoke pollution I noticed this time. Maybe living with little heavy industry in Lansing masks the amount of smoke pollution we make or see, but here, one sees smoke rising from all sorts of buildings both near and far.

People are enchanting to watch anytime and anywhere, but on the European side of the Atlantic, I am struck by how differently people look. You know you are “not in Kansas anymore.” Clothing, shoes, sacks/purses, hair styles, jewelry, even glasses frames are very different from the way we are used to seeing people in the US. If you see someone wearing “sweats,” s/he is likely an American. I don’t wear sweats, but the French seem to know that I am American. Is it something tattooed to my forehead like a Harry Potter scar that says "this one is not one of us"? Europeans not only look different, they speak differently (and look different when speaking.) I noted in a previous blog that the French seem to start words by forming their lips as if they were going to kiss. Americans form words from a smile. Germans and northern Europeans start their words with a frown.

Then there are the cars. Smaller, diesel, much more efficient and the diesel doesn’t stink! On the autoroute, if you are passed by a car going 150 km/h, it is likely going to be German-made. I guess that if you buy a Mercedes or a BMW, you are obliged to drive as if every road was the Autobahn.  I also smiled as we passed a sign announcing that there is a speed trap ahead where a camera will get a picture of your license plate if you are exceeding the speed limit. (How is it that they still catch speeders and issue tickets? – What part of “speed camera ahead” don’t people understand?)

I even had to smile on my first return to the grocery store where the shopping carts have four wheels that rotate (rather than only the two front wheels on shopping carts in the US). When you are in the grocery store and want to turn left, you can’t push on the handle and expect the fulcrum of the frame to assist, you must conscientiously turn ALL FOUR WHEELS so that you make the turn without running into the end-of-counter displays. On the other hand, you can easily move the cart left or right to get closer to the products or to get out of the way of another cart.

And the food! How I love the food! Two years ago, my sister-in-law and her husband were here and he wanted to have “fat-free half & half.” I told him that the French didn’t understand that concept. You can get skim milk, but when it comes to cream, the French LOVE their fat-filled creams and “crème fraiche” and cheeses… and, as we learned just last evening about cheese, it is not only where the cheese is produced, it is from which breed of cow…! (DeGaulle was right when he asked how anyone could govern a country that had more than 200 kinds of cheese.)

After the first level of slaps-upside-the-head reminding me that I am no longer in the US,  I begin to settle into the life of the village where people say “hello” as you walk by or as you enter their shops. And they stop their cars when you stand at the crosswalk… all the while thinking to themselves: “Who is this American and why is he smiling so much?”


  1. Bienvenue back to Provence. I am green with envy that you are back for your winter sojourn in Vaison la Romaine. I will be looking forward to reading about your adventures in Provence. We hope you have a joyeux noel and bonne annee.

  2. What a fabulous re-entry. Your words come from the smile. The smile is from arriving home. Your happiness is contagious.

  3. I feel like we're right there with you. And I wish we were! Love your blog.

  4. Mr Sullivan writes. We read. Oh! How he speaks from his soul. Peace.