Highlights of France
The good times keep on rolling. Our Grand Tour arrived in France. We spent 23 days exploring this fabled nation. We covered virtually the entire country, eating and drinking well the entire time. Here are some of the highlights:
1) Exoticness. The French make strange things taste good: Escargot (snails). Pâté de Foie Gras (finely ground duck liver) and Caviar (fish eggs). We tried it all.
2) Bouchons. A bouchon is a type of restaurant found in Lyon, France. They serve traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, such as sausages, duck pâté or pig stomach. My most memorable meal was the calf head. If a chef has the guts to put calf head on the menu then I should have the stomach to eat it. So I did.
3) Cheese. A French cheese shop is a like a festival of delicious mold. There were so many different types: Cheese from goats. Cheese from sheep. Cheese covered in ash. We tried fresh and aged cheeses. We tried cheeses with very little smell and some pungent enough clear a room.
Cities and Architecture:
1) Pedestrians. The French build cities for the people. They have done it in different ways. Bordeaux overloaded the city with traffic lights to make driving cumbersome. Montpellier has 12,000 parking spaces surrounding the city to make pedestrianism mandatory. Paris has a fantastic metro system. Seemingly, all cities have grand promenades for the people to leisurely stroll.
2) Parks. 129 years later, Geroges Seruet’s painting A Sunday Afternoon is still spot on. French parks are like no other place in the world. They attract the young and the old, students, businessmen, friends and lovers. I love them.
3) Lighting. French cities light up at night. It’s not just the sheer volume of street lamps, it’s their style. French street lamps are reminiscent of scenes of 19th century gas lanterns. The soft glow of these lights makes these cities even more enchanting at night.
4) Chateaus. Chateaus cover the countryside. All of them are absolutely lovely.
5) Apartment buildings. I love the tall residential buildings with sandstone color facades and white trim. French glass double-doors lead out to intricate wrought iron balconies. The roofs are a charcoal color and sloped like the top of a chateau. Incredibly beautiful.
1) Time spent eating. The French spend more time eating than any other people in the world – 2 hours a day. By comparison, Americans and Mexicans spend about half that. The French eat very slowly, just enough to appease their appetite. They do not inhale their food like the people of many other cultures do. For the French, meals are a time to socialize.
2) The little things. The French do the little things well. It’s the afternoon picnic with a baguette, cheese and a bottle of Bordeaux wine. It’s the high-quality wicker seating at the outdoor cafes. It’s the lovely ambience from their street lights. It’s the fluffiness of their croissants. It’s the flattering cut of their clothes or splash of color in their scarfs. Great detail goes into the smallest of things. This is why I believe the French have great taste.
3) French women. They’re created differently. As Helena Frith Powell writes about in her book, Two Lipsticks and a Lover, women in France look just as glamorous in a T-shirt and pair of jeans as in a sleek designer dress. They look sexy, chic and timelessly elegant from eighteen to eighty.
There are brains behind the beauty. French women are well-read. They make a point of being cultured – attending new exhibits at art galleries or going to the opera. They’re a tasteful blend of femininity and intelligence.
Johnny Depp left his wife for a French woman. Now I can see why.
4) Language. In 2006, Jacques Chirac walked out of a EU meeting because the French representative addressed the group of Europeans in English. This tells you all you need to know about the French. They are extremely proud of their language.
I was always addressed in French. The French person would switch to English as a last resort. At the end of the conversation, something funny would often happen. The person would try to speak French with me. Just to make sure that within the 2 minutes that had elapsed I had not miraculously learned to speak French.
I hate learning French. But, I love to listen to it.
1) Moulin Rouge. The circus meets a cabaret show. Gymnasts perform magnificent feats. Ladies with ballet figures do the can-can – often topless. It’s 3 hours of world-class entertainment. It should not to be missed.
2) Tasting wines. It could be argued that France is one giant vineyard. Nearly every region produces their own unique style of wine. In Bordeaux, we investigated their world-renowned blends. In Burgundy, we drank Ponit Noir. In Champagne, we drank the bubbly stuff.
Two interesting things we learned: A) French wine labels rarely list the grape varietal(s). Wine drinkers are expected to know. B) It was interesting when a cab driver listed the best vintages of the past decade: 2005, 2009 and 2010. Even common folk know their wine in France.
3) Outdoor cafes. French do cafes better than anyone else in the rest of the world. High-quality chairs are decorative and made of wicker. Seating is plentiful. Entire city blocks are lined with people sitting outside smoking a cigarette and sipping on an aperitif or espresso. It’s incredible.
4) Trains. They’re more expensive than buses and flights in Europe. But, it’s by far the best way to see France. There is something soothing about listening to the click-clack sound of a rolling train. I loved looking out my window watching the vineyards turn into mustard colored fields.
In France, it is easy to sneak into first class. We made it 80% of the time without getting caught.
5) D-day. I’ll never forget standing on the beach at Normandy. It was just like the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan. I pictured 18 – 25 year old men at 6:30 AM on June 6th 1944. They stood in straight lines in their landing craft as they approached the shore. Nearly all of them vomiting from the rough waters of the English Channel and their tense nerves before battle.
Once the front ramp dropped, intense machine gun fire started killing the lines of soldiers. The soldiers in the rear jumped over board. Many of them drowned from the weight of their 100 pound packs. The remaining young men sprinted for their lives. They ran the length of several football fields in soft sand. There were landmines and barb wire and unrelenting machine gun fire. 85% of the soldiers in the initial waves at Omaha Beach died that morning – over 2,500 in total.
The most powerful aspect of that day was learning the soldiers’ stories. The museum displays photos of many of the young men. They have the letters that were written to love ones before the historic battle. In their letters, they told mothers not to worry. They told their wives that they loved them. They apologized to their new-born babies that they never had the chance to meet.
Seeing the faces and reading the letters of the fallen soldiers is powerful. It’s enough to make any grown man cry. These men, younger than me, were so brave. They sacrificed their lives on a foreign soil – thousands of miles from home. They will forever be heros.
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