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Saturday, March 17, 2012

France


I'm back from France. And really, really mentally tired. It was a fantastic vacation, don't get me wrong, but I always find it harder to adjust back mentally than physically. As much as I enjoyed Paris, it's a very, very different pace and world than Yellowknife. It's just a bit difficult to reconcile these different lives.

With that in mind, I don't have the energy to write a long and detailed post. To be honest, I'm forcing myself to write now just so that I can get back some sort of routine.

Day one in France was probably our coldest day there. We didn't care too much, coming off a cold snap with dips down below -30 in Yellowknife, and just too excited to finally be in France. We started with the most obvious: the Eiffel Tower. From the bottom, it was sort of surreal for me. It didn't seem like it was the Eiffel Tower that I'd seen in countless movies and TV shows. We could see it from almost anywhere we went in the city, but in person and up close, it didn't quite seem to be quite so large. Then we rode to the top and suffered the even more intense wind and cold, now with sleet, but the view finally made it sink in that this was indeed the iconic landmark. At the bottom again, it seemed to have grown into itself. We squeezed in a Seine river cruise after that, but after traveling so far the kids and I fell asleep. That was enough for one day.



On day two we took a train out of the city to visit the battlefields of Beaumont Hamel and Vimy, where the Newfoundlanders and Canadians respectively fought during World War One. At Beaumont Hamel I actually ran into some former students of mine who were there on a school trip. The weather had improved just slightly from the first day, but like the overcast and rainy day we spent at Hiroshima a couple years back, it fit the mood. Earlier this year I remarked that it was difficult for me to connect to World War stories and that I felt unpatriotically guilty for it. I found the cure. Read Pierre Berton's Vimy on the way to France, then visit the memorials and trenches where so many lost their lives, and I can guarantee that Remembrance Day will not be the same ever again.

On day three we continued our battlefields tour, this time focusing on WWII and the beaches of Juno. It was a very different war as our guide helped demonstrate by bringing along actual photos and showing us the location and still present artifacts. I've always sort of lumped the two wars together in my head. (Ashamedly, until this trip, I couldn't have told you whether the Juno beach invasion was WWI or WWII). But seeing how documented the second World War was compared to the first really seemed to make the latter a much more modern war.

I thought we were all warred out at that after that, but as we were to learn for the rest of our trip, France has a long history of invasions and fighting and it was hard to escape. On day four (renting a car and enjoying the roundabouts at this point), we explored a bit more of Bayeux, the highlight of which was Bayeux tapestry. If you've never heard of it, it's quite an incredible piece of art dating back to almost a thousand years ago. The embroidery is over 68 meters long and fifty scenes depict the vents leading up to the Norman conquest of England. (See, more war stuff). The museum was hailing it as the first graphic novel and it seems like a pretty apt description to me. Needless to say, I was enthralled.

On day five we headed out to visit Mont St. Michel. This large island and monastery atop it is quite a popular tourist attraction, based mostly on the impressive mark it makes on the skyline. However, I'd have to say it loses most of its charm up close. Signs warning of the pickpockets certainly don't help set a tourist at ease, but the legal money-gouging seems almost as criminal. A barrage of stores selling overpriced trinkets is not what one has in mind when visiting a monastery. How the monks can feel closer to God in this environment is beyond me. It must take a rare discipline. Though a visit to the so-bad-it-might-just-be-good Archeoscope, a bizarre production that looks as if it may have been cutting edge in 1981 will certainly not soon be forgotten.

On day six we headed out to Camaret-Sur-Mer in the Brittany region, to visit a small point called Pointe du Toulinguet. I'm from a small town in Newfoundland called Twillingate, so named for its resemblance to this area, so I had to see for myself. The cliffs themselves bore an uncanny similarity. Yet the tide in Toulinguet went much further out, leaving a couple hundred feet of soft sand on which people were horseback riding and collecting shellfish. Twillingate is beautiful, and Toulinguet, I hate to say it, even more so. I think I might have found my retirement home. Though I might be sold on the town for another reason. While walking on the beach there, I found an odd looking device on the beach, somewhat looking like a microphone. I picked it up and there was a contact number for the U.S.. I called it and it turned out to be a wildlife tag that had been attached to a bluefin tuna off the coast of Morocco by a group of researchers from Spain. To make it even better? It came with a reward of 300 Euros upon its return. Did you ever see the movie Seducing Doctor Lewis about a small town in Quebec that does it everything it can to convince a doctor to stay there? One man had the idea to always leave $5 bills on the ground for the doctor to find. Everyone's happy to find money, he says, and when one has happy connotations with a place they are more likely to want to stay.


The next day we drove out to the Loire region, to sleep in a castle. It was off season, so we were the only ones there that night. Even the owners were sleeping in a separate cottage next door. We kind of hoped it'd be haunted but we didn't hear even as much as a creak that night.

Then on day 8 we returned the rental car. We were heading back to Paris and there was no way we were going to drive there. Montreal gets a bad rap in Canada for their crazy drivers. I think Parisians would find Montreal streets relaxing. Besides, the subway system was easy to follow and far less crowded or busy than in London or Tokyo. We spent our last few days in Paris, taking in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and Disneyland (for the kids, of course.) A few thoughts on each:
1. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is stunning, and quite a workout climbing the stairs to the top. Totally worth it though to see the view and the gargoyles. In the church itself there was a mass going on and tourists were snapping pictures of worshippers, sectioned off by some velvet ropes. I had similar feelings about that as I had about Mont St. Michel above. Couldn't they close it to tourists during such times? I started reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables on the trip in anticipation of visiting the sewers and/or catacombs, which were unfortunately closed on the day we had slotted it in. In hindsight, maybe I should have read The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
2. The Louvre was very, very big. We saw but a very small portion and due to time restraints, focused most of our energies on the cliche ones: the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. Of course, simply getting to them you see a lot of art on the way so it's still worth it. I think what I liked most about the Mona Lisa was seeing the huge painting on the facing wall, the Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese. It not so much that I was taken with the artistry or subject matter, just the contrast. The Wedding Feast at Cana is so huge and so busy, with so many people. The Mona Lisa is so small and quiet in comparison, yet an individual who can own a wall all to herself.


3. The Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Yeah, so again, we did the predictable Jim Morrison thing. I'm not a huge Doors fan or anything, but like seeing other art on the way to Mona Lisa, that was sort of the idea here as well. What would we see on the way to Pere Lachaise? What would the cemetery itself be like? What other notable graves would we see? Unfortunately we arrived late and the cemetery was closing soon after we got there. We saw Morrison's litter and graffiti covered grave and that was it. Sorry Balzac and Wilde, we'll catch you next time.

4. Disneyland. It's funny, we've never taken the kids to either of the Disney attractions in California or Florida, yet they've now gone to Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disney. This one had a Star Wars attraction which I don't recall having been in Tokyo, so my son was beside himself. We also caught an old Michael Jackson attraction from the 80s, brought back since his death. Unlike the Mont St. Michel Archeoscope, it was just bad enough to not be good bad. I was also disappointed that they didn't highlight the Disney movies set in France. There was no reference to the Hunchback at all and we could find but a single stuffed toy of the rat from Ratatouille. As most of us at the park appeared to be foreign tourists, I think they lost an opportunity there. Still, it was a fun day overall. And speaking of big business capitalism, I'm about to say something I'm sure many of the French would say is blasphemous. One of the best meals I had in France was at MacDonald's. There, I said it. Perhaps we were just not hitting the right places, but the pastries we had in France were no better than can be found easily in Canada, and I swear that on most menus we saw were nothing but variations on a ham and cheese sandwich. At MacDonald's they had limited edition burgers made with baguettes and topped with local cheeses, and the Saint Nectaire was delicious. So there. And don't get me started on the coffee situation in France. Yes, they made delicious coffee. I can't fault that. But I can fault the sizes. The largest we could find (we didn't go to Starbucks) was still smaller than a small at Tim Hortons. I'm not exaggerating. And it was only at MacDonald's that we could find coffee to go, which is what got us in there in the first place.

As for the language barrier, I have to say there really wasn't much of one. As long as we tried, people generally understood and were friendly and helpful-- going totally against the whole unfortunate stereotype of being rude. Our kids got a lot of compliments on their french abilities, which makes me feel really good about their french immersion education.

So much for the short post. It's actually been good to help me collect my thoughts. But now I'm off to catch some zzz's. Sorry if it's rife with typos. I really just spent more energy than I thought I had left. Don't ask me to edit right now.

11 comments:

Chrisbookarama said...

Welcome back! Sounds like a fabulous trip. My daughter would be green with envy. She's only interested in Paris though.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It sounds like an amazing trip! I love the tale of your beach find; I too would take that as a sign.

Welcome home!

Allison said...

Sounds like a wonderful trip! I really enjoyed this post, as I'm heading to Paris in June. We just booked everything this week. :)

I am most looking forward to the gargoyles.

Kate said...

Thank you for this post - it brought back memories of my whirlwind weekend trip to Paris last summer. I didn't climb Notre Dame but did sit behind the velvet ropes, not for a worship service but for a pipe organ recital. It was quite a bizarre feeling to be attending a musical event in the middle of a tourist attraction with hoards of people walking around snapping pictures. I spent most of the time with my eyes closed focusing on the music...
And not being a coffee drinker, I was OK with the tiny cup size (cafe au lait in my case!). And every pastry I had was delicious!

John Mutford said...

Chris: I enjoyed Paris, but I enjoyed out of Paris more.

Barbara: Lesson learned here? If you see something weird on the beach, you should always pick it up.

Allison: Have you been there before?

Kate: Not that we had any repulsive pastries, we just didn't find any mind-blowing ones. Maybe we had them built up too much.

Medea said...

That was quite the lengthy post you didn't have the energy to write!

I had been wondering if you did read Vimy before visiting Vimy Ridge. The book left quite an impression on me when I read it last year. Mostly that I am so thankful that I was born in an era where I won't have to watch my kids go off to fight.

Glad you had a good trip! Too bad about the food. To be honest, the best food I had in France (besides the hunks of cheese completely unavailable in Japan) were the ethnic foods, mostly North African.

Teddy Rose said...

Wow, it sounds like an amazing trip. That's so funny that your best meal was McDonalds. Bill and I would probably have to fast the entire trip. I've heard finding vegan fare their is tough.

I hope you are feeling more recoveded now!

John Mutford said...

Medea: It was your recommendation that sold me on Vimy, so thank-you for that!

Teddy: Tough, but in Paris probably not as difficult as outside the capital.

raidergirl3 said...

What a wonderful trip! You do some great travelling with your family.
Love the moose on the hill.

As I read the post, I was thinking of all the books that relate to what you saw. In particular, The Lady and the Unicorn, which is about tapestry makers. Maybe not the Bayeaux, but similar idea.

Also, Waiting for Gertrude which is set in that cemetary and written by Bill Richardson. It's pretty cool.

John Mutford said...

Raidergirl: Caribou actually-- the memorial for the Newfoundland regiment.

I planned on reading that Bill Richardson book. I was convinced we had it on our shelves but then, a couple days before traveling, I went to find it and couldn't. Someone must have borrowed it.

Allison said...

No, I haven't. We're staying for a week in Paris and then I'm off to London for a couple day and then to Berlin. Should be a good two weeks.

Booked at flat in district 3 in Paris. Can't wait!