After a ten hour red-eye flight from Salt Lake City, we arrived in Paris in the middle of the day. Getting through customs and walking through a packed airport during the Christmas holidays can be overwhelming, but a packed airport where few speak English is even more overwhelming. You learn quickly that Sortie means exit and you look for that international symbol for luggage which is a drawing of a bag. The lack of sleep and the huge crowds gave way to the welcome sight of our daughter jumping up and down and waving to get our attention outside the luggage gate. Suddenly, the feeling of being helpless gave way to the joy of knowing we were now in very good hands.
After being dropped off, we settled into a beautiful flat belonging to a friend who had just moved to the South of France. Located on a hillside in the Montmartre district of Paris, the flat had a view of the iconic Eiffel tower, but even great views couldn’t keep us from the best nap ever. We awoke to a loud knock on the door and were met by the young driver of a convertible, red, 1950’s Citroen 2CV, lovingly called a sardine can in the U.S. because the convertible top opens like one. After packing us into the back seat, he covered us with a blanket and handed us a champagne bottle and two glasses. We drove off down the cobblestone street to tour Paris, the city of lights, by night. What a beautiful city, and dressed up everywhere in blue and white Christmas lights!
As different as Paris is, with some structures over 2000 years old, cobblestone streets, and chateaus that housed kings, we couldn’t help but notice how similar our world has become. We listened to Adele’s “Hello” playing on the radio, drove past McDonalds & Starbucks on the corners, and saw crowds lining up for the opening of the new Star Wars movie. What was different was the focus on food, very important in Paris and in all of France. Outside, cafés line the streets with their chairs facing forward for maximum people watching. Apartments are small so the Parisians meet their friends at cafés and have a leisurely coffee or meal and, of course, some famous and quite inexpensive French wine.
Parisians speak quietly and almost whisper as they visit with one another. Many of us think Parisians are rude but in reality they think we and the English are rude as we are so loud and they find our boisterous voices offensive in cafés. After all, these cafés are their living rooms where they bring their children and dogs with them. Nevertheless, food is a focus and we found ourselves living in Paris and gathering our food as they do. The sun didn’t rise until 8:45 am when we would walk down the cobblestone street to the bakery and buy our daily baguette, which by French law is always “One Euro” (at the moment, about one U.S. dollar). We would then walk to the butcher and get our meat, then to the cheese store to buy our cheese, then finally to the small market to buy produce and dry goods.
Our flat was actually for sale with a price tag of 1.5 million euros. At first that seems so expensive, compared to Southern Oregon, but this was a huge, two-story flat with a street level entry, off a cute cobblestone alley, in the most expensive district in Paris. In San Francisco the price of this flat would be well over $3 or $4 million dollars. One day, in our quest for food, we ran into a Century 21 office and then an ERA real estate office; we couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to sell real estate in Paris, and were surprised to see many small flats for sale for $200,000…hmm, should we have a flat in Paris?
After more than a week in Paris, we left in a rented Citroen headed for the South of France to meet and stay with our daughter’s French in-laws and to be their guest for Christmas dinner. We drove all night and arrived at their farm that had been in their family for over 400 years. One of the original homes on the property had been built to house the horses, cows and farm animals under the house; the heat from the animals helped keep the house warm in the winters. Our daughter’s in-laws were so happy to meet us and such gracious hosts. Conversations were limited as we spoke no French and they spoke no English, but we smiled a lot and we could tell we had a common bond. On Christmas day we woke to find the dining/living room set up to hold 25 people for Christmas dinner and to the news that we would be joined by all of the relatives at noon.
Gayle and I stood next to each other and greeted the family one at time with a kiss on each cheek. We would first speak one of the few words we knew in French, “bonjour,” and they would respond with one or two words they knew in English, “Hello,” then we would smile and laugh. At one point I looked over and there was a line of young children lining up in front of Gayle. I whispered to her “you are supposed to lean down and kiss them on each cheek so they can go play.” Thankfully, I was seated with a relative who taught English. She was happy to practice and I was happy to have an interpreter. The meal was four hours long and it was similar to a Thanksgiving feast in the U.S. We started with raw oysters, prawns with the heads on, fresh bread and, my favorite, homemade Foie Gras. Then the main course arrived of two ducks complete with heads, and lots and lots of side dishes. We then were served a salad and many types of goat cheese and finally, three dessert rolls each with a different filling. The fresh bread and the local wine were replenished as fast as they could be consumed.
We left our gracious hosts and set off in our Citroen with our daughter and son-in law to explore the French countryside. Along the way we saw dozens of towns, some dating back to the 5th century, built on the tops of hillsides and mountaintops, fortified to protect against marauders. All of them were topped by a castle (Chateau) and complete with an ornate Catholic church. Our favorite was the walled city of Carcassonne, where we stayed in a Best Western inside the castle walls. We found all of these cities, chateaus and castles fascinating and so old with so much history.
The New Year came and we were back in Southern Oregon. The distinctive sound of French women walking in high heels on cobblestone streets, the smell of the bakeries, the taste of duck and the vision of cafés lining the streets are still with us! We are glad to have had the experience but then again glad to be home in our small town, sipping our local wines and viewing our snowcapped mountains. Now where should we plan to go next?
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