This is not a post about second life or about fashion or identity. But then again, in a round about way it might be. This is a post about travels to another place, to the sense of presence that place conveys along with my own sense of presence within it, to a place that may seem like an entirely different world in some ways but in other ways not at all. Contained in this post (what began as brief and has become increasingly lengthy) are things I noticed while I travelled in France last week. There’s nothing earthshattering in this post. It simply serves its primary purpose of capturing my observations about the travels because keeping a diary of travels near and far, inner and outer is as worthwhile a thing to do as attempting to capture it in pictures.
In fact, usually I don’t take pictures when I travel (although I did this time on a disposable camera…one day soon I’ll have to buy a digital camera). I tend to think there are two ways to travel: to go with the flow and be fully immersed in every moment, holding no expectations other than the surprise of what passes into the senses; or taking photos of images as if the act alone somehow will capture the spirit and soul of the place and make it a tangible “thing” that you can call all your own.
Immersion (being/doing) and observation (photo taking) both probably have as their goal this: to capture the spirit and soul, to lift it up and apply it directly. On this travel to France, I attempted a bit of both, probably weighed more heavily to the go-with-the-flow side of the equation. And so the little bit of French soul that I like to think I managed to bring back with me follows in the rest of this entry.
The French love food, in a way that transcends indulgence. They grow it masterfully. They prepare and cook it beautifully. They eat their meals quite a bit later in the day than those of us in the New World. “New World” was a surprising phrase that I heard several times. There was something odd, amusing, and profound in realizing that the Americas are viewed as mere children (“newbs” in SL speak) when looked upon through the adult eyes of Europe. But even by European standards, France is fairly young. Maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of a rowdy teenager on the brink of 20 years old whose energy ratchets up as the hours march through the day. And like that energetic teenager, you can count on France to sleep in late…except if you’re there for business, then the alarm clock sounds just as early in France as it does in the US. But the only other folk up at dawn in Bordeaux are the cafe owners, the bread makers pulling out the table and chairs to balance on the cobbled streets that roll along the earth’s natural slope. (The smell of french bread as it is baking is a language all its own. Yes, that scent speaks to you.) As you stroll these narrow streets that stretch themselves out in long paths across the city, you’ll occasionally find here and there among the shops, between the cafes a lone native who has risen mysteriously early and pulled up a chair, a cigarette, a leather jacket, and the ever beloved cup of espresso. The lone native meets the day with a squint that darts through strands of tossled hair and flicks between the young sun’s rays and the ink on the newspaper. (Yes, newspaper.) Some natural rhythym of the morning orchestrates the movements of puffing rolled tobacco with sipping espresso. (Those little teeny cups, packed with eletricity disguised as French coffee. By comparison, Starbucks’ strongest blend tastes like water.) Somewhere in the midst of this quiet dance, the newspaper pages turn, the morning breeze grows more crisp despite the rising sun and urges you forward along the long path to somewhere, to anywhere along the many narrow roads that are balanced on each side by limestone buildings beautifully adorned with cascading flowers, patio railings, engravings of words and shapes and faces of cherubs or sentinels that keep watch over the area.
Walking on France’s cobbled streets is somewhat of an artform, just as the streets themselves are. They are at once somehow perfectly symmetrical in pattern (where there is a pattern, usually intertwined half circles) despite the softly rolling ground upon which the bricks rest. The ground isn’t artificially leveled. Instead, those in Bordeaux go with the flow of nature. Following the earth’s curvature in this way causes the cobbled stoned ground to rise and fall to meet you with each step. Walking in Bordeaux challenges the tiny sets of muscles around the ankles and knees, the larger sets of muscles in the calves and thighs. Each step brings change at every point: a slight elevation on the outside of the foot, a slight dip at the toe, a slight roll through the arch and heel. The well-heeled look straight ahead as they walk…”well-heeled” not in terms of status but more in terms of their body’s mastery over unpredictable yet ever present changes in the ground on which they walk. Their bodies don’t need their eyes to see where the ground shifts despite the fact that the ground constantly shifts. Even without seeing, somehow they sense the way of the earth as it slumbers unevenly beneathe their feet. Somehow they glide with it, entirely in the flow of it…even as they enter upscale boutiques and intoxicating chocolate shoppes. Bordeaux is at once so incredibly open and natural while also so incredibly upscale and refined…but not so refined as to avoid a sort of uniform in dress that is reflected in the collective consciousness of France from Bordeaux, Lille, to Paris. In Bordeaux, women tend to wear their hair mussed and lightly tossled, a sort of sexy bed-head look; men tend to wear their hair long to the shoulders and finger-combed back off of the face. In Paris, women tend to wear their hair cropped very short or groomed fairly straight and long; men tend to favor a near buzz cut. But in terms of fashion, the collective attire varies far less and is also far less haute couture, instead far more jeans and sneakers. Black and grey, the hues of choice. At times you pinch yourself, believing you’re still in the US based solely on the endless sea of jeans and sneakers. But then your eye moves up and you see the ubiquitous scarf, thrown carelessly about the neck. The less deliberate and more disshelved a scarf lay around the neck, the better. Scarves do not drape about the neck in tidy symmetrical throws. No, instead scarfs mimmick the stoned walkways, rolling here and there without a care and without prediction. Defying comformity. Proclaiming identity. Viva La Difference!
The most stark departure from this was on the very hip, very thin young ladies, a smattering of whom wore what at first glance looked to be ankle-length skirts, but at second glance turned out to be full-length skirts that were hemmed into pant legs just a touch above the ankles. Carnival slacks? Maybe, but transformed into high fashion by the tightly cropped hairstyles, tightly fitted leather jackets, and tightly laced mid-heel ankle boots that are no doubt made very much for walking as they are for style. Which is a very good thing since the French walk everywhere. They step into their legs quite a bit. This might very well be the reason why they appear to be universally thin…certainly, their food is anything but light but so incredibly fresh, each and every course — duck, sirloin, caviar, some kind of sushi, all with the ubiquitous grains, vegetables, and of course french bread — that you would swear the ingredients had been hand-picked from the fields that very day. Dinner never begins before 8:00 p.m., with not a lick of food offered by most restraurants and bars until that time; and most seats and tables filled up with people and laidened down with plates of food by 8:30 p.m. Then the natural rhythym of what usually is a three-hour meal takes over. Each meal is a study in the polite arrival of several courses, multiple glasses of wine from the various regions and chateaus, and after the several courses, followed by a smaller dessert to clear the palate on the heels of a larger dessert (my favorite, fresh strawberry soup…much less a “soup,” much more a glazey sauce). No meal is complete without the abundant seasoning of gentle humor and cordial but firmly-opinionated political debates, polite explorations of society and culture, amused and appropriately respectful dialogue of identity both separate and distinct as well as that shared across the human experience. France is increasingly a melting pot, after all, with people, influences and cultural expressions from all over Europe and Africa. Perhaps this is most evident in Lille, where even the buildings mirror the vast mixture of persons, sensibilities and ideas. Within a half mile radius the architectural design moves from the Dutch influence, to the influences of Spain, Belgium and at last France with its signature limestone facade and monumental religious statues.
On what was a 6 day business trip (two days of flights, 8 total days travelling) to France with visits to Bordeaux, Lille, and Paris, I soaked in the experience as much as I could and managed two days of touring: a full day wine tour and tasting in Saint Emilion Chateau, preceded by a several hour walk through various Bordeaux neighborhoods and a wonderfully informative hour long wine museum tour in actual and very old wine cellars (complete with another wine tasting); and a whirlwind tour of Paris in 1 Day with a Metro (subway or tram if you will) ride to the Eiffel Tower (mindboggling amazing and huge when seen in person), a walk through Notre Dame Cathedral (more impressive than words can convey), a tour through the quarters of the Louvre (beyond impressive even in the quarters alone, which are more like fortresses built with French and Italian influences, respectively, let alone the actual art museum), a riverboat tour on the Seine River, a visit to Paris’s La Defense region where modern skyscrapers rise up in stark contrast to the old worldliness of historic Paris, a friendly greeting from a bar owner who described one of his sandwiches as “the ‘fuckin’ sheet’ (shit) of a sandwich!” (which was supposed to mean it was a helluva good sandwich!) and whose Bordeaux dog (strongly resembling the Mastiff breed in look and in size) roamed through the bar at its leisure as all dogs in Bordeaux are free to do in any establishment and on any sidewalk (the Bordeaux french love their dogs for certain), a less than friendly greeting from a dive bar owner in Paris who looked to be more of Eastern European origins but who took offense at descriptions of wine as “full bodied” or “dry” decrying those descriptions as purely American ways of speaking and not at all proper ways to describe wines in France (the odd/humorous thing was he did some strange little dance of aggitation with hands flailing about as he expressed his upset), an art gallery opening (that I admit I crashed) of an artist whose conveyed American Indian history through an almost comic-like approach to drawing and painting with red the dominant color and the gallery opening complete with champagne and a roving professional photographer who stalked what must have been a Parisian celebrity dressed in leopard skin ankle boots and jacket offsetting her otherwise black skirt and shirt and with her black hair severely pulled back and large black cat eye eyeliner drawn on her eyelids (she was appropriately contrary by mugging for the camera, looking simultaneously bored and bothered), and a wonderful cocktail gathering of work colleagues in one of the French work colleague’s home in Bordeaux which turned out to be the entire fourth floor of what had been a hotel, with ornate wordwork on the 12-14 foot ceillings in each room and 10-11″ doors and doorways, two strikes (a student strike blocking the trams, a strike of what I don’t know and some other organized protest of older workers again of what I don’t know but Viva La Revolution!), and speed train rides from Paris to Lille and back again from Lille to Paris (total roundtrip two hours by bullet train ride when a car ride might have taken 4-6 hours) with sights of the French countryside (all built on marshes) along the way.
But truly all along the way, every step of it, I thought about and carried with me all that is truly home to me, truly home for me, truly home forever in me. And I smiled so widely and deeply with each step knowing that all that matters to me was with me in each step, as it always is, and always will be in me with each step. Effortlessly. Perfectly naturally and rightly so. Everywhere. Always. In all worlds. In all places. In all forms.
(I took this picture on my first day back home and it does not represent all that matters to me, I include it because I like the lighting. I admit I like the dress. And jeans and sneakers or no jeans and sneakers, in a post about France, one must include a little bit of fashion, yes?)