I spent last week on vacation in the countryside known for some of the best wines in all the world, outside of Bordeaux, France. International travel is such an eye-opening and rich cultural experience, I encourage anyone to do it sooner rather than later in one’s life, even if it’s not for very long or very far. Every culture has something to offer each of us.
There are also so many stereotypes and generalizations that get blown away whenever you have the opportunity to actually spend some time with another country’s people and immerse yourself in their ways. France is like that (at least outside of the big cities). You can’t just do things “your way” in France — you have to bow to their culture and traditions, because there’s very little alternative.
Take eating, for instance. They take eating very seriously and spend a great deal of their day (compared to most Americans) engaged in it. Lunch and dinner typically will run about 2 hours each, dinner sometimes even longer if you’re with a large group of friends or family. And that doesn’t even count preparation time, if you’re cooking at home. In comparison, my wife and I spend probably less than an hour a day eating. And when I say “eating,” it’s a bit of a misnomer, because obviously people aren’t stuffing their faces for 2 hours straight. Meals are slow, course-based, and meant to be enjoyed fully with plenty of conversation, great wine, and leisure. The French might say you shouldn’t rush the gastronomic process, and after having experienced their way of approaching it, I’d have to agree. They have elevated food and wine into an art form, and it was wonderful. (The biggest adjustment for this American was learning that there’s really no equivalent to taking things “to go” in your car — no food, no beverages; the French, in the country anyways, don’t eat or drink in their cars like we do here in the States.)
In fact, once you get outside of the big cities in France, you are transported to an entirely different world — one of another time. Their vast countryside is largely unspoiled from anything resembling a housing development and instead is dotted with charming old towns that have a clearly defined town center, connected by roadways that are in excellent condition. Speaking of the roadways, everything in the region we traveled was impeccably well-marked and obsessively consistent, right down to every tourist destination. On coming home, I began to pity any tourist looking for a popular tourist destination, or understanding which way to go when they come to an intersection.
France has a large cache of castles (called châteaux in French), some of which are in amazingly good condition for being hundreds of years old. They also have a surprising set of pre-historic sites, such as the cave at Lascaux which houses drawings thought to be at least 16,000 years old. Other places in the region house dwellings carved out of a mountainside where an ancient town that may have housed hundreds of people once existed. There’s even an amazing underground river (Gouffre at Padirac) that is such a spectacular experience to behold, I still think about the thousands of years those caverns took to carve out. In other words, there’s no lack of things to experience and behold in this area of France.
Some Americans have a serious misperception about the French and our own short history. Americans sometimes focus on what we did for the French by entering the European Theater in WWII and helping beat back the Nazis. Yet just 170 years earlier, without the French government’s help, it’s unlikely our own American Revolution would have been successful. Without the French, America as it exists today might never have been. So both countries have a lot to be both grateful and thankful for the other’s involvement. And as long as you make an effort with the French language, I didn’t encounter a single stereotypical “rude” person in France. They were the nicest, friendliest people I’ve met anywhere.
My trip really got me thinking about how two countries with such intertwined histories could be so very different nowadays. France has a lifestyle that is laid-back and seems to be more focused on enjoying life and the simple pleasures it holds (again, this is outside of the big cities, which seem to be just as hectic as any big city in the world). Yes, there’s work to be done, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a good meal with our friends and family and take a moment to just pause. (They take lunch so seriously, most shops in the countryside towns close for 2 hours during the lunchtime period.)
For this slower pace and, I believe, greater appreciation of the natural flow of life, I envy the French. We have so much in America — so many big cars and SUVs rushing on so many roads to buy even more stuff from Wal-Mart we may not really need to take back to our cookie cutter suburban homes. I’m deeply appreciative of the “American way” of life. But I’m also keenly aware of how much of our modern American society focuses a little too much on the materialistic, the individual achievement in work, the focus on always attaining more, bigger, better.
The French aren’t perfect, they have their own failings as well. It’s just seem like they’ve struck a certain balance with life and nature that is very different than our own. And while I wouldn’t say it’s “better” than our own, it did speak to me on a level other cultures haven’t always reached for me. It also made me re-examine my own life and try and re-prioritize certain things, perhaps finding a balance of my own making that sits better in my soul.
Slow down. Relax. Enjoy your meal. 🙂