“Sitting there, alone in a foreign country, far from my job and everyone I know, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d forgotten or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. Yes, alive. That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me.” – from the final vignette of Paris Je T’Aime
Before I left for my trip, I watched several movies set in France. My top two recommendations are Midnight in Paris and The Hundred Foot Journey. However, the one that has stuck with me is Paris, je t’aime. It consists of 18 short vignettes, each set in a different Paris arrondissement (neighborhood) and each done by separate directors and casts. It is, of course, uneven but the final vignette from which the above quote comes is remarkable. The vignette can be viewed here:
Home now and recovering from jetlag. Actually, both the flight back and the time zone adjustment have gone pretty easy. I must say that British Airways does a very good job and I love the big Airbus A380s, even in coach!
I’ve been thinking about how to sum up my impressions of France and am finding it difficult, so instead of trying to offer some grand, sweeping conclusions, I will simply offer a few impressions in no particular order:
- Paris is, of course, spectacular. As I explored both the big sights and the small neighborhoods, I kept thinking that this place actually lives up to its image. Almost like it was designed and built by Walt Disney.
- Toulouse and the other parts of Southern France that I saw are delightful in their own way. An interesting mixture of deep history and tradition without the glamor and glitz of Paris but still somehow with all of its grace and class.
- Let me dispense with two misconceptions … French people are rude and snobby if you don’t speak their language and French people don’t like Americans. In 11 days there, I saw and experienced zero evidence to support either of these stereotypes.
- Another stereotype regards French waiters and how they are slow and inattentive. This one is somewhat more accurate. :). However, it took me some time (and some reading of guidebooks) to sort of appreciate it. I think it is related to their whole mindset that a meal in a French restaurant is not to be rushed, but rather to be savored. One of my brothers gave me the single best piece of advice – don’t order a glass of wine, order a half carafe, that way you won’t have to wonder how long it will be until you can order your second! It is true that if you don’t ask for your bill that you will NEVER get it. However, as was explained to me, if a French waiter were to give you a check without you having asking for it, it would be like they were telling you to leave, and they would never be so rude as to do that.
- I find it fascinating how life seems to revolve around the cafes. Lunches go for at least two hours and dinners generally run four. Everywhere I looked in the cafes, people seemed to be engaged in intense conversation.
- French people, and Parisians in particular, have a reputation of being cold and aloof. It is true that on the street you almost never have anyone make eye contact or smile. However, I had many interactions where once contact was made, the people were every bit as warm and friendly as anywhere else that I know.
- The French seem to delight in living a slower paced life and savoring the small things. I may be reflecting popular stereotypes, but I really got that impression from observing and talking with them. It can be frustrating for an American like me who is somewhat obsessed with productivity and not wasting time, but I find their lingering over meals or conversations or walking or whatever they are engaged in to be attractive. Very different from the American and Asian cities that I am familiar with!
Almost ready to go on a very nice and huge British Airways A380 double-decker.
11 hour flight home. At least I’ve got some great legroom for coach.
It’s 10:30AM here in London and my connecting flight to LA doesn’t leave for six hours. Getting some breakfast now and catching up with blogging on my activities yesterday in Toulouse. I spent my final day hitting the major tourist sites in the city prior to dinner and the Bastille day fireworks. I actually visited five separate sites:
- Capitole de Toulouse
- Notre-Dame du Taur
- St. Sernin Basilica
- Musee Saint-Raymond – Musee des Antiques de Toulouse
- Musee des Augustins
Toulouse has a rich history going back to the Roman days. In the time of Roman rule, it became a prominent city and, during the reign of Augusts, walls were built around the City. Tbe city’s location at the meeting point of the Garonne Reiner and the newly built Via Aquitaine made it an important location. The city walls were unnecessary during the Pax Romana, but were built as favors of the Roman emperors to indicate a city’s status.
Toulouse is in the middle of a major initiative to restore its historical sites as described in the sign I photographed below. When the project is completed, it should be a very impressive attraction!
At the Toulouse airport starting my long journey home. Including my six-hour layover in London, it’ll probably be about 24 hours door to door. I’ve got my iPad loaded with all of the Sherlock episodes for binge watching.
Or, as they call it here, la Fête nationale!
Having dinner at another outdoor cafe on the Capitole Plaza and then I’m going to head down to the river later for the big Bastille Day fireworks celebration.
It seems like there are open-air cafes everywhere in France. In a large open area, there will be several different cafes running into each other one after another. There appear to be no reservations and people just walk by and sit at any open table and then linger for hours. It seems like a wonderful way to build and enjoy a sense of community. Am I wrong, or do these not really exist in the US? And why not? Is it a cultural thing or just an artifact of US urban design and zoning?
I had big plans to do some significant bicycle touring here in southern France. As the map below shows, there is a series of canals that were mostly built around 200 years ago to connect the Mediterranean with the Atlantic so that there would be a trade route that didn’t require making the dangerous trip through the Strait of Gilbraltar and around Spain. The canal tow paths now form a popular 6-day tour from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean that I would like to take some day.
I had plans to do two full-day rides of 50-70 miles per day along this canal path by taking a bike on the train one way and riding back to Toulouse. Really, I did. I even bought a book and brought my bike shoes and clothes. 🙂
However, between web research and visiting some bicycle shops in the city, I could not find any easy way to rent a real road bike. My choices came down to mountain bikes or “city bikes” – big heavy bikes with fat tires. Clearly, I’m not going to do 50 miles on one of those!!
So, today I rented one of those city bikes and set out to explore the area. I headed southwest on the Canal du Midi. It is a great trail for riding – paved, separated from auto traffic, pretty smooth, shaded, nice views, and, most importantly, flat! 🙂
I rode on the canal path for a while and then I was getting hungry, so I used my trusty iPhone GPS to find a quaint local place for lunch. 🙂
After that, I circled back through the city to the river and worked my way back to the bike rental shop near my hotel.
I am staying here in Toulouse at this highly-rated hotel across the canal from the train station here in Toulouse. It is a very nice, modern hotel. After my experience at the traditional, small Hotel Del Jobo in Paris, this hotel is jarring in its ultra-modern style
My new friend David. I’ve chatted with him each evening and he’s started giving me free glasses of wine at closing time (midnight). 🙂
Toulouse is clearly a business hotel. Toulouse is the home of the AirBus headquarters and every evening, the restaurant and bar are filled with American businessmen here to meet with AirBus. Their loud and brash style are a little annoying and a little embarrassing as I’m sure that I acted similarly when I was on international business trips when I was younger.
I made something of a mistake in choosing this hotel instead of one of the smaller hotels closer to the old town area, but it’s actually not that bad. It’s only about a 10-minute walk to old town an I have a very short walk to the train station and the bike rental store by the canal (where I plan to head tomorrow).