Today is our fifth day in France and we are slowing down a bit so thought it might be a good day for a blog post. To give a general sense of our itinerary – we arrived at Charles de Gaulle on the morning of Thursday, April 5th, spent the next four days in Paris, and have spent most of today (the 9th) driving towards Barcelona.
So first, Paris. We purposely rented a private room in a Parisian couple’s apartment about 20 minutes (by Metro) outside the center of the city so that we could get a sense of how “regular” French people live. And we have definitely enjoyed experiences like eating at several neighborhood pubs where we were the only foreigners and having breakfast with our hosts and comparing differences between American and French culture.
The biggest thing that sticks out to me (Cynthia) is how common the human experience is, at least in the Western world. When I came to Paris nearly 20 years ago, everything seemed different and exotic and romantic. This time, I have found myself noticing things that are very much a part of life in the States – grandparents spending time with their grandkids, teachers and students on a field trip to a museum, long haul truckers taking a break at a rest stop, broken down cars in yards in rural areas, people zoning out on their phones on public transit, construction workers on a job site, etc. In addition to these common human experiences, the advance of globalization has no doubt changed the world in the last 20 years – the first thing to greet us when we stepped off the plane in Paris was a Starbucks!
But, there are also plenty of cultural differences, many of which we have come to (or continued to) appreciate. The biggest one is the balance that the French seem to have struck between work and play. As our host, Rob, put it this morning, “In France we are not defined by our work. It is not the way we introduce ourselves, it is a way to bring home a salary.” To be clear, he is an entrepreneur, about to enter a start up competition, so he’s not lazy or unmotivated by any means. But the whole system supports a healthier balance between work and “life.” (Five weeks of paid vacation, minimum!) It is difficult to find a to-go cup anywhere besides rest stops – the expectation is that you sit and enjoy your cup of coffee rather than grabbing it on the run.
The other is the simpler and less consumptive lifestyle. We noticed that our hosts’ kitchen had about one-quarter of the utensils and kitchen tools that ours does and although the towels we were given were totally functional, we probably would have used them as rags by now. Obviously, one’s stage in life and varying needs explain some of this but it did make us rethink how much we need. And speaking of that cup of coffee (from the last paragraph), Starbucks is about the only place where you can find a “grande,” much less a “venti” drink here. How much coffee does one need, really, if she is living a more balanced life?
For those of you more interested in our itinerary, we spent Thursday walking around the Marais district. Friday, we bought a Museum Pass and visited the Louvre, the d’Orsay, the Arch de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower. (One example of how much our world has changed – my last Paris trip, my mom got her first email address so that she could read the email updates my sister and I sent periodically when we could find an internet cafe. This time, we Facetimed with our girls while the light show was going on at the Eiffel Tower so that they could experience it with us!) On Saturday, we visited Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Rodin Museum and the Hospital de Invalides, which houses museums devoted to World War I and II, the Resistance Movement during WWII, and Napoleon’s Tomb, among other things. On Sunday, we went to mass at Sainte Sulpice, where we also enjoyed the amazing pipe organ, and then headed up to the Montmarte District, where we walked through the Sacre-Coure and took in the view from the highest point in Paris. Of course, sprinkled among all of these destinations have been many stops for cafe sidewalk sitting and wandering through neighborhoods. We have averaged 20,000 steps a day and suffice it to say, my feet were happy for the break today!
Currently we are at a bed and breakfast in the tiny medieval village of Saint Justin – about 120 people currently live here. We’ve just enjoyed a nice chat with Bruce and Jenny Lawson, our very British hosts, who have been here for 25 years and have made France their home. He was a high-ranking officer in the British army and was a diplomatic attache for the last years of his career so they have lived all over the world. It was a treat to hear their perspective on European and North American politics and share our own views!
Tomorrow morning we will continue on to Barcelona and hope to write another update there! (P.S. Pictures to be added later.)