September 27, 2008

Pretend I’m still in France…

Filed under: France — sensel @ 8:49 am

…where even when I could find 10 minutes of internet access, I had to use a French keyboard. I thought keyboards were universal. Non, madame. So even the VERY few messages I got out looked like this, almost in code:

Qnd I?m hqvinb q greqt ti,e>

But Le Puy and the Aurvergne and the Aubrac “mountains” were spectacular. They don’t look like anywhere I’ve been, and every day, almost, the landscapes were different. One day I was in “kinda like Northern California if there were more leafy trees and much smaller farms and castles instead of cars.” The next day I was in “kinda like Northern Idaho except not so rugged and the pine woods are more open and smaller.” A third day was “kinda like Walla Walla must have looked 150 years ago, but with stone houses.”


Le Puy, where the Chemin de St. Jacques started, at dawn. Big statue of Mary and St. James on the hills. The weather was fabulous, but it was hazy enough that none of my photos do it justice — the camera sees the haze a lot more than my eyes did.


My French is better than it was. Which is not saying much. It almost feels weird to be in London and hear English – and the easier-ness is a relief, but I’m having some trouble switching gears. I keep saying bonjour and merci automatically.

Oddest food eaten: Aligot, which is this HUGE knot of mashed potatoes with so much cheese stirred into them that they turn into silly putty and you can stretch them from the floor to the ceiling. No exaggeration. Tasty, but chewy. And heavy. And voluminous. You could serve 10 people with the dish they brought me alone.

Minor travel mishap: Accidentally ordering a pate (yuk) that I thought was going to be a soup. Yes, I choked most of it down anyway. I’m sure it was good for me, the courteous thing, and I needed the protein.

Fortuitous timing incident: Walking into the cathedral at the start of the Chemin de St. Jacques just as the organ player started his evening practice. A great kickoff to the pilgrim’s way.

Puzzlement 1: How a people/culture can be so vocal about the separation of church and state and so staunchly dubious about Catholic dogma, and at the same time, so molded by and appreciative of Catholic imagery, ritual, traditions … they somehow manage to live at once from what seems to me to be two nearly opposing perspectives.

Unexpected bliss: The whole sub-culture of the Chemin de St. Jacques, including the hospitality and focus on the modern pilgrims on it, most of whom are not there for religious reasons. There doesn’t seem to be any “tourist fatigue” among the locals here, which is amazing, given that they’ve been inundated with tourists for more than 1,000 years.

I came across quotes, carved on signposts, that were perfect:

Sur l’Aubrac, il n’y a rien ou il y a tout. Dans le silence et le solitude, on n’entende plus que l’essentiel.

Basic translation: In the Aubrac [mountains], there is nothing – or everything. In the silence and solitude, one perceives nothing more than what is essential.

Puzzlement 2: How the English and French cultures can be so different, despite geographical proximity and many joint monarchies. I guess I expected England, only in French and with better food. But France – even Paris – is like a small, small town in many ways. The countryside is utterly outside of time, except for the cycles of seasons. There is a crystal clear sense of the value and interdependence of human life, and the grace of the planet in even the most basic of interactions. The pursuit of beauty is a high priority, but fortunately, it’s found everywhere, including the cows and the cheese and the rocks and the orange juice glasses. The French are all about grace, in its various meanings, I think.

France is beautiful. It doesn’t make me want to live here, like England does – I can’t explain that — but I surely would come back to visit.

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