Back from France. A country I’ve visited twice already this year and enjoy returning to whenever possible. Over the years, I think I’ve been to France around 20 times. Mostly to Paris, the Alps, Nice and Provence. Yeah, I really do dig the French.
Outside of Paris, the French really embrace traditions with an intense passion.
Some of the age-old tradtions and cultural antics we experienced seem so unnecessarily impractical – at least to a foreigner. Like why even low-end tourist restaurants stop serving food in the afternoon. Why many shops and cafés still don’t take credit cards and why so many find driving so ridiculously fast on narrow, single lane country roads the most reasonable way to get from a to b.
But there is so much I absolutely adore about the French. Including the language, the often amazing dining experiences (sans Foie gras) and the wonderfully regulated table etiquette (sans smoking). But also how the French invest so heavily in conversation – never shying away from sharing intellectual, albeit often controversial thoughts and opinions about everything and anything. I love that the French love to talk (in French, of course).
Since I haven’t improved much on my basic French since High School, my personal language barrier is sadly still in place. However, the French are much better today at speaking English than they were when I visited during my first Eurail Pass Tour back in the summer of ’83. Much better, even.
Though still often a bit arrogant and operatically dramatic in gestures and facial expressions, I’d argue that in general, that Frenchmen working in the hotel and restaurant industries have made noticeable strides with their attitude and behavior – even if you don’t speak their tongue. Much more so than Gemans outside of Berlin. Last I visited Leipzig, I remember it being really hard to communicate with the locals. Where the French get dramatic, the Germans tend to shy away. Or, in some bizarr situations that I’ve expereinced in Germany, folks just keep on chatting with you in German, as if you were joking about, nicht sprechen sie Deutsch.
In France, the age old rule still applies, though. You know, that if you just try to word a few things in French, the uneasiness wanes and you instantly go from being a foe to a bro. Especially among young folks in bigger cities. Not so much in the Languedoc region, where we just spent five days. Even young folks working in tourism there didn’t seem to speak or understand much English. Probably because the vast majority of their customers are French – hence little need to be able to parley (or, practice) Anglais.
Not saying it’s the only reason for the lack of interest in speaking another language, but the fact that French television (state run and private) have for eons dubbed foreign films and shows in French, has literally deprived the country of at least becoming somewhat familiar with a different way to communicate than just in langue française.
On the other hand, France is such a large, all-encompassing country, geographically speaking, that if you’re French and don’t feel the need to travel abroad for whatever reason, lack of language skills could be one, there’s just about everything you need right at home; alps, gorgeous, palm lined beaches, islands, a multitude of wine districts and a half dozen or so cosmopolitan cities. Which I suppose you could make the argument also applies to the United States and would also serve as an explanation to why so many Americans choose to vacation within the country. That and the fact that only 36% of Americans actually have a passport…
Anyway, the few villages we visited during our short stay in Languedoc were charmingly old and astonishingly beautiful – and most locals we met were genuinely friendly – if not always exceptionaally communicable. Last night we ate a couple of kilos of white wine marinated mussels at the main square in the beach community of Carnon Plage (near Montpellier). The service was excellent, the mussels and fries exquisite and when the bill arrived, our dinner was as surprisingly affordable as everywhere else we’d eaten during the trip to southern France. Except for the two poke bowls at The Beach Club along Carnon Plage which we found both underwhelming in taste and way overpriced.
So, what does this all have to do with the sunflowers above? Well, not much. Aside from the fact that they were shot just outside of the ancient Roman city of Arles in Provence in a field that had possibly attracted a certain Vincent van Gogh – a few years earlier.