France in the eyes of an American realist

France walkway
Jacqueline Moran/Staff

W
e drove more than an hour east to Gordes to see the famous Sénanque Abbey that for thousands of years has facilitated the cultivation of lavender — field after field of that moondust purple flower, buckets and buckets of that heavenly plant tied up in bushels, hung upside down to dry. The spindly, pale-green stems blooming with little clouds of purple are handled with care to produce perfumes, lotions, oils and creams. Or maybe they are just clustered to be put in a vase by the window.

The scent of lavender filled my nostrils as I walked through the streets of Gordes –– it poured out of windows, over balconies and washed through the doorways of several shops like a lapping wave of peaceful vitality.

I soon sat down to lunch –– a heavenly experience that took place at the Restaurant Péir, located on the balcony of La Bastide de Gordes, complete with honey-colored stone walls, green boysenberry trees casting pools of shade over the white linen tablecloths and an idyllic view over the village of Gordes. Gordes is an ancient village, a limestone village built right into the side of a cliff in the south of France. It is a destination location. People arrive from all over the world to note the wine, of course the lavender and the village’s traditional stone walls: flat slabs of limestone stacked up 7 feet tall, with the top layer a row of vertically placed stones. They resemble books on a medieval shelf.

Lunch in France

It is a beautiful village, and I pinched myself as I, a California native visiting Europe for the first time, gazed in awe at my surroundings. I had spent five days now in the south of France, my time split between warm-water beaches and those vineyards that grow grapes right in the sand, producing a rosé so light it is almost as translucent as water.

And while this all sounds romantic, the lavender-hazed daydream was cut short when something dawned on me.

I had heard about nothing but the glory of Paris: the romance, the passion and the electricity that pulses through the colorful streets. As a skeptic, I tried not to be blindly sucked into the myth, the fantasy of the city of love.

Beautiful beaches. Amazing wine. Sunny afternoons perfect for sundresses and sandals.

Well, merde, what’s so different about France from California, anyway?!

flowers in France

The more I thought about it and the longer I stayed in France, the more parallels I drew between France and my own home, California. As I sipped on my panaché –– a Parisian concoction of beer and a splash of lemonade –– I contemplated why most people I know romanticize Europe, especially France. I have known so many who flocked to Paris to see the sights or spent a week of summer on the beaches of the French Riviera. And when they return home, they talk about how special it all was “over there.” Curious, I thought.

After my eight days in the south of France came another, equally enchanting eight days in Paris. Like most everybody, I had heard about nothing but the glory of Paris: the romance, the passion and the electricity that pulses through the colorful streets. As a skeptic, I tried not to be blindly sucked into the myth, the fantasy of the city of love. What makes it so different from the southwest corner of the United States? I persisted, trying to stick to my objective and realistic assessment. California is steeped in history too, and it has hot metropolitan areas as well as beautiful beaches like in the south of France. Plus, it produces excellent, dare I say better, wine.

I caught myself sounding overly proud of my home, even arrogant. But I didn’t feel bad for long. When France won the World Cup the last Sunday of my stay in Paris, I was reminded that most people regard their homes with pride; in France’s case, the people’s love and pride for their country lit up the streets for days and nights on end. Furthermore, the last thing I was trying to do was give the impression that I thought “America was superior to France” (especially these days!). I was simply falling victim to my rational disposition: I’m a realist — what can I do? I just saw a lot of similarities between my home and that beautiful place, France, and was trying to unearth what made France so magical.

Because, indeed, France is magical.

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I spent just over two weeks in France, and as I returned home to California, I had another realization: France is no place to be realistic. It is the land of dreamers and lovers and of those with a lust for life. I could not deny that while I tried to stay pragmatic, I became entirely intoxicated by life in France.

I would be a fool to claim that France is no different than California. Similar? Perhaps. But there is something distinct and extraordinary in the air of France. Maybe it’s just the aroma of lavender that hangs low in the cobblestone streets of the south, or the twinkling lights that make the glasses of wine shimmer on the tabletops of the café patios in Paris, but at the end of the day, France is special.

I could not deny that while I tried to stay pragmatic, I became entirely intoxicated by life in France.

I guess if you were to ask me, I would pin it on the details. The attention to detail seems to elevate the French way of life to new levels of sophistication and taste. The presentation of just about anything — a meal, a table setting, the foyer of a hotel lobby, the shelf display in an old bookstore, a flower arrangement — shows how the French pour care and passionate thought into their visions and actions alike. And to them, it may just be the day-to-day deal, the way it always has been. But to an American coming straight out of a hypercommercialized society that seems to have strayed so far from its cultural roots, the French way of life is a novelty. And a romantic, beautiful one at that.

France could never be the same as California. I fell in love with the city of Paris itself, and I long to lie with my belly in the southern sand, the sun pouring down around me from the Mediterranean sky. So, go see France. See Gordes and Nîmes and Arles and Paris. See it because whether you’re a dreamer or a realist, prideful of your home or raring to get out of it, you will fall for France, too, spellbound by the magic and the lavender.

Contact Jacqueline Moran at [email protected]