My love affair with France
The first time I visited France many years ago, I disliked it. This was back in the 1970s and I was travelling with my sister-in-law. We had travelled from London via the Dover-Calais ferry and then by train to Paris. From the train I bought soda for us and right away was given incorrect change by the very first Frenchman I ever dealt business with. In Paris, we were also given incorrect change in restaurants and were repeatedly overcharged by taxis. At that time, the French only spoke French even to tourists and it didn’t matter a whit if you didn’t speak a word of French: they were not going to try and communicate in another language.
In all fairness, I must add that my husband visited Paris a few years later and he did not share my negative experiences. But as I pointed out to him, he stood six foot five inches and it would take quite a brazen person to cheat him and be snide with him.
The next time I visited France was in the 1990s, this time with my husband. We stayed in the Hotel Eugenie in the Latin Quarter, near the Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle. I gave a literary reading at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. To my surprise, the event was standing room only. The other surprise I had was that, overall, the French, were nicer. The waitresses and hotel staff even spoke English.
I had two other visits in Paris and Lyon, and each visit seemed better than the last. What happened, I wondered?
I asked myself if my perception had been correct in the first place, that is, the French didn’t use to be nice, and now they were nice. Some friends confirmed this. Yes, they said the French are nicer. They credited the change to the economic woes that the French had suffered and to the migration of other peoples into France.
It was true that during my first visit, the French faces were quite white. And now there were other non-white faces. People with origins from Algeria, Vietnam, India trotted in France—how refreshing!
So it was that my recent May visit, which was the coldest May in France in over 100 years, turned out to be an eye opener about the French.
Last May, instead of staying in the Latin Quarter, we stayed near the Arc de Triomphe, in a hotel that was my namesake: Hotel Cecilia. My husband chose the hotel, mainly because it carried my name, and it turned out to be an excellent choice. Hotel Cecilia was walking distance from the Air France airport shuttle stop, the metro, and the Arc de Triomphe. In fact, if you stuck you head out our window, you had a view of the imposing Arc, which had been built by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806. The continental breakfast in our hotel was lovely. And nearby were great little restaurants including an Italian restaurant which served the best pizza with anchovies and olives, and others that served my favorite French dishes—escargot and foie gras.
Because we had, in our past visits, gone to tourist places in Paris (the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Basilica of Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Seine), we made it a point to visit places we had not actually explored, including the Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower does not disappoint; it is one of the most photogenic landmarks, tempting you to take pictures of it at all angles. Built in 1889 as the entrance arch to the World’s fair, it was for over four decades, the tallest structure in the world, and is the symbol of Paris and France. We took the elevator to the second level where we had fantastic views of beautiful Paris, with its river, parks, buildings, houses.
Another place I visited for the first time was the pilgrim site, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, located on 140 rue de Bac, an unpretentious modern-looking chapel where Mary had appeared to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830. Mary instructed St. Catherine to have a medal made with a specific design known as the “Miraculous Medal.” When I arrived, there was a Mass going on and the chapel was filled with pilgrims. After the Mass, many people stayed to pray in front of the altar. Off the one side was the incorrupt body of St. Catherine Laboure, who died in 1876. Like many Marian pilgrim sites, this one was very serene, most astonishing considering it was located in the middle of Paris.
Aside from Paris, we had the opportunity to visit Lyon, the third largest city of France, and dubbed the gourmet capital of France. (I assure you, the food was exceptionally good in Lyon!) Lyon has two mighty rivers that converge in its old city center: the Rhone and Saone. A city with two rivers can only be beautiful—picture the curving rivers, the hills, the buildings flanking the rivers. Imagine Old Lyon with its winding streets and its charming Renaissance neighborhoods.
Lyon had been an important Roman center and one can still see ruins of an amphitheater which is still used for performances. The city’s importance continued when it was a center for silk production, starting in 1466 through1880. Since I went to film school, I was delighted to learn that Lyon was also home to Auguste and Louis Lumiere, who were one of the first to make moving pictures. Another native of Lyon, was Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of the novella, The Little Prince, which I enjoyed when I was in high school. And still another Lyonnais was Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, the Cure of Ars, and patron saint of parish priests. We had the chance to visit his incorrupt body in Ars, as well as his home in Dardilly.
There were many other interesting places in France, despite the cold snap. But everywhere we went, I couldn’t help but notice how much more human the French have become.
Vive la France!
Stain Glass Windows in Chapel in Paris on Blomet Street, photos by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Turkey 1 (and visit Turkey 2, 3, 4)