Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter 1: Meet the Aborigines
When we arrived in Paris at the beginning of Jean-Benoît's fellowship, it was only the second time we had set foot in France. We were tourists, and at the outset we looked at France through the eyes of vacationers. Whenever we could squeeze some free time out of the jumble of immigration, housing, and banking predicaments that monopolized our first few months in Paris, we strolled the streets in awe. The city and its monuments seemed ancient beyond belief. We visited a park in the Latin Quarter that was the site of a Roman arena from the first century A.D. In the very place we were observing smartly dressed, well-behaved little French children chasing balls under the watchful gaze of their nannies, ten thousand citizens of the Roman Empire once watched gladiator combats. The idea made us giddy. Everywhere we went we saw remnants of a past we could hardly imagine. We scrutinized rows of fifteenth-century houses on the left bank whose facades still slanted backward according to medieval construction techniques. The proud owner of a restaurant next to the Paris city hall led us down to his basement to show us the building's thirteenth-century foundation.
But one of our most acute time-warp sensations came months later, after a hike along the Seine river that ended in La Roche Guyon, a small town built on a bend of the river twenty miles west of Paris. The founders of La Roche Guyon chose a spectacular location for their village, nestling it between the river and a four hundred - foot cliff of white chalk. The more we looked around, the more La Roche Guyon impressed us with its historical layers. On the highest spur, right over the town of La Roche Guyon, there was a twelfth-century dungeon. At the base of the dungeon there was a Renaissance castle. In the cliff behind the castle, we saw the bunker where the German Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891 - 1944) defended Normandy against the Allies in World War II (the way he saw it, anyway). Then, as we walked across the town, we noticed several dozen houses dug straight into the cliff. The houses had neat French facades and Peugeots parked in front of them. We asked the nearby shopkeepers about them and were told that the houses were actually ancient cave dwellings, updated with modern amenities, and still inhabited.
Like many North Americans, who live on a slate wiped clean of history, we never got over the thrill of carrying out our modern lives among Roman ruins and medieval churches. Even though a lot of the monuments and structures we saw predated the founding of America, they were just part of people's daily lives in modern France. Sometimes we found them in completely unsuspecting places. East of La Rochelle, the utterly uninspiring city of Angoulême boasts nothing less than a Gothic city hall. In Provence, Avignon's massive Palace of the Popes, built in the fourteenth century, sits smack in the middle of the city's bustling downtown. To top off this effect of strange historical juxtapositions, we noticed that in many French cities, modern and ancient structures were built out of stone the same color as the gravel in the alleys. In other words, French cities looked like they had gradually grown out of the soil over the centuries, or in some cases, the millennia. Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral (the part they've cleaned, anyway) is the beige color of the city's native stone, and so is the Louvre, the Versailles palace, and even twentieth-century apartment buildings.
Later, this helped us make one of our first breakthroughs in understanding France: it is impossible to disassociate the past from the present. There is no clear line to divide ancient from modern in France, and what goes for architecture, goes for the people, too. As a society, they slowly grew out of the soil. It's as if they live in the past and the present at the same time. Yet it took us a while to figure out what that actually meant.
Our first impression of the French was that they were busy living modern lives. When we got to France, people were starting to moan about the troubles the new euro would cause them. Life didn't look that different from what we were used to in North America. People drove their Renaults to work and heated up frozen lasagna from Picard for supper. Even while we were starstruck by castles, churches, and dungeons, many things about the country struck us as incredibly modern. "Smart cards" - cards with microprocessor chips that carry personal information and an ID code - made modern commerce feel space age to us.
At the same time, there were moments when we felt like we were living in the past. Smart cards worked well in automated machines, but when we went to the bank in person, the clerks could not use them to access our accounts. We had to give them our name and account number (which we learned to carry around on a little slip of paper in our wallets). In restaurants, waiters tallied our bill and processed our payment with little remote control microwave radios - very advanced technology. However, when we asked for the directions to the rest rooms, they sometimes showed us to an outdoor Turkish toilet, essentially a glorified hole in the ground.
Other mind-boggling customs left us scratching our heads as we were impatiently tapping our toes. Our baker individually wrapped every pastry she sold no matter how many people were waiting behind us to place their orders. Our dry cleaner meticulously (and slowly) wrapped each article in paper, gingerly, as if our shirts were St-Honoré cakes. At the grocery store in our neighborhood, people still paid by check, even for five-dollar purchases.
We got the finishing touch when we rented our apartment and the rental agent handed us a set of oversize keys straight out of The Count of Monte Cristo. Just what era do the French live in, anyway? we wondered. We started to get the answer to this question nine months after our arrival, during a visit to the Périgord region, east of the city of Bordeaux. Périgord is the destination of choice for the world's gourmands. It's the land of foie gras, truffles, and duck confit. The area's most beautiful city, Sarlat, is a jewel of preservation with its narrow, winding, cobblestone streets, perfectly restored medieval houses, and stunning collage of Romanesque, Gothic, neoclassical, and Renaissance architecture. But preservation is perhaps too strong a word. Until the 1960s, the residents of Sarlat actually lived in medieval conditions, with no electricity or running water. It was the Minister of Culture of the time, André Malraux, who saved them. In 1962 he created a law for the preservation of historical monuments and Sarlat, a twenty-year renovation project, was his several hundred- million-dollar guinea pig.