On why it’s not always all about paris
One of the first things I learned about Paris upon arriving is that Parisiens like to leave it. They all have houses or family and friends with houses in the country—la campagne—and they like to make plans to visit, quite a lot. My first experience with this was when my host family planned the entireity of the 5 weeks of les vacances to be completely spent outside of Paris. The first day of vacation was spent on a plane, and the day after we arrived back the parents went back to work.
I used to think this was because Parisiens have a tendency for being overdramatic and hard-to-please; I mean, can the most beautiful city in the world really be that exhausting and overwhelming that you have to leave it as often as possible?
But I’ve changed my mind about that after this last weekend. The excuse for my family to get out this time was the international festival of marionettes held in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France, right near the border of Belgium in the northeast. Both of my host parents were born in this region—one that is characterized by its agriculture, blue-collar production, and lack of wealth—and much of their extended families still live there.
It is, what I believe to be, the exact image of “the French countryside” that is dreamed of in the States. Rolling hills, wheat and corn and spotted black-and-white cows fill the landscape; it was quiet and calm and had a crisp chill even though the sun was shining. We stayed at the home of the grandmother of the kids I nanny for, which is located in a small village of 600 people. Even though the village is small (tiny!), the grandmother explained that they have everything they need—referring for the most part to having a good boulanger and boucherie. Her home was near the center of the village, next to the church, and it was perfect. She had a big fire going and outside the apples were falling off the trees. I thought it was beautiful, though my host parents told me that when it’s gray and rainy it is “très triste.” Speckled throughout the village and throughout the whole region are small monuments remembering those lost during le guerre mondiale of 1914 to 1918. Since the area is so close to Belgium, quite a bit of battles were fought in the countrysides throughout Champagne-Ardennes region. I like to think that it’s a real part of the personality of the region. It was a really cool feeling, imagining how it must have felt to be living in these homes a hundred years ago.
I feel as though I must’ve been extra nice or I’ve at least done something right lately, because it looks like lady fortuna has swung back my way. (I am, in case you didn’t know, referring to the weather-related complaints I made in my last post). Because this was exactly the autumn I wanted to feel. It all was very idyllic, but not in a cheesy way at all—it all felt very real. That night I sat by the fireside, sipping champagne and snacking on bacon and cheese tartines for an aperitif, I felt pretty lucky. And because food is ever-important to me, and probably at least a little bit for you too since you’re reading this, I’m going to continue by saying what we had for dinner. After we went through 2 bottles of champange for the aperitif, the red wine bottles were opened, and we sat down for a meal typical of the region (or so the grandmother said). We started with a warm salad of greens and chicken livers in a mustardy dressing (which was SO GOOD, so much so that I’m not even going to try to convince you otherwise if you think it sounds gross or something), followed by beef broth-fondue and roasted potatoes. For dessert, she served a big tarte tatin, of which I had two servings. It was wonderful. I was very, very happy.
It also all started clicking for me why everyone’s always scrambling to go to the countryside for the weekends and vacations. While the women were discussing during dinner how having a couple ciagarettes at night “is the same as chocolate” because they’re both relaxing, I was off in my own thoughts, thinking that I’d like to know this part of France better. Because as wonderful as Paris is, I think if one only focuses on Paris and Paris alone, a big part of France and French culture is eclipsed.
This is because I think as ambitious as Parisiens are and as hard as they work, they all prefer the time they can spend in leisure with their families and friends, spending 3 hours to eat dinner. This is why they get out of the city, to make a physical and mental barrier between them and everything associated with work—business, daily obligations, even le régime (diet). Because I honestly think that no matter how much they may love their work, they truly do it only as a means to pay for their time off. (And in case you’re wondering: of course, when they spend their weekdays and weekends in Paris they still go out with friends for long and leisurly dinners or parties—I just think they can’t completely relax until they out of the city.)
And from the view of an outsider, I think getting out of Paris allows for all things French to make more sense. Sometimes you just need to drive past all of the wheat fields and grazing cows to be reminded how deeply engrained boulangeries and fromageries are in a part of the everyday, simple life in France—why butter (so, so much butter) and cheese and good baguettes are so engrained in French food. In that respect, I think it also shows how important regionalism is within France. Every part has its own personality, its own regional dishes, its own reputation.
It also makes me wonder how one measures poverty here. I suppose the region we were in was very poor, especially after coming from such a wealth-concentrated place like Paris. But I feel like it goes back to what the grandmother said—the town has everything they need. As I was taking a walk in the morning, I saw everyone out for their morning stroll, baguettes under their arms. To me it seems sustainable (a huge buzz word, but I mean it in the biggest interpretation of the word—they make do with what they have based on what the community has grown to be accostumed to). It’s a simple life, but hell, if I were to be measured by absolute values of poverty and wealth, this is the place I’d like to be if I fell on the bottom of that spectrum. They still enjoy good cheese at the end of every meal and they all have fires going in their homes.
Oh, and regarding the actual marionette festival: eh, it was alright. The highlight was most definitely when I ate a gaufre (waffle) for a snack. It was yeasty and buttery and caramely and most definitely the best waffle I have ever had if not one of the best things I have ever, ever eaten. It was honestly a sad moment when I finished it and realized I’d probably never have something like it again.