France

August 25th — September 30th

We crossed into France from Cinque Terre on August 29th, with a short stop in Torino. The drive yielded impressive views of the Alps that were surprisingly reminiscent of Yosemite, and made me miss the summer weeks I spent as a kid in the mountains.

We had budgeted an entire month for France. The idea was to make a quick stop in Lyon to catch up with friends and family, then explore France in more depth in the subsequent weeks. There are so many regions of France I was curious to explore, and the country is small compared to the US, so I hoped that we count spend a decent amount in each of its main regions.

That plan quickly went out the window a few days into our stay in Lyon. It was still summertime, if only for a few more days, and the living was easier than ever. An accumulation of things make Lyon particularly enjoyable:

  • The temperature in summer is warm, a little too much for some, but to me it’s the perfect climate to feel engulfed in the soothing, unmistakable warmth of summer.

  • The areas of town that are worth exploring are all within walking distance, and Lyon has a world class transportation system, making it a breeze to get from point a to point b.

  • Lyon is well kept, perhaps better kept nowadays than it has ever been. Lyon pays close attention to its historical heritage, and does a good job of mixing in new buildings while preserving and putting forth its older monuments, dating all the way back 2000 years.

  • To me, a city with relief is often a city with character. It holds the promise of hidden streets and alleyways, quiet areas devoid of traffic, and some good views. Lyon has multiple hills, all with their own atmosphere, and scaling them is always fun.

  • It’s little known to those outside of France, but Lyon is considered France’s gastronomy capital. This means Lyon is host to some of the best fine dining, but it also translates to a decent average quality of restaurants around town.

  • The city is happening! It’s not New York, but there is a lot of music to be heard, and terasses to lounge in on a warm summer night.

  • Life is fairly cheap. Housing is quite affordable, basic necessity items and food are a bargain.

But most of all, and more importantly to us, this is where a lot of our good friends and our family still live. Being on the road can be somewhat lonely, so seeing our long lost friends was all the more joyful, but getting the opportunity to catch up with them in this environment was the icing on the cake. We got to truly relax for the first time in a while.

We had expected to spend a short while in Lyon, but we were caught off guard: coming to Lyon really felt like coming home. So much so that we didn’t want to leave. But Lyon isn’t technically home anymore, and there was more road ahead. At this point, we fully realized how worn out we were from traveling. We yearned for a sedentary lifestyle, to delve deeper into our friendships and pursue a project. All the while, we knew we had planned to drive through France and explore our country in more detail, but we just felt as if we were where we were supposed to be all along.

We ended up staying a week. Then day by day, we procrastinated until we extended our stay in Lyon to a full two weeks. Our month-long road trip of France had now been reduced to a couple of weeks.

With more than a twinge of regret, we left Lyon for our next destination, Marseille. We’d heard a lot of conflicting opinions of Marseille. It’s a pretty ill-reputed city, mostly for its insalubrity and corruption. The salubrity issues are pretty obviously substantiated, as trash bags line the streets. Large bins overflow with rubish. Rumor has it that the poorly functioning trash collection system is linked to local mafia activity. That said, a couple of my friends insisted that there was much more to Marseille than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, we only had a night to investigate those claims and had planned to spend the evening with Anaïs’ sister Célia. Célia showed us her apartment and we met her childhood friend Margot who happens to be her roommate. We went out for dinner and chatted some more back at their apartment. We had a conversation that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Anaïs and I had experienced street harassment (harcèlement de rue, as it is now commonly referred to in France) long before taking off for the US, but hearing how exactly it affected Célia and her roommate recently was enraging. Those who don’t live in France might not necessarily be familiar with this, so let me briefly explain. It disproportionately affects women and essentially comes down to being heckled, hit on, and occasionally worse. This isn’t unique to France. This is all too often the reality of existence for women all over the world, but a few things about its French incarnation makes it particularly unsettling:

  1. There is a demeaning aspect to how this happens in France. Sure, you’ll find a few examples of clever, or charming ways of approaching women on the street, but for every such example, there is a multitude of attempts that reek of raw, unabashed lust, objectification, and disrespect. And when an advance results in rejection, the approach will more often than not transform into pure verbal aggression “Yeah you’re a whore anyway, get out of here!”.

  2. France is a developed country, and after traveling the world, I came to understand that wealthier countries, no matter what region of the world, have customs that tend to value empathy more strongly and factor in how those you interact with physically will feel as a result of your actions. Concretely, this translates, to simple things we take for granted, such as not spitting, using courtesy words when interacting, keeping your voice down in public spaces, etc. What women have to deal with on a regular basis in France is a blatant breach of this protocol and it’s baffling to realize this happens right here in France. We have travelled around the world, and I can’t think of a place that is as bad as France in this regard. India is the only place that even comes close, and even then, the context is so distinct that, while invasive, it doesn’t convey the same disrespect.

  3. The whole situation underlines the disconnect between France’s population of 2nd/3rd generation immigrants and the rest of the country. As a French citizen, I’m dismayed that an entire segment of our population is so disenfranchised, feels so rejected, and shares in so little of the country’s values that they feel that this is the only way they have of attracting the attention of members of the opposite sex. There is a gaping wound in France’s social fabric and it’s evident that no one knows how to fix it. It’s alarming.

As mentioned, Anaïs experiences this on a regular basis, but for the most part she’s with me which means that all she has to deal with are glances and the occasional dirty words muttered in passing under a passerby’s breath. Célia and Margot gave us an updated account of what things are like for women who walk alone, and it’s chilling. Without going into any details, they gave us examples of when such encounters became physical. The opportunism, the cowardice, and the impunity of such actions are what made me truly furious. I grow tense just writing about it weeks after having heard the accounts and I feel powerless to affect any change. All I can do it talk about it.

We moved on the next morning. After lunch on the mediterranean coast, we made the long drive to south west of France to the city of Lourdes. Lourdes is of course well known for its supposed miracle and its procession of pilgrims coming in hopes of miraculous healing. For those who know us, this might seem an odd destination, but it’s so close to the Pyrénnées, and it’s such an iconic location of France that we figured we’d stop for a day.

Lourdes has a very picturesque, if recent, basilica and sanctuary, built on top of the cave and fountain where miracles are claimed to have happened. It makes for some great pictures, but the most interesting was the activity in town and the sanctuary. First of all, Lourdes is a very touristic town. Busloads of people come in to collect holy water from the faucets throughout the village. They line up to enter the small cave, kiss a rock (which I sincerely hope they clean up every once in a while), and light a candle. Tourist shops sell plastic bottles of various sizes for tourists to collect their holy water at unfathomable prices. Now I’m not one for religion, as you can probably tell, but I recognize that many folks probably find in religion a sense of awe, mysticism, appreciation for the world and a pursuit of the ineffable (nevermind that these aspects don’t necessitate religion per se). Lourdes, however, is diametrically opposed from such aspects of religion, focusing on its uglier traits:

  • Idolatry: I must confess that I can see what some muslims mean when they refer to christianity as an idolatrous religion. The emphasis on and depiction of the many human figures of the bible, while of occasional artistic value, often detracts from the deeper teachings of religion. Because of this, many churches end up resembling a pagan shrine more than a monotheistic edifice. While I find this a little ironic, and don’t really care about it, what is specific about Lourdes and feels ugly is the commercialization of these idols. So many action figures of saints and the virgin mary litter surrounding souvenir shops and even an agnostic such as myself, can’t help but feel awkward about what this 2000 year old, high-minded endeavor has become.

  • Superstition: The focus on the base, physical aspects of Lourdes, in the fountain, the stone that pilgrims kiss, the water that they collect, with supposed supernatural powers is pathetic, in the literal sense of the term. The origination story of Lourdes is steeped in such superstition. You can tell that people want to believe and are looking for fantasy, some enchantment.

  • Desperation: This goes hand in hand with the superstition, but has its own flavor. Seeing droves of folks in wheelchairs visit the sanctuary, hoping for a miracle, knowing that they will not find it made me feel sad about the whole situation.

  • Greed: There is money to be made from this delusion, which has not eluded the church, the municipality and the myriads of tourist shops.

But the backdrop for all of this is a quaint village, at the foot of the Pyrenees, which casts of veil innocuousness to the whole enterprise.

We drove up into the Pyrenees for a few days. We kind of got rained out so we stayed indoors more than we would have liked, but we still were able to hike the cirque of Gavarnie, a beautiful natural arena, with one of the highest waterfalls of Europe. I hiked a bonus round to the foot of the waterfall, which looked close, but was actually quite elevated. It kicked my ass! For a brief moment as I climbed up, the wind, the cold, the rain and the heights reminded of a moment in Zion, when nature clearly let me know that I wasn’t in my place… that I was an insignificant fleshling that might be blithely swept away at a moment’s notice.

The next stop was La Rochelle, which started our trip along Brittany’s coast. There is a unique style to the villages of Brittany that truly sets them apart from the rest of France. The distinct food and the history contribute to this impression. The experience culminated in our tour of the Mont Saint-Michel, which while very touristy, remains one of the most impressive sights of our trip. You can lose yourself in the abbey, stop in a corridor to admire the countless hours of craftsmanship necessary to produce such ornate decorations, ponder what the lives of monks must have been way back when, and contemplate the view of the bay from the many vantage points in the abbey.

This wouldn’t be a post of mine if I didn’t take a moment to talk about driving. Allow me to indulge in a chauvinistic pat on the back here and say that France has the best driving of any country we’ve visited. It seems that draconian driving tests and sensitization to road safety issues have finally paid off in France, at least based on what I experienced. Driving on French highways was a breeze: drivers were aware of their surroundings and everyone understood the concept of a fast lane. No one blocked anyone else, vehicles coexisted according to a set of simple rules. The speed limits generally speaking are reasonable (130km/h — 80mph — on highways, 90km/h — 55mph — on country roads). People didn’t pull insane moves on the road, drove predictably and while a few drivers will always be an exception, I have to give France the award for best driving conditions in our trip. On the downside, the highways are private and we paid way too much for short trips. To top it off, France has abundant speed radars, but they are usually indicated ahead of time. I would much prefer having to deal with radars, than the latent paranoia of dealing with highway patrol officers. When you think about it, getting pulled over by cops is such an American thing. It’s not that it never happens in France, but it happens way less. There are much fewer reasons to get pulled over in France. So many of the recent police shootings happen as a result of someone getting pulled over, it makes you wonder if it’s strictly necessary for citizens to get pulled over as often as they do in the US, especially when you consider that speed limits are essentially a tax on drivers, and don’t seem to be the smartest way to produce better outcomes on the road. Quotas on tickets for police officers are another illustration of how wrong the entire situation is. Food for thought America.

Before we knew it, we were back in Paris. It was good to be back. It reminded us of the months spent there in 2013, when Twitter sent me to open the Paris office. Parisians work hard, and the city strikes me as an amazing place to be if you’re looking to pursue interesting professional projects, while enjoying life with Paris’ culture, terraces and restaurants. Hanging out with with my brothers and catching up with friends was the highlight. We started to take in the fact that our trip was finally coming to an end. After almost 9 months of being on the road, the thought of finally being home is a strange one. A few months after starting our travels, the thought of home became a recurrent yearning, especially in times of hardship, but in Paris it also meant closing the door on a very unique period in our lives. But we knew it was time. While I still have unfinished business with the world, places to visit, people to share moments with and experiences to have, I’m happy with how we spent our hiatus, how it has changed me, and what I’ve learnt.

France was a great part of our trip. The moments spent with friends and family were so important to us. Our weeks in Lyon had us under the spell and we thought we might never leave. Visiting new regions of France was a treat. Similarly to America, France feels like several countries. Language, and a central administration give a common thread, but everything else has a distinct flavor: culture, accents, dialects, architecture, food, landscape. All of these vary wildly within a fairly restricted geographic space, which is what makes France truly special.