I love wearing stripes. A lot of my clothes are striped. I thought this was “just me”, until I started shopping at Cut Loose outlet in the Mission district a few years ago. There I found myself in company with a lot of women (in the shared dressing room), who also shared what could be called my demographic. Baby boomer, mostly middle-class, probably French-loving, stripe-y.
When I got to France, I noticed that a lot of tourists were also wearing stripes. I noticed a good number of clothing and tourist shops featured “traditional” striped pullovers. I started looking around to see if the French were wearing their stripes. Not so much. Mostly striped tourists. I started hating my stripes. It was a minor suffering. Fortunately pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants) relieved most of my minor sufferings. I had at least one a day.
I have a “thing” for France. The language. The food. The culture. The land. You know, when two parallel rows of chestnut trees form a canopy for your drive in the countryside? I love that. I’ve taken a number of French language classes over my lifetime (though I never seem to graduate from “intermediate”). In French class you meet other people who love all things French. Some call themselves “Francophiles”. I don’t like this term. It sounds like a French groupie. (Jon Kabat-Zinn once jokingly called me a groupie after my umpteenth time going to hear him speak. Frankly? I wanted to die.)
A synonym for groupie is fangirl, defined as “a female who has overstepped the line between healthy fandom and indecent obsession”. JKZ? France? I would never want to be a fangirl. Still I felt I had some kind of unique personal relationship with France.
On this trip — as picture perfect as it was, and it was — I saw images of myself everywhere. Tourists and ex-pats, wearing stripes, speaking decent French ( a little better or worse than mine), basically turning whole ancient truly French villages into ex-pat and tourist communities. I began noticing this in the first village, Dinan, Brittany, where there were signs everywhere for bed & breakfasts, where the ancient centre ville looked remarkably like a tourist center rather than the old town center of a real community.
It was even more obvious in Veules-Les-Roses, Normandy. The last day of tourist season coincided with the day we arrived there. We watched the picture-perfect village basically shut down. In Uzes, in the South, there was greater sense of real French community, but it was also filled with tourists and ex-pats, and oh-so-perfectly-lovely French shops. Roussillon too. Also true of where we visited Montserrat’s friend near Aix-en-Provence. Every place the tourists and ex-pats moved in, the prices had risen steeply creating a San Francisco-style situation where the original inhabitants could no longer afford to live in their village. Villages taken over not by “techies”, but by ex-pats, by well-to-do French and Belgians buying second, summer homes in quaint villages, and tons of gites and B&Bs for quoi? Tourists. Not to mention Airbnbs. This seemed problematical; I didn’t have a single solution.
My identity was challenged in many ways. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll probably be dead when I’m no longer challenged. I took this trip because I’ve had a hunger for France for a long time. I also needed to shake up my routine.
I tasted the hell out of France. It was a highly caloric, sweet, savory, camembert and bread affair, which gave great pleasure. Also anxiety. For the harm it would do my diabetes- and gluten-threatened body. I could not manage to forget this little health challenge of mine, and in reality, why should I? My body is the place I live. It did not stop me from over-riding my concerns and eating as if each day was a party. I was not proud of my behavior, just captive. The bargain I struck (with my self) was I’d act as if I had no health issue while in France, and return to good (even better – I promised myself ) habits when I got home. The problem is while indulging in joie de vivre I knew I was betraying my body (my self) .
Is it coincidence this quote showed up on my Facebook page this morning?
“My holy of holies is the human body” —Anton Chekhov, May, 1888
I relished speaking, and listening to the language. I relished the kindness and friendliness of French people. I feasted on the visual banquet that is so France.
I’m glad I made this trip. Mostly I had a great time. It also helped me figure out I don’t want to be a tourist or an ex-pat. After adventure and the pleasure of visiting old and new dear friends, what I still find myself longing for is work that is mine to do, and community within which to do it. This is my truer path.
Present-day France is as beautiful as ever. It is also changing. Me too. It is not 1968. When I was 21. When there was Marie-Helene. Pierre. When I was first served raw milk Camembert for dessert. I’ll never forget France, and I’ll probably never stop loving it. I definitely won’t forget my old and new friends — Myriam, Jean-Francois, Julie, Joan, Sandro, Gabriel, Anaelle, Anne-Gabrielle, Diane, Heloise. I’m so grateful for the warmth of their friendship, welcome, and hospitality.
I’m not sure what to do about all the stripes in my closet. It doesn’t really matter. More important, I’m not sure about anything.
Except. Writing. And a few other things. Ukulele playing. Singing. Reading. And people… Yes, definitely, people.