A typical French country cart still used in the heart of France
Don’t call us, we’ll call you
They weren’t simple-minded, but rather what you might call “simple-cultured”. My husband and I gave our neighbours, Raymond and Genevieve, their first fridge when they were both over fifty. It was more like an old ice box. With a freezing compartment made to keep ice-cubes, the poor thing was on its last legs and we had replaced it with a used model that didn’t leak and stored our frozen foods. Fate would have it that, long after my husband’s and my modern model had hastily given up the ghost, their “ice-box” went on running for another twenty years,.
Raymond was a farmer. When I first arrived in the village in the ‘70s, his mare and cart were always waiting patiently in front of the butcher’s shop every Friday. It was only after the mare’s death from old age that Raymond finally gave up the cart and, like his wife, adopted a bicycle.
Telephones were not always standard household equipment in France at that time. Even in Paris in the early ‘70s it could take up to six years of to get a phone installed. But the arrival of a new and brilliant Minister of Post and Telecommunications set off an overnight revolution and by 1975 we finally had a phone. We did, but the neighbours didn’t. One morning I found Raymond’s wife standing in our kitchen doorway. Their cow needed a caesarean. Could I phone the vet? Arms plunged to the elbows in fresh fish from the nearby Loire River, I innocently invited Genevieve to use our phone. Despite my invitation, she remained posted silently at the door. I insisted, but again to no avail. It was only after many long minutes of hesitation that she finally dared to admit that she had absolutely no notion of how to use a telephone.
December rolled around. A horse enthusiast, each year I attended the big Paris horse show and suggested to Genevieve that, if she accompanied me by train, we could take in the capital at Christmas. She accepted albeit without any excessive enthusiasm. And so it was that early one Saturday morning shortly before Christmas we set out to explore the City of (Christmas) Lights.
The metro, a far-cry from the country roads
The two hour trip up to Paris went by mostly in silence. When we got off the train at the Gare de Lyon and purchased our metro tickets, it was decided that we should plan our day over a café crème and croissant and trotted off to the closest bistro. Then, opting for the metro, rather than the faster RER, we set off for the equine fair. Most of the rest of the morning was spent watching everything from dancing Camargue stallions to cowboys working their quarter horses and by noon we had both had our fill. We headed for the Latin Quarter and a Tunisian carry-out sandwich shop: two French buns with crushed cooked carrot, cooked potato slices, black and green olives, artichoke heart, capers, slices of red and green bell peppers, lettuce, tons of tuna fish, lemon juice, and Tunisian spices. Topped off with a small, honey based cake and a Perrier, we were once again set to attack a quick visit to the exquisite Notre Dame Cathedral. Genevieve had never read Victor Hugo’s famous novel and for her a church was, to all extent and purposes, just a place where people attend mass. Intent of convincing her that Paris was the top of tops, once again we strolled out into the brisk December daylight and began making our way on foot along the banks of the Seine River and up to the Champs Elysées.
Les Galéries Lafayette, located Boulevard Hausseman
In December, night falls early and, by 4:30 in the afternoon, the avenue was already aglitter. It was perhaps Genevieve’s first trip to the capital, but, as we strolled slowly beneath trees wrapped in twinkling lights and past the elegantly decorated shop windows lining the avenue, though dressed in overly simple country fare, again our neighbour seemed to take it all in with philosophy. One last glance up to the brightly lit Arc de Triomphe and we dropped back down into the early evening hustle of the metro station Place de la Concord. Genevieve still seemed to take the intimacy of all the city’s unfamiliar languages and myriad of racial origins in stride as we both clutched the central bar tying not to fall when the train lurched around bend after bend.
Twenty minutes later we were standing on the wooden ramps before the Galéries Lafayette department store. Around us a throng of young faces, hands and noses pressed against the glass, eyes wide with amazement, were trying to grasp the spectacle of endless marionettes and animated toys dancing beneath the spotlights. Stuffed bears spun around on imaginary ice, princess-like ballerinas leapt through the air on invisible strings, jack-in-the-box clowns popped up before slipping slowly back into their brightly decorated boxes and fat Santas held their bellies with endless laughter. As I stared at that shop window wonderland, I could not help wondering how the experience compared with Genevieve’s own childhood memories. But then I remembered that my own husband had never known a Christmas tree before we founded a family and I felt too reticent to sound out our friend’s intimacy.
Twinkle lights along les Champs Elysées
Leaving the acrid odour of hot, street corner chestnuts, we entered the warmth of the Galéries overcrowded aisles. The store’s gigantic Christmas tree throned above a shining myriad of Chanel, Lanvin, Geurlain, Rochas and Beaujour perfume bottles rubbing shoulders with luxury fashion jewellery by Cartier and Dior and leather goods tagged Hermès. Whoever had once hinted that France was an underdeveloped economy obviously had never crossed the threshold of Les Galéries Lafayette or at least not at Christmas time.
On the road again
The day came to an end atop Montmartre, in front of Sacré Coeur with its view over the city’s brightly lit avenues and famous monuments spread below. In the distance, the gilded Eiffel Tower beamed its searchlight across the Paris sky like a lighthouse seeking out lost souls in the night. Alone in the crisp evening, after the throng of crowds encountered throughout the day, the welcomed silence enveloped us like a cloak. Genevieve stood motionlessly taking it all in and smiled over at me.
With over an hour before our train was set to leave, we walked back down to Pigalle and I suggested taking, this time, the faster and more modern RER. I had forgotten that it was Saturday evening and it became quickly evident that, at the weekend, RER trains were fewer and farther between. Twenty minutes on the platform and still no train in sight, saw us scurrying up to street level and hailing a taxi back to the Gare de Lyon. I had lived in Paris for ten years, graduated from its University, frequented the city’s libraries, witnessed firsthand the upheavals of May ’68, marvelled at its concerts, its theater plays and its art exhibits. Paris was the hub of European life at its cultural peak. Now, with our taxi stalled in traffic, I watched as the hands on my watch skipped past the hour we should have taken the last train home. I fumbled in my handbag for a map and a list of inexpensive hotels where we could spend the night.
Looking out the windows of the train the next morning, we finally headed safely back home to life among the goats, vineyards and country folk, many of whom had never ventured more than a few miles from where they were born. Life seemed so much less complicated in the country. Our station approached, but as we stood up to get off, a sudden doubt loomed forth. Which door were we supposed to open, the one on the left or the one to the right? Unable to see the platform, we began by pushing the one to the right, to no avail. Panicking, we turned around and tried frantically the one to the right, but again the door refused to open. The agent blew his whistle, locking the other doors. The train lurched forward and we watched as our station slipped slowly out of sight. We stood, two helplessly uninvited passengers, continuing a journey to nowhere!
Christmas, far from the hustle and bustle of big city life.
Twelve miles down the line, at the following station, we were finally able to open the door – the one to the right – and get off the train. Standing, thumb outstretched on the side of the road as we prepared to hitch-hike the rest of the way home, I thought, “All things considered, maybe Genevieve and Raymond were ‘simple-cultured’ in their way, but, there was no way getting around it, they had undeniably opted for a much less stressful way of going about living one day to the next.
If many years have gone by since that December day, every trip up to Paris still remains an unending adventure and life here in the French countryside just as marvellous a front row seat to each season’s miracles. At present I admit that somehow I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Maybe age simply brings with it a certain degree of, let’s say, “appreciation” for both the big and the little things in life.