Grenoble Intentions (adieu, France)

Yes, still alive. Sorry about the delay in updating. It’s not that we’ve been busy – quite the opposite.

As I said earlier, Nimes was a fantastic place to relax for a few days. I also took the opportunity to prerecord do some live crosses by satellite uplink to the Discourse election special. If I didn’t recommend it before, allow me to highly recommend the Hotel César in Nimes.

On Friday we took a train from Nimes to Avignon, which is intensely charming and I regret that we only spent a day there. We did have time to visit the Christmas markets (collecting a variety of gifts to send home in one big package) and a museum (photos in the previous post).

From Avignon to Valence, where we were picked up by Dom and Steph, friends of Diana’s family, who hosted us for three nights in their house in Montmeyran. It was refreshing and relaxing to be staying at a house rather than a hotel, hostel or backpackers for the first time in two weeks, and Dom and Steph were lovely hosts.

We’re now in Grenoble, staying with Dominique and Guy, other friends of Diana’s family. Today we looked around Grenoble, including taking the gondola up to the mountain fortress bastille. Incredible view (we still haven’t seen a drop of rain in Europe and every day has been clear blue skies) of both the surrounding mountains and the pollution hanging above the town.

So that’s the update, but the thing is, tonight’s our last night in France. Tomorrow we spend all day on trains taking us through the Alps to Venice, Italy. Sorry to say goodbye to France, though we’ll be back in Paris at the end of our time in Europe.

What better time than now for a few final observations of France?

Let’s see.

Often, we’ve gone into restaurants and I’ve said what I thought was, “Un table pour deux personnes, sil vous plait,” or something similar enough to get the point across. No less than three times, this has resulted in a waiter bringing two beers over to us. I figured that my pronunciation was so bad that my words were repeatedly mistaken for “two pilsners”.

Dom and Steph solved the mystery. I was indeed mumbling my words (in the hope that being inexactly right would be more effective than being exactly wrong in my pronunciation). When I was saying “deux personnes”, it was sounding like “deux presonnes”, or “depression”, which the waiters were taking to mean I wanted two draught beers from the tap.

I’m finding the constant barrage of people asking for money exhausting. It feels like it takes active energy for me to ignore them. Because so many ask me for money, I give money to none. Because I’ve seen people very obviously lie to me to get money from me (“I have a baby at home, please buy me a pain a chocolat to take to feed him.”), I give money to none. And almost certainly some of them actually need money.

So I feel guilty about ignoring them, every time. It makes me feel bad. And then I start to feel angry at them. I blame them for making me feel guilty for not giving them money. They’re no longer individuals asking me for money; they’re individual manifestations of a broader phenomenon that annoys me intensely. I’m on holiday – how dare this Entity keep adding guilt to my holiday, my first real holiday ever?

Naturally, feeling ridiculous and petty comes swiftly on the heels of the paranoid righteous indignation. I wonder what will come next.

Most people are friendly here. I was given vague tales of how everyone in France speaks English but refuses to admit it. Maybe that’s so. Diana pointed out to me how frustrating it would be for me if I worked in hospitality in New Zealand with a bare knowledge of French and French people kept coming up to me and refusing to order things in English, always demanding I make frustrating forays into half-remembered high-school French. So we make an effort, and it seems to be appreciated.

London had majesty everywhere, while people scowled their way about their business. In France, every town is built on geological strata of fossilised charm. Ancient layer after ancient layer. It can’t be faked and it can’t be concealed. The creeping moss of commercialisation – the chain stores, the occasional McDonalds, etc – never seems to penetrate beyond a superficial level. The slightest scratch and it falls away, revealing the cobblestones and crumbling brick walls and old French ladies with terriers and big wine-soaked French men smoking cigarettes, looking variously grim and elated and nothing in between.

Au revoir, France. Merci beaucoup.