In November of my TAPIF year I had the pleasure and honor of hosting Jin, my friend and former high school debate rival on her first (first!) trip to Europe. And what a great place to start…la Dordogne! Back from Northern Spain, we decided to start our tour in the scenic Périgord Noir, famous for beaux villages and truffles – in fact, on one of Jin’s first nights in town we packed her into the Peug’ and shoved her into the Périgordine darkness to sniff out poisonous mushrooms.
However, I soon realized that wandering around picturesque towns on cobbled streets was only half of the experience for Jin. After all, this was her first time in France, and France can be a strange place à première vue! Phillip and I, each having had year-long stints in France as students before moving to Périgueux, had grown accustomed to much of what American travelers find confusing about France. Gone were the days that we entered a store without giving a personal bonjour to each employee; that we batted un œil when something was canceled, closed, or rescheduled unexpectedly; that we recoiled at an incoming bise. Driving in roundabouts? Pas de souci. Breast-laden shampoo commercials? Allez-y! Train strike? Tram strike? Airport strike? Trash strike? N’importe quoi.
But for Jin, taking but the premier pas, some explanation of life and culture in the Hexagone was clearly due. So we did just that, describing and shrugging our shoulders and anecdoting our way through our adopted culture, at its best: charming and warm and rich; at it’s worst: skeptical, archaic, a bureaucratic nightmare. Though to some extent, every country has a similar kind of dichotomy – le bon et le mauvais. But before I delve any further into what would surely become a longwinded political discussion, let’s turn our focus to some of the stranger sights one sees in France, at the first stop of our Tour de la Dordogne, Sarlat-la-Canéda.
My first reaction to this cherry-picker levitating in the air: why add complexity to something as simple as putting up Christmas decorations? But a second look and something even more typically French becomes apparent – A service truck blocking the entirety of a one-lane road. A car parked just next to the aforementioned truck, blocking the only way another car could possibly get around this bouchon, whose owner just moments ago, turned on the emergency lights and walked inside the tabac for a newspaper and a chat of indeterminable duration. Typique.
Foie gras is nothing short of a way of life in France. The Dordogne is a particularly popular spot for the fatty, livery, ducky or goosey delicacy – 90% is made by les Périgordins! Albeit a strange practice (the moral dimensions of which I will not discuss right now), the production and consumption of foie gras epitomizes something very special about the French – their dedication to gastronomic tradition and the lengths they’ll go to find their favorite snacks – foody pilgrimages! It’s like the Camino de Santiago, only instead of salvation, your goal is to attain a belly full of the most perfect mirabelles, the cheesiest tartiflette, the whitest asparagus, the springiest frog legs. Of course there is a Route du foie gras!
Just as beloved to the French as the corn-fattened liver of poultry is the art of inconvenience. All around Sarlat, Jin started noticing signs in shop windows: “fermeture exceptionnelle,” “fermeture annuelle,” “en congé.” In France, one must equip oneself with the emotional wherewithal to arrive at an intended destination only to find said destination with its blinds drawn and a crudely written note tacked to the door: closed for a day, closed just one more week, closed until next year – I’ve seen them all. Though I don’t think it’s what was meant the first time “laissez-faire” was uttered, the ability to gracefully change plans in spite of the Frenchy “forces that be” is critical to one’s survival here. Why is everything closed? It’s a question best left unasked.
You see? There is a part of American culture that is wholly embraced by the French! Grâce à la famille Simpson! « Haw ! Haw ! »
Last but not least: an eyeful of waxy mannequin flesh. Simultaneously celebrated and feared by outsiders, the French have a particular comfort with the human form, be it tucked precariously into a striped speedo, sculpted in marble, or selling body wash during the evening news. Sure, one’s first undressing à la française is memorable, if not traumatic, but once the novelty wears off, France starts feeling less like a plage de nudistes, and more like home.
With all the important lessons taught for the day, Jin, Phillip and I could finally spend the day exploring the whole of the Périgord Noir…