My time in Europe is rapidly coming to an end. I went walking and sight-seeing today and reflected at times on what my French experience has been. I’m aware that when I left Italy I tried to sum up my impressions of the country in a couple of posts back then, and I was thinking that it would be good to try to do the same as I prepare to leave France.
I found that a challenging assignment to set for myself.
France feels less alien than Italy did. Perhaps that is because the culture shock of the transition from home to Italy had started to ease by the time I left Italy and there was less of a culture shock in the transition to France, or perhaps the longer time I have spent in France has left me more comfortable with being here. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to find ways to gather up what my time here has been and put it into words. There is something enigmatic about France for me.
I walked a long way today, from Rue Labat in the 18th arrondisement, past the Moulin Rouge, through Parc Monceau, down to Place Charles de Gaulle, down the Champs Elysee to the Petit Palais, across Pont Neuf, and through the Rive Gauche. Let me share two photos I took along the way and try to use them to give a sense of how I see France.
The bleu blanc rouge had been hoisted within the Arc de Triomphe when I arrived there today. It flew proudly in the breeze, reflecting the strong sense of self that I have encountered within France. There is something formal and idealised and profoundly aware of its uniqueness within that sense of self. I believe that the accusation of arrogance that is sometimes levelled at the French is unfair. It is not necessarily arrogant to know yourself and to be aware of what sets you apart from the rest of the world. Rather it is more a healthy kind of self-knowledge and self-assurance. While I have seen that in many of the French people I have met, it has been balanced with an interest and a desire to know about the rest of the world, which has shown itself in the way that people have been interested in me and what I am doing here in Europe.
At the other end of the Champs Elysee I went to the Petit Palais, where the Paris Museum of Fine Art is housed. I was very taken with this portrait of Mademoiselle de Lancey by Charles Durand, painted in May 1876. Mademoiselle de Lancey was 25 at the time, and she is shown here reclining comfortably on a chaise, elegantly dressed in a low cut satin gown, her ankles exposed, her eyes bright, and a coquettish smile across her face. She hints, or perhaps it is more than hinting, at the sensuousness of which she seems capable, and yet she is still quite proper and refined. She almost represents another side of France, alluring, attractive, yet unattainable, not yet ready to reveal all of her secrets to this traveller, but prepared to suggest that they are there.
My time in Europe has coincided with the first 100 days of the Presidency of Francois Hollande in France. I heard on the BBC World News at one point about a policy he is introducing to increase the taxes on foreigners (many of whom are English, apparently) who buy or own real estate in France and who reside part time here. I think I can begin to understand both elements of that situation. I can understand why France would be attractive to a foreigner as a place to come and live, even if it is only for part of the time. I can also understand why the French Government and the French people would see that these property owners are a legitimate group to tax in order to support the needs of the Republic of France. It is Mademoiselle de Lancey and the bleu blanc rouge flying in the Arc de Triomphe. The enigma of the formality and the attraction.
Would I buy here, and live here? Could the enigma take on a personal dimension? Oh, now what a question that is!