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A Quick Ten Days in France
France is old, complicated, and probably misunderstood.

by Michael H. Thomson
May 25, 2005

I've just returned from France. This is somewhat surprising to me because, except for a brief border crossing in 1968, I've never had any desire or willingness to go there. Events of the past few years have merely compounded my attitude. Jacque Chirac and representatives of France in the UN have not endeared me of late to anything French. Yet on May 13, 2005, my wife and I boarded a United Airlines flight to that country.  So what's the reason for my change of attitude?
My wife works in a job that requires extensive international travel. She works primarily in Moscow, Kazakhstan, and of course, France. She accumulates thousands of travel miles on her little card that accumulates such things. Recenty an opportunity arose that allowed her a few days off before her scheduled work visit to Toulouse, France, so we decided to use the travel points and visit Paris and then afterwards I would accompany her to Toulouse.
Arriving in Paris, I was shocked to discover Charles De Gaulle Airport is not as busy or hustle bustle as Dulles International Airport in Loudoun County, Virginia – get it right – Dulles serves Washington, D.C., but is located twenty miles away. Charles De Gaulle looks more like a mid-scale airport in the Midwest than an international airport in Europe. Security was tight. Soldiers were everywhere carrying what I surmised were Uzis. Customs was easy. We traveled light.
From the airport, we traveled by subway to a point south of the Seine where our hotel was located.  When the subway emerged from the darkness and I could get a look at my surroundings out the window, I was surprised at how old everything looked. Yes, Paris is old. Centuries old and in that part of Paris below Charles de Gaulle – it was somewhat crummy looking. There was gang graffiti everywhere. Keep in mind the gang graffiti – I will come back to it.
The subway trip took about 45 minutes and put us within a half block of our hotel, a Holiday Inn Express.  Hotels in France are built for midgets. Surprisingly though I didn't see any. Our hotel was nice, but small. The room size would be about half of a Holiday Inn Express found in the U.S., otherwise it was a nice room.  The continental breakfast was out of this world. Eggs, pastries, cereals, fruit, juices, coffee, espresso, ham, and other things you wouldn't see on a continental breakfast menu in most American motels.
After changing clothes and resting a bit, we left the room and headed back to the subway. In ten minutes, we were at the Notre Dame Cathedral.  My wife's heritage is Roman Catholic and mine is primarily Protestant, but we both agreed that Notre Dame Cathedral – even with the crowds visiting it – is an awe inspiring and spiritual place. It took nearly a hundred and fifty years to build with years of reconstruction after that. In the nave of the Cathedral, you can feel the love and pain of the centuries and the impact of the decisions made in that Cathedral. Joan of Arc was demonized and beatified there. Great kings and princes of France worshipped, married, and were eulogized there. Simple people worked and practiced their faith. There was room for all. 
After visiting Notre Dame, we hung around the neighborhood for a while and got a bite at a small French bistro two blocks away.  We were hungry and the food was simple and appetizing. Notre Dame was still having its impact on us. Leaving the restaurant, we noticed an advertisement for tours of Paris by tour boat along the Seine. Eighteen bucks later, we were on board for an hour's worth of beautiful scenery of the architecture of Paris. Debarking, we caught the subway back to our hotel for a deep sleep.
The next morning was that killer breakfast then off to the subway and to a train that took us to Versailles, a place that gave me a better understanding of the French Revolution than I ever received in the classroom.  After nearly four hours of viewing the self-glorification of  French Royalty, I was ready to grab a pitchfork and start burning something. Noteworthy were the gardens… Not noteworthy was having to wait in a line and pay 50 cents to go to the toilet. Lunch was in a French restaurant pretending to be Italian. I have no comments on the fare.
New day, killer breakfast, 15 minutes on the subway, new part of the city – very nice, and then we begin our visit of the Louvre. Awesome, great, tremendous, there are a dearth of adjectives to describe the place – starting from the great glass pyramid where you enter to the endless galleries of the great masters to the Egyptian Collection. Unlike most museums, a camera enthusiast can take photographs in most parts of the museum. Over the top of several gathered heads, I got nearly a full view of Mona Lisa and with my arms stretched – snapped away.  The downside on the Louvre is there is so much of it!  If I ever go back to Paris – which is possible – I will probably spend most of my time there.  There are plenty of nice modern toilets – and they are free.
This part of our holiday was over and the next day my wife Elizabeth had to go to work on the other side of the country in the South of France. After the now famous killer breakfast, we boarded the Paris-Bordeaux-Toulouse bullet train and departed Paris for Toulouse – the second largest city in France. From my view out the window for six hours, I discovered that France is very agricultural. Sprawling fields, small towns, and remember the gang graffiti? It was everywhere. I don't understand it. At no time on the trip did I ever feel threatened or see anything that I considered dangerous, but I'm still scratching my head over the gang signs. If any reader familiar with France can explain this, I would sure appreciate it if you will send PO a letter. Oh, by the way, have I mentioned rail transportation in France is awesome.

You can go everywhere by rail. Fill your carry bag with goodies to eat and drink, a book, a magazine, and sit back for a smooth comfortable ride. Our ride to Toulouse was as enjoyable as any other part of the trip and not in the least, boring.
Toulouse was different and southern. Easy going – more like Spain – and very laid back. Since Elizabeth was working, I was on my own and hoofed the city. I was fearful of renting a car because of the size of the streets. I have to have plenty of room. Note: In all of France I never saw what I would call a full size automobile. In fact I saw plenty of cars that looked like they unfolded out of suitcases. I guess high fuel prices and narrow traffic lanes equal extremely small cars.

Food in Toulouse is excellent and varied. Restrooms are found in all restaurants, but warning dear traveler – in many cases they are unisex and have attendants of either sex who are standing right in there with you!
On our return trip to Paris, we stayed in a very expensive Marriott – it cost us nothing because of our acquired Marriott points. Again, we had a very small room that was less comfortable than the Holiday Inn Express. If I could a bug in Brother Marriott's ear it would say, "Brother Marriott, try Americanizing Marriott-Paris. You might actually make more money and have happier guests. Also, please fix your heating system and export some kids from Salt Lake City who are bi-lingual.
Suggestions to France after a 10 day visit:
Cleanliness could be improved
More restrooms are needed
Widen your roads
Clean up the gang graffiti
Do something about your water supply – the technology exists
Otherwise, France, your people are wonderful, not rude or arrogant like I was led to believe. Your historic sites are overwhelming. You have food for every taste and restaurants everywhere. You are a country in your own right and are not daunted or intimidated by others – even though most Americans don't like this quality.  After first being doubtful, I will again visit your shores!

About the Author:
Mike Thomson was the only male in his French Class at Porter High School in Maryville, Tennessee and was unmercilessly teased by his buddies on the football team who nicknamed him Pierre.

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