(Copyright 1997. The Tattoo. All rights reserved.)

The Tattoo

--- Making a Permanent Impression Since 1994 ---

May 19, 1997

---Travel---

A Connecticut Yankee finds himself in France

By BRIAN LARUE
Tattoo Staff Writer

FRANCE - It is an all-American premonition that
all things European, especially French, are
superior to what we have at home.

Even after visiting France with a Bristol
Eastern High School group last month, it would
be far too biased of me to deem French culture
better or worse than ours. I'll settle to say
it's different.

Granted, they do have a few things that we
don't: Government regulations on bread prices;
streets full of tiny cars; a history of being
invaded; a surplus of bad mimes; and really,
really old things. 

I have that sinking feeling that the first thing
teens want to ask is, "They don't have a
drinking age limit in France, do they?" No, they
don't.

But, on the flip side, the driving age is 18. As
a result of that, plenty of teenagers ride
mopeds or motorcycles. A lot of adults do as
well, since gas prices are so high.

The gas prices are what force the French into
those little Peugeots, Renaults, and Citroens. I
don't think I saw a sedan on the whole trip.

I know that the second thing you'll ask is
probably, "Did you see the Eiffel Tower?" Now,
who has ever gone to Paris and missed the Eiffel
Tower? 

You now will most likely ask, "Isn't there a
restaurant up there? Did you eat there?" Yes,
there is an restaurant, but it's a tad pricey. I
did, however, bring along a Twix bar so I could
say I ate at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Your next query may be, "Did you see that Louvre
thing? Was it really big?" It's sort of big,
true, in the sense that if you stop for five
seconds in front of every work of art, it'll
take you upwards of two years to make it
through. This is a real statistic.

Of course, everyone goes to the Louvre museum to
see the Mona Lisa. We were lucky enough to have
visited during renovations to its home gallery;
the crowds were too confused to all make it
Mona's temporary room.

Yet another question of yours is likely to be,
"Did you see that arch thing?" Yes, the Arc de
Triomphe was right down the street from our
hotel in Paris. When I arrived at my room, I
immediately ran to the window. The hotel sign
was blocking my view perfectly.

Paris is notoriously clean. The morning after we
arrived, I witnessed a street sweeper cleaning
the sidewalk. Graffiti was so rare that I took a
photo when I finally saw some. Even the Metro
was clean.

Since this is where most people's knowledge of
Paris ends, I write with a cynical edge. But we
saw more while we were there: the Pompidou
Center, built with the pipes and support beams
exposed on the outside; the Place de la
Concorde, one of the world's most beautiful
squares, built around an Egyptian obelisk; the 
vibrant Latin Quarter, where we ran into a
couple of obscene shopkeepers (or did they work
there?); the Gothic masterpiece Notre Dame
Cathedral (no, not that one - no one plays
football there); and Jim Morrison's overrated
grave.

Alas, we had to leave Paris for the provinces
after three days. It was off to chateau country
in the Loire Valley. Our friendly,
knowledgeable, British courier Annie told us all
about the kings who used to hang out there on
the weekends - Henri III, the transvestite, and
Louis XIV, who thought he had great legs, and
the like. (If I had the kind of money they had,
I'd probably have the time to develop a few
idiosyncrasies myself.)

One of our chaperones and a trip co-organizer,
BEHS English teacher Ms. Hayward, pulled a
clever stunt at the gardens at Versailles. "Let
me tell you about this fountain," she said at
one point, gesturing to the fountain, which then
turned on as if on cue. The previous evening she
had pressed the button for the crosswalk on the
Avenue des Champs Elysees in Paris, which
appeared to signal all of the street lights to 
turn on.

By now, we were spending much of our time on the
tour bus. This meant, for some people, extra
time to sleep. Sleep! This wasn't a cheap trip.
I refused to doze my way through it. "Hey," I
said to myself, thinking like an American, "this
may be a cow pasture, but it's a French cow
pasture, and, darn it, isn't that enough?"

Driving laws in France are, I think, optional.
To cross a city street, one takes one's life in
one's hands. The French drive like maniacs.

In speaking of the mobile leg of the trip, I
realize now how many churches we visited, for a
public school and all - Notre Dame Cathedral,
the abbey at Mont St.-Michel, Chartres
Cathedral. But it's all about architecture,
really.

While in Normandy, we visited, of course, the
D-Day Beaches. I won't dwell on that because,
frankly, I can't be flippant about it.

Then there was the Bayeux Tapestry, essentially
a 70-meter long medieval rug with the
illustrated story of the Norman conquest of
England on it. It's really quite a story. I
mean, hey, if people called you William the 
Bastard, I'm sure you'd rather be William the
Conqueror as well.

A great deal is made of French rudeness. I
didn't pick up on that, though.

Two things got on my nerves: for one, no one who
bumped into me or anyone else ever apologized
for it. A simple "pardon" would suffice, but no.
For another, I hated how I could walk into a
store, struggle through negotiating a purchase
in French, and find out upon having my purchase
rung up that the counterperson could speak
English, sometimes annoyingly well.

And the exchange rate. We were all slaves to the
exchange rate. The value of the dollar bounced
around between, I think, 5.1 and 5.48 francs.

Those of us who paid attention were entitled to
a news-related treat. President Chirac decided
that he didn't like his Parliament, so he
dissolved it. They all have to go home now so
that special elections can be held. I don't know
how often this has happened before, but Chirac
was all over television explaining why he did
it. I would've liked to hear whether Parliament
agreed.

I went to France expecting to see in Paris some
of Europe's famed ravers walking the streets. I
didn't see any.

I did catch some of the French equivalent to
MTV, though. I thought it was rather lame. "The
French do listen to techno," explained Annie,
"but it's not even the good techno." 

The French have difficulty comprehending
vegetarianism as well. We often had dinner at
our hotel, for one thing, so everyone received
the same meal, except for us four vegetarians.
Eggs were the most common fallback for the hotel
chefs in these cases.

When we were left to our own devices, for
example, in the Latin Quarter, things could get
tricky. It was an adventure to get it past these
restaurateurs that "only a little meat" can keep
an entree from being vegetarian. Fortunately,
there was always the alternate of picking up a
baguette ("loaf of French bread" to you)
instead.

But enough of this. It is perhaps worthy of
mention that when we returned to the States, we
came in at not New York City but New Jersey.

Our first sight of our native land upon return
was Newark. Sigh ironically here.


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