Returning to France and why it matters

A dining room at Pyla-sur-mer, France. courtesy Francois Duclert

Bordeaux, July 21, 2018 

My trip began sixty years ago, in a very different generation and place, when my mother found me a French tutor in Los Gatos, the northern California town where I grew up.    (I don’t know  why she did this, but in 1960’s America, French was still considered the language of high culture, and perhaps she had already divined my slim chances as an athlete.)

Mlle. Simenon was from Lille, a sweet older woman, and she taught me a few songs and a few words, in brief sessions at the table of her dark, curtain-drawn, 19th century Victorian apartment.  Then there was Mme. Small, at the Singapore American School in the late 1960’s, who mimicked a monkey to teach us the correct pronunciation of the difficult letter “u” and later, Mr. Keplinger, another fabulous and serious teacher at the Los Gatos High School.  (Some years later, at a party in Marin County, I told a woman that she reminded me of my former teacher. “I am Mme. Small”, she replied.  In writing this, I am thanking her again for everything. . . )

The big launch was at age 19, my sophomore year in college (1972-73?), when I took/audited courses at the famous Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris and lived with a family in their large apartment in the Auteuil section of the 16th arrondissement.  That family, the Marions, (and very especially Francois and Claude) became very good friends, as did their neighbors downstairs, the Duclerts (esp. Catherine), and a number of other people whom I now view as old and close friends.

I have returned to France this year, at nearly age 65, purportedly for some research and some time off, but also to see my friends.  This started with a 100th birthday for Andree Marion on July 8.  Almost her entire family was present, her five children, and grandchildren from France, Belgium, Taiwan and Bangkok.  They all gathered for a mass at her church in Auteuil, a large modernist space facing a garden, and then for lunch facing another garden, at a restaurant somewhere near Versailles.  She looked absolutely, almost unchangingly, fine, with the same warm, but self-contained, bearing that I remember.  Her younger daughter, now leading a religious order, gave a fine speech about her independence.  And indeed, Andree Marion has been a very strong and thoughtful Catholic, living through the war in Lyons, widowed in her 40’s, completing the support and education of five children on her own, and introducing young Americans, like me into the difficult mysteries of French discipline and manners. I should add that for an American from northern California, with demonstrative, liberal, Jewish parents, and a Viennese-born mother (with an aversion to Europe) who had escaped the Holocaust, my introduction to French bourgeois education was somewhat difficult, vaguely familiar, and very satisfying.

 

Andre Marion, and those who love her

 

I had forgotten how beautiful Paris can be, the five and six story apartment buildings, the gardens, the walkable, relatively uncrowded streets, the refinements in so many people, in every meal and on nearly every corner.  One of the wonders of leaving New York is not having to avoid people to get anywhere.  I often wonder why some New Yorkers (and the city’s planning staff) think that New York’s ever-increasing density is so great.  Cities are great places, but good stores do not thrive on astronomical rents and civilized living is not about infinite height and crowding.

Catherine Duclert (now Yokoyama) had invited me to her family’s house at Pyla-sur-mer, a beach town on the Atlantic coast’s Arcachon Bay.  We took the high-speed TGV, through Bordeaux, to Archachon, with Emilie, her daughter who now lives in Tokyo, her sister-in-law, and two mostly-adorable granddaughters,  where we joined two of her brothers who share the house or rent nearby.

 

Catherine’s granddaughters visiting their French family

 

Pyla-sur-mer and Arcachon, just next to it, are beach towns, colonized by the rich in the late 19th century and continually expanded by the similarly affluent since.  The beaches are open to the public, and accessible every few blocks, with beautiful, stone free, white sand.  The water is cool, and superbly swimmable (for those with the courage to swim where they cannot see).  The bay is full of boats, and the houses range from huge 19th century confections to simpler, but still valuable, villas or bungalows, many in an exurban “basque” style.  A few blocks away, there was a nice grocer, with morning croissants and pain au chocolat, a reasonable wine selection and other basics, and a café that managed to give me “take-out” coffee.

 

Catherine Duclert Yokoyama, my old friend, a widow, and a grandmother

 

The highlights, of course, were the conversations (arguments) and the food–on euthanasia for example while eating magret de canard, or chez Hortense, the famous mussel and oyster restaurant, on Cap Ferret, after a taxi-boat ride across the Arcachon Bay.  (and before the others watched and celebrated France’s win of the World Cup)  Or at the marketplace in Teste de Buch, where we gathered wonderful vegetables and spent a small fortune at the charcutier, on magret, a ham, saucissons and other delights. Every day, so far, has been about eating something exceptional, no more than a monthly occurrence in New York (and only when either Stefani or Suzanne is cooking).

 

Emilie

 

 

chez Hortense

 

 

 

 

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26 Responses to Returning to France and why it matters

  1. David Kesselman says:

    Hi Larry
    Happy to read between the lines….you seem deeply satisfied with your travel, company and experiences …with your long cultivated friends and the ways of France.

    Thanks for sharing this….look forward to seeing more visuals of what is catching your attention , or illustrates the big moments and the details of this other way of living…think it may provide a needed summer refreshment and help pivot away from the daily drumbeat here…

  2. Lloyd Zuckerberg says:

    Larry, I enjoyed this very much and am glad you are having such a good visit. But I hope you talk more about the big-picture themes about France and French life and culture. I feel that many Americans dismiss them as outdated, but as you say in regards to density, some of these dismissed things lead to more meaningful and satisfying lives.
    I lived in France for my junior year abroad – a full twelve months. It broadened me in so many ways.
    A la prochaine.

    • larrysicular says:

      Lloyd,
      Thanks for your comments and for calling me to a higher level.
      I am working on it . . .
      Larry

  3. John Philip says:

    Dear Larry –

    You know I will always be fascinated by what you write of your travels, and in particular of France where some of my early memories are being there with my grandmother, herself of French Huguenot background – spending a good part of her own later years reaching back to that culture.

    But I would be interested to know more about the “conversations (arguments)” – surely much of the turmoil here must be on people’s minds – and much of the turmoil there. What are they saying – or not saying – sometimes itself a key indicator – about immigration, Le Pen etc.

    And you know my curiosity on trains – what was the seating on the TGV in coach – 2 and 3 across (as they are talking of doing as a cost cutting measure) or still 2 and 2??

    And do they think Macron is right to say no more retirement on the railroad at 55!

    Love and best, always, John

    • larrysicular says:

      John,
      Thanks for your thoughtful note. I do not have all of these answers yet.

      The trains so far, have worked wonderfully, except for cancelled cars on both trips. The TGV from Paris to Bordeaux, was a miracle of comfort, but I do not remember the configuration of the seating. For the second trip, an intercity rail service from Bordeaux to Montpellier, my car and reserved seat had disappeared, but I ended up sitting alone, in one of two seats next to a window. The car was primarily two seaters, with some singles near where baggage racks were located.

      The new Montpellier station is a bit of fiasco, a miracle of modernity, but somewhat distant from the city centre. When I came out of the station, there was not a bus in sight, so I took an expensive cab instead.

      Regarding immigration, I do hear negative comments, generally focused on a perceived unwillingness of Muslims to assimilate. The people who say these things are well educated and privileged. I have no basis for agreement or disagreement. Although these types of remarks are generally frowned-upon in New York, I understand that the particularities, history, and politics of Muslim immigration in Europe, may be unlike our largely Latino and Asian immigration at home. On the other hand, I do tell myself that my ancestors lived in ghettos, dressed in a very specific and peculiar fashion, were viewed as foreign, unwilling or unable to assimilate, and were subject to similar accusations through much of European history.

      Larry

  4. Philip Corso says:

    Your column makes me recall stories my uncle told me of Austria during the war and how he fell in love with that certain graciousness of European life that contrasts so strongly with American hustle and bustle. They eat beautiful food, sip fine wine and converse and interact at a luxurious pace. I want very much to travel to Italy and experience that. Anyway, glad you enjoyed your trip. I haven’t been back east in some time. Hope you are well.

    • larrysicular says:

      Imagine that that came through, even after the war.
      Maybe you have more leisure since moving to Ohio?
      See you soon, I hope. Larry

  5. Craig Notte says:

    Larry, thinking of you and what a beautifully written piece!

  6. Alan and Susan says:

    Larry,

    This is an absolutely beautiful description of your visit with your ‘extended’ family and the places the you’ve visited. I loved the background: the French teachers, the mention of your mom, the mention of meeting Mme. Small again in Marin, the pictures, the description of the places you went, and the little peek into French culture. Please write more. I can’t wait to read about your next adventures. Sending you hugs and love on your travels. A and S.

  7. Wanda says:

    Loved reading this! Glad you are happy and eating well!

  8. Carolyn Douglas says:

    This is wonderful, Larry. I look forward to the installmem you’ll writ (I hope) after your visit to Tinchebray —shall we say the weekend of August 25th? 😘😘😘

  9. Connie says:

    What a treat to read and wonderful photos of your French friends!!! Loved hearing about your adventures and jealous as can be of all the wonderful meals and conversations and just the plain absorption of life in France that you are experiencing. Do wish that my visit to the Gers would have coincided with your trip as would have loved to have shown you around the bastide towns in my area.

    • larrysicular says:

      Oh, I would have loved that too. Perhaps you’ll have to hold onto the house, until my next visit.

      Larry

  10. Mindy says:

    Your best writing. I see you in every turn of phrase, every choice of image. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  11. larrysicular says:

    Doesn’t get better than a compliment like this.

  12. Timothy Harwood says:

    Larry,

    Simply delightful – thanks so much for sharing! Makes me want to go back to the UK again, although of course the food, weather and clothes are all worse, and one can’t swim in the water. Hope you get to Uzes – enjoy!

    Tim

  13. Marie-Dominique De Cock says:

    Merci mon cher Larry!
    Quel beau compte-rendu de ce magnifique séjour ou ” retour aux sources ” pour ton âme qui a tant soif d’amitié sincères, d’authenticité et de bel art de vivre.
    J’espère que tu poursuivras ce témoignage et surtout que tu pourras y rester autant que le coeur t’en dit! C’est un repos bien mérité aussi.
    Fais gaffe a cette charcuterie….on en mangerait tous les jours!
    Je pense a toi,
    Dominique

  14. Rakesh says:

    Hi Larry,
    Loved your blog on returning to France.
    Our search for meaning seems to draw us to the people and places of our formative years, to a time when we knew we were going to live forever.
    Keep up the good writing, and thank you for sharing.
    Rakesh

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