In the south, one's senses get keener, one's hand becomes more agile, one's eye more alert, one's brain clearer.
- Vincent Van Gogh
However, it must be admitted that TGV travel tends to be a bit on the sterile side; the great speed tends to isolate one from the passing landscape, more so than on the slower local trains. This isn't such a loss on the first part of the Paris-Avignon run, where the view is pretty boring - beautiful green fields and pastures, but monotonous after a while - but later on, getting into the hill country along the Rhône, there were times when I wished we could slow down a bit.
All my life I had heard it said, repeated by travelers from the most casual to the most experienced: "The French are not friendly people." (Often with the coda, "They're especially nasty to Americans."
Well, I had only been in France a few days, and no doubt seen too little to form solid opinions; but based on my experience so far, my response would have been a resounding, "Bullshit!"
On the contrary, I had found the French on the whole a very friendly people, very pleasant and unfailingly polite, and very helpful to at least one stranger. To be sure, there had been a few assholes, but you get them anywhere and I hadn't found the percentage any higher in France than anywhere else I'd been.
Considering this, I thought perhaps part of the problem came from different ideas of what constitutes "friendly" behavior. One big thing, I suspected, was that Americans expect people to smile, constantly and enthusiastically, for any reason or none; smile smile smile, it's expected and if you don't do it they think you're being unfriendly. They used to hammer us with that in encyclopedia-sales training, and I got a lot of shit because I didn't smile with sufficient warmth and "sincerity"...and I'm told that in just about any job that involves dealing with the public, you can get reprimanded if you don't smile enough.
The French, on the other hand, are a dignified and civilized people who do not go in for grinning all the time like a bunch of chimps; they can and do smile, most beautifully, but only when they mean it, when they've got a reason. To my mind this is a major point in favor of the French; I have long considered this national smile-fetish to be one of the most vulgar manifestations of American culture, on a par with the custom of first-naming people one has just met - and an unattractive one; as Jack Kerouac pointed out, a big smile is nothing but a lot of teeth.... But I imagine this is one reason a lot of Americans get the idea the French are "unfriendly."
I didn't find the French unfriendly; I did find them a people with a keen sense of personal space - I don't think I ever met a pushy Frenchman, or ever had one ask me a lot of nosy questions. (I did have some less pleasant encounters with some of the numerous Levantine population, particularly in Paris - Syrians and Lebanese can be a real pain in the ass - but you can hardly blame the French for that....)
Another bit of oft-repeated wisdom, which I had been told many times in the weeks prior to this trip: "If you try to speak French, they won't admit they can understand you. Unless you speak it absolutely perfectly, they'll put you down." Balls. My French is dreadfully bad, about on a par with Tarzan's English; yet I found French people unfailingly patient and receptive to my efforts, even though it must have hurt their teeth to hear what I was doing to their language. Time and again, upon apologizing for my bad French, I was told: "Oh, but I can understand you." Nobody ever even corrected me, though I rather wished they would, so i could improve.
(The one problem I did have was with the occasional person who thought he spoke English, and didn't. Now and then I'd run into someone who would insist on speaking English, and ignore my efforts to switch to French, even though I couldn't understand a word he was saying. And now and then a waiter or concierge or shopkeeper would try out a few English words on me; but they were obviously just trying to be helpful. I never had any impression they were putting down my efforts to speak French.)
It may seem that I was getting pretty hasty in forming conclusions, considering I'd only been in the country less than a week; but in the days ahead, traveling about and in and out of France, I never had occasion to change my views. Maybe there is some part of France where people are surly and rude and hostile, but I never went there. Never went anywhere they weren't damn nice to me....
Down along the Rhône valley below Lyon the country got more interesting, rugged-looking mountains on the horizon - nothing of Alp size, but even a small mountain looks impressive in that low-lying terrain - and here and there closing in along the river so the train passed among wild, grotesquely shaped rock formations. Then the valley opened out again and a little while later we were easing to a stop in Avignon.
(I am indebted to Barbara Tuchman's magnificent A Distant Mirror for much of my information on the history of 14th-century France; I strongly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to France - it definitely enriched my own journey immeasurably.)
The Avignon Popes certainly lived high off the hog; the interior of the palace is said to be full of wonderful art treasures, though I didn't go in to see for myself. According to contemporary reports, they definitely knew how to party; Popes and cardinals and lesser clergy, together with their mistresses and various whores and catamites, had some splendid-sounding orgies within these walls. The Avignon Popes were on the whole a pretty cultured and intellectual lot; corrupt and cynical they certainly were, and enthusiastically decadent - though they never got up to anything to equal the later Borgia gang - but in their way enlightened. Clement VI, for example, extended Papal protection over the Jews of Avignon, at a time when Jews were being exterminated all over Europe, and tried to use his influence to get Christians to stop murdering them, which is more than certain of his supposedly legitimate successors bothered to do.
And the town itself blossomed, filling up with all sorts of hustlers and procurers and other medieval service-industry representatives; whatever the moral and religious shortcomings of the Avignon Papacy, it must have done wonders for the economy of Avignon itself. The atmosphere is not entirely gone even now; there is still a definite let-the-good-times-roll feeling about the town, especially on a holiday weekend such as was coming up....
And speaking of dancing -
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