When I touched down in Tours on Thursday, it was my first return to France since leaving Grenoble in the summer of 2007, almost three years ago. The two times I had been to Paris in between don't count, as Paris is as different from France as London is from England, and the short drive from Paris to Giverny doesn't count either. That was just a deserted village (and home of Monet in old age) and a lot of motorway miles. This time was really the first time I'd see the country again, and I was curious about how I would perceive it.
When I had left, I didn't exactly do so with a heavy heart. I hadn't exactly felt at home. For being a threefold university town and the site of a large European research facility, Grenoble felt depressingly provincial and un-happening. It is embedded at the confluence of two rivers by three mountain ranges rising thousands of feet, and the mountains and the activities they offer is what constitute the appeal of Grenoble. Its inhabitants are always out and about, mostly hiking, but also skiing and biking.
The mountains played a big part in attracting me to Grenoble and I benefited from them as much as I could, mostly by whipping my increasingly less inadequate legs up the various climbs that started within minutes from my apartment. But the mountains are not everything to me, and it was this something else I found wanting. Concerts and festivals passed me by for the most part. Add to this that I didn't make any (none, it is true) French friends, and it's easy to understand that I didn't cry hot tears when I drove off north.
Going back, I wondered whether I would fall in love with the country all over again. When I still went to school, my family went on a road trip to the Alsace, which I liked a lot but mostly in a family vacation way. But as an undergrad I went to the Calanques twice, a region of limestone cliffs and Mediterranean bays near Marseilles, and it was there that the fantasy of one day living in France took hold. This fantasy is now buried, but how is France?
In one word only, beautiful. Most small towns and village look as if the judges for Charmingest village, prettiest town competition had only passed through yesterday, as if the places had donned their finest to impress them. The municipal beauty contest does indeed exist, and proud signs underneath the town signs applauds the successes (village fleuri). More impressive, though, is the look of the towns themselves, with their neatly trimmed shrubbery and manicured trees, with spotless little parks, with the shutters on most houses sparkling with fresh paint and all shops tastefully advertising their business. There is hardly a chain store, and the few that persist blend in.
The reason for the absence of chains is that the French love hopping into their little cars and going shopping in the mega-malls outside town. That's where the enormous grocery, home improvement, furniture, sports goods, and electronics stores are. In town are mostly fashion boutiques and upscale retailers that hang on for dear life. They're often empty of customers. So while the towns and villages are all intensely pleasing to the eye, I wouldn't want to live there. Unless they are tourist destinations they can feel deserted, almost dead. The inhabitants are either at home, doing the things happy families do, or in the mall, shopping. I'm neither kind of guy.
The French are often characterized as arrogant, not exactly for nothing. But they base their arrogance on being French, and that's enough to give them a kick. They don't need flashy cars or big houses or other status symbols because none would add much beyond Frenchness. This became very clear to me on the Atlantic coast. There isn't much of renown between Nantes and Bordeaux, and Nantes isn't exactly renowned itself. But there are endless sandy beaches, unspoiled nature and dreamlike outlying islands – and an economy that seems very much in tune with these three aspects of the land. Peace and calm (and more sunshine than almost anywhere in France) are the selling point to get the tourists that don't need the name recognition of the Côte d'Azure, and fishing, oyster farming, and sea salt extraction keep the accounts balanced outside the crowded summer months. I always saw many more fishing boats and modest barges than yachts. And even the yachts looked modest.
I was surprised to see how cheap France is; I didn't remember it as such. Granted, cheap might not be the right word, but France is certainly not excessively expensive as a holiday destination. I remember eating out in Grenoble mostly for its thirty-euro prix-fixe dinners. The food was great but the hole in the pocket substantial. On the Ile de Noirmoutier, an island of fishermen, oyster farmers and salt baggers, I had a three-course dinner with two different kinds of fish fresh from the sea for twenty euros, and this included a glass of wine and a coffee. Has the much talked-about deflation finally arrived?
Right now I'm in Figeac, an enchanting small town of spotlessly restored medieval buildings lining cobbled alleys. A few plazas break up the urban density and make room for restaurants and cafés. But there aren't many, and neither are there people. It's a rainy Sunday afternoon and mother's day on top. The locals must be at home, huddled around the coffee table. I get an espresso on a terrace that's barely kept dry by large square umbrellas. Leaning back, I let the previous four days pass before me again. I realize that when I fly back to London tomorrow, I will love France for its beauty and flavors but be free from any desire of living here again.
And by the way, after having the hardest time finding it, I did tour Jean Balluet's little shop and bought a few bottles of his Très Vieille Réserve. But that's for another story.