France: “Let Them Eat Cake”

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In France, I indulged in orgasmic, gastronomical delights. Food here is taken to an entirely different level of enjoyment. I frequented Helmut Newcake where I gained experience ordering desserts in French. Here I could stay cozy and warm reading and people watching from behind glass as I savoured gluten-free pastries and café créme. The éclair vanille was flaky and moist with a light, delightful cream center.

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My Parisian friend, aware of my love for reading, took me to a wine bar decorated by books where we were treated to fine wine, flirtatious conversation, and a kiss or two by some charming men. Greetings and good-byes are full of kisses and smiles in France. Two kisses on either cheek are customary and made me blush every time.

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It is common to see dogs with their noses peeking out of handbags and from under tables, or if small enough, from their companions’ laps saying, “Hello!” Men and women are beautiful in a simple natural way like the style of my favorite Hollywood actress, Audrey Hepburn, who very much defined the French look for Americans during her time. At the Hôtel de Ville there was an exhibit titled Paris Seen by Hollywood, which shed light on Parisian stereotypes. With most stereotypes, there are essences of truth, but none can fully describe a country and its people.

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I found that saying “Bonjour!,” “Parlez-vous anglais?,” and “Merci beaucoup.” helped me make friends quite easily, even if I had no idea what the person said in response. Together we laughed at our poor language skills and mimed most of what we were trying to say to the entertainment of those around us. According to researchers, over half of communication is body language anyways.

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I found the French people incredibly welcoming and the setting awe-inspiring. Buildings here are magnificently built, and one becomes very aware how small we are in comparison to the whole universe.

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Shakespeare and Company was my favorite spot, a book store filled with the comforting smell of written works, old and new. People from all over come to this gem to soak knowledge in whilst curling up in little nooks where walls are covered by notes from fellow lover’s of books. You can leave your own words on the walls by using the little type writer at the top of the stairs located in a small hole in the wall that reminded me of childhood days when “I would set-up office” under my dad’s desk and imagine I was working too.

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I found myself drawn to the churches in Paris, my Catholic roots still tugging at my soul. The Catholic church says baptism and confirmation leave indelible marks, perhaps they are right. I sat through a mass at St. Ambroise Church and felt an ache in my chest. Deep inside resides a longing for the community I once felt being Catholic, but beside that lies an even deeper disgust and anger at how religions can be used to rage wars and control people. “With great power, comes great responsibility” and with it most often comes corruption and lies. Religions contribute to society in many ways, especially in their charity to homeless, but their power scares me. I find the most peace in trying to formulate my own opinions from a variety of sources and to always be open to change. I fear stagnant black and white answers because life, in my experience, is more about the uncomfortable gray. Life undefined means we are all responsible to seek our own truth, and that can be a lonely, uncertain path at times, but I find comfort in knowing it is my path.

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While at the Paris Seen by Hollywood exhibit, there was a magazine opened to a page that was an advert for a movie filmed in Paris. What caught my eye, however, was unrelated to the exhibit. On the other page of the 1921 magazine, was an advert for Palmolive titled, “Would Your Husband Marry You Again?” I began reading out of curiosity and was mortified by the very obvious misogynistic undertones, “Fortunate is the woman who can answer ‘Yes.’ But many a woman, if she is honest with herself, is forced to be in doubt- after that she pays stricter attention to her personal attractions.” It blatantly is saying that to hold on to a man, a woman must have this product, instilling in her an idea she is not worth keeping around unless she stays beautiful by his standards. How nauseating, but even more so when I realized that post-feminist movement women are still allowing these types of media to drive how they interact with men. The anti-female sentiments are still there, just less obvious. I feel lucky to have the opportunities I do as an educated American woman, to be traveling around the world by myself as I am. In 1921, I probably would not have had this opportunity. That being said, we have a long way to go before we reach any kind of equal state. Patriarchy is still happening and keeping women from reaching their full potential, the difference is women in America can do something about it in the twenty-first century by speaking out against the misogyny that still is rampant in society, by working towards a world that respects, not men, women, or race, but human beings.

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Voting was an adventure. My missing ballot was the cause of great panic amongst, not only myself, but several French people I conversed with, but it led to a nice visit to the American Embassy in Paris where they were kind enough to fax my vote for me. It was nice to be greeted the morning after the election with “Hooray Obama!” emails from several of my European friends as I left for the Netherlands. I was a bit ashamed though to realize just how much more up-to-date Europeans are on world politics than most people I know in the USA.

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In my teen years, I found myself walking my dog through the local cemetery and reading under its trees. I enjoyed wandering the pathways and looking at the gravestones, imagining the stories of those buried below. I wondered how they died and if they were still loved, missed or forgotten. I would pick flowers and place them on lonely sites. I remember one in particular because below the stone was a baby whose birthday was the same as mine. I stopped at this one frequently. She reminded me of my own mortality, that it was just luck that I was above the ground and she was below. At Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, I saw lovers holding each other tight on benches, admiring the fall colors of the trees shading dead bodies; a lonely widow hobbling up and down steps with flowers and a bucket of water; families clearing away broken glass; others gathering with tears and laughter in courtyards to wave goodbye to loved ones, a procession of black; and confused tourists holding maps and cameras up in front of their faces while stumbling about seeing everything and nothing at the same time: “Honey, according to this map Van Morrison should be right here.” “Do you know where Oscar Wilde is? I can’t seem to find him.” “Hey everyone, it’s the Adams Family! You be Cousin It; I’ll be….” I found the contrast between the living and dying rather lovely to observe.

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Versailles was incredibly large. The grand halls of the palace, surrounding gardens, pools, farm houses, and estates would take a week to properly wander through. I focused on the retreat of Marie-Antoinette with its quaint little living spaces and cream/lavender tower overlooking a pond of Koi fish. I found the trellises guiding visitors along pathways to be enticing and was one of the last to leave as the sun went down.

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Mont-St. Michel Abbey was my introduction to the French coast. A mirage in the distance, a great spire reaching towards the heavens, it barely looked real, and one doesn’t truly believe it is until you are walking amongst its spiralling walls lined with cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops. This paradise, an island surrounded by water at high tide and a death trap of quick sand at low tide, has been a great fortress, prison, and sanctuary over the years. A village with an abbey at the center. If I were god, I would want to reside in this heaven of fairy tale dreams.

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Catching up with a fellow couch-surfer and now very dear friend in her own city was the best gift of my travels to France. At the beginning of the year, we met and found ourselves on similar paths and have grown together as travel companions, adventurers, and seekers. The conversations were inspiring and paired with lovely settings, delectable delights, the occasional cigarette with wine, dance workouts, watching movies, meeting her lovely friends, trying not to chop off fingers while making squash soup, giggle fits and other silly antics, and most certainly chocolate!

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