First Thoughts on France

Posted: June 6, 2009    Categories: France

Photo I took in Paris in 1999

Photo I took in Paris in 1999

I’ve been in France for several days now after my stunning train ride across the Alps from Turin, Italy. It was by far the most beautiful train trip I’ve ever taken and I crossed five national boundaries during the journey: Italy, France, Italy, France, Monaco, France. I have never been in the Alps before so it was quite the experience. Sadly, I didn’t get to take any photos as I was inside a moving train going in and out of tunnels the entire time.

For the forth time on my trip, I am in a country which I have previously visited (the others being Japan, Taiwan and Singapore). I have also been to two French territories at the start of my trip: French Polynesia and New Caledonia. I am hardly a Franco noob, yet I find visiting France a bit more difficult than I did visiting Italy. I think it is primarily due to the language. Italian is very easy to pronounce. If you can read English, you will have little trouble pronouncing most Italian worlds. French, on the other hand, will usually just make you look foolish if you try to pronounce things like you would in English. I feel that I could pick up Italian if I made a concerted effort to try. I’m not sure about French, however. I realize that French and Italian both have similar roots, but for the life of me something about French just doesn’t click with me. As in Italy, the movies and television shows from outside the country are dubbed, not subtitled.

Painting at Chagall Museum

Painting at Chagall Museum

Nice is…..nice. (Sorry, I just had to use that one) The French Riviera isn’t what I thought it would be. I had always heard legends about the beaches here, but honestly, if I were to rank them of all the beaches I’ve seen, it would not rank very high. There is no sand. The coast is very rugged and beaches I’ve seen in Monaco and Nice are mostly gravel. The seashore is very beautiful, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great beaches. Likewise, my trip to Monaco was pretty underwhelming. I’ll be writing more on it later, but suffice to say if you don’t have a mega yacht, it isn’t really designed for you.

Once thing I’ve noticed about France compared to other countries is that you don’t see a lot of mom and pop French restaurants on the street. You’ll find brasseries and cafes, but French cuisine seems to be a really high end thing. (haute cuisine?) You wont find many of the classical dishes with sauces at low end establishments, or at least I haven’t seen any. I don’t know if that is a Nice thing or a France thing, however. I would like to have one high end French meal before I leave the country.

Street scene in Nice

Street scene in Nice

While in Nice I’ve visited the Musee Matisse and Musee Chagall which focus on works from both painters. I was only vaguely aware of either artist prior to visiting the museums. I had heard of the names but if you had challenged me to describe what they did or to identify one of their works I couldn’t have done it. I was very impressed with the works of Chagall. I from what I’ve seen (and subsequent searches online) I think there is a good argument to be made for him being one of the 20th Century’s greatest painters. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with the Matisse works, save for some of the designs he had made for a chapel, which I don’t know if it was ever built. The Matisse museum is located in his former house which is almost as picturesque as the art inside.

Nice is a much more diverse city than I would have expected. There is a sizable population of Africans, Arabs and Asians who live here. The immediate area around my hotel is mostly Asian restaurants and kebob stands. Nice is the second largest city in France, but you’d never guess it. It just doesn’t seem like a huge city. There is no discernible city center with large office buildings. Even Paris has one off in the suburbs (so not to ruin the classic skyline of the city).

I’m always interested in border communities and how political boundaries make such sharp divisions between cultures. Nice used to be part of Italy (called Nizza) and was lumped into all the politics of the Norther Italian region. It was ceded to France in the 19th Century and now you’d be hard pressed to see any evidence of it once being Italian. There are many communities which have switches hands in Europe I’d love to explore, especially the ones which moved between Germany and France. That however will have to be for another time.

Next stop, Paris!

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