It takes very little time to cross the English Channel; around 2 hours on a ferry, and 45 minutes on the train via the Chunnel. If you fly, it takes about 50 minutes from Gatwick to Lyon and, as I learned, 3 more hours to get to and from the airport. France and England are so close at the narrow part of the channel that during WWII, the Germans, then occupying France, routinely lobbied explosives across the water, essentially wiping out the town of Dover from 18 nautical miles away. But the contrasts between England and France are vast. True, there's the whole convoluted history of invaders, occupiers and royalty that give a country its unique personality. Yet I suspect that only two countries which have historically been at odds with each other could possibly have managed to stay so different given their close proximity.
I visited Lyon last month during the English Rain Apocalypse, meeting up with my friend B who's living in Paris. We converged on Friday night for 48 hours of what I thought would be a marathon of eating since Lyon is widely considered the culinary Capital of France, if not Europe. But if you really want to experience the full range of inventive food in Lyon, you must be willing to eat any and every part of an animal, especially a pig. Bill Buford, an American journalist turned Francophile chef, has written:
Since B is practically a vegetarian and I routinely attempt to rid my meat of all its fat before it's cooked, we realized quickly that we'd be better off enjoying the cultural sites than hanging out in the bouchons, the cafés famous for their Lyonnaise lunches. Sadly, breakfast is not a good reason to visit France. Forget the choice between eggs any way or muesli or even porridge. The place we entered Saturday morning had stopped its clocks right after the war. Which war, you may ask? Hard to say, but certainly not one fought since 1945. Inside sat older men in canvas jackets sipping espresso in cups so small they could have come from a play set. Newspapers hung on wooden dowels and occasionally someone would exchange a few pleasantries with an adjacent reader and trade papers. The cafe's decor had a layered, timeless kitsch, as though every year more was added and nothing taken away. We were served cold toasted bagettes, orange juice and cafe au lait. Petit dejeuner. And you'd better get used to it.
But here's reason number one why we could use a little more France. The woman who runs this cafe, herself old enough to remember the French Resistance kicking the Germans out of Lyon, is still in business even though she can't possibly be making much money. The Frenchmen weren't eating and were hardly moving on quickly. The tourists, of which there were two, were crunching their 5 Euro baguette pieces and tagging into her free Internet. But here in the heart of old Lyon, one of the most cobblestoned, quaint-balconied, ancient-passageway-ed cities in France, somehow her business ticks on, most likely due to Cute French Establishment (I made this up) protection the government stubbornly upholds. Currently in St Albans a lot of people are complaining that yet another corporate coffee chain is taking over space in our downtown. But that's who can afford rent, that's where the masses go. Even though a vocal group of independent business preservationists are trying to stop it, the remodel crew is diligently preparing for the opening of a Cafe Nero, not unlike a Starbucks. In old Lyon? Not a chain store or cafe in sight.
I'm not going to pretend I know, or will take the time to find out, much about French laws, though I understand there are many. Our guide on the City Passages tour told us Lyon is one of the only cities in France where a large portion of the old town, in other words the section of the city that is achingly beautiful and full of circular stone staircases and wooden terraces, has been set aside for public housing. She herself had wanted one of these apartments and was clearly irritated that she made just a bit too much to qualify. So she pays a higher rent to live in the same standard as a public housing neighbor. And yet, she accepts it. Because the French are generally happy to protect the interests of the less affluent, not to mention the interests of the timeless Cute French Establishment. Can you imagine?
B and I spent most of Saturday in a few wonderful museums and making up for a bad breakfast with the quest for the perfect pain et chocolat (a chocolate filled croissant). And, since B has become fearless in his pursuit of conversational French, we spent a good part of Saturday chatting up the still-intoxicated revelers who wander the streets at 10am, as well as anyone with a cute dog. I knew to wait and smile patiently while B asked the owner and the dog how his day was going.
Then there was Sunday. This is where I think we have the most to learn from France. It's illegal in France for a business to be open on Sunday unless it's a museum, tourist attraction, or sells food or items pertaining to the tourist industry. I guess you could say Sunday is a state mandated Family Day. No one is walking with a purpose; everyone strolls. The parks are packed. Kids scoot. Young couples with new babies meet up to drink coffee and commiserate. Groups of white-haired men toss silver balls down fine gravel paths. And I think more people hold hands on Sunday. Slow walking invites that, don't you think?
So imagine just for a minute if your town or city really slowed down on a Sunday. If all the Targets and Wal Marts and Cabelas were closed. What would your town feel like? Because even if you already spend Sunday reading in bed, eating waffles and strolling in the park, imagine if that's what everyone else was doing. (Unless you live in Seattle in which case the potential for gridlock makes crossing the city to a distant park unimaginably awful.) As B and I wandered the Parc de la Tête d'Or I felt as though I was part of Lyon, not just a visitor. I missed Seattle when the Seahawks won the Superbowl, not because I like football. God no. But because I wanted to be part of that welcome home parade when downtown Seattle swelled with more ecstatic people than actually live in the entire city boundaries. There are so few things that get a majority of people out from the malls or away from their TV's and into the world they call home. Football heros are one, but maybe it should just be the fact that it's Sunday.
So this is why we need France. To turn down our dials without needing to be on vacation. To recognize that one day a week we really should put away the home improvement projects and the shopping list. We should walk, talk to our kids and hold hands. And when you multiply that by thousands or even millions of people, just imagine all the love that could be passing through the universe.