These stained glass treasures reside in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Reims, France. Twenty-four kings of France were crowned in this holy place. During Charles VII's coronation, Joan of Arc, stood by his side.
The majestic history of Notre-Dame lured me to this bastion of saints and kings, now two autumns ago. But, it was those windows that kept me there, always my first image when I think of France.
Marc Chagall created his masterpiece in the 1960's, a gift to all who enter this hall of God and Kings. I stood before those glowing, ethereal blue windows, the color of the Heavens, and knew that this was beauty like nothing I had ever seen before.
I was not prepared for how it would undo me. How utterly transfixed I would be by their splendor, that I could only stand there, unable to speak or move, enraptured at the power that can lie in such beauty.
And so, to my lurker who approached me this week, gently accusing me of being like the rest of the Freedom-Fry Folks of this great country, because of this post. I say, "Au Contraire!"
I loved every brie and wine soaked minute of my time in France.
The beauty of France is unparalleled. It is everywhere.
Paris awash in golden light as the rest of the world sleeps.
The Louvre, where I could have used up all my days in France, just standing humbly before such stunning masterpieces.
The medieval town of St. Emilion, with its steep, cobbled hills and ancient buildings carved from limestone, so beautiful, that at night, overlooking the city, it could have very well been a painting by one of the French Masters.
The ordinary loveliness of the ending of the day, so different and better than our days here filled with angry traffic and rushing people. There the traffic jam lines are in the bakery where the French converge for their necessity, a hot crusty baguette. It never ceased to charm me, the sight of people headed home, their bread tucked under their arm, fresh and simple without even a bag surrounding it.
And then of course, there are the women. Ahh...the women.
I am a great lover of men. No that didn't come out right. I love men. I do. I can’t help myself. I've always been boy-crazy, from the minute I stepped into teenager platforms. And now, I'd call myself man-crazy. I love everything about their manly man ways. My daughters accuse me of being a man favorer, especially when it comes to the Idol. And I have to admit, it's true. But, over there, it was the women who captured my eye, everyone’s eye.
They're so at ease with themselves, so secure in their beauty. I've heard that French women are told over and over again from the minute they're born, how beautiful they are. It is the secret to their charms, of this I am sure. We've failed, criminally, here in the states when it comes to teaching our daughters to honor their beauty. With our ridiculous worship of enhanced breasts, unlined faces and anorexic models, it's no wonder too many of our girls suffer in endless ways with no sense of themselves . But....a post for another day.
And even with all of the beauty, there was one bit of ugliness I couldn't get past.
I try to be a straight A representative for our homeland, when I travel. I'm always up on the customs and the very basics of the language wherever I go. It has always worked in my favor...until I got to France.
I was warned. I'd read things. But, I also know how universally effective a shy smile and some stuttering stabs at a foreign language can be when trying to find a bathroom.
Terrible French got me nowhere, but a unilateral, derisive snort and looks of contempt.
I felt like I constantly tried to prove myself, yet no one would find me worthy. France, to me was that mean, cliquey girl, the one so smug in her beauty, no one else can measure up.
I knew why the French held us in such contempt. I'd culled all the reasons and I was determined to prove them wrong about Americans.
I was aware that they despise our fashion sense of tennis shoes and t-shirts. Never a problem in my world where tennis shoes are for the sole purpose of working out. I have found that I can manage heels at soccer fields, field trips to Grandma's Huggin' Farm, Home Depot, and even... very nimble dancing on the tops of bars. I'm just sayin'. I've got a big life, OK?
And t-shirts...they're for sleeping in, ONLY.
So, clothing was an effortless hurdle.
They also have a great distaste for the amplified volume of Americans.
This WAS a bit of a problem. You see, I married an amplified American. Restaurants were the toughest, as quiet as a church service with the French conversing in their subtle whispery tones. Every time I tried the quiet-talk, my Hubby would shout, from across the table "WHAT? WHAT? I CAN'T UNDERSTAND YOU WHEN YOU WHISPER?"
And then there was the time we almost burned the restaurant down.
It was our first night in a small village outside of Normandy. We were dining at a Michelin rated restaurant, so cozy we felt like we were eating at someone's home. They had guided us into a parlor area for an aperitif, a formal must before the celebration the French call Dinner.
I'd only had a sip of my drink before I noticed the smoke curling up from behind my hubby's shoulder. I pointed with drink in hand and offered up casually, (I was tired), "Something's on fire, behind you."
He turned to find his faux leather jacket up in flames. He'd tossed it on the table, behind him, neglecting to see the lit candle in the middle of the table. He picked up that burning hide of pleather and slapped and stomped and slapped some more until the entire restaurant was filled with smoke and the smell of burnt, I don't know, the best description I can come up with is, dehydrated cow manure.
Yeah...It was that bad.
I placed the jacket outside of a window, the whole time, muttering,"Desole', Pardon.", as the staff and other diners coughed and gagged their way through the evening, sending smarmy, anti-American looks our way.
It didn't help our case.
I felt like I apologized for being who I am, all throughout that beautiful country. And, call me a stupid American, call me a global moron, but there is so much to be said for the people of this land, always willing to extend a hand to anyone who needs to find a bathroom or a decent restaurant or their way home.
In our country, that jacket would have been pounced upon by some, others would have grabbed the extinguisher and we would have all sat back and had a hearty, boisterous laugh, shouting to each other from our tables, a burning, pleather jacket making us all fast friends.
We Americans have beauty in our own land. Maybe we just count it in other ways.
I so wanted to be loved by that cliquey. pretty girl. But, France did not love me, no matter how hard I tried.
Here's the true story to cement my case.
It was Bordeaux, our last night in France and we'd stumbled upon a nook of a restaurant where all the locals eat.
Now, I will stop this right here to say that I'm the rock star of exotic dining. If there's something crazy on the menu, I'm ordering. At least . . . I thought I was an untamed eater until I got to France. You see, the French adore their organ meats. And that is where I draw the line on dare-devil dining.
It would take me forever with my little culinary dictionary to translate the menu every night. The first thing I translated off a menu in France, was essentially calves brains on a bed of arugula.
That translation book became the most valuable item of our trip.
By the last night, I was so tired of taking 30 minutes to distinguish stinkin' foie gras from braised kidney, that I was relieved when our waiter told us he could translate the menu for us.
Our waiter was the owner's son and the owner, a lovely French woman, was intrigued that Americans had come to her restaurant.
Our waiter/owner's son translated the menu, describing a veal that my husband was all over and a sushi plate with a cup of green tea that sounded just up my alley. Usually, I'm a veal girl myself, (sorry all you calf lovers, but I do find veal, lip-smacking delicious), but, I couldn't resist his scrumptious description of the sushi.
We ordered and the culinary debauchery began.
Now, the French are known for their many and sophisticated courses and the way they linger over the table for hours. I'd gotten used to the continuous parade of courses that came with our hours of dinner. But, this . . . this was eleven courses. Let me repeat, ELEVEN courses. And with each one, the lovely, little French owner would come over and say, "Americans usually do not like real gourmet. If you like my food, you must eat all of it."
That's another unspoken rule about those sensitive French. They find food left on the plate an insult to the chef.
And I do so wanted her to like me and more importantly, to prove her wrong, to show her a real American has class and can talk quietly, wear heels, and has a refined palate. We don't all eat McDonald's. (Well, there was just that once and it was because the whole friggin' country shuts down between noon and two and we were hungry and did you know in France, fries are six bucks? And they're not even good, all limp and unsalty.)
The French woman's food was fantastic, so it wasn't that much of an effort to keep forking it in. She would come over and comment, smiling approvingly, with each empty plate. I was happy to please her.
And then . . . the main course arrived.
My hubby's veal looked delicious.
The waiter/son turned to me and set an empty bowl at my place. From a platter on his tray, he extracted with silver tongs, a gelatinous, flabby slab of raw fish. Placing it ceremoniously in my bowl, he announced, "And now, I will pour the green tea over the fish, causing the steaming liquid to cook the poussin', creating a green tea-fish soup."
Definitely, a lost in translation moment.
I tried so hard. But, that soup tasted like a big, heaping endless bowl of fish perfume. It was awful. As I worked at keeping the soup down, gulping down water with each spoonful of green tea and still-raw gobs of fish, I quiet-talked to my husband, "I feel like I'm on Fear Factor."
He could only nod as he stuffed every delectable forkful of that veal in his mouth.
Of course, the owner came over, rubbing my Hubby's back and exclaiming over his clean plate.
Looking over at me, she could only Tsssk and sternly tell me to keep eating.
Which I did, feeling like any minute, the nine courses before this one were about to come up all over her linen tablecloth, which would most certainly cause her to dislike me even more.
And since I am tenacious and rather needy, I finished every slimy, perfumey drop of that soup, just to feel the love, even as my stomach threatened to burst open.
She gave me the nod of approval as she hand-delivered the pre-dessert course. That's right, the dessert before the dessert.
I was sweating by the time the real dessert got there, a multi-layered, huge slab of cream cake and a chocolate mousse. I couldn't do it. It was no longer physically possible. The cake sat there, uneaten.
And as I pushed away from the table, feeling like the Discovery Channel's, World's Largest Man, the lovely French woman came over and sneered, "Of course, you did not like my food. I could tell you were one of those Americans."
If I wasn't about to vomit in my mouth, I would have thrown the quiet-talking aside and said what any American would say who had tried her damnedest to speak the language, even as she was mocked openly, eat the pigeon and the foie gras with a smile on her face, and act politely even when she was treated with constant incivility. I would have given her an American pledge, refined over time, but still the same code we have lived by over our nation's proud history—"BRING IT ON!"
I do not hate France. I just hate the mean girl she can be, beautiful to the eye, but ready with the preconceived judgements, passing her hate out in heaping French fistfuls.
But, I will end my story with a redemption. As we set out our for our car, several blocks away, the freezing rain poured down upon us, soaking through the cheap, broken umbrella our chateau had lent us. A perfect ending for my miserable night. I whimpered, "I think I'm going to throw up," as I held my stomach, angry and frustrated over my stupid attempt to be loved.
As we huddled under our umbrella, scurrying through the rain, a shout stopped us in our tracks. The waiter/son caught up with us, soaked from the pelting rain. He handed us an enormous, expensive umbrella and said, "From my mother. She said you should take care in this rain."
He took our cheap umbrella and tossed it in the trash before jogging back in the cold, wet rain.
The reason I love France. Mean girls can be quite capable of kindness and generosity. You just have to look for it sometimes.
Today's Download You Must Download: Madeleine Peyroux's, "Dance Me to the End of Love." An American who resides in Paris. Her smoky, jazzy voice makes me feel as if I am back in The City of Lights, sipping my Beaujolais, dining on a magnifique veal, and looking for that unrequited love that the French hide so well.