Saturday, September 4, 2010

Perceiving France & England

All we know comes from what we see or, as Leonardo da Vinci so aptly put it, "All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions."

I guess that's why I think travel is so important. It is so easy to sit in one's own home, to watch programs or read things we personally choose because they do not tax what we already think, to spend time with people who feel exactly as we do. It is easy to stereotype in our imagination, to say all the peoples from a particular region are the same. Until, that is, we actively perceive differently.

I am lucky enough to have travelled the last couple of weeks around France and across the English channel into London, to have perceived with my own eyes and allowed my children to perceive through theirs, the magical ways in which people from vastly different places are both the same and different, from us and from each other.

I gave out no gold stars on my travels. I was warned early on by my young French host, Felix, who we had loved hosting for six months in Brooklyn last year, that people in Europe did not see the gold star as the ray of light most Americans did, that instead they remember, all too clearly, that it marked people not so positively in WWII.

In Normandy, where we visited our young French friend Jeanne and her lovely family in an old schoolhouse by the sea, it was brought home to me how recent WWII feels, how devastating the loss of life and the tangible memories of medieval times a mere half-century ago. Visiting Caen and the remainder of its medieval structures, then moving along the beautiful farm-surrounded roads to the D-Day museum and cemetary along the coast, it was hard not to painfully perceive the realities of how the Allies came together to preserve personal freedoms for the whole of the world, how the French appreciated so much the arrival of Americans on their soil to help save their country and their culture.

Their culture is a beautiful one to have saved with its profusion of flowers everywhere (especially around Monet's home in Giverny, which gave rise to the whole of Impressionism)and the freshness of local foods like fragrant runny Camembert brought from the open-air market. Strangely, though, items I would go to buy, things sold in tourist shops as typically French, were often labeled in English, made in America or, often, in China. I chuckled to myself thinking of all the "French" things in my home, all the "American" things coveted by the French in theirs. How funny it is that the grass is so often greener, that what you don't know always seems better somehow.

I transcended the language barrier with one shopkeeper as I picked up an overpriced rubber magnet in the Loire region's Amboise of a man whose legs were open to make the shape of the Eiffel Tower, who wore a beret and carried a baguette under his arm. We laughed at its ridiculousness, at the ideas foreigners have of people in another place. But some things are true. Many French do travel every morning from home to buy fresh baguettes, it is a custom my family and I greatly appreciated as our hosts in Normandy and Felix's grandparents in the Loire laid out said fresh baguettes with fresh jams from the gardens their dining tables overlooked. Yum.

But Leonardo da Vinci took nothing for granted, not that French all eat baguettes, not even that it takes keeping legs straight in order to balance. It is how he figured all that he figured, invented new only from devising what had already been divinely devised. We were awed and amazed by all we saw and read of da Vinci's genius as we toured his final French home,Chateau du Close-Luce in Amboise, where Francis I installed him in 1516, at the advice of his sister, Marguerite de Navarre, so he could finish the Mona Lisa, St. Anne and St. John the Baptist and get paid 700 golden Ecus a year "to think, dream and work".

And think he did. There in the gardens surrounding the castle, IBM has brough to three dimensions the extraordinary scientific discoveries and invented machines da Vinci devised four centuries ago,from the paddle steamer to the airplane. We could have stayed there forever. It is no surprise da Vinci was inspired in Amboise.

We switched gears as we barrelled through the channel tunnel to London. Though we thought language would be easy again, we were wrong. Every culture--even those that supposedly all speak English--has its idiomatic phrases, its accents. In some ways, it was harder to communicate only because we weren't expecting to have to work at it.

London has been greatly changed over the last decade, not the least its architecture and foods, which both reflect a modernism likely influenced by the greater ease of travel between cultures that the EU has provided (despite England having clung to its currency.) We had great Italian food, amazing French pastries, Moroccan fare, all within the shadow of what the great British Empire created so long ago to protect its aristocracy.

We noted from one of the top walkways of the Tower of London that the surrounding buildings once created to keep out peasants who rose up to protest decrees of the King were filled with lawn furniture and barbecues, now part of the expensive housing stock of Central London that a British expat friend of mine in Brooklyn assures me can only be afforded by "Americans and rich Euros." I guess, in modern ways, we continue to keep down those without means.

We have returned to Brooklyn enriched by all that we learned, with a few baubles by which to remember our travels and remind us of the fluidity with which things--and people--should be able to move about and be comfortable, to thrive, even to grow. I will watch my little 2 euro French succulent from the Caen market with more care, preciously, as it traveled across the sea to its new home on my kitchen window sill.

No comments:

Post a Comment