20 Years Later, Here’s How My Return Trip To France Hit Differently Than The First Time
Paris is sexy AF. Perhaps, the sexiest city in the world.
This past fall, I returned to France for the first time in nearly 20 years. It's hard to imagine where all that time has gone. I had the good fortune to spend my first study abroad experience in Paris for six months. I resided with a French family in the 18th arrondissement near Porte de la Chappelle metro stop. I can still remember the way I trained my eyes to scan the ground for the dog poop that littered the Parisian sidewalks while simultaneously tracking my route from the flat to the corner patisserie for my croissant au chocolat.
Equally vivid are memories of my route to classes at L'École Supérieure de Commerce and my route to weekly singing lessons near Le Centre Pompidou in Le Marais, where afterwards I'd stop for a curry chicken sandwich at *L'As du Falafel* nearby. All these memories are vivid. They might have happened just last year, yet, it's taken me a long time to return to France.
My time there included learning French nationalist history and about the unacknowledged “L’Identité Minorité;” ironically, statistics prove so-called minorities make up the majority of the French population. I witnessed firsthand the xenophobia aimed at Northern Africans by then President Jacques Chirac’s policies to deport a population once welcomed because of its willingness to take low wage jobs that French citizens were unwilling to take. I remember seeing, for the first time, military police on the streets with semi-automatic weapons, a response to an onslaught of small bombs that had been placed in les poubelles (public garbage canisters).
When I added guns to the incessant cigarette smoking, dog-excrement-dodging to a daily load of heavy books, and outerwear required for the coldest winter temperatures in Paris since the late 1800s (so it was reported), those months in "gay Paree" left me desiring more of some things and less of others in my next study abroad or immersive travel experience. With a world so wide, why was France at the top of everyone's list as *the place to go, back then?
Kindness from Strangers
Since my initial ‘90s trip to France ( I took another shorter trip with my sister a year or two later as well), I have traveled extensively through Asia, the Caribbean, Mexico and parts of Africa, and these more bronzed destinations have all had one thing that has kept me coming back: warmth. And I do not just refer to temperature, though, boy, tropical temperatures do make life better! I also refer to the spirit and energy of these places, the clearly discernible and sensate open heartedness of the people. Let's face it: brown and Black people may be the warmest, perhaps some of the kindest, people on the planet.
Last fall, I attended a talk by Harvard professor Dr. Richard Weissbourd, at the Hewitt School, about cultivating caring qualities in children.
"The data reflects that immigrants support moral integrity, and in fact support what is best about America's culture. Collective responsibility and respect are big values. We can learn a lot from immigrants," Dr, Weissbourd told his audience of parents and educators. His research on kindness has been substantiated by my experience and observation both in America and in the countries from which many of the immigrants he mentioned have come. My own impression, the people were legitimately caring, respectful and generous, particularly toward foreigners. It was so much easier to truly settle into my own skin to pay attention to a new place when I felt that my Black body was welcome.
Treasures of a Warmer Climate
Today, there are basically two criteria that make me fall in love with a destination: the warmth of the people and, no surprise here, the food. Culture, arts, history and architecture/aesthetic are close seconds. In all honesty, Paris and Southern France did not reflect the blueprint or standard for warmth and acceptance, so I was not inspired to return. Sure, the food in France is great, but my taste buds have grown to appreciate the "warming" spices of other cuisines: curries, cumin and extensive veggie and legume options in Asia, the hot peppers and plant-based richness from coconut and nut-based sauces that I enjoy in foods from the Black diaspora.
I have spent these last couple of decades exploring many of the countries that were colonized by European countries, rather than the European countries themselves, and, all things considered, I have enjoyed them more. So, when an email arrived from a chateau owner in Dordogne asking me to consider putting together a yoga retreat in Southern France's wine region, I was reluctant to consider curating a group trip there. The owner pestered me for nearly two years before I could finally imagine Southern France as an unforgettable destination for a group of women of color.
City or Country?
As should be an immediate indicator for any great travel experience, my entire nervous system down-shifted the moment we stepped off the fast train from Paris to Dordogne. The rolling and expansive green vineyards surrounding 15th and 16th century castles that littered the countryside, seen from our luxury coach windows, were heart-stirring and never grew old. The verdant hills, lush valleys, fresh air and apparent absence of man's manipulation of nature filled me with a much-needed assurance that some things are still quite right in the world.
Our experience began on a perfect note at our chateau — the incredible personal chef who cooked for us there. Our daily meals both there and at local restaurants made us feel welcome and cared for. In a region renowned for duck, foie gras, cheese, truffles, sausages and all meats in general, farm to table everything, fresh fruit and vegetables that tasted like actual fruit (vs. Frankenfruit), we relished it all.
Typically, I stay away from bread and cheese, and for the last two years or so, have scaled back my meat and carb intake for health and environmental reasons. However, I dined like a gourmand. I even abandoned my middle-aged wine fast. The same foods I might consider an indulgence in the U.S., eaten even occasionally, when eaten daily in France had the unexpected result of sending me home smaller than I was when I arrived! I've read article after article about toxic GMOs and the additives in "fresh" American food products (like sawdust in cheese, for instance), but this trip to France and the ease with which my system processed most things I ate really got me wondering: Would I be better served by eating a completely different diet while living in the U.S.?
What became strikingly evident was the intention to build and develop a region that flowed harmoniously and respectfully with nature. To my surprise, this congeniality, this beauty and the generosity and warmth of small town, Southern French people (and the many expats we connected with who have taken up residence in this region) was a stark contrast to my memory of the oft cool and detached acquaintances that I had made so many years ago in Paris. Had France changed, developed into a cozier, more refined version of itself? Or, in my own growing up, had I developed a greater capacity to perceive France’s virtues, rather than to focus only on its imperfections.
The City of Love
Thankfully, after a week in Southern France, some in our group had the wisdom to spend our final three days in Paris. When the Eiffel Tower came into view for the first time, I remembered a kiss under the famous monument with a Frenchmen from Algeria. It was the most romantic kiss and the most romantic date I'd ever had. I remember telling myself then that I would never return to Paris unless accompanied by a lover; seeing the Eiffel Tower up close after so many years reminded why I had felt that way.
Paris is impossible not to love. At every turn is an architectural feast, and the abundant tastes, smells, sounds and sights left me deeply respectful for a time when aesthetic beauty and love were prioritized in the building of the great old cities of Europe.
Paris is sexy AF. Perhaps, the sexiest city in the world. Opportunities to experience pleasure on all levels are plentiful. Despite all my original skepticisms after a study abroad experience there in my youth, I now can hardly wait to return. Though the city itself summons desires for an actual lover to satiate the heart and loins, the entire country may be a consummate and copious lover unto itself. France, I love you.