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Loving the French. Postcards from Paris

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There's an air of permanence in France, and since Eric Anderson, MD, first visited the country in 1947, he should know. He has also noticed that although the French once had a reputation for being rude, they friendlier now to strangers.

Photography by the author and Nancy Anderson, RN

I was having a coffee and reading the World Economic Forum’s recent report on tourism on my smartphone — actually, reading the article the Least Tourist-Friendly Countries Physician’s Money Digest published on March 18. Over by the table my eye noticed a book peeping out of the basket the coffee shop maintains as diversion for its customers. The title was 50 Reasons to Hate the French. It’s a tongue-in-cheek attempt at humor that might be quite funny to everyone except the French. The authors are biased British writer-TV hosts and one of the two is a practicing physician who often visits France, “one of his favorite countries.”

It’s also one of mine ever since I visited it in 1947 as a Boy Scout attending the first Scout Jamboree since the end of World War II. I was aged 15 and I still remember my father’s embarrassment as he tried to warn me about the opposite sex. After our 10-day Scout camp, the entire province of Burgundy took in the 30 or so Scottish Scouts who had elected to stay for two more weeks in France. The French did it, they said, in gratitude for how Britain stood by them as France fell to the Germans in 1940 and because of the 800-year “Auld Alliance” that was always there to help the Scots wage war with the English.

So although I’ve done my share of grumbling when Parisians turned their back on my inadequate schoolboy French or when their rail workers went on strike the day we needed to get to Paris to fly home to California three years ago, I love the French.

Last year we had been informed incorrectly our Rail Europe pass would cover the Metro transfer from one Paris railway station to another. It didn’t and we were stuck trying to get through a gate without a ticket or convenient small change. A Frenchman passed us with two small children, noticed our predicament and handed us two spare Metro tickets! He declined payment and even led us to a map on the wall to verify we knew when to exit the Metro to take the train to Rouen.

When we got off the Metro at Gare St-Lazare in Paris and showed our Rail Europe ticket to the woman at the desk, she led us personally to the correct platform saying her way was quicker than listening to my attempts at French! Finally, when we got off the train in Rouen, we exited on the north side, not the south, on advice from a student traveler. Outside we found the student braking his car alongside us and indicating his back seat. He drove us the mile we’d planned to trundle our suitcase to our hotel. He refused payment but did accept one of the San Diego T-shirts we always carry in Europe as gifts.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris’s signature icon, is always worth a visit, day or night. Its restaurant has the view but not the finest French cuisine. You are paying for the panorama below you.

Why the long story? Because just as New Yorkers were begged by their tourist office a few years ago to give up their rudeness to tourists, the French have begun to be friendlier to strangers, which is not necessarily a part of their culture. And their smiles now are showing. Vraiment!

France doesn’t change all that much. Sure, restaurants may come and go but not as in the United States. Waiters in Paris have a lifelong career not like, say, waiters in Los Angeles who are merely out-of-work actors waiting for their big chance. Go back to a favorite Parisian restaurant 20 years later and you’re quite likely to find the same waiter. (And if you stiffed him then, he might remember you.)

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The guide books like the green Michelin Guide don’t change much either. Not for the Belle Époque architecture — although it’s always a surprise to see what I. M. Pei did to improve access at the Musée du Louvre.

Paris is easy to move around in. Everyone seems to know where the special architectural treats are — and pointing at a photograph or a map will surely bring up someone who can send you on your way.

Sacré-Coeur dominates the city scene high up on a hill in what was once the village of Montmartre. It is easily found but it’s quite a hike.

It looks old but was actually built in 1914. I have always thought it the poor man’s Taj Mahal, but its interest to tourists is probably more because of all the artists’ stalls you find in the surrounding streets.

Sacré-Coeur at the weekend is haunted by laidback students but Notre Dame down on the Seine attracts more series tourists who wish to see the magnificent cathedral that was one of the first buildings to have flying buttresses. Notre Dame was finally completed in 1345.

Climb the steps to get up on to the roof area of Notre Dame while you are young and see the gargoyles that so frightened the medieval worshippers — and 15-year-old Boy Scouts, too! Chenonceau in the Loire Valley is 500 years old this 2013.

Although it’s tempting to stay in Paris for an entire vacation there’s a lot to see in the countryside, like the castles of the Loire Valley.

Château de Chenonceau arches over the Cher River and in World War II marked the boundary of Free France to the north and Vichy Nazi France to the south. The Free French Maquis Underground used this wing of the castle to smuggle Allied airmen over the river into Nazi France, because if they could get them out of northern France they might reach Spain or the French southern coast. Chenonceau was also used as a hospital in World War I.

Whether you’re in Paris or cities like Lyons, what you saw last visit you will see this one!

There’s an air of permanence in France. You don’t find much of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock wherein he felt the future would see buildings knocked down and replaced so regularly even children would know nothing lasts forever.

Maybe that’s why there are so many artists in this country.

When you see homes of farmers in Burgundy you’d possibly want to take up painting, too — or maybe even farming.

Often when you find great examples of the unpretentious life in France, its simple charm, you confront the excesses that wrought the French Revolution.

What can be said about Versailles that hasn’t been already said?

French cities can be expensive but public transportation is efficient and it costs little to wander French places on foot and enjoy, for example, its medieval history.

Door knockers from the Middle Ages might make tourists wonder what lies beyond. Of course, you’re not going to find out.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.


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