Friday, February 1, 2008

Parting thoughts and observations from my two weeks in France

I found France to be a wonderful mixture of gritty, dirty, delightful, friendly, full of divine sights, scents and tastes. It is a country full of senses – lovers kissing in the parks by the score, many people looking as if they have smoked far too many cigarettes and had plenty to drink, a country of strong traditions coupled with non-conformists, delightful smells and foul odors, and lots of dog merde on the streets. Hygiene is not a strong suit, and yet this is part of what makes it all so, well, French.
Slow, local, and fresh foods are intrinsic to the French Culture – not a fad or trend. Some of the most delicious food can be found here. I am told that children start to be taught about nutrition in the first grade where they learn not about food pyramids, but tastes and quality. Stores close for a 1 to 3-hour lunch break, and people take this time to share a meal and recharge. Sundays stores are closed completely, so this makes for excellent down time (that is the idea after all). Monday mornings are virtually dead, even most of the cafes are closed.
Hard to believe, but wine consumption is down in France and some of the smaller vineyards are struggling. I was told that teens are drinking soda and beer instead of wine, and at the nightclubs they drink hard liquor instead of wine. Fathers have historically been in charge of instructing their children in the ways of wine and since the divorce rate has climbed, this tradition has been diminishing. Also France has cracked down on drinking and driving, curtailing wine drinking at lunch. All of these factors have greatly affected the wine industry forcing France to take some drastic steps including taking 400,000 hectares of vineyards out of production, making France now second to Italy in worldwide wine production. All of this said, there seemed to be a bounty of French wine available.
While I observed many differences, I observed far more similarities: men stand and watch construction sites, parents love their children, people want to enjoy life and be at peace in the world, people complain about taxes and the government, laugh and cry, starve and feast.
On a quiet Monday morning when all else was closed I stopped at the old synagogue at Place Jerusalem in Avignon. A sweet Rabbi greeted me at the door and showed me in to the rather small synagogue, lit from above by the rotunda, unusual for a synagogue. On one of the walls was a list of the Avignon Jews sent to Aushwitz. My eyes immediately welled up with tears, but fortunately for me the thickly accented Rabbi did not notice. How would I explain my CMS (Constant Menopausal Syndrome) to him? He was very gracious and the visit only took minutes. It revived my recurring thoughts about World War II, its current implications in these European countries I am visiting and how it informs each culture. Here was the old synagogue where Jews being persecuted in France, thought to be the cause of the Black Plague in the mid 1300s, were offered protection by the Pope. Six hundred years later, with the protection of the Pope long gone, descendants of protected Jews were sent to Aushwitz from here in the madness of World War II. How do we reconcile our tormented history and our inhumanity to ourselves? The rabbi said, “Shalom” as we parted, and I thought of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Being Peace, wishing we could all be more peace, so that we could breathe it into the world. Wishing we could love and accept ourselves, as well as others.
Shalom. Love Yourself and pass it on.

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