“The French think they’re better than us because they are,” says my wife. After spending just one day in France, I agreed. First, the French see food as art. Secondly, they take the time to savor the results. What more can you say about a country where Napoleonic emperors decreed quality standards for milling and mixing, along with instructions on kneading the dough. If storming the Bastille changed anything, it was bread.
I never bothered to notice the name of a boulangerie that became a daily stop during our time there. Instead, my eyes were drawn to the crispy baguettes filling the shelves and bins. The scent of fresh baked everything pulled me through the door. My eyes always landed on a sugary brown texture draped across slice after slice of quiche. A fork full of the buttery crust and cheesy egg mixture was a wakeup call – I’d never had quiche like this. And I couldn’t wait for more. As I finished off each flakey crumb, I tasted the despair of knowing I’ll never possess such plump pleasure back home.
For the French, food and wine give life to artful living. But there’s more. As we strolled through the back streets of Monmartre, each bronze bust and placard reminded us that we were following the footpaths of Picasso, Braque, and Apollinaire. I felt comfortable as the foreigner. Paris is completely at ease with having guests. Its art embraces you. Its carousels invite you to travel to Naples, Venice, and Rome only to return to the Eiffel Tower as you step off the well-worn platform.
What inspires the French and foreigners alike? France. It’s not just in the soil. It’s in the mind. It’s a way of seeing. It allowed Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Valery to speak in symbols. It prodded Rops to paint a shapely nude walking a pig. It forced Duchamp to focus on a blurred nude. Picasso and Braque were set free from two dimensional restraints. Their multifaceted guitars gave rise to cut ‘n paste.
I don’t keep score when it comes to one culture versus another. I just try to take each one in. It’s how I see the world. Although, one thing that makes the French better is that, unlike the American obsession with the trivial routines of celebrity reality, France makes room for more high-minded realities. It invites them in, adding each one to the buffet, and cries out, “Feast your eyes!”