A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Driving in France Part 2

6 May 2011

(Read Part 1)

After driving through the Alps and going south to spend some time in Provence, we headed north in our Renault Clio on the autoroute toward Paris.  Following frequent instances of payer le péage (paying the toll — we must remember not to call the autoroute a ‘freeway’; it costs about 50 euros today to drive from Provence to Paris), many more instances of honking horns and flashing lights as speedsters behind us maneuvered to doubler (to pass; the same AXA study noted in my previous entry revealed that 83% of French drivers pass or make a turn without using le clignotant — their turn signal), one stop to faire le plein (to “fill it up”), a brief embouteillage (traffic jam), and more than eight hours including time at aires de repos (rest stops), we were nearing Paris.  It having been a very long day, our plans were to go directly to our hotel just south of Paris and go into the city the following day.



If it was the signage that had undone us previously in Annecy, it was the directions printed in the hotel literature that flummoxed us this time.  (Just the same, the signs were probably part of the conspiracy.)  At this point, since I had driven most of the day, Colleen was driving and I was watching for la sortie — the exit — to our hotel.  Soon, I looked up from my map and saw the profile of something profoundly familiar, although I had seen it before only in photographs.

I pondered out loud, “Umm . . . isn’t that the Eiffel Tower?”

Colleen was certain that it wasn’t. “No.  It’s a radio tower.” she declared, not taking her eyes from the road.  Neither of us expected to encounter that well-known landmark at this point, as we implicitly trusted the instructions we were given and were still waiting to find, before reaching Paris, the exit that the hotel said existed.

A moment passed.

“It sure looks like the Eiffel Tower,” I mused.  “You know, the iconic curves, kind of pointy top, short, fat legs — it’s just like all of the photographs I’ve seen.”

While we steadfastly waited for the designated exit for our hotel to appear, the tower loomed larger and larger.



Suddenly, in rapid succession, the autoroute thrust us onto the périphérique (the highway that rings the city) which in turn spewed us against our will onto a city street, which, with no lane markings whatsoever and being dense with traffic, was a proverbial free-for-all.



“Weee-aghhh . . . what happened?” we both uttered in unison and almost involuntarily, as our car was propelled into a soup of traffic with no discernable rules.  Trails of cars converged and diverged in front of us, with no lines on the pavement to suggest anything like a straight line.  It was then that I was disabused of the romantic idea that a Paris street would look like Caillebotte’s orderly painting, Rue de Paris; Temps de Pluie (1877), with the tidy umbrellas, placid geometric harmony, and a streetlight that hasn’t been run over yet — but I suppose that was before the newly-invented moteur à combustion interne had conquered the world.

While Colleen clutched le volant (steering wheel), I attempted to reassure her, exclaiming “N’aie crainte! [fear not]," and then, mustering the best French accent that I could, asserted the absolute solution to all traffic issues in France: “Zhooste make wiz zee horn, like zees,” I said, as I rhythmically pulsed the air with the palm of one hand, the other hand covering my eyes.




Unexpectedly, — happily, I should add — we didn’t instantly accordion into ten other cars as in the cartoons.  In fact, after a while, we came to realize that maybe lane markings are not as crucial as we make them out to be in other countries.  And lanes certainly allow for less poetry in driving.  If one thinks of one’s car as simply a packet of energy flowing in the general direction that a material of low resistivity tends — in this case, the air in the space between buildings with really hard walls — we all somehow end up down the road, wherever we are going.

I gradually parted my fingers in front of my eyes and actually started enjoying the anarchic sensation of catapulting down the street with complete abandon among the French drivers.  And sure enough, resigned to our fate of not just yet finding our hotel south of Paris, we eventually landed in the middle of the Place de la Concorde, parked our tiny Clio, and stood upright for the first time in hours.

Of course, any other weekend of the year, parking there would have been impossible (or, more accurately, the car simply wouldn’t be there after coming back to look for it).  The panneau (sign) said, “Interdiction de Stationner” (no parking), but this being a holiday weekend, everything in all of France was gratuit.  Tomorrow was Bastille Day.

We were soon digging into a shepherd’s pie at an inspired Basque restaurant on the Left Bank. I later learned, while reading Adam Gopnik’s Paris To the Moon, that the author was living above this restaurant at the time.  God had smiled on us once again with an unplanned, but gratifying adventure. Following a satisfying walk, we returned to the car to renew our quest for the elusive hotel exit.

After floundering for an hour in la banlieue (the suburbs), we finally asked a young couple in an adjacent car where our fictional exit might be if, hypothetically, it did exist.  In true chivalric form, the driver said, “Suivez moi [follow me]" — and sped off onto the autoroute entrance.  This was but one of countless kindnesses that we have been shown over the years when visiting France.

We followed and perhaps ten minutes later our guide motioned through his window, indicating la sortie.  This exit existed after all — there is a Le Petit Écolier chocolate cookie bakery nearby that functions as a "pot of gold" in relation to the seeming rainbow intangibilty of the exit — and although its location did not match the hotel directions we were given, we were grateful to have finally arrived there. 



*          *            *



The next day was la fête nationale française, or what the French simply call le quatorze juillet (the fourteenth of July) and the English-speaking world calls Bastille Day.  This day of festivities, which begins with a military parade down a flag-festooned Champs-Élysées, must culminate with le feu d'artifice — fireworks.



However, that evening as we stood near the Place de la Concorde and watched the stunning pyrotechnic display that borrowed the Eiffel Tower for a backdrop, we began to notice that something seemed amiss.  It wasn’t quite right.  The vast crowd around us didn’t seem to be making any sounds.

While the fireworks boomed and sizzled and the sky lighted up, the audience behaved as if they were in obligatory attendance at a recital of Schubert Lieder.  Even the little boy near us, sitting on his father’s shoulders, was utterly silent, watching the sky intently.

Occasionally there would be orderly, subdued, light applause — as though the multitudes were not taken with the visceral experience of explosives above their heads, but wished to express appreciation that the chemist mixed the proper amounts of cesium, magnesium, and lithium in a particular tricolore splash of light.  Then, once again, every member of the audience would impassively gaze skyward once again.

I recall thinking, how different from Independence Day in the US.  Staunch advocates of participatory democracy, Americans bring their own private bombs to fourth of July festivals and blow them up in the vicinity of women and children to celebrate their freedom.  The French seem to demonstrate their égalité with their neighbors by posing tacitly, like so many motionless, little Tours Eiffels.

Exemplary public behavior notwithstanding, after the fireworks display was over and the decorous French returned to their cars, they could once again undergo a dramatic Jekyll-Hyde shift in their personalities.

I learned this first-hand, since we were lodging outside of Paris at that time and needed to make our way through the congested streets to the périphérique.  Finally reaching the highway amid continual honking, I waited patiently in the left-turn lane at a red light, prepared to turn onto the entrance ramp.  Suddenly, a Peugeot quickly approached from behind and, passing us on the right, wheeled in front of our car and came to an abrupt stop perpendicular to our car, its nose aimed at the entrance ramp.



Just as I was thinking commendatory thoughts about this driver’s compliance at least with the red light, a second car, a Renault, arrived as a challenger and angled in ahead of the first car.  Now we had a T-formation, with two cars astride the lane ahead of us.  I suppose the T would stand for Le trophée de champion du monde des pilotes de Formule 1 that these two pilotes were hoping to win.



Soon the light turned green and we watched as the Peugeot gained la victoire.



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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