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written by Norm:
Norm Blackburn
La Belle France
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         As they say, the French are different from us. We recently returned from a wonderful trip to France and Spain. It’s true, the French are different. More about the Spanish later.
       The French seem to eat copious amounts of rich food and drink gallons of wine, and they thrive. The French Paradox. More than that, they seem to be more laid back and less stressed. Yes, they do have their problems like the rest of us; they worry about their economy and the unemployment and the waves of immigrants. But somehow they keep these feelings to themselves unless you draw them out.
       Our first stop was Paris. This was our fourth visit to The City Of Light. We had done our research on the Internet and found a nice three star hotel within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine. Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world, maybe next to Tokyo. A moderate room in the city can be had for about $250 a night despite the deflated Euro. We chose the Relais Bosquet Tour Eiffel hotel because it was close to the Rodin Museum and Rue Cler. Rue Cler is a wonderful street, about six blocks long, with small restaurants, a cheese shop, a shoe store, several vegetable and fruit stalls and a meat market. Locals and tourists browse the bookstore and stop for an ice cream or a crepe. Rue Cler is unpretentious and a great place to watch the mothers push their prams and the old men sit with their café lat and morning paper.
       We had three things on our list to do in Paris that we missed on earlier trips. We hadn’t climbed the steps to Sacre-Couer or strolled the gardens in the Rodin Museum or done the obligatory Seine river cruise at night. We did all three with the help of strangers when we got lost on the Metro and were undecided where to have lunch. The French are most helpful if you say, “Bonjour” in your most fractured French. They almost all speak English but appreciate your attempting a greeting in their language.
       Along the way we found the Guerlain perfume shop on the Champs de Elysees and the home of Van Gogh in the Montmartre district. Again, we weren’t disappointed in Paris. She is still beautiful, clean and unpolluted. Graffiti is everywhere but is some cases almost artistic.
We boarded the TVG bullet train and headed to Avegnon in Provence where we were to meet our traveling friends and start our week’s trip down the Rhone River on a wine barge.
       Avignon is an ancient city that housed Pope Clement V in 1308. He built the Chateauneuf du Pape which is a castle and remains today as a testament to economic stimulus. There is also a Roman bridge that somehow never got completed. A testament to bureaucratic procrastination. A very famous French song was written about the bridge that all schoolchildren know. No one on our barge could remember the words.
       The week was filled with the best food we have ever had, off or on the water. The local Rhone wine accompanied lunch and dinner, and all meals had a wonderful cheese board. The cheese board always had a lump of butter to have with the Blue Cheese. How’s that for indulgence? The barge made stops at Vallabregues, Arles, Gallician, and Aigues Mortes.
       All twelve passengers were from California and we all got along very well. The Charges d’ Affaires was a petite French lady with bottle blond hair, about five-four and a Cheshire cat smile. Flora ran the galley, pulled ropes for the captain, poured the wine and pointed out things along the way. She gave watercolor lessons and invited the ladies into the galley to help make crème Brule and many other delicious local foods. Someone asked for French onion soup and it was served for lunch the next day. Without Flora, the trip would not have been the same. Admittedly, the cabins were tiny and the bathrooms a challenge but the trip was a memorable one.
       The last morning we were driven to Montpellier and boarded the early train to Barcelona.
       Yes, the French are different. And we may have our quarrels with their politics and they with ours, but down deep, we really aren’t so different. They just have butter with their cheese.
       Next column: Spain.
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