I’m sitting at a cafe at Place Contrescarpe, which is just off Rue Mouffetard, a narrow thoroughfare where artists and writers, such as Paul Verlaine, used to live. All the chairs are facing out as they always are in Paris. The street is a theatre for the French and there is always something to see. Opposite, a man and a woman play jazz next to a fountain and the sound of brass and voice join the rush of the water.
Four soldiers walk past on patrol, hands resting on their rifles. It is hard to believe what happened here last year. At the café, people are talking, laughing, listening to music, sharing a drink; the events of November 11th could not feel more distant. The atmosphere on the Metro, however, is tense. One of my cousin’s friends told me that it was practically silent on the train in the days following the attacks. People still went about their business, but they were very wary of each other.
The threat of terrorism aside, Paris can make me feel anxious at times. I caught the train from Chatelet the other day and the massive crowds of people walking its underground passageways almost made me feel ill – just too many people to deal with. It made me think about our brains and how they are just not well equipped to deal with certain aspects of a modern existence.
The human brain has not really changed much over the last 200,000 years – a drop in the ocean in terms of the scale upon which evolution takes place. At the same time, our existentiality has changed completely. For a start, human communities have grown much larger: once they were comprised of a few dozen individuals, they now comprised of millions.
The presence of so people in our immediate environment creates a kind of ‘cognitive pressure’ that can be difficult to cope with. I have also been robbed here twice, and during the first robbery, the perpetrators, one of whom had a knife, held me down on the ground while they went through all my pockets. As a result, I feel like I need to be eternally vigilant here.
On the train to Lyon after a very nice four-day stay with my cousin and her partner in the Dordogne. There are a lot of English speakers in the area – mostly English retirees that have come over chasing good weather and low house prices. Two of my cousin’s friends, a brother and sister, are a product of this migration, although they were born in England and came to France when they were still young. Both speak French and English with perfect accents, but they don’t much like to speak English these days, except, however, with their dog. I never ceased to be surprised by their switch from French to English; it is both surprising and exotic.
The region is very beautiful: rolling hills, lush, dense woods, old stone houses and churches, some of which have been standing for more than a thousand years. The area has been populated for more than half a million and it has become an important archeological site. I am told that it is not surprising for farmers to find old flint spearheads a hundred thousand years old.
One of the most incredible things about the countryside in France is that each region is so different: dine at anyone’s home in provincial France and you will likely taste something regional, something from around the corner or from the next village, and while I am there, I tried some delicious local duck and boudin (blood sausage).
The countryside here is so different to the countryside in Australia. I could see myself living here in a way that I never could when I was growing up in rural Victoria. It is more lush and green here than there, and much more densely populated. Here, you can walk from village to village, and most of the villages have populations upwards of about five hundred people. As a result of the density, it is much more lively. I am very pleased to find that most of the cafes, restaurants and bars we go into are well populated.
On the train to Milan. The landscape whizzes by at high speed. There are massive mountains with mist rolling over them all around me. It is beautiful, so very beautiful that I almost cry, wishing that I wasn’t alone, that I had someone with which to share the moment. It is nice to be alone, but I admit to feeling slightly lonely.
I spent the day yesterday walking around Lyon. My phone tells me that I walked 16 kilometres and I have little trouble believing it. The centre of Lyon is almost entirely uninteresting, especially if you have already been to Paris (which is very likely if you are in Lyon to begin with!). Many of the buildings on the eastern side of the Rhone are typical, eighteen century, Haussmann era structures. Vieux Lyon, however, is wonderfully unique, a whole district of 16th century renaissance buildings. Off the main street, there remain a number of excellent and affordable places to eat. I sit down at one and sample a traditional bouchon lunch. As in the Dordogne, most of the charcuterie is regional.
Lyon is famous for its cuisine. I arrived there two nights ago after a six-hour train trip from Perigueux. Feeling very tired and hungry, I went into the first half-decent looking restaurant that I found. It turned out to be more up market than I had expected. Fuck it! I thought. I am on holidays, and besides, it was too humiliating to walk out after having sat down.
So spoil myself with a starter of rillettes with brown figs finished with a ‘foam’ of mascarpone and something that I will have trouble explaining… a cheese-infused crushed biscuit base, like a cake base… I wish I had written down what they called it! I have steak with pan-fried plantains and mashed root vegetables. Again, savoury and sweet come together. I ask the waiter if this is something typical of Lyon, and he tells me, no, just something they decided to do tonight. I feel embarrassed for asking.