Paris is pretty in the obvious way. Drinking in the city view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is almost overwhelming – the stone arches, gardens, and ancient European buildings mingle before your eyes with the city’s pockets of modernity. The Louvre is the same way, with (literally) thousands of perfectly arranged pieces of artwork placed in carefully lighted and conditioned rooms. The grandeur at first blows your mind, but somewhere down the road (maybe after visiting Versailles’s huge gardens, with hedges trimmed to perfection) Paris’s obvious beauty – its grandeur – becomes almost excessive. The fanfare is overdone and raises expectations without bound. This leads to (as in the case of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa) grand disappointments.
Hints of excess appeared in other aspects of my stay in Paris. Even the tasty but overly rich dinners in fancy restaurants became tiring once the carb overloads set in and my body spent each post-dinner hour metabolizing. And I distinctly remember the line of wealthy Asian tourists outside of Louis Vuitton on Champs-Elysées, waiting for their turn to browse the store for a handbag on which to spend thousands of euros.
This is not to say that I did not enjoy French cuisine (in particular, the freshly caught sea snails and mussels were delicious) or that I did not partake in a little souvenir shopping. And maybe it is unfair that I compare Paris’s obvious modern excesses to its historical beauties, grand masterpieces constructed centuries ago that genuinely reflect ancient culture and artistry. Indeed, I greatly enjoyed walking through the Versailles I had read so much about in my history classes. But after too much indulgence, it is precisely this excess – this disregard for simplicity – that turns away fans of simple living like me.
I think this is why I found my couple days in Paris rather exhausting. (I was probably also tired of competing with Asian tourist groups for scenic picture-taking locations at every single attraction.) So my vacationing family and I decided to get a breath of fresh air in the countryside. One morning, we headed out on the long drive to the monastery and ancient seaport at Le Mont Saint Michel.
We stopped for dinner in a seaside village on the coast of Normandy. I was tired and hungry from the long drive, and stumbled out of the cramped car ready to eat. The town I saw took me by (pleasant) surprise. In one of the few times I have ever used the word, I said to myself, “Wow, this place is really cute!” The waves of the English Channel lapped gently into a small harbor, while horse-drawn carriages plodded along on cobblestone streets decorated with quaint little art galleries. The town truly looked like a city out of colonial times, even down to the cursive-like font on the restaurant menus. The hues of sunset mixed with the navy-colored rooftops beautifully. I remember thinking that the place was almost a fairyland, like the subject of a Monet painting, especially when I saw 30-year-old men riding ornate ponies on the merry-go-round at the pier’s center. Apparently the magic had gone to their heads too.
As I walked along the windy streets, I wondered how it was possible for the town’s residents to make a living, even off of the tourists who would give away money in the name of anything “French.” Possibly the restaurants serving €30 sea bass could get by, but how about the amateur artists each selling a slightly different painting of the same sunrise, or the owners of the galleries overstocked with these paintings? Then – in a brief relaxation of the assumptions of practical life – I considered the possibility that people resided here not to make a living, but because they wanted nothing more than to watch the colorful days go by and soak in the company of their fellow townspeople. Maybe all they desired was to wake up to a sunrise each morning and capture the moment with watercolor or pastel. Perhaps they sought an escape from the noisy world outside – the Louis Vuittons and Chanels in Paris, the screaming motorcycles speeding down Barcelona’s streets, or the quick-walk-no-talk jungle in New York.
And oddly enough, more than the sunset, the novelty of raw oysters, or even the wine, I think it was this simple living and calm solitude that made the town beautiful most of all. I was more melted away by this little countryside village than by the Palace of Versailles, with all its marble statues and ceiling frescos. The town was not so obnoxiously sunny and sandy like Hawaii, nor so concrete and high off the ground like Chicago. It was a simple place with content people, the kind of place that we all need for respite every now and then.
The funny thing is that I don’t even remember the name of the town. Sure, I could probably go look it up right now, but maybe knowing the name would spoil the magic. I would hate for some pretentious-sounding, overly complicated French name, with all its unpronounced consonants, to ruin a rare oasis of beautiful simplicity.