Within moments of arriving in Chartres, I knew I loved it. It felt like coming home. It was charming and quaint and seemed to embody the quintessential French experience.
I parked the car in a municipal lot and walked to the next airbnb location. I was looking forward to meeting my host, Dominique. He had been particularly helpful during my planning and had been so kind as to offer introductions to his friends who might be able to aide me in my quest.
The house was huge and, as in Mantes la Jolie, my room was on the top floor. I dragged my bags up the 3 long winding flights of stairs wondering to myself why no one in France seemed to believe in ground floor dwellings. The room was huge and very simply adorned. I dropped my bags on the bed, queued up my iTunes and headed back downstairs to explore the town.
I was ready for lunch so when I got downstairs I checked with Dominique on the best place to have something to eat. I didn’t realize he spoke English! Aside of Shabaz (our Bollywood hopeful) I had not encountered a single person who spoke any English at all. This was fortuitous! I am not averse to speaking the local language but some things (by which I mean all things) are just easier and faster to do in English.
The house was in the heart of centre-ville at the bottom of what was a very long steep hill. Chartres reminded me of Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings. (as much as any mythical place can remind you of a real one. Did I just reveal my inner nerd?) It was a massive hill with a castle at the pinnacle. In this case, the castle was a church.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, as it turns out, is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of French Gothic architecture and is an important place of Catholic pilgrimage. The structure is visible from pretty much anywhere in the city. For someone as directionally challenged as I am, it is a great landmark to use to get my bearings because Centre-ville in Chartres is for all intents and purposes a maze. It’s not a big place but the streets look very similar and they form a circle of sorts leading you back to where you started if you’re not paying attention.
Using the church as my guide, I walked to the summit and found a café still serving lunch directly across from the Cathedral. It was a cute little place that felt more British than French. I would have preferred a more ‘Frenchy’ spot but as usual it was late and many of the other restaurants were closed and prepping for dinner. Eating during my trip was a continual problem. It seemed to be a recurring theme. Either I was too early or too late. I don’t think I managed to eat 3 meals a day at any time during my stay. That’s not entirely surprising since I rarely, if ever, managed to do it in the states. You marry how you date I guess.
Visiting a new country is full of little surprises. Every culture has their own mores and customs. France has tons. When I was in Mantes La Jolie, I found a little café (it ended up being one of my all-time favorites) that was owned by a local culinary school. It was my first introduction to french pastries and it was a really good one. I ordered a croissant aux amandes (a croissant with an almond paste in the center that is absolutely delicious and one of my standard breakfast choices here in France.) and ‘un cafe’. Let me pause here – anyone who has travelled outside the U.S. knows that American coffee is quite different from pretty much everywhere else on the planet. We add lots of milk and sugar. That is not the norm in France. Had I been in a more touristy area, they probably would have asked me if I wanted a ‘cafe americain’ but Mantes wasn’t in the least bit touristy so she brought me the standard, a tiny little white ceramic cup with a shot of espresso.
That little white cup has come to represent for me everything that is France and the potential of my life here. When I sit in a cafe and hold it in my hands, the reality of my living in France envelops me.
The differences between French and American culture are so vast that it’s impossible to note them all. But I will share with you as many as I can. A really big one is tipping. Tipping is not mandatory in France. In fact, it’s not expected at all. It took me quite some time before I figured out why there isn’t a separate space on the dinner receipt to add a tip. It’s because a tip is not expected – ever. At first I felt horribly guilty so despite it being unorthodox, I continued the practice – until just a few days before I returned to the states. I gave one waitress a 20% tip. (my standard amount in the U.S.) She looked at me incredulously and said “Are you certain?” I actually started laughing. She probably thought I was insane. The French pay a living wage in the restaurant industry unlike the U.S. where the servers are expected to earn their wages off of tips. Once I finally adjusted to this way of thinking, there was no turning back. The guilt does dissipate eventually.
After lunch, it was time to wander around a bit. I did a great deal of walking during ‘The Exposition’. It was by far the best way to get to know a place and since most things are close by walking to the store or the post office or wherever is very common. I logged a lot of steps on my pedometer during those 10 days.
It took me quite some time to get my bearings. All of the streets looked alike and as I said before, you could end up walking in circles if you weren’t paying attention. It was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies dotted with billowy white clouds. Perfect for taking photos. There were cafés and shops everywhere.
Chartres was more high-end than Mantes La Jolie. The shops were more expensive. The city was classier. This was the final death knell for Mantes. It couldn’t hold a candle to Chartres.
When evening rolled around, I was treated to a beautiful light show. Chartres hosts an annual event called Chartres en Lumières from April to October. The animations are projected on various structures around town and it feels as if you’re walking in wonderland. It’s a bit surreal.
I wanted to spend more time exploring these installations but it was chilly and had begun to rain so I stopped in a local pub and had a surprisingly great dinner complete with amused Frenchman congratulating me on my ‘good effort’ in speaking french. So far everyone has been extremely friendly and amazingly patient with my halted french. I have found no truth to the stereotype of the rude Frenchman. I actually found the opposite to be true. If you make the effort, they will go out of their way to be helpful.
I had appointments the next day at a potential barn for Bandit and with a real estate agent in town. I still had not figured out if this move was financially viable and I hoped that visiting some properties in each of the cities would give me an understanding of the costs and quality of life. It was a great opportunity for me to get a real glimpse of French life and I was excited for what tomorrow would bring.