The French and German Way of Life

Germany is where I live and France is where I go regularly. True, I don’t know all of Germany, I know a certain part of Northern Germany best, and there is still so much to discover. I don’t know all of France either, as I mostly travel in one particular direction when I do go, though I have been to a few different cities. But in the last decade, through this combination, I have been fortunate to experience for myself parts of the French and German way of life. And for me one of the most telling bases of comparison for the two is the impression I’ve gotten from both nations in their approach to managing time.

I think those last two words, the choice of them, is already indicative enough of the strength of the German influence on me, which joyfully melds with my own character set-up. It seems Germans see time as something to be treasured, respected, a luxury to strive for, a tool to plan with, a sought-after component of leisure, an opportunity not to be wasted. For there is nothing more frustrating than time that is wasted. The French, meanwhile, always seem to be sure that whatever happens, there will be more time, becase la vie est belle and so is France, and why don’t you sit down, have a glass of wine and some cheese while you wait, you uptight German person.

In my French class we recently started a new lesson built around the subject of le train. Much was said while we collected the vocabulary we already knew. Our teacher explained the one marked difference between the German Deutsche Bahn and the French SNCF. Punctuality? Non. Plus, plenty of people in Germany complain about Deutsche Bahn. Non, it is le ticket! If you have your German train ticket, your platform is printed on it, and usually c’est vrai! Meanwhile, in a French gare you have to go stare at some information screens to find out where you board your train. It is not unusual to not have these details even 15 minuts before departure (being German). This was precisely my first experience taking the train from Paris-Est station to Strasbourg and the memory still makes me snort like an impatient horse.

I had to ask my teacher one burning question. Are the French relaxed about this fact and all Oui, c’est ça, or are there actually people in the country who are irritated by this? My teacher shrugged with that characteristically elegant, but nonchalant air, her eyebrows going up and her lips puckering in sync with the movement of her shoulders. Certain circumstances allow you to get a refund for your train ticket, she said. But what about your destination, the plan to be somewhere at a certain time, I sputtered. Another shrug.

I was recounting this story to a German friend, after we had made lunch plans, which we neatly laid down like we always do, despite knowing each other for ten years. We had included the possibility of being SPONTANEOUS in deciding where to go if it rained, because we planned to walk. But in case we didn’t get to, we were prepared!

Being a middle child, maybe this is what it’s about for me, a constant melding and co-existence of the stable and the new, the tried and tested injected with occasional joie de vivre, the satisfaction and gratitude of something working our as planned (or better) against arriving somewhere two hours later, but your favourite cafe is still open, and you get dessert on the house because your group is friendly and happy about seeing each other.

I know that the French and German way of life will both stay as they are. I know that I will continue feeling as if a bus or a subway train arriving on time as per my prior checking online is a present just for me. I know that (sometimes) it’s OK to stop thinking about time as such and live in the moment. And occasionally I will prepare dinner as a three-course meal. After that I will memorize the platform number printed on my train ticket AND check it on the information screen in the station.

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Learning French and Going to France

When you’re learning French and traveling to France, you naturally feel like you should try speaking French once you arrive on French soil, right? Wait, try? “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” You are not simply a tourist or a visitor anymore. You basically have an obligation.

Oui, Yoda certainly knew what he was talking about. I know the process of this particular trip to Paris and it automatically divides itself in to tasks in my head in reference to opportunities to parler français. With decisively German precision I follow my plan of producing short, but appropriate sentences.

I enter the plane and say “Bonjour, Madame”, “Bonjour, Monsieur” to the crew as I make my way to my seat, on the same volume level that I use in other languages, because, you know, je parle un petit peu français. I am rewarded with a “Bonjour, Madame” or sometimes still with a “Bonjour, Mademoiselle.” I like being called Mademoiselle. I don’t find it derogatory and it reminds me of when I started flying to France as a student, after first moving to Germany. The German Fräulein has said farewell and disappeared in to the mist of times past, but Mademoiselle isn’t quite ready to leave just yet.

Step two of my exciting journey en français is putting to the test our extensive lesson on ordering in a restaurant. Are you ready for it? Here goes. “Je voudrais un chocolat chaud, s’il vous plaît.” The stewardess doesn’t politely ask me to repeat my request (parfait!) and gracefully hands me my little cup of hot chocolate, following the action with a sentence I can’t repeat, but I know she’s saying I should stir the liquid. She also asks, and I’m pretty sure I am typing this correctly (confidence is everything), “Vous desirez de l’eau avec votre chocolat chaud?” And because I’m an experienced traveler en France and prepared to invest my German powers of concentration in this drink before me, I answer elegantly, “Non, merci.”

I gratefully sip my hot chocolate, because I need to fortify myself for what comes next after these linguistic achievements. Step three of my interactions en français will be to put money on my Navigo pass so I can take the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. I spend the remainder of the flight painstakingly composing various versions of what I want to say. “Bonjour, j’ai mon Navigo…non, bonjour, j’ai un Navigo…is it un or une Navigo? Wait, they don’t need to know it’s my Navigo, too much information, and I have it in my hand anyway, it’s not like I just picked it up off the floor, my picture is on it. OK, how about, bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours? Or is it de cinq jours? Or just cinq jours? Bonjour (smoothly slide Navigo towards SNCF employee behind the glass), je suis ici pour (maybe I can ask them, with that little laugh as if we’re sharing an inside joke, if pour is correct, haha, hmmm, oui, le français) cinq jours et je voudrais…what do I use for “to” or “until” when I’m talking about a stop? We recently had a few lessons where we repeated how to use en, au and aux, depending on whether you were talking about a country, city or region, and what gender they were. But we didn’t cover stops of the Parisian metro!

But my feverish race of thoughts is stopped quickly after I enter the SNCF ticket office in the airport. I only manage to get out “Bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours”, but something about it must have been convincing, because the lady at the counter released what sounded to my ears like a torrent of rapid French and the only word I understood was “dimanche”. I apologized in English and she reeled off the information I needed in the same language, but she clearly didn’t wish to pursue any longer interactions, so all my carefully constructed sentence parts will have to be saved for next time.

I redeemed myself the next morning by loudly and decisively telling a man blocking my path in the metro “Excusez-moi!”, only to see that he was a ticket controller.

 

Learning French as an Adult

Thankfully school students still draw in pencil on desks, so it’s easy to remove the typical choice of doodle that’s staring me right in the face and, quite frankly, offending me. You’d think they would get a little more creative in the 21rst century, but no. I open my coursebook to Lesson One and join the rest of the class in repeating the bonjours, bonsoirs, je m’appelles and et tois.

The good news is, French is so widespread nowadays, especially in a city as international as Hamburg and with travel in Europe being what it is, that the material is by no means unfamiliar. It’s simply been a very long time since I’ve learned and pursued. Practiced conversations are quite short and ever so slightly stilted, as we tentatively feel our way around words and sentence structures, not yet being advanced in verbs beyond the present tense. Que fais-tu? Moi, je suis danseuse classique, so there! Actually, I made myself a ballet dancer, but the teacher frenchified it a little more so that the translation wouldn’t be too close to Deutsch and we would learn new additional words. We were encouraged to make up professions today and the result was a long list of diverse occupations that we practiced talking about. Que fais un footballeur?

A French colleague told me ils and elles were used to talk about groups doing something, yes, “but the French language is a bit macho”, so even if there was just one man present in the group I’m talking about, the correct pronoun to use is ils. Mais oui, bien sûr.

Disneyland Paris as an Adult, Day 1

“Everytime I come back, it’s like becoming a kid again,” a French colleague of mine said to me dreamily when I shared my weekend plans. “I think I never really stopped,” I replied.

I thought about this some more in the RER train en route to Disneyland Paris, making my fluent in perfect French sibling laugh with my literal English pronounciation of the Noisy-Champs station we passed. It translates as nutty fields, by the way. I don’t know which I enjoy more. But hey, to quote Daria, it’s a nutty, nutty world, and maybe with Walt and Mickey’s help I could escape it for a while.

I want to remember her as well, I realize. The child who discovered herself, not just the adult. I want to carry the things she found out then inside myself, because they still make me who I am. And she is me, just independent, bill-paying, more knowledgable about polite sarcasm and prone to sentimentality.

Somehow I felt this trip would round up all these thoughts anew, since Disney animation was such a big part of my childhood and continued to be so later on in life, coloured by a special sense of memory and appreciation for discovering the stories from an adult point of view.

Trekking along to our hotel independently at first with the aid of Google Maps proved fruitless, as despite Google’s encompassing power, the Maps failed to recognize the high rows of trees blocking our progress as impenetrable. But we were already essentially in Disneyland, with Disney thinking and Disney music inflitrating our brains, so off to the bus shuttle we went, which just didn’t arrive for a while – one of the easiest things to do if you want to make someone who’s lived in Germany for years twitchy.

Once we reached Hotel Cheyenne it was truly like stepping back in time.

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Except we were larger and the security check in the lobby was a painful reminder of current events. What I notice is also how I automatically switch to accommodating this necessary procedure in my daily routine for the moment, while simultaneously thinking it’s just sad.

Hotel Cheyenne is one of the affordable accommodation options at Disneyland Paris. Family-friendly and spacious, many buildings with apt names like Billy the Kid or Calamity Jane spread beyond the main one with the lobby, lining a broad street built like a typical scene from a town in an American Western. Not only do they look the same as I remember from the one time I stayed here as a child, but so does the interior of our room. It’s almost bizarre to see the exact same table lamp with a cowboy boot for a holder, or the horse-patterned stripe of wallpaper just below the ceiling. A short attempt to climb the ladder to the top bunk proves that this is a) painful and not advisable in socks; b) silly as the bunks are too small for us now anyway. There’s also a weight limit I’m pretty sure I exceed nowadays.

If you can walk from your hotel to the park, do! The surrounding area is green and wide in the summertime, otherwise bus shuttles from the hotels actually are frequent. As for booking the travel package and all that practical stuff, two words: in advance!

One more predictable security check and we were strolling towards the gorgeous, prominent and posh Disneyland Hotel. I was still having trouble believing where I was, so I settled for the dreamy state of acceptance.

Little girls dressed like Belle and Snow White skipped past me along Main Street. Bachelorette party (or hen do) groups from England popped up every few minutes in a flurry of sequinned Minnie Mouse ears and young sisters holding hands dashed in to shops overflowing with Elsa and Anna dresses, some emerging as two Elsas or two Annas. Yes, Frozen was being marketed very heavily indeed, despite being released all the way back in 2013.

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Lunching and snacks immediately and predictably wander in to the fast food area, especially if your weekend budget revolves around the € and not the €€€. Service is efficient and quick, though, and visitor traffic moves fast enough so that seating opportunities don’t require major waiting time. The Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlour beckons from accross Casey’s Corner, bringing back memories of reading The Langhorne Sisters by James Fox, but the hot dog and fries I had don’t leave room for more.

Leaving the beautifully decorated shop window displays on Main Street behind us, we proceed towards Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Blush pink and blue-capped, just as I remember, it’s animation come to life without being overdone and the elegant landscaping around it reminds of the various aspects of hard work connected to putting Disneyland Paris together.

A major point of excitement was exploring the castle inside, where I promptly went Disney crazy with my camera among all the carefully reproduced scenes from the eponymous animated classic.

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And then off to the Dragon Lair we went. The wailing I heard inside confirmed what my Disneyland Paris app said – some of the scenes could frighten younger guests. While I wasn’t one, I still clutched my sibling’s hand simply because it was so dark in there.

Dumbo the Flying Elephant was the first ride stop on that day and the slight nerves I had about going up and down (I know, pathetic, it’s a carousel that kids go on) dissipated as soon as I took in the view seated atop our little soaring elephant.

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I’ll just have to suck it up and watch Dumbo to the end, because when I was little the scene with him and his mother in separate cages broke me and I couldn’t continue.

My logically thinking sibling successfully took us through Alice’s labyrinth, leaving me only slightly dizzy, but not late.

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A quick dash in the Mad Hatter’s Teacups (no, we didn’t want to turn the wheel in the middle of our cup to make it spin when the WHOLE PLATFORM of the ride was already doing so) made us laugh. And then, like any self-respecting Disneyland visitors, we set off for the Princess Pavillion, me singing along loudly to various instrumental Disney soundtracks wafting from hidden speakers around us.

While waiting in line I busied myself with my camera once more, particularly enjoying the glowing Disney artefacts displayed behind glass panes and accompanied by a short snippet from the relevant story in French and English.

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“Is there anyone else here without kids?” My sibling whispered. “I don’t know,” I replied, “But look, it’s from The Little Mermaid, it’s the shell, the shell!” I succeeded in getting the lady in front of us to turn around and give me a look, though I didn’t care. The shell! Yes, the Princess Pavillion is essentially for kids, but once we were there, I wanted to see it through. Snow White was lovely, by the way, and she said she liked my earrings. She also compared us to Elsa and Anna, so a good day’s work for us, I say.

The boat ride through Storybook land followed all this princess excitement – a ride I thoroughly enjoyed, with all the recognizable details in the careful miniature reproductions of some of Disney’s most iconic animated features.

To shake things up and with more memories running through our minds, we lined up to go on Pirates of the Carribean just as it started to rain. Savvy! Deeper and deeper we ventured until we reached our boat. Even my limited French was enough to understand the dad seated in front of us saying excitedly to his kids, “Descente!” and I screamed my head off even if it was a short drop, because I’m a scaredy cat. Points out of ten to this ride in terms of atmosphere, though, and I could understand the British teenagers dashing past us to line up again. “We’ve already been three times!” Due to the movie(s) having already come out since I last visited as a child, scenes of looting pirates laughing were all the more impressive and for a few minutes you forget where you are.

One more stop was on our list and as we rounded a corner, the Phantom Manor suddenly came in to view.

During my last visit I was successfully scared in to not going inside, and I said I would come back. Convincingly draped cobwebs adorned the lamps above our heads and the darkness in the antechamber we entered was immediately intimidating. My feverish visual scan of the premises strengthened the hope that this house didn’t include hidden roller coasters, as did the presence of small children around us. I don’t want to include spoilers, of course, but I will say that the wait of many years was worth it and the interiors are fantastic. Surely fun stop at Halloween.

Sated with impressions and walking as we already were, there was one more special point of the evening left to attend to – Disney Dreams, the evening show. Darkness was starting to settle as we approached Sleeping Beauty’s Castle later. People were lining Main Street as we grabbed some hot chocolate and found a good spot.

Music began to play and the castle became an illuminated mesmerizing stage for a medley of Disney animation and music. With the rest of the crowd I sang my heart out to Elsa’s Let It Go amid one of the most beautiful fireworks I have ever seen.

A truly enchanting end to a special day, not without “adult” thoughts (How much does it cost to put on such a display? How eco-friendly are those flames? Is all the merchandise produced under the same unfair employment conditions we read about so much?)

But I do still remember her, the girl I was thinking about on the train ride here.

 

Château de Vincennes in Paris

Paris is a delectably historical city that will never leave a weekend trip planner disappointed. I wanted to explore a castle within the city lines, perhaps lesser known than other French castles that come to mind. So after some research I found myself getting out of the metro Line 1 at the Château de Vincennes station and walking to the Château de Vincennes.

Arriving before noon, the grounds are almost deserted and the surrounding quiet easily transports one’s thoughts in to wondering about what it was like to walk here centuries ago. Though smaller and at first glance understandably more modest than the spacious splendour of the palace grounds in Versailles, the Château de Vincennes is steeped in history dating all the way back to the French kings of the 14th century.  Several kings were married and died at this Château. Perhaps a little known fact is that it counts among the best-preserved medieval castles in Europe.

Vincennes used to be a town and later became a suburb of Paris as the city expanded. In its early beginnings as a hunting lodge the castle was surrounded by forest. As you walk through the courtyard, the eye immediately registers the symmetry of the architectural layout, and the components that made the Chateau a small world onto itself, as medieval castles were apt to be. On the left stands the Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes, with it’s vast interior and stained glass windows from the 16th century. The middle section of the grounds is currently not accessible to visitors, but if you proceed inside the donjon on the right, you will arrive at a good observation point and see two manors facing each other at opposite ends of a lawn. One was for Queen Anne of Austria and the other for Cardinal Mazarin, the successor of Cardinal Richelieu. I am feeling a strong urge to re-read a Alexandre Dumas novel.

The Chateau did not get to be the main royal residence it was intended to be, becoming overshadowed by Versailles, but it continued to exist and crop up during various historical events in France. Becoming a state prison in the 18th century, it also saw a fair share of notable names within its walls. One disturbing example includes Marquis de Sade.

The walk around the donjon leads to various rooms which are now empty, but the vivid desription boards conjure mental images, and just touching the century-old walls makes goosebumps crawl along your skin. Childhood memories of a favourite book about medieval castles come back as I register familiar points that lead to thinking what life was like for inhabitants of these structures: small, high-placed windows with wooden shutters, high ceilings, stone walls and narrow doorways.

A few minutes of careful ascending of the expected spiral staircase of the 52 meter tall donjon leads to the top, from where you see grounds and the city beyond, contrasting sharply with this almost intact remainder of history from centuries gone.

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