Yesterday afternoon I abandoned Papa and the girls at the beach so I could enjoy part of the afternoon at a café overlooking the sea. Before leaving them to bother their dad and fight with each other, however, I witnessed Chloe and Sophie jump off the harbor pier into the ocean, fervently hoping that (1) they wouldn’t get hurt and (2) we wouldn’t get yelled at for doing it. Fortunately, they both survived and we didn’t get arrested.
The weather is still glorious, although the heat wave that has afflicted the East Coast during the past week seems to be making its way to Europe. People are starting to move a little more slowly than they did a couple of days ago, and the cafés are populated with folks seeking some solace from the sun’s unforgiving rays.
If I had to name my favorite thing to do in France, loitering in cafés would be at the top of the list. There is something very calming about not having a particular place you need to be, which is, of course, why vacations are so great. But it’s so much more relaxing when you can sit in a comfortable chair, protected from the sun by a brightly colored parasol, and watch the populace stroll by, enjoying the same beautiful views as you. The activity is symbolic of so many different characteristics of French culture: paying a surcharge to enjoy life in the slow lane; seeing and being seen; a proud unwillingness to tweak old traditions in order to improve one’s circumstances.
To the last point, the number of cafés is decreasing in France as their profit margins have shrunk – how can you make money if people like me spend a couple of hours nursing a single drink that costs less than $5? Granted, feeding a Diet Coke addiction is a costly business – cafés generally charge about $4.50 a bottle – but it’s still a relatively cheap activity for the café-goer and a very expensive business model for the café owner. And if you like wine, it’s a lot cheaper to order than Diet Cokes. And yet, cafés are still everywhere. Competing – in many cases – next to each other for a finite number of customers. It can’t be easy, and yet the cafés still exist and they’re still an integral part of French culture, despite their counter-intuitive economics.
We took a break from the beach today to visit the port of La Rochelle, the largest city in the region. It is particularly well-known (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for its violent history during the Protestant-Catholic wars of religion in the 16th century.
The city center is replete with interesting late medieval architecture. The beautiful 16th century Hôtel de Ville was seriously damaged in a fire a couple of months ago, but repairs are well underway. As we walked the pedestrian-only streets, pleasantly quiet on a Sunday morning, we happened upon wonderful sculptural details like the water drainage spouts in the photos below.
La Rochelle’s seaside location made it an important fortress city back in the day. It has the medieval ramparts and watch towers to prove it. The juxtaposition of the very old and modern – centuries-old architecture interspersed with cars and ferris wheels, for example – perturbs Chloe a bit, but I find it fascinating. I miss such contrasts in the States. And Sophie doesn’t mind the historical diversity one bit. At the foot of one of the medieval towers, she found a trove of discarded bottle caps to add to her growing collection. She’s doing a survey to determine France’s most popular drink. As of now, Heineken is in the lead.