The original version of this piece first appeared in the Albany Advertiser 21/8/2014
This column was going to concentrate on Paris but after three days in rural France I decided there was much to be learnt from those who lived without ready access to the Champs-Elysée.
Le Langon is a small village in the Vendee, home to 1000 people and three high schools. How could that be? Well, the locals have taken advantage of their central position in the region and have made themselves an educational Mecca.
What’s more, the people of this commune get together and put on a range of festivals for their fellow citizens and we were lucky enough to be in town for the Gresant, an annual school fete. This included a two hour performance by the entire school of 42 students, a guess the goose’s weight, darts competition and a display of old maps found in a storage room.
As you would expect at a similar Australian event in a town this size, the outdoor bar was surrounded by men, with occasional visits from brave and thirsty women. Two men nearby were engaged full time on feeding the fire below two pigs on a spit.
It should be noted that a French commune is not some socialist leftover but simply the French version of local government.
Near Le Langon is a 6000 hectare forest reserve, dotted with small timber huts for picnickers. The park is deemed public property and residents are entitled to camp in it, ride bikes and horses through it and even build cubby houses in it.
This remarkable arrangement occurs because people of the region take responsibility for their privileges and when I asked our host what would happen if someone broke the rules, he said: “Someone would probably speak quite firmly to them and in a severe case the gendarmerie would step in.”
The other sweet thing about this rural community was that every year it allows a travelling circus, owned and operated by a family of Romany Gypsies, to camp on public ground for eight weeks and replenish, refurbish and regenerate. At no cost. Albany, did you read that, no cost? (Albany recently lost a circus too soon because it put the oval rates up.)
While the circus is in town, of course, money flows – they have to buy food, water, services, and the children are sent to school for a fee.
When they arrive, their main marquee goes up and becomes a land mark and they add colourand life to the small community.
But what about Paris?
It too has held on to it’s old stuff and it would seem that most of it is being renovated. To be fair, it seems most of Europe is being renovated.
Like all previous cities visited, it too had the open top double-decker buses with the multi-language descriptions. These buses are an ideal way to view an historic city. You buy tickets to last for two days and you have the ability to alight at your favoured site and climb back on when the bus returns.
In Paris every road and street sign seems to hold a memory, a story, an historical event or incident. It was like walking through the pages of a history book. Do we do this already in our towns? Not enough, as we tend to name streets and roads after people, members of parliament, mayors, local councillors, not events.
If the ANZAC legend is so important to Albany what about a suburb called Gallipoli with all streets named after the ships that took the troops to Egypt.
Once again the French do food and service well, although expensive, but I must admit, on average, the short blacks were better in Albany.
People have often mentioned French arrogance but I found restaurant staff, for the most part, friendly and very willing to speak a language not theirs.
Because I arrived in Paris via Barcelona and Rome I sometimes ordered coffee in Italian and sometimes Spanish. I was always greeted with the correct response in whatever language I offered. It might be a bit much to ask waiting staff to be multi lingual, but it might help if they learnt a few offerings in the languages of our most numerous visitors.
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Paris streets were mainly filthy and dogs did their thing and no-one picked up.
See what I mean about the street names?
Outside of La Langon there was a farmer who really knew his onions.
Highlight of La Langon? Meeting the namesake. Could not meet a nicer Jon Doust.