Letter from Paris: On Travel
By Alexander Lobrano
As a Paris-based food and travel writer, traveling has been the axis of my life for the last thirty years. This year, though, I have not been in an airplane since I returned from a trip to Florida in January.
Then I was quarantined in my apartment in Paris for months, and now, happily, I’m living in our house in a charming little village just outside of Uzes in Le Gard in the south of France. My world has become much smaller, but no less rich. Instead of regular early-morning taxis to the airport, I have been learning more about life in my village and slowly becoming a part of it.
Yesterday, I had my haircut by the local coiffeuse, the first time I’d been there, and she not only gave me a great cut for half of what I pay in Paris, she taught me a lot about the village. Her spacious salon was once the cafe for the Protestants in the village. The Catholics went to another cafe, and the two faiths rarely mixed. There were apparently very few marriages between them up to the 1960s, too, but according to the nice woman with the scissors, everyone in the village knows who’s Catholic and who’s Protestant, which I found fascinating and wilting at the same time, so deep is the seed of discord that faith can create.
Instead of regularly flying off to new cities and countries, I’ve been exploring my village, a much smaller but no less complex world. There are beautiful views from the edge of the hill the village is built upon, and the rolling cypress dotted countryside–a patchwork of wheat fields and vineyards with a few asparagus fields now grown out to feathery jade-colored ferns, looks a lot like Tuscany. It’s extremely quiet and peaceful, and I get up without an alarm clock and remain connected to the world by the NY Times Washington Post, Le Figaro, Netflix, etc., but it seems very far away.
My new smaller life is very fine-grained and the simpler it becomes, the happier I get. Last week, though, I needed a timeout for a variety of reasons, so I took a tiny little TER (local) train from Nimes to the fishing port and beach resort of Le Grau-du-Roi an hour away, and the expedition delivered all of the same excitement and interest as a safari in Africa or wandering a new Italian or Spanish city. The train passed through endless vineyards, then rice fields and pastures with bulls and others with white horses. I had a pulse-quickening view of the ramparts of Aigues Mortes, a medieval town surrounded by formidable stone walls, and then saw the mauve-tinted evaporating basins (caused by microscopic algae) of Les Salins du Midi (sea-salt works) before arriving at the little station of Le Grau-du-Roi, the second busiest fishing port on the French Mediterranean.
It was a huge thrill to step out of the station into an unknown place again, to notice the architecture, learn my way around and become part of the happy crowds of French holidaymakers. Happily, Le Grau-du-Roi is not chic either, but what the French call Bonne Enfant, or friendly, polite and down to earth. I loved the two days I spent there in the charming Hotel Miramar, and I had an exceptionally good meal at an excellent fish restaurant called Le Vivier. And watching the waves roll in on the very flat beach, I understood that what I most love about travel is the stimulation of learning new things, meeting new people, deepening my understanding of the world.
And I also learned that sometimes there’s no place like home, which is France for me, and that it’s an intensely satisfying to take a little train to an unknown beach town as it is to head off on more bold-faced adventures. So this year the Covid-19 virus has made my world larger by making it smaller and me more contemplative, which is a blessing in this age of mask-wearing–I go nowhere without one. And if I miss my friends and family in America very much this summer, I don’t miss airports or airplanes at all and have discovered the value of a life that is much smaller and slower.
Alexander Lobrano’s next book, My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, will be published by Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt in Spring 2021. Lobrano grew up in Connecticut and lived in Boston, New York, and London before moving to Paris, his home today, in 1986. He has written about food and travel for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. He is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 109 Best Restaurants (Random House), which was published in a second edition in 2014 and is a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His latest book, Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. Visit his website, www.alexanderlobrano.com.