Given it was my first time out of Asia in seven months and for the hotelier, two years (Yes! two god dam years!), it was always going to be an
amusing amazing experience on all fronts!
Heck, just crossing the road was going to be fraught with a little bit of excitement! And it was! “What? Errr you sure it’s safe to cross on the little green man?” Apparently, yes! Yippee!
Our summer destination was France! Yes, sounds quite indulgent/romantic/exotic, I know. If it makes you feel better, it was a family gathering in the north of France with a house load of kids, so you can erase any picture of us racing through fields of sunflowers in a convertible in the south of France whilst quaffing wine from the myriad of vineyards enveloping us…like so:
It wasn’t too shabby though. We had fields of lush wheat….stretched out in front of us like a beautiful cashmere blanket, stunning sunsets, great company (even the kids) and French food! Hello pain au chocolate, brie cheese, baguettes and French wine! Oui! Oui!
And then we had Paris…..the Arc de Triomphe (circled by the Tour de France no less), the Eiffel Tower and Moulin Rouge. Ok…so it was a pretty glam holiday for us current China-dwellers.
Given the circumstances, off the bat, it was obviously going to be hard not to compare. Talking countries not kids (of course)!! (Well yes, when it comes to kids given mine screeched sporadically, waking the entire homestead every night, I’d rather not go there!)
But China – France? Asia versus Europe! Where to even begin!
Some might say don’t even bother, but for the fun of it, let’s compare notes.
Of course landing in France, it’s hard not to notice the traffic.
Mostly, for its insignificance, if anything.
Instead of a game of ‘eye spy’ on the journey from Paris to Normandy to keep the small person amused, it was more fun to play ‘Spot the Difference.’
The roads were ever so orderly and everyone appeared to be managing (mostly) to stick to their own lanes…..ok so those hairy driver’s zipping around the Arc de Triomphe in the middle of Paris could’ve probably resembled a scene straight out of downtown Xi’an, but for the most part, drivers in France were, shall we say, ‘refined.’ (Just don’t mention the British/Aussie tourists doing circles with a dodgy sat-nav.)
Mind you, as refined as they were, we did find ourselves on more than one occasion held up for more than a few minutes by road blockages in the countryside, courtesy of protests! One such protest came in the shape of traffic being ground to a halt for at least an hour….at the end of the road block, about 20 huge rigs stationed strategically across roadways, a few measly banners stating their cause and a bunch of seemingly oblivious blokes drinking beer on the roundabout! Just one police car insight.
Apparently this is not unusual in France?
Beeping was down to a (pleasantly) dull roar…. incredibly soothing to my now pulverized ears…the peaceful buzz of cars cruising the streets in relatively smooth fashion, a sweet symphony.
Oddly, it made me a little on the nervous side though. Maybe I’m getting used to weaving through the cars in a laissez faire fashion!
Speaking of stopping, um, since when did fuel stops get so fancy? Major hubs for serious coffee-refuelling at your disposal! Ok – so clearly by the very title of this blog, you’ll gather I’m no coffee connoisseur, so I admit I was quite taken with the machines dispensing Kit Kat flavoured coffees.
I also came to the careful conclusion (whilst stuffing my face) in Europe just how much I miss ‘normal’ food. At least what I consider to be normal, anyway – as a good old Aussie bbq-loving, fish ‘n’ chip chewing, cheese-hoovering, seafood slurping, chocoholic.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind Chinese food, in fact give me a good plate of Dim Sum day or night but when you don’t grow up with it, it’s quite hard to make pig’s lung and chicken feet your daily staple. No disrespect…
Actually, on the food note, can I just say I was impressed with the ‘service’ in Paris…. people often comment that the French are notorious for being a little on the arrogant side, but for us, the fact they even spoke to us was rather refreshing.
In a lot of European countries, being a waiter is a profession. I love that the middle-aged men who’ve obviously been on the gig for years take such pride in their service…it’s almost an art, yes even in the most casual of cafes…..And language is no barrier!
Mind you, I’ve just had a thought about the young girl who served us on one occasion in a Paris cafe and had no qualms about walking out mid service to have a smoke break at the front door. Let’s call that a generation gap, shall we?
The architecture is obviously different at first glance, and second.….in the country it’s all cobblestones, castles and corn fields and in Paris, well what’s not to love about all those dainty iron clad railings decorating the window sills …brightly colored flowers flowing freely, stunning gold statues, the magnificent Sacre-Coeur and of course the always awe-inspiring Eiffel Tower.
Um did somebody say Pagoda?
Incidentally, today I found myself taking a few pics of the rather impressive statues in my backyard…not quite The Colonne de Juillet but pretty slick nonetheless!
Admittedly, there is also quite a lot of European influence throughout Asia. From Shanghai to Macau, even just up the road here in Xi’an, a little bit of European charm is visible.
Let’s talk about the language… French…. “Ooh La La!” I haven’t spoken it since high school but let me reiterate, compared with ‘trying to’ speak Chinese, it is a dream!!
Yes! I probably needed to know more than ‘bonjour’ and ‘merci beaucoup,’ but the freedom one feels when you don’t have to ‘sing’ a language in four different pitches was highly liberating.
And, signs, glorious signs that were decidedly decipherable proudly displayed before me! Put it this way, if I was in a taxi or stranded somewhere in the middle of the city, my body wouldn’t kick into ‘fight or flight’ mode. (Any expat in Xi’an will tell you the thought of their phone battery dying whilst ‘out’ is their worst nightmare!)
Let me just say this foreign country felt so much less foreign.
In fact, when we first arrived in northern France, we almost forgot we were in a foreign country, much of it felt very English…which of course it’s not really. But that’s when it hits you, how different Asia really is to the West….
Without putting you off your dinner, I’ve got to say I reveled in the level of hygiene. Now that just sounds plain weird doesn’t it! But not having to remember to use hand sanitiser Every. Single. Time we ate or Every. Single. Time we’d been out of the hotel was oh so lovely. I even (heaven forbid) laid eyes on a squat toilet, that looked relatively inviting, well as much as any toilet can. I will spare you the details, but if you’ve been to China you’ll know what I mean.
Multiculturalism….the diversity was powerful and mesmerizing to watch. Everywhere, a myriad of nationalities…all blending into the vibrant Parisian scene – vividly different skin types, hair colors and dress codes on display.
Sure, in China there are other cultures in the mix, but it’s mostly us few western expats meandering on the sidelines.
Last but not least I can’t go past that superb blue, ever so high, sky and those delicate fluffy white ‘marshmallow’ clouds. A rare scene in Xi’an, even on a sunny day. Fresh air! And inhale!
Ahh the Eiffel Tower and all its glory…a spot for excited tourists from all over the globe to congregate and admire… and there was no mistaking the Chinese tourist. The lady decked out from head to toe in Louis Vuitton teetering on her heels waiting for her little girl to emerge from the bushes, right next to the Eiffel Tower… Ahem!
And at the airport check in, ma and pa sitting on their portable seats plucked from their backpacks, while they waited for their son to deliver their passports.
Not actually a bad idea, really, given the chaotic, disorganized Charles de Gaulle Airport we were unexpectedly confronted with at ten o’clock at night.
There’s a lot to be said for the efficiency of Asian airports!
After lining up with the masses for what seemed like an eternity (two hours to be precise), we were greeted warmly with the words, ‘over-sold,’ ‘over-booked’ and ‘bumped off!’
Ok, so we weren’t quite bumped off…but with a 12 hour long haul flight back to China in front of us it was a little mortifying to hear they had booked all three of us in separate seats. Yep, my four year old was seated on her own.
Now, not that I’m saying I wouldn’t love a long flight seated On. My. Own. Hell yes – movies, wine, uninterrupted sleep….but let’s be real, a 4 year old can’t sit on her own for 12 hours. Can she?!
Apparently sitting you ‘randomly’ apart from each other or worse being told you’re out, when you check in, is what happens…not bad if you’re single and can handle an extension of your holiday with a night in a chic French hotel. Of course in all my single travels it’s never happened to me. How about you?
Airlines regularly overbook the number of passengers flying for the number of seats to park their behind on, because they can almost always guarantee there will be “no shows” and a lot of them. They do the same in hotels too. (Shhhh) Yep, they do the maths and then bump the ones they think they can get away with…. if you’re a platinum member, a regular customer, with a family, or have booked through the hotel itself, you’ve got more chance of staying put (just quietly).
The fact we were on a connecting flight was in our favour but the staff at check in (as helpful as they were) couldn’t fix it until we got to the gate to board. So boarding pass in hand, we hightailed it, all the while I was frantically preparing my self righteous speech about how we couldn’t possibly fly in such circumstances or how perhaps they might need to upgrade us to first class (surely there would be spare
beds seats up the pointy end?!); or how I was quite happy for the flight attendants to have Small Person overnight if they didn’t mind her being spread across their laps rolling fitfully backwards and forwards in her sleep for the entire journey!
Turns out, my panic was overrated…. an incredibly calm man at check in efficiently changed our seats without so much as a “Madam, I’m sorry to say but….” and on board we went….smooth sailing.
The in-flight food more than made up for it….yep, I’ll admit it out loud, I am pretty tired of the oil soaked noodles and dodgy bits of chicken floating in dried up rice on most Asian flights I get. Air France your Brie cheese had me at hello.
That said, coming back to ‘my reality’ in Xi’an, I’m instantly reminded of the intriguing and vibrantly-coloured patchwork quilt of commotion, on my doorstep!
Yes, whilst, many days it has me in a state of eye rolling disbelief, it really is quite a captivating, intriguing and
comical amusing place.
The streets are never uniform, the people never orderly, the country is awash with uniqueness on every level and that… is NEVER dull.
To borrow a quote from Forrest Gump, China’s “like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get!”
Chicken’s feet and all!
For now, this is China.