In my student days one of my joys was going from modern, bustling, thriving America to shabby, dusty, out-of-date France. It was a little like stepping back into history. I could see around me in Paris, or in any other French city, relics of the way people had lived in earlier times. And in the countryside were real peasants -- who even looked and dressed like peasants.
It was both fascinating and comforting for an American in those days. It was fascinating to rediscover the flavor of the past. It was comforting to know that we were so much more "up-to-date" back in my American homeland.
Well, I have just come home from a month of wandering about Western Europe, the last three weeks of it in France. I must report that contrasts are no longer as they were in my student days. There is still a culture shock in boarding a plane in Paris in the morning and getting off it in Boston the same afternoon. But it is no longer the shock of going from the shabby though charming past into the vibrant, glittering present and future.
France and the French are not shabby any more. Nor is there visible evidence to the roving observer that they are suffering from the problems of inflation and unemployment which are the prime anxieties of today's American leaders and politicians.
My first impression from visiting again places I had known some 50 years ago is one of enormous vitality, activity, and efficiency. It seemed to me to be all-pervasive.
In the countryside the little patchwork fields tilled by peasants, dressed like "peasants" and using horses, have gone. In their place are vast rolling sweeps of finely tilled fields, some ready for the new crop, some waiting for the machines which dig up the sugar beets or harvest the corn or roll up the straw. And the machines are manned by men in blue denim and boots, quite as modern as anything to be seen in Kansas or Iowa.
In the villages the streets are neat and tidy. The people in the shops no longer look like something out of "Madame Bovary." They are as smartly dressed as those in the shopping centers of Boston and its environs. If pressed I would have to admit that they are even more neatly and smartly dressed. Besides, no French woman would dream of doing her morning marketing in curlers.
In the towns and small cities traffic is a problem. It is due to the congestion of highly modern, small, motor vehicles. We were held up once, on a minor country lane, by cows on their way to pasture, but never once in town or village by horse-drawn vehicle.
Where one goes to visit museums or places of historic and cultural interest everything is fresh, clean, new -- almost too new for some tastes. The familiar shabbiness of my youth is gone. And in all such places -- there are modern, clean, and tended public "conveniences."
There is still plenty of flavor from the past.But it is not as easy to reach as in my youth. Around the towns and cities there are new belts of modern housing and modern industry. To get at the old walled city of La Rochelle we spent a half hour on a superhighway roaring through industrial and housing suburbs. The same happened at St. Malo.
The belts of new housing are of excellent quality. Mostly they build in masonry. There is much use of dressed stone for doors and windows plus cinder blocks or hollow tiles for walls. Construction is of good quality and probably more durable than much modern American house construction.
I was struck by the quiet competence of both the local police and the gendarmerie. Their uniforms are of excellent quality and well tailored. They seem to have acquired that air of comfortable authority which one used to associate more with London "bobbies" than with police in Latin countries on the Continent.
A travel note. By using the red Michelin guide for hotels and restaurants we found we could eat and sleep comfortably and well (modern conveniences included) at an average cost of $50 per person per day. It takes a little advance planning to do it, but the result is most satisfactory.
In other words, I can still go to France to see medieval cities, great cathedrals, and superb works of art (the Bayeux tapestry, the Monet gardens at Giverny). But I have lost that comforting experience of my youth of knowing that everything back at home was more "modern." There is nothing backward about France today.