France is, of course, the heart of Western civilization. And much as the heart gives life and meaning to the rest of the body, so France gives life and meaning to what we call culture, history, and worthwhile experience; France is the loyal guardian of civilization with a capital C, despite constant assault by the spreading global monoculture and its twin engines, television and advertising.
Much in France and French culture is immediately familiar to the first-time visitor: we have all been exposed one way or another to its exquisite art and architecture, to images and stories of Paris or the south of France, to memories of the invasion of Normandy and the battle of Verdun, to French cuisine and wine, and to manifold stereotypes of the French people. Many of us also have a romantic fantasy of France that is hard to shake, even after repeated visits, simply because we want to believe that a place such as France exists, that a people such as the French exist, that a language such as French is still spoken and written, that a way of life one can still experience all over France is still possible.
Travelers’ Tales France opens a series of anecdotal windows to life in France—the life of centuries but more important for the traveler, the life of the day. For while you can indeed go to France for museums, châteaus, and cathedrals until the sight of one induces coma, while you can indeed stuff yourself with foie gras, cheese, wine, and the world’s best bread, while you can cycle and barge and balloon and hike till you’re blue in the face, these aren’t the real reasons for going to France. The real reason is to experience Life As It Should Be. And then in your own way, you can return home and set about making your life The Way It Ought To Be. And if you must return over and over again for further inspiration, the French will forgive you, and you will be infinitely rewarded each time.
But countries, like individuals, don’t stand still. They change, they endure crises and bad leaders, they grow old and die, perhaps to be reborn, or to evolve and accept new missions in the world and the life of the mind and spirit. France, much like its ally and nemesis, England, has gone from being one of the world’s largest empires to being (almost) just another country in Europe after being shredded by two World Wars in the same century. It is a great power no more in the old sense, but as the rest of the world devolves into a new century of barbarism, stupidity, and historical amnesia, France still has the power to influence, to civilize, to teach, and to inspire.
Yet as more and more people visit the shrine of culture and good living, the French face monumental challenges. It is no easy thing to host 60 million guests each year, nor is it an easy thing to absorb a multitude of immigrants from recent history—the Algerians, the West Africans, the Vietnamese, to name a few. It is no easy thing for a country which has been and still is so Catholic, to absorb and integrate Islam without being changed, nor to digest the post-socialist neo-pagan who worships only financial success. It is no easy thing for a people so in love with their language to see it threatened and usurped by the rampant weed of worldwide English. It is no easy thing for the French to master tourism on a massive scale, which is both an economic blessing and a modern disease. It is no easy thing to see the standards and traditions of French farming change, perhaps irrevocably, in the face of the needs of the European Union.
We can only hope, for the sake of the rest of us, that the spirit of France prevails, and that the French move into the new century with undying savoir-faire.
About James O’Reilly:
James O’Reilly is the publisher and series editor of Travelers’ Tales. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Palo Alto, CA, where they also publish children’s art games at Birdcage Books.