Elections, Eels, Castles, and Cathedrals

To read part one of Sara’s story, go here.

If ever there was a student of mine who was focused on what he wanted out of a career and out of me as a teacher, it was Pierre. When he was an exchange student, attending my college English courses in America, he sometimes would get impatient with the small talk I allowed. But when I moved to weightier subjects like history or politics, he proved he was beyond his years in grasping world issues.

I teach English as a Second Language at a small university in Virginia, and Pierre was in my classes during the presidential election year when the fight was between McCain and Obama. I had never before taught a student who cared so much about understanding American politics and economics. And now, almost five years later, I was visiting Pierre and his wife at their home during France’s election year.

In fact, the very day after I arrived in Nantes, the country cast their votes for the legislature.

 It was a Sunday morning, and I asked Pierre if he would allow me to go with him to vote. He was happy to see my interest in France’s political system and explained that their president had already been elected a few weeks before. The result was that the more conservative Sarkozy was out and the much more left-wing Hollande was in.

“In American we vote for the legislature at the same time as the president,” I said. “But in France you already know who is president before you vote for your representatives?”

“Yes,” Pierre answered. “Since we have elected a Socialist to lead our government, I expect the legislature to go all pink as well.”

“Pink!” I said, laughing. “The left-wing party actually uses the color pink?”

“I know!” Pierre replied. “That’s another reason to vote for the conservative party. It’s color is a respectable blue! But my vote won’t matter much. When we watch the race results tonight, you will see the whole map of France light up in pink.”

Just like in America, France uses schools to hold elections. I was expecting to keep Pierre company as he stood in line, and I was curious to see what all the signs and banners and people with flyers looked like at a French voting venue. What was it like to run the gauntlet here in France?

But there was no gauntlet. There were no signs. There was not even one person with one flyer in the whole school yard. And there were no lines of voters, either. It looked just like an empty school on a weekend morning should.

“Lots of people won’t come out today.” Pierre said. “We have so many different voting days, and they are all on Sundays, and everyone thinks the presidential vote is most important. But really, just like in America, it is the legislature that changes the laws.”

Pierre let me walk into the school with him. He showed his ID just like we do in the U.S., and then workers gave him two pieces of paper. On one was the name of the person who was running for the conservative party, and on the other, the name of the candidate for the liberal party. It took Pierre less than two minutes to vote. Since I couldn’t go into the actual booth with him, I asked him what it was like in there.

“We put the ballot of the person we want into the box, and then we put the one we don’t want into the trash can.”

“Wait,” I said, “You actually still use paper to vote?”

“Yes,” Pierre answered. “And all of the ballots are counted by hand. But we as voters know who is going to win our district long before the results are announced. All we have to do is look in the trash can!”

When I asked Pierre what changes he expected as a result of the incoming, more liberal government, he feared that taxes might be raised (he already pays about 40%, compared to my 15%) and that businesses would suffer.

“But probably there won’t be very many differences,” Pierre said. “The reason France has not gone under during this recession, like so many other countries in Europe, is that we don’t take risks. France will never be a driving force in the world market. But we will never be completely broke, either. We French tend to be suspicious of those who have a lot of money. That is partly why Sarkozy lost this election. He wears designer suits and a $70,000 watch and does business on yachts. Hollande won because he is a person that the average French man or woman can relate to. But being suspicious of making money and not being willing to take risks is not good for business, so while France will hold its own and not fall, it will never, either, rise to the top as an economic world power.”

Because of France’s relative stability, Pierre is not worried about losing his job. He works for a French-owned company of 30,000 employees that ships goods all over the world. His job in logistics, supported by a masters’ degree, is challenging and rewarding, and he is proud of France—proud that they are not in the same financial catastrophe as other European countries.

Pierre likes to support his local economy and was explaining this to me as we drove to an open-air market to buy seafood for our lunch. Because Nantes is close to the Atlantic Ocean, everything was fresh-caught that morning. So fresh, in fact, that a lot of it was still moving. From the corner of my eye, I saw some long black bodies slithering in a case of shaved ice.

“Ssssssssss!” Pierre’s hiss behind me made me jump.

“What are those?” I yelped.

“Eels,” he said. “Shall we buy some?” But I was already at another stand, thankful that the oysters in their ice were still and silent. “All right,” Pierre said, “no eels, but you must try some oysters.”

“Oysters are no problem,” I told him. “I like them.” But what I should have said is that I like them cooked. How was I to know that some people, especially the French, enjoy their oysters raw?

Pierre, his wife, Claire, and I lingered over our noon meal, Claire and I enjoying getting to know each other. The oysters were pretty good if you didn’t think about them sliding down live into your stomach. Claire preferred the sea snails—which were cooked—and she showed me how to pull the meat out of the tiny shells with a special fork.

“Merci,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “that is so cute, how you say that word!” I had tried and tried to get the French sound right in merci—that almost guttural noise at the back of the throat that goes along with the r and the c. But I just couldn’t do it. Still, I understood what Claire meant by “cute”. It was a compliment because she appreciated me trying. Rather than saying “thank you” in English, I had made it a point to use the few words I have in my French vocabulary as often as I could.

“Let’s see,” Pierre teased, “you can say merci, pardon, toilette, and croissant. You have all the words you need!” When I picked up my oyster knife to brandish it at him, he just calmly handed me another shell. “Maybe eating these will help you become more French,” he said.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet another person who would give me even more French perspective when Pierre invited his friend, Benoit, and Benoit’s American fiancée, Laura, to take us on a tour of the old city of Nantes.

By the time Benoit was almost finished with high school, he knew that college was not for him. Instead he decided to go to trade school. Sometimes Americans look down on trade schools (think shop class) as second-class career paths for those who are not smart enough or motivated enough to make more of their lives. Even I had to admit that I thought of trade school grads as people with large tattoos and small vocabularies. But that was before I met Benoit. His clean-cut looks and Izod pullover were just the outer housing of an intelligent, enthusiastic mind.

Although Benoit has a good command of English, throughout our afternoon together he had so much to teach me about French history and his job as a stonemason, that he asked his fiancée, Laura, to translate everything so that I didn’t miss the full import of what he was saying.

In France the trades are still highly respected. When Benoit decided to become a stonemason, he spent years in training and then years more in apprenticeships to master craftsmen. We were talking of this as we looked over the moat and into the Nantes castle, which was the home of the Dukes of Brittany between 1200 and 1500.

“I did an apprenticeship in there, working on part of the castle,” Benoit said, matter-of-factly.

“You what?” I said. I must have been gaping, because he and Laura both laughed.

“Long ago there were missiles stored here,” Benoit continued. “One day there was an accident. And the explosion reached all the way to the Nantes cathedral and damaged it. This wall,” he said, indicating a large brick section, “was rebuilt after, but they didn’t replace the tower because at the time there was not enough money.”

Benoit and Laura then explained to me why there are no real stonemasons in America. First because the U.S. has relatively few buildings made of stone (and so, even less need of masons to repair them), and second, because when people build houses in America, they want everything to be perfect. Laura had a relative in the States who was putting new granite countertops into her kitchen. When a piece of stone was delivered that had a fissure in it, breaking up its conformity, the woman sent the slab back because she said the marble was defective.

“But,” Benoit passionately told me, “we in France feel these irregularities are what instills beauty. They are not imperfections; instead they are what bring character and life to the stone. In America all the cutting is done by machine, but here in France we craft everything by hand. Americans want things to look perfect and to be uniform. But that takes the art out of the stone.”

While we were talking, Benoit had led us from the castle to the Basilica of Saint Nicolas. I was told that it is really a “new” church, “only” dating back to 1844. Benoit pointed up to a railing in front of a red door that has intricate arches—all similar, but each with the individual marks of the hammer and chisel. “I made some of those arches,” Benoit said, without a hint of pride.

“How?” I gasped. I couldn’t begin to grasp what he had just said.

“I simply take a block of stone, pound it out, and shape it into that,” he answered, as if this explained everything.

Then Laura added to my astonishment. “Benoit and I will get married in a church this size,” she said. I stared at the huge basilica. Then I stared back at this couple, whose arms were entwined in the constant physical contact of those who are in love. They weren’t trying to impress me; to Benoit especially all this was just an everyday conversation. But I was completely silenced while my mind raced—not wondering about craft any longer, but about life. People actually get married in these? I thought.

There are so many huge, unearthly churches in Europe. I had always viewed them as something that was part of history—of the past—having nothing to do with people’s lives today. But now I was being pushed to adjust my focus—to see these basilicas and cathedrals as places that are still alive. Places where people still get married, where they bring their children to be baptized, where they gather to mourn the passing of their loved ones. Places that are expansive enough to embrace both a colorful past and a vibrant present. Places whose very fissures in the stone symbolize the beautiful imperfections of those who come there to worship.

“And guess what else?” Laura said, “For wedding receptions it is quite common to rent out a castle.”

“Wait a minute!” I blurted out. “Your reception will be in a castle? Like the one we just saw?”

“Yes,” she said. “Benoit’s mother gave me a list of castles to choose from, but I’m just letting her handle all the planning.” And then it was as if she read my inner thoughts. “Sometimes,” she confided, “it’s all too big for me, too. After all, I come from a small town close to Pittsburg. All I hope is that I don’t trip in my wedding dress and heels, walking down that mile-long church aisle.”

As if to alleviate her anxiety, Benoit gave her a tender kiss. And all my attempts to make their lives feel normal crumbled. To me, Laura and Benoit are living a modern fairy tale.

 Finally Benoit pulled his eyes away from Laura, ready to be the tour guide again.

“Remember the cathedral that I told you about that was damaged by the missiles? We are going there now. But that wasn’t the only accident at the cathedral. For hundreds of years it has survived—through fires, through wars.” This time there was pride in his voice—not for himself, and not just for this cathedral, but for the resilience and strength that was, and is, his land and his people.

Buildings now block the view between the cathedral and the castle, but for hundreds of years, the castle stood alone on its own island with nothing but the large moat filled with water and land between it and the cathedral. That is why the blast from the missiles in the castle was so damaging.

“Then there was a fire, more recently—just in the 1970’s,” Benoit said. “When you repair a roof, you use a type of plant under the tiles that is very flammable. But you are also using a soldering torch. You have to be careful with the torch. For some reason a roofer was working alone one day. When the plant material caught fire, there was no one to help him, and one whole tower of the cathedral burned before they could contain it.”

We were standing below a line of towers on the side of the great cathedral. Almost nonchalantly, as if he was sensing that one more admission from him might be too much for me, Benoit said, “See that tower over there? I worked to repair it.”

And it was too much. I couldn’t take in the magnitude of it all—the height of history he had worked from, the 800 year old cathedral he had worked on. And this very alive young stonecutter and this very old cathedral tilted my view of past and present until I felt like I was falling through a dizzying incongruity.  But when I opened my eyes again, there was Benoit the stonemason, and there was the very solid cathedral at his back.

“When you are up there,” I finally asked Benoit, “do you think about what you are doing—that you are continuing to build on the back of all that history? Do you realize that you, yourself, are now that history?

Benoit was sober. “When I am up there, I need to think about the job, the skill, the work of the moment. Otherwise I would be too distracted. It is only afterwards, when I am finished with the whole job, that I allow myself to feel what I have done.”

When he is up there . . . . I tilted my head to see the top of the tower again, and this time the dizzy feeling was a very practical one.

“That’s really high, Benoit,” I said. “I suppose the scaffolding has rails, and that you are harnessed in?”

He shrugged. “No rails, just planks of wood for our feet. And we do have harnesses, but none of us uses them, because every time we move to pick up a stone, we would have to unhook and re-hook to the bar. This takes too much time, and you feel too hindered, too restricted. So we are just careful about where we put our feet.”

I glanced at Laura. “I know!” she said. But she was not exactly reading my mind this time. I was thinking she would be upset with the fact that Benoit worked up there without a harness, but that didn’t seem to bother her at all. Instead, she just said, “Can you imagine all the lawsuits this would bring if we were in America?”

In Pierre and Claire’s home that night we talked over dinner about those American lawsuits and the total lack of them in France. Pierre’s father is a doctor, and Pierre didn’t even know what malpractice insurance was. When Laura and I were trying to explain that lawyers in the U.S. make a lot of money representing their clients in order to sue others, it was Pierre and Claire and Benoit’s turn to look at us incredulously. This seemed as unbelievable to them as weddings and receptions in cathedrals and castles were to me.

“French would never take advantage of each other in that way.” Pierre said, dismissing the whole topic with a wave. “It just isn’t in our culture to do that to each other.”

We talked on—not of lawsuits, but of many other things—late into the evening, and the whole conversation, though in English, was more French than American. No one was checking cell phones or updating Facebook or texting. We were fully present with each other, all of us engaged in lively discussion.

Over the course of the four days I was Pierre and Claire’s guest, every meal I shared with them was like that—laughing and talking and eating huge amounts of bread and drinking many varieties of wine. I remembered what another former student, Arthur, had said about being homesick for French bread and wine when he was in America. Maybe he wasn’t missing just the food. Because, more than anything else—more than cathedrals and history and politics and culture—these unhurried meals with good friends who take the time to listen to each other, to connect face-to-face with each other, is what France will symbolize for me from now on.

And I keep thinking that if I can carry a little of that with me—that unhurried search for human connection—then I will be living my own small fairy tale wherever I go.

All photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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