The pandemic has prevented us from traveling much beyond where we live, so my husband and I spent time last evening viewing photos from a recent trip to France. While I was there, I recall thinking about how limited words are in capturing the essence of a person, place, or thing. They are temporary placeholders, but they rarely accurately depict what they are trying to describe.
Before I visited France, the words Provence, Dordogne, and the Loire Valley were just shells, empty of much meaning. Just words. But now that I have seen all of these places, the words have become worlds, vast and deep, full of resonance, sights, and sounds.
When people spoke about visiting Provence, they gave the place a mystical quality. Provence! It seemed to epitomize French culture in a way, the focus on good food made from local products and excellent wines, all digested within a framework that encouraged the enjoyment of such things at leisure. After living in the fast-paced San Francisco Bay area for so many years, I had to shift down to a lower gear so I didn’t race through this experience. But it wasn’t until I set foot in Provence that I could enter the word and truly know it. The word has been fleshed out because I’ve had personal experience of the French people working, playing, eating, and drinking in an environment that supports such a life.
Similarly, when friends told me they had visited the Dordogne region, it had no impact on me. The word itself was interesting with its string of hard consonants, but I couldn’t have envisioned an area named that until my husband and I drove our rental car to the restored barn we had rented for a week that overlooked vineyards, grain-growing fields, and groves of trees. I couldn’t have imagined so much green or so many villages rooted historically in the past. The restored barn we rented was 700 years old, and while the owners had added many modern conveniences to it, they also preserved much of the original stonework and wooden beams, outside and inside, so we were constantly reminded of the structure’s past life housing animals and people (the farmers would have lived on the second level with their animals roosting in the floor below). Now when I hear “Dordogne,” I have many visual and sensory hooks to hang the word on, so many that it overflows with meaning.
Coincidentally, both the Dordogne and Loire Valley are named after major rivers that run through those areas. While the Loire also is lush, it is more agricultural, though it also has some vineyards. Everywhere I looked in the countryside I could see forests and golden fields interspersed with timeless villages. Yes, modern life also shows its ugly head in occasional billboards and large stores (Intermarches have sprouted everywhere). But it doesn’t completely obscure the characteristics that make these regions so distinctive and vibrant, the qualities that contribute to French culture as a whole.
Of course, the tolled motorways bring speed and efficiently connect these areas, but the real delight was driving at a leisurely pace over the secondary roads, stopped frequently by roundabouts that reminded us to slow down and look around before moving on.
When I returned to the Bay area, I tried to bring some of these qualities with me—a slower pace and a greater appreciation for what makes life worth living: good food, good wine, and the time to enjoy them both with family and friends.