A visitor to the mysterious Paris? Venture outside a little; discover France for its intricate history. Honfleur parades only the best of the best. A true destination.
Much like Paris, the people of Honfleur dine facing the streets enjoying the view, as opposed to each other. The curious traveller is lured to the spectacle-like aura, to absorb the local vivacity of the French culture. I, the seated tourist, observe and analyse with a sense of open-minded voyeurism. However, in contrast to the Parisian ‘hustle and bustle’, I bear witness to a much more tranquil spectacle – a quiet, calm life exhibited alongside an intriguing animation of culture. Sharing the same fondness of animals as in Paris, tame dogs roam freely alongside their owners in great numbers. Yet, the leisurely-paced residents of Honfleur exude an easy-going vibe that is seldom observed in the French capital. Tourists pet passing dogs and receive thin smiles from the owners. I recall my aunt’s tale of her unease around dogs in Paris, a tale that seems difficult to relate to the setting of Honfleur in front of me. From my tourist lens, Honfleur seemed a soft, family-oriented village, with drivers who waited for pedestrians to cross; a rare sight in the Parisian streetscape.
Everywhere I went, hoards of tourists crowded the sites of the capital. I suddenly felt that my eagerly anticipated trip to Paris would fail to live up to expectations. It did not wholly disappoint, by any means, and was very pleasing to the eye. It wasn’t overrated, yet I didn’t feel my experience was as authentic as I wanted it to be. Maybe I had set my benchmark too high, and didn’t allow for flexibility. All the images I had envisaged of how my experience would be seemed no more than a mirage, replaced by a shallower reality.
I guess I couldn’t complain, it is a very touristy city, but I wanted to feel like a Parisian, even just for a day. It was hard. By the third day, my excitement to leave Paris, out of the chaotic city to travel abroad came not a moment too soon. It was movies like Madeline that had concocted a certain image of ‘Paris’ in my mind. By immersing myself in such a false reality, I had set myself up for disappointment.
On the surface, Paris was a grand and beautiful city. The history and the architecture arguably amongst the most majestic in the world. But it was just a different imagination, a different childhood picture, something deeper that I yearned for in my travels. Little did I know that soon enough, I would experience the pleasures of feeling like a French local. We were going to Honfleur, a suburb in Normandy.
Embarking on what was called the TGV (high speed train) for two hours, leaving Paris to arrive in Normandy, we were seated in First Class. We travelled through the countryside, dotted with typically Dutch-looking houses, interestingly enough. After a quick two hours, we arrived at Trouville Deauville, another suburb in Normandy. We took a bus to Honfleur, and arrived in the majestic and pastel coloured town. Known for its old heritage, and beautiful and scenic port, Honfleur is adorned by houses with white picket fence facades, and a long and detailed history. The quaint seaside township is well known for its inspirational painters, writers and musicians. Although the town dates back to the 11th Century, it was only really at the beginning of the 19th Century that painters had arrived, immortalising the scenes of water, bays, creeks, and the landscape of Honfleur.
On our first day, we visited Sainte-Catherine Church, the largest wooden church in all of France. The church was odd and scenic. Dating back to 1415, it is known as the oldest chapel in the country. I learn, through my reading of the pamphlets arranged at the front, that it was originally a stone church, that after being destroyed, was rebuilt in 1827. As I wandered through the historically charmed building, I notice the soft, classical tunes echoing among its structures. The inside is comprised of wooden columns that, at first glance, seem unfit to support a church. However, after its reconstruction and multiple renovations, it stands solid and revitalised. The seats were like that of wooden chairs, facing each other, with bound ropes linking row to row. Repetitious colours of red, gold and brown are reminiscent throughout the church, reminding me of my childhood school with red velvet chairs, gold statues, paintings and depictions of religious figures, and the typical candle lit stand. I had never seen anything like it. It was probably one of the most enjoyable experiences I had while abroad. I draw a comparison to the magnificent Notre Dame chapel in Paris. Sure, the Sainte-Catherine lacked the same grandiose reputation of its Parisian counterpart, but it offered something more subtle, and profound. Inside the walls of Notre Dame, one finds themselves cramped among countless tourists, caught up in a rigid procession through the holy space, the flash of cameras a constant distraction. I recall how no sooner had I entered, was I feeling claustrophobic and became separated from my aunt and uncle, whom I was visiting with. After some time, the three of us were back together, exiting the famous building back into to the bustling streets of Paris. A hollow experience, to say the least. Not only within the Sainte-Catherine Church do I gather a sense of unity among attendees, but within Honfleur itself. People are genuine and soft natured. The further from the capital we travelled, the more open and friendly did people seem. The famous ‘city of lights’ lacking the endearing French charm emanating within its distanced townships.
Hungry after our visit to the stunning church, we set out in search of a tasty Honfelurian restaurant. The search to find a decent restaurant with a great menu was not hard at all. We arrive at the beautiful restaurant strip close to the main port. Dogs sit eagerly next to their owners as they dine. I had almost forgotten that dogs enter shops, restaurants, and receptions of hotels without restriction in France, a custom I find quite ingratiating. As my eyes wander (and in an attempt to distract my not so dog-loving aunt from the furry companion next to her), I point out the recurring charisma of the village’s buildings, impelled by the ethereal pastel colours of the paintwork. Calmly seated at Pizza Gino, a waiter comes past to serve us. Other families listen in on our order. Thinking this is strange, I come to the realization that many of the things I thought were peculiar are the norm for them. Cultural ambiguities that induce the humbling realisation of being a foreigner. Perhaps they thought the portions we ordered were much too big for the common Honfleurian stomach – one can only guess. The variety of food ranged from fresh mussels, oysters and scallops from the nearby port, to juicy pork knuckles and lamb steak from local farmlands. A welcome selection for any hungry resident or visitor.
Waiting for our food, my uncle provides a humorous commentary on how small everything is in France. He starts with the houses, beds and cars being ridiculously tiny and squished, dining tables that are round and usually less than a metre in diameter, cheese servings and meal portions being inadequately filling, and toilet seats likened to children’s potties. The wine servings were perhaps the only generous sizing that we had come across. As humorous as my uncle’s musings were, our conversation invoked yet another cultural insight into the French way of life. Small balconies with petite tables and a couple of chairs the ideal setting for a breath of fresh air, or an intimate conversation with a counterpart. Wiping a tear away from my eye having laughed so much, I look for something to further distract me from my grumbling stomach. Among the many small meals scattered around the restaurant and seated behind me was an active and loud toddler. Turning to face the ruckus, I meet the gaze of the fresh-faced French infant with the most gorgeous, round and full-blown face. She looks at me and smiles widely, with barely any teeth, she laughs and dances for me. Instantly falling in love with her, I pay her my full attention. Once the lasagne and seafood arrive, we indulge in our apparently large order. Having savoured every mouthful of our rustically French meal, we are the very last people to leave. Not disappointed, we exit Pizza Gino full and contented with our large feast, and even larger bill. Something in common with Paris, after all!
To walk off the great amount of food we had just consumed, we drifted among the general streets and roads of Honfleur. Noticing a young boy, we stopped. He is singing in his native tongue to his younger sister. His melodies evoke the feelings of a beautiful French lullaby. The angelic looking toddler in the pram, with gorgeous locks and two porcelain dolls in her hands, stares blankly back at him. Dressed in a pink and white polka dot dress, yellow fluffy shoes, and a light blue headband that complimented her eyes, serving as the finishing touch to a quintessentially French outfit. We continue walking, after what would remain as one of the sweetest and most entertaining moments of my time in this slowly mesmerising country, the closest I had come to my idyllic preconceptions of Paris.
After a few hours of straying in and out of expensive and cramped souvenir stores, we walk past a few restaurants, catching the gaze of several diners. Busy chefs stick their heads out from the small wooden windows from above. This is just like a typical film, I thought to myself. Instant thoughts of cheese, or ‘Fromage’ boiling away in a large pan, pop into my head. The wafting smells of cooking food gliding out into the night air. Images of playful mice running about through and under chipped painted walls, while typical in traditional French narrative, seemed unsurprisingly distant from the Honfleur setting. Yet, it seemed like the perfect backdrop for such a narrative, befitting the artisan persona that the lively little township was famous for.
Not long after, we decided to leave, and caught the bus to Trouville Deauville, noticing in a moment of curiosity that most bus drivers were women. From there we made our way to a nearby casino, met by stern faced security who requested our identification. Playing one of the main games on offer, we won around three hundred dollars, a fitting end to an awe-inspiring day in the French countryside. Feeling accomplished, we left to catch our train back to the stirring streets of Paris.
On the trip back, I come to the sad realisation that I would never live in Paris. Once a dream of mine, the fairy tales of a city exuding romance and style seem as distant as the glimmering lights atop the Eiffel Tower at night from afar. Bright and hopeful they may seem, yet from a closer viewpoint, a disappointing reality loomed. In stark contrast to what I had expected, the residents of Paris seem alone, anti-social and bitter. Perhaps my high hopes before coming to the city had set me up for disappointment when my expectations were not realised. Maybe my judgments are not that of other hopeful visitors, who find the city as enchanting as they had hoped. And yet, I am not disappointed. Staring out my window into the fleeting darkness of the roads less travelled, my day in the seaside town of HonfIeur revealed a serene and storybook side to France, more in-tune with my expectations. It turns out I just had to go looking for it.