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, watch with a sense of open-minded voyeurism. 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. The leisurely-paced residents of Honfleur exude an easy-going vibe that is seldom observed in Paris. 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.
I set out, with the company of my aunt and uncle, in search of a tasty Honfelurian restaurant. The search to find a decent restaurant with a great menu was not hard. We arrive at the beautiful restaurant strip close to the main port. Dogs sit eagerly next to their owners as they dine; 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. Ranging from fresh mussels, oysters, and scallops from the nearby port, to juicy pork knuckles and lamb steak from local farmlands, sees a very 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, even squished, dining tables that are 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. The small balconies with petite tables and a couple of chairs saw 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 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!
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.