September 9, 2011

Experiencing France via Armchair Airlines

We did not pick up our son from the airport. The parents of one of his travelling companions owned a van large enough to fit the whole group and their luggage. I was in the kitchen when the door opened and a familiar, "Hello family!" sounded in the hallway. Ian, eighteen years old and recently graduated from high school, spent five weeks of the summer touring around Western Europe. Now he was home. After giving everyone a brief hug, he immediately emptied the contents of his backpack onto the floor and passed around the gifts he had bought for all of us: beautiful scarves for the girls and I, a Tour de France t-shirt for his dad, a 'Roma City' t-shirt with a map of all the sights for his brother, and ten bars of Swiss chocolate, less one. "I got hungry on the plane," he explained.

We had so many questions. The emails and facebook messages had been few and far between, which was good. I had told him to enjoy everything without worrying about us at home. The entire time Ian was away, he told us, he had not been annoyed or bothered by anything. Anytime anything or anyone became difficult he would say to himself 'Whatever. I'm in Rome!" or," Who cares. I'm in Paris!' We spent the evening listening to stories and anecdotes of his adventures and looked forward to viewing the 1500 photos stored on the memory card of the camera his sister had loaned him for the trip. I watched his face, which positively glowed as he talked, and it was obvious to me that his heart was still among the lights, sights and sounds of the last city he visited - Paris.

As we chatted I soaked his words up like a sponge, wetting the colours of my own imagination in an attempt to paint pictures in my mind of Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and France, countries where I have never been. I have always loved to listen to the stories of travellers, and to read descriptive books with settings in faraway lands. One of my favourite writer's novels are often set in Greece. When I read of Athens and Mikonos I can see the wild gladiolas on the cliffs, hear the birds call, and taste the dust of the roads baked by the heat. Sometimes I watch the film version of Mamma Mia just so I can gaze at the extraordinary scenery of that particular part of Greece.

Yesterday, still recovering from a bad cold, I watched a film I have been meaning to see for ten years. When Ian and the people he had travelled to Europe with gathered for coffee one morning last week, they invited my daughters and I to join them. We were looking at one of the group's photos of their day in Montmartre, where Sacre Coeur cathedral keeps watch atop the highest point in Paris. In the photos were several photos of Cafe des 2 Moulins -  Cafe of the two Windmills - an art deco cafe made famous by the French film Amelie.

The young man in the black apron on the left with
 the two young women is the waiter in question

Apparently, if you sit in a booth at Cafe des 2 Moulins your cafe au lait costs 3.80 euros, but if you stand at the counter it costs 2.50 euros. To sit in the spot where Amelie's love interest sat, well, that costs even more. One of the photos shows Ian, and four others sitting at a table. The other of their party, the father of one of the girls chose to stand at the counter, muttering something about not paying good money to sit in a booth. In one photo Ian and his travelling companions are posing with a waiter, a young man who played up his quirky Frenchness - and gained many repeat customers among the tourists that way - my husband added drily when Ian told him the story. As we passed the photos around the table of our own local coffee house, I mentioned that I had always wanted to see Amelie, and had never been able to due to it not being available at any of the video stores I knew. One of the young women said she owned a copy of the film and would be happy to lend it to me. She dropped it off at my house early the next morning on her way out of town. She was off to begin her second year of university in Vancouver.

The original French movie poster. In North America
the film was simply titled Amelie.

Amelie was nominated for five Academy Awards in 2001. Now that I have seen it, I think it must have been quite a revelation to film lovers at that time. Everything about it, except for the plot which, to me is a fantastically dressed fairytale, is unique, or was in 2001. I do not want to give the plot away too much to the, perhaps, ten other people on the planet who have not seen Amelie, but suffice it to say, Travelocity's use of a travelling garden gnome in their ads is not an original idea, and the main character of the film is so well loved I know of at least one person who named her first born child after her. Most of all, the film is full of   flavour, one that is distinctly and evocatively Parisian. I have seen other French films (I do not mind subtitles at all having grown up reading the bass clef and treble clef simultaneously when studying the piano) and while they are all unique stories, they all still share something of the same French flavour, one that is steeped in wine and wonderful food, a tumultuous past, and a passion for life and for love. Now that I've finally seen Amelie, and gotten a taste of that Parisian flavour, I think I'll continue my armchair travels of France with some more films...Chocolat, A Year in Provence, J'aime Paris, etc.,etc.,etc. The arts are rather useful that way.


  1. Amelie works in many ways with its fabulous leading lady,superb casting {most of them could only be French!} great cinematography and that wonderful score by Yann Tierson. Like many people, it's a favourite of mine for that quirkiness you talk about, its zest for life and all the reasons above, so it won't be any surprise to find that we have a copy in our DVD collection. {as is 'Chocolat'}

    Like you we love French - and world - cinema as it gives a much different view of the world - and of storytelling - than big Hollywood or UK movies and has a much different feel. In fact this week we went to the cinema to see the new release by the Spanish director Almodovar {who did the amazing 'Pan's Labryinth'}, the oddly fascinating 'The skin I live in' starring Antonio Banderas.

    Here's a trailer for one of those world movies - a French one again - which caught me by surprise, showed me a different perspective and became an unexpected favourite. It's not an Amelie or Chocolat but hopefully just this little vignette will show enough to pique some interest. It's for 'Etre et Avoir', the tale of a school class and it's teacher followed over the course of a year.

    Thanks for such an enjoyable post. Sounds like the boy had a great time and has some lifetime memories as a result. Hopefully one day you'll get to some of those places you dream of too.

    Cheers Rebecca.

  2. Sound like he had a grand old time.

    Moulin/s is a mill. Moulin á vent is a windmill. Different 'intent' entirely. Think about it, what do the millstones do together eh. Another reason for their reputation was the airborne flour had a annoying tendency to spontaneously combust. This provided loads of euphemistic opportunities while also providing the clear ground for no building was allowed near them.
    The French are notorious for the double entendre, actually more the seventh is their speed. Note the name is alpha-numeric The '2' Mills, not 'the two mills'. A cafe that's for more than one team and for those that play for both. :-)

  3. Thanks Alistair! I will check out the link for sure, and I'm always looking for new recommendations.

    Vince: Yes, he certainly did! Thanks for the clarification about Moulin/s. Tres interresant et amusant! How do you know these things, btw?

  4. The curse of a classical education. While also having a true enjoyment of riddles. And generally being a annoying little shit cannot be forgotten either.

  5. Hahahahaha!...especially to the third point.

  6. Rebecca, I too have not seen Amelie but will certainly make time for it in the near future. I think I'll wait for a rainy fally day/evening though:) I love your writing, there is always something magical about it. Lucky Ian to have that beautiful trip become part of who he is at such a young age. I would love to know what his favourite places/experiences were as Bob and I hope to make the same trip in a couple of years. Thanks for sharing!!

  7. have not seen this one either...will def put it on the i love traveling by my arm chair but on in lieu of actually going...i so wish i could go to paris...well really anywhere over seas....what a trip he must have cool....

  8. Vince: Oops..a classical education is no laughing matter, neither is loving riddles.

    Roxanne: I'll let Ian know, and thank you for your sweet comment :)

    Brian: I guess more people have not seen the film than I thought!

  9. I expect you already know Gerald Durrell, but if not, do look him up for his writing about life in Corfu from 1935 to 1939. I love your expression 'wetting the colours of my own imagination'.

  10. Lucille: ages ago a friend gave me a collection of Durrell's books. I think it might be time to read them!

  11. You have inspired me - I have a copy of Amelie but have never watched it. I will rectify that tonight.



  12. Well, dak, what did you think of the film? Thanks for stopping by, too! Hope to see you here again. Rebecca

  13. I can sense Ian's youthful exuberance at being home from such an adventure. I'm glad he had a good time. And what a growth experience.

    I have not seen Amelie (one of ten), so I thank you for not spoiling the plot. :)


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