Monday, November 29, 2010

The Way France Was - November 29th, 2010


The first time we arrived in Laos, in 2001 (, we were moved by the faint footstep left here by the French.

Cities like Vientiane were centres of massive investment for the administrators of the French Empire and are full of the graceful homes no Frenchman could live without back in the days of her former glory.

In France today, of course, companies like Buygues or Phoenix are polluting the landscape with ugly little homes in suburban development areas with names like Sunset Acres or Hollywood Hills.

But there was a time when the French really knew how to build! Anyone who has visited France or had the good fortune to know the country well has been seduced time and again by French architectural beauty; its call to pleasure, its sensuality and its genius.

In France, architecture meets landscape meets climate meets culinary tradition meets great wines meets deep wine cellars meets wondrous dinner parties meets family histories meets tragedies meets life and all of it gets tied up in a bundle of intense experience.

In French Indochina, they tried to do the same. Anyone walking through the Hotel Métropole in Hanoi cannot help but feel the ghosts of that great adventure, the great colonial frontier!

Of course, for the 'natives' that adventure was not always Chantilly cream and that may help explain why a lot of these buildings are now just being allowed to fall to dust.

Even outside the great centres every now and then you stumble upon yet another of these monuments to France. It is often when you least expect it, like on these forgotten little four thousand islands.

The terra-cotta roofs are caving in, the great pillars are crumbling. Their hallways are now used for refuse. Some of them could collapse at any moment and yet children play in them, oblivious to Canadian safety standards.

The modern Frenchman is probably the most un-patriotic person alive. Long gone are the days when French explorers here or in Africa would set up camp, raise the Tricoleur and write in their journals that they had recreated a “petit coin de France”. The best they can muster in the way of national pride is when they go home after a trip abroad and sigh, “On est quand même bien en France”.

And yet despite themselves when passing in front of these vestiges, French tourists will stop and remember that they too once had a spirit of Manifest Destiny.

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