Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lyon: The Liveable France

During my recent trip to France, one of the businessmen we interviewed had an interesting outlook on French-American relations.

He pointed to the long history of collaboration between our two countries, which extends back to the birth of both of the modern democracies during the late 1700s. Though the early part of this millennium saw a strain in the relationship due to disagreements on how to handle the War on Terror (think "freedom fries"), our leaders are now cordial and our people have a mutual respect for each other, he said.

"We admire your way of doing business, your productivity and innovation, and I think you admire our culture and way of life," he said.

I think there's some truth to this. Paris' cultural treasures took me aback. Literally, there was history around every corner, and I enjoyed the cafe culture and the way that people live their lives in the city's sidewalk transparency. But I grew up in a relatively small town in Georgia, and it was hard to imagine myself permanently embracing the way of life in a metro area inhabited by more than 10 million people.

Like any modern city, Paris has an inherent need to function, and function isn't always glamorous. Logistics is not for luxury. It's a business of utility, and that was sorely evident on the dingy subway trains that ferried me past thousands of graffiti-ridden walls throughout the capital city. Coming in from the airport on a line known as the RER, I could've been in any large city in the world, not the sterilized Paris of travel brochures and wine advertisements.

My boss and I took a fast train (the TGV) out of Paris to France's second-largest city on our third day in country. In Lyon, which has about 1.4 million people in its metro area, I found a more liveable France, and one that has aims to become even more liveable in the near future with beautification projects near the rivers and numerous developments throughout the city.

It's amazing how much you can learn about a place in a day. Thanks to fearless press attaches provided for us by Lyon's chamber of commerce, we witnessed one of France's famous protests, conducted five interviews, shopped for souvenirs, took a trip to an ice cream parlor, met the city's socialist mayor, attended an evening concert and ate some delicious meals into a period of a little more than 24 hours.

Throughout the journey, we rode in four or five different cars, weaving in and out of traffic and dodging road blocks the police had set up to accommodate demonstrators showing their distaste for a national measure to cut funding for early childhood education. Riding around with people who know a city is a great way to learn a place. Here's the two-minute description of the picture I got as Lyon whirred past the car window:

-Situated on two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone. The north-to-south-running rivers are the lifeblood of the city and are essential landmarks for orienting oneself while moving about the city. At the southern end, they come together at a point known (appropriately enough) as the confluence. The sliver land in between is called the Presqu’├«le.

-Lumiere brothers lived in Lyon and were among the world's first filmmakers.

-Numerous restaurants, city renowned for its gastronomic offerings. Bouchon is a local way of cooking that relies heavily on meats. Supposedly only 20 official bouchon restaurants, but many claim the label. Bouchon literally means "cork" in French.

-Silk industry found up on "the hill," a mountainside overlooking downtown. We visited a silk shop in the old city. Along the banks of the Saone lie buildings from Renaissance-period Lyon, which look lighter and more Dutch than the heavier French architecture throughout the rest of the city.

-St. John cathedral built originally in 12th century and has an iconic rose window and a functioning astronomical clock that was built in the 13oos.

-License plates with No. 69 are Lyon plates. Paris is 75.

Of course there was more, but like I said, we spent only one night there. I think much of my positive experience in Lyon was due to the people. One of our handlers was a 31-year-old French girl with an Italian dad and a Russian husband. Her two-year-old son loves Lionel Richie. Our other guide was a 21-year-old intern who loves to cook and has researched Atlanta for a project she completed on the impact of art exhibitions on communities. She specializes in urban planning.

It was sad to leave them at the train station, but now I know that Lyon should definitely be on my list if I get to return to France. When we arrived back in Paris, we had dinner, then lights out. There were planes to catch in the morning. Denmark and Sweden awaited me.

Watch me suffering in Lyon for my job:

And here's a quick shot of St. John's cathedral:

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