My wife and I recently had the privilege of spending
a week in southern France, at a conference in the small town of Aurillac
I say small—27,000 people is about the size of Cleburne, Texas, which is
a town I’m somewhat familiar with.
Based on my admittedly very limited and undoubtedly biased observations
of what we saw and experienced, I’d like to make some comparisons between the
different ways that the French citizens we encountered and Texans have dealt
with technology, broadly defined.
First, transportation. In Texas, if you don’t have access to a car, you are
automatically placed in a category that is inhabited largely by very poor
people, eccentrics, and the homeless.
There are some folks who don’t drive and who also don’t meet any of
those descriptions, but the great majority of able-bodied adults in Texas drive
Not in Aurillac. We flew into town and landed at the single airport, which is
basically one building in a field, by a parking lot. And we took a taxi into town, about a seven-minute
ride. But from that point onward
for the next week we didn’t set foot in any motorized transport, and frankly
didn’t miss it a bit. At the end
of our visit, we walked twenty minutes or so to the train station and rode the
train to Paris.
A lot of people appear either to walk to work in
Aurillac or ride bicycles. There
are cars, but the main parking in the center of town is an underground garage. This allows the Aurillacans
(Aurillacois?—I don’t know enough French to say) to avoid cluttering up their
thousand-year-old town with ugly parking garages, or knocking down a
15th-century church to pave the land over for Renaults or Audis. I can’t imagine how much it cost to
excavate the garage without disturbing the quaint 19th-century plaza park above
it—many millions, I suppose. But
it was done, somehow, and consequently, much of downtown Aurillac would still
be familiar to a peasant who knew the town as it was in 1600 A. D.
In Cleburne, they have old stuff too—the county
courthouse, for instance, which dates all the way back to 1913 A. D., and was
recently restored. But for
parking, you just have to find a lot somewhere or park on the street. There is no commercial airport, and
although there are train yards and an Amtrak station, getting anywhere on the
train is really complicated and inconvenient. Nearly everybody who wants to go to Cleburne drives there
along U. S. 67, or takes the new tollway that connects it to downtown Fort
Worth nearby via the highway loop around the city for those who are just
Next, the pattern of daily life. When my sister lived in Cleburne, she
would get up early, get in her car at maybe 7:30, and drive 45 minutes or so to
her job in Fort Worth, where she runs a nursing department that uses very
high-tech stuff, computers, and so on.
Then she’d drive back in the evening around 5 or 6 and have supper, and
while she lived in Cleburne for close to a decade, I’m not aware that she
developed any serious connections with other people in the town.
In doing this routine, my sister follows a pattern
laid down by the Industrial Revolution, which requires the close scheduling of
large numbers of people doing coordinated things in institutions such as
factories, schools, and hospitals.
Things are different in Aurillac. Yes, the little tobacco and newspaper
shop across the street from our hotel opened up every day about 6 AM. But for the next three hours, there
wasn’t much else going on in the way of business. Around 9 or 10, most places were open, but at noon, a lot of
them closed for two hours—lunch, you see.
Then at 2, they would open up again, sometimes, and then again maybe
not. The Museum of Volcanoes we
visited had such hours, and stayed open till 7 PM.
Then, and only then, the typical Aurillac resident
starts thinking about supper. The
restaurants we went to typically didn’t even open in the evening until 7. In the afternoons and evenings
especially, the outdoor cafes would fill with people of all ages, sitting
around talking about—well, I mostly couldn’t tell what they were talking about,
because I don’t understand French.
But they seemed to be content to jaw for hours on end, either in person
or on their mobile phones. We did
see a lot of people using mobile phones there, and I suppose that’s one way in
which the French and the Americans are pretty much alike: the near-universality of the smart
phone. But the French folks we saw
haven’t allowed it to put an end to the practice of polite conversation at the
supper table, which smartphones have nearly succeeded in doing in many U. S.
households and public places.
There were bars in Aurillac, but they weren’t crammed
with people seemingly desperate to unwind from a tense day. People there seemed content to sit at a
table with a glass of beer and just look around, or think, and not have a phone
or a paper in their hand. You
don’t see that much in Cleburne.
As I say, this is a completely unscientific sample of
life in France. I’m aware of many
of the negatives cited by some Americans about life there: the excessive government regulation and
intervention in the economy, the high taxes, the paucity of religious
influence. But somehow, the
citizens of Aurillac have made it to 2017 without letting modern technological
society homogenize them into looking like any mid-size town in the U. S. with
multinational-corporation logos plastered everywhere. They do have a McDonald’s in Aurillac, but they also have
butcher shops that have been in the same place, with the same tile on the
floor, since 1925. And that isn’t
I liked Aurillac a lot, and our week there was a
sample of life in a slower, more meditative lane that I hope to keep with me,
at least in thought, now that I’m back in Texas. It wasn’t better or worse than Cleburne, it was just
different. But different in some
ways that were very appealing.