French Hotel DeVilles ain't no chain

A July trip to France revealed many things to this inexperienced world traveler. Nothing short of a travelogue would do justice to that beautiful, interesting country. However, there are a number of observations that can provide different views on public problems.

Last week's column dealt with the male gender's propensity to be drawn to tangible things, particularly how the French moved people and goods quickly and efficiently. Another tangible attraction for males is use of space and how things are built.

As noted previously, French and A mer ican practices are affected by, among others, population density, land availability and history in terms of years/ centuries.

The United States is, at age 233, a youngster compared to France. That steers Americans in different directions. We're in a hurry to build a lot of things and, except in cities like New York, aren't as limited by space to grow outward as are the French.

French villages have some unique and fascinating features.

One could have easily caused my foot to be inserted in my mouth as I was ready to say, "The Hotel de Ville must be a pretty large chain" as there was one in every village we visited, when someone saved me by saying those were "city halls," the seat of municipal government.

In U.S. small towns, the most common thread is the school system and in France it is similar in that the physical and cultural centerpiece in each village is a big church. This has been so for centuries and those churches also have or had schools, particularly in earlier times.

But, a most amazing facet of the large churches in the villages is the actual construction and the age of many.

One church, in a very small village, was built in 638 and is still in use. While it shows a little wear, it is obviously still sturdy and serving a great need.

Even in larger towns, such as Rheims, there is a church centerpiece. The cathedral there withstood heavy bombardment and damage by the German military in World War II. It has been rebuilt and was undergoing another refurbishing in July.

Many village churches were built, or at least began construction, between the 12th and 15th centuries. One amazing feature in each is the use of "flying buttresses," a structural support that is considered a hallmark of Gothic architecture.

Additionally, in a world without air-conditioning and sound equipment, architects created churches that stay cool in the summer, warm in the winter and acoustics that allowed us to stand outside and clearly hear choir practice.

Our barge cruise, six days in the middle of a two-week visit, took us into the wine and champagne regions. Two visits to premier champagne makers revealed the method of aging occurs in limestone caverns beneath each company's headquarters.

One such maker had 28 kilometers (about 20 miles) of caves six stories deep that stretched under property the company didn't own, but to which it had the under-the-surface rights. Champagne can age 12 years and more, and this particular company had 10 million bottles in various stages in those caverns.

Obviously, with time on their side, the French have built to last.

We're in a hurry in America — to thrive, to excel and to create wealth. Building a huge structure, say in Texas, conjures up visions of a good ole boy billionaire looking at a slow-moving project and saying, "Hay-ull, let's throw another hunnerd millyun at it and get it finished so we can start depreciating it. Then, in 20 years we'll have depreciated it out and we'll tear 'er down and do a nuther un."

Much of the world admires American entrepreneurial spirit, ingenuity and innovation. However, we can still learn much from our European neighbors.

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2009-09-17 digital edition

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