France for a day

I went to France last week for the first time.

I learned to speak French when I was 11, majored in French in college, minored in it in graduate school, but it took me until I was 61 to actually get there.

Three times in the last nine years, I was close enough to see it. Two years ago, I saw it from the top of a tower in Basel, where Switzerland, France and Germany all come together; last April, it teased me from across Lake Geneva in Lausanne, the snowy mountains of Evian, France, made famous by the logo for the bottled water. The closest I came was in 2005, when friends and I decided to ski across the border from Sestriere, Italy, but it was snowing too hard and we had drunk too much grappa at lunchtime to venture just one mountain farther to France.

So last week, when I arrived in Lausanne a day ahead of my business obligations, I got on a boat and headed across the lake.

It was an overcast morning, which turned the sky and the water into reflective whirls of gray. But the ride was smooth, and the benches on the outside deck were almost dry. And after about 35 minutes, I was walking along the promenade in Evian, looking back at Switzerland.

The difference between the two countries was nowhere near so dramatic as driving across the border from Arizona to Mexico, but it was still palpable, a wrinkle in time and space and attitude, perhaps:  The same colorful row houses and baroque buildings with elegant storefronts, though maybe a bit less freshly painted, the same accent in the voices of the waitresses, if just a little bit less polite, the same wafting restaurant aromas, if a bit stronger and more garlicky. It was delightful.

I strolled along the narrow cobblestone streets, watching people and eaves-dropping on conversations. I sat at a cafe and drank coffee and ate crepes. I sought out the source of the bottled water --  It runs anticlimactically out of two spigots on the retaining wall beneath a hillside park, and local residents trundle their empty bottles there to fill them up for free.

Maybe I stayed for two hours. Then I went back to the ferry and dozed in a sling-style deck chair for the short ride back to Lausanne.

It wasn't much. But now, if someone asks me if I've been to France, I'll answer, "Why yes, of course, yes I have."

"Mais oui."