Lyon, our first touchpoint with France after 14 hours of travel: two toddler meltdowns while trying to escape the airport, one teen meltdown as she came to grips with the difference between an American minivan and the European definition of the same, three lost pieces of luggage, and a once hot, intimate couple wondering what the hell happened to the days when these foreign escapades were stress free and sex filled.
The teenagers pass out in their bunks as soon as we reach the hotel, much to my relief and we steal away with the twins to catch some air and the vibe of the city.
Lyon is to Paris what Naples is to Florence. A little less posh and romance, a little more grit and edge. It’s a little more urban, a little more dirty, but in a sexy kind of way with a pulse that is visible through every vein of the city. Lyon is the industrial center of France, with its roots lying in banking and the silk trade. It is to this day Frances’ hub for commerce, biotech, and software. Nestled between the Beaujolais and Cote du Rhône wine regions, it is happily situated at the confluence of the Rhône and Soane rivers. While it boasts a gastronomic culture superior to any in France and exports some of the best wines in the world, my first impression was not of a stuffy, snobby, wine drinking elite. Instead I was greeted with gritty streets, technicolor graffiti and a hillside filled with tin houses one could only describe as slums on the drive in. I was greeted by a diverse city with a Robust immigrant population, mostly from North Africa, Morocco, and the war torn countries of the Arab world seeking refuge. They all assume my husband is Moroccan and speak to him in a rapid fire Arab-Afrikan-French slang he can barely make out. They are mostly just scratching out a living anyway they can and struggling like so many who find themselves tolerated but not wholly accepted into a foreign land. As a refugee and Arab himself, my husband remarks with melancholy on their desperate plight: driven out of their homes in desperation, fleeing wars brought on by centuries of Ottoman occupation, only to be replaced with counties conjured out of the dust by the French and British, headed by handpicked imperialist approved despots; it will take them another half century at least to figure things out for themselves; and then every time one of the bad ones does something bad, all the millions of good ones become more feared, more hated, and more misunderstood, magnifying an already tragic and miserable narrative . We walk in silence for a while and I look, really look, at all the motley faces and try to see the story he sees in their eyes.
We walk to the river and enter the charming Parc de la Tete d’or. One hundred seventeen hectares of pedestrian and biking paths hugging the river is the heart of Lyon-this is where one will find the true soul of French culture. The famous character anyone can easily slip into regardless of race or nationality and find the peace and humanity that connects us all. Spring is in the air and like any city awakening from a long winter, everyone is desperate and happy to be outdoors. The park is full of casual picnickers munching on crusty baguettes washed down with bottles of beer. Friends greet with an intimate hug and kiss and crowd around tables full of Belgium Hefeweizen and local micro brews. I take mental note of the lack of wine drinking going on. Lyon is, ironically, a beer town. The street style is quintessentially French, urban chic but with a thrown together casual draping of denim and leather on sultry, swaggering frames. I feel as though I’m surrounded by beatnik poets.
I suppose the gastronomic wonders I read about in Bourdain’s reviews of the city are hidden gems for the more sophisticated traveler less burdened with offspring . I’m thrilled to be surrounded by eclectic cafes boasting Tunisian, Moroccan and Middle Eastern fare peppered with some Aussie burger and beer establishments, and hip but casual French bistros. As the sun casts a warm pink glow on the west bank’s monuments and cathedrals, the swans wander down stream to the delight of the photo-opportunists to add an air of elegance to the scenery as they gracefully accept a supper of crumbs. As the twins start winding down, we strap them on our backs and stroll hand in hand, reminiscing of our early years, but relishing in our partnership and the comfort of knowing that no matter what romantic street we wander in the future we will always have a hand to hold. As the young locals sip their liquid amber from deep and round glass globes, a scene in Lyon is forever stilled in my mind, to be plucked out occasionally and admired with remembrance as it’s held up to the light.