“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”

                                                                                                              17th Century French Philosopher, Voltaire

In France I acquired impressions.

Impressions of Cormeilles, Normandie, France

There are three Cormeilles in France. Our Cormeilles— the one where we spent the month of May 2024, is a thousand-year-old town of 1,150 people, that few in or out of France, are aware of.  Some tourists happen on it, while taking a blue highway route to Paris. Locals hope they will stop and buy a chevre round, a strawberry tart, a necklace, a baguette, a plate of escargot, a crepe, or a beer, but they don’t let the possibility of a sale interrupt their desire for a balanced life.

Cormeilles, Normandie, France


For at least 250 years—since they began to take a census— Cormeilles has never been bigger or smaller. It is not a has-been or a will-be, but a stable, small, sub-sufficient town.

Its rhythm took us a bit to get used to. In Cormeilles time is measured in church bells. They ring every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day.  On the hour, the bells toll to mark the time. They ring for a minute at 7 AM, Noon, and 7 pm. I wondered: have these bells been tolling since people worked 12-hour days and had no way else to tell time? Or perhaps these bells still tell people when to wake, pause for lunch, and quit working. I am one who wakes in the middle of the night. In Cormeilles I lay in bed listening to the four bells tolling the hour, then the melodies announcing 4:15 and 4:30. If I had not stressed myself too much with news of Gaza or trip plans, I would be asleep when the five rings tolled.

From where the bells toll

Most stores are open from 9 AM-Noon. They close for lunch from 12-2:30.  Restaurants are closed between 2:30 and 7 PM. Saturday nights are usually quiet. Mondays many things are closed.  If you want an afternoon tea, you can get one at the bar in town. Restaurants never ask anyone to leave. People sit for hours, without laptops, talking.  On my birthday we tried to take a 180-minute lunch. We lasted two hours. It would probably have been easier if we had imbibed. It was uncomfortable.

The center of town—Place du Gaulle, is too small for the Paris-bound cars and trucks, farmers moving tractors from meadow to meadow, and young people on motorcycles that pass through. There is no stop sign or traffic light. People take turns! We wondered at the patience of our bus driver. Sometimes it took him ten minutes to exit the intersection.

Place du Gaulle, Cormeilles

For us, coming from a sheep farm in Wales, the commerce of the town was delightful. This is a cheese region of world renown, so there is a fromagerie.  Brebis—sheep cheese— was our favorite.  The poissonerie in town provided fresh seafood, but we had to check their hours frequently. They took long lunch breaks and sometimes closed early. There was also a boucherie for the carnivores and two boulangeries with a full array of tarts and sweets in bold colors, but most people came for the baguettes which they bought a couple times a day—to be eaten at the next meal.

I loved to watch people pick up their long loaves and carry them home. I wished we could have joined them. It looked so convivial. Dave’s gluten intolerance meant we did our best to keep the bread eating to a minimum. France was the hardest place for such a dietary restriction. Bread is life here. They just created a scratch-and-sniff stamp celebrating the baguette.


Friday was market day. We made friends with the organic farm distributor providing vegetables and fruits from France and Spain, including deep green artichokes with purple and yellow fringes the size of my head. Chickens at the market were sold whole with heads and tails still on— chopped off after purchase. The seafood stall changed from week to week. One day there are giant crabs on sale. Always there are snails and conch, and fish with eyes stare as you wait for your fillet. For Dave’s birthday, we bought salmon. For mine, conch. One woman sold yogurt, fresh cottage cheese, and pots of cream. I only discovered the difference by buying each one.

There were three holidays while we were in Cormeilles. The first celebrated the day, May 8th, 1945, when Charles De Gaulle announced to the French people that the war with Nazi Germany was over.  This holiday was celebrated for five days, with a carnival for kids, and occasional marching bands and parades. One night at 10 PM the band began to play. We rushed out and were not the only ones in our pajamas. The street was blocked off and the crowd swayed to the music. They released confetti, and the streets were lined with tiny bits of bright paper for the rest of our visit.

The second was the Ascension. As far as we could tell this was a day off for personal picnics, and a Monday to sleep in. An art exhibit at the Presbytery (from where the bell tolls), opened that weekend.


Mother’s Day was May 26. I was amazed at the lack of commercialism. We saw family picnics, and a group of seniors leaving a building with roses in their hands. That was it.

Though the town center was usually busy, we only needed to walk a block or two in any direction to get to peaceful quiet. Nine roads spoke out of town in different directions, all heading uphill, some immediately and steeply, others eventually and slowly.  A quarter mile, or a ½ a mile at most, and we’d come to the town sign with a slash through it letting us know we had left Cormeilles. We spent most of our time in Cormeilles walking these nine spokes. We found a table at the mountain top, our go-to when the weather permitted a picnic lunch. In the evening we took one of the roads that take longer to rise, passing meadows with views of our little town.

A block outside of Cormeilles

US Midwestern Impressions of the French rural/urban divide.

Cormeilles is a rural town, in a country with an acute urban-rural divide. Dairy farmers and wheat growers who make all those fresh baguettes with camembert possible have been protesting higher costs, lower prices and cheap imports,Paris and EU-imposed green regulations, and changes in products that come without assistance to growers. They have turned town signs upside-down to register their frustration. Suicides are rising, life expectancies lowering.

Upside downtown sign. Farm protest.

I remembered the farm crisis in Minnesota in the 1980s when agri-business took advantage of the recession to buy up ailing small farms. The farmers’ struggle coincided with the P-9 meat packer strike in Austin MN,  a town surrounded by farm communities.  David and I were there in Austin for strike support the day farmers surrounded the Hormel meat packing plant in defiance of the Minnesota National Guard, to support the workers and impede scabs from entering the plant.  Some of the leaders of the farmer organization Groundswell came to the Central America Resource Center where I worked, and a few even traveled to Nicaragua and Guatemala and found solidarity with peasant communities across the imperial divide.

In 1986 Minnesota Farmers brought their tractors to St Paul.  Likewise, in January of 2024 French farmers brought their tractors to Paris and dumped manure on the streets. The process of moving to large-scale agribusiness is coming a little later than the US Midwest ( or neighboring Spain and Italy from whence much of the cheap produce comes).

Those who are protesting today in France span the spectrum of farm size and ideology. There is one organization of small farmers, with left politics who organize against free trade, while building solidarity across borders.  They work to fight the incursion of extreme xenophobic politics among farmers and push for government subsidies for green practices.  The farmers didn’t have a union but created an organization representing their interests.

The farmers in France are organized in several unions and they do occasionally link up with urban workers. They are also—like rural groups in the US—susceptible to the protectionist, xenophobic, and anti-green rhetoric of the far right.

There is a larger lesson for those of us who support green policies. We need clean green deals that invest in workers and farmers and plan for long-term sustainability, things capitalism is notoriously bad at.

Nickel, France and Sovereignty in Kanacky (New Caledonia). Impressions of a student of Empire.  

I was thinking about this, while reading about the eruption of protests in French New Caledonia, a rise in the ongoing independence struggle of the Kanak people. This island, off of New Zealand is still, in 2024, a French colony!  At the heart of Macron’s shenanigans to deny the Kanak people sovereignty, is his determination to exploit the nickel mines of the island at all costs, to put France ahead in the global electric car race.

French green deals are rotten steals, leading to violence against the Indigenous people of Kanaky.

France in Africa, Africa in France.  

In the back of the historic theater in Cormeilles is a Veterans club for those Veterans of North African wars— Morocco, Tunisia, and Algiers—the 1950s and 60s. These were the wars of a dying empire, leading to independence in Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, and Algiers in 1962.  I wonder what impression these men and their families, have of the history of French imperialism.

During our time in Cormeilles, Nigeria rejected French military bases on its territory, following the 2023 rejections by Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.   Whether this means more sovereignty and peace for African countries, or a switch to domination by other large powers, it certainly signals a diminishing of France, who at one time or another, colonized over a third of the African continent.

We spent an hour in Evreux, the County seat of L‘Eure, We took the train to Evreux and from there, caught a bus to Vernon. Most people in the Evreux boulangerie where we had tea,  and all the people on the bus, were of African descent. I looked up the demographics of Evreux. I was unable to find race statistics. In France, 5% of the population is Black: Afro-Caribbean-French or African-French. Africans and Arabs are the focus of anti-immigrant campaigns of the extreme right.

Vichy antisemitism of the 1940s and Le-Pen Islamophobia come from the same rotten root, intertwined with anti-Black and anti-Arab racism.

Impressions of Paris, two months before the 2024 Summer Olympics

In Paris, at the Assemblee Nationale, neon replicas of classic statues held the accouterments of Olympic sports. I read that transportation and sanitation workers were demanding fair compensation for the extra work required to make the games run smoothly. We walked the Seine, enjoying the wide promenade divorced from cars, and the glorious Louvre that stretches for blocks. There were even clean open public bathrooms— a godsend for David who was reacting to something he ate. The only thing marring our walk was the rain and the police sirens. We wondered if all that police activity was normal. Then we saw a line of paddy wagons go by – over a dozen— filled with people dressed alike.  Beautiful Paris didn’t look so lovely.  I read that the Boulevards in Paris were created to aid the Gendarme in chasing rebelling workers. That tradition continues.

We wanted to walk to the Eiffel Tower. We walked till we could walk no farther and we were not there yet. We stopped at the next outdoor café and ordered tea, renting a place to sit. At the end of the block, a crowd was gathered and photographers were snapping.  A couple in wedding outfits and sneakers walked back and forth while the cameras clicked. We each took turns getting up and walking to the end of the block to see what the fuss was all about. There, in full view, was the most famous French celebrity of all,

The Eiffel Tower.


We had already walked ten miles, our capacity, so we found the bus stop, but we took the wrong bus, and then a light rail to its final subway stop, As a result, we saw parts of the city that tourists don’t usually see; massive working-class apartment buildings on the outskirts, and the gleaming financial district.

The apartment we were staying in had a bed that came down from the ceiling, filling the entire space. We were way to tired to enjoy anything but a bed. Dave was feeling sicker and was grateful for the bathroom. Unlike the people living in tents on the Seine, two or three every block, we had everything we needed. 

A Visit to Vernon and Giverny, the pays of French Impressionists.  

Siene River Vernon, France


I made a reservation for two days in Vernon at the place that was far enough from Monet’s garden to be affordable, but close enough that a long walk would get us there. The owners of  loft were artists and it showed in decorations and layout of the place, which, compared to our tiny room clumsily decorated in Cormeilles, was a spacious a beauty.  On the table when we arrived were four miniature macaroons, too pretty to eat – so we ate them slowly and methodically.


We had a full day to walk toward Monet’s garden, backward a mile to the bridge over the Seine then a three-mile river walk to Giverny. We noted the play of light on the water, the wildflowers changing color with each move of cloud and sun. Even the essence of cows in the meadow changed their spots with the movement of clouds. Half a mile from Monet’s home, the walking and biking paths diverged. The cyclists had a wide road into the meadow. We were in deep woods. The splendor of trees was a stark contrast when the path met the road and a complex of parking lots and stressed tourists. Here there were more Americans than we had encountered in eight months.

At the door to Monet’s Garden, we turned around, stopping only for lunch, to get our dose of English eavesdropping. The man was from New Jersey, newly divorced, kids on their way to college. His parents had been married for 50 years. “Never once did I hear them argue.” The man loved the French espresso. His French friend said, that he drinks ten cups a day. The New Jersey fellow looked up espresso machines and French coffee on Amazon;  determined to begin a new life.

We left the café and turned away from Monet’s Garden. Immediately we were alone, pausing to sniff and snap photos of every flower in the gardens and meadows along the way. It was a glorious day for the senses, with just a taste— enough— of crowds.

All day I was thinking, ignorantly, that impressionism was a lie, because all of the natural world before us looked like impressionist paintings. Then I read up. The impressionists were realists, divining to capture the world as it appeared outside where color is ever changing, where lines blur, where two shapes become one.

Post-Impressions of Paris.

I also read about post-impressionists. They are the ones who incorporate what they see with what is inside. Perhaps posts-impressionists are the real truth tellers. We know their impressions are individual.  None of us see the world the same way. We are all gathering impressions through a prism of our past.

On our second trip to Paris, our last day in France, our bus from Cormeilles to Lisieux could not take us to the train station because the roads were blocked. The Olympic torch was about to be carried through town on its way to Paris. We walked against the crowd, toward the train station, picking up on the excitement.

In Paris we walked with our packs from on train station Saint Lazare to the Gare du Nord where we had a hotel room. After depositing our luggage we had energy to do one thing. I wanted to go see the Musee National de l’Histoire de l’Immgration.  France, like the United States, is falling into nativist hellhole and I wanted to see a place that might be raising interference.

We got on the subway going the wrong direction.  There, a man —waif-like —smelling strongly, — pushed for a coin by pressing himself against people and coughing into their faces. He lingered over David.

I did not have the energy to reverse course and try the subway again.  I was angry at myself for directing us onto the wrong subway, and distressed by the man forcing his dis-ease on passengers. We went to a café to recover, then walked back to our hotel. That night, looking out at a Paris skyline of endless apartments, wishing I had made it to the museum, I thought about this man, probably an immigrant with a telling story of how France treats people from outside its borders who don’t have bank accounts or white skin.

Angry and mean is how Paris impressed me the second time around. Cops roamed the streets sirens blaring.  Two waiters were short with us, and, you know, “two equals everyone” when your time somewhere is short.  A street building cleaner, preparing for the Olympics, sprayed as we walked by. Chemicals worse than anything the man on the subway had to give, lodged in our lungs.

Then again, some good things happened.  I found an avenue that honored Dulce September, an African National Congress member, who spent time as a political prisoner in South Africa. In France, she organized international support against apartheid. In 1988 she was assassinated in Paris. Two years later South African apartheid fell.  In 1998, people in Paris organized to recognize her life with a park and road name.

I pray the day will come soon, when Israeli apartheid falls, and Palestinian activists get their statues and plaques, 


In the evening a rainbow created an arc as big as Paris. My last impression of France.  A prism of color.