1. Countries are so much more than their big cities, in a very good way.
I used to think, like many Parisians, that if I left the city, I would fall off the edge of the planet somehow. Most people in big cities tend to think this way, even if they don’t realize it. But when you leave the city for even a few days — let alone for months at a time — you understand that the specific kind of stressed, hyper-individual personality you see in the major metropolis is not universal. It’s a cliché, but people are almost always kinder in the small towns, and there is a rhythm to life that can be wonderful for the spirit. Sometimes being in a town where things close early, where there is green everywhere, and where everyone knows (and has a café with) one another is the best thing you can do for yourself.
2. Cultures blend together, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
When you are in the south of France near the Spanish border, you can feel it. (Full disclosure: Basque country is one of my favorite places in the world.) But when you approach the Italian border, or the Swiss, or even the German, you can feel those just as deeply. Languages bleed over and blend together (see: the Alsacien language), staple dishes combine and steal from one another, and the rhythm of life follows. Being in the west, along the Pyrenees, is very different from being next to Monaco. You can tell when there is an influence of the discreet, stylish northern Italians, or the warm, colorful Spanish. A culture is not black-and-white, it’s a highly blended palette.
3. You don’t know everything.
It’s so easy to go to a small town and feel like you’re more cultured, more sophisticated, or more educated than the people you’ll meet. It’s a totally ignorant way to think, but a lot of times we just make that assumption subconsciously, because we’re always told that being from the big city means we know more than we do. “Small-town” and “countryside” are both very real stereotypes. But I learned more from being in those towns than I ever learned in Paris, in many ways. When you’re not surrounded by a thousand things to do at all hours of the day, you begin to reflect within yourself and interact more with the people who are around you. I spent hours talking to the female shop owners or the little old men gathered around the PMUs (little corner bars where you can bet on horse races). I never would have spoken to these people in the big city, but they have so many things that I just didn’t know. And I still have so much to learn.
4. Long walks are essential to happiness.
City walks and country walks are just not the same, no matter what we say. And going for a long walk in tall flowers, or amongst trees, or even just on a back country road that doesn’t lead anywhere particularly interesting is incredibly important for the soul. It allows us to remove all distraction, have honest conversations with ourselves, and appreciate what we have while we have it.
5. Solo travel is easier in the country than in the big city.
I should say here that there are definitely still relatively big cities in the south of France, though I didn’t go to all of them. That said, compared to Paris or New York, they’re still quite small, and there are many more small-to-medium towns that you can visit. I stayed in a lot of bed and breakfasts or AirBnbs in these little towns, and found that they were much easier to enjoy by myself than, say, Bordeaux or Nice (which are both bigger cities). You would think it’s the opposite, but when you’re in a big city, you often feel so overwhelmed by the sights and activities and the presence of so many other people having fun together that you become isolated. In a smaller town, where you can slow down and make very individual connections with people (and the open space around you), there is a calm in being alone. It’s very refreshing.
6. You can’t go back, and that’s a good thing.
Even a few months apart, when I’ve stopped back into the little towns that I visited on my trip, things were different. With a change of weather, or the closing of a store, or the addition of new residents, things were always subtly off. And while it’s not a totally different place, there is a definite something that is no longer the same. Going back, and having everything be exactly where you left it, is impossible — particularly in places where the changes are so easily perceptible. But this is a good thing, because once you come to understand the impermanence of the places you love, you learn to appreciate them deeply while you’re there. I once meditated in a lavender field outside of Aix because I knew that I would never see it in quite that way again, and it was one of the best moments of my life.