I often find myself looking for France in other countries. It doesn’t seem to matter where I am – if there’s a bit of French history to be absorbed, a French cultural center to be visited, an authentic bakery to be tried, chances are I’ll hunt it down. I suppose this isn’t surprising, given how much time I’ve actually spent as a professional francophile. But especially when visiting countries that were once subject to French rule, I’ll sometimes wonder if it’s odd, or insensitive, to be so intent on finding links to France. It can often feel as if I’m wearing a T-shirt with big block letters reading, “I respect your country and your culture immensely — now kindly take me to your croissants.”
So when I decided to come to Laos, I was both excited and a little unsure. I’d been to enough of France’s “overseas departments” to anticipate a healthy mix of French resentment and fresh baguettes. In the French Caribbean, for example, I’ve found that if you ask ten people about their island’s French connection, nine will wax poetic about the local blend of art de vivre and island flavor, and at least one will develop a sudden snarl. (Keep in mind, current-day French overseas islands may still be subject to rule by the frogs who once took them over, but they’ve also got senators, the Euro, and, yes, tourism promotion funding from the French government. Not a perfect system, to be sure, but still not exactly the kind of scenario that leaves a bad taste in every local’s mouth).
And though France’s history in Laos seemed just as complicated as what I’d seen in the islands, it was, at least, a bit further removed — I had a feeling the lingering French presence would be entirely different there. But what would that look like in one one of the countries France had actually left behind? I hoped for the best: a few French slang terms mixed in with the local Lao, maybe, or a stray copy of Le Monde left serendipitously behind for me on a cafe table. An inherent fondness for the finer points of French culture coupled with a determination to move on with Laos’s own.
Instead, I soon found that Luang Prabang’s French presence was… administrative. Culinary. Understated but blatant; so integrated and overlooked as to somehow seem both forced and organic at the same time.
I never once heard anyone utter so much as a bonjour in Luang Prabang. Yet every administrative building and sign displayed its name clearly in both Lao and French. Give many of the city’s crumbling old buildings a fresh coat of paint and they wouldn’t look out of place in Montmartre. Stop for some local art along the banks of the Mekong and you’d almost think you were on the Seine.
When sending a package at the local post office, I wouldn’t have been able to fill out the necessary customs form without a pretty thorough knowledge of written French. Nor would I have known what line to stand in had I not been able to read the French signs marked “international air mail,” “small packages,” or “cashier.” And yet, when I asked the postman behind the “lettres internationaux” counter if he’d prefer I spoke “English ou francais?” he answered “English” with a look that suggested I’d just left the local shisha bar.
The French element doesn’t seem to be embraced or defamed in Luang Prabang — it’s just there. The happy result is a city where you can eat a very respectable pain au chocolat while watching poppy-robed monks stroll along the banks of the Mekong. The kind of place where street-stand crêpes for breakfast three 90-degree mornings in a row feels more like a forgone conclusion than a health risk. A network of hidden little side-streets that just beg for you to ride your bicyclette from one temple to another.
The city wasn’t what I was used to or what I’d imagined, but rather its own interpretation of what it should be.
Vive la différence.