You don’t need to have traveled to France to be familiar with the French concept of laissez-faire.
A phrase, which translates to “let it be” amongst economic scholars, references the way in which governments should, in theory, let an economy take care of itself. “Hands off,” essentially.
Despite being an academic term rooted in economics, many travelers to France might argue that this laissez-faire mentality has permeated everyday French culture in that sometimes it seems the French people simply can’t be bothered with petty concerns.
“Do what you want, I don’t care, it will take care of itself.” That sort of feeling.
Often times American travelers, in turn, wrongly label this as laziness. While the French versus American culture debate will have to wait for a different day, there simply are aspects of French culture that Americans will never understand.
Of course, there are also things that us Americans do that the French view as curious and weird. For example, many French people I know find it inconceivably odd how casually American’s drop the word “love” (as in “OMG I love U” to a casual acquaintance or saying how you “love” someone’s new shirt).
Regardless, I, for one, am a fan of the French laissez-faire. One place I often notice this “couldn’t care less” mentality is whenever I am wine tasting in France. Unlike California’s Napa Valley where wineries have the audacity to ask for $20/person for a tasting, many times at French vineyards there isn’t even a tasting fee at all.On at least four separate occasions I have called into a rural French vineyard where the tasting room attendant had to come in from the fields to offer us a sample of their recent vintages. Despite the obvious added effort of catering to us, the mentality surrounding the free tasting was always the same:
“If you like my wine, you buy it, if you don’t, then leave. I don’t care.”
While this is all well and good with relation to wine tasting, I didn’t realize that this same mentality also applied to wildfires, namely in that they, too, should just take care of themselves. Though I’m sure this is not the actual case with all French wildfires, it sure seemed to be the case one April outside the southern city of Nîmes.
Cruising the rural hinterlands in an aging, red, four-door sedan, the vineyards and fields streaked by against a hazy blue sky as my wife, her expat friend whose car we were driving, and I meandered our way across the southern French countryside.
Not having passed another vehicle for at least 15 minutes, the emptiness of the two-lane road was a welcome relief from the congested and narrow streets of nearby Nîmes. The sun was shining, two bottles of red had already been acquired for evening consumption, and what I can assume were French road trip tunes casually streamed from the stereo.
Life, it seemed, was pretty darn good.
That was, of course, until we happened upon what appeared to be a small wildfire. Burning off to the right of the road, brisk winds whipped the flames into a choking and thick gray smoke. Nevertheless, despite the visible flames on the roadside the smoke appeared to stretch only for 10 yards or so.
Not really sure what to make of the fire burning uncontrolled and unnoticed in the roadside ditch, the decision was made to simply keep driving and get past it before things got out of control.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
Having crawled at 10 mph through the beginnings of the smoke the visibility was suddenly reduced to zero. Without the ability to even see the hood of the car it was impossible to tell if we were driving into oncoming traffic, off the side of the road, or directly into some oncoming flames. A brisk crack to the right side of the road quickly answered the question for us: we had driven into the flames and they were about three feet from the car.
Quick decision. What do you do? Do you:
A: Keep driving
C: Act like a fool and jump out of the car without your shoes and leave the car to burn, yourself choking violently from the heavy smoke inhalation.
After obviously choosing option C, (I was forced to jump out the back window due to the rear door not working any more), three road-trippers, who 30 seconds ago were on a casual drive, now found themselves standing in an empty French field having parked their car directly in the middle of a fire.
With feet aching from walking barefoot on the hard, plowed earth of the field, my thoughts drifted to whether or not the tires might be melting. I couldn’t tell, of course, because the car was completely consumed by the smoke.
In a moment of snap decision it was decided that I couldn’t just let my friend’s car burn. Grabbing the keys from her I decided I would run down through the field and approach the car from upwind so as to avoid the prolonged smoke inhalation. One hundred yards down the field, however, I encountered a huge irrigation ditch and was forced to turn around.
Just to complicate matters, with the car completely invisible behind the curtain of gray smoke, I turned back to see an enormous agriculture truck driving down the highway in the same lane our car was in – increasing in speed in an apparent effort to shoot through the smoke.
Knowing there was a two-ton metal obstacle in the middle of the smoke, which they couldn’t see, I again took off running across the plowed earth, this time waving my hands and screaming anything and everything that might possibly get the truck’s attention.
Luckily, they saw me and stopped just short of the increasing smoke screen. Amazingly, these words managed to come out of my mouth.
“Il y a une voiture à l’intérieur de la fumée!“
Whoa. I speak French. Thanks Rosetta Stone!
With the truck drivers now aware that there was a car in the middle of the smoke, they acted in a much more rational manner than we originally did. They rolled up their windows, drove slowly through the smoke (managing to not hit our car, which may or may not have melted tires), and safely emerged on the other side.
Following their lead I raced barefoot and shirtless over the hot asphalt, my T-shirt covering my nose and mouth in the hope I wouldn’t inhale multiple plumes of smoke. I opened the driver’s side door, found that the engine still started, and slowly rolled the car forward on tires, which thankfully had not yet melted.
The entire ordeal took no more than five minutes, but for some reason I felt like we had cheated death at least three times.
With the girls having managed to navigate a way around the irrigation ditch on the far side of the field, we piled everyone back in the sedan, snapped a quick photo to document the moment, and continued on to the nearest village a bit shaken but happy to be on the road again.
Pulling into the first winery that we saw, I alerted the tasting room girl that about three kilometers down the road there was a fire burning in a field with nobody there to put it out.
“Hmm,” she shrugged with a slight glance to the horizon.
“Would you like to try some of the white? I am sure someone will take care of it soon.”