LE SAPPEY-EN-CHARTREUSE, France — The first time I witnessed the remarkable trust of the people of France’s mountainous east, I thought it must be an aberration.
That was in March 2007. I’d gone skiing with a French family during our sabbatical in Aix, and when I went to rent equipment, the man at the ski rental shop in Serre-Chevalier in the Provencal alps handed me skis, poles and boots without so much as running a credit card. When I returned at the end of the day on this honor system, he charged me less than the posted rate
Can you imagine something like that in the United States?
As we travel through France again, we’re discovering the same trust and good will commonplace. When we arrived at Les Skieurs, our hotel in this mountain village north of Grenoble, we were handed the key to Room 4 without registering, showing an ID or anything else. We presumed our Swiss friends, who had booked the room, had put down a deposit. We discovered later that management had held three rooms for three days each with no deposit and no credit card to guarantee them. Something similar happened when we stopped in Vaison-la-Romaine, in the vineyard region of Provence called the Vaucluse, and in Les Houches in the shadow of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest alp. We hadn’t booked far in advance, but when we arrived, no one asked for an ID, a credit card, even for us to fill out a registration form.
I’ve seen this kind of handshake trust before in the States long ago, when my parents retired from New York City to rural Vermont in the 1960s. I can’t, however, imagine being handed the key to any American hotel in 2010 without at least giving the proprietor my name and address. I’m quite curious whether the same trust extends westward in France from the hillside village, mountains and alps of the east.
In all three cases, the unspoken messages has been, “We trust you and expect you to honor that trust.” And that’s good enough.
It’s an embracing message. Contrary to the stick-figure American stereotype of the haughty, snobby French, the natives of the Chartreuse — a region of broad valleys and upthrust green mountains, brooks and green meadows, are as friendly and generous with their time as they are trusting. When our Swiss friend Jennifer left an inhaler she needs at home, a local doctor saw her immediately and wrote a prescription. She said she had to practically beg him to accept payment for his time. The pharmacist spent about 5 minutes explaining the combination of antiseptic sprays and cortisone I needed to battle a rash of bites I’ve gotten on my arms and legs. And a woman walking her Welsh terrier in a nearby village described in great detail our choices for a short hike on local trails.
Perhaps it’s because, unlike Provence or Mont Blanc, few Americans come to the Chartreuse; most of the tourists — bikers, hikers, families — are French. These are not, after all, the tallest snow-covered alps. There’s no ocean, no Mona Lisa, no flash. Just song birds, church bells, blue sky and cool, fresh air in a week when temperatures are soaring into the 90s in the cities and valleys below.
But what we’re enjoying the most (well, it’s a tie with the food) is the straightforward warmth and trust of the people we meet. From all appearances, it’s simply the way they go about their lives.