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Cultural Illiteracy

September 25, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments
La Baule

La Baule

In my most recent post, I made reference to a stay in the French Atlantic resort of La Baule in August 1999. My wife, son, and I were visiting my sister and her family on the occasion of a major birthday milestone for my sister. They were taking their annual August vacation away from Paris. They had rented an apartment overlooking the beach, and we were staying a ten-minute walk away along the beach at the Hermitage Hotel. It was there that I learned a valuable lesson in cultural literacy.

As suggested in the photo above, a solid wall of buildings overlooks the beach. Separating buildings from beach is a walkway that extends for miles. The Hermitage is the most luxurious hotel in town, and we felt out of place from the moment we checked in. Just to the hotel side of the walkway is the hotel’s pool. On the beach side of the walkway is La Terrasse, one of the hotel’s restaurants, with a bar and patio overlooking the beach.

One afternoon, we met my sister and her family poolside, where we ordered drinks. (The dollar wasn’t doing so badly then, but they were still the most expensive drinks I had paid for in my life.) We were dressed in regular clothes, but as I looked around, I realized that the poolside dress norm for hotel residents was bathrobes, the plush blue bathrobes we all had in our rooms. That, for instance, was what Nicolas Sarkozy mayor of Neuilly and future president of France, was wearing at the adjacent table.

The next day, with my hard-earned new cultural literacy, I donned my bathrobe, with swimsuit underneath, and we took the elevator down to walk out to the beach. The hotel provided umbrellas and simple furniture for residents wishing to sit on the beach. We had seen a number of such residents, reclining and enjoying drinks from the nearby hotel bar. But when we got out there to sit, order drinks, and swim in the ocean, we could find no one in charge of the furniture and umbrellas. My wife and I spent over 10 minutes walking up and down the beach, looking for the appropriate staff member. The longer we walked, the more we realized that I looked like a complete fool. Bathrobes may be the appropriate outerwear at the pool, but among the many thousands of beachgoers, I was the lone bathrobe wearer. I knew neither what to wear nor how to claim my umbrella. When I could no longer stand the humiliation, we retreated to our hotel room.

Hotel Hermitage

Hotel Hermitage

We did try again, once I had replaced my bathrobe with a shirt, ultimately discovering that the waiters on the patio of La Terrasse doubled as beach attendants, ready to provide furniture and umbrellas if asked. In due course, we settled in for drinks and a swim. Of course, I still felt like the town fool.

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