My American cousin Trevor had never been to Europe before his trip to France last month. While visiting us here in the Eastern Pyrenees he told me his concept of time had been transformed after seeing the catacombs of Paris. That says a lot coming from a geologist, someone who pretty much studies the history of the world through rocks. But I instantly understood his sentiment.
American history is so utterly modern when compared to Europe. I once had an Englishman tell me his house was older than my country. And it was—much older in fact. There’s something mind-altering about seeing the physical relics of a history you’ve only ever seen in books, a history that doesn’t exist for many Americans who’ve never traveled outside our homeland. (Of course America’s natural history goes back much further than the nation itself, but that’s another dimension for another blog post).
The fact is, wrapping our heads around the history of modern civilization is difficult for Americans. It’s not that we’re stupid, we’re just ignorant—through no fault of our own. No matter how much we’ve read or learned, we simply don’t have the three-dimensional experience to put it all into perspective. We’re insulated by expansive lands between borders, few vacation days for extended travel and one official language. This is what I tell my French compatriots (I’ve got dual citizenship now) all the time. And though I would never admit this to a French person, I have to say we Americans are hopelessly naive when it comes to world history.
But still, there’s nothing I dislike more than a know-it-all historian making me feel like a stupid American. And that’s why I so love Ina Caro’s book The Road from the Past. She’s written a scholarly history of France without a hint of snobbery. The book is not about what she knows, but about what she wants to help you, the reader, know. What’s most interesting is that it’s a guidebook. She takes you physically through France visiting the country’s most precious sites in chronological order. Hallelujah, a physical timeline! Because honestly, when I first came here I had a terribly hard time placing all the “old” architecture in historical context. The idea of seeing history evolve before your eyes with physical examples is nothing short of genius (as rudimentary as it really is). I like how Peter Prescott put it as quoted on the book jacket, “It’s a wonder no one ever thought of it before”.
Aside from the obvious chronological order, Caro treats every detail with down-to-earth language. You aren’t left searching Wikipedia for jargon. Here’s how Caro explains a certain architecture the Romans left behind in France (in case you need a refresher, France was once a part of the Roman Empire that stretched as far north as Scotland, as far west as Spain, as far south as Egypt and as far east as modern-day Iraq).
[The Maison Carée] is built in the “hexastyle pseudoperipteral style”—a convenient phrase to know if you take tours, as we once did, with guides who turn to their group and say, without further explanation, “Here we have a perfect example of the hexastyle pseudoperipteral style used by the Romans on all their temples after the Augustan principate.” The term simply refers to the adaptations made by the Romans to Greek temple design…
And then Caro goes on to explain those adaptations as if she were sharing this knowledge with her grandkids. She treats every period of French history from the Roman Empire up to navigating a car in modern Parisian traffic with a skill that makes this book a classic.
If you’re coming to France, get a copy of this book. Read it before your trip, during your trip, after your trip–and then even after you’ve moved here and continue to digest the nuances of lordships, shifting borders and ancient regional languages still alive and well in French provinces.