Strolling along the Seine and savoring a croissant buttered with Nutella in Paris is a dream for many. But Diana Stegall made her hope of living in Paris a reality. Her love of France budded during her study abroad experience in 2009 as a “googly-eyed” college girl with dreams of the Eiffel Tower. But this love went deeper than most women with only a Pinterest board devoted to this sophisticated country; in 2013, she started a French history podcast called The Land of Desire. I interviewed Diana about her time in France and why history deepens your travel experiences.
Q: Why did you start your podcast, The Land of Desire?
A: Ha! I’d had the idea sitting on the back burner for awhile but didn’t really have any drive to act on it. Then, in the beginning of 2013 I was unexpectedly dumped. I’d just moved back to my parents’ house to save money so I could move in with this person – wamp, wamp. Now I was sad, single and stuck in my parents’ house in my mid-20s. I needed a very, very distracting hobby fast, and podcasting turned out to be perfect! With a lot of free time and absolutely no distractions in my hometown, I’d taken up hiking while listening to podcasts. Of course, I love history podcasts and I wanted to listen to some kind of entertaining pop history of France. To my shock, there was no such thing! Well, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!
Q: Favorite memory from traveling to France?
A: Back in 2009, three of my best friends in Paris and I decided to take a side trip to Giverny to see Monet’s house. We rode the train out to Vernon, then rented bicycles to ride the rest of the way. It was a perfect crisp autumn day in the countryside. And the four of us sang songs as we pedaled alongside the farms.
Giverny was just as beautiful and charming as we’d hoped. And we spent a few hours taking pictures on the red Japanese bridges and tracing the flowers creeping up the walls to the roof.
Afterwards, we retired to a nearby cafe for wine and the company of the local cats. On the way to Monet’s home we’d passed a sheep in labor. And on the way back to the train station we passed the farm again to see a brand new baby lamb. It was wobbling around on its little baby legs, looking up at a bunch of weird, tall creatures making loud squealing noises at it. Finally we returned back to the city for dinner. To this day, I consider it one of the best days of my life.
In 2016, I finally had the opportunity to visit with the person I loved. And France was suddenly even more romantic than I’d previously known. We sat on the edge of the Square du Vert-Galant, dangling our feet over the Seine, watching the sunset. And it was perfect.
When I first lived in Paris, like any self-respecting expat I spent a million hours poking around Shakespeare & Company. One rainy day, the power suddenly went out. Not wanting to go out into the rain, most of us stayed inside anyway, squinting in the darkness at the book spines and trying to stay warm. All of a sudden, the girl working behind the register picked up the book she’d been reading — I remember it was Franz Kafka — and lit an old-fashioned taper candle. While we continued milling around, she read aloud to us by candlelight, with no soundtrack but the sounds of the rain and the murmurings of the cafe next door.
Q: How has history enhanced your travels? Why should all travelers brush up on a destination’s history?
A: Sure, there are some landmarks which are lovely and beautiful in their own right. You don’t need to know the history of Neo-Impressionism to appreciate “Starry Night.” But Macchu Picchu without history is a bunch of rocks in the grass! History turns your surroundings into a drama: layers and layers of human activity accreting and depositing on top of one another, like a great archaeological dig. History is the salt which flavors the dish of world travel; everything is rendered more vivid, more memorable and more interesting.
Consider the Place du Vieux-Marché in the city of Rouen. It’s a charming square lined with beautiful, well-maintained old buildings. Any ignorant visitor could enjoy a good dinner there and continue on their way. But how would you experience this tiny city square if you knew that this is where Joan of Arc was burned alive? Or that the restaurant you’d eaten dinner at first opened its doors 100 years before Joan of Arc was even born? Or that 80 years ago, Julia Child sat in your chair and ate her first French meal?
Q: If history has enhanced your travels, give an example from your own travels.
A: I mean, I’m essentially Hermione Granger everywhere I go, forever asking people why they haven’t read Hogwarts: A History, crying because Queen Elizabeth I once sneezed on this very paving stone. One memory which stands out in particular was in Stockholm. Right in the middle of the tourist avenues of the old part of town, there’s a cute little boutique which sells, I think, children’s toys and paper goods. On the wall of this building is a strange looking stone with funny decorations. As it so happens, that stone is a gravestone for a Viking, covered in ancient runes, installed by loving parents in tribute to their late son in the year 1000. I lost it and took a million pictures of this otherwise very ordinary shop wall while everyone stared at me.
Everyone also makes fun of me for my obsession with the great Anglo-Saxon door in Westminster Abbey. It’s a very ordinary door, and in 2005 scientists discovered that it was, in fact, the world’s oldest wooden door. That door was installed when William the Conqueror was in power. And it’s still standing there, a very sturdy, respectable door to this day. It blows my mind to think about all the famous people who have walked in front of or through that very same door. Last time I was in Westminster Abbey, a groundskeeper actually stepped past me — taking 300 excited door selfies, of course — and opened the door! It turns out that behind the world’s oldest door is in fact a very modest broom closet filled with ordinary cleaning supplies. I found this unspeakably charming.
Q: What can we learn from the French culture?
A: Absolutely anything can be rendered exquisite with enough time and attention. And nothing is too lowly for our time and attention. There’s a wonderful moment in the film Lady Bird where a character says, “Don’t you think attention is a form of love?” and I think France manifests love through attention in a million different ways. The greatest dishes in French haute cuisine derive from days of siege and famine, when a Paris, which had run out of cows and sheep, had to figure out how to make pigeons and snails taste delicious. The greatest dishes in French country cuisine are usually a few simple ingredients available to the poorest peasants, elevated through technique and patience to become dishes like onion soup and boeuf bourguignon.
Paris is a city which exists to serve humans, not commerce. And that shows in the many touches which are not economical, but decorative and beautiful. Why not spend a little time making the subway entrance beautiful? Why not add bubbles to the water in the water fountains? At almost every opportunity, America prioritizes economy and efficiency, but humans don’t value their lives according to how efficient and economical they are. We value our lives by how beautiful, how lovely and how suffused with special experiences they were. You could go home and do your laundry tonight, if you wanted. But there will always be laundry.
Don’t you deserve an evening with your loved ones?
Don’t you deserve a good meal, even if it’s simply bread and cheese and a few slices of charcuterie with a glass of wine?
Don’t you have time for conversation with your children, who will never be this young again? Isn’t your life worthy of beauty and loveliness?
Diana continues her podcast, The Land of Desire, and made a New Year’s resolutions to pick up some French classes. Podcast topics range from the beginnings of eating snails to Hitler’s visit to Paris.
The bottom line? Those history classes you dreaded in high school actually are important and deepen your experiences as a traveler.
Photos courtesy of Diana Stegall, podcast host of The Land of Desire