I am home from my holiday, sitting at my grandmother's yellow kitchen table that serves as a desk, looking out a window at a half-burned brush pile, carefully avoiding a stack of unpaid bills.

I am busy trying to decide what makes my beloved Mississippi so different from, and so much like, that other land I love, which is France.

Both are stubborn, proud places, determined to hang on to cultural distinctions that set them apart. People in both France and Mississippi obsess about food. They love color and ritual and great literature. They don't much care what outsiders think of them.

And yet, in both places, you almost always can count on help from a rank stranger. On the Canal du Midi, not far from Toulouse, I was "helping" to guide our rented boat into a 300-year-old lock. Not thinking, I stood with a mooring line wrapped twice around a bollard as the waters rapidly drained.

The lock mistress ran from her post and loosened my rope. A boat cannot rise or fall when tightly tethered.

She smiled at my beginner's mistake, and we both laughed. I gave her an Elvis T-shirt as a thank you. At that, she beamed. It is a small, small world.

A few people around here ask about the trip. The high points. The low points.

The highs were not formal tours or fancy restaurants, but small moments, actually, hard to describe with any graphic accuracy. An artist would paint dappled light through the sycamores, dancing on the jade water. A photographer might share her perfect shot of a hot-pink retro refrigerator in the otherwise thoroughly modern apartment of our Paris friends, Peggy and Marie-Lou.

I can only attempt, with weak words, to share the memory of those same friends -- dainty and beautiful creatures -- roaring into a Paris night on a bright red scooter.

My very best moment came in Paris, when finally I ran across one of the vending machines I'd only read about before. Instead of potato chips or candy bars, the machines sell books. You put in two euros, punch C-4 and out comes your selection.

I bought Dictionnaire des synonymes, a thesaurus of sorts, which would be handy if only you knew the words listed before all the synonyms.

Reading and learning and staying abreast of current events are all top priorities in France. That, and working at beauty. When you see a case of raw meat in a butcher's shop decorated with long-stemmed red roses, you know you ain't in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

This trip I finally walked through the Pantheon, where the great men of France are buried. You have the graves of Mirabeau, Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. And you also run across famous names of people that you never even credited to the French, like Louis Braille, the blind man who gave so much to the world.

My eyes are wide and my mind open whenever I visit France. I have tried to trace this love affair to its roots, but 11th-grade grammar exercises can't account for my passion.

Our French teacher at Robert E. Lee High, a young and stylish woman, recorded sexy radio advertisements for a drug store that sold French perfume. She was cool. She even swore to us that French women were more beautiful because they exercised all their facial muscles whenever they spoke their language.

Even that marvelous incentive to learn French wasn't what did if for me, however. I was in the class because of a yearning to see France; I did not develop the desire in school. At least I don't think so.

It might have been a painting, a book, an image on TV. Maybe it was Madeline, who lived in that old house all covered with vines.

Whatever the reason, there is something synonymous in my own soul with the spirit of France, and I hope never to lose it. No country is perfect. Some places are more user-friendly than France, or Mississippi for that matter.

But a few places on earth, and in the heart, are worth great effort.

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