I’m back! How on earth five weeks could pass so quickly is beyond me, but they did, and they were fantastic. An amalgamation of French-talking, French-eavesdropping, English-lesson-conducting, Extreme Cooking (aka: cooking with French recipe books…slightly lethal), obsessive baking, skiing, hiking, game-playing, driving on the wrong-side-of-the-road, acting out words whose French equivalent I didn’t know (that was fun…although more so for the guesser than for me, I think), writing, friend-making with a limited vocabulary (a personal challenge), and quite a lot of singing. I don’t know where that skill emerged from, but my singing suddenly became top-notch out there.
And what did I discover? That the French do it right (well, where I was based, anyway)! French culture seems to be incredibly community-centred, honest and open. Smiling is an essential means of communication, and those people who don’t return a smile are looked on as sinister (something which seems totally logical to me, a girl who is looked on as sinister for smiling TOO much in London). I was also enraptured by the double-kiss hello ritual. I know it can look odd at first, especially when you watch two men casually kissing hello (no manly hugs and back-pats out here), but there’s something comforting about the fact that even children give a double-kiss greeting. I’d be walking along with Emma, she’d see a school friend wandering down the street towards us, and they’d naturally kiss hello. Mini adults.
Other observations? Well, saltless butter was always the butter of choice (I know a lot of people who rave about it…Mr Lurpak and The Hummingbird Bakery included…but I just don’t), and table mats were used instead of plates, for bread. That definitely saved on the washing up; you just shook the mats over the bin once done. I also discovered that in France, a little mouse comes to collect the teeth of children (from under their pillow) instead of a tooth fairy. A little bit creepy (and unhygienic) but interesting, nevertheless. And a love of Nutella is expected in each and every Frenchman. If you don’t like Nutella, you are not truly French. If you want to call yourself French, you must have an urge to eat Nutella out of its pot with a teaspoon, at least twice a day.
As you’ve probably already gathered, it was the all-encompassing food culture of France that I so fell in love with, because when it comes to food, the French are the fois gras of cooking. Their chefs are just so effortlessly cool, and look so at home in the kitchen in their fancy chef-whites (which have invariably been passed down from generation to generation, along with culinary secrets and beautifully engraved knives). And to make matters even more convenient for the French, the accent and language they use when they serve up a dish just seems to compliment it. It sort of acts like a smooth, intensely-flavoured sauce, or a designer label. So to conclude, the French cook like gods.
Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that food in France is an event; something to socialise over. For example, look at the morning boulangerie-visiting ritual. It’s so logical. What better way to start the day than with a trip down to the boulangerie to pick up a warm, crispy baguette and some buttery croissants? But this tradition is made by its community nature. The locals natter away to the jovial baker, bond with other customers, and discuss village events and excitements until they’re blue in the face…and it’s at this point that they wander home and tuck into their freshly-baked purchases. You visit the boulangerie not only for the food, but for the friendly atmosphere that comes with it.
I suppose the boulangerie tradition is a bit like the food market tradition. Although I’m a sucker for French supermarkets (what is it about foreign supermarkets being like Aladdin’s cave to tourists?! Finding a supermarket when I’m abroad genuinely feels like coming across the Holy Grail), the French seem to be less-so. Instead of buying your cheese, meat or veggies from the supermarket, in France you simply head down to the nearest outdoor food market, and move between stalls selecting all you need for next week’s meals. The thing is, it makes sense. In fact, it makes painful amounts of sense. Why buy a branded cheese in a wrapper from the supermarket, when you can get a better-quality cheese from someone who can tell you all about it, and where it came from, at the local market? For cheaper. Or why buy a bag of bruised fruit and vegetables from the Hypermarché when you can buy the un-bruised version just down the road, directly from the people that grew them?
Look, I’m going to stop myself from waffling on and on about everything, because I could do that as an Olympic sport (and I need to save my energy for summer 2012). I just had the most wonderful time out there in France – probably because the family I was living with was so wonderful – and I basically want to live it all again. Although I have no doubt that I will, at one point, return.
But for now, I’ve got to stop being ‘au chômage’ and find myself ‘un travail’. Back to reality (oh there goes gravity). Quite excited to start my new life now, really. Bring on the next adventure!