Oh how I wish the title for this post was original … but I couldn’t resist borrowing it from Peter Mayle, author of A Year In Provence. He wrote French Lessons in 2001 to share stories from his time visiting small villages across France during their local food festivals. He’s been privy to the inner workings of truffle hunting, the craziness of vineyard marathons that include regular stops for a glass of wine and many other food fantasies and celebrations. I was glued to every page as you can imagine (on a side note, Mayle has written dozens of books on topics you wouldn’t expect … I’ll leave the research to you if you’re interested).
I’ve been keeping a record of the curious little lessons I have picked up over the last five weeks since we left Australia. Some are no surprise but still get me thinking … others are lessons I didn’t expect to pick up.
Here’s a (not so) quick summary:
* French people are not house proud the way we are. They don’t spend a lot of money on decorative items or fancy furniture, and they’re not particularly worried about their gardens either. They don’t often entertain friends at home – they’re more likely to go out to a restaurant or cafe. And an “appo” or drink after work is more common than a full meal out with friends.
* The cafe culture we know and love in Australia is surprisingly not as entrenched in the French culture as you might expect. It’s not easy to find a really good coffee – trust me I have tried – and not once have I seen anyone doing their work commute with a takeaway coffee in their hands. The coffee is often filtered, not ground fresh and extracted, and I hate to say that on occasion, we have been served a café crème (flat white) that was microwaved to heat the milk!!! A super quick summary of my usual coffees in France: un café is our equivalent of a short black (although often not as strong); une noisettte is a short black with a dollop of frothed milk – similar to our macchiato; lattes and flat whites both fall under the category of un café crème; and every time you order one of these is like playing Russian roulette. Those who make coffee at home do so with a filtration machine.
* The French love their systems and paperwork. They all agree it can be painful but “it’s good for the economy” – it creates jobs. The social welfare here is very visible – plenty of offices in the main street that claim to be able to offer government assistance to anyone who needs it. The mentality in general, is also that the community and, above all, the government should look after it’s people – it’s their responsibility. One hilarious example of their love of systems for us, was when I enthusiastically volunteered my husband to help with school swimming lessons in May. Thinking it would be as straight forward as it is in Australia, he agreed happily. Then we received a note from the Directrice of the school explaining that he would need to drive half an hour one Monday night in February (still very cold weather in case you’re wondering) to a village pool nearby to take a test to ensure he was in fact a capable swimmer. The external examiner would asses his swimming skills before reporting back to the Directrice on his verdict. I’m glad my hubby can’t speak French very well at this stage – you can imagine his reaction. It went something like this …. “I’m Strayan, I can swim!!”.
* An “Artisan” is someone to be respected for their trade. It doesn’t matter if they are butchers, bakers, artists, jewellers or pottery experts, they are well respected for dedicating a big chunk of their productive life to one skill set or trade. When you ask about a certain product or service and you hear the word “Artisan”, you should respond with the appropriate “oohs” and “ahhs” and sound suitably impressed. Of course they deserve their accolades – this commitment to one trade is not something we see often in Australia. And given the history France can boast, they often have generations of dedication to a trade to support their reputation.
* Une vie cachée est une vie heureuse. I found this saying quite fascinating … told to me by a french person. “A life hidden, is a happy life”. This sums up a philosophy I am beginning to suspect is fairly typical around here. People are not exactly transparent about their struggles or challenges. They’re quite happy to talk about society in general in terms of what’s difficult, but vulnerability is not something that comes naturally to them. It’s true this is probably also the case in Australia, and certainly I am a foreigner so I’m not going to be someone they open up to quickly. But the people I have met have shared enough with me to help me understand that people keep their business private unless it’s absolutely necessary to share. Food and politics are the most common topics of conversation, and everyone is encouraged to share their opinion on these. Get them talking about food and you have a great conversation starter!
* To find the gold, you need to go looking for it! The cold weather, coupled with the ancient buildings that almost always look “closed” means it’s difficult to see what’s really happening in a village unless you’re brave enough to peek in windows and open doors without knowing what you’ll find. The most memorable encounters so far have been when, despite being outside my comfort zone, I dared to open doors to cafes, shops and wineries that looked closed up, only to find the heating is on, the lights are burning and there is a hive of activity inside! I thought I would walk into a room where people stop and stare at the obvious foreigner who has stumbled into somewhere she shouldn’t be. But it’s all been in my over active imagination. Walk in like you own the place, or admit up front you’re an Australian tourist, and they’ll happily share their passions and pass on referrals to other places to explore.
* I was surprised by the number of English people in our part of the South of France – many of them have come here to retire. I wondered if the French were sick of them “taking over” or if they all kept to themselves. I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that many (but not all) English people who live here do speak the language quite well and have deliberately integrated amicably. Historically, the French are grateful for the English who came in and bought up properties and kept village economies alive when the French couldn’t do it alone. We have been so warmly welcomed – we could easily feel at home here.
And finally, this may sound overly simple, but a very wise woman once said that “people are people”. And I’ve thought this more than once since being here these last five weeks. A smile goes a long way, as it does anywhere in the world. Knowing the basic pleasantries of “Bonjour Madame”, “Merci Monsieur”, “S’il vous plait” and “Au Revoir Mesieurs Dames” is greatly appreciated by the French. They delight in foreigners who speak their language well and are quick to compliment them. I have bravely (perhaps a little naively) stepped out and extended an invitation to lunch at our villa, not knowing if a Sunday was the right day to do it, not knowing if the town Mayor would think me weird for inviting him despite having just met him and having never met his wife. But I believe that when your heart is right and you express yourself through your true passion, there is no language barrier. I am pleased to say that I received a very warm acceptance to my invitation (from the Mayor and another four families!) and I have thoroughly enjoyed preparing to receive our first lunch guests. I have done a little research to make sure my menu is in line with the French culture but I also know that if I do something a little different or if everything doesn’t go quite according to plan, people are people, and my new friends will be patient with me and appreciate the sentiment more than the details.
I will finish with some pics from my morning at the Carcassonne markets … this is still my absolute favourite thing to do in France … wander through the markets, try the amazing produce that these passionate people grow, and practice my sing-song-y French pleasantries so that I can get to a point that they don’t even suspect I’m not a local :).
A bientot mes amis,