Should you wish to read more, catch up on my latest culinary adventures, click to this blog, my New Zealand blog.
I’m going to miss France.
I’m going to miss the trees. That is an odd thing to start this list with, but it is true, I will miss the trees. Anyone who has seen autumn, winter and then spring in France will understand the immense beauty of the trees in France. I’m going to miss the wild flowers growing on the roadside and fields of soft yellow, violet and blue.
I am going to miss the road signs in several European languages. I am going to miss the trains. I am going to miss the supermarkets, the hypermarchés : an aisle for yoghurt, an aisle for milk, an aisle for cheese. I have eaten eight 125ml pots of yoghurt every week for nearly seven months, I will miss the yoghurt most of all. I will miss the bread; I will miss having fresh boulangerie pain aux céréales or baguette with every meal. I will miss the markets: the atmosphere, the fresh produce, the camaraderie between the stalls, or the slight competitive spirit. I am going to miss Bonne Maman confiture. I am going to miss the cheese. I feel my “cheese education” still has long way to go.
I will miss the houses: the wooden chalets with hearts carved in the balconies. Or the beautiful old stone farmhouses, their walls half a metre thick, with flaws and crevices in the stones. Each one has a story. I want to live in a house with a story. I will miss the narrow village roads that wind between each house. The thrill seeker in me will miss being a passenger in a French car, the journeys often punctuated by sharp intakes of breath.
I will miss jet streams in the sky; I like my sky looking like a game of pickup sticks. I am going to miss living in a mountain valley; spectacular views partout. I am going to miss seeing old men shuffling about the town square in cloth caps and berets. And old women in fur coats, their spindly legs poking out the bottom.
I am going to miss the possibility of going to Bordeaux, or Paris, or Barcelona, or Berlin, or London. Just hop on a plane and voila! I am going to miss living in the same country as Bordeaux…
I am not going to miss the smoking, the crazy amount of smoking. I will not miss seeing fourteen and fifteen year olds dragging on their cigarettes like a form of life support. And then, the gathering pools of spit at their feet because they can’t stand the taste: I will not miss that.
I am not going to miss the opening hours of French stores. I am looking forward to going shopping on a Sunday, and goodness, even a Monday if I want to.
I am going to miss the heat. I have had a taste of summer, of the sun on my skin, of the vitamin D coursing through my veins. I feel slightly cheated to be going back to Wellington in winter, like a child given a lick of ice cream and then it cruelly taken away. I want more ice cream. But, if winter means I can walk Lambton Quay, drink coffee on Cuba Street, curse at the wind and cry over the hills, then winter, I am ready.
France, à la prochaine.
2p.m Saturday 23rd of April I said good bye to Bonneville and began my trip south. Intending to return to New Zealand in June a bronzed beauty, I thought the south of France would be the best place to be. So, of course, the further south I head, the darker and more threatening it becomes.
I arrived in a cold and drizzly Bastia at 7a.m on Sunday morning after a very long ferry crossing. From this point on things all got rather interesting. A lack of cheap accommodation in Corsica meant I had to look outside the box. Enter: Maison Saint Hyacinthe, a convent 7km into the mountains outside of Bastia.
Not wanting to intrude on the nuns too early on Easter Sunday, I camped myself on a bench in la Place Saint Nicholas to observe the Sunday morning rituals. A flea market was being set up at one end of the square and a cycle race at the other. Old men in cloth caps and plaid shirts shuffled past me, making comments about the weather; I did have my sunglasses perched optimistically on my head.
I eventually caught a taxi out of Bastia and up the hill to the convent. Pippa had arrived late the night before to a rather angry head nun but we were glad to see that we had each arrived safe and on the right side of the Island. While filling in the accommodation forms, the Chaplain spoke to us in Polish. Our home for the next two nights was to be a Polish convent in the mountains of Corsica.
We began the walk two kilometres down the hill to the nearest bus stop. We missed the bus but instead picked up a dog which liked to chase cars and snap at their wheels. The dog followed us for the remaining five kilometres into the town centre of Bastia despite our efforts to lose it. We even asked two police officers what they would recommend, only to be laughed at and told we could keep him as a travel companion. We lost the dog only by sneaking into a café to eat ice cream for lunch.
The rest of the afternoon we spent walking around the port and citadel areas of Bastia. For our first proper meal in days we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant by the harbour. For the very reasonable price of €18 we had an entrée, main and dessert. We had mussels and whole baked fish: there is just something about eating fish when you can see the fishing boats bobbing calmly in the port.
The next morning the nun was appalled when we told her that we had walked all the way to Bastia. She said we must faire du stop, or hitchhike… After a feeble attempt we decided we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do this. We had resigned ourselves to another 7km walk when a car pulled over and offered us a lift. We jumped in, only to be confronted by a lovely set of gold teeth. With childhood memories of Denis the Menace and stranger danger school lessons running through my head, we made it to the centre of Bastia. Only to take a bus straight back in the direction we had come from to a little seaside village called Erbalunga on the Cap Corse coast.
In an isolated Corsican village on a sedentary Easter Monday, we hit a low. After a very expensive phone call to New Zealand I discovered I had about €2 to my name. Not even enough to afford a hot chocolate when the rain set in for the afternoon. We walked the 2km hill back up to the nunnery in the rain, occasionally catching each others eye and laughing at the hilarity of our current situation.
The next day we left the convent heading to Calvi on the other side of the Island. On our one carriage train that seemed about as old as the Island itself, and later a bus, we wound through the Corsican Mountains. I was pleased to see we seemed to be heading towards the sun. We passed by fields of olive trees, big green nets hanging underneath the trees. The highest mountains still had white peaks while others were a brilliant red. We saw the pine trees that I only associate with Mediterranean climates, their very trunks seeming to exude heat.
Once in Calvi, lunch, bathrooms and accommodation were our top priorities, in that order. After finding a hotel for the night we were free to explore Calvi: the citadel, the beach and the supermarket for a €10 dinner. The next morning we planned to leave Calvi quite early for Ajaccio. Once again, finances proved to be inhibiting as Pippa’s card declined buying the train tickets. We headed to the beach to lie on golden sand and watch the surf: the best place to decide our next move.
We eventually made it on a bus bound for Ajaccio, though of course we couldn’t expect the journey to pass smoothly. The public transport system in Corsica reflects the Island life perfectly. There is really only one major line throughout the Island which services all the big towns. Unless you would like to do a whole tour, you must make several transport changes. A man directs all the passengers where to stand in the dusty car park and then you must wait (and hope) for the connection.
Less than 30 minutes from Ajaccio our train began to slow and puff rather violently. Pippa commented how funny it would be if it broke down, stuck in the middle of the mountains. Our train chugged to a noisy halt, the drivers jumped onto the track, hammers and other tools in hand, while the carriage filled with smoke. We waited and waited and the cold, damp dark began to descend. The train rolled back to the last station where, again, we waited and waited.
A bus arrived to take us to Ajaccio but our night was not over yet. Money issues are not a recent development in our lives: we have become quite accustomed to eating baguette for lunch and dinner on some days, scrimping for train tickets and finding cheap accommodation. Alors, enter: Couch Surfing. In front of the closed Ajaccio train station we waited until 10.30, with each passing minute thinking our luck had finally run out and wondering what we were going to do stranded in Ajaccio late at night.
Mr. Couch Surfer eventually showed up, energy drink in hand. We piled into his little car and began to drive out of Ajaccio… He explained that his house had become almost a hostel for couch surfers in the recent months, with at least one couch surfer every night for over a month. We made quick introductions, discussed Tolkien and Lord of the Rings and then very nearly passed out with exhaustion.
The next morning we rose early and walked another 35 minutes into Ajaccio town centre. Morning bank balance check revealed that we were now in the money, from rags to riches overnight. We spent the morning wandering around Ajaccio, enjoying the sun, the markets and the palm trees. In the afternoon we found a beach and swam in the Mediterranean! The water was clear blue, the sand golden and there were sail boats just off shore.
Late that night, after a lovely meal in a harbour side restaurant we took a taxi back up to Mr. Couch Surfer’s house. The driver got slightly confused and we were dropped off about 100 metres down the road. It was dark and there was no footpath, just steep rock rising up from the road. We took off running and every time a car passed we threw ourselves against the rock. Another night on Mr. Couch Surfer’s couch. Another early start, ready for our ferry back to mainland France at 8.15a.m. As a parting gesture from Corsica the heavens opened and it poured.
A series of unexpected events in Corsica, but despite all that happened, I loved the rustic charm of this Island. At times though, this “rustic charm” was just plan ol’ run down. I loved the diverse and interesting terrain. And I loved the Corsican people: polite, friendly and always keen for a chat.
Seven months ago, nearly to the day, I arrived in France. Slightly terrified, mostly excited, I managed to simultaneously have no expectations and extremely high ones of what this aventure française would be like.
In the irrational, dream-land part of my brain I had the rather childish notion that as soon as my feet touched french soil I would be transformed into this french goddess. A perfectly made french life (complete with language skills and a fantastic wardrobe) would simply be handed to me with my passport stamp, just because I thought I deserved it and wanted it.
Funnily enough, this didn’t happen.
Instead, the first few weeks/months were difficult. The language, the transport, the bureaucratic formalities, the work; all were a challenge. I think back to my first week in France in Yssingeaux and I was totally overwhelmed. At the end of each day my brain physically hurt and I’m afraid I probably scared people by staring intently at their mouths trying to lip read.
My french language skills have not improved as much as I expected. I am slightly disappointed by this-I like to blame my lack of complete fluency on the region and our proximity to Switzerland but maybe I didn’t make as much effort as I could have. Before I left New Zealand I was told that things happen for a reason. Maybe the reason for aventure française was not to master the language but, rather, to figure out what I want for a life, for a career. I may not be able to slip in and out of french and English as easily as I could have hoped, but I am returning to New Zealand with a clear sense of direction. I feel this is far more valuable to me at the moment.
The past seven months have presented other opportunities for learning new skills, other than language. I have learnt to ski in one of the most spectacular mountain areas in the world. I worry I have the potential to be an adrenalin junkie at the speeds I enjoy reaching on my skis. Bring on the bungies and canyon swings.
I have improved my cooking skills. I love being able to open my fridge and semi-invent a recipe in my head. Mother, you will be pleased to know that cooking in such cramped conditions has forced me to become a cook who tidies as she goes. Sometimes I am still far too ambitious for my own good though. The weekly grocery bill is testament to this.
I have learnt to be independent and “keep house.” Monday afternoon grocery shopping is one of my favourite parts of the week and let’s not mention the obsessive checking of the letterbox. I have learnt to build a home away from home: it is absolutely necessary to have a fruit bowl. A full bowl of bright coloured fruit will make everything seem alright. Though, a bottle of wine in the pantry doesn’t hurt either.
I have learnt that my Mother was right (not that I ever questioned her) when she said “there is a meal in the house if there is a can of tomatoes in the house.” I have consequently learnt that my father’s motto regarding the importance of ironing is somewhat misguided. Having not owned an iron for seven months, this is a domestic practice I have let go…
Maybe one of my most important discoveries is that I am a New Zealander at heart. I think part of me will always be at home in France but I do feel proud whenever I tell people I am from Nouvelle Zélande and it is followed by an “oh la la la, il est beau là bas.” The ground moves beneath us, we are so very far away and we tend to have four seasons in one day (a concept lost on the French). But we also have beautiful landscapes, a wine and food industry gaining international recognition and… pineapple lumps. (My students love these!)
Tomorrow when I leave Bonneville I feel like I will be stepping off into a sort of void. I don’t really know what to expect when I travel during May, nor when I return to New Zealand. All I can really say is that the past seven months have been some of the most challenging and the most rewarding. I have met some wonderful people, had incredible opportunities and made memories that I will cherish forever.
Au revoir Bonneville, a la prochaine…
This week my enthusiasm for creating new and exciting things for my students to do has been kind of waning. Really I just want to play games, feed them pineapple lumps and get them crazy on sugar highs. But, for the sake of teacher’s sanity and the kids learning I have restrained from causing raucous havoc, and instead made a darn cool work sheet.
It is so cool and I am so proud of my artistic abilities I am going to share it with you. It made me very happy.
I think most of the finer details of the characters which I had painstakingly hand drawn were slightly lost on the children. I noticed afterward that Nancy seemed to be the only one truly happy and thought this was clearly due to her gravity-defying air-hostess hair style. Tim and Sharon are crying precious jewels which must be a gift in financially challenged times so I am not sure why they are so unhappy. Tim may be mourning the loss of his hair… Sam is unsure of his hair style which clearly his mother did for him and sorry, Georgina, but you are just one angry lady.
I think it is clear that I either have too much time on my hands or need to be committed that I am creating individual personalities within my teaching materials.
In other news, tomorrow I am taking my suitcases to Yssingeaux. Sophie and her family are very kindly looking after them for five weeks while I go exploring. I have no idea how I managed to accumulate so much stuff… I have gone from this:
plus a back pack and a satchel…
Ma aventure française has been full of “double take” moments. Moments when I seem to stop what I am doing, step outside of myself for a minute and wonder how I possibly came to be where I am.
These moments occur without warning and in the strangest of circumstances. Walking through the streets of Bonneville, baguette in hand, watching the old men gossip on benches in the town square, I double take. Spending New Year’s Eve in an Irish pub in Barcelona with Australians and French, I double take. Eating confit du canard on the foot-path terrace of a Parisian restaurant, I double take. Running alone through Bonneville late at night during the first snow fall with my face to the heavens, I double take. Drinking vin chaud at 9p.m in a restaurant in the Austrian alps, preparing myself to go whizzing down the slopes, I double take.
These moments often occur in a heart beat, sometimes during the most mundane of situations, but they are the moments that make this experience so special.
So when I spend an entire weekend marveling at everything I am doing, everything I see, everything I eat, I know it is going to be a weekend I remember.
Our weekend began at 4.30 on Saturday morning, eating the first of many muesli bars and walking through the dark to the ski club bus. Four hours and a coffee croissant break later we arrived in a tiny village at the base of the mountain in the Alpe d’Huez resort.
We followed a little muddy path, across a rickety bridge, skis over our shoulders, to the chair lift at the bottom of the village. On the slopes the weather was worse than we expected: rain, snow, -6 degrees and the thickest fog I have ever seen. Or failed to see: we had no idea of the enormity of Alpe d’Huez or of the stunning views that were beyond the cloud cover. We skied for most of the day, taking whatever pistes we seemed to stumble upon and hoping that no major obstacles were more than 10 metres in front.
Saturday evening we bonded with the gentlemen of the ski club as we watched the rugby: England vs. Ireland and Wales vs. France. Rugby conversation led to the All Blacks which led to our loss against France at the last World Cup. I felt like a fraud as I tried to defend them, realising I could more successfully contribute to a conversation rating their good looks rather than their game scores.
We wined and dined on raclette and côte du rhône with boiled potatoes, salad and a charcuterie platter. It was the perfect meal to end a day skiing: rustic, homely and so very french. In a wooden chalet in a remote mountain village in France scraping creamy, golden raclette off the heated round and with crème brûlée for dessert this was definitely a double take moment. Though, more than one person commented after the meal how much raclette “les anglaises” had eaten.
Later that evening we played Foosball and partook in a rum tasting… When I was poured a tasting glass of ginger rum I decided to call it a night.
Sunday morning we woke to clean, clear skies and once on the slopes I could not believe what we had been missing out on. The views were simply spectacular. Sunday was most probably my last day skiing for a very long time and it was not a wasted day. The snow was better and I went higher and faster than I have ever skied before. 3330 metres higher to be exact. And the only way down from such heights is a black run, the highest slope grade in Europe. What a way to finish my first season skiing.
We piled back on the bus Sunday evening, aching and tired and desperately wanting to be out of ski clothes. Less than an hour into our journey we stopped for une petite pause. Pulled from the back of the bus came 2 huge brown paper bags of baguettes, platters of charcuterie, whole rounds of reblochon, comte et tomme, red and white vin de savoie, genepi liqueur and, eventually, out came the rum… Food just seems to appear here in France. I feel I will not be judged for planning my daily schedule around meal times or finishing breakfast and immediately thinking what I can make for lunch. Maybe I am more of a francophile than I realise…
A crazy, unbelievable, wonderful weekend! We left Alpe d’Huez with goggle tan marks and sore stomach muscles from laughing. With only a few weekends left in this part of the world I am so glad I got to spend one of them at Alpe d’Huez.
My oven and I are becoming one. It is a beautiful experience. One soul. One mind. One stomach.
My oven and I did not get off to a great start. My cakes sank. Things were burnt. Things were still cooking at 11 o’clock at night. I hated that I had to let my jaw hang open like a drooling dog whenever I changed the position of the rack otherwise my teeth would grind horribly at the noise. I had to Google oven symbols because they are different in France, who knew?
But, now, Oven and I are firm friends. When everyone leaves Bonneville, when it’s cold and rainy outside and when I have already watched every episode of Glee I possibly can, I know Oven will always be there. Strong and dependable. Maybe ovens are a bit like maps, you just have to learn how to read them. (A vague idea of where you are headed helps too.)
Last night, Oven, you truly out did yourself.
Determined not to spend this week alone with only a kitchen appliance for conversation, I decided that every day I must venture out into Bonneville and partake in actual human interaction. So, yesterday I dusted off 2000 Recettes de la Cuisine Française and chose a simple recipe for a turkey fillet roasted with potatoes, onions and apples.
I think I may have found true balance in my life: shopping at the organic food store for tofu and almonds, swinging by the boulangerie for a pain aux céréales and then directly to the Maison de Fromage for a rather sizeable chunk of the best creamy goat’s cheese I have ever tasted and a turkey fillet. The one thing that will not be in balance soon will be my bank account…
With the simplest of seasonings, olive oil, salt and pepper, I roasted my turkey fillet in a bed of cubed potatoes and onions, later adding slices of apple. The turkey came out cooked to perfection: lightly crispy on top, tender and succulent inside.
I had a minor faux pas with the bottle of Beaujolais I had bought… After a week or so where luxuries like wine and cheese were very much out of reach, I had forgotten that I was currently not in possession of a bottle opener. Reminiscing of picnics in the park and being 16 all over again, the only thing to do when faced with a challenge of this sort is to push the cork into bottle… Next thing I know my kitchen walls are dripping a delicate shade of red.
And much later, after having thoroughly enjoyed my dinner, cleaned my kitchen walls and had a private wine tasting in front of a Glee re-run, I realised that I had spent all evening looking like this:
Thankfully, Oven doesn’t judge…