Our Third Culture Kid columnist, Charlotte Day, regales us with stories of encounters with France and French cuisine that piqued her curiosity somewhat more than her palate.
My experience of France and of French food consists of a miserable trip to Paris and the Loire Valley with my mother and stepfather in cold, drizzly March, and an even more miserable language exchange to Lyon last February.
The first experience saw us through innumerable cafés au lait, pains au chocolat and frothy miracles of haute cuisine in the Loire Valley. Afterwards, my mother went on her first raw food diet.
The second was a mandatory school trip for all French-language students at my boarding school in England, which I faced with more optimism than most. Two weeks in Lyon, two weeks back in England, dramatic language improvement and cultural interchange — why ever not?
From the moment we boarded the Eurostar, however, things did not look promising. Two boys arrived sporting Union Jacks and carrying paper cut-outs of Wills and Kate. The rest had already scoured their exchange partners’ Facebook pages and resolved to dislike them.
I suppose I ought to have anticipated this Anglo-French clash, given the historical precedents. Yet the English contingent’s narrow-mindedness unsettled me.
Yes, we were sacrificing a holiday to spend two weeks with a stranger. But their genuine unwillingness to learn, Anglo-supremacist attitude and lack of curiosity were a little disturbing.
As we descended into the arrivals hall of Lyon Part-Dieu station, the smiles of expectant correspondents ought to have rebuffed the querulous English students. Yet each went through his or her initial greeting with as pronounced an English accent as possible.
You are what you eat
My exchange partner and her mother drove me back to their beautiful old farmhouse, in a village known for horse breeding. My bedroom was large and warm, my French not as bad as I’d feared it to be.
And yet one anxiety still plagued me: sustaining a gluten-and-dairy-free diet in England was sufficiently difficult, but in France, I imagined, next to impossible. I sat in my room, weighing the relative merits of two weeks’ stomach cramps against starvation — and how to explain in French the effects of wheat, barley and rye on the small intestine?
What I found in the dining room occasioned raw joy: steamed vegetables, fish and salad. Likewise in the kitchen: a refrigerator shelf full of yahourt au soja. To their question “Ça marche?” I would have poured forth encomiums had I mastered a suitable vocabulary set. But I could not move beyond “Oui, c’est fantastique” before we sat down to eat.
This first meal was to be the most talkative of my two-week sojourn. As the breakfasts and dinners succeeded one another in an endless cortège of fresh fruit, perfectly steamed broccoli and silence, I felt that either starvation or stomach cramps around a more convivial table would have been preferable.
My exchange partner was kind, but icy. Her fastidious and sparing eating habits made me feel a glutton in comparison. Her mother ate protein powder in yoghurt more often than a solid meal. Eventually, my mornings were characterized by a solitary repast of fruit salad — no one else seemed to be eating.
Ghosts at the feast
The occasional apparition flitted around the dinner table — some closer to human form than others. The first was Pierre, the former lover of my exchange’s mother, with whom she was still sharing living expenses. He was tall and corpulent with a thunderous voice. She had cast him from her life — but only driven him out as far as the other end of the house, where he entrenched himself in a study strewn with half-smoked cigars.
At least he ate like a Frenchman — belonged to the cult of taste, before that of health. Yet he vanished soon after his first appearance, driving off to see his mother in a neighboring town. He returned after five days, at two o’clock one morning, and left again the next day.
The second apparition was my exchange partner’s boyfriend, Samson — a thin, pale young man with an unruly mass of curls; a maths prodigy who’d set his sights on attending one of the grandes écoles.
Samson, too, was slightly less given to subsist on lettuce and pumpkin seeds. My exchange partner lovingly provided him with a baguette and chocolate — which he would munch while explaining to me the superiority of the French educational system.
He cross-examined me on my plans for the future. I had got as far as a spectral PhD in Russian Literature, when he stopped me with a shocking rejoinder:
Il faut réfléchir, Charlotte! La vie est sérieuse. (In essence: “Life will pass you by before you have accomplished anything.”)
I refrained from pointing out that he had not planned beyond the classes préparatoires, or prépas — two hellishly difficult years spent preparing for university entrance tests. Instinctively, I commended his ambition and drive — yet felt him ill qualified to condemn my lack of perspective given his own determination to sacrifice two years of his youth to a virtually unattainable goal.
My tryst with moules frites
Midway through my stay, our funereal meals were interrupted by my exchange’s mother taking us on her weekend-long tryst in Brussels. She’d discovered that a childhood sweetheart was living in Belgium’s capital, and over the past months, they’d re-cultivated their relations. My exchange and I were invited along as third and fourth wheels.
José, the new lover, was almost as much the gourmand as Pierre, his predecessor.
Yet of his guests, I was the only one who ate at all.
Our meals together included lunch in a traditional Belgian restaurant, where I unadvisedly ordered moules-frites without the butter, causing a scandal in the kitchen.
We had Thai for dinner — a first for my partner and her mother — after which I turned around to see the latter and José kissing passionately on the curb.
Resolving to see something of Brussels at all costs, I accompanied the couple on a walk to the markets, while my partner sat sullenly in José’s penthouse apartment. There, I stared mournfully at beautifully packaged jams, cheeses and Breton biscuits — knowing that we were to leave for Lyon that evening, where another week of salad and silence awaited.
I returned to England appreciably thinner, with an improved French accent and a block of Belgian chocolate for my mother.
Though my experience of France did not come floating in butter, it was more French than I could ever have anticipated.
Readers, any questions or suggestions for Charlotte, should she have any future encounters with France?
img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London.
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, offering a few last-minute Halloween costume suggestions for Displaced Nation citizens.
If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!