“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”Bill Bryson, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe
My most used phrase in the first few weeks living in France is “Je parle un peu français”, or “I speak a little French” (with major emphasis on ‘un peu’). What I should be saying is “I speak such a minuscule amount of French that our conversation will inevitably come to a grinding halt somewhere between the first and second set of words exchanged.” This is true unless I am ordering wine or beer; for whatever reason my French lessons focused on teaching me how to order alcohol before it taught me how to find the bathroom (which is usually the next step…but I digress).
Conversely, typically when a French person says “I only know a little English”, what they are actually saying is “I basically know as much English as you do, but I may not speak a couple of words or phrases perfectly.” Now that I know this, my new phrase is “Je ne parle pas français”, or “I don’t speak French at all”. And then, once I’ve lowered expectations sufficiently, I throw out a “Je vous dois combien” (“How much do I owe you”) or something similar, and they raise their eyebrows and smile, and say something ridiculously nice to me like “You DO know French!”
Not knowing the language in a country you visit is all ‘fun and games’ when you go on vacation. While in France, you can throw out a ‘Bonjour!’ here and an ‘Au Revoir!’ there, and for a fleeting moment you not only feel like you are French, you also somehow feel like you are fostering international relations by talking to a French person in French. “See, I’m an American,” we think, “and despite what you hear on the news I’m not a huge jerk!!!” (Note: French people already know that many Americans are not jerks)
But living in France, now that’s a different story. If you are on a two-week vacation and you injure your wrist, you can just ride out the rest of your trip and go immediately to your doctor when you get home. But if you live in France, and you decide to disinfect your oral appliance by boiling it, and you subsequently melt it (which I may or may not have done) – then, holy crap, you’d better get your A-game on, because you will need patience, fortitude, and a bit of luck to actually solve the problem within four months.
The introductory quote illustrates exactly why we love our life in France. Our whole existence is indeed a ‘series of interesting guesses.’ Little adventures come in bunches throughout the day. For example, when we sit down at a restaurant a series of questions ensue. Does the waiter speak any English at all? Can we interpret the menu? Should we actually eat that squid in squid ink? And are we even sure it’s squid?
On top of that, we have our travelling companion everywhere we go. Of course I’m talking about Cammy, our 14-year-old Brussels Griffon – aka the cutest dog in the world.
When we go into a restaurant or store, we simply put her in her little travel carrier, give her a stern look or two, and she doesn’t make a peep throughout the entire time (except for the time when pigeons were surrounding her – which was an entirely appropriate time to throw a fit). Most people don’t even know we have her! Of all the things we thought would be difficult, getting Cammy to France and taking her all over the place topped the list. But it’s truly been a delight and unbelievably easy.
And on top of that, did I mention that we are living without a car for the entire year? Needing some food for Cammy? That’s a 20-minute bike ride away. Hungry for a baguette? An eight minute walk away. Need to go take care of the issue I mentioned earlier (the melted oral appliance)? Well that’s a 15 minute walk followed by a 15 minute tram ride. Heading to Cammy’s vet cardiologist (yes there is such a thing)? That is a 30 minute walk. Want to go to the beach? That’s a 40 minute bike ride (let that sink in – 40 minutes from the beach!).
And you know what – we love the simplicity this lifestyle brings, not to mention the constant activity and exercise that will (hopefully) keep our waistlines balanced against the copious amount of yummies we will inevitably consume. I dread the day when we need to get a car again, or God forbid, two cars! The simplicity of this lifestyle is a breath of fresh air – literally and figuratively.
Life in France: Pinching Ourselves Daily
But enough about carting our dog around, boiling/melting oral appliances, and impressing people with my minimal French skills – almost every day we look at each other and say ‘WE ARE LIVING IN FRANCE!’ Not to mention that we are living in a stunning, vibrant city a mere stone’s throw away from the Mediterranean! And so I’m going paint a picture of a few interesting aspects of this city and area.
- Montpellier is a college town, and it is always hopping. Whether you are there on Saturday at midday, Sunday night, or Wednesday afternoon – it is always vibrant. Case in point: when we walked out of the opera house (more on that in a bit) late on a very cold Sunday evening, we were inserted into the middle of a late-night race that hundreds of people were running.
- Food and wine taste better here. Duh, everyone knows that. But what is the food that has most taste advantage over its’ US counterpart? Butter. I sometimes longingly stare into the fridge to determine how I can incorporate butter into the next few minutes of my life. Can I put it on my salad? Can I just eat it by itself? The butter here has stolen the tiny heart of my taste buds and I will never be the same.
- People here are serious about the opera. We went to a fabulous rendition of ‘Tristan & Isolde’, but (see discussion above) really didn’t know what to expect as far as length goes. After the first hour and a half we were dismissed for intermission, which lasted an hour. Okay, fine – I’m sure there will be one more set and we will be on our way home. Except it wasn’t…the second act ended at a spot that clearly was not the overall end. “Wait,” we thought, “could there be another hour-long intermission, followed by two more hours of performance?” Some quick addition led to the inevitable conclusion – these people were planning on being there for seven hours! And they were all enraptured and didn’t seem the least bit concerned that they didn’t have water bottles with them (note: while in France, don’t be seen with a water bottle…it’s bad form)
- Since we have been here, there have been substantial protests every Saturday in downtown Montpellier. You’ve probably heard of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (‘yellow vest’) movement. We don’t even pretend to understand the forces behind these riots, but we hope to gradually understand more as we make French friends. For now, suffice to say, we just avoid downtown on Saturdays and go enjoy the beautiful river scene instead.
- If I had to pick my favorite three things that I’ve experienced in our first month (other than butter), it would be the following: sunshine, food trucks, and pink flamingoes. Sunshine requires no explanation (but I can assure you that there are copious amounts), but food trucks and pink flamingoes might.
There is this place by the River Lez called the Marché Du Lez which has the most amazing conglomerate of food trucks and restaurants, represented by the signs in the picture above. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that this is our magic place. Everyone is smiling all the time, the food is amazing, the kids are happy (there is an amazing little bike track for them), people are eating outdoors and soaking up the sunshine. It is fabulous – I give it 10 out of 10.
So that explains food trucks, but what about pink flamingoes? Well, as I mentioned before, we live 40 minutes from the ocean. But there are also a lot of bodies of water (directly translated as ‘ponds’, but that’s not really what they are) just inland from the ocean. And these bodies of water have all sorts of amazing birds, including pink flamingoes – which are everywhere. The truly amazing thing is that I can check out this area on my almost-daily bike ride. I definitely pinch myself when I see the site in the above image – not only are we living in France, enjoying the most amazing butter of all time, eating phenomenal food on a daily basis – but I get to see sights like this half an hour from our house!
I’ll leave you with a few more images from our first few weeks, including a pumpkin so large that, although I bought it almost two weeks ago, we are still eating on it. There is so much more to tell you; stay tuned for future blogs!