February in Montpellier: A Month of ‘un petit peu’

the beautiful, ancient town of Aigues-Mortes

One of the worst things about not comprehending the language in the place you reside is not knowing when someone is yelling at you. ‘But Nate,’ you might say, ‘Is that really a problem? People don’t just randomly yell at me.’ To which I might reply, ‘Walk a mile in my shoes, my friend, you will be yelled at for something!’

The offending act was innocent enough – filling my slightly-too-small glass container with coffee from the spout at the local grocery store. I was focusing intently on getting every one of those sweet little Guatemalan beans into my container, with limited success. I could hear an agitated voice behind me rising every so slightly, and as it continued to crescendo I lost focus and several beans spilled to the ground below. Feeling sheepish (as I had probably just destroyed any profit margin the store was hoping to make), I was about to move along when that voice boomed “DO YOU NOT SPEAK FRENCH?”

I twirled around, kicking some of the wayward beans every which direction as I did so. ‘Je parle un peu français’ (meaning ‘I speak a little French’) I said to the store owner, who quickly and forcefully retorted ‘UN PETIT PEU’ (meaning a very, very miniscule amount). But he wasn’t satisfied with the initial putdown. He continued ‘You speak French like Donald Trump!’

By the end of my visit, the grocer and I were shaking hands and smiling (although hopefully he didn’t connect the wayward coffee beans with me at the end of the day…). Later on, I realized that the grocer had given me exactly what I needed – inspiration for my blog!!!

The Coliseum – one of many Roman sites in Nimes

Yes, we progressed and generally expanded our knowledge in many areas during the month in February, but as my grocer friend would say, only by ‘Un petit peu’. But trust me when I say that, when living abroad, making the tiniest amount of progress feels pretty darn good!

Our Month of Exploring ‘Un Petit Peu’

As January turned to February, the weather started to warm, and we began to look beyond the basics of ‘just getting by’ in our new setting. Our area of southern France is incredibly rich in history, scenery, and culture! Below are a few of the surrounding spots that we’ve explored. Each one of these spots could have full-length blog devoted to them, so apologies in advance for such short descriptions!

that time when we stumbled on a Michelin-star restaurant

The beach at Palavas– Palavas-les-Flots is a beach town a mere 40 minutes bike ride away from us. The first time we went we accidentally entered a Michelin-star restaurant towards the end of the lunch hour, and we were fortunate that they let us in (picture me in my beach gear and Cammy in her pack on my back). Although the waiter did indicate that we could only have one course – apparently he had been informed in advance of the theme of this post. We experienced what turned out to be the most amazing meal we’ve had so far. Take one look at the above image and tell me your mouth isn’t watering!

But the absolute best part about the beach is how much our 14-year-old puppy, Cammy, loves it there. She does this crazy dance with her legs as she is trying to scurry around – check it out for yourself in the below video.

Cammy on the beach

Sète – Early in February our friends Marvin and Lisa Klein invited us to join them in Sète, a port town about 35km down the coast from Palavas-les-Flots. Miraculously, we were able to get train tickets for 1 euro each!

We arrived on a Wednesday, which just happened to be market day. Between the million vendors and billion tourists, it was complete insanity! Fortunately, we were able to walk out of the chaos towards the ocean, where we found some amazing views. And we had a great time meeting with Marvin and Lisa later in the afternoon.

good looking crew!
view of the Mediterranean from Sète

Nimes – Nimes is known as the most Roman town outside of Italy and it’s a mere stone’s throw (30 minute train ride) from Montpellier. The three of us went on a day trip and it did not disappoint. It really had everything you could hope for – ancient Roman buildings (including an over 2,000 year old Coliseum), a really great old town to wander through, and a lot of fabulous spots to grab a drink and watch the world go by. We had a fabulous time wondering through this place and even met a couple of new friends. We will be back!

Maison Carrée, the old Roman temple
the canal in Nimes

Aigues-Mortes – Fast forward about 1,000 years from the Roman era and you have the era of the Crusades. King Louis IX (who is the only French king who later was sainted) established a fortress along with the town as the primary port in the south of France, and you can still walk around the entire walled town (which we did). Later, when Protestantism was outlawed in France, the fortress became a women’s prison which held Marie Durand, the pious women who etched ‘Resist’ into the stone (which is still there) amidst her 38 years in the cell.

But, since I’m a bit childish, I decided to show off the best preserved feature of the castle walls – open-air toilets were all along the wall. What is up with that face?

so glad that the facilities have improved…

Montpellier area – Most days, we are still pretty close to home. As we continue to expand our knowledge of our city ‘un petite peu’, we are in simply in awe of where we live. Below are just a few of the highlights – I included a picture of Cammy at a local winery just to remind you that she is always with us!

one of Montpellier’s cathedrals at dusk
sunset over Roman columns
Cammy poking her head out of her bag
out hiking near Pic St Loup

There are so many more examples of making ‘un petit peu’ progress in February. I’ll leave you with just a few:

  • Un Petit Peu more organic – It took me a full month to go from reading (ahem…translating via Google) this magazine article to actually receiving a food waste bin from the local government. Although this seems like a small issue, it was so gratifying to get our shiny orange bin a few days ago!
the trail of the orange bin started here
  • Un Petit Peu less hair – If anyone of my friends from the US would have seen me in mid-February, you would either think I was 1) homeless, 2) experiencing a mid-life crises, or 3) trying to reprise Tom Hanks’ role in Cast Away. No longer do you need to fear for me; I’ve had my first French haircut. And if you look closely, you’ll see that the barber (to my surprise) decided to give my stache a French twist at the end. Don’t worry – this lasted all of about 30 minutes.
French Nate
  • Un Petit Peu more cultural knowledge and understanding – Montpellier has several ‘smart’ public toilets. When the door swings open and someone walks out, it is incredibly tempting to walk right in. And if you were to do that, the door would close behind you, the light for the ‘wash cycle’ would go on, and you would essentially be hosed down for 20 seconds. January Nate would have done this; February Nate waited patiently, allowed the wash cycle to do its’ thing, and proceeded in to utilize a clean bathroom. A low bar – I admit…but that is what ‘un petit peu’ is all about – slow and steady progress.
The toilets are crazy here!

Seriously, though, with every interaction we are understanding ‘un petit peu’ more about the French culture. The one thing that stands out most to us is the genuine kindness of French people. This is best exemplified by the way that homeless people are treated; allow me to explain further.

As with any other city, there are a handful of homeless people in Montpellier – not many, but perhaps one or two on every corner. As we’ve observed the interactions, we are shocked. They are treated like normal citizens – not like they are ‘less than’ in any way. It’s a STARK difference from how they are treated in the US. It’s not at all unusual for people to actively engage the homeless, ask them how they are doing, give them some money, etc. In the US, at best we throw a coin in their bag and run away; at worst we accuse them of wanting to be homeless. It is a magical and inspiring thing to see!

Although we are making only ‘un petit peu’ of progress, we are having the most fabulous time here in Montpellier. How good is it? Well, I think it’s perfectly captured in the graffiti in the image below that was captured in Sète – ‘SUPER’!