For most of the world, France is wine and cheese, picture-perfect medieval villages, the ever-sophisticated Parisians, and the charming lilt of the French language. It’s a place to visit, photograph, and check off a bucket list. It’s little wonder that France is the most-visited country in the world.
For me, however, France is big meals at long tables with family and friends. Increasingly – especially with my frequent visits in the last year – France is almost home.
Our recent visit to France drove home this fact. Bruno’s brother and his family traveled down from Geneva to spend time with us during their school holidays. We invited Bruno’s niece and her young budding family to spend a week by the sea in the mobile home on our property. Bruno’s other niece and her partner couldn’t miss all the fun, so they, too, came down for a long weekend.
And so, we found our home – and table – filled to the brim with family. With the exception of my parents, we were the same cast of characters as our family reunion last New Year in Morocco. So it was just as loud, jovial, and – as with most French families – food-focused.
For most meals, we piled chairs around our dining room table or lined-up tables on our veranda and rustled up four-course meals together – my sister-in-law brought the salad, my father-in-law brought the wine, I managed a main course, and the house stayed loaded with cheese, bread, and Swiss chocolate thanks in large part to our nieces.
Between meals, we soaked in the final fall days of sun on the beach, played pétanque in the village, went shopping at the mall, did some yoga, and played board games. I got to spend time with my favourite little man, Léo (my niece-in-law’s oldest boy), reconnect with my amazing sister-in-law and nieces, and get to know the two newest members of the family, Ava and Eden, five-month-old twins.
Our family indulged in a few special out-of-the-house meals, too. We went out for a tapas night at the restaurant of Bruno’s cousin in the nearby village of Saint-Thibéry, where Bruno’s parents used to live. We spent the evening eating, drinking, and laughing with Bruno’s parents, brother, nieces, cousins, aunt and uncle. Talk about a long table!
We also returned to La Table d’Emilie, our favourite French restaurant in Marseillan. This time, we were celebrating the double birthdays of Pierrot, my father-in-law, and Elodie, our niece and mother of three. Pierrot spoiled us all with a 7-course chef’s table, where each dish was a surprise. We were at the table for five hours!
I’ve grown to truly love the long, zipper-popping meals with my French family. They are a place for us to connect, to talk, and to slowly savour food and family. I’d so much rather be at the table for five hours than gazing at artwork in the Louvre or snapping photos of old medieval towns.
France isn’t only a place of family – we always manage a bit of time with Bruno’s friends, too. This year, we were in for a special treat because I finally got to meet the infamous Stephane, Bruno’s old friend who has been sailing around the world for thirty non-stop years. If you thought Bruno was a wanderer, think again! Stephane was exactly as I’d pictured him in my head – a fun-loving, open, inquisitive, freedom-loving person. I liked him immediately, as well as his girlfriend, Karina.
We spent a couple afternoons with them drinking coffee and wandering along the riverfront in town. One day we all piled in a car and popped in on some of Bruno’s other friends, Michel and Béa, in their hilltop town of Nébian. We went for a long walk in the hills, tasting berries and nuts from the trees, keeping ourselves warm in old shepherd huts, and wandering through the streets of the very old village. At the end of all of this, we – of course – sat down at a long table to a long, boisterous meal.
Just like that walk through Nébian, I feel like my tourism in France happens accidentally, while I’m busy living life in a place I increasingly feel is home. It happens when my family members decide on a sunny afternoon to wander through the beautiful alleys of Pézénas to look at the work of local artisans. It happens when I decide to get a bit of exercise, take off on a bicycle, and end up sitting at a riverside café in old Agde watching the fishing boats go by.
It’s not even tourism, really, that I’m doing. For tourism is purposeful, planned, goal-oriented travel – the place itself is at the forefront of the experience. For me, in France, places take a backdrop to the people. France doesn’t unveil itself to me from behind the lens of its tourist towns. It unveils itself to me at its long, food-filled tables. Increasingly, through these rituals of food and connection, France has ceased to be a two-dimensional place with a long list of places to see – instead, it has become a comforting, comfortable, community-filled home.