Generally speaking, Bruno and I love us up some tourism. Our decision to spend a couple months in France was supposed to be no exception – we talked about taking pleasant getaways to Barcelona and the medieval town of Carcassonne, the Roman arena in Nîmes, the lovely village of St-Guillem le Désert, and the Camargue region at the mouth of the Rhône River. Our getaways would break up the monotony (for Bruno) of staying in a single place for an extended period of time and allow me to discover many worthy spots around my adopted home-base in the south of France.
We may not have properly factored in the amount of time we’d have to set aside for our work goals. I can count the amount of touristy things I did in almost 3 months in France on a single hand.
First finger: I dragged Bruno to a Thai restaurant up the road that I’d been curious about for some time. I’d noticed it was hosting a free Thai buffet to celebrate Songkran, the Thai New Year which infamously involves three full days of giant countrywide water fights. We wandered over for a plateful of Thai food and were subjected to gloriously tinny Thai music while my face was festively smeared with clay. Oh, the nostalgia of my days in Thailand!
Second finger (this one, at least was related to France): We walked to the mouth of the nearby Hérault River for some afternoon crêpes. Mine was topped with nutella, of course, while Bruno chose the traditional toppings of lemon and honey.
Third finger: I spent an afternoon walking around Sète, a harbour city about 40 minutes away that my parents had raved about after their visit in 2014. Since Bruno was doing his truck driver’s license there, I piggybacked on a ride and visited the city’s alleys and canals while Bruno studied at the auto école. The city did seem quite photogenic, with all the quintessential French cafés and flea markets, but truth be told, I was focused more on acquiring brochures and information for the tourism binder I was creating for future renters of our home than on my own tourism.
Our pitiful tourism record was due to more than just our lack of free time in France – it was also the fact that, in France (like in Canada), I don’t really want to wear my tourism hat. I spend most of the year getting my fill of incredible places and experiences. In France, it’s more about people. Note the following people-oriented tourist experiences:
Fourth finger: I went to Vinocap, a wine-tasting festival on the pier of Cap d’Agde. We brought along Bruno’s wine connoisseur of a brother and sister-in-law, Patrice and Micheline, as well as their daughters, Romane and Lucile.
We purchased wine glasses on a string for 3 euros apiece that allow you samples from any of the 96 regional producers present. I realized I have very little knowledge of wine, but it was nonetheless deliciously hedonistic to wander around with a glass around my neck sampling this red and that white. The pours were quite generous, the producers always interested in chatting (about wine or other things – for example, the producer from St. Thibéry was quite happy to reminisce about the kindness of Bruno’s mom and her own mother and aunt), and the ambience very, well, jolly. The best part of all, though, was getting to share the experience with family. There were a lot of group giggles.
Fifth finger: I visited the weekly market in the center of historic Agde, something I’d done back in 2014 with my parents. A week earlier, my mom had teased me over the phone that they would need to fly out to France so that we’d take advantage of sightseeing in the region. She wasn’t wrong – the reason I ended up at the Agde market was because I was playing hostess to my friend Richard.
Richard and I met years ago while trekking in Nepal, in a hilarious moment of confusion on our first night in a lodge. Our pace stepped into line for the better part of a week, and when he finished his trek to Everest Base Camp he stopped in on me in Kathmandu for a bit of revelry. Several years later, I visited him in his hamlet home in the center of France, and a year after that, we met up for the day in London. Richard has made quite a few appearances on this blog over the years.
We hadn’t seen each other in over 3 years, and here we were, in as close proximity as we’ve been since (Richard is the caretaker of the lovely Chateau Marconne in the north of France, a job he got on HelpX, in case anyone is curious). Since Bruno and I were hyper-busy, he kindly agreed to hop on a train and visit for a few nights.
It was, as always, an amazing reunion. We didn’t miss a beat, talking late into our first night, and for 13 non-stop hours the following day. At least one of those hours occurred on a beach walk to Le Grau d’Agde and at a café in the square, but if you’re not paying the least bit of attention to your surroundings, can you really count this as a tourist visit? The following day, after having broached every philosophical, moral, and esoteric topic possible, we were able to take a break from our tête-a-tête to cycle along l’Hérault River into Agde and to the market.
We briefly browsed the clothing and cheap Chinese goods section, then decided to find a table in the sun at a quintessentially French café. We weren’t the only ones with that idea, as all the sun-kissed tables were full. Richard spotted a lady sitting alone, looking sad and disinterestedly gazing into her phone. He asked if we could sit with her, and she lit up. For the next thirty minutes we chatted in French, learning that she was a tour guide who’d sent her troops into the market and was enjoying a few relaxing petits cafés. She told us where to find the food market, hidden in a couple of back alleys near the place central, and then she was off.
This is one of the many things I love about Richard – his desire to connect with people, and the ease with which he draws them out. Added bonus if we get to wander around a typically French food market as a result of the connection.
As Richard would remind me, the advantage of being in one place for an extended period of time is the ability to build community. Community is something that Bruno cares not one iota for, and admittedly is something I tend to forget about for long stretches of time, until my sense of isolation makes me irritable and dissatisfied. Within days of my arrival in France, I realized that my time here – besides being about our work goals – should be much more about reconnecting with the world and existing within a community than being a tourist. I’m a tourist all year long, so when I finally find stillness, it’s about digging roots. Even if those roots will inevitably get dug up.
This is why, instead of touring Carcassonne, I set about finding a yoga teacher and a zumba class the moment I arrived in town. (I looked for a choir, too, but they didn’t want someone who would only be there for two months.) These group activities help me feel grounded to a place and are things I deeply miss when I’m on the road.
This is why, instead of visiting Nîmes, we did things like go to Bruno’s god-son’s rock gig, where he drummed his heart out to an audience of familiar faces. It’s why we drove halfway across France, not to visit la Camargue, but to visit the newborn twins of Bruno’s niece (who are absolutely the cutest things ever! Congratulations to the Garnier family!) And it’s why, instead of sampling Spanish tortillas in Barcelona, I organized so many big lunches at our home-on-the-beach.
In France, I haven’t had to build my own community (I’ll save that fun experience for another time) because there is already one firmly set in place – Bruno’s family and childhood friends. Our time in France is, above all, a chance to connect with the special people in Bruno’s – and now, my – life. Most of the year, we’re a community of two, but in France, that community is much, much larger.
Once or twice a week, every single week, I hosted a meal with Bruno’s family or friends. It was definitely a lot of work and a challenging cultural experience to cook for French people (one you all know this food-obsessed blogger will write about in a separate post), but it was invaluable for Bruno and I to be able to host people who’ve spent so many years hosting him instead.
Of course, we still enjoyed a few big meals in the homes of others. There was Easter lunch at Annie and Pierrot’s, where I hid Easter eggs for the first time rather than finding them (I was totally jealous of the chocolate-faced kids); the 3rd birthday party of the daughter of Bruno’s cousin, where the parents fed a long table of thirty people the biggest paella I’ve ever seen (being so close to the south of Spain, paella is very much a part of the food repertoire of this part of France); a grillade (French-style barbecue, where, instead of hot dogs and hamburgers, they cook merguez (spicy sausages) and other sophisticated cuts of meat) with a bunch of Bruno’s friends at one of their houses; and Annie’s birthday lunch at a seafood restaurant, where they de-shelled lobster and served it to us with pasta and creamy sauce (followed, I might add, by a lovely spa session with the women in the family).
In France, community is created over food, and we definitely felt the roots of our community deepen with every meal.
As our time in France passed, I found myself getting into a comfortable routine of work, socialize, relax, repeat. Tomorrow became my motto when confronted with my list of things to see and places to visit. In this way, the months have slipped through my fingers. And now, they’re gone.
I didn’t mean for 87 days to go by without wearing my tourist hat. But, in the end, here in France, people have taken the precedent over places. And I’m ok with that.