I never cease to find it amazing how you can return to a place you’ve visited before and have a totally fresh experience. That’s how it’s been for me in France these past five weeks.
Bruno is originally from France, and his entire family lives there. Last year, I visited France with Bruno for the first time; we came to France again a few months ago at the tail-end of a very fast road-trip through Europe. Between the two trips, I thought I’d seen and done it all.
Yet, somehow my third family trip to France has felt just as varied and unique as the first. A few new places, people, and activities mixed up with a fresh twist on the old and five weeks in France passed by in a flash.
New Faces, New Places
Early in the trip, I met Claire, one of Bruno’s old-time travel friends. Claire lives in Grenoble, and we decided to overnight there and pay her a visit on our way from Geneva to the south of France. We spent a wonderful afternoon wandering around Claire’s hilly village and chatting about travel, cycling, and rock-climbing. It was nice to finally meet someone I’ve spent three years hearing about, and the encounter set the tone for a trip filled with new experiences.
Besides Grenoble, I got to visit the medieval village of Nébians, in the hills of southern France. I’d met Bruno’s friends, Michel and Béa, last year, but this year they wanted to show me their hometown. We went for a very pleasant walk through the village and hillside, munching all the while on things from the trees like figs and almonds, then picking fresh produce from their communal garden. We’d already eaten lunch, but who can pass up an afternoon snack of gathered foods from the French countryside?
Later that week, I got to meet was Bruno’s cousin, Line. Last year I’d met her husband, Dmitri, and two beautiful children, Noah and Naya, but Line had been in Paris at the time. This year, we made sure to cross paths. Line and Dmitri had us over for dinner, and Dmitri made us an absolutely amazing meal inspired by his cultural heritage in Guadeloupe. The dishes displayed an incredible array of flavors, from tangy lime vinaigrette to sweet papaya gratin, and from spicy lentils to bitter baked plantain. The main dish was so creative – a fillet of fish baked under pureed pain aux épices. The meal blew me away, and the company was so much fun that Bruno and I stayed well past midnight!
Fresh Twist on the Done-Before
Even when we were in places with people we’d been with (and to) before, France somehow felt different. For example, we spent another long-weekend in Divonne, with Bruno’s brother, sister-in-law, nieces and their partners, but this year, we actually got out of the house! One morning, we went for a walk in the nearby forest to search for mushrooms and buried treasure (thanks to Julien’s metal detector). The next day, we took a picnic on a nearby Swiss hilltop. We froze our buns off, but the view was nice. One evening, Bruno and I took Romane, his thirteen-year-old niece, for a grown-up dinner of pizza and burgers, just the three of us.
The best new experience of our time in Divonne, though, was definitely the sushi-making party! Learning to make sushi has been on my bucket list for a while, so when I found out that Micheline and Lucile knew how, I jumped at the chance to learn. Between six people, we chopped, wrapped and cut 140 pieces of sushi, and the whole family feasted on them that night for dinner. It was a blaring success and something I can’t wait to try again in the camping car!
In Southern France, too, our time was filled with fresh experiences. In St.-Thibéry, Bruno’s parents’ village, we shared a special dinner in the place central of the village. Bruno’s cousin (and Line’s brother), Yannick, opened a tapas bar there this year, so the four of us went to try it out. We feasted on a couple dozen tapas dishes and shared a few glasses of wine to keep us warm on the terrace outside. The location couldn’t have been better, the food was tasty and plentiful, and it was nice to see Annie’s natal village under the night sky.
This actually wasn’t the only new way we saw St.-Thibéry, either. Bruno and I took his parents on an afternoon ride on the pédalorail, a pedal cart that travels through the village and the surrounding countryside on the old train tracks. Annie absolutely loved seeing her village from this angle, and I also enjoyed seeing the Roman-tiled rooftops and church steeple pointing above the tree line. It was a fresh perspective on a village I thought I already knew.
Of course, the vast majority of our time was spent in Grau d’Agde, where Bruno owns his seaside home. It was the third time we got to stay here, but the first time we got to welcome my best friend Alex and her boyfriend Ian to our home in France! We cooked in the kitchen together, did weird exercises outside, soaked up the waves and the view from the beach, ate patisseries in the village square, and shared crêpes, moules frites, and coquille st-jacques at a restaurant on the edge of the Hérault River with them. I’ve now gotten to see my best friend twice this year, which is amazing, but it was even cooler to be able to share our little world in France with them.
Of course, some things don’t change. Amid the new people, places, and twists, we also engaged in some activities that are quickly becoming traditions on our visits to France. There were the aerobics and hot tub sessions in Divonne. The apéro with St-Thibéry neighbors. The dinners with Bruno’s parents. The long lunch at our place with the entire southern France family. The handball practices of Bruno’s nephews. The party with Bruno’s friends.
And my favorite budding tradition of all – another fabulous dinner at la Table d’Emilie. This place continues to be probably the best restaurant I’ve ever been to. This meal was no exception – it was as gorgeous and tasty as ever. The twist on our third trip to la Table d’Emilie? We got to dine at a long table with Bruno’s parents, aunt and uncle, cousins, niece and nephew!
I guess that meal perfectly illustrates our five weeks in France. As always, our time here is about food and family. We may be sharing meals with the same people or in the same places, but they’re always with a twist. Our time in France hasn’t yet ceased to be interesting, and I don’t think it ever will.