HAVE YOU EVER bought a train ticket for a price you’re not that willing to pay, only to find that you get on the train unobstructed and reach your destination an hour later (again, unobstructed) without the ticket ever being checked? I have, and it’s hugely irritating. It happened to me on Friday from Paris to Orleans when I started my seven months teaching assistantship as part of my third year abroad. Bienvenue, indeed.
That aside, I’ve managed to settle in quite well already in this modest-sized French city an hour south of Paris. One of my two mentors, Isabelle, picked me up from the station and I spent the first two nights with her and her family. Tentatively I stepped through the door, as one does in someone else’s house for the first time, and within ten minutes I was thrust a glass of wine by her husband, Franck, as they prepared dinner. I wasn’t all that hungry – I’d had a sandwich not an hour before, but it appears the French don’t quite grasp the concept of not being hungry. Either that or they just ignore it. Dinner came, salmon with vegetables en papillote, and then a cheeseboard. ‘Un digestif?’ asked Franck afterwards, as if I had a choice. It was Armagnac, by the way, so I slept well that night.
Saturday saw Isabelle show me all the important places for my year ahead: my school, tram stations, patisseries. Orleans is, from what I’ve seen already, a really lovely French city straddling the Loire and in hot September sunshine, looks beautiful (but the more I get to see of it, the more I will be able to tell you). But before that came lunch al fresco. ‘The French don’t really eat sandwiches for lunch,’ she told me. ‘It’s a much bigger meal.’ Oh, indeed it was. There was a great big salad with eggs from their hens, followed by cheese, a slice of cake and then coffee, with bread and wine throughout. I needed a walk or a second stomach at this point, so I was pleased when later on the family (which includes their son and daughter) and I went off to a forest about forty minutes’ drive away – the dog in tow, too – to listen and look for rutting stags. They tell me that locals go every autumn to hear them, but after a good hour’s walk, we were still yet to see much other than slugs and a few conkers. The biggest surprise, however, came when Franck picked out a spot of grass between some heather shrubs, and threw down a blanket and started divvying out bread, pizza, cheese (can you see a theme here?), fruit and a bottle of very good rosé beer. Come dusk I came away with mosquito bites and the need to join a gym. And soon.
On Sunday I met my other mentor, Juliette, who took me to her house for – you guessed it – lunch, which took a similar course to my previous experiences of lunch in France. After fish and some excellent pommes dauphinoises and a cheeseboard came a cheesecake, a little glass of Sancerre (which I duly informed them was very expensive back home) and then coffee and a couple of macarons. Oh but that wasn’t all, though – on the way back Juliette called at a friend’s to pick up her daughter, where we were ushered through their poky townhouse (which for someone over six feet tall isn’t that easy to do) and sat down in the garden for a slice of apple tart and coffee. Our hostess Anne Lise and her husband Benoit were far too nice to refuse and she’d made it especially…
It’s interesting – as Brits we hear of this perceived French obsession with food and eating, but it’s not until you are invited to sit down à la table that you realise it takes centre stage every day. It’s a leisurely, enjoyable and lazy affair, especially when the sun is shining. People are more than happy to spend hours peeling and thinly slicing dozens of potatoes and apples for their guests’ appetite, albeit for just a fleeting cup of coffee. It’s charming. My aching stomach aside, I was pretty envious of this aspect of French culture.
Now I’m in my more permanent residence for the year, a sort of YMCA for people in my situation – i.e. fairly poor, employed and under 30 (not as dodgy as it sounds). Kindly, or perhaps cruelly, Isabelle has bestowed upon me some of the leftover pizza and cake for dinner which I am debating eating later or selling to fund a gastric band.