I WANTED TO begin this post with allaying any fears some of you might have regarding my nourishment in France. If you were concerned that I was at all undernourished, lacking in places to eat or indeed things to eat, then I encourage you to not do so. Other than macarons and clementines, my diet in France revolves mainly around various forms of pastry: stuffed with chocolate, chocolate, covered in chocolate, often coupled with a café allongé at around €1.60 a cup. I initially thought the novelty would wear off after the 8903rd pain au chocolat, but honestly it hasn’t. There is something so enjoyable about nipping into a bakery and eying up all the freshly-baked treats, most of which are affordable and excellent value for money, followed by an ‘au revoir’ and strolling out of the door. It’s bizarre (and perhaps a little endearing) to think how routine this ritual of mine has become; I can barely imagine my day-to-day life without a trip to a café or a boulangerie. Even now, back in the UK for a few days, I am writing this post in a coffee shop, joined by a mug of coffee and a slightly sticky keyboard, albeit surrounded by English accents for a change. I did, however, say no to the almond croissants staring longingly at me from the counter. I’m treating this spell at home as a sort of break from it all, and I have made a pledge to myself that once this abroad malarkey is over, I am going to invest in kale and Kerry Katona’s backlog of workout DVDs and try and flush out the sugar coursing through my veins and attempt to regain a sense of salutary stability in my life. You see, I agreed in the new year with the countless people who have said that the whole point of the Year Abroad is to ‘make the most of it’, and in a country obsessed with Nutella and goat’s cheese, it is difficult to resist and not enjoy the incomparable richness of food on offer.
Speaking of pastry, if the galette des rois back in January didn’t satiate your sugary cravings, then I can assure you that sweet treats do not stop when February begins. The month kicks off with chandeleur – i.e. a day which involves uncountable quantities of crêpes – and then comes Shrove Tuesday, or as it’s much better known in France, Mardi Gras, which focuses more on beignets (think jam doughnuts). The collège makes an afternoon of the former, and each member of staff brings a plate of plain crêpes and/or a filling, all to be laid out in the staffroom and shared and guzzled until the bell goes. So sacred is this event that the microwaves are unplugged from the kitchen and carried into the staffroom so we are able to reheat our crêpes without having to leave the party. How considerate is that? What is not considerate, however, is the fact that my French colleagues did not have the modesty to tone down their awe-inspiring crêpe-making skills in front of an Englishman, who neither has the consistency nor the means to prepare any at the foyer. Seriously, I believe the ability to make a good crêpe runs in French blood – there were at least half a dozen of my colleagues who turned up with stacks of perfectly flat, round, golden crêpes without any snags or holes in them as I’m sure mine would have had. I am now even more sure to leave all that to the masters, but I will (and did) take part in the eating bit.
Just like in October, February ends with half term, which, in France, is two weeks long – the perfect chance to go off and do some exploring. Some of us had booked tickets to Geneva for the first week, and so on the first Sunday of the holidays we were on a TGV through eastern France towards the Swiss border, snaking through staggering views of the beginnings of the Alps dusted lightly with snow and precariously-built houses. Geneva itself is not quite as pretty as the mountains that surround it, especially when the sky is grey and constantly on the verge of drizzling. It’s hard to move around the centre of the world’s fourth-most expensive city without passing a Rolex store, or indeed any designer store, many of which fringe the streets looking onto Lake Geneva. Most of Switzerland’s second powerhouse is a sprawl of generic European offices and blocks of flats, but its old town has lots of charm, and there are many places to seek out a good fondue: some with Prosecco, some with apple juice, but all with plenty of molten cheese. Not for the faint-hearted, or lactose-intolerant.
We then took a coach from Geneva to Annecy, which, I have to add, was a miracle – the coach station printed on our tickets apparently no longer exists according to a number of taxi drivers, who pointed us in the direction of the main coach station instead. But there, with just fifteen minutes until the coach left, the very blunt staff told us that the station does exist and that we would have to make the 2km journey across the lake to said station for our tickets to be valid. The other option was to pay for a new one from this coach station, for fifteen Swiss francs. With now thirteen minutes to spare, and a fairly confusing transport network between us and the pre-booked coach, we paid the fifteen francs. Oh, just think of all the Toblerone that could have bought… Well, in actual fact, it would have probably bought just one and a half given the steepness of the Swiss cost of living.
Anyway, Annecy is perhaps one of the most perfect towns in France. Ignoring the suburbs and the homogenous architecture around the train station, the old centre of this town in Haute-Savoie has enough charm to melt the Alpine snow or the hearts of those people who work at Geneva coach station. Its buildings, its little streets filled with archways and alleyways, its shuttered windows and colourful awnings all bow gracefully to the stunning landscape it sits in. The modest town lies in in the north corner of Lake Annecy, an immaculately turquoise lake at the foot of the Alps which teems with birds and little yachts. Postcards do the place small justice. We stumbled across a great food market in the town that Tuesday, selling rows of fruit, vegetable, cured meats, nougat, and, er, more cheese, which I may or may not have had a free sample of. I didn’t feel too guilty about that until I began to realise how many runners take to the lakeside all throughout the day…
At any rate, I would return to this picture-perfect place and perhaps take a bike around the lake, which we couldn’t do because the cycle shop was closed due to ‘predicted bad weather’. ‘Predicted’?! Where I come from, schools don’t close because of ‘predicted’ snow, they wait until the snow actually falls, settles and sends the country into infrastructural meltdown. But I sort of laughed; I’ve learned that the French just love a day off. Also, for the next occasion, I might also find a hotel that doesn’t look like a location in a Bram Stoker-inspired Hitchcock film when you return to it at night.
The final leg of our Franco-Swiss journey involved France’s third largest city, Lyon. Its size is something we had perhaps underestimated. It’s vast – over a million people call the area home, this agglomeration that straddles the confluence of two major rivers, stretching in all directions. From the trek from the Gare Part-Dieu to the spacious and stylish apartment we were staying in, I realised that Lyon feels very different to Paris or Orleans or Strasbourg. A few times I wondered where I actually was – it has an almost Mediterranean feel, such are the shades of terracotta of the buildings, and at times almost Eastern European, but at the same time it feels French, evidenced in the unavoidable bouchons that pepper pretty Vieux Lyon, who serve up traditional (and perhaps-a-little-too-hearty-for-pescatarian-me) lyonnaise food, incorporating various parts of farmyard animals. What did bother me was the absence of cafés and coffee shops in Lyon – there seems to be a preference towards bars here, so if you do want a massive cappuccino or something, it’s probably best to look up recommendations before you arrive. But if you do need to walk off pigs’ trotters or braised calf’s head, then I would recommend doing a few laps of the vast Place Bellecour, or even better, the steps up to Notre Dame de Fourvière, a palatial white church that surveys Lyon from a hill above the River Sâone. You can see a lot of churches in France, but this one is worth the effort. Its interior is beautiful, almost reminiscent of the mosques of Turkey with its mosaics and turquoise-and-gold colour scheme, and the views across the city are worth it, framed by the distant Alps. If you quite simply cannot be bothered with the steps, then take the funicular railway (which also stops at the averagely-impressive Roman amphitheatres) but the sense of achievement or breathlessness is not the same.
From Orleans to Geneva (via Paris) to Annecy to Lyon to Orleans (via Paris), I headed back to London (via Paris) for a few days, racking up over eleven hours’ worth of train travel. It’s amazing how sitting in a chair for eleven hours doing little else but reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in French and listening to some house music can make you so tired. After these holidays, and perhaps a few nights’ sleep in my own bed – oh, and another good few hours on a train back to France – I will have just six weeks left of work in France. Quelle horreur! I think I’ll have to start stockpiling fromage and local wine when I get back to Orleans, so I can keep it hidden away for desperate moments when cucumber water gets a little too monotonous during my post-pastry detox.