I’ve always felt that wandering the streets of a new city anonymously and alone is the essence of travel and adventure – but a recent week in France reminded me of the wonderful gift of having close friends in faraway places.
There’s no breakfast quite as luxurious as a freshly baked pan au chocolat, croissants and crusty baguette with assorted confiture and a hot coffee – particularly when enjoyed with friends, and the odd flurry of snow outside.
This is how Paul and I started every morning of our recent week-long getaway to France to welcome the arrival of 2015 – mostly in the south-west in Roussillon, near Lyon, but with New Year’s Eve spent in the north-east, in Rouen. Staying with two good friends, Chris and Maud, we couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to French food, culture and language.
Our trusty notepad remained at our side as we jotted down new phrases to our previously non-existent French – lessons that were consolidated in the evening over a glass of champagne or vin rouge from grapes grown just down the road. (The wine helped improve our confidence, if not our competence.)
On our first afternoon staying with Chris and Maud (and their cat Brenda), we took a rather fresh stroll through the snow in nearby Mont Pilat, then ventured out to the city of Lyon the next day. A highlight in Lyon was exploring the city’s hidden passageways, called ‘Traboules’ – originally used to speed up the transport of products and produce, and centuries later used in the local resistance against Nazis during World War II.
On another day out and about in the town of Vienne, we explored Roman ruins, including an enormous Roman amphitheater that is used to this day to hold an annual jazz concert.
This wasn’t, however, a hardcore sight-seeing trip, but a chance to relax with friends. This meant luxurious sleep-ins, strolling down to the bakery to buy breakfast, and maybe heading out to wander and explore around lunchtime until the sun set at 5pm – home in time for a cosy evening in of wine and a regional dishes expertly whipped up by Maud (such as the cheesy, potatoey goodness that is the local dish of tartiflette…).
Then came New Year’s Eve and a six-hour drive that had us straddling the country from the south-west to north-east to get to Maud’s childhood hometown of Rouen – famous, among other things, as the place where Joan of Arc was executed in 1431.
In Rouen, Paul and I would be crashing the party of Maud’s lovely extended family – 50-odd of the most generous, welcoming and vivacious French people, some of whom spoke English far better than they either let on or realised, while those who spoke less fluently might consolidate a phrase in their mind and then – slightly tipsy – track you down in the crowd to offer up the unfamiliar words, released delicately like a flock of butterflies: “‘Ello, I am very ‘appy to meet you. ‘Appy new year!”
A typo in Maud’s original email about our plans for New Year’s Eve had told us drinking would start at 8:30am with the main meal usually served at midnight. In hindsight, I’m impressed by how stoically we took this revelation – a slight nod, an exhalation, a recalibration of our body clock’s expectations and then, finally, acceptance. “Yep, okay, sure. We’re up for it,” – only to find out that she had in fact meant 8:30pm. There was, however, no typo about dinner being served at midnight – vive la France, these guys know how to party.
Unfortunately Paul ended up being laid up for the evening ill, which left me to hold the fort as the single Australian and one of two native English speakers (including Chris) – but the only one who couldn’t speak French. (Luckily one of the guests was also an English teacher, so I clinged to her side for much of the evening.)
Another cultural experience – I’ve never kissed or been kissed so much in my life… A peck on each cheek for everyone in attendance is customary, both on arrival and after the countdown at midnight (Dix! Neuf! Huit! …) A highlight of this was certainly the little cherub-like faces in the crowd who dutifully sought out any not-yet-kissed grownups and then queued up to offer a polite bonsoir (good evening) or bonne année (happy new year) and then stood on tippy-toes for a peck on the cheek – even for the odd Australian woman whom they didn’t recognise, and who was all misty-eyed and giggly as she tried to gauge if anyone nearby realised how seriously cute these little kids were?!
After initial mingling, we ate at long tables that wound around the edge of the room – a home-cooked starter of cheese fried in pastry and salad at about 10pm (followed by more drinking, dancing, mingling), then – after more drinking, dancing, mingling – a main meal of deer/venison with a mushroom gravy and parsnip purée (at around 1am), followed by bread and cheese and salad (naturally), and finally tiramisu for dessert served up not long before we headed home at about 3:30am – fairly sober, I should point out. The food was just as much a hero of the party as the drink, and there wasn’t a shot glass in sight. Tres chic.
Before the long drive south again, we spent the following afternoon visiting the town of Honfleur and its picturesque port, and watched the sun set over the English Channel. Then, on our last day we broke up the two-hour drive across the border to Geneva Airport with a few hours in Annecy visiting its famous, pristine lake and clear-water canals. We had lunch at a creperie – accompanied, as is traditional, by bowls of apple cider.
While I love getting lost in unfamiliar places around the world, there is so much to be gained from the opportunity to see a new place through the eyes of the locals who have taken you in like family – so, on that note, merci beaucoup to Chris and Maud, and Maud’s family, for making our new year so special and memorable!
Now that we’re back in Bideford and getting into the swing of 2015, we have tentative plans to return to France in summer to hike the Pyrenees – along with a new year’s resolution to have listened to a few French language tapes before then (promise).
Bonne année les amis! Merci for reading.