Friday, February 20, 2015

Gathered Thoughts From a Trip to Southern France

Arles, France
Colorful streets of Arles
A couple of days ago I made my way back to Santiago de Compostela after spending four nights in southern France over my school’s long weekend for the Carnaval festivities. My friend Melissa and I set up base camp in central Avignon (home of the popes in the 1300s) and took daytrips to the colorful, bustling Roman city of Arles, rained-out Roman Nîmes, and Europe’s tallest Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.

We came to Provence ostensibly for two reasons—to see as many Roman ruins and eat as many French pastries as possible—and we left the region impressed at how kind and mannerly the French are.

Avignon skyline
Avignon, seen from the Papal Palace
Apart from the old walled city of Lugo or A Coruña’s refurbished lighthouse, Galicia isn’t a region known for its Roman heritage, so it was a real treat to encounter such monumental reminders of the Roman Empire in plain sight, from amphitheaters and theaters to temples and aqueducts. Since studying Latin in high school left me with, for better or for worse, a lifelong fascination for all things classical, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve focused on hunting down such ruins in my time in Europe instead of vineyard tours, soccer games, or WWII battlefields.

(But more power to you if those are your thing! It’s important to know what you yourself prefer to experience instead of feeling obligated to do or see this or that when traveling.)

Les Arènes, Nîmes, France
The Roman amphitheater of Nîmes
France’s pastry selection was in a completely different universe from Spain’s. (It’s probably for the best I don’t live there.) You could really taste the difference between the moist, buttery croissants in France and the dry, flaky croasants you often get in Spain. Next steps included brioche, a sweet, chewy bread-like pastry; pain au chocolat, chocolate-filled bread rolls; cream-filled éclairs; and, most glorious of all, the almond-flour-based macaron. As with Italian gelato, my favorite flavor is still pistachio.

Safe to say, because of the to-die-for pastry offering, my friend and I frequently indulged our Hobbit tendencies, having Second Breakfasts and afternoon coffee breaks in true Baggins form.

But all this snacking led us to wonder, with such a rich, buttery cuisine, why aren’t the French fat? This perennial debate will probably never be settled, but the way I see it, it’s probably a combination of several factors. Not only do the French drink gallons every year of antioxidant-containing coffee and red wine, they also like to order a carafe d’eau with their meals—a free pitcher of tap water instead of bottomless Cokes. Like Spain, much of the cuisine is based on healthy fats like olive oil and real butter, portion sizes are just large enough, and the whole way cities are laid out encourages walking around instead of driving.

Pistachio macaron
Macaron!!!
Oddly enough, while your basic black coffee or a noisette (espresso diluted with a splash of milk) ran between 1,50€ and 2€, tea was astronomically expensive and ran around three or four euros per cup—even if it was merely a tea bag!

Ordering all of this food and coffee forced me to brush up on my rusty French, which I had last spoken over two years ago while running naïvely around the north of the country. Surprisingly, I remembered a LOT more than I thought I did, even having a small conversation at the tourist office in Arles and making the connection that the sounds “twah-zuh-ro kahtr-van-dees-seht” meant 3,97€. In a country as passionate and nationalistic about their language as Americans are about English, at least attempting to start a conversation in French (rather than defaulting to parlez-vous anglais?) opened up a lot of doors for us that may have remained closed had we gone around yelling in English.

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France
The Maison Carrée, a Roman temple in Nîmes
We were really struck at how polite and well-mannered the French were (according to our American sensibilities). Although we’re now accustomed to Spanish directness and frequently say ¡Dame un cafe con leche! to the barista (literally “Give me a coffee with milk!”) without blinking an eye, it was fun to use the polite vous forms over the informal tu, saying s’il vous plait after every request, and being referred to as monsieur and madame at every turn.

In contrast with Spain, “inside voices” exist in France. I remember my friend and I were having lunch one day and we suddenly realized how quietly everyone was speaking—almost whispering! And while we never partook in this custom, we observed several French people greeting each other with not two but three cheek kisses (it’s only two in Spain!). I say “tuh-MAY-toe,” you say “tuh-MAH-toe,” I guess.

Palais des Papes, Avignon, France
Avignon’s Papal Palace
Going along with this theme, nearly all of our interactions in southern France defied the “Rude French” stereotype: the hostel receptionist who was so apologetic over accidentally overcharging my friend seven euros, the fruit seller who straight up gave us an apple for free, the ticket cashier at the Pont du Gard who didn’t speak English but made sure we got our steep student discount, the pastry shop attendant who gave us a baker’s dozen of macarons, the server who patiently explained the menu in slow Franglais, and the still-in-love middle-aged couple next to us in a restaurant who struck up a conversation in English before we left to pay for our meal.

I’m not sure if my friend and I would have been on the receiving end of such kindness from the French had we 1) not attempted to speak the language at all or 2) been Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent, so all I can share is my biased, privileged experience. However, from my point of view we Americans really need to rethink that whole Rude French myth.

Pont du Gard, France
The Pont du Gard
If you’ve been to the south of France, what was your experience there? Or any typically warm and sunny location during cold, rainy winter? Share how you fared below in the discussion thread!

Previously on my “Gathered Thoughts” series:
Collected Lessons Learned from a Trip to France (Christmas 2012)
Collected Lessons Learned From a Trip to Morocco (Holy Week 2013)
Gathered Thoughts From a Trip to Italy (Christmas 2013)
* Thoughts from Aragón, Spain’s Forgotten Interior (Carnival 2014)
Gathered Thoughts From a Trip to Portugal (Holy Week 2014)
Thoughts from a Road Trip Across Spain’s Northern Coast (All Saints Weekend 2014)
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