Sunday, 27 April 2014

Vacances en Baie de Somme

Out of all the regions of France, La Picardie is perhaps not one of the most obvious holiday destinations, but that was where Understanding Frenchman and I spent Easter weekend, along with a big group of friends. We rented a gite on the coast which I won't recommned because it wasn't very good, but yes, Picardie has a coast. (Lots of the French people we were with didn't know this, but I did, having spent a day in Le Treport back in 2003 My abiding memory of that day is of one of the French girls being carried on the back of her boyfriend along the clifftop path because she had chosen to wear high-heeled sandals for her trip to the seaside. Up until that point, living in small-town Picardie, the people I had encountered hadn't particularly lived up to the French reputation for style and I had become convinced that it was something of a myth, so the combination of her footwear choices and his chivalry made a lasting impression. But I digress.)

In fact, the Picardie coast is really quite impressive. At Le Treport, you have the continuation of the chalk cliffs that stretch the length of the Normandy coast as far as Etretat and drop off dramatically at Ault to give way to flat marshland and the famous Baie de Somme. This part of the coast is famous for its birds and there are several nature reserves ... where ironically the wildlife seems to be "reserved" for hunters to shoot at. These areas are promoted to tourists as nature reserves and you can certainly spend hours gazing through your binoculars at the vast number of birds, including many migrating species, but are also dotted with hunting hideouts and fake ducks which are positioned on the lakes to attract the real ones. I have to say, this aspect of the reserves did not sit comfortably with me: I understand that hunting can play an important role in maintaining an ecological balance in areas where one species may be at risk of becoming too dominant, but in the places we visited, the balance seemed to be tipped far too far in the direction of the hunting lobby. As one friend put it, when a rare bird has flown thousands of kilometres on a journey from the Arctic to Africa and stops to rest on a lake where people have positioned fake ducks to make it feel safe, then the hunters shoot it at a range of a few metres from a specially-installed hide, is that really sport? Is that really fair? And is it really in the interest of the local ecology?

Nevertheless, there is a lot of natural beauty to be found around the coastline. On the first day, we went for a beautiful clifftop hike from Ault to Mers-les-Bains and watched the ever-changing light from the height of the chalky falaises.

On the second day, we went on a guided walk across the Baie de Somme, the wide river estuary where the River Somme meets the Channel. The guide explained how the build up of sand in the estuary, which is a natural phenomenon but exacerbated by human activity, is changing the nature of the estuary, with important consequences for the local economy. One important activity in the towns on either side of estuary is collecting plants like salicorne and oreilles de cochon which grow only in tidal areas which are sometimes exposed to the air and sometimes covered in salt water. As the sand builds up, the tide covers these places less often and the plant and animal life changes. When I'm on holiday, I'm usually too stubbornly independent to sign up for this kind of thing, but in fact it was really interesting, as well as very muddy!

So, if you've never thought of Picardie as a place to go on holiday, maybe it's worth considering. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

On Travel, Life Abroad and the Countries We Call Home

I recently came back from a week-long trip to Italy, one of my favourite countries in the world and a place where I was lucky enough to work on and off over a period of six years. When I left Milan and came to France, it was for professional reasons, not personal, and I wasn't really ready to go. Crossing the border with a heavy heart on a beautiful summer's day in 2010, my head was already full of plans about how I would go back there as often as I could, and that is what I did. Since then I think I've made at least two trips every year, to the Lakes, to the mountains, to the beach, to Milan, Bologna, Florence and Siena, and each trip has been beautiful, if sometimes bittersweet. It's a feeling similar to the one that I have when I visit my real home town, a kind of nostalgia for a life that could have been, if only it were possible to live in three different places all at the same time.

This spring's trip was just as lovely as the rest, with a glorious hike over the mountains at Lake Como, discovering a new city in Siena and catching up with dear friends. And yet this time, as the train pulled out of Milano Centrale, I experienced no pangs of regret, and as we drew into the Gare de Lyon eleven hours later (it was a night train - a story worth telling in itself), I felt nothing but happiness to be home.

It's a strange sensation, being perfectly contented and asking yourself why you aren't more unhappy, but one of the best things about long train journeys is that you have time to puzzle out those kinds of conundrums, and after a while I came up with what I think is the answer.

The most powerful feeling I had when I first lived abroad (in France, in my early twenties), and which intensified when I "adopted" my third country (Italy, a few years down the line), was the sense that, in integrating, I could become whoever I wanted to be. Freed from the shackles of home and its assumptions and expectations, with the opportunity to shed some cultural baggage at the same time, I had the chance to grow as a person and a sense of power and freedom to build my life the way I wanted in a place of my own choosing (and there were so many beautiful places to choose from!). I can think of no better way that I could have spent my twenties than making the most of all of those opportunities. But each time I left "for good" after living in France or Italy, I felt as if I was leaving a little piece of me behind.

This is the eternal curse of the expat, immigrant or ex-ex-pat. If you have a happy experience in a foreign country, you can only prolong it by giving up on a life at "home", and if you choose to go home, you will probably feel some degree of regret for the expat life you left behind. Add more countries into the mix and the whole situation becomes even more complicated.

So why is it that I feel I have found my solution, at least for now? Well firstly, living in Paris is a very good compromise for me: abroad, but not too far from home, and a place where I can integrate but still have British friends, where I can work in an international environment, etc. But perhaps more importantly, I've realised that the life I have now and the person I have become are the product of all the experiences I've had, at home, in France, in Italy and during all the other globetrotting adventures I've had that were largely a consequence of that first decision to move abroad. The places I've lived and worked have influenced so many things about me, from the way I dress, to the way I treat peopleto the neurological consequences of having four different foreign languages whizzing around , in my brain. And I like the way my life has turned out so far.

All of this is not to say that I don't plan to take lots more trips to bella Italia in the near future, or that I wouldn't jump at an opportunity to take on another country if it came up. It's just I've realised that the way to feel less regret is to understand that when you leave a country you have loved behind, you don't lose a part of yourself, you take a little piece of that place with you.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

How Living with a French Man Changed My Life

When people ask me if I moved to France because of Understanding Frenchman, I'm always quite proud to reply, "No." In fact, I survived 3 (non-consecutive) years here, learned a whole lot of new words, committed many faux pas and even got the dance moves to Paris Latino perfected (that one always amazes French people) before stumbling upon my Frog prince. Not that  moving abroad to be with your significant other doesn't create its own challenges: I'm sure if I'd met UFM in the "France is ridiculous" phase that hit around my 13th month here I'd have been a lot harder to be in a relationship with, but, things having turned out the way they have, I am happy to claim full credit for all the integrating that I did before I even met him.

But there can be no doubt that the past three and a half years have made an impact too. Good, bad, or merely indifferent, here are some of the ways that being with a Frenchman has changed my life:

Eating: It's a bit of a joke in our house that while I tend to have coffee with baguette and jam for breakfast, Understanding Frenchman has a very British breakfast of cornflakes, banana and yoghurt. I'd like to say that my Frenchification includes sitting down to delicious home-cooked bons petits plats every evening, washed down with a civilised glass of red wine and that single square of high-quality dark chocolate that all Frenchwomen supposedly "indulge" in once every day, but in fact we both eat in the canteen at work at lunchtime and only have very simple things in the evening. Because of our working and commuting times though, one thing I have been forced to adapt to is eating later in the evening. We mostly have dinner around 8 and for someone who grew up with tea at half past five, that's a big adjustment. It's actually the one thing I really don't like about our domestic arrangements - I usually end up snacking when I come home because I'm hungry, and even if I hadn't had much, by 8pm I'm too tired to be interested in food. Plus, it makes the evening seem really short!

Language: I was pretty proud of my honours-degree level French, and my vocabulary was not without a smattering of the kind of words you shouldn't really bust out in a university oral exam, but between the good words and the bad words is a whole range of informal vocabulary that you only really pick up inside a Francophone home. La flotte (water, whether coming from the sky as rain or sitting in a carafe on your dinner table) que dalle (nothing, used in a negative sense), and balancer (meaning "to throw away") are all words that I quite definitely learned from UFM. Plus, when you have someone who listens to you patiently (most of the time) and doesn't hesitate to correct you (all of the time), your pronunciation, grammar and general fluency definitely improve as well. What's really funny (or scary) is when you find yourself starting to sound like your significant other and they accuse you of stealing their linguistic quirks.

Cultural Knowledge (or, understanding Les Guignols): I don't know about other nationalities, but many British people who live in France have a pretty low opinion of French television. But while I don't think it's just me being patriotic when I say that the BBC is unrivaled by anything I've ever seen in another country (and even UK commercial channels show a lot of high quality and original programming), Understanding Frenchman has introduced me to some great stuff over here. Take Les Guignols, for example. Like Spitting Image, it's a satirical puppet show that mocks the foibles of powerful, well-known people, and it's really, really funny. Except, of course, that you have to a) understand the language and b) know who the characters are and what the real story behind the satire is. I remember watching it with flatmates during my first year in France and being completely baffled, but now, watching it with my own French Culture tutor by my side, I'm finally beginning to recognise the caricatures and laugh at most of the humour. Other shows which fall into this category include the whole of Le Petit Journal (of which Les Guignols is actually a part) and the wonderful Stephane de Groodt on Canal+'s Le Supplement.

I've got more of these, but this post is getting long, so maybe it will have to become a series. In the meantime, what about you, readers? What have you learned from your French partners/friends/hosts? And do you think they've picked up anything from you?