A Letter from France

– Nov 19, 2004

Recently, we celebrated an anniversary of sorts – it is five years since we came to live in the south of France.

It has been a life-changing five years. We have overcome the challenge of learning a new language at this relatively late stage in life – and had our first child. And a multitude of fascinating experiences have come our way on our travels to other parts of the continent. Most importantly, we have come to accept and even delight in the continental way of life.

I still remember the shocked look on my husband’s face when the relationship officer we approached at a large national bank, on our first day in the area, gave us an appointment for the following week. We had asked to open an account – but there wasn’t a single other customer present in the bank at the time.

As we learned over the next few months, this the way things work in France – even for the most mundane tasks, one needs to first take an appointment. Coming as we did then from super-efficient, customer-friendly Hong Kong, it took us a while to get our heads around this novel way of working. (But then this is also the country where a customer has traditionally been expected to apologize upon entering any establishment, for disturbing the owner. Although this custom, I am thankful to report, is on the wane.)

None of this is to say that I am a Francophobe. Far from it. Over the years, I have found myself growing increasingly more appreciative of the whole Gallic way of life – be it the emphasis on healthy eating, the importance placed on spending time with the family, or the long vacations taken by everyone every year. What I also find interesting about the French people is that in spite of this relaxed approach to life, they are said to be more productive per hour than their counterparts in many developed countries including the United States. (That the economy might be in better shape if they worked longer than the official 35-hour workweek is another matter. And we haven’t reconciled yet to the idea of the two-hour lunch break, which is considered quite normal and the only civilized thing to do. Oh well. Vive la difference!).

And then there are the simple pleasures of living in a place where people still live close to the land. My three-year old daughter appreciates these pleasures already. So she holds her own little cane basket, just like mine, as we walk down to the weekly “marche provencale“. This, quite literally, is the market where the produce of this region -Provence – is sold. Farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, a stunning variety of cheeses, preserves, hand-crafted linen and pottery – these are just some of the things on sale here. These marches brings back memories of the Sunday “haat” that I used to go to with my father long ago in Bihar in India. There’s a certain pleasure in the genial bargaining that goes on here, in being handed a bunch of coriander or an extra peach for free because the vendor thinks your daughter has beautiful eyes. Shopping in a supermarket – though we have those too – just isn’t as much fun.

And there’s a lot to be said for living in a place every inch of which is steeped in history and tradition. There’s the town of St. Remy du Provence, for instance, which is only two hours away from where we live. The town and the surrounding countryside are famed for the olive oil produced here. It has some important Roman ruins, and is well-known as being the birthplace of Nostradamus. It is also the place where Van Gogh produced some of his best work and where he took refuge in the local asylum near the end of his life. So there was a lot to see when we spent our Easter break in St. Remy this year. The town is one of France’s gastronomic hotspots and home to one of its best chocolatiers, a man called Joel Durand. He does the most divine things with chocolate, mixing it with such diverse flavors as lavender, rosemary and Earl Grey tea. And his peach and saffron jam is to die for. But I digress….

So one might think we are enjoying our surroundings to the hilt. Au contraire, I confess that we sometimes take for granted this absolutely gorgeous part of the world. I realized this recently when faced with the need to make a trip to the principality of Monaco. It is about an hours’ drive from where we live and the route we take is one that winds along the hills that rise above the Mediterranean.

This drive offers some of the most breathtakingly beautiful vistas I have ever seen. And yet I found my husband and myself setting out on this trip quite grudgingly. The reason for going to Monaco that day was to go to an Asian store there – one of the few in the region and better-stocked than the others – to buy spices and daals. Our reluctance was due to the fact that we have driven to Monaco umpteen times by now with any number of visitors. So, to us, this was just a tedious one-hour ride for grocery shopping – never mind the scenery.

Of course, this being Monaco, there is more than one redeeming feature. So on this occasion, after a picnic lunch at one of the viewing spots along the road that climbs up to Monaco, we took our daughter to the excellent Aquarium maintained by the principality’s royal family.

And for a vicarious thrill, one can always go to the casino in neighboring Monte Carlo to gaze enviously at the Porsches and Ferraris parked outside and to laugh at all the tourists taking pictures of each other posed alongside these vehicles. (In these five years, we have gambled and lost so much money at the slot machines each time that we went inside with visiting friends and relatives for a dekko, that this particular attraction has lost it’s appeal).

Another time that I found myself guilty of taking for granted the wonders that surround us was on a weekend trip to another historic site in the area. I found myself losing interest in an old ruin because it is “only” three hundred years old. But what do you do when you live in a part of the world where almost every village, every ruin, every monument seems to date from Roman times? I confess a certain ennui begins to set in even as expectations rise. For it is, indeed, an “Old World,” as Donald Rumsfeld put it….

Sometimes, we do talk about moving from here – to make more money (a difficult task in socialist Europe), to see more of the world. It would be nice, too, to experience the conveniences of life in a place like, say, North America, with stores that are open till late in the night -we have fond memories of the 24/7 L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine- or Mumbai, where the neighborhood grocer will send someone to your home to deliver even the smallest order. And yes, it would be nice to be able to watch “Friends” or “The West Wing” in English.

But I am waiting to hear of some other place on this planet where I can view through the balcony doors, as I am doing now while I write this, the mountains with their snowy peaks ranged in the distance, as well as the blue sea shimmering in the sun. Or where I can buy excellent wine for as little as four euros a bottle. Or where the local cuisine – not the infamous haute cuisine but the more traditional variety – is as mouth-wateringly delicious as the rival Italian fare available just a short drive across the border.

Until then, I am happy to make my home here, on the Cote d’Azur, in la belle France.

Bon weekend!

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