'Imagination will take you everywhere'
France never ceases to amaze me with its beauty. From the Flemish facades in the north to the undulating hills of the south west and the picturesque harbours bordering the Atlantic, everywhere you look appears to have jumped straight out of a carte postale. I may have spent the majority of the past year on this side of the English Channel (La Manche, as the French call it) and explored a huge breadth of it, but I’m certainly not bored of this country yet – a good thing because my family are equally obsessed with it, so we tend to holiday there every year.
This year was no different; we made an arc across the body of France, skimming the outskirts of Reims in the east (the tips of the cathedral just visible from the motorway), down to Tonnerre, then going diagonally across to Bergerac and dipping down to Auch in the Gers (nicknamed Little Tuscany). Our return trip took in a whistle-stop tour of Bordeaux and then a day of exploring the Île de Ré – a magical little island off La Rochelle – before hitting Le Mans and finally Rouen.
When we reached the honey-coloured barn just outside of Auch that we were to stay in, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, clinging to a hillside in this glorious sun-baked land, the rolling hills of the Gers folding out before us with the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees piercing the horizon line. Sat under the pergola looking at this view, I thought life was as sweet as the melon I’d just eaten. Every night we watched the stars come out – like little pinpricks of silver in a blanket of blue – and the moon reflected in the piscine. When it became too dark to see we listened to the tinkle of distant cow bells and the bleating of sheep in the fields surrounding us. If heaven is a place on earth, I’m pretty sure that corner of France is it.
What do I love about France? The slow pace of life – particularly in the rural areas, which makes you automatically switch to holiday mode (although this can be irritating on a Sunday when all the supermarkets are fermé). Then there’s the weather, the landscape, the markets, the language, the food, the people… I love seeing elderly French men in their berets drinking their morning café au lait and watching the world go by. The smell of pastries wafting down a street from the open door of a boulangerie. A delicately arranged rainbow of fruit and vegetables at a market stall. Spéculoos crêpes (or Spéculoos anything). The cacophony of cicadas as day turns to night. Flowers spilling out of window boxes. The way everyone says Bonjour, even to strangers. French gossip magazines which always seem to have absurd stories about the British royal family. Sunflower fields – the perky ones not the dead ones. Chaussons aux pommes. Soft, sweet figs picked straight from the tree. The national obsession with cycling. Hilltop bastide towns (Lectoure, Bassoues and St-Clar are a few favourites). Campsites full of friendly Dutch people. A good bottle of wine for 3 euros. Brocantes (antique shops) stuffed with treasures – there were some brilliant ones on the Île de Ré. Fresh chilly mornings that promise long hot days. Swallows dancing in the sky. A burning orange sunset, coucher du soleil.
That is what I love about being in France. I know that is the idealised view of the country – the stereotypical France as seen in books and films, and through the eyes of tourists. Having lived there for 10 months I have only just scratched the surface of reality. I know there are problems (homelessness, bureaucracy, terrorism, unemployment, to name a few), Macron certainly has a lot on his plate. But the overriding feeling I have had when in the country – both on holiday and studying there – is that of being welcomed. And in a world that sometimes isn’t very welcoming, that is a lovely thing.