One of the best things that has happened to me this year in Clermont has been meeting a woman named Marie-Sophie.
There is no doubt that the ex-pat community here is like a small village- we cling to each other for support through the many different needs that arise when you live in a foreign country, far from family, far from the luxuries of home. It would certainly be one lonely experience without these families to hang out with, laugh with and even commiserate with at times. But I have always hoped that I’d be able to widen my circle just a bit, to find other woman outside the ex-pat community to form relationships with, to learn from about this incredibly rich culture in which we are living.
It was by a complete stroke of luck that I received a message one day last September from Nicole, a friend who moved here to CF along with her family last summer from Greenville as well. She and her family had been invited to tea at the home of their neighbor, Marie-Sophie and her husband, Franck. Shortly after, she was contacted by her to see if she might be interested in doing a weekly language “exchange”; Marie-Sophie has studied English for years and has always had dreams to travel to America, to become fluent. Unfortunately, with Nicole’s work schedule at Michelin, there was very little free time to occupy an evening weekly and so she reached out to me to see if I might be interested.
For one minute, I hesitated… I had already arranged for private French lessons with 2 separate instructors weekly and wasn’t sure I wanted to reserve more time for French. But I quickly agreed and she connected the two of us. This has absolutely been a best yes.
Every Tuesday morning (except for school breaks, obviously), I have walked the 15 minute walk through heat, rain, sleet, wind, snow, freezing cold (but beautiful, cool days too!) to join this incredibly lovely woman over coffee at her big long farm table up in her apartment overlooking the park here in Clermont.
She is just a joy. Once I buzz in and climb the steps to her floor, She is always standing at her open door with her head out and greets me with a “Hello, Kah-tee!” Every time. She takes my coat and my bags, sometimes my wet umbrella and sets them on the chair in her hall for me every time. She invites me into her kitchen every time, where I will find her small notebook and French/English dictionary sitting there full of notes she has happily jotted down during that morning’s BBC radio report, which she listens to every morning.
Obviously, it is very fluid, but usually we will speak French for 45 minutes, English the next 45; at times we will switch back and forth or forget, especially if we get into a deep conversation. Often, she will have a list of phrases or notes about which she is interested to find out more, something she heard on the radio, or to clarify something grammatically that she is planning to teach during a lesson the next day to a few classes of young children that she teaches English to at a tiny catholic school up the street.
As an avid gardener, she has a subscription to Country Living from the UK which she studies and highlights….often, she will ask questions about the translation of a phrase “garden wall” or a type of greenhouse, or a “planter”. She will ask me about words or phrases like “angel’s wings” or “fancy”, “jittery”, “charming” “exhilerating”. Even very American things she wonders about, like Starbucks, Hershey bars, air conditioning and Times Square in NYC 🙂
In these hours together, we have discussed anything from mothering strategies (she has successfully raised 5 grown children), the weather, politics, coffee, homelessness, the history of the widespread pilgrimage of Muslims to France and here in CF, the differences between French and American schools, the differences between a baguette and “pain”; how to grow a tomato plant, how to make fig jam, croissants, apple tarts, and so many more things.
She has given me advice on things like how to ask for a table at restaurant, what to do at the pharmacy, the post office, in a clothing store, at the doctor’s, where to find a wooden board for charcuterie.
We have met out for tea, also for coffee, in the city square. She loooooves tea. I love coffee.
She bravely invited the 5 of us to lunch at her home one Sunday afternoon in March and it was nice to meet Franck and share a long meal together, the 7 of us.
She has sent me home with seedlings from her tomato plants to try my hand at growing some; she has sent me home with bags of fresh brioche or bread she has made. At Christmas, she handknitted 2 small stocking ornaments with the words “Joyeux” and “Noël” and filled them with small chocolates, papillotes, that she and her family enjoy every single Christmas without fail. She has encouraged me and even given me a few tissues on a day when I was feeling especially discouraged about how frustrating it can be to communicate at times even amidst daily tasks.
A few months ago, she invited us to come down to the SW of France in the department of Gers to stay with her at home in the country for a few days during the summer. (Areas of France are referred to as departments to specify the various regions… Here in Clermont, we live in the Puy de Dôme department). She had told me about her country home many times, a very old farmhouse in the tiny village of Lagarde-Hacahan that she and her husband decided to buy 20 years ago in order to have one place that really felt like home. Married to an upper-level ranking official in the French Army, they have moved over 12 times throughout France during her adult life and at times, Franck would be stationed overseas. She would be raising 5 young children (7 years apart total) alone and was troubled by the recurrent uprooting. They made a decision at that time that, while traveling throughout Europe is very important to French culture and is a part of the cultural training of children, they preferred to invest in a home to escape to, where they could spend summers, holidays, etc.
She was finishing up school and would be there after the first week of July, so we planned for that next week. The boys had been out of school for a week, so they’d had ample time to chill out and be lazy. Though we tried to stay busy with an activity or two a day, that typical summer boredom was just starting to set in.
Given that Chuck had lots going on at work that week (several work colleagues were coming over from the US, resulting in dinner meetings the whole week) it seemed the perfect week to leave with the boys and take an adventure down to a new area of France we had never been. We had been here a year now and the idea of traveling with the 3 boys 6 hours away in our crazy car to find a farmhouse in a tiny village where GPS often doesn’t register didn’t seem so daunting. So off we went.
Up early and out the door, we hopped in the car and off we went.
Charlie is especially good at reading maps and using Google maps (I am not), so he was my co-pilot. We had a great trip and all went well until we got about an hour from her home. It was then that, as we were driving on a dirt road through a giant cornfield, something didn’t feel right. Marie-Sophie and Franck had given me a specific route that would keep us on the more developed roads and as I had to pull off the road to let a giant tractor go by, I realized we may have made a mistake.
There had been one turn we weren’t sure about and looking back, that was where google had led us astray. Charlie didn’t seem concerned, telling me we were still heading in the same direction, but I wanted to be sure. My phone wouldn’t allow service in order to call Marie-Sophie, so we had to message back and forth. After she had a few minutes to figure out where we were, she kindly sent us a new route and off we went. It probably set us back about 45 minutes but we didn’t have to backtrack, so we were thankful for that. And the drive was so beautiful down these long straight roads with trees lining both sides…
Fields and fields of THE most incredible fields of sunflowers I have ever laid eyes on. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to capture them on film when you also happen to be the driver…
After a bit, we were so happy to finally see the signs for Lagarde- Hachan!
When we got to the little village, it was so tiny. Literally- a church, cemetary, school and mayor’s office. There were a few houses in the village itself, including Marie-Sophie’s. She was standing at her gate to greet us and we were so excited to be there!
The first thing she did when we arrived was give us a tour of the old farmhouse; her kitchen with the old stove and old farm table that belonged to her great grandmother and holds many memories of big family holiday meals she enjoyed as a child.
She sat us down and since it was nearly 4pm, it was goûter time! Snack time in France! Who doesn’t love a late afternoon snack? (more on this later). After some popsicles, she brought out the most lovely loaf cake that she had made the day before and hundreds of times before that (her great grandmother’s recipe) and the boys happily ate slice after slice off of the old wooden bread board with some cold lemonade. They were happy campers!
Next she showed the boys their rooms- each were staying in her boys’ old rooms full of all kinds of treasures from their childhoods and even early adulthoods, old books, albums, instruments, art work, military things like old boots and guns. She took C, O & W out to the workshop where her husband’s tools, etc. were; also some old toys that belonged to her boys. Against my advice, she went and got a stool to climb up into the toolshed and get down some really old bikes for the boys to try out. Of all 3, only one had tires that were inflatable, the others’ tires were so old they were cracked and dusty but we had fun trying to pump them up and clean them off. They were like antiques! It was neat to see such old bikes that likely carried their children to the river and back hundreds of times.
Owen was a little small for this one, but he climbed up onto it anyways.
The boys played outside for a bit, rode scooters and kicked the soccer ball around. She took us out to her big garden and orchard and also showed us a little pond next to the toolshed.
Unfortunately, their big mowing tractor had broken and was unable to be used to mow the grass, so as a result, there was lots of weeds and tall grass that made it nearly impossible for the boys to run and play in, but they still had fun chasing lizards.
In the evening, while I brought our bags in and got set up, she enlisted the older boys to help her peel and chop vegetables to prepare for the ratatouille we would have that evening.
Along with a charcuterie plate full of yummy meats and fresh homemade bread, we all enjoyed a delicious supper outside. The big boys loved the chorizo!!! She also brought out a bowl of radishes along with some butter and told us, that along with bread, this is often how the French enjoy radishes. For dessert, we had fresh figs and cherries, so good.
The next morning, we all slept a bit… Marie-Sophie had said she’d aim to have breakfast ready around 8:30-9:00 so when I walked in around 8:45, it had been so quiet, that except for the smell of fresh coffee, I thought I was the first one there! I was suprised to walk in and see all 3 boys sitting there quietly at the table chatting with Marie-Sophie in French about what they typically eat for breakfast. She had more of the fresh bread and fruit from the day before, along with some homemeade fig and strawberry confiture, and the banana bread loaf we’d brought. Marie-Sophie was drinking her tea from a bowl which reminded me of how the French often enjoy their morning coffee or tea- out of a bowl rather than a mug. We sat and talked for a few hours at the table, back and forth between English and French and shortly after they were done, the boys hopped up and went to find a game to play.
What I loved was how we could just sit outside and jot notes about all the things we talked about, as always. But this time was different. Usually, on Tuesday mornings in Clermont, Marie-Sophie has to leave for work at 10:30, so we typically have an hour and a half or so to “work”. Now, we had all kinds of time to sit and talk about all the things we loved to talk about without watching the clock!
She told me all about Franck’s upbringing and how he had lived all over the world- as a child but also in the military. He spent some years as a child on Île de la Reunion, a French colony in South Africa, near Magadascar. I had never even heard of this place! I could have sat and listened to her tell me all about her family’s history and the history of her country. She had spent some time in Japan as an ex-pat and continues to study Japanese even now. I hadn’t realized the rich history of exchange between France and some Asian countries, which, though more strained now, has existed for hundreds of years.
Before lunch, I went and taught the boys how to play Clue while Marie-Sophie and Charlie got the meal ready- the boys loved the pasta with sausages and melon that she served.
We sat outside, but unfortunately, there were some uninvited guests- (yellow jackets) that were interested in our melon. Poor Wells couldn’t handle it. He absolutely HATES flies and bees and cannot sit still once he starts hearing buzzing nearby. I think this year, being inside the apartment more and playing outside less, he’s gotten even more intolerant to them. But now we were in the country, where all things with wings live.
After lunch, she brought out a cheese plate with some local cheeses made from sheep and cows, and, along with the figs from her garden, it was heaven! We “worked” a bit more over coffee, but the boys were getting hot and after a few spats, we decided it was time for a change of scenery. She suggested the river nearby- a quick 5 minute drive, where the boys could cool off in the water. They were so excited, they put on suits, grabbed their towels and off we went.
We drove down a windy road through the forest and out into these rolling hills of wheat fields. The road came to an end and we turned off onto a grassy road alongside one of the fields where she pointed out a place to park. We climbed out, down a hill and onto a bank of one of the prettiest rivers I’d ever seen. It was totally hidden from the road but was this clearing in the woods with the sun shining through the trees over a small river with shallow clear water.
The water was pretty cold, but that didn’t stop Wells; as usual, he was the first one in and was in his element. For a kid that is still not interested in learning how to swim, he LOVES to be in water.
The river reminded me so much of something straight out of Tom Sawyer. The river flowed as far as the eye could see, it was beautiful.
I’m not sure Charlie ever got in the water, but O and W played for ever.
After awhile, they came out and Marie-Sophie had brought some cake and fruit for “le goûter“. Snacktime! Have I ever written about “le goûter“? I can’t remember without going back through all my posts to see, but since this is literally one of the 4 meals the French enjoy daily, it’s important, so I’ll recount. Just in case we forget one day what a big part of the afternoon goûter is for the French!
When we moved to France and the boys started school, I started noticing how literally every parent would meet their child in the school yard and after a quick hug/kiss, immediately hand them a snack. Yes, it is late afternoon- 4:30 and yes, my kids are always hungry after school, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how hungry they would be every day after school.
The whole idea of goûter fascinated me because often, we weren’t talking about a bag of pretzels or a cheese stick. I would see these tiny children walking out of school holding a big cookie or even a raspberry tart, bigger than their head! Muffins and pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants) are often given, but I think the most traditional is a piece of leftover baguette (maybe from breakfast or lunch) stuffed with a chocolate bar (or part of one). A few women here have told me that this is one of the most memorable things about their primary school days- stopping by the bakery with their mom to get their bread and picking out a chocolate bar from the basket on the counter to stuff inside their bread.
So after the first few weeks of forgetting to bring something to them, I started making mental notes to grab something from home, bring money (they often have crepes with nutella for sale in the school yard) or pick something up from a bakery on the way.
Goûter fascinates me because it seems counterintuitive to serve something so filling shortly before dinner, but as the year went on and I learned more about French culture and their eating style and habits, it started to make more sense to me. One major difference between our cultures is that French people (children and adults both) do not snack all day long like we do in our culture back home. It is rare to see babies being pushed in strollers eating cheerios or crackers. They don’t eat in their cars and this explains why there are no cupholders anywhere either! UGH… as a rule, they really don’t eat between meals at all. Lunch is often their biggest meal and enjoyed leisurely, it is never rushed. This is why almost all local shops, businesses and other establishments, (including schools) close for 2 hours every day for lunch. It’s that important. No rushing through a meal to get back to work.
However, le goûter.
Though it is technically the 3rd meal of the day, it is one of the 4 mealtimes for the French. And it is not just for kids. I started noticing that around 4 or 4:30 every day, coffee shops and cafes are full of men and women- coming from work or shopping, meeting a friend or two for coffee or tea over something sweet- cookies, tarts, cheesecake, macarons, brownies, muffins, you name it.
In fact, when you order coffee or a drink late in the afternoon, they will ask you without fail what you’d like to eat, even if you don’t order anything. It is a nice tradition that starts when they are young and continues throughout their lives. Life here is never too busy to meet a friend for a (sweet!) snack.
The 4th meal of the day is often late and a light dinner- soup, maybe quiche and a light salad. Nothing heavy and it’s uncommon to have much meat at this last meal of the day.
All in all, goûter is still one big head scratcher to me. While I am a big fan of a late afternoon snack, I think about the extra 20 lbs I’d bring back home with me if I chose one of these treats every day. And they aren’t small. The cookies I’ve grabbed a few times for the boys are quite big! But yet, people- men AND women sit and eat every last bite. So this is where I scratch my head. Because goûter is actually considered a mealtime, it is not considered a snack.
French women are known for being generally quite slender and to the world (and to me), this has been a mystery of sorts. People have even written books about the secret to how French woman stay thin. As I go through my days here, I have my theories about this or that, but in all honesty, I believe that they have been eating this way their entire lives and have generally never tried to mess with the system. They are big believers in balance. One large factor that I think plays in is portion size. They do eat much smaller portions and are much more active and ambulatory. When you add in that most women smoke, maybe that is the whole story right there. Who knows? I will never know.
That evening, Marie-Sophie took us to meet her friend Madame Brouillard, a longtime neighbor whom she had some books to deliver to that she had picked up from church. After chatting a bit, Mme. Brouillard brought out 2 huge jars of honey to give to Marie-Sophie that came from the beehive behind her house. As we walked down this long country road admiring the view of the rolling hills and beautiful bright blue skies, she told me about how living in a small village like this means looking out for each other, how everyone just sort of shares and swaps what they have with each other.
For dinner that night, Marie-Sophie served quiche with salad and after dinner, more of the amazing cheese she had brought out the day before.
She poured a bit of rosé to have with the cheese and told me about how this area of France had tried for many years to produce rosés similar in quality to Provence but without success. It was not until the more recent years, that they have started to succeed but that this is relatively unknown. Provence is still indisputably, the most well known Rosé producing region in comparison to the rest of France, maybe the world!
Wells was exhausted and was down before the sun. With all the work it takes to escape bees all day and playing in the river, he was out!
The next day, after breakfast, we went on a walk down the road to see the center of the village. There was a church, a cemetery, the mayor’s office and a school. Marie-Sophie told us that there are only 3 things that are needed to make up a “village”- a church, a cemetery, and the mayor’s office.
The boys sat at this bus stop but we had a chuckle, as we hadn’t seen or heard one bus! I’m not actually sure there is much of a need for a bus in this tiny village!
Marie-Sophie stopped to talk to the mayor for a few minutes about the little school in their town that had recently closed. Unfortunately, due to some laws in France, the school was forced to close last year and now the 15 students that were able to walk to school are now required to get on a bus every morning and ride 45 minutes to the next nearest school. It has been devastating for their village and now they are trying to figure out what to do with this charming little school building. It is obviously detrimental to the longterm future of their little village!
We walked home, had leftovers for lunch and as Marie-Sophie and I worked, the boys got into a serious game of monopoly that lasted hours!
During the summers, Marie-Sophie waters her big garden every few days and given that it hadn’t rained all week, the boys and I headed out to help her that evening after dinner and putting Wells to bed. Her garden is really something. Rows and rows of potatoes growing in the ground and tomato, pepper plants, squash, lettuce, etc. In fact her garden is so big that they use a giant water tank on wheels which is connected to a pump, filling water from the pond. We had the best time out there, pulling the giant hose along so that she could reach ALL the rows of potatoes and tomato plants. As we walked along, the boys were trying to see how many different fruit trees they could find in what felt like more of an orchard than a garden.
There were apples, different types of pears, grapes, oranges, mirabelles (like plums), cherries, peaches.
But it was the fig tree (le figuier) that just amazed me. I am new to this love of fresh figs. It was when a woman at a market in Paris handed me a fresh fig last August to try that I became hooked. Unfortunately, they are only in season very briefly in mid and late summer and so the idea of having a giant tree in your backyard full of figs to pluck off anytime is like heaven. The boys don’t necessarily agree with me. They do love some cherries however!
These green figs were huge! They are bigger and in season earlier than the black figs.
With all this hard work in the garden, Marie-Sophie shared with us that it can often be quite frustrating to keep critters out. They firmly believe in avoiding any type of chemical or pesticide that could deter them, but depending on the season, they are often victim to slugs, badgers, hedgehogs (yes hedgehogs!) and other bugs that eat the crops.
We couldn’t get over how different these slugs were from the ones back home in the US.. orange with spikes!!
The next day was very quiet and more of the same activities we’d done the few days before, lots of games and speaking French! As much as it was great practice for me to be able to be spoken to in French off and on all day, it was great for Marie-Sophie to hear the boys speaking English, even if they were arguing over the rules in French monopoly or clue!
The boys and I took an afternoon field trip to the closest grocery store in nearby Masseube, a town 20 minutes away to grab some snacks for the drive and some other regional things- chorizo, cheese and wine to bring home. Given that we were only an hour from the Spanish border, it was essential to stock up on some of our favorite Spanish food! As we drove home, you could barely make out the Pyrenees mountains (the French/Spanish border) in the distance…
That evening, her daughter Claire arrived after a 7 hour drive from Toulon, a city in the south of France that sits on the Mediterranean and where her oldest daughter, Marjorie lives currently. After Claire arrived, we had an aperitif on the terrace with some yummy bites and it was nice to sit with them and try to understand what they were speaking about. At times, I could follow, at others, I couldn’t, but somehow I have gotten used to this feeling. Eternally clueless, you actually do start to get the “gist” of what others are saying, even if you can’t understand the conversation specifically.
I left them to get the boys in bed and when I returned, Claire offered me a taste of a digestif she wanted me to taste- an apricot and peach liquor from Le Casetellet, a small town near Toulon. Though I am not typically fond of anything peach, it had a nice flavor and it was nice of them to share it.
We awoke the next morning and after a nice breakfast and coffee with Marie-Sophie, we were on the road to head home to Clermont. We stopped in Cahors for a nice lunch at a brasserie and enjoyed the cool breeze in this pretty little town. The drive went so smoothly and we were home well before Chuck arrived home from work. As one could imagine, the boys were quick to unpack and turn on the PS4… I really didn’t think they could survive but they surprised me!
What a great week. Thankful for our safe travels, for my new friend and our time together and of course, a few screen-free days for the boys.