What we all miss most about France has become even more difficult to tolerate as France slowly opens up. France is so tantalisingly close and yet…Attractions, sites, museums, cafés and more all over the country are opening their doors this week. Close to the UK, the long, sandy beaches of north France beckon – perfect for social distancing. However for us in the UK, trips to France are still uncertain.
The very real possibility of getting there soon brings on a real yearning for the country.
It’s the little things
What I miss most about France are the little things.
Freshly baked croissants
I woke up this morning with an overwhelming desire for a fresh croissant. My house in the remote Auvergne is in a tiny hamlet with no shops. So when we’re there, we get up and bicycle the 5 kilometres along the gorges of the Allier river to the nearby small village which has one alimentation attached to the bakery. We buy fresh croissants, still warm from the oven, then go for a coffee in the local café eating some of them before cycling back, keeping some of those croissants for later.
When we first bought the house decades ago, the café was run by a man who had a steel plate in his head – a casualty of the war. He ran a multi-faceted business: café, petrol station and building materials shop. To us, he was the Pastis and cement man.
There’s the cheerful ‘Bonjour monsieur-dame’ when you go into any shop (apart from the odd exception, usually a cashier like the non-smiling grim-faced lady at Monoprix in Antibes). The greeting is a connection made, an acknowledgement that you’re somebody there with them. The greeting works wonders.
In the same vein, I do missing all that kissing. It can get a bit tedious in my region; sometimes hitting 5 kisses. I put it down to the slow pace of life – have they forgotten the first one by the time they get to the fifth? Or perhaps it’s just another way to pass the day.
Visits to Unknown Places
I miss visiting small, unknown châteaux. It’s particularly relevant in my region where there aren’t very many. Take the Château de la Rochelambert. For years it quietly promoted the legend that Georges Sand stayed here with her lover, Chopin. It wasn’t quite like that; in fact the formidable writer spent just one afternoon here on June 4, 1859. And her lover? Nowhere to be seen.
The château clings to the hillside that rises above it, a massive, sturdy building of granite hugging the slope for comfort. It’s charming, and despite the debunking, there’s a bedroom dedicated to Georges Sand, with portraits and letters on display.
I love the small rooms and remember walking through the quiet château as dust motes quivered in the sunlight coming through the windows. Nobody there, just me and ghosts from the past – surely that was Georges Sand disappearing behind that door?
And the Château de la Rochelambert is now open. You just have to book in advance.
Restaurants, cafés and bars
I miss the busy waiters, immaculately dressed in black with long white aprons around their waists, even in the height of summer in the resorts along the south of France. They negotiate the tightly packed tables with consummate skill, trays balanced at shoulder height with glasses of beer, Pastis with jugs of water, citron pressé for those after a healthy drink, or a cure for a hangover.
I even miss the rude waiters of the past. Years ago, the French government ran a campaign to teach hitherto rude or indifferent waiters how to charm their customers. That year we went back to one of my favorites: Thoumieux which in those days was a wonderful, local and inexpensive brasserie, with the aforesaid grumpy waiters. They had changed; they were polite; they smiled! It was not the same experience at all.
Gardens – French formality vs English wildness?
I miss the slightly smug feeling of superiority when I’m visiting gardens in France. Looking at those military-style parterres with their regimented flowers and longing for the English approach of herbaceous borders spilling over onto brick paths, and rolling parkland dotted with mature trees.
What I miss most about France…less health and safety!
I remember visiting the gorgeous château at Ainy-le-Vieil, one of the best preserved fortresses from the 14th century. I was on a press trip covering gardens in the Loire Valley.
It is still in the family of the original owner, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s Finance Minister, passing where needed through the female line. The redoubtable current owner, a Princess no less, wanted to show us the ramparts and the view. We dutifully climbed the stone spiral staircase to the top where the Princess was trying to open a door. She pushed hard and voilà! We were out on the ramparts that ran around the castle. They were about one metre wide with a battlemented wall to one side and the other? A sheer drop into the courtyard and no railing.
And just chilling out in my house in the Auvergne
I miss just sitting in my garden waiting for the train on the Train de Cevennes line going past way down in the gorges at exactly…11.27am. Yes, you can just see it.
There’s a whistle seemingly far away then the train comes out of the tunnel into the gorges, trundles along…how many carriages this time?…then disappears into another tunnel to continue on its journey.
And buying the apricots (testing them for sweetness first), and sugar for jam then spending hours making quantities of apricot jam to take home to London. It keeps a little bit of summer going for a very long time.
Looking out at dawn
Looking out of the window in the morning as the mist rises slowly in the valley.
And watching the sun set
Looking out of the window as the sun slowly sets on the small ruined chapel on a hillside far away.
Or just looking…
And I miss sitting on the rock just outside my house and looking over the valley, feeling on top of the world.
I miss France. What about you?