Seated at a typical French bistro overlooking a busy boulevard, eating fresh baguette and foie gras, while sipping on a chilled glass of champagne as the world passes you by – if there is a list of life affirming experiences, surely this must feature? Don’t get me wrong as I must confess: it was not love at first sight. I visited France for work and for leisure, but always with some reluctance initially.
My very first overseas visit was to Toulouse in France, courtesy of my journalism profession to work on an aviation story. I arrived at an overcast, cold and rainy Toulouse, which didn’t really set the right tone. A few colleagues and I went in search of coffee at a bistro near the hotel we were staying at. It was a well maintained little place with tables and chairs packed in too tightly. Cigarette smoke hung like clouds in the air. I recall a nearby table being occupied by a well-dressed woman and her large, drooling dog – one of many in the establishment. Coming from South Africa, cigarettes, dogs and meal times don’t really feature and I was not impressed.
I can’t say my experience of the country on a subsequent visit was any better. It included being robbed and an unhelpful police department, waiting at train stations that were dirty and smelt of urine, rude shop keepers refusing to speak anything but French and walking through piles of cigarette butts that litter the streets.Let’s just say I have experienced all the negative stereotypes that have come to be associated with France.
But over time and through exploring different parts of the country France redeemed itself. Whether it was over a coffee and croissant on a cobble-stoned side street in Cannes, during a leisurely stroll through the world heritage site that is the Dijon city centre or during an awe-inspiring visit to the Auguste Rodin museum in Paris, I realised that France had finally found a way to my heart. I now know that there are wonderful experiences to be had if you know where to look. My French adventures and mis-adventures are amongst some of my most treasured memories. Beyond the boulevards, baguettes and bubbles there are key life lessons to be learnt.
My top ‘French’ things to do:
1. See the Stars
The art of cooking, eating and drinking well is something the French have been doing for centuries. From humble dishes to the more complex - French cuisine is amongst the best in the world. Here food is certainly about more than just sustenance. There are many great places to eat in France, from the affordable (think brie and baguette in a public park) to the uber pricey. My ultimate indulgence was to visit at least one Michelin rated restaurant during my stay! With the Rand/Euro exchange rate it was to be an expensive meal but I found the gastronomic experiences worth every cent. Most Michelin restaurants have reduced rates over lunch, so do some research and find a place that appeals to your food taste. Dishes also differ depending on what region you are in: snails in Dijon, fish stew or Bouillabaisse in Marseilles or a scrumptious Croque-monsieur in Paris. Be curious and experimental. One of my favourite lunch spots in Paris, is Ze Kitchen Galerie, a 1 Michelin starred restaurant.
I love that the French always seem to have all the time in the world. Walk past any cafe and people are chilling, eating, drinking and chatting for what seems like a long time. Nothing appears rushed. That's a FAB attitude. Whether you park off at a table overlooking the street while you slowly work your way through a delicious French red and some cheese or eating a pain au chocolat while picking your way down a busy boulevard - take your time, live in the moment. In this age of instant gratification and shrinking attention spans, taking time out to manage our feelings, thoughts and just what we are seeing around us is increasingly important. A journalist friend of mine (a senior, seasoned journo) who moved to Paris inviting myself and my partner to meet him at the gardens of the Palais-Royal. At first I thought it was an odd place to meet, why not meet at a bar or restaurant? The gardens turned out to be gorgeous, the weather was fantastic and we ended up sitting in the park for a couple of hours, just chatting, enjoying the scenery and processing all that we had seen and done up until then. It was relaxing and allowed us to experience Paris without necessarily rushing from one tourist hot spot to the other. Savour the here and now.
3. Soul Food
Whether you are at the Lourve taking in the masters, the architecture of the Palace of Versailles or admiring the latest haute couture line from a Paris fashion house – there is no shortage of art in France. I admire the country's appreciation of the creative arts, no matter the form. I remember the overwhelming joy which washed over me when I first saw Marc Chagall's ceiling painting at the Opéra Garnier in Paris. It's one of my go to images when my soul is in need of some upliftment. Don’t even get me started about the works by Matisse, Manet, Monet and Picasso and the feelings they evoke. Having only discovered my love of art later in life I can spend hours admiring their brush strokes and colour choices. No matter where you are in France, there is always something creative to captivate and set the mind and heart ablaze if you just take the time to look.
4. Fake It Till You Make It
You don’t have to spend an awful lot of time in the country before you realise the French certainly have confidence! It seems like nothing can bring them down or break their ‘spirit’. I know some might say this is arrogance. But let’s keep it positive. We all go through periods of self-doubt and this is where the French ‘joie de vivre’ or ‘excitement of life’ is a game changer, an attitudal shift can have a huge impact.
"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."
Vincent Van Gogh.
Simple, grand or something in between, the French certainly know how to add flair to even the most mundane of things: a scarf to a drab suit, a dash of cream to a plain sauce or accidentally adding bubbles to a wine. These are also the same people who came up with a super-sized sculpture, as a gift. The Statute of Liberty, was bestowed on the USA in the 1880’s, as a sign of friendship from the people of France. Clearly ‘French flair’ is open to interpretation – it could be a gesture, a way of thinking or doing. It’s worth remembering next time you want to make an impression.
You don’t have to be in France to embrace the French way of life. I have learnt after many visits and varying experiences, that drawing on some of what makes this European destination so popular can be adapted and used in everyday life - so we too can have a life well lived. Vive la France!
There are many, many sites on the web that will assist in putting together an itinerary for an unforgettable French holiday. For more go to: https://za.ambafrance.org/