One of my favorite lines is by Alice Waters when she talks about the year of eating her way through Europe - aka, her junior year abroad. I had a year like that - eating and otherwise immersing myself in French culture, all under the guise of academic studies abroad.
Of course, it goes without saying that one should study when studying abroad, but that is only a small part of the equation. Falling in love with a foreign culture is only possible by being in the culture - and not always in the classroom. This is what happened to me when I studied for a year at l'Universite de Nice. Sure, I went to classes (though certainly not all) and I passed my cours pour etrangers, but more importantly I LIVED there. I made friends, I found romance, I ate and traveled and spent every day soaking up what it is to be French.
Since Nice is the capital of the beautiful blue Cote d'Azur, I have often been asked if I spent a lot of time at the beach that year. I think my friends and I only went to the touristy beaches once.
I was much more likely to be found in a corner restaurant sampling local specialties, drinking wine and people watching. That year, I fell in love with France, the French, one Frenchman in particular, and with myself as a newly emerging sophisticated and worldly young woman.
This was the year that changed my life. I learned to appreciate the world around me through what my senses were taking in - the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of daily life in France. I fell in love with a way of enjoying life - la joie de vivre.
Although our little house had only a two-burner hot plate, no oven and a tiny refrigerator, I cooked a lot of ratatouille, among other meals. Who needs a big fridge when you can buy what you need daily for that evening's dinner? And frankly, there was never anything leftover to be saved, after meals!
I was enchanted with the idea of walking four blocks to the little epicerie where madame grated just enough cheese to top our evening meal. I had never previously really considered that grated cheese came any other way than pre-packaged in plastic. But here in Nice, madame took some translucent white paper, rolled it into a cone shape, held the cone under her grating machine while the cheese sifted down into it, folded the top paper over to make a neat little package. After she weighed it, we paid her and left with our petit paquet. Nothing could be more fresh than that!
Of course there was always plenty of fresh basil which is necessary for both ratatouille and soupe au pistou.
Years later, when Jack and I took a week of cooking classes with Patricia Wells at Chanteduc, her home in Provence (more on that life-changing experience in future posts), we learned to make the best versions of these two dishes that I had ever tasted.
PATRICIA WELLS AT HOME IN PROVENCE: Recipes Inspired By Her Farmhouse In France
And yet, those college meals I had prepared in Nice were so memorable and romantic because of the very newness, the wonder of discovering such fresh vegetables, herbs, cheeses and breads at the local markets just blocks from my home there.
A random list of some of the other incredible eye-opening discoveries I made that year includes:
- Living in a present that is always surrounded by antiquity creates soul-satisfying comfort.
- Eating slowly and relishing each bite makes every meal so much more pleasant.
- Candlelight is always romantic.
- The right music in any situation is also romantic...from a samba's smooth saxophone to raucous Rachmaninoff to Stevie Wonder to folk songs at a local fete.
- A home decorated with the influence of centuries is both intellectually stimulating and cozy.
- Pate de Fois Gras melts in your mouth with a flavor that is at once pungent and sublime.
- Both men and women can be sexy wearing perfume (but never at breakfast).
- Nothing beats fresh fruits and vegetables purchased at the market only hours after they have been picked.
- The four-foot thick stone walls of ancient farmhouses contain untold histories of generations, often of one family for hundreds of years.
- Driving through the hillsides of Provence, you can smell the herbs growing in abundance all around you - unkempt wild bushes of lavender, thyme, rosemary. You know the local meat and cheeses will taste of these herbs.
- The colors everywhere you look are warm, natural and satisfying because they come from the local earth.
- The contrast of fields of deep purple lavender flowers against yellow and rust colored ochre, silver green olive trees and incredibly blue sky is both peaceful and exhilarating.
- There is nothing anachronistic about hiking in the hills and drinking cheap wine with an illiterate shepherd by day and then sipping fancy aperatifs at a discoteque that evening.
- Tiny fraises des bois (wild strawberries), purchased at the market during their short season, are as delicate, yet striking in their flavor as they are fleeting.
- Life should really be felt - the damp coolness of the grass under your feet on a hot day, the breeze on your face and arms as you motorcycle through the hills of Provence, the heaviness of a hand-blown wine glass from Biot, the delicate film under your wrists of an organza tablecloth, the rough texture of old cotton sheets, your own skin in the Provencal sun.
- Garlic enhances almost anything...as do lemons and thyme. The aromas of these gifts from the earth are as uplifting as their explosions in your mouth.
- Life is poetic if you allow it to be.
- La joie de vivre is sensual.
In the posts to come, I will talk about all these sensual joys and more. Although I personally enjoy all of these pleasures most when I'm in France (obviously I just love being there), my husband Jack is correct in pointing out that when you know how to appreciate life as the French do, you truly can make it happen wherever you are - you can bring France to you. In my next post, I'll write about a wonderful meal we had with friends and family here (stateside) last summer.