Henry Miller once said, "One's destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things."
I had the incredible opportunity to travel around Europe over July and August, and Mr. Miller's statement is a perfect way to describe my take away from my experiences. My trip abroad began with two weeks in the heart of France, where I was immersed in the culture of a small French hamlet in the country-side, really learning what it was like to be French.
The summer-home where I began my trip was two hours east of Bordeaux in an area known as Truffiéres. Surrounded by miles and miles of beautiful land and country, the home was nestled right outside of a small town with a cluster of other homes, six to be exact, and is formally known as a Hamlet. In this hamlet everyone knows each other and most of the neighbors live there full time, working the land and living their lives. It was absolutely beautiful, and from my understanding, the sincerest form of the French way of living.
As a New Yorker coming from the South I understand that most countries are not defined by the culture of the big city but by the smaller, rural ares. I think exploring such places is the best way to get a sense, however in-exact, of the upbringing of its population. Spending time in this small Hamlet and experiencing its lifestyle set the expectation for the rest of my travels through Europe and gave me a deeper appreciation for the French culture that I had little knowledge of before.
Ya'll, this is not a joke. The food culture in France is INSANE. Prior to this trip, if I'd gone to a French restaurant, I'd order cheese and whatever looked good on the menu, having no knowledge of what dishes the French are known for and make better than anyone else. And, that is not an exaggeration. I consider myself a foodie- I know good food and this was next level! So when I say "they make it better than anyone else" it's serious. It wasn't just the food though, but the whole process behind it. Every meal in Truffières was made with great effort; harvested from the land and made better with a beautiful wine pairing and surrounded by the best company. There was never a "we made dinner now lets all sit down and eat" mentality. It was neighbors coming together with escargot from the snails they picked from their garden (true story, see below) and fig tart made from the freshest, unfertilized figs picked that morning from the trees. It was never just a one course meal. There was the bottle of rose that took us from conversation to foie gras (duck liver), cooked the evening before in a salt spread, served with baguette, onto the salad with another bottle of wine opened to perfectly pair with the duck confit and potatoes, leading to the rosemary picked from the garden that was ready to be served, onto the fromage and the next bottle of wine with yet another perfectly cooked baguette, to finally the dessert that was from the local patisserie made to order with the freshest of ingredients and a bottle of fig moonshine that could no longer be purchased because the distiller had passed away and he never shared the recipe. This wasn't just one meal in South France but every meal I had the pleasure of partaking.
The French know how to eat but it's not just the incredible food and fresh ingredients that make this experience what it is, it's the time and emphasis on community over the breaking of bread that makes this beautiful dinner perfectly French and the perfect take away for this busy New Yorker, because as good as the food was, the point of the meal was never the food itself, but the experience of spending time with loved ones.
In the above, I mentioned a lot of wine. Wine culture in France is fantastic. And fun fact- the EU has a law that the term "Champagne" (which we all know is my beverage of choice) is to be exclusively reserved for wines that come only from the region of "Champagne, France." It was superior champagne, and I hope to one day travel to the region and taste all that they have to offer. But, for now, wine. The drinking culture is much different and to be honest I was a little nervous for wine with every meal. But, I was pleasantly surprised when I found I wasn't getting drunk but just embellishing the taste of the food being served. I started out timid but in the end was drinking like the locals enjoying the pairings and long conversations.
As far as the food itself went, everything eaten was fresh. All meat was cut from the local butcher, all breads baked by the local baker, fromage and saucisson the same, vegetables picked from the garden, fresh herbs also from the herb garden, and so on. French food doesn't have a need for frills as the raw ingredients themselves do the heavy lifting. There's no need for lettuce, tomato, and mayo on a baguette with ham as both the ham and the baguette are made to stand alone, so while an American ham sandwich may taste bland without extra ingredients because it's made of white bread and cold cuts, the French version, made from fresh, well-baked baguette and real non-processed ham, tastes amazing on its own! Everything was locally grown, and fresh flavor most notable in the fruit. The strawberries tasted the way strawberry candy would taste but it was simply a strawberry grown the way it was meant to be, and enjoyed in its season. Interestingly, the strawberries were much smaller and more flavorful than the kind found in American super-markets. It felt like the first time I've actually eaten a real strawberry! This is true for all food I experienced in South France and most of Paris. The food was local, cared for, and stood alone as it was curated for its season and the meal it was being prepared for.
And while the French will tell you that French cuisine is the finest in the world, the emphasis on food was extremely different than it is in the states. It was rare to find any type of billboard or TV food advertisement, and in general the enterprise seemed much less commercial and "pre-packaged" than it does in the US. I found myself less hungry, and less bombarded with messages to eat more unhealthy food. The culture around food seemed particularly French in exactly that way -- self-evident and confident, but not brazen, boisterous, and begging for attention like the food culture is in the US.
Meals would extend for hours with ease, with endless wine and delicious dish after delicious dish. I come back to the states with a greater appreciation for knowing where my food comes from and spending the time and extra dollars to make sure it's quality. I also relish the memory of those long evenings digging deeper into friendships and conversations that create a beautiful community the typical, busy New Yorker doesn't often see. I take into my own life the calling to create these environments for my generation that puts less emphasis on the importance of a home cooked meal with your tribe. The quality time is priceless and the quality food only adds to what is bound to be a forever memory. So much love and appreciate for these things learned.
Another huge take away I had and I immediately recognized upon arriving in South France was that the emphasis on beauty was completely different than in the US. Beauty was in the non-make-up face and natural glow of the skin. Beauty was in the simplicity of style and relaxation; less on the everyday maintenance, as it is in the US, especially in the city. I quickly found my blow dryer would not be necessary and my daily routine included rinsing my face, moisturizing, and letting the skin speak for its self. There were no advertisements for unrealistic model looks and in general there were fewer mirrors. I felt more confident in my body after two weeks in South France by not constantly sizing myself up in a mirror. I found similarities in Paris as well, though a bit more looks oriented, even in the day to day dress up it was a more natural beauty than a made up look. In fact, it was easy to tell the tourists apart after a while in Paris by simply looking at attire and make-up. There were no big advertisements of unattainable beauty, just beautiful, natural people living their lives with their crooked teeth and recently showered hair.
That said, in terms of dress, the French, in Paris and elsewhere, seem to have a level of class that is not well matched. Sweatpants and gym clothes in public were unknown, and people of all ages managed to pull off a laissez-faire casual chic in the classic French style of understated cool without too much effort.
I hope to remember this in my day to day of not needing the additional steps to feel comfortable in my own skin. I think it goes back to the simplicity of the culture and keeping priority of what's important at the base level instead of adding all the additional items. The french seem to have an understanding of fine tuning the product and letting that speak for itself and finding value in that simplicity. This translates in most of their society, from the food to the fashion, and I hope to keep that close to my heart.
An additional stop we made, about half an hour outside of our hamlet, was a town known as Brantôme, and it might be the most magical place I've ever visited. Brantôme is a small Island right next to the Benedictine Abbey. Formally a commune founded by Charlemagne, Brantôme is now a lesser known tourist attract that is considered the Venice of France and it's easy to see why. This beautiful little town and all of it's charm make it one of my highly recommended stops when traveling through France. Situated at the nexus of a series of rivers, the small town was surrounded by crystal clear water, with riverbeds of dancing ferns. A walk through the streets of varying sizes felt like a walk back in time, a place to briefly get lost in the day-dreams of small French town living hundreds of year ago. Brantôme has several boutique hotels and it's streets are full of goodies, with fromageries, curried meat shops, bars, local shopping, and delicious restaurants. It's a wonderfully romantic getaway and I highly recommend planning a few nights stay in this quaint town. Check out the photos below and tell me you don't fall in love!
If you have the opportunity to live like a local in France, do it! If you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in any culture for a period of time, do it! Learning and growing deeper in understanding of another culture can only benefit and give a greater appreciate for people who are different than yourself. I fell in love with the French culture and their way of life and I come back as me, but tempered by the differences in the way I view some things, and for that I am grateful.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” - Mark Twain
A very large thank you to my amazing family that I had the privilege of spending time with in France this summer. Thank you for teaching me, investing in me, and inviting me to spend time in your summer home. I'm forever grateful for that jobs that become a second home, and the coworkers and bosses that become like family.
So much more to come on our travels and our exact itinerary of our time in Europe.
As always, Much Love,