In France, opportunity doesn’t knock. You have to find it. You may need to search for it with a bloodhound, and then, once you have it, don’t let go. At the beginning of the semester, I signed up for the international student organization and I’ve been very involved with their events. The international student organization even sponsors a cooking team with a retired person. I don’t know much about American cooking, much less French cooking, but it was an opportunity. And in France, you don’t let opportunity walk away. Ever.
Here’s how it works: the retired person is paired with two international students from two different continents. You meet at the retired person’s home and there are four mandatory meetings.
Meeting #1: Meet and figure out what you are doing and when you are meeting
Meeting #2: Cook something from France
Meeting #3: Cook something from Student 1’s country
Meeting #4: Cook something from Student 2’s country
I was lucky enough to be paired with an awesome retired couple and an amazing girl from Italy (she’s actually from Sardinia – check it out if you get the chance). Today was our first meeting and the couple told us that today we wouldn’t be cooking. They would be cooking for us. The man e-mailed us directions to a bus stop and even gave us the times the buses were running. This was particularly helpful because:
1. I haven’t used the bus system yet. Today was my first day!
2. It is Sunday. Nothing is open on Sunday in France and the buses/trams run on a VERY limited time schedule. If you miss your bus, you could be waiting another hour!
I arrived at the bus stop and the girl was already waiting. She had been worried about arriving late, so she took an earlier bus. She had been waiting for a while. I, on the other hand, arrived just in time. The man pulled up in his car and drove us to his home. There, his lovely wife welcomed us inside.
It was my first time being in a French house. I have been to French apartments with other students, but those are small and cramped, just like the dorm room. But this was a house. And it was big compared to my tiny dorm room. And it was a real French house. With real French people.
I realized that I was extremely nervous. I had learned about French customs and culture in class, but this wasn’t a classroom. This was real life. I was terrified I would offend them somehow. As soon as I entered the house, a flood of thoughts overwhelmed my little brain.
Do I need to take my shoes off when I enter? I feel like we talked about that in class one day. I forget. Darn. Should have Googled that before coming. What do I do with my coat? Oh gosh. I didn’t tell them that I don’t drink wine. Will they be offended? They have so many books. That’s cool. I like books. Oh no. I think they asked me a question. They’re staring at me. Oh no. Oh no.
I’ve failed. This is not an exam. I have definitely offended them. I have no idea what is…
“Put your coat here,” the woman said kindly.
My coat. That’s it. Okay. You got this.
I didn’t have to take my shoes off and my coat was casually hung on the staircase banister. We were taken into a little parlor and so began the lunch time. What you need to know about the French and food: it’s serious. It is a very, very serious event. Food is not meant for mere survival. It is for pleasure and enjoyment.
In the parlor, we began to talk. We ate little appetizers which included olives, pork and some crackers with black stuff spread on top. The man explained what each thing was, but I forget what the black stuff was. I remember he said it was something that was crushed.
After a bit of conversation, we moved into the dining area. We were served a beginning plate, which was a traditional Nantes dish. It was an egg with lettuce and other yummy stuff. I’ll be honest. My French food vocabulary is very, very limited. Which is why this opportunity will be good for me.
We moved on to the main dish which was a giant sausage thing and a special pork (which is like bacon, except it’s not smoked) and potatoes and cabbage. It was extremely delicious. This is a traditional French dish from the country. They asked if we had anything like this in our country and said we definitely had the potatoes and cabbage! My father loves potatoes and cooks them with essentially every meal.
We then had a cheese tasting because, as the man explained, no French meal is complete without cheese! I was able to eat two of the soft cheeses, but the last one was very strong. The man warned me about it because, while the girl from Italy may be familiar with these cheeses, Americans are not familiar with strong cheese. I tried it though because, well, you have to try it! It’s a rule. When we’re at their house, we have to try it. If we don’t like it, we don’t have to eat it, but at least you tried. And you can never know you don’t like something until you try it! So, I brought the green cheese to my mouth and placed it inside. It was strong all right. I found it to be quite unpleasant, but that’s alright. I tried it.
We then ate an apple tart, which is a traditional French desert. I had had apple tart before and this dish was very good.
But we weren’t done yet. We sat down for coffee and I declined the coffee. I must have appeared really weird because I didn’t drink wine and I didn’t drink coffee. However, they seemed okay with these choices and never questioned it.
“We respect your decision not to drink,” they said at one point.
And that was that. I was much more at ease then. I did have a few moments. I tried to eat an olive earlier and dropped it. I’m not a graceful eater. But, overall, I didn’t make a huge fool of myself. And, even more importantly, I talked for three hours in French about a variety of topics including cultural differences between France, Italy and the United States, about immigration in our respective countries, and, of course, American politics.
As they were drinking coffee, the woman asked if the girl and I had been to the ocean since coming to Nantes. Truth be told, I haven’t even left the city limits of Nantes since I’ve arrived. “Would you like to see the ocean?” she asked.
The girl and I looked at each other. Yeah. Sure. One day, we wanted to go to the ocean.
Next thing I knew, we were grabbing our coats and piling into the car. We were going to the ocean. Today. Right now. This very second. I couldn’t believe it. It was then that I realized…this couple didn’t just want to do the mandatory cooking meetings. They actually wanted to get to know us. They wanted to show us their country’s cultures and customs, and they wanted to help us with our language. They were patient when we didn’t know a word and helped us correct our mistakes.
We drove forty-five minutes in the French countryside. We passed horses, farms, grape vines. I saw wind mills and the radio was set to the oldie’s station. I was in a state of awe and shock, but I was purely content. I never imagined this would happen. I felt like I broke some wall between me and them, between America and France, between differences and similarities. It all melted into one life, one moment, one ocean.
When we arrived in Pornic, I saw that this was a small town, but a popular destination in the good weather. It was sunny again in the region for the second day in a row. This has never happened before in Nantes. It didn’t rain yesterday and it didn’t rain today. It was amazing. So, naturally, everyone was out at the ocean on such a beautiful day. There were so many people!
We parked next to the chateau which is situated right against the ocean. In the harbor, it was low tide so the boats were resting on the wet sand. A little boy was kicking a red ball to his father. We followed this narrow path on rocks. It was in the shadows so it was cold, but then we turned a corner and I saw it.
We were in the bright sun and it shone brilliantly on the blue waters of the Atlantic. I stared into the horizon and, for a moment, between the blue sky and the blue ocean, I saw America. I had stared into the same horizon many times in Maine and, to be honest, the rocky shoreline of France was nearly identical to the rocky shore of Maine. I had finally done it. I made it across.
We walked along the trail to an open beach with sand. I stopped for a moment. In the cold Atlantic shore, right off of the coast of Maine, I played in the water as a kid. I made sandcastles there. Maybe, just maybe, a single grain of sand from Maine was carried across the wide ocean to the same place where I was standing. My day was easily made by that trip to the beach and I cannot describe how grateful I am to this wonderful couple. They were fantastic and I look forward to our next meeting.
They dropped me off at my dorm and I realized that it was six-thirty. I had spent more than half of my day with them, speaking French and seeing the ocean. Yes. I am in love with France.
Oh, by the way, to those of you in America, I waved to you across the Atlantic. Did you see me?