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The Most French Weekend

March 14, 2013

This is Lucie.

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She’s a real French person.

She’s studying at Sciences Po, and, like all Sciences Po third-years, she spent last year abroad. Luckily, she went to UNC, where we became friends. She’s pretty awesome. Last year she came to my home during Thanksgiving, and she kindly invited me to hers in for the end of our spring break.

It was by far the most French weekend I’ve ever had.

Seriously. I’ve never had so much cheese in three days. Now I understand why the French are so proud of their cheese.

Okay, I kid (not about the amount of cheese, mind). But three days with a French family taught me just as much, if not more, about the French way of living as two months on my own in Paris has.

It started Friday, when I took a train from Paris to Reims. Since my previous experiences in trains were international (or purely American), it was the first time in which everything was only in French. Lucie and her father met me at the station, and we drove to Lucie’s childhood home, which was adorable in an undefinable French way. Her father is learning English, so we spoke in my comfort language; I find, though, that I often learn more about both languages when speaking English with native French speakers, things about pronunciations and connotations and acquisition. You have to be very conscious about English when speaking it to someone who’s learning, but you also get a different perspective of the French language by doing so.

Lucie’s father made us chili for lunch; he claimed to be a poor cook and to have cooked us a not-very-French meal, but he’s obviously ignorant of my own cooking skills, and I thought the meal was wonderful. We then had bread and (my first) Camembert, which made up for any not-very-Frenchness of the chili.

I got a tour of Reims after lunch, which started at a champagne cave.

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They do not kid when they say “cave.”

You know, casual.

Reims is in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, so their champagne is real champagne. I learned the three types of grapes used in champagne and how long fermentation can take and other factors of champagne I didn’t know existed. I sampled a glass, but unfortunately growing up Catholic means you grow up sampling gross wine (because all wine is gross when you’re 7) on a weekly basis, and I’ve somehow managed to not outgrow my aversion to the taste of alcohol. I’m sure it was very good champagne if you’re an adult with normal taste buds.

The tour continued throughout the entire weekend, honestly. There’s a lot of history in Reims: the coronation of kings, the Roman conquests, the establishment of Christianity. It’s a beautifully old city. Lucie and I walked around every day, seeing where she, and the city, grew up.

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While wandering Saturday we stopped for a snack at a bakery, where I had a religieuse — a chocolate-filled pastry that’s caught my eye at a few bakeries in Paris. We browsed some clothing shops while we were in the area, and, though I had been waiting for warmer weather to buy a dress in Paris (the one article of clothing I knew I would allow myself to buy since I got here, because how can you go to Paris for four months and not find a great dress?), I found one in Reims that was pretty and orange and perfect. I would post a picture, except the cold front is back in France, so here’s a picture of the religieuse instead since it was just as nice.

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You know you’re jealous.

Lucie’s brother had turned another year older earlier, so the family had friends over for dinner, a fantastically French dinner that’s a bit like fondue only better — raclette. You have slices of meat and slices of cheese of different varieties and some potatoes, and you have a nifty square iron thing* on which you put a slice of cheese and then stick on a fancy hotplate. You then pour your melted cheese on your meat and/or potatoes and try not to eat too much for the sake of your dignity even though it’s so good. We sang “Joyeux Anniversaire” around a chocolate pie which, again, you have to politely say “Non, merci” to a second slice even though in your head you’re thinking “Can I have the entire thing?” France, you officially win at food. Please don’t make me leave.

It was a lovely evening. I met people who knew some English and people who knew none. One of the first questions I was asked was “Democrat or Republican?” The night was filled with rapid French and loud laughter, and while I didn’t understand everything that was going on, I understood that everyone was so happy to be with each other, and that was enough.

There hasn’t been much culture shock here. Sure, there are differences — we had dinner at 10 p.m., a usual dessert is fruit or yogurt but a mid-afternoon snack is a pastry, one has to maintain eye contact with another while toasting. But the overall style of French living isn’t too different. Maybe it’s a bit richer, what with the food and the wine and no work on Sundays. And maybe it was just that it was such a nice weekend with gorgeous weather and generous and fun people and being in a home instead of a studio. But the types of connections people make with others are the same, and I like that. Lucie and I found it ironic that neither of us wanted to return to Paris Sunday night, as going to a city like Paris is a pretty common hope, dare I say dream, for some. Paris is great. But once you start living there, you tend to favor the sanctuary of a true home. I must thank Lucie and her family a thousand times for welcoming me into theirs and for a true French experience. I will attempt to bring raclette to the States, as well as maybe a dozen pies and some champagne that I’m positive other Americans will enjoy. But the culture isn’t just about the food, and I know I won’t be able to bring back the French language or customs or people (what a plane ride that would be!). I will happily settle, though, for the connections and the experience.

* Sometimes my eloquence is stunning.

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