Lest you think me some kind of crazy francophile employed by the French government to usher food-obsessed tourists across their borders, let this post reinstate some credibility.
#1 I had pretty mediocre food here in 2005. Same route (Provence, Cote d’Azur), same budget (not very large). In fact, if it hadn’t been for the lure of free lodging…and lovely friends…I’d have laid bets on not returning to the South of France for a good long while. So what made the difference? I have a few theories:
a) Frigid temps and no tourists, so the chefs have nothing better to do than stir sauces on/by the fire. Whereas in Fall 05 the air was balmy, the grape crush underway, and speaking of crushes, the recently departed hordes had probably trampled the spirit of the locals.
b) I have a weakness for winter foods: salty, meaty, stewy, braisy, more comforting than finessed. But the food of Provence isn’t what you’d call sophisticated, so ratatouille, frites and green peppercorn sauce are pretty much a year-round thing. And would I complain about a spring lamb stuffed with spring onions on a bed of spring peas? Never mind, I just talked myself out of theory b.
c) This set of travel companions wanted to eat one large meal midday, vs the 05 gang who wanted breakfast and then weren’t hungry til dinner. Biologically I prefer the latter, but intellectually I know the former is the way to go when traveling on a budget. Midday eating allows you to take advantage of more courses for a lower price, better prix fixe menus, and frankly, better company in the dining room. There’s something convivial about sharing a buzzing room (or is that sharing a room with a buzz?) with a bunch of daytime frenchies having their midday meal, rather than a hushed night-time restaurant sparsely peopled with other tourists.
d) Though I don’t travel with picky eaters, it’s still a treat to dive headfirst into platters of the smoked, pickled, raw, internal and bizarre. And no one loves the nasty bits more than b1 and b2. So the compromises were more akin to, “tripe again?”, rather than what to have on the pizza.
#2 reason not to love the south of France? I’ve got two words for you: turkish toilet. Am planning a trip to Turkey next to see if they’re as prevalent there; suspect the Turks are getting a bad rap with what should be named a french toilet.
#3: Telephone showers. Let me get this straight. This is the birthplace of Coco Chanel, Catherine Deneuve and Jaques Pepin (well he’s glamorous to ME). 80-year-old women still don stockings and heels to go to lunch. The women under 65 all seem to sport long hair, skinny jeans tucked into boots, and an endless variety of Christian’s (project runway) conquistador chic jacket. But to bathe, they crouch in a cold porcelain bowl in an underheated room, using just one hand to lather, scrub and squeeze, while the other hand futily tries to direct a spray of water to the soapy bits and not outside the imaginary boundary of the tub.
Perhaps THAT’s the incentive for staying so thin? After my 5 minutes of bathing bliss my knees are bruised, the toilet paper across the room is soaked, and my bits are still soapy. Get a shower curtain and hang the damn sprayer up, people.
#4 Thinking of the trail of soggy rolls of tp I’ve left behind, not to be all ugly American, but how has Charmin not made inroads in France? Appreciate your enormous rolls of cushiness, because across the pond millions are making do with tiny rolls of pink industrial grade bond paper.
#5 Since it’s too late to reclaim my dignity let’s talk about the language. Do I feel ashamed for coming to their country, accepting their hospitality, and making them speak MY language? Absolutely. And it’s not as if English doesn’t have its share of silent letters (‘neighbor’ and ‘though’), multiple meanings (doe, dough and doh!) and the always pesky ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ distinction. But I slipped back further than ever this trip. Being with so many French speakers wiped away the foggy sense that I had a clue and replaced that with the realization that every “rule” I’d ever learned about French pronunciation has 166 exceptions…and those are the ones you’ll encounter the most frequently. In my shame, I realize I either need to learn the damn language or get moving on that trip to Turkey where expectations are nil. (Plus, having had a Turkish roommate in college, I already have a leg up, knowing that the ‘c’ is pronounced ‘j’. Her favorite movie star growing up? Rojk Hudson.)