I’d be willing to wager a bet of at least two dollars that there are thousands or millions of young girls and women (and boys and men, because why discriminate?), yet to step a single toe outside their native country, who are currently daydreaming about visiting France.
I say this because years ago, I was one of them. France and Paris in particular, was the one place in the world I yearned to travel to, above all else… even Iceland, which I thought about for eight years, before finally visiting. Yet Iceland was a crush – as far as I was concerned, France was the real deal.
I’ve now been to France four times and no other country has shattered my heart as swiftly and completely as it did. Perhaps I should have known this to be the case, as the signs were all there…
The Primary School Years
I first fall for France at the tender age of nine, after picking it as my country of choice for an assignment at school. We are asked during library (which apparently counted as a subject in my youth) to compose a booklet of information about our chosen destination.
Ever the little teacher’s pet, I spend hours on my assignment – drawing pictures of croissants, researching French currency and phrases and painstakingly covering the book itself in blue, white and red crepe paper, so that it resembles the French flag in appearance. This is all in the days before the Internet really took a stronghold, so I research all my information in the library itself and write translations with the help of my mother, who was once fluent in the language.
The librarian is impressed. I get an A++. I still have the project lying around in a box somewhere.
Studying French in High School
Part of the Australian school curriculum dictates that we take a language course in the first couple of years of high school. You don’t get a choice in the matter and the languages vary from school to school. Some learn German. Others Japanese. Indonesian is prevalent, but we – to my delight – end up with a French teacher.
As pre-pubescent teens, we attempt to terrorise her, but she’s made of strong stuff and runs the class with an iron fist. It is not my favourite subject, but I learn enough to get by.
Determined to hold onto my dream of speaking French fluently, I take the subject up at a senior school level. It soon becomes my worst subject, partly due to the teacher, who takes an immediate dislike to me (I rarely had this happen in my schooling career, due to being a bit of a goody-two shoes). Her apathy releases something in me – I play up in class and put the bare minimum of effort into my work. I know I can coast through her class, so that’s what I choose to do… ultimately as I realise now with the wisdom age, to my own detriment.
I blunder my way through the final tests and receive an okay score for someone who put minimal effort in. I contemplate taking up French at university, but my enthusiasm for the subject is waning. I pile my schedule high with filmmaking and creative writing classes instead.
The Trip to Paris
At the completion of my studies, I decide to celebrate with a six-week trip to Europe. I end University on a high – I’ve had a fantastic three years, learning, meeting likeminded people and have a job in the television industry secured on my return.
An old school friend and I decide to travel together and painstakingly work out our itineraries. I am to meet her in Paris, at the end of her Top Deck tour, where we’ll remain for ten days – the longest I’ll spend in any one place during that trip. We’ll stay in a small apartment in the 2nd arrondissement, ring in the New Year of 2010 by the Eiffel Tower and eat baguettes smeared with butter every day.
Well. My time in Paris is traumatising, to say the least. A naïve Australian, I smile at everyone I see and correspondingly get aggressively hit on on several different occasions, with one man going as far as groping my bottom on the Metro. Having never been in these situations before, I adopt a “deer in the headlights” stance – standing still and hoping the moment will pass soon. I am eager to try famous French cuisine, but there is no meal that blows my mind. My attempts to speak French are scorned, so I revert to English. I find Paris to be expensive, dirty, crowded, unfriendly and ultimately disappointing. I realise with all the wisdom of my twenty years, that I have heaped many expectations on this city, that it could never be expected to meet.
Regardless, I vow never to return.
Returning to Paris
I make plans to travel to Paris several years later, whilst living in Europe as an expat. It’s obviously not my first choice of destination, but a good friend from home has been studying in France and I want to catch up with her. She, my friends who live in Switzerland and I decide to spend a weekend in the French capital, which happens to fall on my 26th birthday.
Despite having been out of study for years, I have the mentality of student and opt for the night bus, to save a little bit of cash. I finish work, grab some dinner and journey to the train station, where I board the very busy bus.
It is an experience I am keen never to repeat. Somewhere around Calais, I am hit with violent stomach cramps, which are as it transpires, the beginnings of food poisoning. I am in agony for the rest of the journey, unable to sleep. On arriving in Paris, I struggle along to my hotel, but am far too early for check-in. I find a nearby restaurant and sit with a cup of tea and a croissant (the carbiest thing I can find), waiting for 2pm or my cramps to subside, whichever comes first.
I spend the majority of the weekend sleeping off my sickness, but am able to venture out on my birthday, to the Catacombs and to Montmartre, where I indulge in a little secondhand shopping. The weekend is not a complete waste, but I have not been anymore endeared to the city.
Wandering the streets of Aix-en-Provence
One of my best friends is in France for a conference and I beg her to meet anywhere other than Paris. Fortunately, she is spending some time in the south of the country and we agree to rendezvous in Aix, a town in Provence.
She, my Swiss (well, Brazilian and Australian, but living in Switzerland) friends and I meet up in Aix and have a lovely few days, strolling through the streets, photographing the very picturesque buildings and eating our weight in delicious food. My admittedly now awful French is only met with disdain on one occasion – I even manage to have a whole conversation with one shop keeper (in English) about the pros and cons of city life. He lived in Paris and London for over ten years and has only just returned to Aix.
“I much prefer it here,” he tells me. “It’s quiet and pretty and the people are friendly.”
We only have one bad encounter, when we are verbally assaulted by a madman at lunch. He has pissed himself and stands in front of our table, unleashing a tirade of foul language upon us. It is all in French and I don’t really understand what he is saying, but I get the gist of it. People around us are indifferent and continue to eat their lunch – no one steps forward to help. Eventually, a waiter notices the commotion and leads the man away. I sigh, and think there’s always something.
Yet, despite that, I start to see the charm of this country and find myself unexpectedly starting to warm to France.
Falling for small town France
France is one of the destinations on my last whirlwind tour of Europe, before moving back to Australia.
My boyfriend and I spend a weekend in a small town in the south, where we wander the cobblestone streets of a nearby village, warm ourselves in front of a wood-fire oven, eat copious amounts of blood sausage, bread and cheese and drink quite a bit of wine.
And I finally get it. I have the experience that I’d been looking for, for a long time now. I find myself warming to France.
France will never be one of my favourite countries – there are too many other places that I travelled to over the last eight years that have found a permanent place in my heart. Yet, I don’t think I’d ever again feel so violently opposed to travelling there – especially when making a trip to the south.
And who knows. One day I might even have a wonderful time in Paris. Stranger things have happened!