My friend Leanne just departed for southern France to visit her cousins. She couldn't help worrying about the recent terror attacks in Paris and Nice, wondering if she should alter her plans. We talked about not wanting to let that sort of fear paralyze us. Because doing so would be letting them win. And it would be a recipe for remorse.
It's often said that travel can be a tool for building cross-cultural bridges. When we meet and get to know people from other cultures or countries, we come to understand them a little better. We often find common ground. The more we understand others, the less likely we are to want to cause them any harm and the greater the chances we'll actually rally together in the face of hardship.
So, it's to Aveyron, France for Leanne while I must be content reliving my memories from our past trip. The experience revealed some surprising points of connection between the south of France and my homeland in western Canada.
We enjoyed a gorgeous drive past brilliant fields of lilacs and sunflowers before arriving at the village of Onet L'Eglise in the southern province of Aveyron. Leanne's cousin JP and his wife Laurence welcomed us to their spacious property with its lovely home, large patio and outdoor pool. It was just the kind of place I'd imagined in my south-of-France dreams.
There was a flurry of kissing as we greeted the family, including their teen-aged kids. Each person was given not one, not two, but three kisses on alternating cheeks. Even those of us (i.e. me!) who were meeting for the first time. And throughout the week, this whole ritual would be repeated again before bed, upon waking, and basically any time someone arrived or departed.
It was the sweetest thing, and it reminded me of the hello and goodbye kissing that happens on my French Canadian Mom's side of the family at home. In our case, it's only once per cheek. As an awkward tween/teen, I found the obligation of kissing my aunts and uncles uncomfortable. In my now-adult years, I've been (mostly) able to leave the squeamishness behind and enjoy the expression of family affection. In fact, at times, the lack of kissing on my Dad's side sometimes feels strange in comparison.
Before setting out on a mini-tour of some towns in the area, we picked lavender from the yard. JP placed it in the car vents so it became a natural air freshener. An aromatic way to set the mood for the day.
We first stopped at Salles-la-Source, a tiny village centred around a small church. It was quite sleepy, with barely a soul to be seen. We admired a pretty little waterfall where droplets of water shimmered and sparkled in the sunshine.
Conques is probably the best known town in the area because of the Catholic pilgrims who visit en-route to Santiago de Campostela. Medieval cobbled streets wind up and down the hillside. Many are too narrow for vehicles, so much of the town is pedestrian-only.
JP proclaimed himself our 'super guide', pronounced 'super-geed' for the full French accent effect. He took us to all of the best viewpoints in and around town. There were flowers in their full-bloomed August glory adorning stone fences and window boxes. And of course, there was a grand cathedral. It was massive, with a majestic beauty derived more from its simplicity and scale than any ornate design.
Our last stop was Belcastel, one of the official most beautiful villages in France. Since I haven't been to most of the other French villages, I can't confirm or deny the claim. I can say that Belcastel was most charming with its river valley location, shady trees, centuries-old bridge and imposing chateau built into the steep hillside.
During our drive, I learned some useful French phrases. It soon became clear that Je doit faire une pee pee would be essential to memorize for future travels in French-speaking locales. Then there was Quel bordel! The phrase means what a disaster, but literally translates to what a bordello. That was just plain fun to say, so I did at every opportunity. Someone driving too slow on the motorway -- quel bordel! The lavender falling out of the car vent -- well, you know. Another disaster.
Life at the lake
JP's family has a cottage at a nearby lake. It's one of a small grouping of holiday cabins right on the lakefront. Many of their friends and relatives have cottages there too, so everyone seemed to know everyone else.
There was a round of kissing as we met the extended family before taking a walk around the community. We stopped by the tiny bar where we encountered a stereotypical French scene. Five older gentlemen were playing a game of cards while enjoying small glasses of pastis, a popular aperitif. They were decked out in jaunty berets and cardigans, despite the summer heat.
It was time for our own apero - a 'happy hour' of aperitifs and snacks - outside in the late afternoon sun. There was much laughter and teasing, most of which went by in such fast French that I couldn't follow along. But what did that matter when I was sipping a lovely drink in the French countryside? C'est la vie.
Laurence treated us to homemade crêpes for dinner. The thin and delicate creations were equally heavenly with Nutella, sugar and lemon or raspberry jam. There were no healthy vegetables in sight, but much like cottage life at home, rules and routines are disregarded when at the lake. It's vacances.
Touring the lake by boat the next day was strangely similar to being on a lake back home in Saskatchewan on a summer weekend. The forested coastline, sun-reflecting waves, buzzing of motorboats, windblown hair and hoots of holiday delight were just the same.
The kids took turns showing off their water-skiing prowess as we cheered them on from our comfortable towel-enveloped positions at the back of the boat. Eventually we stopped in the middle of the lake for a refreshing swimming session, shrieking with shock-glee as we plunged into the cold water. Some of the greatest summer pleasures are the same no matter where you are.
Morning in Rodez
JP and Laurence brought us to the Rodez market to shop for our final evening's dinner. Melons were prodded, cheeses were sniffed and the ripest tomatoes pointed out to the vendor to place into shopping bags. We managed to secure a few tasty samples of pâtés, jams and other food samples, in between stops to inhale the scents of snipped herbs, warm bread and freshly cut flowers.
While in town, we took a peek inside the impressive Gothic cathedral. We were lucky to catch a pounding pipe organ rehearsal in progress. I could feel the vibrations in my chest as the organist hammered out the chords - powerful stuff that surely frightens the temptation of sin out of most anyone.
The church was in the midst of updating some of its stained glass windows, so there were traditional designs contrasting in an odd way with some new modern-looking creations. I wondered if the new designs were stirring up debate among parishioners.
Back at home, we hopped into the pool to beat the afternoon heat. The boys entertained us with their competition to see who could do the best 'gros bomb' (cannonball). It was impossible to choose a winner, so a tie was declared. At least until the next day.
A most memorable meal
JP's friend, owner of a local wine shop, brought a few different bottles to sample over dinner. Our appetizer was grilled sardines with fleur de sel, paired with a crisp local white. The fish were crunchy and salty, a surprisingly addictive appetizer. Next we enjoyed a beautiful salad of the ripe tomatoes and fresh mozzarella we'd picked up from the market, paired with another white wine.
For the main course, our hosts treated us to a regional specialty called aligot - a mixture of mashed potatoes, garlic, cream and cheese. It was incredibly delicious and not altogether unfamiliar. The flavours were similar to pyrogies - that Ukrainian import staple of the Canadian prairies. The aligot was even served with sausage, another similarity to its Ukrainian sister dish. The meal ended with warm fruit cobbler drizzled with crème fraîche and (of course) more wonderful French cheese!
One last midnight dip in the pool topped off the evening. We sipped digestifs and gazed at the stars while floating on blow-up loungers and reflecting on our visit. It was a lovely way to end our last day in Aveyron.
From the small town hospitality to the food and summertime rituals, it was clear that the French and us Canadians have more similarities than differences. Thanks in large part to the generosity and spirit of our charming hosts, the visit gave me a feeling of solidarity with the people of southern France.
I hope Leanne's return to the region will be full of blissful days and nights like those of our last trip. I also hope this beautiful area and others like it all over the world remain fear-free for centuries to come.
À la prochaine (until next time).