The older of my two French host brothers arrived here in DC last night for a two-week stay with us in our apartment. His name is Yohan and he's 20 now--he was 13 (just turning 14) when I first arrived in France to live with his family for a year. I was 17. So I thought that I would write this week's Tuesday Retrospective about some of my time in France, in honour of Yohan's visit.
Even though I spent my entire senior year of high school in France, what I actually want to write about happened less than two years ago, in January 2006, when I went back to France to visit for the third or fourth time since my year there. My French family lives in Toulouse, which is in southwestern France, near the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. On this particular visit, we wound up driving out to the Pyrenees for a weekend to celebrate the birthday of a family friend. Someone had rented a huge chalet, and there were four or five families, most with young children. The chalet was literally right on the side of a mountain, with a giant, snow-covered slope behind it, leading down to a small stream. It was on a winding road in the middle of a tiny mountain village. It was all very quaint and picturesque, to the point of being cliché.
The part that I remember most distinctly is the Saturday afternoon of the weekend, which was when it was announced that we were all going snowshoeing. I was alarmed by this because I had never been snowshoeing but I suck at skiing, and also I was imagining walking on old-fashioned snowshoes that look like little wooden tennis racquets. But as it turned out, snowshoes these days are all modern, and look like short, wide skis. Ours were plastic and curvy and generally fancy.
Most of my time in France, while definitely foreign, didn't really feel typically French per se--it never felt like I was in some different world, wearing berets, eating brie, etc. Though of course some people did that. But France for me is just another place that is part of my extended home, and even though the language is different, the people are the same. The point being that when I pack to go visit my French family, I don't think, "Hmm, perhaps this time as an experience of all things French, I shall wind up on the side of a snowy mountain, and thus should pack accordingly." I had a coat, but it was a stylish city coat, not intended for sport. I hadn't brought snow pants or hiking boots or even sneakers, and my gloves were cashmere. What can I say? I am not a country mouse.
Anyway, I had to wear jeans, over which somebody zipped little water-resistant ankle protectors. I borrowed a pair of hiking boots from someone, probably a man, because I have really big feet. My French mother lent me a fleece and a pair of gloves, and I wore my own scarf. I was a mishmash, and the whole weekend feels like a mishmash in my memory, probably because there were so many people there whom I had never met before and whom I haven't seen since, and probably won't. I remember all sorts of people fluttering around me, lending me things and closing zippers and tightening my boots and measuring my snowshoes and everything else. It felt kind of like I would imagine preparing for your own wedding would feel.
I was worried that I would suck, or that I would be exhausted, or that I wouldn't be able to keep up and I would hold everyone else up. There were little kids with us, but even still, I was worried. But as it turned out, snowshoeing was not difficult. It was invigorating, and it was beautiful. You can go anywhere with snowshoes--you don't have to stick to a particular trail, and that means that you get to see all sorts of gorgeous views that you would never otherwise see. I was actually ahead of most of the group, with the exception of Yohan, the most athletic of all of us. He and I would go ahead of the others, then stop and talk and wait and take pictures. It was beautiful. It was amazing. It was purely French.
When we got back that night, we were all totally exhausted and damp and cold. And then, speaking of things that are purely French, we had a raclette for dinner. Seriously, read the Wikipedia description--it describes exactly what we had. You cook potatoes on the top part of the raclette dish while melting cheese in the bottom part. Then you dip your potatoes in the cheese and eat them. You also have tons of different meat--sausage, ham, prosciutto-- that you dip in the cheese. You just eat and eat and eat. It was a meal unlike any that I've had before or sense, but it was the perfect ending to a day of snowshoeing. And of course, there was wine. I told you it was French.
You can see the full set of photos from that trip here.
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