After a long week of workshops, wandering and writing, I was glad to get away for the weekend to visit my French friend Caroline in Vichy. Although I had a slight hiccup at Gare Part Dieu with collecting my tickets – no thanks to a very unhelpful ticket attendant – the rest of the weekend was relaxing and stress-free. The last time I saw Caroline (other than Skype) was for New Year when she stayed chez moi in London for the New Year, so we had a lot to catch up on!
Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a flurry of beaming family members, parents and grandparents, who made me feel welcome straight away. I always think the best way to get to know French culture and way of life is spending time with a family. Once all the introductions were finished, it was time to get down to real business: la bouffe. Mealtimes are especially important in France. Whereas at home they are often rushed affairs, regarded more as a necessity and often a solitary event, in France meals at the table are an occasion. The French like to enjoy their food and to take their time – you may find yourself at the table for up to two hours. I became quite accustomed to French mealtimes during my year in France – placing my bread on the table instead on my plate and using it to mop up residue comes as second nature now. Caroline’s dad was very keen to make sure that my wine glass was always topped up and that I tasted every cheese possible seeing as I would be deprived of le bon fromage et vin after returning to England.
After lunch, Caroline took me on a tour of Vichy. For a small town, Vichy has a lot of history and heritage. The town centre reminded me a lot of Deauville with its chic boutiques, elegantly dressed dames and casinos. Vichy became a very fashionable and sophisticated town by the 19th century, frequented by the rich and famous, including Napoleon III. His regular stays transformed the centre, building landscaped parks and gardens à l’anglaise, boulevards, pavilions, casinos and an opera. Vichy is of course also well-known for its role in the Second World War and the Pétain regime during the Nazi occupation of France, which is commemorated by several monuments around the town.
We also visited one of Vichy’s thermal water sources where I got to taste water straight from the source – it was quite warm obviously but drinkable and it supposed to do your insides some good! A lot of the sources are now reserved for medical purposes and spa treatments. The sparkling mineral water is also supposed to have health benefits, with many brands treating their water to resemble Vichy water. The Lac d’Allier which runs through the town has now been artificially enlarged with berges (banksides) lined with bars, restaurants and play areas for children. We had a quick tour of the shops, particularly the sweet shops, where I picked up some famous pastilles and some other bonbons.
After a lot of walking we cooled down in the family swimming pool (one of the many benefits of living in the countryside) before getting ready for a barbeque with Caroline’s friends. I had a really great evening with her friends and family – merging the two is something I don’t do often at home. I was glad to hear that my level of French was still impressive after nearly a year back in England too! I got to learn quite a few expressions and words from the region and Lyon, as I very much speak Parisian French.
Once Caroline’s family retired for the evening the jeunes continued to chat, which resulted in a rather late night – luckily Sunday was a very chilled day which was not too taxing. I got to meet one of Caroline’s cousins and his girlfriend who live in Lyon, who had offered me a lift home in the evening. The day was pretty much spent à la table enjoying more food and wine, broken up with a walk around the lake. Caroline’s mum, being very friendly, took an Irish girl under her wing who was a fille au pair and brought her back to our group who were having a drink on a terasse. I was chuffed to hear that she thought that I was French at first before Caroline’s mum told her the truth! Although I could never fool a French person, this is not the first time I’ve managed to do so with a fellow Anglophone.
After the final supper, it was time to say my goodbyes before hitching a lift back to Lyon. A weekend à la française was definitely what I needed. This week is definitely getting heavier workwise – at first I thought we had more than enough time between 15 of us to get a guide together, but it has turned out to have been more of a challenge than I first thought!