Travel France: Keeping a French Promise to Myself

November 3, 2010
Travel France: Tips & Advice

When I was seventeen, I decided that the only thing I wanted to do was spend a day on the beach in southern France. I was itching for a getaway from my rather average, landlocked life in Colorado. Having already spent five years learning French, I could tell I was about to reach a plateau with the language classes in America. It was time to head to France.

Craving a vacation and bored with the exhausting school-and-w0rk routine, I decided to study abroad in southern France for a semester. I found Pau, a city of 80,000 located in the southwestern corner of France. I spent months filling out applications and paperwork, buying travel essentials, taking out loans, and even driving 17 hours to L.A. to get a visa. By the time I left the U.S. in September, I was almost numb to the idea of spending three and a half months in a foreign country. But no matter how many different situations I predicted for Pau, my actual experience has, of course, been nothing like what I anticipated pre-departure.

I was never much of a traveler and this was my first time being forced to speak something other than English. My four-day tour of Paris revealed that most Parisians will speak English to you (even if you try to speak French to them), but Pau is different. English is more a part of the formal education system and less common in everyday speech.

Luckily, my seven to eight years of French have given me the confidence to communicate, but from the moment I arrived, I realized how little French I actually knew. I didn’t even know the word for “spoon.” At first, it was almost impossible to follow dinner table conversations with my host family. It’s slowly becoming easier to keep up with rapid street French-and while I’m still utterly in love the language even more than I was in seventh grade-I find it difficult to shop for groceries when I’m not sure what’s in the packages.

Even trickier than following conversations has been keeping a tab on my near-anaphylactic food allergies. I have written the names of all problematic nuts and seeds (in French) on the inside cover of my pocket dictionary. Although I had a minor accidental encounter with a cashew at an Indian restaurant, so far this has been a great way to let restaurants know about my needs.

Aside from allergies and mystery labeling, the food in France has been wonderful. Duck is a regional specialty in Pau, and I believe boulangeries (bakeries) are the most common business. There is no such thing as bad cheese. The wine is cheap-around 5 Euros for a decent bottle. There’s a local market every Wednesday and Saturday morning that sells fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses.

The problem is that I don’t know how to make any of the regional dishes. My host parents have shown me how to make tarte aux pommes (apple tart) and duck, but when I go to the grocery store or market, I have no idea what I should buy. I considered myself a good cook back in the States, but here, I really don’t know what I’m doing. Still, I have forgone many opportunities to buy kitschy trinket souvenirs in favor of eating at restaurants and trying as many different foods as possible.

Pau is located an hour from the Pyrenees mountain range and an hour from the Atlantic coast. Of course, the mountains are not a rare sight for someone from Colorado, but the beach is a different story. Soon after I arrived in Pau, I took a trip to the beach town of St. Jean-de-Luz with my study abroad group. Nothing in France has matched my daydreams–except that day. The fine sand, the overwhelming blue of the water, the white buildings lining the beach…it was exactly as I had imagined it at seventeen. And it was in those brief hours in St. Jean-de-Luz that I experienced study abroad as more than a chance to get away. The sand had become my reward for planning something and following through with it. The ocean was a goal attained. The salty air was confirmation that I can have anything I want in this world.

That was something I never dreamed I would find.

When I was seventeen, I decided that the only thing I wanted to do was spend a day on the beach in southern France. Here's my travel France story.

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