Last weekend, I escaped Paris to visit my friend Laura’s horse farm in the south of France. It was a weekend of muddy wellies, Earl Grey, good friends and big laughs.
Laura, who hails from the north of England, has an English mother and French father who run a horse-riding school near Limoges. And even though I was staying in the heart of French horse country, I honestly felt like I was in England, from the endless cuppas to the delightful colloquialisms of the north.
Here are my favorite moments from my weekend away.
Exploring little French towns
The nearest village, Confolens, has all the trappings of a typical French town: the church steeple rising above the buildings, the oh-so-French shutters, the little specialized shops like the boulangerie and charcutier.
But was truly makes Confolens special is the beautiful bridge across the riverfront which I photographed incessantly. One thing I’ll miss about France is stumbling upon such picturesque towns that no one else has ever heard of. How can this not be a tourist destination?
My Very First Fish and Chips
After a bit of sight-seeing we stopped by the local chip shop which stuck out like a sore Anglo thumb in such a French town. Though I was iffy about trying a dish I had previously deemed “grease on grease”, I was strongly urged to taste the cod. “Here they do a real northern crust,” said Laura’s mother.
Evidently I was very excited to try fish and chips…
The verdict? Delicious. As a seafood lover with a hot-fries-and-Heinz guilty pleasure, I really enjoyed it, though afterwards all I wanted a long nap and a shower.
During the meal we started talking about the comfort of eating food from your home country after a long trip away. When asked what I most missed from the states, I admitted, “I know this is a total cliché but sometimes I would just really like a good burger.” True dat, y’all.
One of my French bucket list items was to buy a set of old-fashioned champagne glasses. But due to budgeting concerns for my up-coming trip and the fact that I don’t technically have a residence, I decided not to purchase the beautiful set pictured below. Saving up sucks.
But we did stumble upon some other treasures like a Mad Hatter top hat…
and fashion magazines from the 1920s. And even though we didn’t buy anything, it was still fun to come across treasures and trinkets from another era.
Getting a Taste of Farm Life
Laura’s farm is a veritable menagerie with chickens, ponies, horses, donkeys, pigs, doves, dogs and cats. I loved being able to spend a few days getting some one-on-one time with the animals and breathing some fresh country air into my lungs.
Hearing the War Stories of a 90-Year Old French WWII Vet
One of the highlights of the trip was chatting with Laura’s surrogate grandfather, Georges, over pineau and madeleines. After offering us a drink, Georges told us about the tribulations he had faced as a young soldier fighting the Germans, or as he called them, the “Boschs.”
The most horrific thing Georges told us about was the massacre in the nearby village Oradour-sur-Glane. On June 10th, 1944, four days after D-Day, a German Waffen-SS company locked up several hundred women and children in the town church and burned it to the ground. Any who tried to escape the church were then met with machine gun fire. The men were brutally murdered in several nearby barns and then burned as well.
“I could smell the burning bodies from my house,” George told us.
When my friends told Georges that I was American, he gasped. “Une vraie americaine?” A real American? He then proceeded to tell me how grateful he was for the Americans because they had “dropped parachutes full of chickens and supplies” during the war.
And though he told us that he had seen many miseries in his life, it amazed me that Georges was such a jovial person, laughing and drinking with such a broad smile on his face.
Before we left, he gave my two English friends many kisses, “Mes petites anglaises ! Vous m’avez sauvé la vie.” My little English girls! You saved my life.
Home-cooked, Farm-fresh Meals
Over the weekend we demolished lots of goodies, like a large jar of homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam and lord knows how much baguette. And while I’m lucky to enjoy lots of home-cooked meals here in France, it was wonderful dining on home-cooked food straight from the farm.
And never in my life have I looked up from washing dishes and seen five horses galloping past- country life at its finest.
One of my favorite adrenaline rushes in the world is the one you get from galloping on a horse, so it was such a joy to be able to ride all weekend! But I must say I have never felt like such a Yankee as when I grabbed the reins with one hand, as you do with a Western saddle.
Laura has been riding since she was a little girl and has competed for years, so it was fun to finally she her jump. And by the end of the weekend I was finally getting the hang of riding with an English saddle.
Good Times with Good Friends.
Over the year I’ve spent in Paris, I’ve made some absolutely incredible friends. And though it pains me to admit, I only have a few weeks left with them. (At least until we cross paths again!)
So it was wonderful to spend some quality time together without watching the clock: rocking out to Dizzee Rascal in the car, strolling the countryside with the dogs and munching on orange-flavored biscuits and tea while watching Spice World on VHS.
In more ways than one, this weekend was a breath of fresh air. It was exactly what I needed.
Have you ever visited the French countryside?
While I may not be the sportiest/most adventurous of bloggers, I am really into tennis and used to play varsity in high school. So when a family friend visiting Paris asked me, “Do you like tennis? How would you like my extra ticket to the French Open quarterfinals?” I actually had tears in my eyes. (more…)
I headed to Vaux le Vicomte on a rainy Monday with my French host family, and if I were a Lonely Planet guide I would proclaim it to be, “The perfect day trip for those who tire of the crowds at Versailles and Giverny.” (Ahem, me.)
And while the château is opulently beautiful, its most interesting feature is its dark history.
Nicolas Fouquet, minister of finance to Louis XIV, bought the château in 1658. He commissioned the legendary trio of architect Louis Le Vau, landscape architect André le Nôtre, and painter-decorator Charles Le Brun to carry out construction, and they spent four years meticulously building one of the most lavish countryside estates France had ever seen.
To secure the necessary lands for the enormous gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages and then hired the 18,000 villagers to build the château.
Once the castle and gardens were finally completed, Fouquet hosted a grand soirée to show off his grand new home and gardens. Naturally, he invited his boss, Louis XIV.
Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a king known for his capricious jealousy. Once he laid eyes on the garden he was so overcome with envy that days later he imprisoned Fouquet for life, arresting him on the charge of “misappropriation of funds.” To add insult to injury, he then hired Le Vau, Le Brun and La Nôtre to begin a new project together – the château de Versailles!
As Voltaire famously wrote, “At six in the evening on August 17, Fouquet was the king of France; at two in the morning he was nothing.” « Le 17 août, à 6 heures du soir, Fouquet était le roi de France ; à 2 heures du matin, il n’était plus rien. »
And while the interior of the château is beautiful, the real treasure is the gardens. They are what inspired Versailles, after all.
I was kicking myself because I had only brought my 50mm camera lens, meaning I was unable to get a panoramic shot of what makes these gardens so magnificent- the optical illusion effect called anamorphosis abscondita that Le Nôtre so smartly employed. Luckily Wikipedia claims you can only notice the effect in person, but still.
So what happened to the château in the end? After years of neglect, it was going to be demolished. But in the late 1800s a sugar baron purchased the estate and spent 30 years completely restoring it. The fifth generation of the same family looks after the castle today.
When I was leaving the château something really bizarre happened- I stumbled upon a group of Buddhist monks dressed in yellow robes. While to most this would just feel like, well, stumbling upon a group of Buddhist monks, to me it felt like a symbol of my time in France coming to a close and the beginning of a new chapter in Southeast Asia. How’s that for poetic foreshadowing?
Overall I really enjoyed the château. And you hear this Louie? I think the gardens are even better than Versailles. So there.
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Château de Vaux le Vicomte
77950 Maincy, France
Tel : +33 (0)126.96.36.199.90 – Fax : +33 (0)188.8.131.52.85
Open everyday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed December 25 and January 1. See more information here. Also the château is a pricey excursion at 16 euros per adult, but family, student and senior discounts are offered.
Also, the castle restaurant sells the world’s best salted butter caramel yogurt ever to grace the earth. Get some if you’re there. Yogurt au caramel au beurre salé. SCEA La Ferme du Manège 76640 Hattenville, Normandie. 02 35 96 71 23
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P.S. This is my first post in which I used Lightroom for photo-editing, which I got on a free one-month trial. The trial’s almost up so can you notice a difference or is it not worth purchasing? Merci!
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Spring is an undeniably beautiful phenomenon, especially when you live in Paris. After the long, overcast winter the sun finally shines, the flowers burst open in color and the city-dwellers stroll Paris’ many parks feeling a little… lighter. As I learned this spring, there’s nothing like feeling sun on your face after enduring months of living under eternally overcast skies. (more…)
Colmar- the little Alsatian town that truly made me feel like I had stumbled into a storybook. Or maybe a film set. Because where else can you find princess turrets, rainbow-colored half-timber houses and romantic canals all in a few square miles? (more…)
Strasbourg can best be summed up by an argument I had with German-born Julika, of Sateless Suitcase, while walking the streets of the city.
Me: This town seriously looks just like Germany!
Julika: No way, it’s totally French.
Me: But look at the half-timbered houses!
Julika: Have you seen the balconies? (more…)
So during our whirlwind road-trip down the French Atlantic Coast to La Rochelle, Île de Ré and Biarritz, we decided to take a vacation inside of a vacation in Foie Gras Land, more commonly known as the Dordogne.
The Dordogne is one of the many gastronomic heartlands in France, that specializes in foie gras, duck and truffles. (All of which I adore, for your information.) After so much travel, we were all ready for a few days of fluffy beds, relaxation and good old-fashioned gluttony. Let’s not forget- my poor mother drove a rental car from Paris to Spain! (more…)
When Charles Dickens wrote the line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he must have been living abroad. In fact, there’s a strong chance he was working in Paris as an au pair.
Over the past year I’ve learned that expat life certainly has its ups and downs, which somehow feel stronger than the vicissitudes of life back home. When things go wrong, it’s extra frustrating- the French post lost your box of summer clothes, you can’t figure out how to unlock your phone and your banker doesn’t speak a word of English (who, ironically, is the one person in France who wants to speak to you in French). And all the while your family’s across the ocean and it can take a long time to set up a network of friends and acquaintances.
Life abroad can get frustrating and lonely very quickly. (And in those moments, god bless Gchat.)
But the highs are also so much higher. Everything’s new and exciting. What is commonplace to a local, (take for example, going to the bakery each day for a baguette), to you is quaint and so French.
But as always in life, the people are ultimately more important than the place. What I love most about living abroad is the other expats you meet: funny, fascinating individuals from all over the world who are always game for another shot of gin. Who share the same philosophies about life and youth and adventure, and pushing yourself to live live live as much as possible. They’re people with stories more compelling than mine could ever be: engineers and foreign diplomats and journalists working overseas, born in Seoul but raised in Warsaw and London. They’re bankers who dropped everything to be pastry chefs, midwestern girls with big dreams who just wanted to soak up Paris. They get me. I get them.
In darker moments I feel insecure about my choices, especially in comparison to others back home. I don’t have a steady career or a boyfriend or a lease. (And I definitely don’t have a baby.) And what’s worse? I don’t want any of those things just yet. For now, I just want to be free. I want to drink buckets in the streets of Bangkok and slurp oysters fresh from the French Atlantic. I want to look back and regret nothing. I want to be old and wrinkled and realize that even though I made mistakes in life, I can say, “You know what, I lived.” I may have traipsed around the rues of Paris in states unfit for public eyes and told a French boy to “embrasse-moi” in the middle of the road, but damn it, I lived.
Sometimes I find it strange that while I have no money, but I’ve never been happier in my life. My future’s shaky but I don’t really care. I just want to see and roam and drink and soak up all of the life around me. Because you’re only young once- and sadly, this age is so, so short.
On most days, I find myself smiling without noticing. I spend most days doing nothing much at all: writing, reading, practicing my baby French and cooking classic French grandmother recipes. I check out new art exhibitions, I write my newspaper column, I drink sangria in backyards. I sip noisettes in cafés as I writes lists for everything I want my life to be.
Which isn’t to say I’m sick of being the help, and frankly my job drives me absolutely insane on certain occasions. (Living where you work and working 6 days a week? Not so fun.)
My next plan is to go to Asia, as you may have read. I have a one-way ticket booked to Hong Kong and I’ll come home when I run out of money. Beyond that, I have no idea where life will take me. That thrills and scares me at the same time, because I have a fear that Chicago will suck me back in and I will go back to my happy but deeply ordinary life. Ideally I would keep living abroad as an expat, learning about the world one metropolis at a time.
I hope this post doesn’t come off as arrogant- it has taken me a long time to get to this point (let’s just say the winter was very long). But for what it’s worth, I’m loving life in Paris and will be sorry to take the next step.
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As much as I adore traveling by train in Europe, there’s nothing like having the flexibility of a car when you’re exploring a new region. So when my mom and sister flew over to Europe to visit me, we decided to renting a car was the only logical option for our week-long trip around France and Spain.
And unsurprisingly, it wasn’t cheap.
On my my fairly budgeted French road trip with my mom and my sister, I knew there was one destination where we would have to go all out- Biarritz.
Biarritz is a French resort town known for its glitzy past as a 19th century seaside destination, when it was graced by European royals such as Queen Victoria and American royals such as the Vanderbilts. (more…)