Un voyage en France ...

In graduate school I faced the daunting task of passing two language exams, one language speaking and reading, the second language translating only.  I had gone to High School in Germany and studied German, but I was lousy at it.  The speaking test was with a professor of German for twenty minutes; the reading test was to explain a page of written German.  I learned later that “passing” was to speak and write at the level of an undergraduate with two-years of college German.  I survived, but to quote the German professor, gerade so(just barely).  “Barely passing” was a gift as far as I was concerned.

Now about the second language.  What language could I learn in time enough to get past the exam?  After spending a lot of time talking to other graduate students and in the library, I decided French would be my second language.  Many words in English were derived from French words; I figured studying French was the least painful of the alternatives.

The exam was to translate, with use of a dictionary, a page of French text.  After an hour (one of the longest in my life) and submitting the exam the French professor said I “got the gist of the story,” à peine (just barely).  Another gift.

Traveling in Europe today is much different than in the past; today virtually everyone speaks English (to some a sad commentary on the state of culture).  As I spent more time in Europe for business and pleasure, I decided I needed to work on my German language skills and achieve some level of fluency.  Up to this point I had over the years continued to work on my German, and after a few days in a German-speaking area could do most of the needful in fractured German.  I decided to turn myself into a full immersion German language school in either Munich or Zurich for a month or more.

Ellen’s father’s family had come to the United States from France via Quebec; French was the household language and Ellen has always wanted to learn to speak French.  Discussing my decision to go to a full immersion language course, Ellen said an acquaintance had recently done exactly that except that it was a French language school.  Furthermore, Ellen announced that she had decided she wanted to go to the same French language school as her acquaintance.  Decision time, do I go off to Zurich or Munich by myself or accompany Ellen?  The answer should be obvious …

Seattle to Charlotte to JFK to Heathrow to Nice and a day later, Sunday, we arrive at the apartment we had rented in Villafranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur, the French Riviera.  The next morning we turned ourselves into the Institut de Français for the full treatment (really not knowing what we had signed up for).  The Institut’s focus is on speaking French, speaking it correctly.

Not specifically planned, but we were getting in shape for skiing.  In elevation our apartment was just below the main street and there are 354 vertical steps from the main street up the school each morning … 15 minutes on a Stair Master.  Also, there are 354 steps down and, yes, I did count them.  There are about the same number of steps from our apartment down to the harbor, and back up.

The view from the garden at the Institut is truly amazing; looking out over the bay, la Rade de Villafranche-ser-Mer, to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.  Not a bad place at all to study French.

Our month in Villafranche and at the Institut was amazing and arduous.  Neither one of us has ever worked so hard at studying in our lives.  The first day at the Institut we were tested on our knowledge of French by one of the instructors … zip, nada, non, keiner, никто, ninguno, niente; “you’ll be with me in ‘Debutante Un’,” the rank beginner class, said Arnaud.   Our Debutante Un class was truly international; our classmates were from Japan, Singapore, the Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom, Croatia and the US.  The first day at the Institut was the last day we could speak English; from the second day to the end, only French.  There is a € 2 fine for each occurrence of getting caught speaking English; we were not caught but we did know where to find the nearest ATM.  We were encouraged to only speak French outside of the Institut as well; good luck with that after the strenuous learning day (we did try … sometimes).  The last day we were again tested; we both had improved significantly (from zero to a positive number was fabulous) in the crucible of intensity we had endured. 

Perhaps the best summation of our experience with respect to learning to speak French was “fire, ready, aim.”  We really had no idea what to expect beforehand.  In hindsight we concluded that a month at the Institut would have been more “valuable” if we had studied French for a year in advance of going to Villafranche.  The Institut program is, in our assessment, two years of college-level French compressed into a month … daily drinking from an immense firehose, one with high expectations.  We did learn a fair amount of French; how much really stuck remains to be seen.  Importantly, we learned about the structure of the French language, which makes continuing learning easier.  We also learned a lot about French culture and social norms.

The Well Fed Skier is not about language, but about food.  For food our month in Villafranche was truly an eye-opening experience, especially as we began to live more like the locals.

In France, eating is a leisurely experience.  It is a country where you’ll find buttery croissants, rich desserts and pastries on every corner.  On any given day, you would probably spot Parisians lingering for hours in café sipping wine with a plateful of fatty meat.  In Vail you can spot skiers lingering for hours at Garf’s or Pepi’s.  Observe people in ski-town restaurants, animated conversation over plates of food and wine; virtually no one is in a hurry to relinquish their table … very French-like.

The prevalence of obesity in the United States was 42.4% in 2017-2018.  From 1999-2000 through 2017-2018, the prevalence of obesity increased from 30.5% to 42.4%, and the prevalence of severe obesity increased from 4.7% to 9.2% (Center for Disease Control).  In 2014, 23.9% of French adults were clinically obese (World Health Organization).  While I could not find any statistics specifically about skier demographic, skiers appear less obese than the general population.  

You will notice that the French population is majorly slim and healthy while the other health-obsessed nations are dealing with obesity and heart diseases.  This is popularly called “the French paradox,” or here perhaps more appropriately “the skier paradox.”  It is a strange phenomenon where the French diet is relatively high on saturated fats, alcohol and meat and still it has relatively low incidence of lifestyle diseases, especially in comparison to America where healthy eating is the talk of the town.  Does this mean that skiers and snowboarders are basically French?  (Do not even attempt to answer this rhetorical question!)

In a French diet, the focus is more in the quality of ingredients and not the quantity.  Visit a French farmer’s market or local grocery; you will find locally grown fruits and vegetables, all organic and pesticide free, local cheeses, fresh fish, meats from pasture-raised animals; no preservatives.  The baguettes at the boulangerie are baked fresh daily.  These same food ingredients appear in the menu selections of French restaurants.  Does the local character of the food lead to the observed health effects?

The French do not eat a lot of processed foods.  People in France go to the grocery store 4 to 5 times per week; they buy food for a day or two of meals (Oui in France).  “The primary grocery shopper in U.S. households made an average of 1.6 shopping trips per week in 2019.”  (Statista)

Do obesity rates correlate with visits to the grocery store?  How often do you go to the market, the grocery store?

At the Institute our school day was 8:30 am to 4:45 pm.  It commenced with breakfast at 8:30 am; classes began at 9:00 am.  Breakfast comprised local yogurt, baguette, cheese, butter, jam, coffee or water (yaourt local, baguette, fromage, beurre, confiture et café ou eau).  Occasionally, we got hard boiled eggs.  At breakfast we randomly sat with other students and struggled, often mightily, to converse in French.

Lunch was noon to 1 pm, followed by more classes until 4:45 pm.  At lunch we had an instructor seated at each table to assure our assimilation of French social etiquette in French.  Even the second day we were expected to speak French when the instructor asked questions; of course, he or she always had questions, that’s why they were seated at the table.  We quickly learned how to ask to pass the water (Veuillez me passer l'eau.  Merci.).  Isn’t forced learning wonderful!

Over the four weeks every lunch menu was different; we learned the French names of foods we ate and we sampled a wide gamut of French foods.  All of the food was locally sourced and prepared at the Institut; no evidence of even a single takeout box.  In most of France the midday meal is the largest meal of the day.  Staying awake after lunch was sometimes difficult, although performance stress from being called upon does pump considerable adrenalin.

It could not be France or a French language school without a lesson, or two, about French wine.  Thankfully, some of Julien’s lecture was in English, and, yes, we did get to sample.

The Catholic holiday of Candlemas commemorates the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of baby Jesus and is celebrated on February 2nd.  We must give thanks to Gélasse the First, Pope during the 5th Century, whose gastronomical contribution to Christianity has remained a steadfast part of history.  Forty days after the birth of Jesus Christ, Gélasse was responsible for merging the celebration of the child with the pagan celebration of light, an old Roman ritual, a pagan feast when candles had to be lit at midnight as a symbol of purification.  The event was in the fashion of a grand banquet, illuminated in the dark days of February by candles … les chandelles … hence the name la Chandeleur also known as Fête de la Lumière or Jour des crêpes.  On February 2nd during laChandeleur, it is tradition to feast on “crêpes,” just like in the days of Gélasse.  Everywhere in France on this day, crêpes are “de rigueur” whether at home or in “crêperies.”  Thus, our education in French culture made it obligatory to learn how to make crepes ….  

According to legend, if you hold a coin in your writing hand and a frying pan in your other, flip a crepe and it lands flat, your family will be prosperous that year; this part we did not learn until later.  Crepes are also a tradition on “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras) before Ash Wednesday both in France and the US.

Breakfast, lunch, wine, crepe and other food lessons are provided as part of the Institute tuition.  You cannot leave the Institute without an assimilation of French culture, regardless of how well you speak French.

We soon settled into a routine.  After class at 4:45 pm we would walk down to the local Petit Casino, a “convenience store,” to buy food and a baguette for the next day or two.  The next stop was our apartment balcony to wind down from the intensity of the day with un peu de vinlefromage and charcuterie local.

The first Saturday in Villafranche the Institut sponsored a walking tour of the village, starting and ending at the Farmer’s Market, which each Saturday also became part of our routine.  Wandering through the stalls we were offered tastes and samples; fruits, légumes, olives, fromagefruit de mergelées, friandises tout (delicacies all).

We became accustomed to eating entirely differently from the way we ate at home.  We became aware that we ate less and enjoyed the tastes of eating more.  

Of course, our wine consumption was up significantly; how could it not be?  During our stay in Villafranche we were fortunate to visit Château d’Esclans for Rosé Provence.  Some of you may know “Whispering Angel,” which is one of six appellations from Château d’Esclans.

One of our fondest memories, both epicurean and joyful, was the local fromager (cheese monger) and les fromages.  Having appeared in front of his booth-on-wheels and having said bonjour, there was no way were to be allowed to depart without several packages of cheese.  This man could proverbially “sell ice cream to an Eskimo in the dead of winter,” and had been unleashed on the unsuspecting public.  We can only assume he was as insistent with his French customers as he was with us.  His completely saving grace was his assortment of cheese.  As we tasted each cheese and he learned what we liked and didn’t like, he honed in on the cheese we “had” to buy, and did.  Le fromager had a goat cheese from Corsica unlike any we had ever tasted, smooth, silky, neither bland nor rich, with a lingering taste on our tongues.  Yes, we bought half a kilogram; it never made it past Wednesday.  We would go back to Villafranche just to find le fromager and this cheese.

Do you know where the food you eat comes from, whether in a restaurant or at home?  Is the food local or has it been processed and transported from afar?  Do you read the ingredient labels?  Do you know what some of those long-syllable words mean?

One last comment about the Institut … this is the condition you get to teaching Debutant Un … just kidding.  Arnaud was fabulous; he moved us from “zero” to a positive number with dedication, humor and compassion.  Merci pour tout.  (Thank you for everything.)


A reminder, you can find prior posts in the archive on Substack.

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