France: Qu’est-ce que c’est?

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”. I was inquiring as to what my new boss had just ordered for me, staring at a plate of what appeared to be a large slab of slimy meat congealed in brown gravy.

It was the end of June, one week after finishing my exams, and I had fled Britain for a tiny, medieval village in the south-west of France called Beynac. Several months previously I had decided on a whim to apply to be an au pair, hoping it would be a relatively easy way to earn a bit of money while escaping England for a couple of months. So there I was, having my first meal with the family that was to adopt me into their lives for the summer, trying to understand what exactly was in front of me.

Amongst the ocean of French slang I grasped that it was a local delicacy and that I had to try it. The only catch was they were only willing to tell me what it was after I’d eaten it. I had been open-minded, but now was getting a little suspicious. Not wanting to live up to the French nickname for us British (roast-bif), or meet their expectations of us only eating fish and chips, I decided to brave this unappetising meal. To my happy surprise it was quite delicious. Having lived off Tesco reduced-price meat and dubious college meals for the past year, I relished the tender meat. “Delicieux”, I announced. Then they told me: it was tongue.

I laughed, and finished my meal. That’s what I was here for; to taste French cuisine. I soon realised it’s not all about crisp baguettes and gooey camembert! This was to be the first of many experiences of French cooking and I was not disappointed. Most evenings Tom (the nine year old boy I was looking after) and I would lay the table before his parents got home. After they’d prepared some culinary delight, we’d spend an hour or two at the table, chatting and eating. The locally sourced delights included pâté and a never-ending supply of patisseries, in seemingly endless flavours. But it wasn’t the type of food so much as the whole event that I relished the most. It was like going to formal every night, only I drank a glass of wine rather than a bottle and my attire was far from formal.

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Despite them getting up at 6am every morning and me being up at 8 when Tom woke, alcohol was always a part of the evening routine: a glass of red one night, prosecco the next. The French really do grasp the concept of drinking to moderation that I have rarely witnessed in Britain. Even the young French people I met always ordered a ‘demi’ of beer rather than a pint. They laughed at me when I questioned this; after all it is cheaper to buy a pint than two ‘demis’. It was refreshing to drink alcohol, have a lively conversation, and remember all of it the next day-plus (for the most part) I was able to wake up at 8 without requiring a small first aid box and all the coffee in Cardews.

Often Tom (the nine year old boy I was looking after) was allowed a sip of his parent’s beverage of choice while I looked on in mild amusement. One evening he took things a little further than usual and grabbed the bottle himself to pour some into his glass. This was thoroughly encouraged by Dad (apparently a small splash would put him off) but Mum gave her son a firm look: he hesitated. Then we suddenly realised he’d picked up a bottle of whiskey rather than wine and Mum vetoed it: wine flows freely, but spirits are still out of bounds for minors even in libertine France.

Another benefit to lengthy evening meals was the improvement to my language skills. It turned out there was only so much French I could learn from a nine-year old by himself (although several nine-year olds made for a hilarious listening exercise.) However, listening to two adults in addition was far more challenging, especially when the teenage stepbrothers came for a couple of weeks. My bilingual godmother assured me my French was “good – for an English person”. But I understood little for the first fortnight except on a one-to-one basis. A tsunami of words peppered with slang would bombard my ears every night for the first few weeks. I went to bed with my head spinning full of half-understood jokes and conversations. But gradually words become phrases and phrases conversations. I’ve never been one to sit back and passively listen. So soon I found myself finding the confidence to join in, even gaining a small smatter of laughter when I attempted to use French humour.

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If you’re hoping to improve your fluency and want to experience a snapshot of life in a foreign country, I would 100% recommend au pairing. My only advice? Ensure you not only like, but love kids; five days a week starts to take its toll on even the most enthusiastic of babysitters! It’s not all about relaxed evenings and tasty food, dipping into the free fridge whenever you feel like it. I did have to learn how to drive on the right side of some very narrow and windy French roads and be responsible for a small child: one who continually tried to swim across the river Dordogne while I wasn’t watching.

But the opportunities outside of the host family are truly endless. On my weekends off I visited more cosy French towns than I care to remember, met plenty of locals, some of whom I’ve been to visit since. And if nothing else, I’ve achieved one of my life goals. I can now hold a French conversation with a handsome stranger, bedecked in a polo and smoking a Sobranie in a crowded, noisy bar and understand (almost) every sweet nothing whispered in my ear.