I’m back in St Jean de Sixt now after a month away from France. Visiting Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria and Greece, I planned ahead to fit in as much action and relaxation time as possible. I expected I would look forward to coming home to France by the end of the whirlwind tour since I moved to the French Alps for the fantastic lifestyle. As the end of the holiday approached, I found myself looking forward to being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet once more, which is not possible on the Greek islands I visited, but not much else.
So what changed? I love living in France, but something bothered me about returning. At first, I thought it was just disappointment about the end of such a great holiday. I had seen amusing signs, eaten Sacher torte at Hotel Sacher, and basked in the warmth of the Greek sun. However, I’d experienced some truly terrible tourist traps that should have made me want to go back to reliable France: but I didn’t. So what was it?
The warmth of the locals in almost every country I visited made me realise how cold the French culture can be at times. Where I’d be tutted and spoken to in French in a tourist shop if I were to hand over a €50 note for a €2 pen in France, I was told in other countries that it was fine in English while the shopkeeper painlessly handed over my change. When lost, locals were happy to help. One even called a friend when he didn’t know the answer. More than one hotel owner gave me fruit from the garden, and one insisted on squeezing fresh orange juice for my partner and I because we looked hot. No charge. The fish spa man let us have our toes nibbled for more than half an hour even though we’d only asked for 20 minutes and it was late in the evening. He insisted we stay longer, saying his fish were hungry anyway, and that he enjoyed hearing about life in the mountains. We offered to pay more, but he wouldn’t accept it.
The level of helpfulness, particularly in Greece, was a welcome break from the uptight culture of France, where every single tiny action must be discussed for at least half an hour before anybody does anything. Car hire is no problem in Greece: “If I’m not here when you return it, just leave the keys under the floor mat,” one man said, directing us to leave the car in the same no standing zone it was parked in when we collected it. Most of all, I didn’t feel the need to apologise for being in ‘their’ country. In France, even now that I speak fluent French, I still use language that tries to win over the locals, and I still smile out of gratitude when a local shopkeeper smiles at me when I enter. It was pure relief and a real holiday not having to consider this.
On top of all that, the food options for a vegetarian were far broader in each country than they are in the French Alps. I did not have to base my meals around cheese, and I felt ten times healthier for it. Having so much choice on a menu was almost daunting but very welcome.
Returning was actually not a big deal in the end. The first stop was the bakery, where I picked up a properly crunchy baguette and a much-missed pain au chocolate. The shop assistant smiled. The use of ‘bof‘ has returned to my everyday vocabulary, and I now realise that I’m so used to the shrugging and tutting that I feel right at home once more.
I can’t wait to go back to Greece though.