Cheese, chestnuts and snowy Christmas cheer

2010-12-14 00:00

Lara Williams spent last Christmas as an exchange student in a village near Lyon, France...

“AAH, oui.” In the expectant silence that followed the burst of rapid, and, to me, incomprehensible French, I glanced at the dark-haired women next to me, hoping that my response was appropriate.

Despite my years of learning French at school, I had not the faintest idea what my host mother was saying, and the atmosphere in the car became increasingly awkward as I punctuated each of the following silences with yet another, “Aah, oui.”

The whole experience was surreal. After months of expectant excitement and last minute purchases of thermal underwear, I was finally in France, travelling with an unknown woman, to an unknown village where an unknown family waited in a house that, for the next two months, I would call home.

During my last few days before leaving South Africa, I had received a bit of information about my host family. By far the most fascinating were the descriptions given by the family of the members. Reading their likes, dislikes, hobbies and interests was rather like reading the sketches of characters in a play. And, indeed, the variety had all the makings of a good story. I would have an animal- loving sister and two younger brothers — one a trombone player, the other a sports fanatic. My host father loved history and telling good jokes (worryingly no mention of whether he or his listeners classified the jokes) while my host mother was an environment-conscious gardening enthusiast.

With my matric exams done and dusted, my return to school, the institution that, it appeared, I could not escape, was both horribly ironic and rather daunting. Eager to blend in, I soon learnt to greet by kissing on alternate cheeks. I was rather proud of my adjustment, until I leaned in to greet a new-found friend, who drew back in shock and told me sternly that one does not kiss someone that one has already seen that day. I apologised meekly, and took great care from that point to keep a mental log of my kisses. Perhaps, I thought, at least in this case, that it would be better to receive than to give.

One of my concerns was that I’d go through two months of a French winter without seeing snow. Little did I need to worry. After a few meagre snowfalls, the real deal arrived. I sat entranced at my window, watching the drops of snow become fat snowflakes which whirled and swirled, dancing in gusts of wind. The next day, my host father set off cautiously for work, but the rest of us were less successful. We sat huddled in the house, watching, with due appropriateness, the film Ice Age. In the late afternoon, we got a call saying that my host father, on his way home, was stuck in snow. Could we come and help? Trussed up like two Michelin men, my host mother and I answered the call to duty and bravely ventured forth. The van was soon located and we set to work; clearing a pathway with a spade. Finally, it was able to shudder forward, and we drove home invigorated by the adventure.

Another of my concerns was the language barrier. Despite my knowledge of tenses and reasonable repertoire of vocabulary, I thought, miserably, that the first week or two were much like having to give a constant series of unprepared orals. I did not, however, have a choice. The majority of my classmates were very reluctant to speak to me in English, and, although it may have been because I was placed in a class who had taken the scientific rather than the linguistic route at school, they were open in their dislike of English.

English lessons were clearly very frustrating for the poor teacher who fought hour-long battles trying to eke out the pupils’ participation. I was, however, determined to master their language. Understanding the lessons was much easier than understanding the conversations of my friends, who spoke in bewilderingly fast streams of slang, omissions and contractions, and it was a relief when I began to grasp some meaning in their speech. Immersion in a language is, without doubt, the best way to hone one’s skills.

I always enjoyed watching people’s reactions on hearing my nationality. When I told one woman that I come from South Africa, she looked at me with avid interest before replying, “Yes, but which country?” The misconceptions and general ignorance of this country were also frequently apparent. Walking home with my host brother one Friday, he remarked on how happy he was that the weekend had finally arrived.

Perhaps I agreed too heartily with him, as he promptly turned to me and asked in astonishment, “Don’t you have weekends in South Africa?”

Christmas in France, as I experienced it, was not just a one-day event. Christmas Eve was spent at home and after Mass we sped home to open the presents, laid out on the recipients’ shoes around the small pine tree, and feasted on salmon pie in front of the fire. On Christmas morning, we packed up and drove for many hours to my host mother’s father’s farm, where we had Christmas lunch and stayed until December 27. All three days were celebrated with enormous lunches lasting several hours. Over those three days, we talked and ate ourselves to exhaustion over plates of foie gras, chestnuts, endless amounts of cheese and chocolate.

What remained with me from my French Christmas, and indeed from my whole stay in France, lingered, however, long after the tastes had faded.

It was not the snow, the cheese or the chestnuts that made my exchange the experience that it was, but the people.

From the school-bus driver, who was always interested in hearing about my South African life, to my host family who enveloped me, a complete stranger, into their family, allowing me to experience French life not as a foreigner but as a true Française, everyone played a part in ensuring that I left France with a pang not usual after a visit of a mere two months. Perhaps I was just lucky, or perhaps the French people that I met are representative of the whole. But either way, I will always consider France my second home.

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