The best boulangerie in Vichy, my host family inform me, is the one which is less than five minutes walk from the school I attend. The convenience of this was not lost on me as I enjoyed a delicious – and quite large – chicken salad sandwich and enormous pain au chocolat at a total cost of four euros. That’s about five dollars Australian, for people who are counting. Absurdly, this is less than the cost of a six-inch Subway sandwich back home in Australia. There are a lot of myths about France – both positive and negative, some very silly – but I can say that so far, in my experience, the food here deserves its international reputation. The beauty of the country is also not exaggerated. I’ve been here in Allier a few weeks now and I’m still speechless every time we go for a drive in the country.
My classes at the Cavilam continued this week. Our main instructional activity in class seems to be having debates, and my ability to spontaneously produce French is still improving. I think I probably make more mistakes now than before, all told, but that’s because I’m speaking so much more than before. My professors – and my host family – have really made it apparent that lots of French with a few mistakes is better than a tiny bit that’s textbook-perfect. I’m understood, that’s the main thing. The thrill I get from a successful interaction carried out entirely in French has yet to wear off.
On Wednesday, I paid another visit to Clermont-Ferrand, the nearest large city to Vichy. So far, I’ve actually visited every Wednesday, doing slightly different things each time. The city is a mere 30 minutes away by train, so it’s an attractive proposition to go do some sightseeing on a free afternoon. This time though, I went by bus on a daytrip organised by my school and was treated to some amazing views of the vast fields and mountains in the distance which characterise the plains between Vichy and Clermont. My named objective for the day – as I must always have at least one – was to see the Musée Henri Lecoq, which is Clermont-Ferrand’s natural history museum, named for the famous botanist who donated the founding elements of its collection, among other things.
As this visit was an organised excursion, it also entailed a walking tour of some of the major sights. Naturally, we visited the cathedral, which was no less impressive this time around. The vast construction, built out of those dark, volcanic stones is terribly imposing, but breathtakingly beautiful. This time I took a bit more time to admire the stained glass windows, which are very difficult to photograph well. The work is really beautiful, and worth taking some time to admire. I did manage to get one photo to turn out okay. The tour also took us through the medieval streets of Clermont-Ferrand, which are a bit of a maze to navigate alone (I managed, with difficulty, on my first visit) but are filled with interesting shops and bits of history. We also saw one of the most celebrated basilicas of the city, Notre Dame du Port, which has an interesting history of role-changes and rebuildings.
After the tour, I found my way to the Natural History museum. On the way there, I ended up taking a surprisingly lengthy walk in the gardens which are adjacent to the museum entrance. They aren’t enormous, but they’re very pretty and very tranquil, for something located in the city centre. Despite the cold, it was very pleasant. This walk also meant that the museum was near closing when I finally arrived, but in light of this – and my extremely dubious student status – the gentleman at the front desk let me in for free. Students at language schools aren’t normally considered concessions in France, it’s more for High School and University students who are more likely to be living in France and not working, thus warranting discounted rates. Personally, I think he was just a nice man who didn’t want me to have to pay an adult ticket for an hour visit.
The museum itself is quite small, but very well set out. They have the sorts of exhibits you’d expect for a natural history museum – mineralogy, evolution, paleontology, as well as a temporary exhibition on the domestication of animals. However my favourite part of the museum was the recreation of Henri Lecoq’s ‘office’, which was full of antique scientific equipment, books and other relics of the process of scientific inquiry.
On Thursday evening, I took part in a dégustation workshop, in which we were tasting five types of regional cheese. I know how absurdly pretentious that sounds, and allow me to worsen that stereotype by adding that we also had wine to go with it. However, as I mentioned last time, these events are primarily for the purpose of getting students to mix, and drinking a few glasses of wine while trying out some cheese is much less fancy when you’re also playing boardgames and cracking jokes.
The cheeses we tasted were generally regional and most have specific AOCs, the significance of which being that they are legally protected from being replicated elsewhere with the same name. The cheeses on offer were; Fourme d’Ambert, Cantal, Saint-Nectaire, Gaperon and Chèvre. The last of these, Chèvre, is available everywhere and is just the general name for goat’s cheese (and goats, actually). Of the five, Gaperon has the strongest flavour, being a cow’s milk cheese made with liberal helpings of pepper and garlic. The intense, peppery taste is apparently quite particular and not as well-loved as the others, which were a bit more mild, but this one was easily my favourite.
The weekend saw me take another trip with my host family to their country home in Charroux. You may remember last time I visited Charroux, and discovered it was one of my favourite places in France so far. That hasn’t changed, but this time my visit was a little more in-depth.
Unlike last time, on Saturday Charroux was bustling with people. They hold annual Christmas markets there and people evidently come from quite far away to enjoy a day out in the country and see the stalls. I spent some time wandering the markets and taking in the atmosphere of extrmeme Christmasy-ness before finding my way to Charroux’s historical museum. For such a small town, Charroux’s museum is actually very sizeable – 14 rooms over three floors and two buildings – and has extensive information and interesting historical artifacts. It wasn’t until visiting this museum that I really had an appreciation for the importance of Charroux as a crossroads in the region, right back through the middle ages. The audio tour was also very good, supplying plenty of information without being overbearing. I particularly enjoyed the exhibits of old equipment used by the different professions, including blacksmiths, the fire service and the military.
My host family had guests at their house in Charroux that afternoon, and we all had a big lunch together. I sometimes found it a bit hard to follow the conversation – it was very quick – but I contributed a little bit and everyone was extremely nice to me and made me feel very welcome. Lunch was potatoes and sausages cooked in the massive fireplace, as well as wine, bread and cheese. Afterwards, we had Bûche de Noël, which is a traditional French Christmas cake. My host family’s friends all had nice things to say about my French – apparently I speak super bien – and I’m told that meeting me has made one of them consider lodging students in the future. I will take that as a compliment.