Kristin is introduced to some dubious French customs by her boyfriend.
At the post office in La Ciotat I used my credit card to pay for a packet of timbres. Pausing to decide where to put the stamps, I decided to stick them in my wallet. Suddenly, I was struck by la nostalgie, remembering back to the day, some 30 years ago, when a certain Frenchman told me that in France one can pay for a meal with stamps.
That Frenchman was my then-boyfriend, Jean-Marc, and this cultural astuce was given to me during a romantic escape to the Luberon, to the colourful village of Roussillon. After a one-hour drive from Marseille, where we lived at the time, Jean-Marc parked his car near the top of the village and we followed signs to Le Sentier des Ocres and soon were hiking through a pine-scented forest, down into a former carrière. The dry clay canyon and its warm, earthy tones in yellow, orange and red reminded me of my native Arizona, especially Sedona.
When we reached the bottom of the ochre gorge, the stunning red cliffs rising above us, my charming guide fell to his knees… and pressed his hands into the pigmented ground. Next, he stood up and rubbed his palms across my face. “It’s a local tradition,” he declared. “It’s called ‘le tagging’.” Le tagging? Is that franglais for ‘face graffiti’?
Au Naturel… Like My Man
Having spent an hour getting ready for this date, I now stood there self-conscious, knowing most of my façade (the make-up I’d caked on earlier) had been rubbed off via the playful gesture. But soon came the realisation that now might be a good time to loosen up a bit, de lâcher prise, and that the only way out of this vulnerable moment was through it. I pressed my palms into the ground, stood up, and smeared some red clay across JeanMarc’s face. There. Taggé! Hiking out of the quarry, our graffitied faces smiling, we headed toward the perched village, its colourful buildings reflecting the ochre all around us. Wandering hand in hand we stopped in front of an auberge to study the black ardoise which read Plat du Jour: La Daube Provençale… “You must try this speciality!” Jean-Marc said, “even if my aunt’s is the best!”
Seated by a window at the back of the restaurant, with gorgeous views of the golden surroundings, we savoured the local stew, which warmed us on this chilly autumn day.
When it came time for l’addition, my boyfriend reached for his portefeuille. “Zut!” Jean-Marc said, looking into his wallet. “I don’t have enough cash!” The restaurant didn’t accept credit cards, so I couldn’t help… “It’s OK, they accept stamps here,” Jean-Marc grinned, waving a packet of timbres-poste. Well that sounded strange, but then there are a lot of bizarre things in France…like those Turkish toilets I’d just seen (a hole in the ground with ceramic grids on either side). When the waitress arrived, golden ochre droplets formed on my face, I was so nervous about the dubious transaction about to take place. Would it really work? Or would we be doing the dishes next? “Mais non! We don’t pay with stamps in France. C’était une blague!” Jean-Marc laughed. Ouf! It was only a joke. But then… did this mean he was also kidding about the face-tagging tradition? Because, looking around the restaurant, no one else was wearing yellow, orange and red graffiti on their cheeks…
LA NOSTALGIE = nostalgia
UN TIMBRE = stamp
UNE ASTUCE = tip
LE SENTIER DES OCRES = The Ochre Trail
UNE CARRIÈRE = quarry
LÂCHER PRISE = let go, give in
TAGGÉ = you’ve been tagged
UNE ARDOISE = chalkboard, menu board
L’ADDITION (F) = the bill, the check
LE PORTEFEUILLE = wallet
ZUT! = blast! darn!
UNE BLAGUE = a joke
OUF! = phew
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : The ochre cliffs of Roussillon, where Jean-Marc once kept me guessing as to some unusual French traditions. In 2017 we returned to Roussillon with our ochre-coloured golden retriever Smokey and grown children for another playful adventure © Kristin Espinasse
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