I don’t remember the exact moment that my husband and I decided that we should leave Australia with our three young children and try out France for a year, but I have no difficulty recalling our arrival in France with only one and a half of us speaking French (myself and our six-year-old son) and a burning enthusiasm for our new adventure. We had no family or work to go to, no friends to call on and no knowledge of the place that we had chosen to live (Giez, 22 km from Annecy in the Haute Savoie) and it is an indisputable truth that it was tough, in a gentle sort of way. After all, for each new discovery and surmounted challenge, we not only felt more settled, we also felt proud of what we had achieved, and that is always a good thing.
Alongside the difficult (finding accommodation, buying a car, understanding the school stationery list, driving on the right side of the road (but the wrong for us), doing research without an Internet connection), came the delightful. Our flat, bayside Melbournian suburb had been replaced by mountains; real mountains, not Australian-sized ones, in the middle of which was a lake and a town with canals, old stones, disorder, colourful markets, strange opening hours and different light and smells.
Shopping was no longer a thing to tick of the weekly to-do list. Buying food from the market, queueing at Carrefours or enjoying a stroll around a vide-grenier (village garage sale) became excursions and mostly the children enjoyed them as much as my husband and me.
Years into our French living (one turned out to not be enough), there is no doubt that the supermarket has lost its novelty, but we still look forward to our market and vide-grenier outings. To know what it is on and where, we take a look at vide-grenier.org. Sometimes, our findings are not altogether expected, as was the case recently.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the details of our destination and didn’t know the village hosting our chosen Sunday vide-grenier but knew that the drive through the Bauges (more known for its cycling, walking and remoteness) would be possible, as the big dump of snow predicted for the week would not yet have impacted easy circulation. It was beautiful, too. The roads were empty, the countryside quiet and the mood in the car, peaceful.
Usually, it is enough to note the name of the village, type it into our GPS and, when within a two-kilometre radius, follow the line of people walking from make-shift carparks to garage-sale central. This time, we parked in front of the church…easily, which was not a reassuring sign and, stretching from the drive, looked around. No crowds, no sounds, no tempting hot oil smells from the barquettes de frites.
Avoiding eye-contact with my own tribe, “I might have got it wrong. Perhaps I misread the date, but let’s go for a walk.”
It took as long to get dressed – hats, scarves, gloves and jackets – as it did to check out the village. There was a sign on the school fence saying that a case of chickenpox had been confirmed at the école, but, whether directly related to this or not, there was no-one there.
My family are kind. They made no fuss, pretending that the crumbling wall on an ancient barn in the village was an excellent reason for an hour-and-a-half in the car.
After a few minutes of sustained, deliberate looking, I turned to my husband.
“What if we were to actually look up the address?”
And, lo and behold, we were in the right village, on the right day, and nearly-the-right place, with fifteen minutes before the event was due to conclude.
We raced back to the car.
It looked promising from the road. With each newly sighted piece of bunting, van and trestle table, my spirits lifted.
Parked for a second time, I leapt out of the car, not bothering this time with careful dressing and raced to the first stall, noting that there was a flurry of newspaper at the three alongside. Yikes, they were packing up and I had not even begun my slow browse.
A chipped Ricard jug caught my attention. I’m not opposed to chipped anything, but searching for the price, my eyes slid downwards to a circular piece of pock-marked wood.
“What do you think?”
“Get it”, said my husband.
“Mmm, do you really think so?”
Interpreting my cautious decisiveness as a reluctance to pay the price, the stall holder offered me a five-euro reduction.
“Plus the jug?” I asked cheekily.
He nearly went for it, too, but outsmarted me by proffering another, even more battered than the first, and suggesting that I pay for just the more expensive and get the two.
Grinning happily, I thanked the vendor and then my son who, taking the cheeseboard from me to carry it back to the car, allowed me to fit in a quick, unencumbered lap of the Méry event.
There were more delights to come as, in our morning race to our destination, we had spied an objet de curiosité roadside in Cusy. It had looked forlorn, out-of-place and out-of-synch with our idea of French culinary standards but, intrigued, we determined to give it a bit of attention on our way home. The trouble was that in between our cheeseboard purchase and standing roadside at the pizza-vending machine, we had partaken in a copious three-course meal in Aix-les-Bains and the idea of eating a warm slice of pizza had lost the allure of a few hours prior.
Nonetheless, in the interest of careful research for future houseguests, we stopped, scrutinized the menu and selected a Savoyarde pizza (with regional Reblochon cheese) from the thirteen possible choices. The signs taped to the machine led us to believe that we would be entitled to a 20% discount and that our pizza would be hot.
Three minutes later, the proof was in the eating and, as far as pizza goes, it was not bad. As far as pizza in the middle of nowhere, with nary a soul to be seen, the production time, cost and convenience were simply stunning…but still not a patch on our tasty lunchtime menu du jour.
If you would like to read more stories from our family’s French adventure, please don’t hesitate to contact me on [email protected] for a print copy of ‘But you are in France, Madame’ or click on the following link for a Kindle copy.