It is said that you can’t go home again, meaning that a return to the place you grew up cannot possibly live up to those youthful memories stored away in that happy place of the brain. I am of the opinion that it’s only partially true; dependent on expectations and just how much the place has actually changed.
As an example, one of the places that I grew up in was a small town in Ohio. A few years back I returned for a reunion of old friends. Physically, the place had changed dramatically, crushed by the challenges faced by the manufacturing sector in the USA. Steel mills and other manufacturing plants lay in ruin, resulting in decaying neighborhoods. It certainly looked nothing like the place where I grew up. Thankfully, seeing my old friends wasn’t as traumatic. Although we had all aged and had taken different paths, we still shared that bond that had brought us together in our youth. So, my expectations of coming home were at least partially met.
But Ohio wasn’t the only place that I grew up. Since I was born in France to a French mother, I not only consider France my home but also, alongside the USA, my homeland. I remember with fondness, spending my summers in Marseille and the surrounding villages of Peypin and Cadolives with family. Spending time in France as a youngster also gave me the opportunity of having two first languages. But that was a long time ago. How much had France changed? How much of my French would I remember? Would I still feel at home there?
So with our Southeast Asia adventure complete, we decided that Perpignan, France would be the right place to get my questions answered. We chose Perpignan, only 320KM from Marseille because it is still a relatively small city, it’s located in a highly renowned wine appellation (we’re VinoHikers after all), and the affordability of apartments. We decided that a month would be just enough time to adequately immerse ourselves and to recover from 2.5 months of being on the road.
Checking into our Airbnb leased apartment would be my first French language test as our host, and soon to be a good friend, Karine, spoke very little English.
Although rusty, I did well enough to get us checked in without a problem. With my confidence up, it was time to head out and buy some groceries. And here for the first time in my French life, at the grocery checkout, I was perceived not to be French, but rather, as a foreigner. While checking out I got a bit confused on the process of pricing the produce and I said: “Nous ne sommes pas d’ici.” (We’re not from here) to which she replied, giggling: “Je vis immediatement’ (I got that right away). Ils ne sommes pas d’ici became a standing joke with us whenever we would see someone who was obviously a foreigner.
So, was it my accent or poor grammar, or perhaps my clothes that resulted in this treatment? Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t treated poorly or rudely, just differently than the other ‘real’ French customers.
You see, my time growing up in France was always with family
. I was one of them. I was just a little French boy with a funny accent. The question was, what would it take to gain acceptance as a Frenchman and then to regain that feeling of belonging? The answer came quickly and through no effort on my part. It was one of those lazy afternoons and we were just hanging around the apartment by ourselves when we got an invitation from our host/landlord to share an aperitif and to meet a few of her friends. Karine’s word for describing this time of day was “Apero Time”. It was here, surrounded by good food and drink, as well as good company, in a relaxed atmosphere, that it all changed. That feeling of belonging, of being French came flooding back.
And that, my friends, is the power of apero time.
Oh, I still felt a bit awkward and out of place in public places attempting to make myself understood, but slowly with the help of kind people, I knew that it was possible to regain that feeling I had as a child. And I was determined. If someone began speaking to me in English, I politely asked them to speak to me in French, telling them that I needed the practice. And my French was actually getting better! One day, however, as we were getting on Le Bus, the driver began speaking to me in English. I told him that I preferred to be spoken to in French, but he continued with his broken English. At first, I was a bit annoyed that he wouldn’t honor my request, but as we continued our dialog, me in French and he in English, I realized that he was taking this opportunity to practice his English. No different than me attempting to practice my French. We both chuckled.
On another afternoon, we were walking around Perpignan looking for a lunch spot. We found a nice little family run cafe-bar with outside tables. The owner came out to take our order and quickly assessed that ‘Ils ne sont pas d’ici’ and began speaking English. I politely asked her to speak French. She happily agreed that I should be practicing and began telling me about her plat de jour (dish of the day). A specialty of this region she said. I ended up eating a very tasty lentil-pork-sausage dish with French bread. When it was time to pay I handed her my credit card. She ran the card and handed me a slip to sign. As I handed her the signed copy, she says to me in French: “I just charged your account a thousand Euros.” I looked shocked and she started laughing. She told me, in a motherly way, to pay attention to what I sign because there are people out there that will cheat you. We both laughed. As we were walking out we noticed a saying written on the wall.
One cup of coffee 7 Euros
One cup of coffee if you say bonjour 3 Euros
One cup of coffee if you say bonjour and s’il vous plait 1 Euro
We made sure to say bonjour and s’il vous plait whenever ordering from that day on!
But it wasn’t just about a return to my roots. This region of France is absolutely gorgeous and needs to be explored. The public transportation system provided easy access to the surrounding area and for a mere 1 Euro, Le Bus (yes, that’s what it’s called) would take you to many of the neighboring villages including Ceret, Thuir, and Collioure.
But as efficient and effective as the buses and trains were, nothing beat jumping into Karine’s old Peugeot, affectionately known as ‘The Porsche,’ and heading out for the likes of Girona, Spain for the flower festival, or to the healing thermal pools of Les Bains de St.
Thomas (yes, they made me wear a speedo. not pretty), or to the coastal town of Banyuls to enjoy an apero of their world-renowned wine, or to the hoodoos of l’Orgues d’Ille sur Tet with a visit to Karine’s parent’s home for apero time to top off the day. All of it incredible: the sights, the light, the food, the wine, to rediscovering my French, to playing the tourist.
And the light: so different, so beautiful. I can certainly understand why so many of the great painters lived and worked here. The light and colors are just different here, coupled with quaint villages and ancient structures, make for easy compositions.
A few takeaways: It is possible to go ‘home’ again with the proper outlook and a willingness to leave one’s comfort zone. One month was not long enough; France and the French are beautiful. Treat foreigners to your country with the same kindness and respect that you would your own countrymen. Ignore the news about terrorists and that it is unsafe to travel. Hogwash! See this region now! Speaking of seeing this region, hope you enjoy the following pictures.
And finally, it has been our custom to end each blog post with Hike Drink Live Laugh, but when you think about it, isn’t it a long way of saying Apero time Power? So, with this post forward, as a reminder of its power, each of my posts will end with: Apero Time Power!
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