Turning French, Part 2: Taking It All In

“gorgeous, thick bouquets of chrysanthemums in every colour”

One of the main reasons I applied to go to the University of Limoges was to do with the city. On paper, Limoges looked to be the Durham of France: it had its own stunning cathedral, an array of cobbled streets, a beautiful river, and even a prison. And I loved that; at least that way I would already have some sort of familiarity with the place. My plan worked out great really; every time I went by the river I was hit with warm flashbacks of Durham and it really did make all the difference to me. But then here’s the drawback: in a huge country, on the threshold of this incredible new culture, if you choose to live in a small, isolated town (“affectionately” called the ‘oldest’ town in Europe) you can easily feel trapped in a bubble. So I thought I would devote this month’s entry to my first short “pop” outside the bubble.

My first venture outside of the city of Limoges was to a traditional annual ‘Chestnuts and Cider’ festival, still in the Limousin region, near to the border of Dordogne. I had always been told that the charm of Limousin lay outside of the urban capital, across the vast countryside, in the small villages, and it was even better to be able go with my French welcome family. Every time I’ve attended the markets and festivals without a French friend to help us grasp some of the culture, I just ended up feeling a bit like a tourist, an outsider. And this time I was really in need of a push to embrace certain parts of the experience – in particular ‘le boudin’. If you want an explanation of the “boudin” in a nutshell, it is very similar to black pudding. But being a chestnut and cider festival, it is cooked with chestnuts inside and served in a baguette with grilled apples. Now I have always avoided black pudding as best I can, because the idea of it scares the life out of me, but with my French family watching my every bite, I had to try it (and finish it and pretend to like it, because the English in me told me I shouldn’t cause offence)! Definitely not one to try again, but after a friend from Bordeaux assured me that it was all part of the fun of “la vie Limousine incivilisée”, I have to say it was worth it to say I managed it!

But lack to the chestnuts and cider – there were families with their cider presses on the roadside, singing songs and filling buckets and bottles with apple juice. And it wasn’t the clean, mechanical process that no doubt takes place in franchises across the world. No, this was rather a rickety wooden structure, with well-worn springs and wire filters, apple pulp and shovels, and pure, fresh apple juice flowing non-stop. This was definitely a culture I could get used to! And as for the chestnuts, I had no clue that they could form the base of every recipe under the sun, from chestnut cured meat to chestnut honey. But it was so welcoming to sit around a table with a group of Limougeauds, a plate of hot roasted chestnuts and a glass of local cider. It felt like a kind of Christmas spirit!

And the best experience was yet to come. I’m not a strictly religious person, and it’s very rare that religious places move me so much, but the little local church was just breathtaking for the festival! Because the onset of winter in Limousin is the perfect weather for chrysanthemums, they bloom in their thousands across the region. For this reason, they have been adopted as the flower of the season, said to bring love and happiness. So in a tribute to this well-loved flower, the church was decorated with hundreds of gorgeous, thick bouquets of chrysanthemums in every colour. Set within spirals of fallen bark, they adorned the entrance, the pews, the altar, the stairs, and even the balcony of the mezzanine: the church smelt so fresh and earthy and floral. And to add a touch of Limousin personality (a region famed for its porcelain production), if you looked closely at the floral displays, you would find, delicately embedded within them, white, sparkling, porcelain leaves. We all had to hold our breath; we didn’t want to destroy the perfection of this little church!

I had always worried that going to university in France would be a sort of limbo; after all, French university life couldn’t be too different to what I’m used to in Durham. You get trapped in your student routine and you forget where you are. But this time, ‘where I am’ is a one of my dream countries! So it was so good to enjoy France just for being France, and to raise a glass to more experiences just like this one! Santé!

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