What does that expression really mean, “live like a local’? I know I’ve used it, maybe even overused it, and I’ve read lots of stories about the benefit to travelers to slow down and “live like a local”.
Our current house sit is for 2 months in a 350 year old barn, converted into a very large comfortable home. We’re on the edge of a delightful little village beside a forest in central Brittany and have the pleasure of caring for the very lovable cat Guinness. Yes, it is quintessentially French and I do pinch myself regularly.
For 2 months we have an ideal opportunity to live like a local and to be like everyone else. Yet we are not French, nor do we speak French. And I’m pretty sure we don’t look French. In fact I think we stand out just a bit.
As we wander about our tiny village we find the people are extremely friendly, calling out Bon Jour with a French-style wave, and we respond in kind.
Being unable to understand people speaking to us in French provides many varied and sometimes hilarious daily challenges. Both Dave and I know enough of the basics to get by and we usually have one of our handy translation tools with us. Though sometimes when we’re leaving a shop or cafe I forget my French completely and gaily exit trilling Bon Jour instead of Au Revoir.
So far we’ve managed to collect our hire car and negotiate the changeover of the car in a different town when there was a technical problem. We’re usually fine with a menu and wine list (valuable life skills) and generally get what we expected and when it comes to paying the bill, Dave’s got that well sorted.
Grocery shopping is a favourite pastime and one of my little tricks is to talk to Dave while we’re waiting in line so the check-out person might realise we’re not French. Very chatty and friendly check-out people they are, and often they’ll babble away and I’ll smile and nod, or shake my head if it sounds like a question.
There was the matter of buying sim cards for our phones when we first arrived in France. I recall someone saying “oh, we just go and buy a sim card when we go to each country”. Sounds so easy doesn’t it? I don’t know how they manage it but for us it was a lengthy and confusing experience at the Orange store in Caen. There were 2 store attendants neither of whom spoke English. Eventually our attendant pulled out a booklet and we all looked at what seemed like phone plans, pointed to the one that we thought would be best for us and voila! Cost us around €40 each for one month which we thought was too much but they work.
The next fun part was today, trying to load more credit on to our phones for the next month. At the Orange store in nearby Ploërmel the guy did speak some English but he told us they couldn’t sell us additional data and we should go to a Tabak and buy a voucher. Further investigation required here before 29th of this month as that just doesn’t make sense.
I thought I might have had a problem with a tooth so I phoned the number given to me by a local British woman who told me the dentist there speaks some English. When I called I asked the phone person, in French “do you speak English”? She said Non. Hmm, I consulted my phrase book and asked “does anyone speak English”. Non. I mumbled something unintelligible and hung up. The tooth has been fine since.
There is one thing however that I’ve been nervous about and that is getting a hair cut. It’s been over 2 months since my last cut back in UK and I’m feeling a bit ragged now. No amount of product or blow drying is going to do the job for much longer and the weather is becoming too warm to keep wearing a hat. Luckily we’ve connected with a bunch of lovely Brit expats so this weekend I’m going to pick out the one with the best haircut and ask where she gets her hair done. Otherwise I’ll just turn up at our local salon with a photo from one of my better hair days.
The first thing we had to locate when we arrived in Mohon was a cafe for our daily coffee fix. In every town and city throughout France you’ll see a “Tabac”, a small bar/cafe/cigarette shop where the locals gather for coffee or aperitif.
On our first visit to the local Tabac we ordered “deux café s’il vous plaît”. 2 small coffees landed at our table within a minute. They speak no English so Dave thought it might be nice to write the proprietors, Karine and Didier, a note in French introducing ourselves and telling them we’re Aussies and that we’ll be around for a while. It turned out to be a great idea and means that we don’t feel like strangers, so now each morning as we arrive we’re warmly welcomed by Karine or Didier with a hand shake and our deux café.
The Tabac is the most fascinating place to watch the real locals. There will always be a smattering of men sitting at the bar or a table with their small glass of white wine or Rosé, and then there is something bright green mixed with lemonade – could be crème de menthe? Sometimes coffee. They usually have just the one glass and they take a very long time to drink it, then they leave. A community space.
Every time someone walks in the door they call out Bon Jour and everyone else says Bon Jour, then that person walks around and shakes everyone’s hand – including ours. They give us a curious look as they shake our hand but are very friendly and jovial towards us. And then when someone leaves they go around shaking hands again and everyone wishes them Au Revoir and Bon Journee. So fascinating.
Our Google Translate app allows us to take a photo of something in another language and it will translate the words. Sometimes we think we don’t need it and end up buying the wrong thing. We know that milk in French is “lait” and the only type available in the fridge section that day was called “Le Lait Ribot”. That night Dave poured the milk onto his cornflakes and he said it tasted foul, was really thick, and when I checked with the app it told us it was buttermilk! One bowl of cornflakes out the window. Not to worry, I made wonderful pancakes with the rest of the buttermilk. Now we know exactly what milk to buy and we even have a photo of the right type so we don’t get it wrong again.
We’ll continue to improve our understanding of the French language the longer we stay. It really is a joy to listen to the voices of French-speaking people, especially the little kids. We’re certainly not allowing our limited vocabulary to get in the way of us enjoying this magical place.
Brittany has an abundance of beauty and history for us to explore and admire. So far we’ve covered over 3,000 kilometers in less than 4 weeks, just in day trips. We check our maps & brochures and talk about which places we’ll go next and usually we figure it out just as we get in the car. The road maps and map apps are our friends.
Here, I’ll share a few pics from our local area and will be back soon with some stories about all those kilometers traveled.