Location: Western Europe (between Spain and Germany)
Population: 60 million
Interesting Fact: The first public film screening was in France in 1895.
This advice is entirely based upon my short visit. Therefore, I will only discuss rural parts of Southern France. Paris and things like that shall not be discussed since I have never been there.
Visit in a non-tourist season
See the Alps
Go to small towns instead of the bigger, famous cities
Indulge on local food and avoid restaurants marketed towards tourists
Learn some French (it will make things much easier)
Try cheese and wine (in this case, they do live up to the hype)
Go to bakeries. You will never be disappointed.
See medieval buildings and architecture
Public transportation can be expensive and confusing. Prepare yourself.
Go to a local open market and buy a crossiont. I know it’s stereotypical but trust me on this.
So I had to do this. Normally I avoid doing stereotypical things in places (for example, I never went to the Statue of Liberty during the 18 months I lived in New York and I never listened to techno music while I was in Germany). But when it comes to pasteries, I can’t say no. Therefore, it took me less than a day to purchase a croissant in France. It happened in the open market in Digne while I was with my friend Lea and here’s how that went.
She was giving me a tour of the town, and since food is often at the center of my travels, we made sure to swing by the open market. I walked up and down the isles, curiously looking about. That’s when it hit me. Before my eyes could see, my nose picked up on a sent that sends me on frenzy like a cat that just walked into a lazer show. Bread! Freshly baked! I needed to go see, purchase, and eat (hopefully in that order if I could keep me self control).
We got to the vendor and I asked Lea what to say to order. “Un croissant s'il vous plaît,” she said and I repeated, mispronouncing most of it. The man behind the counter smiled, handed me a croissant and said “Un euro.” Thankfully I was able to understand that. But then he said something else to me with a little bit of a chuckle. I turned to Lea. “He says you should help him sell croissants in order to practice your French.”
I was puzzled. Funny joke, I thought… until he took a step back and invited me to step up. Evidently he was serious. I stepped up, feeling a bit like a fish out of water, but none the less, I gave it a shot. I mean, when am I going to get another chance to sell croissants in France. Right away, an older man walked up and said something to me. I was able to distinguish the word croissant, but he said much more, leading me to believe that he ordered several things. I thought about what to do. Should I guess? Put a croissant and another pastry in the bag and hope it’s what the guy wants? Maybe I should ask him to repeat himself? But how do I ask that in French? I stood there somewhat frozen.
Eventually, I gave up on the interior monologue and turned to lea and the bread salesman for assistance. “He ordered a croissant and pan chocolate,” she said reassuringly. Quickly and obediently, I put them both in the bag. “Two Euro and forty cents,” Lea said, already aware of what I was about to ask. In a poorly attempted French accent, I said, “Deux euros et quarante cents,” to the customer and he handed me the money. I looked at the salesman who was smiling and trying to hold back a chuckle. “Want to keep going?” He asked. Politely, I replied, “Thanks for the experience, but I don’t want to run your business into the ground. One is enough for me.” He laughed and resumed control of the stand.
As we walked away, Lea turned to me and said, “So, on your first full day here, you’ve already bought and sold your first croissant. You’ve lived the French experience.” Happily, I took a bite of the croissant.
For my last full day in the country, my friend Lea suggested heading down to the Mediterranean coast to visit her friend Marie (for both, see Awesome People page). Naturally, I readily agreed. The drive itself took about two and a half hours as we chatted and watched the landscape turn from rocky hills and forests colored in foliage to palm trees, flat land, and picturesque views of the blue waters. Eventually, after a series of sharp turns and narrow roads that could barely fit one car, we reached our destination: a cozy flat with a balcony overlooking the sea. Even better, we were greeted by the residents of the flat, Marie and Morgan, along with coffee. Needless to say, I felt welcomed right from the beginning.
Showing us around, Marie decided to take us on a walk along the water, which conveniently was only a few minutes away from her flat. In the summer, she said, the beach gets overrun by tourists and locals, but since this was November, everything was quiet and relaxing. No sunburn, no screaming families, no garbage, it was just as I wanted. Sprouting up here and there were series of palm trees, which I noticed actually look similar to pineapples (take a look, its true!). Despite the approaching winter, the weather remained fairly mild due to the coastal climate, so only a light jacket was necessary.
Later on we returned to the flat, and Marie, being an amazing host, made a banana curry dish for dinner. Personally, I had never had such a combination before in my life, but this opened up a new world for me. It was like hearing a Jerry Garcia solo for the first time ever. And that was just the beginning. Dinner was followed by wine, champagne, sharing the strangest music we each knew, travel stories, more wine, and dancing (or in my case, a poor attempt at dancing). Overall, it was a great conclusion to the trip, with the only down side being my morning flight the next day (waking up was soooooo hard and painful). I left with a smile and slight headache saying ‘see you later’ rather than goodbye.
I visited France for the first time (not counting a disaster layover story) in November 2018. During that time, I never made it to Paris, didn’t see the Louvre, saw now chateaus, and never ate in a French restaurant (or any restaurant for that matter). And overall I had an absolutely amazing trip.
I flew into the airport in Marseilles and was picked up by my friends Lea and Olivier, who I would go on to stay with for the duration of my visit. From there, we drove to their town, Digne les Bains. The town itself was small and relaxed, surrounded by trees, rivers, rock formations, and foothills of the Alps. While there, I wandered a bit, purchased and sold a croissant (see story), and played multiple board games. The place was very comfortable and the surrounding area was gorgeous, and since it was November, there were practically no tourists at all, thus making everything more enjoyable.
The trip was concluded with a trip down to the Mediterranean coast where Lea’s friend Marie lives (see Awesome People), and once again I indulged on amazing food, was treated with wonderful hospitality, and still never saw tourists. Overall, I did nothing one would imagine on a trip to France, but somehow managed to cram as much fun and joy as possible into my short visit. For more details, please read my following posts.
Visited November 2018
Although many of you readers may not have heard of this southern Alpine French town, it served as the center of my visit... and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Located south of Marsailles, this modestly sized town is tucked in a valley surrounded by mountains, rivers, forests, and some of the most interesting geographical formations I've ever seen. I stayed with my friends Lea and Olivier (who helped make the trip as good as it was), and since I came outside of the tourist season, I got to have much more of an authentic experience.
Digne is a quiet and pretty little town. Intertwined with trees and nature, the place is comprised of small twisting streets, local shops (many of which make great bread), and warm and rustic cultural buildings. The atmosphere is overall very relaxed, as most people from my perspective did not seem to be stressed or in a hurry. In the center in the town was a bi-weekly local market that sold home-baked food, chocolate, honey, and handmade gifts. In the fashion of a stereotypical foreigner visiting France, I bought a croissant there. (see story)
Best of all, I didn’t see any tourists in the town at all. Granted, I was there in November, which is not by any means the tourist season. Regardless, it was nice to be in a place void of selfie sticks and people wearing socks and sandals. Overall, I can highly recommend going there to visit. It may be difficult to get there if you don’t know anyone (so I guess I’m lucky), but if you can, do it! Digne is a calm and welcoming town surrounded by incredible nature and with mountains on the horizon. What more could you want?
Yes, instead of writing about Paris or something like that, I decided to write about rocks. Call me weird if you’d like, but I’ve always been fascinated more by geological formations than capital cities, and the rugged land of southern France did not disappoint in the least. This particularly struck me on a trip with Lea and Olivier just outside of Digne and along the river. We drove about 20 minutes, and before I could even step out of the car, I was in awe.
Other than the road and an occasional passing car, there were no signs of people or society. On either side of us were these large jagged, yet somehow smooth rock structures that jutted out as if they were in layers. It almost looked as if it was some sort of artistic design, but actually occurred in nature. in the middle, twisting and turning with the road, was a running river (which most likely shaped the rocks to their current form). Here and there, sporadic trees would pop up within the stone, each adding to the natural aura of the place. I felt as if I could spend hours there, but a cold rain eventually made us return to the car.
Being in such a place, I largely neglected to take photos, preferring to use my own eyes instead. The two photos I have here were just from the very beginning. So if you clicked this link to see things, you are unfortunately out of luck. For that reason, I tried to be as descriptive as possible, but if you actually want to see it yourself, get a plane ticket and start your adventure (trust me, eyes are still better than phones and cameras).
Sometimes it’s best not to have plans. When I came to France, I had none, other than to see my friends. And as a result, I was able to do things that were spontaneous and unexpected… such as join Lea and Olivier for what was supposed to be a quick visit to Lea’s family’s house. Originally, the suggestion was to spend less than an hour there and head to a jazz concert afterwards, but things took a bit of a different turn. Our visit lasted past midnight and ended up including dinner, a lot of wine, and a dog named Engie. We never made it to the concert, but that’s alright since there’s no way that jazz music could have topped what happened instead. Here’s how that went.
We pulled up to the house around 5pm in the evening and were instantly greeted by a big, friendly, shaggy dog named Engie. Now, people are often a little more shy upon first meeting, but dogs do not have that apprehension, so Engie jumped up and down, ran in a circle, and brought one of her toys over to me. I felt accepted right away. Then Lea and Olivier introduced me to the rest of the family, who were all excited to meet me (although slightly less expressive than Engie). The whole house was covered in an array of impressive artwork, all of which was made by members of the family. This even included a large metal tree made out of mobiles that Lea’s mom carved and molded herself. Needless to say, I thought the place was amazing. Then we sat down at the table.
We began to converse, and although we were able to convey our points, there was a little language barrier at first, because unfortunately I don’t know French yet. Lea’s grandmother asked if I “parli Italiano” and asked if she “говорите по русский” but both answers happened to be ‘no.’ Thankfully, though, everyone else’s English turned out to be much better than my French, so we were able to keep the conversation going. Plus Lea and Olivier stepped in to translate whenever need be.
Now, usually, I’m a bit awkward around groups of new people, however this was not the case here. Maybe it had something to do with the wine glasses that always seemed to get refilled, or maybe it was the homemade bread, hummus, and delicious food, but whatever the reason, I felt relaxed and comfortable throughout the whole visit. I shared storied of living and teaching in Russia and Georgia, while they happily showed me all the different artworks they made (including music performed by Lea’s brother). It went far beyond the standard ‘get to know you’ chat (again, maybe the wine helped), and by the end of the night, we were all talking to one another as if we were old friends.
After a while, someone (I forget who) mentioned that they were getting tired. I checked my watch and saw that it was now after midnight, meaning that our quick visit was now on hour 7. Riding high on the joys of the evening, I stumbled my way around the room to say goodbye to everyone and made sure to pet Engie one more time. I then walked out the door with a grin, thinking to myself, ‘Welcome to France!’