Ahh, France ... that idyllic land where the wine flows like rivers and the cheese outnumbers humans.
I've just spent a couple of the most wonderfully low-key weeks in the north of France, specifically in Lille, or hyper-specifically, Marcq-en-Barœul. I found my way here thanks to my newly adopted family.
In 1982, my family hosted a foreign exchange student, Pasquita, who we've stayed in touch with on and off over the last 40 years. It had been a while since we had communicated with her, so as we planned our trip to Scotland, I got in touch to see if she and her husband, Thierry, would like to meet with us in the south of England.
We spend a lovely couple of days in Folkestone, Kent, England visiting the town of Canterbury (yeah, that one), eating oysters and fish & chips by the sea, and reconnecting with one another.
Towards the end of the visit, the offer to visit them in France was extended, and with no real plans for the next few weeks, I happily accepted.
So that is how I happened to find myself calling a 200 year old country house in the north of France home. What transpired over the next 12 days I can only describe as mutual adoption. I was welcomed into their home so warmly and completely. This warmth came from the entire family, right down to their dog, Pippa. Within moments I felt completely at home.
Not only did they open their home to me, but they opened their experiences as well. From the first day to the last, I felt immersed in the French way of life. Shopping at street markets, eating simply, taking things a bit more slowly. It was all so lovely.
So relaxing was the vibe, time seemed to stand still, and the wonder of the little things came to the fore. The scents and subtle sounds of the world became more vibrant.
In an effort to repay the warm reception, I offered what meager labor I have. But even these exercises were experienced with rose tinted glasses. The French have a saying or response when questioned about doing something "avec plaisir" or "with pleasure," and I took to my tasks with this idea filling my soul.
Mowing their beautiful garden was more pleasure than chore, as I absorbed the heady fragrance of fresh cut grass, delighted in following the contours of the many trees and flowers, and marveled at the vibrant spring colors surrounding me. If I'm honest, I was slightly disappointed when it was done. I climbed down into a dank cistern to clean it out with the excitement of a 7 year old boy about to go spelunking. And cooking dinner (Khao Son - duh) for them one night was certainly a highlight for me.
Lille itself is a wonderful city, full of immense charm and character. It's also a wonderful jumping off point to the surrounding area. Belgium is crazy close, so close in fact that the outer suburbs of Lille stretch into it. I took advantage of this a couple of times, spending a full day in Brussels and a rain soaked afternoon in Bruges.
I found Brussels to be confounding. As the seat of government for the EU, I expected it to be a prim and proper old European city. While it was this, I also found it extremely gritty and fairly grimy, and the city constant flipped between the two.
Bruges on the other hand, completely lives up to its nickname, the Venice of the North. Perhaps the most delightfully charming town I've ever visited, despite the pouring rain. Canals abound, mixed amongst the old brick and spring foliage.
Then there's all the activities I was invited to with the Ducrocq family. Wake boarding, a first communion celebration for a family member, a visit to a gym for a workout, golf for the first time in ages, bouldering for the first time ever.
And the crown jewel of my outings, watching LOSC Lille v. Bordeaux from the VIP stands. Seeing a live football match while traveling is quickly becoming my favorite pastime. And of course the VIP section in France is done the only way the French know how, with oysters, foie gras, cheese and champagne!
This way of travel, way of being is exactly what I was hoping for. Taking it slow in an unexpected location is what I've dreamt of. Slowing down allows me to more fully soak up the little moments, to see the colors in the void. And the unexpected locations, away from the "must see" places opens up the chance to see how people in a place live.
These past days were as close to perfection as I can possibly imagine. I am so thankful for this time and even more thankful for this group of wonderful, kind and special people that I now call family.
I look towards my next adventures and answer them emphatically "avec plaisir!"