Alix O'Neill is a freelance journalist and writer, who, after years of on-off scheming, has finally taken the plunge and moved to the South of France. In search of a simpler life, filled with more cheese and less stress, she charts her new chapter in the ‘rose city’ of Toulouse, with husband ‘Mr G’ and baby 'Tibs' in tow. You can read all about the highs and lows of settling into French culture here in her brand new column.
At my last antenatal appointment, the gynaecologist’s assistant told me I had a “beautiful uterus”. I’m as in awe of the female reproductive system as the next person, but it’s never occurred to me to compliment another woman on the pulchritude of her internal organs.
Of course, she wasn’t referring to the physical attractiveness of my womb. She was simply confirming that everything was healthy and progressing as it should be. I’m coming to learn that in French, anything has the potential to be beautiful, from an idea to cheese. The pursuit of beauty and its partner pleasure is a serious business here. As Lucy Wadham writes in her 2009 memoir The Secret Life of France, “Traits like rigour, reserve and resilience – qualities which, significantly, are usually attributed to France’s Protestant minority – are begrudgingly admired but never championed.”
Buying groceries becomes a thing of beauty
The French seek out small pleasures on a daily basis. Guilt-free two-hour lunches are standard, while I’ve seen locals enjoy a glass of wine at 10am before opening shop for the day. Even buying groceries can be a thing of beauty, if approached in the correct manner. When we were living in London, discounting weekends pottering around Borough or Broadway markets, most days I reluctantly joined the self-service queue of office workers clutching bags of ravioli and stir-in pasta sauce in my local Tesco. Beyond amusing myself by attempting to guess who would lose it at the next “unexpected item in bagging area”, it was invariably a soulless experience.
In Toulouse, picking up ingredients for dinner each evening is a joy. After coffee and croissants, Tibs and I will head to the market to stock up on fruit and veg, seeing what’s in season before deciding what to eat that day. We’ll head to the fromagerie and boulangerie, Tibs going native by demanding to tuck into warm baguette on the way home. (For non-perishable purchases, it’s Lidl. Even the French can’t make toilet paper sexy.)
The joys of simple cooking
In France, food and cooking is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and played a not inconsiderable part in our decision to move. Mr G is an excellent cook and I’ve always been a gourmand (not a gourmet. An important distinction. The latter knows a lot about food; the former is essentially a human waste disposal unit). Zola once said, “When there’s nothing good to eat for dinner, I’m unhappy – really unhappy. That’s all there is; nothing else exists for me.” I can relate. My friend Jude and I had a bad lunch on our sixth-form girls’ trip to Magaluf. I’m not sure what we were expecting from this well-known culinary hotspot, but the disappointment plagues us to this day.
Despite my love of eating, I’ve never been a particularly good cook. I’ve mastered the basics over the years – cottage pie and banana bread – though anything more elaborate has always stressed me out. Luckily, good food in this part of the world is simple fare, made with the best seasonal produce. I’ve been steadily making my way through Sud de France: The food and cooking of Languedoc, by Caroline Conran. Mr G and Tibs (a tough crowd) seem to be enjoying my efforts, which recently included wild asparagus omelette, fried aubergine and tomato salad with mint and harissa, and long pimentos with goat’s cheese. It’s been a good time to practise my cooking. Last week, temperatures soared to 46 degrees in the city, confining us to the (mercifully, air-conditioned) flat.
If music be the food of love...
Music is France’s other great passion and a few weeks ago, Toulouse celebrated La Fête de la Musique, the country’s biggest street party. We hired a babysitter and went for dinner with Becky before walking the city, Becky and Mr G sipping wine from disposable cups (the plastic revolution has yet to reach Toulouse) as we checked out the free performances on every corner, from an official concert in the majestic surroundings of Place du Capitole to hip hop under the jasmine trees on buzzy Place Saint-Georges. We finished up the night dancing to house music with a bunch of characteristically earnest French students before the baby decided we’d had enough fun and sat stubbornly on my bladder until we got home.
I’ve never been good at the whole mindfulness thing. I’m always too busy planning ahead or obsessing over past mistakes to ever be fully present. Recently, there have more moments, like dancing with those students, where I’m all in. Without any great effort, I’m starting to appreciate the small pleasures in daily life – something as simple as Tibs occupying himself for ten minutes so I can drink my coffee hot for once. I know it’s not possible to maintain this level of zen all the time. I can’t imagine I’ll stop to admire the beauty of my uterus while in the throes of labour, for example, (this isn’t my first rodeo, folks) but every day I’m here, I’m here that little bit more. That’s got to count for something.
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