An Experience With Eels Told Me Everything There Is To Know About France
“Ze lake. It’s known for ze eels!”
Now, I’m not a graduate in the French language or anything – back in school, I was asked whether I would be so kind as to drop GCSE French altogether and save the average pass percentage – but what I did understand was human emotion.
French, Spanish, Amharic; if someone pointed at me with wide, frightened eyes and muttered a syllable even close to “eel”, I knew it was time to get out of the water.
I was fast. Once again, I wasn’t known for my athleticism back in the day, but my old bones were able to get back into gear as soon as they sensed danger.
The woman in question, a forty-year-old native to Luberon who wore flowery sandals and a long, navy dress, quickly changed her tone. In fact, as soon as I was out of the lake everyone found the incident remarkably funny. I had to join them – if only to save face. But suffice it to say, I didn’t get back into the lake again.
A Sorry Underestimation Of France
It was at this moment, as I dried off in the sun and watched the surface of the lake for any more ripples, that I realised I had underestimated France. My family and I had booked one of the big houses to rent in the south of France several months ago. We live in the south of England, near Kent, and I assumed that France was much the same as our native lands. A bit hotter, maybe. Better cooking. But more or less the same.
How wrong I was. Of course, we have eels in England too, but these ones were big. Or they were said to be big by the locals. Some of them with long teeth and red eyes, as though they had jumped straight out of the Amazon and into Luberon.
What I’m saying is: they were something exotic. Something so outside of what I am used to. If I chose to go for a swim in a lake in England, the most terrifying thing I would expect to come across was some frogspawn. Maybe a newt. Not so in France.
But this, in many ways, sealed what I so loved about the country. In the two weeks that my family and I were there, it really felt like we were abroad. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes you go abroad, and you find more similarities with home than differences. But this was a world entirely different to our own. It was a different kind of scenery. A different kind of wildlife. A different kind of beauty.
The Beauty Of Provence Retreat
We should have known as much when we first stepped through the door of our villa. We wanted a large house to rent in order to accommodate our big family, and we found it in The Provence Retreat. This was an 18th-century farmhouse in the shadows of the Luberon mountains.
The world around us was simply… I was going to say “picturesque”, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. A picture can be anything. This was “paintingesque”.
In fact, it looked as if we had stepped into a masterpiece created by the one and only Monet. The pool glistened in the sun – a turquoise carpet rippling with green reflections from the nearby pines. The gardens – all 8,500 square metres – were beautifully landscaped, with a number of gorgeous patterns that were carved as if with a brush.
The first place I went to was the nearby vineyard. I took in the scents of glorious fruit and fresh grass. I gazed upon the mountains. I spotted a nearby hoopoe spreading its wings. Its call sounded new, fluorescent, different.
I should have known then that France was going to be a completely unique and wonderful experience. But I’m British. It takes us a little while longer to understand the quaint beauty of things. Of course, I knew the house was good, the gardens, the pool, the landscape. But beauty can so often be best found in the things that surprise us. The new experiences. The realisation that life can offer something brand new around every corner.
Southern France, Distant Galaxy
Another one of these experiences came in the food. Ah, of course, how could I have gone a whole seven hundred words and not yet mentioned the food? Well, it was plentiful. We opted to get the additional services of a chef and catering.
Once again, as a Brit, you’re resigned to thinking that the hubbub about French food is really just that. Hubbub. There’s nothing tangible to it. Their baguettes might smell like heaven, but if our bread is good enough for the King, it’s good enough for anyone.
Well, the King needs to visit Luberon. Honestly, the food – in this part of the country, at least – was stunning. I felt that I couldn't have flown just an hour and a half from London. I must have been in another world, another galaxy, far, far away.
On the last day, we went to a nearby restaurant. I had a bottle of wine from the vineyard. I sat gazing at the mountains as the sun began to set, causing cracks in the rock to glow with light. I took a glance at the menu and spotted ‘bouilleture d’anguilles’. With a non-existent French GCSE – and a feeling of giddiness derided from the pure ecstasy of our holiday – I went for it without really knowing what it was.
I must say, in terms of being in a completely different, unique, beautiful place, the interpretation of a typical British cuisine threatened to throw me. Thankfully, however, the eels weren’t in jelly. And the feeling of revenge was rather delightful.
I continued to sit in a state of bliss, and I’m sure I will be sitting in the same spot next year. Wouldn’t anyone, if a galaxy so far, far away was just a few hundred miles from their doorstep?