It is impossible to walk far down the streets of Nantes with an empty stomach. Along with the normal forecast of cloudy skies and chilly temperatures you can be sure back-to-back cafes, restaurants, and boulangeries (bakeries) will emit wafts of freshly buttered bread, clouds of powdered sugar and the sharp cutting winds of cheese. All this will fill your nose and mouth with scents of delicious promises that you can’t ignore. It is no coincidence that the IES Abroad Nantes program focuses an entire course on French gastronomy theory, or that this course is one of the most in-demand courses among us students. France’s emphasis on meals makes learning more about French culture synonymous with sharing a scrumptious morsel of vegetable, cheese, and butter tart with my host family during our evening dinners.
My first bite into Nantes began on the very evening of my arrival, with l’apéro. I sat in the living room and watched, a little flustered, as all six members of my host family buzzed around me, gathering plates and various chips, cheese, and bread to be set on a small living room table. While preparing our first of many delicious shared meals, they explained to me their concept of l’apéritif (or l’apéro for short); basically, it is a drinking period that takes place before dinner, where the emphasis is placed on time and discussion shared with those around you. At their house, juices and snacks were also set out for the kids. Once we had started, though I was highly jet-lagged after 37 hours of travel time, I found the conversation stimulating and the snacks, in a word, delicious. My host family is experienced in l’apéro: everyone spoke effortlessly. Even the children, whether to politely ask me questions or talk about their own day, participated in the tradition. No one answered queries with short, easy answers like “it was good”, or “okay”, but instead gave detailed explanations and then proposed new questions that kept the discussion sailing despite my broken French. Thus, we continued talking late into the night as we moved onto the main dinner, and then the dessert. The memory of what I ate that first day escapes me, but I remember the aftertaste of contentment that lingered as I settled down to sleep.
Le petit déjeuner
The next morning, I stepped groggily out of my room into a whole new cultural lesson: breakfast. Since at home I can normally wolf down a large bowl of cereal, toast, and a banana for breakfast, I was surprised to find solely a bowl of bread on the table, along with an array of spreads such as jam, honey, butter, and fruit. After talking with other IES Abroad students, I found that they’ve had similar experiences. While my fear of going hungry prompted me to ask my host mother for a bowl of cereal instead (which she graciously provided) that first day, I have since then found that a couple of slices of fresh bread and a bit of jam is delicious enough to keep my stomach satisfied ‘til lunch.
If breakfast is a little small, lunch more than makes up for it. During my first free lunch period, I followed a group of others to a boulangerie nearby the IES Abroad center. I will admit it, my mouth watered as I surveyed in awe all the perfectly golden-brown topped pieces of bread, lightly dusted with white flour and cut in a way that enticingly revealed the soft-baked dough within. When I received my sandwich, the circles of cheese and sliced tomatoes proved to be just as fresh. I felt happy eating a sandwich that felt as loved and cared for by the earth that produced the ingredients as it was by the people that tenderly sliced and placed them together. Furthermore, the price was reasonable at around 4 euros for a long baguette, about 1 dollar less than a 6-inch subway sandwich where I’m from. And, don’t even get me started on the pain au chocolat I tried later: absolute pure bliss! With that first lunch came an epiphany; it seems that while the United States pushes for quantity and full-ness, France emphases quality and satisfaction with its food. Furthermore, in contrast to the US’s overpowering large chain stores, France has managed to keep its cuisine alive with its host of small boulangeries and other ethnic eateries, which I can’t restrain myself from going back to.
Since the first night, my host family and I haven’t shared another l’apéro, but the sharing-spirit of that first meal has settled over each dinner. The children take turns each day setting the table, and then when it’s time to eat, everyone takes the initiative to help serve each other. Slices of fabulous quiches, pizza, and baked pasta are balanced on silverware and distributed across the table. Once everyone is ready, with a knife and fork in hand (these utensils will likely remain in each hand for most of the dinner), a short word from the parents will signal us to start eating. Simultaneously, the conversation picks up speed. Normal conversations about each other’s day bring comforting reminders of my own family’s dinner traditions, but while at home our conversations normally die down after 30 minutes, my host family continues for up to an hour. At the end of dinner, each day is topped with a dessert or fruit, a nice sweetness that refreshes our palate for morning’s breakfast.
I can’t believe that, after around two weeks of being in France, what I’ve tasted is still only the appetizer compared to the plethora of different flavors I will experience during the upcoming academic year. With each meal comes a new mouthful of diverse and exotic flavors, richness entrenched in tradition and custom, and a sweetness that brightens the day. I find myself always in anticipation of the next bite.
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<p>My name is Miah Chu Won Tapper. I come from a large family with two younger brothers and three younger step-siblings, whom I live with on the small island of Oahu, Hawaii. I’ve always had a passion for traveling but until now I’ve only traveled the world in books. As a French major, I’m so excited to be able to continue the adventure in Nantes, France. </p>