Being a tourist can be superficial and unsatisfying sometimes – rather like a one-night stand. You see some pretty things, drink more than usual, and sleep in a strange bed.There may be a souvenir or two in it – hopefully, nothing that requires drugs to get rid of – but in the end all you've really gotten out of it is a couple of kicks and a vague feeling a few days later that maybe it didn't really happen at all. In the case of the trip, of course, you know it did – at least when the credit card bill comes due.
I don't do shallow (well, not very often). When I travel I like to hang out in the same spot for a while, meet some local people, and get an idea of how they live and think. That means a DIY approach that doesn't include the usual hotels and bus tours. The best strategy I've come up with has three basic parts: rent an apartment, sign up for language immersion classes, and register with a local on-line dating service.
This winter's foray took me to the Languedoc region on the Mediterranean coast of France near the Spanish border, an area which boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year. I'd seen the pictures: gold light on rocky shores, vines heavy with deep purple grapes, ancient stone villages nestled in rugged mountain valleys, and fabulous fresh food with an emphasis on wine and cheese. Sign me up!
I went on-line, found a little studio apartment in the old town of Perpignan, scheduled French classes (two afternoons a week), and, a couple of months out, signed up with an on-line dating site. I was an instant heartthrob! Those French guys must really like Americans, I thought. Or do we have a certain reputation? Who cares! This was all in the name of education and international relations. Off I went!
And I was completely seduced – by the region though, not its men. The little coastal communities near the Spanish border with their wide, sandy beaches between rocky promontories topped by a medieval ruin or two were just like the postcards promised. I loved the acres of vineyards nestled among tiny medieval hill towns, and the castle ruins on remote cliffs.The proximity of Spain with its fabulous olives, chocolate and gazpacho was a bonus, too. And the cheese – I really loved that cheese! It went great with the wine.
Of course, it wasn't all about great wine and cheese, and pretty snapshots. I learned a lot from the experience – the first thing was about living in one of the quaint medieval alleys I love to photograph.
"Many French people live in smaller places," my Aussie landlord had shrugged. "It should do fine," I replied, mentally calculating it to be about 250 square feet. For a month, yes, it would do … barely.
"The shutters are great, if you want to sleep in."
Well, yes they were. It was easy to achieve pitch blackness, but far harder to entice a little daylight in. In winter, the sun never touches the alley I'd chosen.Ever. It went from dim grey in the morning to dim yellow when the street lights popped on at night. I had to lean out the open window to check the weather.On the other hand, I did have WIFI, could park nearby for free, and walk to all the interesting parts of the old city.
French. Thanks to the internet, everyone speaks English, right? And in tourist-oriented businesses, that was true. But it pretty well stopped there. My attempt to buy a French SIM card for my German cell phone and, later, trying to track down a book revealed the truth. Being able to parle a little français was really ,useful. The kids might get plenty of English at school, but like any subject kids cram for, it dissipates quickly afterward.
Men.There are thousands on-line looking for women in the region. Some are young and attractive; others are pushing the limit of their warranties. And still others are married (and this being France, completely okay with listing that fact in their on-line announcement). I test-drove a couple of hook-ups, amused myself (no, no one-night stands), and made a friend (with a house on the beach and a pool and dogs that need a sitter when he goes on vacation). I didn't find the love of my life, but, hey – no pressure – I wasn't looking. I left the Languedoc area with a laptop full of happy snaps, a few new e-mail addresses, a trunk full of great cheese, wine, and Spanish olives, and some wonderful memories. I could live there, I decided … one day. But, first, there are a few more places I want to have relationships with. Let me check my calendar …
ALFMED: There are lots of programs to choose from, and the staff was terrific (and happy to switch to English as needed). Their web site includes a self-test in French to help determine your level. So signing up for French classes had been an excellent plan. Besides, my contacts at school gave me people to hang out with, insider information on what to see and do and how to manage during the inevitable strikes.
Online Dating French Style: Want to try the French online dating service? It's fun, but you need a minimum of French language ability.
Photo Credits: Bread, Cheese & Wine by Thomas Perkins. St. Guilhem by Claudio Giovanni Colombo (Agency: Dreamstime.com)