This past weekend was a long one for all Pau residents — most get the day off for the 14th of July! It was especially long for me, as Thursday morning the Tour de France took off from Pau, so we got the day off to enjoy the lively departure. Despite the high energy and breathtaking view of the mountains that surrounded the cyclists as they sped away from the finish line, I was glad to be relaxing in my city rather than pedaling in the steep mountains for hours.
Celebrating the 14th in French class
My host family kindly invited me to join a family reunion that weekend, a jolly affair in the center-north of France: Burgundy. To arrive in good time, we left at 6 AM, picked up my host mom’s parents, and drove 10 hours through the countryside and paid auto-routes. Many people travel this way through France, as the country is small enough to traverse, and since the route is paid, and it is well-maintained with large rest stops at regular intervals. The most different thing is the atmosphere at these stops– there are large green areas crowded with picknickers enjoying baguettes, salads, and wine. Though there are lovely tables and trees, it is a bit odd to see the contrast between the concrete auto-route and relaxed French travelers!
The village is the home base for the family: quite a few members own and live in houses there, and it is where the great-grandparents that ‘founded’ the family lived. It was completely different than small-town America: there was not a single shop, restaurant, market, or cafe, just homes, a large church, and a community center. The residents drive to the next town for their provisions. Despite this, it is an absolutely beautiful old village, with stone buildings sporting colorful shutters and a river trickling amongst vibrant gardens and wildflowers. Bucolic footbridges cross the little river, and an old ‘lavoir,’ or laundry house, remains next to the water. In the mornings, I went on runs through the adjacent fields of corn and wheat; I even saw a lithe fox dart in the dense forest.
We stayed in the cozy, vine-covered home of my host mother’s cousin, where we enjoyed lengthy aperitifs on the terrace, long nights of conversation in the moonlight, and sleepy mornings with the coffee on the table and the door wide open for guests to say hello. Despite having this home base, we did a lot of visiting for such a small village! Our first evening, we did a ‘tour’ of the family, ambling into different homes to ‘faire la bise’ (greet with two kisses on the cheek) and converse. I tried my best to soak all the French in! We also played games in the main ‘plaza,’ right in front of the church. I won second place in Guess the Object, where I was blindfolded and had to name an object by touch. There was a downright flurry of introductions and names, as there were probably close to 40 people dispersed through the various homes, but I was surprised by my knowledge of the family by Sunday night!
Late nights are a given, so mornings are quiet until 10 AM—though I enjoyed the peace by jogging in the fields and village. Saturday, nonetheless, was leisurely; I read, went with a few members of the family to a bigger city to buy a gift, and joined the majority of the family by the lake to soak in the sun. Afterwards, one of the cousins gave us an amazing bell-tower concert. Those who wished to climbed up the dusty stairs to the creaky, wooden bell-tower, and the strong woman commenced to give an impressive (and loud!) concert using three bells, the ingenious rope-and-pulley system, and great arm strength. It was crowded, noisy, and perfect.
The famed old family photo
That evening was the main event – the grand dinner at the community center, games, and lots of dancing! As the tradition goes, the first hour or so was dedicated to the aperitif, drinks and little bowls of snacks, with the prime activity being chatting and wandering between the clutches of family members. Of course, if a new person arrived, a full round of hearty greetings were in order!
Me and a few members of the family
We played a fun matching game, in which each person got a riddle about a person and had to guess who it was, as well as took lots of pictures, studied the giant family tree, and tried to identify different relatives in a blown-up family photo taken 40 years ago. Though the conversations were hard to follow, it was so pleasant to be surrounded by chatter, laughter, and clinking glasses—no matter the language!
After a lovely dinner, cheese course, and stunning desserts, the lights went off and the music was on! Though before the background music was American pop, now French classics and accordion music started the night, with couples dancing. Of course, as the night grew, so did the energy—though I left early (midnight!), the party spiraled on until 4 AM.
Of course, the next day started later for most, and the next morning was reserved for rest and saying goodbye. We all met in the community center midday and said our too-early goodbyes—a long process, but a nice one. Then, back into the car for the 10-hour journey home. When we arrived home at 1 AM, I was tired, but full with good memories and anticipation to start the week’s French classes!