La Belle France!

Being raised bilingual never felt like a big deal when I was a child. It was just a fact. I spoke English with my mom and French with my dad and that was pretty much it. My brother and I adored Nutella, and I used to love bragging to my friends that the one staple in our house was always a glass jar of sweet hazelnut butter. No exceptions. Being too young to drink coffee, we would drink our steamed milk out of the same style bowl my dad sipped his coffee out of, dunking our pastries the way the French do…in the bowl, and slurping up the crumbs with milk and a quiet melody of Joe Dassin singing in the background. These were our weekend morning rituals.

It wasn’t until high school that I felt being French-American was actually “cool.” I suddenly began to realize that our trips to the French countryside, with the occasional day or two in Paris, were something to cherish as opposed to thinking of them as routine. Going back to France for the summer always felt like a homecoming. Although my brother and I are not nearly as cool as Clark Kent, I sometimes imagined we were in the same position. He would take off his work clothes to reveal a shimmery superhero suit, while when our plane touched down in France we would pull out our sleek maroon passports and glide through the European Union passport control, with a sort of slyness and mockery at those silly Americans waiting in their own line. Because though we may speak English, now we were in France and it was time to pull out the big guns. Pretty much equal, right? And what I love most about the Charles-De Gaulle airport is the fact that absolutely nothing has changed. When you wait for your bags at baggage claim, right before exiting the terminal, there is this weird poster of a model posing with an Eiffel tower attached to her head with shoelaces, gazing off into the distance. When we were young enough to ride on the trolley you hitch your luggage to, my brother and I would always stare, mimic, and make fun of that poster for who only knows what reason. And yet, it is still hanging on the walls of Roissy Charles-De Gaulle today.

In France, our favorite radio station sings only throwback songs, appropriately called, “Nostalgi,” the station’s theme music is the same today as when we were young. Maybe I feel this tremendous homecoming because as we get older, our little town in the north of France never seems to change. It feels frozen in time. We’re about three hours north of Paris, nestled along rolling fields of wheat, and a countryside made up of entirely pastel earth tones. The biggest attraction in our small town is of a large statue of a wild boar named, Woinic, the town’s mascot. It’s simultaneously hilarious and embarrassing. The poor beast used to even spin in circles for tourists to “admire,” as they drove through Les Ardennes. I’m only partly kidding as the next biggest attraction is of Sedan’s Chateaux-Fort, one of the oldest and largest war castles of the medieval times. When we were young my brother and I believed it belonged to us.

The sleepy town of Sedan is not a place I would want to retire to, but I understand its appeal. My grandpa was a doctor when he worked, and as we drive down the streets, or walk through the aisles of a grocery store, he sometimes points out the buildings of his old clients, even getting stopped by family members of patients he used to treat. He was well known and respected, and that sort of familiarity and pride is lost in the hub of many cities and towns today. The days when we go to visit are simple. Waking up late isn’t usually in my repertoire, but the understanding of productivity is rooted in the fact that it’s more important to simply to be there, than, “to do.”

So, without an alarm clock, I wake up, if I’m hungry I’ll eat breakfast, if not, I’ll get dressed, put on my running shoes, open the blinds that cover every window of the small three-story cottage, grab a key and try and pry the large green gate open. Our small white cottage is old. Having just gotten a few much-needed renovations, it’s a silent rule that whoever wakes up first opens the blinds. All motorized, it takes maybe ten minutes, but it always feels like more to carefully turn on each switch until finally, the house is open and illuminated! Then, I run.

While the mountains are more like molehills, it’s a treat to run along the expansive countryside. Sometimes I’ll go through the forest, stopping by the cows to make eye contact with each of them, or sometimes I’ll run the perimeter of the town, never stopping despite the countless amounts of weird eye-contact I get from strangers who must be thinking, “what the hell is this person doing,” as if they’ve never seen another runner in their entire life. I mean, why would you go running when you can eat a baguette? In France, the rules of the road are different. Pedestrians are seen as a fly on the windshield; pedestrians do not get priority.

With the help of my dad, I figured out a route that connects our small town of Sedan with the next town over. I’d take this incredible bike path that runs along a little river for about 15-ish miles from our house to another small town called, Charleville Mezières. The bike path has road-side french-fry shacks and ice cold coca-cola carts adorning the edge. It’s hilariously french that in the middle of some sort of physical exercise you should stop for a soda and snack. That run was the longest I’ve done in Sedan, and it got me thinking about many more adventures are literally at our fingers tips. I’m someone who can often get complacent. I think I get it from my dad, a quality that I actually don’t mind as much. It’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that why fix something that’s not broken? We’re creatures of habit and I think to the people we love it’s a comfort.

My route inputted into my watch, I set sail along the river and found something reassuring. Taking risks, despite being small ones, always pay off. My dad and I work well together, he’s always willing to be there for you, and I’m always up for the adventure. It wasn’t a circumnavigation of Mont Blanc, but it was perfect in its own right.

The food at our cottage is simple, and the way I enjoy it to be. I adore that my grandpa spends hours researching what’s good for our bodies, and after a heart attack he suffered a few years ago, I don’t think he minds paying closer attention to what’s on his plate. When lunch is a tomato, raw mushrooms, spinach, sautéed tofu and a slice rye bread baguette with cheese to finish, I’m a happy woman. It’s the small things that bring the greatest pleasure, and I think that could be the motto for Sedan in it of itself.

When we set off for a few days in Paris, I searched the inter-web for healthy eateries and cafes, much to the dismay of my dad and brother. Their philosophy is to enjoy the greasy offerings of steak frites and fresh croissants. And while I don’t have anything against their mindset, my idea of enjoying a city is finding food that makes you happy. Lunch upon arrival was at Wild and the Moon, a beautiful nourish bowl on my plate and a matcha latte in my cup, and a grimace on my dad’s face with a scorn on my brother’s. Morgan got a kebab a few hours later from a curbside food truck.

When I travel, what makes me the happiest is discovering how other cities interpret what it means to serve healthy food and more often sustainable as well. While I wholeheartedly believe treating yourself on vacation should be a priority, what’s comforting to me is exploring a new city and finding local foods prepared in such a way that is nourishing and delicious. And more often than not, finding those things isn’t difficult, it just takes a little bit more attention. I know that after a run (which is non-negotiable for me while traveling), I’ll be hungry and in need of fuel. So finding an organic food shop and stocking the mini fridge with eggs to hard boil, a few pieces of fresh fruit and coffee will make my body feel good and my mind ready to tackle the adventures of touristing. Plus, you’ll save money being that you won’t need to eat out for breakfast too.

I’m not sure why the milk is better, but the dairy in Europe is divine. From frothed milk folded into coffee, cheese after dinner, or yogurt between meals, if I turned into a milk-maiden and eloped to the country I may not ever be opposed. You don’t have to go to Europe and gorge yourself in phyllo dough to feel as if you’re “making the most of the trip.” I’ve struggled in the past with feeling like if I wasn’t eating a certain way in a certain country than it was a vacation wasted; being in a new town means exploring everything. and not just the food. Of course, it’s certainly encouraged to try local cuisine, but it’s not to say you should feel uncomfortable and lethargic every day after eating ten croissants at breakfast. Try a little bit of everything, move your body, and enjoy being in a new community and meeting new people. Ask the locals for places to eat, shop at markets and if you have a kitchen, cook with regional products!

Running in Paris is magical to me. Waking up to the sunrise over the Seine is a treat that I find myself enjoying probably as much as my dad enjoys his pain-au-chocolate, and that is truly saying something. The architecture that makes up Paris is startlingly beautiful, and even though I may be wearing spandex and sneakers, running beside those magnificent buildings makes me feel royal in some way. I think I love it so much too because I take every bit of pressure off myself. Traveling forces me to let go of the harsh regime I put myself through, and I can enjoy the run purely for movement’s sake. And while this sort of philosophy should be applied regularly, when you’re home it’s hard to balance putting in hard work for a race while also being able to simply enjoy it. It’s a bit like when you visit a new destination and you convince yourself you could move there, but quickly remember that you’re in vacation mode so of course you like it more, there isn’t any stress.

Paris is luxurious. Paris in the rain is luxurious. Paris at midnight is luxurious. Paris, when France wins the world cup, is fucking magnificent. But that’s beside the point. Being with my dad and brother, walking through the cartiers, stopping to sit for coffee and admiring the slower paced life planted the idea of moving back there (soon). We all agreed that the milk is more delicious, the people are less connected (which is a good thing), and the traditions are fortified in time.

France is healing in my mind. Perhaps it’s because for a few days, regardless of my situation at home, I escape to a new land and get to speak a fancy language and wear a little more perfume and feel a little more sophisticated. I come home relishing family dinners and wanting to make every day calm and productive. I soak up walking through the farmers market and preparing meals from scratch because that’s the norm at our home in France. I get lost during the year among the chaos of my own mind; constantly feeling like I’m not doing enough to the opposite end and feeling like I do too much. Most days I’ll stay in gym shorts and a t-shirt, while in France putting jeans on is about the equivalent to leggings…get dressed the strangers mutter under their breath.

Every time I go and come back I feel grateful. The people in my life make oscillating between the two continents worth it and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I love the tranquility of running an hour through France and reading in the garden for the rest of the day. I also love the extreme of ultrarunning here and spending hours on the trail in preparation for a race.

My point (to myself) is that you don’t just have to be one or the other. For that reason, I don’t like saying I’m a vegetarian. I like eating mostly plants, but sometimes roasted chicken is appropriate. Life isn’t black and white and it’s funny how often I can forget that.

About the author

Gabi Maudiere enjoys eating rice cakes (smothered in crunchy peanut butter) despite popular criticisms and adheres strictly to the notion of reading before bed, even if it's just half a page before falling asleep.