The shoreline in La Ciotat. Photo: Kristin Espinasse

More than two decades on, France and its people still make Kristin Espinasse’s heart skip a beat

You have probably stumbled across the word terroir (especially if you are a wine lover) and have a notion as to what it means. But, lately, this earthy term is taking on even more significance, helping to clarify just what it is I love about France. And it’s more than the food, more than the architecture, more than French dirt!

My husband, a French vigneron, says a complete definition of terroir (beyond the region in which the grapes are grown and the soil) would include the history of a place and even the winemaker. Mais bien sûr! It is also le facteur humain that describes our strong attraction to France.

I love the way French women of all ages stroll arm-in-arm. At a time when adolescents are awkward about everything, you’ll still see girls walking, les bras entrelacés. Throwing their heads back, laughing and chatting, it’s the most natural thing in the world. I’ve been honoured by such arm-hugging tenderness which, culturally, is a little less natural to me. Slightly embarrassed, I will gradually – so as not to make things even more awkward – let my arm slip away until, ahhh, I’m more in my comfort zone. But I will always appreciate the endearing moment a friend reaches for my arm while out on a stroll.

Speaking of endearing: I love the affectionate way the French acknowledge a kindness. “Vous êtes adorable!” they’ll gush. Where else on the planet will a perfect stranger say, in so many words, you are worthy of love and adoration?! You will hear this phrase while serving an impromptu coffee (our plumber said it to me the other day, as I added a lump of sugar to his espresso). The compliment can be used anywhere, anytime. “Vous êtes adorable!” I thanked the cashier who left his register to help me carry a heavy cagette of patates and melons to my car.

One may have sinned a thousand times but, for a moment in time, in a stranger’s eyes, we are worthy of veneration. There is something else I enjoy here in France, though not every foreigner will agree: it’s the way a clerk will honour your place.

C’est-à-dire, when it is finally your turn at the counter you will be given the time you need and then some. Never mind the long queue behind you. When it is your moment to do business at the post office or the pharmacy or at the art supply store, you can linger with your needs, your unending questions, and your doubts. I am still not comfortable doing this – no matter how many times the postal worker says “Ils peuvent attendre”. There is time. Perhaps le temps is yet another element here?

It could unlock the mystery of why so many of us feel an attraction magnétique towards France. It’s visceral, it’s minéral, it’s surréaliste. We feel we have, at some other point in time, been a part of this terroir. We walked along the salty shores or inhaled the mineral scent of the earth as we strolled arm-in-arm in the countryside with a soulmate… our endearing âme sœur, La France.

FRENCH VOCABULARY

LE TERROIR = soil, region
UN VIGNERON = winemaker
UN BRAS = arm
ENTRELACER = intertwine
UN CAGETTE = crate
UNE PATATE = potato, spud
UNE QUEUE = line, queue
C’EST-À-DIRE = that is to say
ILS PEUVENT ATTENDRE = they can wait
ÂME SŒUR = soulmate

From France Today magazine

Read more of Kristin’s popular columns here:
Le Dernier Mot: Inside Job
Le Dernier Mot: Naked Ambition
Le Dernier Mot: That Which We Call a Rose…
Le Dernier Mot: France Isn’t All That Bad!
Le Dernier Mot: A Passage to Corsica
Le Dernier Mot: Desperately Seeking… Dessert
Le Dernier Mot: Sirène Again!
Le Dernier Mot: Milking the Breakfast Bar
Le Dernier Mot: Saperlipopette
Le Dernier Mot: Uninvited Guêpes
Le Dernier Mot: An Exception to Every Rule

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