It had seemed like a good idea… I was feeling tired and low, so on a whim, booked a train ticket and hotel to a random destination in France. So far so good, but then I got cold feet and a sudden case of shyness… But then I know that I’m a creature of contradictions, with warring inclinations alternately sending me off on adventures and then making me hide from them. Basically I’m a brave wimp. Is that impelling or introspective? Either way it’s time for me to explore ‘Finding my French Feet’…
My inclinations are all at odds again…. On one hand there is…
The Extrovert me!
I write and put my personal stuff out there. I give speeches and presentations. I even take charge and am decisive.
And I like being that person…
But then again there’s…
The Introvert me…
Look for me on another day and it maybe that you won’t find me, since I’m staying safe and still, hidden blithely out of sight.
And I like that version of me too…
It means that I’m a mixed up marriage of a girl with gypsy instincts, hitched to a stay at home hermit.
So the gypsy in me frets to flee my responsibilities and set myself free for a while. It’s such a wonderfully liberating ideal. But then my inner hermit gets cold feet…
Despite my misgivings I still bravely boarded a Eurostar train. And suddenly, there I was, in the city of Lille, in France, on my own. And so I had to own my sudden shyness.
I had embarked on a mild mannered adventure, breaking my norm, expanding my horizons and insisting to myself that I must practise a language I rarely speak. So I’d made the journey and so far so good, but still I needed some time to adjust to my new solo world and overcome my protectionist fears.
Smartly marching off the train, I floundered around on foot until I finally found my hotel – hidden away in plain sight. I must have walked past it at least 5 times. Oh well – I didn’t earn the nickname ‘Crap Nav’ without good reason…
But having found my new home I wasn’t quite ready to adventure yet. Instead I quietly caught up on work in a café, with a croissant and hot chocolate for company. Then hid away in my hotel room to sleep and read my time away.
The heated world of France outside my room intruded into my idyll. The bars, cafes and hotels surrounding me were full of people watching football, as France played a World Cup round against Uruguay. I could tell from the never ending cheers that my host country had won, so my inner gypsy pushed me out to revel in the atmosphere. And when the revelry reached fever pitch, my hermit took over and I skulked off to the quietest, least threatening restaurant I could find for dinner.
As I sat with an aperitif waiting for my starter to arrive, I mused that being middle aged is interesting… I’ve definitely lost the confidence of youth, but now I have more knowledge and surety. My gypsy and hermit tendencies may be constantly contradicting each other, but at least these days I’m good with that and I know that on my path, I can make my own rules.
I realise too after half a life time, that the French I have learnt over the years is stuck in my brain, so that’s as good a metaphor as any I can think of for where I am in life. I have amassed a set of skills and experience. On my little sortie into France it was time to add to those – to speak and act in a different lexicon. Time too to stride out into the world, be a bit of a braver soul, an unashamed tourist and an observer, encore…
Somehow after some time I eased in and found my French feet. The next day was a shamelessly touristy one of shopping and walking, as I wandered around, happy as a clam. My French wasn’t perfect, but it served, I got by and on the whole I was forgiven my linguistic imperfections.
Being in a city, I didn’t expect to get eaten alive by (what felt like at least) 60000 or so avaricious mosquitoes. I was covered in itchy blistering bites from head to foot. Then again all the gluten I’d consumed into my gluten intolerant body had given me indigestion. I decided this was all part of the experience and headed for the nearest Pharmacie, there to consult with a man in a white coat who recommended homeopathic remedies to me in a typically French fashion… I chose to keep enjoying myself and that minor medical misfortunes were of no consequence in the grand ‘weekend’ of things.
Whilst my gypsy let me play Russian roulette with the food to get the full on French experience, my hermit told me to avoid the strong French coffee – that was one food intolerance TOO far (the stuff makes me seriously ill).
The next day I had a late breakfast in a little enclosure on the pavement outside my hotel which faced the Gare de Lille – the city’s train station. I sat watching the road works and the people go by, including 8 soldiers cradling their macabre rifles as tenderly as if they were babies. I’d already seen them at the rail stations I’d passed through in France on this trip, but to see armed soldiers on the street like that felt raw and odd. I rationalised it as a show of protectionism, given recent terrorist events in this country, but it seemed odd, just a couple of hours from my English door, where we’ve had our own share of similar atrocities.
An American tourist oblivious of my musings wandered in past the street barrier, seeking ice cubes for her for her flask – asking the waiter in a mixture of French and English. He shook his head and I tried to translate. “I looked the word up on google” she said adamantly. Then she asks me if she could buy some from the hypermarket over the road. I explained that it was Sunday so it was closed. “That’s strange”, she said. “That’s how it is in Lille” I replied with a Gallic shrug. I spoke to the waiter again and he reluctantly purloined some ice from the bar for her. “Your French is fluent, do you live here?” She asked. Suddenly I wasn’t such a shy a stranger… Cue another Gallic shrug – “I’m just here for the weekend”…
Another day of sightseeing / meandering ensued. On a tour bus, there was some light and friendly French chatter with the woman sitting next to me. I’m particularly proud that I made her laugh, when I pointed out the bird sitting atop the proud head of very serious statue. I made someone laugh… In French! She hadn’t seen the bird or the joke at first, but a few words and a dramatic mime had her laughing and frantically snapping away with her phone camera, hopefully to share the joke with who knows who back home.
Lille is close to the Belgian border and still has a distinctly Flemish flavour, especially in its architecture. On the bus I saw a city of history and modernity, the two sometimes neatly dissected and often fiendishly integrated. At the end of concreted side streets I’d glimpse churches of astounding beauty and gargantuan proportions. Behind road works and sitting amongst rows of modern terraces, ornately façaded buildings would suddenly assert themselves to my senses and let me admire them from afar.
The bus whizzed us pass the cathedral, statues and civic buildings – ancient and modern. We skirted the old quarter and admired its historical tweeness. We craned our necks to fill our camera lenses with giant towers -precariously shooting our photo prey in between the silhouettes of the couple sitting in front of us.
Disembarking the bus I made my way back to hone in on the places I wanted to pry on some more. First stop was the Old Market, where the locals come to buy fresh food produce and then get a beer at the one of the surrounding bars – to smoke and talk and create a cacophony of crowded Sunday sound.
I dawdled through the old quarter and stopped for lunch outside a bistro on a sunny street. Having read that Lille followed the Belgian fashion of drinking beer rather than wine, I plunged in and ordered a Leff Ruby – a lager of a rich red colour and gorgeously fruity taste to go with my Tarteflette.
I lingered around the flea market housed in the square of the deliciously ornate Stock Exchange building, then wandered back to my hotel for a nap.
Later on I found a Moroccan cafe where I seemed to be the only tourist they had seen in a very long time. The waiter bade me to sit inside, but I asked to sit out on the street explaining that I didn’t like football (which was loudly blaring from the incumbent TV attached to the wall).
The only other customers outside were a young couple, who seemed to be smirking at me. Feeling the discomfort of their attentions, I ignored rather than engaged with them…
I know my Moroccan food and am fluent in menu, so confidently ordered a lamb tagine, washed down with water, since no alcohol was on sale – at this Halal establishment.
The food was scrumptious and I slowly picked it apart and devoured it, watching the street comings and goings in the shadow of a huge and beautifully ornate church.
Feeling the need of a drink to finish off my last evening in France with a suitable finale, I headed towards the tourist area. Suddenly I lost my nerve again. The bars were crowded and noisy. I circled them all at least 3 times, until finally I told myself to get a grip and just sit my arse down at the nearest one. I drank more Ruby beer and watched the world go by, then followed the sound of music, around the corner in the Place Charles de Gaulle.
I sat myself down on the wall of the fountain, alternatively watching water splash and then the couples who had gathered to dance tango to modern Latin beat. The sun sank down. It felt like a gourmet slice of heaven…
Despite my occasional timidity, travelling alone is liberating – you set your own agenda, you make the decisions and the only ego you have to tussle with, is your own.
As a creature of contradictions, I’m a little home bird hermit that loves to nest in peace and I also have a gypsy spirit (and Traveller’s ancestry in my DNA), so necessity has been the mother of invention when wanderlust calls and I need to fly the confines of the familiar, soaring over the horizon of my fears.
So maybe my inner gypsy and hermit are not at odds after all. In fact they allow me simultaneously to adventure and keep me safe.
And if that is yet another contradiction, then it is also a choice and one I know that I will keep making, as my adventures through life – huge or tiny, continue.
~ Sandra Peachey – Timid Adventurer
PS: My book – Peachey Letters – Love Letters to Life has been featured in Psychologies Magazine and The Lady, it was also honoured as a Finalist in the 2015 International Book Awards.
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I’m also variously known as:
* The Director of LifeWork Consultancy & Coaching;
* The Author of Peachey Letters – Love Letters to Life and Co-Author of The F-Factor.
* A 2015 International Book Awards Finalist, in the Women’s Issues Category;
* The Winner of a Women Inspiring Women Award in 2013;
* As being shortlisted for Women’s Coach in the APCTC Awards 2014, also nominated in 2012 & 2013; and
* Being nominated for a Networking Mummies National Recognition Award in 2015.