French escape

L'arc de triomphe, Montpellier
L’arc de triomphe, Montpellier

I’m in Montpellier, making an escape from the UK just a few days after the latest in a long line of cancelled Brexit deadlines. Leaving the EU on Halloween proved to be a dystopian step too far, even for this government. And so we cling on to hope for better politics in 2020.

When the daily grind gets too relentless, I find France can be a good place to reset. I can’t physically go there often but I have an alternative: French films.

Being a Highly Sensitive Person (tongue in cheek here), I have to consider what types of entertainment I consume. If I’m feeling anxious, something violent where everyone is a sociopath won’t be helpful to my state of mind. That rules out many box office hits obviously. France seems to produce a genre of movie which is gentle on the soul. Typically it’s some sort of romantic comedy where there is lots of talking. Nothing much happens, not even any romance or comedy. Reading subtitles where jokes are lost in translation is a therapy of sorts.

The latest film I saw is called Non-fiction (Doubles vies). It’s the classic non-plot of an author trying to get his book published. You can tell he’s a creative type because he has a unkempt beard. There is lots of chat about the Internet, with characters debating whether blogs and social media are dumbing down traditional book publishing. Everyone is having an affair but no one seems particularly upset about it. There are a lot of scenes of people going round to friends’ houses for dinner. They drink wine and eat informally, grabbing a plate and inexplicably sitting on the floor rather than around a table, before someone goes off on a rant about politics and someone else goes out for a cigarette.

There is something quaint about all of this. If a man running a publishing company only just found out about digital publishing, he’d be a decade or two too late. In either London or Paris, who these days owns a home big enough to invite friends round? And when people are so over-scheduled, who actually sees friends? Or finds space in their calendars for two partners, a family and career? Non-fiction indeed seems pretty fictional.

But I guess that’s the point of an escape.

2016 trip to Montpellier

I discovered Montpellier two years ago. I’d been trying to learn French in London for a while, vaguely aspiring to communicate better with colleagues and equip myself for working abroad. The two hours a week at the French Institute weren’t transforming me in the way I’d hoped. I barely got out of work in time to get to the 7pm class and always arrived hungry and tired, my brain still trying to solve puzzles from the day and compose email responses in English. C’était impossible! What I needed was immersion.

So I took myself off for a week in a language school, booking into student accommodation. This was one of those ideas that seems great until you’re actually on the way to do it and you experience moments of extreme self-doubt. On the plane I realised I was once again flinging myself off into the unknown. Alone. Why couldn’t I find a way to relax that actually involved relaxation?

But it turned out very well. I loved the historical centre of Montpellier with its labyrinth structure, shops and bars. I found the daily morning language classes pretty enjoyable as I had time to focus on them and everyone there was exploring the region, as much as remembering the verbs. Everyone was simply less stressed. I did cookery classes. I found a routine of getting my bread from the bakery, cheese and ham from the supermarket, preparing lunch in my little dorm room. I’d explore in the afternoon and study my homework in the evening. There was something very satisfying about the simplicity.

This time I’m visiting Montpellier with less of a plan to learn. I’m staying in an apartment in the old centre, once again delighting in catering for myself via Monoprix and bakeries. I booked a tour of the local wine region Pic Saint Loup with an amiable tour guide Bertrand. He explained about the importance of ‘terroir’ and his mum made me lunch. I asked him what he thought of Prosecco. “You English drink it because it’s cheap”, he shrugged. “They put the price up, you stop. We only drink local wine” he paused and grinned “because we are proud”. This sort of dialogue could write itself. In case the experience wasn’t French enough, he threw in some Serge Gainsborough on the drive back.

At a time when the UK feels so divided and I feel personally unsettled, living the simple life in France feels like a remedy. There are problems here too, but during an escape you can engage only lightly with reality. Ignore the news, tune out the noise. Eat the bread, drink the wine. And just for a few days, that’s ok. More than ok actually.

It’s a pleasure.