“Reims? Rouen? Rabastens? Anyone else got any ideas?”. As we trudge welly-booted through the French countryside, our brains are most definitely being put through their paces, trying to decipher the cryptic clues that make up the traditional New Year’s Day treasure hunt. There’s certainly no better way to blow out the cobwebs, nor is there a more effective way to work off last night’s canapés and Champagne, than walking through the French countryside with the crisp, cool air and, if we’re lucky, brilliant sunshine of the Tarn Valley on our faces.
As my family and I are fortunate enough to have visited my Aunt and Uncle in this part of France for the last five or so years, we’ve come to realise that this not-so-well-known French Department really is a hidden treasure, and somewhere where us Brits can still show ourselves to be stereotypical Brits abroad at times, whether we want to or not!
A countryside view of Salvagnac
How to Buy Hats for Lambs
This was not more evident than in the ordering of the meat for our New Years Eve meal. Off we go to the boucherie, full of confidence in our school-days’ French, and proceed to order our lamb cutlets. The butcher goes out back, returns and seemingly finds our order understandable and, in rapid-fire French, tells us to see the girl at the end of the counter.
Off we go, we repeat our order to the girl, who again seems to understand and writes down what we want. We leave the butchers, proud of our language skills, and suddenly realise our mistake. The hats! We’ve forgotten to order the paper hats for the lamb!
So we return to the butchers and ask, “Avez vous les chapeaux pour L’agneau?”. And it soon becomes quite clear that everyone in the butchers, be they staff or shoppers alike, are wondering who these two mad English women are that buy hats for their sheep! After much shrugging, gesticulating and more rapid French later, we discover the correct French word for those pesky paper hats which are causing us so much trouble, embarrassment, and ultimately laughter: Papillote!
How to Buy Wine the Frenglish Way
And then there is the visit to the vineyard. We pull up and climb out of our cars, only to find that the shop, attached to the vintner’s house, is empty. So we wait. And we wait, and we wait, and we wait, all the while trying to translate the magazine article on the wall about said vintner: “the secret to wine production lies in patience.” It seems that the secret in buying wine also lies in patience!
In our rather British way, we decide that rather than potentially disturbing the owner by knocking on his front door and using yet more embarrassing ‘Frenglish’, we’d rather make a lot of noise and hope that he hears us.
So we proceed to pull one of the cars into the gravel drive of the house and execute a 10-point turn. “If we’re going to do this properly, we should at least do a wheel-spin and a wheelie!”, Mr Lighty exclaims, but fortunately, neither is needed as the vintner at last hears us and comes out of the house and crosses to the shop to serve us.
A vineyard view
How to Enjoy the Tarn Valley
But aside from immersing oneself in the local life of this region, there is much to offer the visitor: from art and architecture in Albi, to culture in Castres, and gastronomy in Gaillac, not to mention the local vineyards, antiques shops, food markets and countryside walks.
And anyway, isn’t it more fun to give it a go and try your hand at the local language? Who cares if you get it wrong? Travelling is all about experiencing new cultures and there’s no better way of doing that than by getting involved.
After all, we did eventually get our wine, and even our hats for the lamb – although I can just imagine the stories being relayed around various French dinner tables that evening of the mad English women who put hats on their sheep!