“J’aime des oliviers,” she says, closing her eyes. “I like their form and their smell. They’re very beautiful.” I’d never heard anyone talk so lovingly about olive trees until I met our host mother, Dominique, in Nice. I think I learned a lot about the French culture through my time spent with her.
The minute we got off of the train from Paris, the heat hit us. Dominique was waiting with the other host moms outside of the station. She greeted my roommate Claudia and I with a toothy grin. Everything about her is petite: she’s short in stature with short, black hair and small feet—but that didn’t stop her from out walking us.
Our first dinner with Dominique taught me that the French don’t like—they love. She does not speak half-heartedly about anything. Every night we have dinner on her balcony and on that first night, the heat during the day had wringed us of any water that was in our bodies. So, when the sea breeze picked up as we ate our anchovy and fennel salad, Dominique closed her eyes, spread her arms out and said, “Ohhhh il fait beau ce soir.” When she expresses her love for anything it either involves a heartfelt sigh, her closing her eyes, or a wide smile.
“My favourite part about the sea is the sounds of the waves,” she said one night while we were having a picnic on a beach on the port side of Nice. She closed her eyes as she listened to the waves rain against the rocks as the sun set in the distance.
I also learned how important wine really is to the French. Dominique doesn’t drink wine every night. She’s 60 years old and tells us how she tries to stay healthy, but for special occasions like when her daughter and friend visited, she whipped out a smooth bottle of Muscat.
“À la votre santé,” she’d say, or “To your health.”
One dinner when we were clinking glasses, I went for her friend Daniel’s glass first. Then Claudia, who was sitting across from Daniel, went to cheers him after me and I proceeded to go under their arms to cheers Dominique.
Dominique’s eyes went wide and Daniel gasped. “Don’t cross the street!” They both yelled in unison. “That is very bad luck,” Dominique explained.
I laughed sheepishly and tried again, keeping my eye on the glasses this time.
“Maintain eye contact!” Daniel exclaimed. I was not aware of all the rules that went with drinking wine and I felt kind of silly, but thankfully my third try went smoothly.
Dominique really values her wine, but more importantly the quality of life Nice gives her. One evening, while we were having dinner, she told Claudia and I about how she didn’t work while her children were growing up. She put her heart and soul into making sure they’d be able to accomplish their dreams and they did. She raised four artists—two ballet dancers, one violinist, one pianist and I’m pretty sure all of them can sing too.
After her children flew the coop she moved from Toulouse to Nice. Nice is a wonderful city, but Dominique says living there is expensive. That’s why she took up a job with the education ministry. She says it’s hard to make money, but with the sea just a short walk or tram ride away and sunny weather year round, it’s all worth it.
The last thing I learned about the French culture through Dominique is their openness and endless curiosity. Claudia is from Peru and every dinner she’d tell Dominique and I about all of the interesting things her country had to offer: the food, Machu Picchu, the nature ... the food. Dominique’s eyes would light up and she’d lean in asking Claudia more and more questions (mostly about the food). She told us her dream is to run around the world. The places high on her list are Iceland and most of South America.
This definitely isn't reflective of all of France and its people, but it’s the aspect of France I’ve experienced and learned about the most.
It was lovely being a part of Dominique’s France.
The view from Dominique's balcony at night.