Living abroad in Strasbourg, France, this past year has really challenged everything I thought I knew about myself. I have seen myself become the beer-drinking, efficient map-reading individual I never thought I’d be. Anyone who knows me also knows I like a good bargain. Whether it’s a free pen from the forum or an overripe mango left behind in the reduced section of Tesco, the thought of saving money has always appealed to the stingy student in me. It therefore came as a surprise when I spent €7.50 on a ball of string a few weeks ago that I only used a few metres of to hang up photos. Pre-year abroad me would find this outrageous. French me finds little indulgences a daily occurrence. If I have a choice between croissant or no croissant, the choice will always be croissant. It really goes to show that spending a significant time abroad will inevitably change you.
I like to compare this year in France to a year long Fresher’s Week: you find yourself simultaneously having the time of your life galloping around in your new found freedom whilst also feeling very overwhelmed and secretly seeking stability. Throw in a completely new culture which sees you facing a shortage of cheddar cheese and baked beans, people who ignore the concept of queuing which we Brits love so much and a language you are still getting to grips with, and you can start to get a picture of life here in Strasbourg. Although, I must admit the vast majority of my experiences here have been positive: I’ve developed a lot of confidence through teaching for the British Council and I’ve been very lucky to find a close group of English-speaking friends, whilst also having a few French friends scattered around who really give me an insight into the Alsatian culture.
you find yourself simultaneously having the time of your life galloping around in your new found freedom whilst also feeling very overwhelmed and secretly seeking stability
Strasbourg is the largest city in the Alsace region and is just next to the German border. In fact, the closest city to us is Kehl which takes about 20 minutes to get to by bus. I used to find it bizarre that French people would pop over the border to do their shopping at Lidl or Aldi, but it really is so much cheaper! Especially frozen food , and toiletries like shampoo and conditioner which normally cost €4 or €5 in France. Although Strasbourg is very much a French city now, in the past the Alsace region was passed between France and Germany multiple times, and it’s easy to see the German influence on Strasbourg’s culture. Particularly when it comes to the regional food and language, which is Alsatian.
it’s easy to see the German influence on Strasbourg’s culture
The most famous dishes in Strasbourg are often seen on German menus, such as sauerkraut, which is served with a variety of porkbased meats, and spaetzle, a bready-pasta a bit like gnocchi, which can be served as a side or a dish on its own, often with a cheesy sauce. Another speciality, which is served in almost every restaurant, is tarte flambée, or “flammekueche”, which is an Alsatian pizza made with dough, crème fraiche, onions and lardons. At the beginning of the year I fell in love with tarte flambée, however, because I ate so many I accidentally overdosed and now I find it slightly too rich with all the cream. My friends have taught me some of the Alsatian dialect, which is spoken by both older and younger people in the region. I personally think it’s quite amusing to listen to because it is such a mixture of French and German. I learnt the very useful phrase “bière buche” which means beer belly, and if you meet some friends in a bar the expected greeting is “ça gehts?” which is a mixture of the French “ça va” and the German “wie gehts”. According to a French friend, the Alsatian language sounds a bit like Welsh (although it sounds like Flemish to me).
I am trying to take part in as many cultural activities as possible whilst I am in Strasbourg. So far, I’ve been to wine-tasting events, a French opera, a play, the cinema to see a few French films and some English films dubbed into French to compare, an ice hockey match between Strasbourg and Lyon, and a few gigs. I am also currently reading Harry Potter in French, which is quite funny seeing as all the names are different. I also can’t talk about life in Strasbourg without mentioning the famous Christmas markets, which take over the city in November/December. The city centre is like a scene from a movie with its rows of wooden chalets adorned in lights; it becomes the Winter Wonderland of every child’s dream.
The city centre is like a scene from a movie with its rows of wooden chalets adorned in lights; it becomes the Winter Wonderland of every child’s dream
It’s sad to think that there are only a few months left of my time in France. But there’s no point dwelling on the future when there are still many cheeses to be tried and wines to be tasted. If you need me I’ll be buying jeans in the next size up – I blame the bière buche.
France: land of wine, the Eiffel Tower and the most romantic language in the world. Although not without its problems (did someone say bureaucracy?) France fully lives up to its romantic stereotypes. I lived in the historic Breton capital of Rennes on my year abroad, and everything I learnt about the language and culture has secured la France a very special place in my heart.
France fully lives up to its romantic stereotypes
This is my whistle-stop tour of the Hexagon; be prepared for clichés, pretentious French words, and squishing a year of experiences into two short lists:
Four must-see places
1. Paris. The City of Lights stole my heart from the first time I went, and continues to delight me every time I go back. I like to go full tourist and see the sights on an open bus tour, sample as many cafés as I physically can, and visit one of my favourite places: Shakespeare and Co., a gorgeous little bookshop with plenty of nooks and crannies to lose yourself in for an afternoon.
2. Aix-en-Provence. A town in the South of France with sundrenched cobbled streets, a famous Saturday morning flower market and so much French charm you’ll never want to leave.
3. The Palace of Versailles. A tourist attraction that truly lives up to its reputation. Full of astounding beauty, splendour and class and with a rich history, much more than just one visit’s worth!
4. St Malo. A seaside Breton town complete with a beautiful harbour and walled historic town that looks like something out of a film. Plus it’s easy to get to: just stay for a few hours after your ferry gets in!
Three cultural things I miss
1. Faire la bise. This is the French tradition of kissing everyone on the cheek, which despite initially finding odd I grew to embrace. It takes away the awkwardness of what to do when meeting someone for the first time, and means new people immediately feel welcomed into a group.
2. The food. I’m not talking about frog’s legs and snails, but the regional delicacies that you find all around France. Whether it’s quiche lorraine in Alsace, moules marinières in Marseille or pâtisserie in Paris, the best way to experience France is through its food (and of course, its wine).
3. Crêpes. So good that they deserve their own bullet point. Brittany’s speciality is savoury galettes, especially galettes saucissons, the French take on hot dogs. My favourite combo is a ham and cheese galette followed by a chocolate and frangipane crêpe (if you ever happen to find yourself in Rennes, visit Crêperie Sainte-Anne for the best crêpes in the city).