Many people have asked me how and what I ate in France during this experience. Some have asked with genuine interest, others with ill-concealed preconceptions about the cuisine of our friends across the Alps. In continuing this saga of travel trivia, I would say that if you travel and don’t try the local food, you’ve only half-travel. But I would add that as well as sampling the restaurants and bars of my destination, I try – if time permits – to go to the markets, shops, and supermarkets of the place where I am, because despite globalisation, for me they represent a mirror of the culture, economy, and history of the country.
Living in the historic centre of Beaucaire, I could get to all these things within walking distance. On one of my first visits to the supermarket, I noticed something that I have rarely seen in other European countries: on almost every product, there was a clearly visible map of France showing the consumer where, but more importantly by whom, that particular food was produced. Maybe I’m wrong, but this could be a sign that in France special importance is given to nationally-produced produce.
Churros and halal baguettes
My culinary wanderings often also brought me into contact with the other ethnic groups that live in this town which I had already initially encountered in the laughter of the primary school children.
In the streets and shops of Beaucaire’s old town, besides French, mostly Spanish and Arabic are spoken (in that order), because here a large community from the many former North African colonies coexists with South Americans, who arrived decades ago to find work in agriculture and are now also employed in construction.
During my weeks in Beaucaire, I often met this latter segment of the population as they returned home in the evening, wearing cement-stained work overalls and safety shoes: the first time I noticed them because they were getting out of a van with the words Dios te ama written on it in gigantic letters, followed by the name of a Madonna or Saint. After a couple of encounters in the late warm afternoons of my French October, I started greeting them in my stupid Spanish.
Maybe I’m wrong in my analysis, but they seemed to me both happy and confused as if their presence was not always noticed or accepted there. Several times I seemed to witness a real non-coexistence between the various ethnic groups, which was also reflected in the shop windows: the boulangeries, run by French people, sold the unforgettable baguettes, while small bars – run in Spanish – offered the sweet smell of churros.
This total (or apparent, who knows?) disinterest (or antagonism) between the cultural and linguistic components of society was even more evident when I observed the part of the population that spoke Arabic.
I am not a big meat eater, but objectively the meat I found in the supermarkets was often of very poor quality and sat on the shelves for a long time before being changed. So, on my third day in Beaucaire, I went into a halal butcher shop to see if I could find a better product there.
A few seconds before entering, I had prepared my elementary sentence: je ne suis pas française, mais si vous parlez lentement, je comprends. Which was an out-and-out lie, because even if my interlocutor had spoken at the speed of a snail, I would still have understood at best 5%, desperately hoping to cling to some word that resembled something between French and Italian. My little phrase was my way of warning the owner of the butcher’s shop that he would, within seconds, be witnessing a very bad linguistic performance.
He smiled at me from behind his mask and asked me – in Spanish – if I spoke Spanish. And dear readers, to tell you the truth, I don’t know Spanish at all: I make it up. But in terms of comprehension, I understand it better than French, that’s for sure. So we started this conversation in Espan-Italian, in which we exchanged the usual questions of every traveller: where are you from, why are you here, how long are you staying, where are you going? All this while he prepared the best steak I’ve had in my weeks in France.
At a certain point, as I was about to pay, he dropped a phrase on me there that I have tried to analyse over and over again, without real success, over the last few months: Italians are not like French people. But why, what are the French like? And what are the Americans like? And what are the Bulgarians, the Vietnamese, the Portuguese like? And what are the Italians like? After all this travelling, I do not have correct, concrete and rational answers to these enormous ethnic and social questions. I only know that depending on the historical, social, cultural and economic situation in which we find ourselves moving, we are always strangers to someone. And the borders that for me (lucky me) do not exist, for others, are huge, high, impassable walls. We often find ourselves talking about racism and integration in such a superficial way. All I know is that I don’t have an answer to these divisions. I just try to be a good person when I travel and when I am at home. I try to understand as much as possible about the Other. I seek clarity.