As I glimpsed a sparkle from the brilliantly blue Mediterranean from the airplane window, my excitement began to bubble over. This was it! I was really going to France! While I hesitate to call myself a full-blown Francophile, given that my interests are mostly linguistic, I’ve always had a soft spot for “l’Hexagone”.
My decision to learn French was made nearly twenty years ago when I became friends with a girl in my kindergarten class whose family was Quebeçois. During playdates at her house, they never hesitated to speak French to one another, though they would always pardon themselves due to my monolingualism, and translated for me if necessary. Naturally, I decided that when I got older, I too would learn French, so I could share in the foreign language fun. If I’d only known how much easier it would have been to begin a second language at five than at fourteen, I would have insisted my parents find me French lessons immediately (and I would have had many more built in opportunities to practice, unlike with my music lessons).
As planned, however, I began studying French when I began high school, and I was fairly determined to become a proficient speaker, though this goal was still very much a dream by the time I graduated–even as a member of the French Honor Society. I continued my French studies in university, where my first French professor increased my proficiency by leaps and bounds, and inspired me to pursue French as my minor. All told, when I graduated, I had taken as many French classes, as I had linguistics classes, but I still felt uncomfortable with everyday speaking and understanding–hence the desire to spend an extended period of time in France.
My arrival in Nice washed over me as waves of relief that I was once again in a country where I had some knowledge of the local language. While I had no issues with being understood in Germany, I felt supremely uncomfortable that I couldn’t respond with anything in German, even if I’d tried. From the moment I disembarked from the plane, all of my vocabulary came back to me, despite having some trouble recalling French while I was in Israel and studying Hebrew regularly. I purchased a bus ticket, tout en français, and made my way to my hostel, all while pulling my 30+ kilos of luggage behind me. In total, I had less than a day to spend in Nice, and I’d done next to no research on what to do there. While the beach was definitely on my list, finding food became my first priority. It turned out, there was one vegan restaurant in the city, and it was only several blocks from my hostel, but it didn’t open for dinner for another hour or so. I took that as a sign that I should definitely do some wandering (and see if there were any snackums to be found along the way…I was famished after a day of traveling). With no snackums to be found, I took in the brightly colored buildings of Place Masséna, as well as the grey pebbles of the Niçoise shoreline.
The vegan restaurant whose opening I was awaiting is called Le Speakeasy. It is owned and operated by an American ex-pat for the last fifteen or so years. It is the tiniest hole in the wall, with maybe three tables tops. The menu was made up of rustic, daily specials, inspired by the local cuisine. For my dinner, I settled on the daily vegetable torte, which was a homemade gluten free crust filled with tender potatoes and sweet leeks. It came with a fresh side salad, plus unlimited black olives and fresh, whole grain bread. I also figured that since I was in France, I may as well get a glass of wine to go alongside my meal. By the time I left, I was deeply satisfied, and was ready to once again wander around Vieux Nice. I found myself along a pedestrian route running parallel to the sea that was filled to the brim with all manner of restaurants (but mostly Italian ones). As I ambled along, taking in the menus full of food items I wouldn’t touch, I glimpsed a sandwich board advertising “glace sans lait”…”Glace sans lait!” I thought, “Why, that sounds almost like it might be vegan ice cream!” Though I was fairly certain I would only find a selection of fruit sorbets, I went inside the shop anyway, and asked which of their products didn’t have milk. The young man pointed me towards about 5 tubs full of what looked like some pretty legit gelato. I confirmed again with him that they were milk free, before promptly tasting all of them. My choice, of course, was not difficult, as they had a hazelnut option, and I am never one to pass up a good hazelnut gelato. I slowly consumed my gelato as I made my way back to the hostel, and settled in for some good, old-fashioned internetting.
My train to the farm wasn’t scheduled until 2pm the next afternoon, so I woke up on the early side in order to catch the free hostel breakfast, which I believe consisted of toast with confiture (ok fine, jam), and some cereal that I sincerely prayed was vegan. While I intended to do a bit more exploring before leaving the city, I also had some errands to run, like buying shoes I could wear to work on a farm (and also probably go hiking in), and buying a phone card. I somehow managed to accomplish both almost entirely in French, much to my personal pride, and I also got to make my first trip to LUSH in over eight months. As a reward, I bought myself a serving of socca from the fruit and flour market in the old city. Socca is Niçoise speciality consisting of a chickpea flour pancake. It has a rich, savory flavor, enhanced by a touch of salt and pepper (and possibly a hint of rosemary), that is crisp on the outside, but becomes almost creamy as you reach the interior of the oversized chickpea crepe. It is naturally vegan, and officially one of my new favorite foods. I took my greasy paper full of socca and went down to the shore, for a last bit of seaside fun before moving my journey along.