On my first trip to France, I achieved the almost impossible. I managed to stay away from all French stereotypes. I didn’t see the Eifel Tower and actually didn’t go to Paris. I also didn’t drink famous French wines or eat baguettes or croissants. Moreover, in contrast to the belief that Frenchmen don’t speak any other languages, I found English-speaking local farmers. You might as well say that I haven’t been to France after all. However, even though I didn’t see the most popular attractions in France or didn’t go to places replicated on millions of postcards and fridge magnets, I felt and understood France much better this way.
Actually I’m convinced that everyone has her own France. Mine is not far away from the Belgium border in the small Chateau du Faucon, which looks authentically old outside but is packed with the latest technology inside. My France is bright green in the middle of autumn, filled with the rays of sun piercing through thinning leaves. My France has a taste of rye bread crust and fresh coffee served in a huge mug. My France sounds as a busy farm in the morning. My France taught me not to trust my first impressions.
I chose to visit Chateau du Faucon because I wanted to continue the tradition I started in Egypt and Austria—staying in a hotel equipped with stables. Unfortunately, right after completing my booking, I learned that because of the end of the season, all the Chateau-owned horses were sent to Belgium to be trained. Oops . . . But the receptionists were kind enough to find another riding place for me—a farm with riding school facilities.
I arrived at the farm more than an hour before the scheduled ride and had enough time to walk around and feel the place. My first impression wasn’t good. The farm was the opposite of polished Chateau’s stables. The place was old, untidy, and packed with animals and . . . flies. Thousands of flies everywhere. Spiderwebs perfect for Halloween decoration were also hanging from the barn ceiling.
Over 40 horses and ponies were housed at the farm, some of which were freely browsing around. While I was taking pictures of Shetlands having breakfast, this sad-eyed veteran silently approached me and asked for a bit of attention. He was extremely old, maybe in his late twenties or even early thirties.
Then I saw the owner, Nadine, a petite short-haired woman in her 60s. Nadine was busy looking after her two grandsons. The eldest was eating something very tasty but sticky, so his face was covered with dirt. The youngest was learning to walk in a baby safety gate, the bottom of which was covered by nonfreshly looking cushions. The floor in the room looked like it wasn’t swept for ages.
Closer to the time of the ride, the farmyard became more populated as more and more giggling little girls were brought by their parents. One of them spoke pretty good English, so she managed to explain that I will get the biggest horse named Mistral. Few minutes later, the entire noisy gang went to get the horse for me. I offered my help, but these young stable habitués didn’t need it. In fact, catching Mistral was a funny adventure for them, and they wouldn’t let me rob them of it.
Of course, Mistral didn’t want to be caught. It wasn’t very difficult for him to escape from the girls whose raised hands were barely touching his withers. He was twisting and turning and hiding behind phlegmatic cows (yes, I forgot to mention that unlike ponies, horses didn’t have their own stable, and they lived in a shelter with cows). After ten minutes, Mistral decided that he tortured those tiny equestrians enough and let them put a halter on his head.
Staying in the same shelter with cows has it consequences. Mistral was covered with a dried mix of mud and manure from head to hoofs, so I cleaned him thoroughly before saddling. We looked pretty funny—a dozen giggly preteens and one giant me brushing our animals.
And that was the moment of truth . . . While I was cleaning Mistral’s hoofs, I noticed that although dirt was everywhere, his hoofs were very healthy, and he was recently shoed with high-quality shoes; although he shared a muddy shelter with cows, he was ridden with a delicate bitless bridle; although his mane was tangled, he was very well fed. Although the girls were getting more dirty by a minute because of cleaning their ponies, they were also getting happier and more lively; although everything in the place looked disordered, it was full of joy; although Nadine’s grandkids played on the unswept floor, they were very much loved, and I’m sure they would have a way better childhood than kids who live in squeaky-clean houses. By the time I finished brushing Mistral, my whole impression of the place made a complete U-turn.
Our giggly squad mounted their ponies, and off we went. Nadine asked me to ride in the end of the line.
We went up and down the hill when she suddenly asked me why I don’t speak French. Good question, I wish I could learn a language in a week or so. I told her that I speak Russian and English only.
“Well,” she replied, “you need to start speaking French now. I speak English with you, so speak French with me.”
I quickly examined my French vocabulary and found about half-a- dozen phrases: “cherchez la femme” and “à la guerre comme à la guerre.” Well, I also know some words from Paul’s menu: “poulet,” “blanc,” . . . and that’s about it . . .
“So why don’t you speak French?” repeated Nadine. “Answer me in French.” I made a huge effort and replied, “Je un jour in France . . .”
“You see”—Nadine was ecstatic—“you can speak French!”
Then she attempted to teach me a few more words. Actually, these were more like nursery rhymes for riders. Every time we went uphill, the girls leaned forward in their saddles and sang a song; every time we crossed a spring or a puddle, there was another song to sing. Nadine told me to sing with them.
Without understanding a word, I happily sang with the squad. I felt like if I was Benjamin Button: I got younger with every stride.
We hacked for about an hour and a half, first over the fields and through a forest and then along the streets of a tiny village. When we came back, the giggly flushed-cheeks squad happily ran to their parents, and I stayed for another hour, enjoying the meager late autumn sun and the song Nadine was singing to her grandsons . . . For sure these boys are going to have the best childhood ever.