From singing solo in a church in Poland to eating live lobster in Japan, I’ve had some unforgettable experiences in the company of locals during my travels.
So what if I didn’t sing like Whitney Houston or believe the meal was really haute cuisine, I had an adventure in both instances that I wouldn’t have experienced were it not for my local hosts. I will never forget the horrified look on the faces of the audience when my croaky voice escaped my ever so pleasant face, and the joyous grin on my Japanese host’s face as I ate from the back of a lobster that was moving its tentacles. It would have been rude to do otherwise.
Adventure and then some, right? In any case, they are both great stories. I savour the memories of my travels with Habitat for Humanity International, not just for the work I was doing, but also for the local experiences. I always had a local host from the time I cleared immigrations to the time I returned to the airport. And what a difference it made to acclimatising and experiencing.
Without someone with inside information, I likely would have had a limited adventure, if only because I didn’t speak the language or understand the customs.
In at least one instance, which happened to be with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, having a local hostess was the difference in getting into the country and possibly being sent back to the UK or at least severely delayed.
I’ll never know. Anyhow, the point is that while exploring a foreign place on your own, which Paul and I often do, can be satisfactory; it can be extraordinary in the company of a local.
We’ve been to France more times than I can remember, a favourite place for a number of reasons—the food, the history, the nearness to England—and we always have a great time. This past weekend, however, we had an extraordinary time visiting Paul’s longest standing friend and his wife in Haute-Savoie, situated in the French Alps.
When he was eleven, Paul lived with Jean Pierre’s family as an exchange student. And Jean Pierre, of course, lived with Paul and his family reciprocally. The two men have kept in touch over the years, remarkable within itself.
But as Jean Pierre said, this holiday we ventured into deep France, parts of the country that tourists are unlikely to go, such as villages near a small town called Fessy, where his paternal grandparents lived, and the mountainous areas near Samoens ski resort, where his maternal grandparents lived. Both family homes are still in use.
Near Samoens, we sampled some delicious cider made by a quintessentially French cousin, took in some extraordinary views of the countryside, featuring traditional French homes, and ruins of alluring castles that are not on the tourist track.
Even when we visited Chamonix (where we’ve been at least once before), situated at the foot of Mont Blanc, we made new discoveries—a spot where the mountains, trees, and a small lake co-exist so harmoniously that it looks like a post card; a glacier that has metamorphosed over the years, shrinking in size, but is still breathtakingly beautiful.
The French appetite for life is magnanimous, not to mention their taste for food. Upon arrival, our hosts served up a traditional Swiss meal, Raclette, which is often served in Haute-Savoie, as well. Charcuterie, gherkins, perfectly boiled new potatoes, etc. are served with melted cheese, which happens before your eyes on a special hot plate.
Steeped in tradition, our hosts also dished up my favourite breakfast bread. Voila, croissants. Not to mention, the wine, but not for breakfast, and the much appreciated translations of the speciality dishes we sampled at local restaurants.
Admittedly, we had our first delightful meal before we reached our hosts, and though we found it adventurous to choose food without full knowledge of what we were getting (Paul’s French is limited, you know), we rather relaxed in the knowledge of our hosts and were, therefore, able to branch out, sampling fish that came from the local lake.
The lake. How could I forget Lac Leman, which is Switzerland’s largest land locked body of water but extends well into France? Well remembered it will be, along with our exploration of France in the company of locals.
All there’s left to do now is to brush up on my French. What French? Never mind. I’ll stick with the locals for a bit longer.