To Americans, France is synonymous with romance — the ultimate place to wine, dine, and fall in love. But I was going as a strictly educational and cultural experience. In hindsight, it is almost comical at how quickly I was proved wrong.
A few weeks after beginning my sixth month sojourn in Nantes, France, I was still wrapping my head around the enormous adjustment. I was just beginning to discern people I got along with from those who had been interesting just because of their foreignness to me. I had recently met a group of French guys who were around my age and just finishing engineering school in Nantes. They were all vaguely nerdy, but had great taste in music. And they were more than willing to help American girls adjust to life in France, whether by inviting us out for drinks, or telling us the correct phrase to use at the dorm front desk. (The fact that I have since been dating one of them for more than a year does not dissuade me from believing that our group’s kinship arose from anything other than friendly motives.)
I returned from classes at the university one day to find Pierre, Clément, and Julien in our dorm kitchen busily cleaning several bucketfuls of fresh moules, or mussels. The three of them had gone to a nearby beach to collect the moules for dinner that night. Although I didn’t realize this then, just spending a day at the beach in February in bitterly cold and rainy northwestern France was a bold, romantic gesture in itself. I had never been very fond of seafood growing up.
But as I watched some cute Frenchmen cook for me, I was struck with two epiphanies. The first was that I had either grown up in the wrong country or I was associating myself with the wrong kind of people in America. Where were my American guy friends who would hunt, gather, and cook for me? And the second was that seafood was starting to look pretty appetizing. I joined them in the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and began scraping seaweed, barnacles, and other oceanic gunk from the shells. The dead of winter is not prime mussel season, so they were fairly small, but there were a lot of them. It was not very fun work, the mussels were cold, cleaning them sort of hurt my fingers, and the novelty wore off after about ten minutes. But while preparing the mussels, I talked and joked with Julien, a blonde surfer from Bordeaux. I was amazed to realize he found me as hilarious as I found him despite the very real language barrier. (Spoiler alert: he’s the one who is now my boyfriend.) A boring task in a kitchen full of people was transformed into the greatest first date I’ve ever been on.
They steamed the mussels in white wine and crème frâiche, along with garlic and parsley. The marriage of white wine and crème frâiche is one of the most delicious love stories I have ever encountered. Garlic and parsley added a kick to this well-established coupling of flavors. Although small, the mussels were entrenched with that wonderful, indescribable mussel-y flavor. It was my first introduction to a taste I would come to always associate with first dates and flirtation. I learned not to eat the ones that wouldn’t open, because they could make one punishingly sick. I learned how to use the shell of one to pick out the meat of another. I loved how the shells would capture the decadent white wine sauce and could be used as little soup tureens. We also made potatoes, in keeping with the traditional dish of moules frites. In a huge wok, we cooked diced potatoes, more garlic and parsley, with only the light addition of salt and pepper. The subtle seasoning of the potatoes was the perfect complement to the mussels, as their starchiness soaked up the sauce without overwhelming its flavor. The gentle crunch of the outside of the potatoes was a welcomed contrast to the texture of the mussels.
There ended up being eight of us eating together that night in our tiny dorm kitchen. It was wonderfully chaotic and homey. Along with the mussels and potatoes, we also had enough baguettes and white wine to go around, bien sûr. To be in that room was an amazing sensory experience. The scent of the mussels was intoxicating, prompting our hallmates who were not invited to dinner to furtively peek in and walk away jealously, hungry even if they had just eaten. Despite the cold temperature outside, the kitchen was almost uncomfortably warm from all the cooking and moving bodies in such a small space. People chattered away in both French and English, with everyone becoming more and more comfortable in their second languages as the wine continued to flow. Empty shells piled up on the table, brushed aside as our attention moved from the food to more compelling distractions.
I had many amazing experiences during my study abroad time in France, and a few that I would even call life-changing. But this one stands out in my mind above the rest. It was on this night that I began to feel really at home in France. I wasn’t haphazardly adventuring around, being overwhelmed by so many new stimuli. I had a place to be grounded to in France, with a place I called home and a group of friends to call my own. I like to think of it as the beginning of several love affairs. One with France, a country which I was just beginning to discover and find my place in. One with a Frenchman, who went on to educate me about many things, including his country’s beautiful culture. And finally, one with seafood, a gastronomical indulgence that had eluded me for so long, but has now found a permanent place in my heart and stomach.