The first week after I arrived in France I was surprisingly lonely.
I thought I would be enveloped into the social lives of students at my school, and that my school would have lots of activities for me to participate in to keep my mind off all the changes taking place. Additionally, I am introverted and take pleasure from solitary activities, and in fact I quite like traveling alone and independently—doing what I want on my time table.
But as I walked around Annecy, getting to know the town and French culture, I realized that so much of what happens in the city is meant to be done with family or friends or loved ones. Want to get some coffee? Grab a friend and head over to your local cafe for a quick espresso break, and sit at the store while you sip and talk. Weather is nice? Perfect for a picnic with friends on the lawn next to Lac d’Annecy. Want to do anything on Sunday? Get in the car with your family and head to a mountain or nature reserve for some hiking.
Being surrounded by this community of people who value togetherness was surprisingly hard once I realized how alone I was. Even two weeks in to my time in France I was struggling with going out alone—not because I didn’t feel safe, because I definitely feel safe here, but because when people go out here they seem to do it together.
Then one day, something clicked. I found it. I found the last ingredient to making Annecy my home instead of just a place I am visiting, and to allow me to feel a part of the community instead of a foreigner outside looking in.
And it all came down to a coffee shop.
Now, you are probably thinking, Maddie that is the stupidest thing you have ever said. Why would a coffee shop change your feelings about an entire town, about an entire community? Why would that even make a difference?
Well I’ll tell you why.
Loving and appreciating French culture does not mean that I am accepting and adapting to the culture at the expense of loosing my own. I have quickly fallen in love with walking and taking the bus instead of driving absolutely everywhere, and I am even getting better at giving “bisous” or cheek kisses to friends and acquaintances and sometimes even people I have just met.
But one thing that I am beginning to understand is a big part of who I am and what I am used to culturally is being able to easily and comfortably go to restaurants alone, get coffee to go, and hang out at any given coffee shop for hours on end studying or reading. So whenever I would find a new cute cafe here, I would go in, awkwardly order something, sit down, and take out all my books and notebooks. Then I would casually observe the other clientele and realize that the people who came here alone were likely only there long enough to down their espresso or maybe read a page from the newspaper—or more likely, they would stand at the bar or counter talking with the staff while they drank their coffee.
(Me attempting to study on two different occasions in such a cafe)
And again, while I might know some of the baristas by sight at my local Starbucks, I don’t know any of them well enough to walk behind the counter to give them “bisous.” The whole culture and customs associated with coffee here are different—and I was not expecting it to be so strange for me.
Then one day as I was walking around the city semi-aimlessly, looking for new and exciting things to explore, I found it.
Its called Columbus Cafe, and it seems to be a French chain, but I don’t even care that it isn’t “local” because it is perfect. They have a whole menu of drinks (yes, on an actual menu!) with sizes more like the ones you would find at Starbucks, and not the one-size-fits-all of the other cafes in Annecy. But it is not just the coffee that gets me, it is the space. The store has not only outdoor seating, but tables and comfy chairs on the first floor, and then an entire second floor with tables and chairs—and windows that face out to the lake.
After discovering the cafe and realizing it would be perfectly alright to hang out there for 2+ hours at a time, I went back the next four days in a row! And the coolest thing is that even though it is not exactly a mom-n-pop-one-of-a-kind-cafe, the employees there are so incredibly French and they are always the same every time I go in. So even just the second day I went in, the barista recognized me and asked if I wanted to start a punch card—which of course I did. And in doing this, I realized that I was comfortable here, that this place—Annecy—had become my home. Because in having this stupid and insignificant punch card, I was proving that I was not a tourist or some random foreigner but a local that is staying around long enough to use it.
That story ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be! >_<
Beyond Columbus Cafe though, there are other things that have made me feel at home here—and having the time to hyper analyze everything, I have realized that they are key things for feeling comfortable, happy, and “local” anywhere I go. They are also the things I will miss doing or going to when I return to America (which is only 6 days away! Where did the time go!?).
Here is my list of “Feeling At Home” locations in Annecy. Tell me what you think! Are they the same kinds of things you need to feel at home when you are in a new place?
1) A Good Coffee Shop and Study Spot: Columbus Cafe
Whether sitting outside the shop, on the first floor or on the second, there is prime people watching! There is nothing more relaxing and amusing than casually studying and sipping a latte while observing French people and obvious tourists attempting to “communicate” with the French people.
2) A Good Bookstore: Decitre
Everything about this bookstore is perfect and makes me feel right at home–its close to the bus/train station, it is two stories with huge skylights to let in the sunshine, and they have a little bit of everything. Because studying and reading are huge parts of my life, finding a place like this when I’m abroad is a must to allow me to feel like I am able to be myself and transfer my American/English hobbies into that new culture and language.
3) Comfort Food: Alexandre Perchat Boulanger Patissier
For some people, when they feel sad or lonely or happy or any other strong emotion, they crave things like their mom’s cooking or a crap ton of cheap ice cream. Me? I like staring at and then eating expensive pastries. Seriously, no matter how I am feeling, walking into a store like this is like a hug to my soul. In Minnesota, its Patisserie 46, in Tokyo it is the pastry area in the basement of the department stores, in London it is Laudree at Harrods, and now in Annecy it is Alexandre Perchat.
4) Place to get Lunch by Yourself: A Sandwich Place whose Name I Don’t Remember T_T
In France, bread is present at all times of the day–and lunch is no exception. Whether you are a tourist or a local, a high school student or a group of ladies out to lunch, sandwiches like this on fresh baguettes and stuffed with fresh ingredients seem to be the dish of choice. There are sandwich places all over the city selling similar things, and while I have found several I like and feel perfectly comfortable going to alone, there is this one place down the street from Decitre (the bookstore) that is amazing and has not only a wide selection of sandwiches but various other breads and pastries as well! I like to get a sandwich (which let me just say, is usually about 4-5 Euro and in ALL WAYS surpasses Subway’s slogan to make people think they are getting a bargain with their $5 footlong 😛 ) and take it over to the lake to eat it on a bench while looking out over the water at the mountains.
5) A Place to get Groceries: Monoprix
When you are abroad for more than a few days, you need a place where you can get things like fruits and veggies, yogurt, snacks and protein bars, or in the way of the French wheels of cheese and baguettes. France has a couple different main grocery store chains, but I tend to go to Monoprix because there is one downtown in the Vielle Ville which is where I spend most of my time. One thing I have started buying and eating on a daily basis is tomatoes–but not in the way people eat tomatoes in the US, I mean I buy a regular sized tomato and just chomp away at it like an apple for a midday snack. Weird? Maybe. French? Yeah.
6) A Place to Hang Out Outside: Pont des Amours
I love spending time around the Pont des Amours, or the Bridge of Love. On either side of the bridge there are green spaces, walkways, flowers, a bunch of benches, and always always a ton of people wandering around. Yes this is a great place to come with friends and family, but it is also a great place to wander around by yourself–and as I am wont to do, take a million pictures even though I go there basically every day!
7) Something Predictable to Provide Structure to your Week: The Market in the Vielle Ville
Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday morning, the streets of the Vielle Ville (Old Town) are lined with vendors selling everything from vegetables to honey, fish to (literally) mattresses. I love having this predictable schedule to follow, because often time abroad is a blur of one adventure to the next without planned things that happen on a regular basis. But with this market, I have not only a tentative plan but an excuse to go into the city on these particular days every week. And as I wander around I can be just another person within the crowd, stopping to buy lunch or talk to vendors if I work up the courage, or just passing through if I don’t spot anything that catches my eye. And of course it is a wonderful crowd that is the perfect mix of ages and nationalities and languages that keeps things interesting!
8) Understandable Transportation: Busses, Trains, Bicycles…
Even just three weeks ago I was absolutely terrified about taking the bus. In Minnesota, I have my car, and in Japan I am completely comfortable riding the train. But I think I can count on one hand the times I rode a bus before coming to France, so that was a huge adjustment. And while the busses don’t run as late as I would like in the evening or as much as I would like on Sundays, the busses are actually incredibly easy to use and have made my time in Annecy a lot more comfortable.
Thanks for reading! Come back soon for more adventures in France! ^_^
**ALSO I am already planning my next baking adventures for when I return to Minnesota, so if you have any requests or suggestions, let me know in the comments section below!