Claire W. is currently a junior at SYA France and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut.
It’s been more than a month since I’ve arrived in Rennes for a whole year of studying abroad. I have felt a flood emotions during this time; nervousness when meeting my host family for the first time, confusion when speaking with natives on the streets, and most of all satisfaction with a touch of exhaustion after a long day. Through everything, one thing, I can count on to captivate me is the food.
Eating is a great ordeal for the French. Their attention to detail and flavor when it comes to dining is astonishing. Everyday for lunch, we eat at the public school only a few minutes away from the SYA campus. The cafeteria food or the “shelf” as the French students call it has three courses, complete of dessert, fruit, cheese and bread, salad, appetizer with a choice of hot and cold, and a hot meal that is different everyday. This is very different from the dining hall food I’m used to.
Around Rennes, there are many bakeries and pastries. A great way to spend time with friends is enjoying a croissant or pain au chocolat with a coffee at the park right next to school. The bread here is spectacular, just like you would expect French bread to be. A delicacy of Brittany is the salted butter. We even got to watch how to make artisanal butter during our trip to a Breton village. I don’t know how I’ll ever have unsalted butter again.
Having dinner with my host family has been the most bonding experience. Eating dinner, for them is part of the daily routine but also a ritual that brings together the whole family, as a bookend for the day. In my host family, meals don’t just include eating, a part of the ritual is helping out with the preparation and cleaning. Every day after school, my host sister helps her mother cook. They use this time to talk about their day. My job is to set the table; though it might sound simple, setting the table is quite a complicated task. In the dining room, the long table is covered with a lace tablecloth, and there is always a vase of fresh flowers. Each person in the family has a set of silverware, but they’re all antique; my host dad is an avid collector of all things from the 18th century. Setting the table requires a lot of memorization, as I have learned to differentiate between everyone’s forks, and how to place them right; fork on the left, knife on the right, cup straight across, and napkins across the plate.
My first dinner in Rennes, my host dad explained that he picked out a fork, a napkin ring, and a cup for me from a silverware market during the summer. He told me that since I’m now part of the family, I get my own utensils, like everyone else. This small gift made me feel accepted and comfortable in my new home. From then on I’ve always looked forward to having dinner with my host family. Not to mention, the food is always fresh! Saturday mornings, there is a gigantic marché in the center of town, with vendors of all different kinds of foods. Like most Rennaise, my family goes every week to pick out fresh produce. The Rennes market is actually the biggest fish market in France, so every weekend, my host dad makes grilled fish and prepares oysters or shrimp for lunch. My host mother always makes delicious desserts, and sometimes, we will even have a Breton specialty- kouign amann, which is basically a pastry made with lots of butter and sugar wrapped in dough.
After eating, I help out with clean up. My host mother washes the dishes, my host sister is in charge of the music, my host dad takes out the trash, and I’m in charge of drying and putting things back. This is the perfect end to a long day, being with my family, being part of their lives, and just singing to their favorite band- Queen. Eating is more than just the mere action of filling up here, it’s the little time that the family has together after work and school, where we feel like we’re at home.
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