My year dawdling in Provence

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By Issy Holmes, Third Year, English and French

The Croft Magazine // Nearing the end of a year abroad, a look back at the 'dolce far niente' idiom, which allows for long days of nothingness in cafés.

I’ve spent my year abroad in the unassuming town of Digne-les-Bains, in the south of France, where I teach English across three primary schools. The town’s name translates to ‘Worthy Baths’, a title that pays homage to its status as a former renowned thermal hotspot… nowadays that culminates in a lonesome geriatric hub on its periphery. Nestled in the mountains, and equidistant from the Alps and the Côte d'Azur, it’s averagely small and averagely commercial. And there isn’t a whole lot to do.

Arriving in France, I panicked when my contract said I could only work three days a week. I saw the other four days stretching out without structure or interaction. People say a year abroad is the perfect opportunity for growth and experience. But I was nervous to explore, standing out as the unknowing foreigner.

Nestled in the mountains, Digne-les-Bains is equidistant from the Alps and the Côte d'Azur. It’s averagely small and averagely commercial. And there isn’t a whole lot to do.

So I started in the cafés, and that was relaxed and easy. Listening to the ceaseless chatter of locals over their ‘plat du jour’, during their long lunch breaks where they remain, languidly, until the two hours are up. I sat at a multitude of cafés at all times of the day, dawdling, so I could experience the atmosphere and bask in the infamous Provençal sun, which shines for three hundred days of the year.

It’s the abundance of sunshine that enables the light-hearted and amiable lifestyle. Its pace and general insouciance unite it with the Italian idiom ‘dolce far niente’, which translates as being in a state of pleasant idleness and having a carefree mind. Comparing it to the pace of London and Bristol is unfeasible… because of our English inclination to just get on and make do. Combined with the pitiful weather, it makes a replicatory laidback existence near impossible. It would be a surprise to find a group of pensioners sitting in a square in Bristol, chuckling over a carafe of rosé, relishing in the sunshine and the loose thought of the day stretching ahead without commitment.

Issy, in one of her cafés | Epigram / Issy Holmes

In the UK, the expectation (and necessity) always to be ‘doing’ is exhausting. But it’s boring to be constantly compared to people who are all expected to achieve and succeed. In France, it feels natural to have a lack of a weekly schedule, because the threat of rushing around senseless is simply removed. Each week, I have the time to enjoy and embrace teaching, where I can learn about francophone quirks and customs. Now I’ve been travelling all over the south, and I feel as though I’ve seen almost all aspects of Provençal life. But I view my time in cafés as being of equal importance.

I listen to the specificities of the local sentences and greetings, and I realise I can discern as much in these idle moments than in the decade I’ve been learning French in the classroom. I know the café owners by name, and they amuse themselves by calling me the ‘anglaise’, chuckling as I sit in my t-shirt and they in their jumpers and gilets. It has been a pleasure to experience an affinity so habitual and welcoming. Just as it has been a pleasure to waste time and allow myself to dawdle, doing something non-productive. Such is the way of ‘dolce far niente’.

Featured Image: Epigram / Issy Holmes

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