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Stuart and Emma are both doing MBAs this year – Emma through correspondence with RMIT, and Stuart at INSEAD, which is why they are living in France. INSEAD calls itself the ‘business school for the world’, and it seems to be a fascinating place, with graduate students from all over the world. Every single person there is focused and passionate about being there. The facilities are really well-organised, very thoughtfully put together so that as a student you have absolutely everything you need. I suppose as a leading business college they have to ensure the place functions smoothly as a business, otherwise they wouldn’t be practising what they preached. Since Em and Stu’s broadband wasn’t working at home, we went into INSEAD first thing to drop Stuart at class, so Em could check some things for her group project and so I could check my email. It felt really good being there, and reminded me of the aspects of learning that I did enjoy. Opening your mind up to new things, letting it percolate with possibilities, exploring new avenues. Just being there in the library felt…good.

The cafeteria was cool too, with lots of free coffee, fuzeball table, computer terminals, and a genial sort of buzz. The chairs were really comfortable too. I liked the way the rest of the college was very professional and minimalist and the cafe was colourful and relaxed, clearly indicating that you needed to take time out from your busy schedule when you were in that area.

Emma and I walked from INSEAD to the high street of Fontainebleau. Something that struck me was how beautiful the public spaces are in France. They make a huge effort to make things look appealing, and as its springtime there are many displays of magnificent flowers, like these tulips which were just by the side of the road.

We checked out the town, and looked in an extremely funky children’s bookshop for a birthday present for our goddaughter Imogen (I’ve already given her the quilt, but Emma wanted to send her something). There were some spectacular picture books, but they were expensive and aren’t exactly the most practical to carry. I bought two little books, one about a dragon and the other called ‘A quoi revent les vaches?’ – basically, what do the cows dream of?

We had lunch (pizza again!), then Emma left me to go to a French class. I set off into the Château Fontainebleau.

It is an incredible building, built and trashed and rebuilt by successive French monarchs and, later, Napoleon Bonaparte. Unlike Versailles, which mum and I visited last time we were here in 2000, I got a real sense of the life of this place. Just walking into the wide corridors and up the stairs, I could imagine being dressed in a massive 18th century gown and moving around the space (but then, any excuse for a corset and a big skirt, right?). I walked through the royal apartments, saw things like Napoleon’s tiny bed and Marie Antoinette’s dressing room. I find that kind of thing quite fascinating, and the scale of it all just makes it quite a dizzying experience.

There was a group of small schoolchildren on an excursion, which I passed early on, but they were very cute. French schoolchildren are almost as chic as French adults, and even better I can usually understand what they’re saying because they speak much slower than adults!

Once outside, I was tempted to get in the horse drawn carriage and go for a ride around the massive grounds. But there were a few tour groups milling around and I didn’t really feel like being stuck in a carriage with them, so I just wandered a little bit.

One good thing about that was as I walked through the gardens, I got to see this peacock and his peahens, all just hanging out in the underbrush. They were very tame and just so beautiful to see so close up.

I met back up with Emma and we drove to Barbizon, a small artist’s village that Em thought I would love. But sadly most of the shops were shut, and it was getting very cold and grey. We walked up the main street, and looked in a couple of shops. It was a very quaint sort of place, with very old stone houses that people still live and work in. I liked the feel of it and imagine it’s quite a fun place to be when it’s busy.

I also bought the most delicious coffee eclair from a patisserie there. Emma isn’t really into sweets, and she tried the tiniest nibble just so she could say she’d tried it. I assured her, as a sweets connoisseur, that it was a very, very good eclair. Almost bore no similarity to ones you can get in Australia, in terms of the freshness, lightness and flavour.

My legs and feet were very sore still, from all the walking I’d been doing. So we decided we’d just drive around a bit and look at the countryside, before going to Milly la Foret, which is a local place Em and Stu do a lot of their food shopping. It being Thursday, the food market was on. I was so glad to be able to see this, as it felt like a true French experience. I bought us some brie to have after dinner and Emma bought two kilos of strawberries (a boxful) for 5 euro. That’s around AU$8. And they were wonderful; it certainly is a different experience eating berries in the northern hemisphere, when they’ve been grown in the best climate. Not at all like the pale, watery Australian equivalents.

We bought some baguettes at a boulangerie and tore chunks off to eat as we walked back to the car. I think I fitted in very well, don’t you?

Em and Stu’s place is about 20 minutes out of Fontainebleau, in the forest. You turn out of their driveway and the forest is at the end of the street. Their place is in the basement of this house:
The flat is a little…eccentric, to say the least. It looks like it was once the rumpus room or storage area of the main house and the owner decided to convert it into a flat. There are some windows, but they are at ground level. So we think the owner has tried to make up for this by bringing the outdoors in. There are blinds and screens on the walls to make it look like maybe there might be a window behind them. And, to my mind, the pieces de resistance are the plastic orange trees in the living room and main bedroom.

I couldn’t stop laughing when I saw them. The laughter only increased when Emma opened a cupboard with a flourish to show me the armfuls of fake flowers she had removed from elsewhere in the house. A very…interesting style of decor. I declared that their new tradition should be that whenever they have a visitor come to stay, they have to have a photo on the 70s lounge setting with the orange trees. So we started off with a very serious portrait (which I totally failed at):
And then a lovely group shot. It’s been so wonderful to catch up with these great friends, and to be their first Australian visitor!