Food, France, and Nepal: Getting to know the Cycling Ambassador

People Issue 208 Mar, 2019
Text by Evangeline Neve

The coffee arrived in delicate porcelain which I knew, even before I checked the bottom of the saucer, were made by Limoges, the prestigious French porcelain makers; the letters RF—République Français —printed on them in swirly golden letters.

I remarked that I’d never drunk coffee from a Limoges cup before, and my host replied, “I actually prefer my Paris Starbucks mug that I picked up at the airport before I came here; these are a little bit too small!” We both laughed, as he held up the large mug in question.

That’s how my interview with the new French ambassador, His Excellency François–Xavier Leger, began, which as that first exchange foreshadowed, turned out to be a meeting more fun and frank than I was expecting, as well as an interesting experience of seeing Kathmandu through a set of new and curious eyes.

Though his family was originally from Normandy, François–Xavier Leger grew up in the south of France, in the area around Aix-en-Provence, “So I feel more from Provence.” He has been the Ambassador of France in Nepal from September 10, 2018.

What are your first impressions of Nepal?
Very good, because I had no stereotype in mind about Nepal. People in France used to tell me either, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky to go to Nepal, we will visit you’, or ‘if you had known Nepal 30 years ago, it was so nice…Kathmandu was such a lovely city, now it’s polluted, congested’. But, in fact, I’m a newcomer, so I take Kathmandu and Nepal as it is, and I think it’s really a very interesting city and country.

My first impression is that the people are the key resource in this country; they are very smart, well educated, they travel, they are open to the world, and they are very creative, very innovative. Especially the young generation, 20s and 30s, they are really the future of this country; and obviously we don’t meet all categories of the population, but the people with whom I can talk and exchange really want to do something for this country. For example, in the area of environment, I met several NGOs and startups that are active in that field, because we had this wonderful event in November, Planet Nepal, which is run by the Alliance Française , and there I met people working in waste segregation and similar things, and I think they are well aware of the challenges that Nepal is facing and want to do something.

Obviously, I cannot say everything is fantastic and there’s no challenges; there are a lot of challenges, actually, but I think that the people have the potential to cope with that, really. Everybody is very welcoming, even in the streets, there’s no aggressiveness, there’s no stress.

And a last comment about that, I think French people and Nepali people, it might be strange to hear this, but in terms of mentality, they are quite close, I would say. For example, French and Nepalis share the same sense of humor, irony, understatement. You know, it’s amazing to talk with Nepalis, because we are on the same wavelength. That’s interesting, amazing. I think we also have in common the importance of lifestyle, the importance of food, to enjoy a good meal together and talk, and to take time; when I see people early in the morning, enjoying a cup of milk tea outside and talking together, I find this not only French, but also Mediterranean: people like to take time and spend time together. In some places, they are always in a hurry, so people don’t take time, while here they like to take time, for them it is important. People, when they talk with you, watch your body language, your eyes, to see if you are really here or are you already thinking about your next appointment.

You mentioned food, and this is our food issue; do you have any comments on how French food influence and entrepreneurs have added to the food culture here, as it’s been quite significant in recent years? Also the GoodFrance/Gôut France event, organized by eminent French chef Alain Ducasse and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, is happening again this year on March 21; is there anything you’d like to tell us about that?

When my colleagues from Delhi came here, they really enjoyed the opportunity to go to a small, good restaurant and enjoy dinner outside, like Pauline’s Garden or Chez Caroline, that kind of place, because in Delhi there’s no such place. Big hotels with Western restaurants, yes, but if you want to sit down in a small garden, enjoying a quiet dinner outside with good food, apparently it doesn’t exist. So I would say that Kathmandu has some very interesting and lovely spots where you can have a good meal.

So, you have that kind of good Western food, but you also have lots of small [local] restaurants everywhere; I think it’s a human-sized city, so you can move around and you can really find some good places.

For an event like GoodFrance/Gôut France, we have many different partners, from large hotels and small restaurants everywhere—it’s a worldwide event, as you know. Normally, we have around 10-12 partners; for example, Chimney Restaurant at Hotel Yak & Yeti will be a partner this year, they’re newly renovated; so I think it will be a really amazing event. The idea is to promote French gastronomy and also French lifestyle, it’s not only a matter of food.

Is there any Nepali food you’ve particularly enjoyed?

I went to some Newari cities outside Kathmandu a couple of times, Harisiddhi (on the way to Godavari), Siddhipur, Panauti, and each time I enjoyed typical Newari food, and that’s very interesting food, actually. We went to very small places, where we could share lunch with people there, and what I like about that food is that it’s simple food from rural areas: some cereals, some vegetables, some pieces of meat, some galettes, some crepes [e.g. bara, chatamari], and it’s very simple, and very delicious, very tasty. Sometimes it’s a little bit too spicy for me, especially the buffalo meat! I love lentils too, dahl bhaat and paneer also, but I would like to have a special mention of the Newari food. And the alcohol, it reminds me of sake which I enjoyed in Japan.

It is like, say, the French countryside, 20, 30 years ago; when you killed a pig, you used everything. Now people, even in France, are losing that tradition, because they want only to to have steak, and that’s it, but in Newari food, it looks like an agricultural culinary tradition from many years ago.

In the Kathmandu Valley, I suggest that tourism operators should promote Newari tours, put everybody in a minivan and bring them to these cities, just to enjoy the architecture and landscape.

I agree, there are programs like this, we’ve written about them, such as the Panauti homestays. These things do exist, but perhaps are not well-known enough, which is a shame. It is a really fascinating part of the culture that can easily be overlooked by short term visitors, if someone doesn’t point them in the right direction.

I think one of the key elements for Visit Nepal 2020 is not only to increase the number of tourists, it’s also to diversify the destinations within Nepal and perhaps not only talk about trekking and nature—which is great—but also about more culture-oriented products. You have many people who don’t want, or don’t have the capacity, to climb mountains or trek due to altitude or whatsoever, but here there are so many things you can enjoy, and as I said previously, above all, the people. To meet and interact with people, to have a better knowledge about culture, I think it’s really important. Also to diversify the destinations and to upgrade. Maybe you don’t double the number of tourists, but perhaps you increase the amount of money they spend in Nepal, which is very important, because you might have two million trekkers, but it will not solve all problems. But, if you upgrade accommodations, transportation, and content, people will spend more; so that’s important, to diversify and to upgrade.

Finally, as this year marks the 70th Anniversary of French-Nepali relations, what do you feel have been the mutual benefits of this relationship over the years? Where do you see it going forward?

First of all, as you said, this year is the 70th anniversary of establishment of bi-lateral relations between France and Nepal. It was in 1949 and we were the fourth country to establish relations with Nepal, after the UK, India, and China, and we formally opened our embassy in 1966. In 1950, Maurice Herzog came here and climbed Annapurna; he lost toes and fingers, but he was the first human being above 8000 meters.

So, the relationship between France and Nepal is very old; even before that, we had some researchers coming here, and explorers and travelers like Alexandra David-Néel, Isabelle Massieu, and Gustave Le Bon.

The first area of connection is mountaineering, which is very important; in fact, the Herzog-led expedition paved the way for modern tourism in Nepal, because it drew worldwide attention to Nepal. Since then, we have a lot of people-to-people exchanges, guide training in France, and many alpinists coming here to lead expeditions or train guides, so the relations are very strong, especially with the French city of Chamonix, which is near Mont Blanc.

In the field of research, we had a lot of ethnologists conducting field research, and also, in the area of seismology, we have had a lot of activity and exchanges over the past 30 years; we have a network of 22 sensor captures all along the Himalayan range to detect seismic activity in Nepal, so this is a long-lasting and ongoing cooperation.

For this 70th anniversary, I would like to take stock of all these areas of cooperation—and there are more—to know where we are coming from and to look forward and not only commemorate, but also celebrate.

What kind of plans do you have?

First, I want to deliver a positive message about France and Nepal, to promote Nepal in France in a very positive way: creative, young, with many very dedicated people and great human potential. That is why I suggested that Miss Nepal World 2018, Shrinkhala Khatiwada. become our Goodwill Ambassador, because she embodies all of that. She’s an architect committed to development projects, who graduated from TU’s Institute of Engineering. She will visit France to promote this image of new Nepal, positive Nepal.

In my opinion, Nepal is changing very fast, with economic growth, political stability, and a lot of innovation, so there’s a lot that can be done in the relations between France and Nepal. I would like to develop a political dialogue, to have some high-ranking official from Nepal go to France, and from France to Nepal, to develop some flagship projects in the fields of economy and industry and relationships between private sectors. We are working also on the cultural side, for a big exhibition of Nepali art in Paris. It will take several years to organize, so not for this year, but I think it’s important to bring to people’s attention, in France and through Europe, not only Nepali nature, but also Nepali culture and traditional art, so I am working with various museums to try to bring this about.

Thank you for answering our questions! Do you have anything final to add?

Perhaps a personal touch, I think that I am perhaps one of the few ambassadors who is enjoying cycling in Kathmandu, which I do almost every Saturday. My main reason is to discover the city and see the people, because when I arrived in Kathmandu I had no mental map of the city, and I was always stuck in traffic jams, so I decided before Dasain to buy a bicycle and to cycle around, just to see, to have my own map of the city. Cycling is good, because it’s not too fast and not too slow, and you’re in the right place to see people and to enjoy scenes of everyday life, people having a cup of tea outside or enjoying food, kids playing, and so on. And, people are very friendly. I’d also like to show than an ambassador is not only somebody in a big car, with a flag, an office, and a necktie; we are more diverse people.

And, the last idea is linked to this–Kathmandu is the right size to promote cycling, to promote walkability, and there should be some political action to promote it. It’s not such a huge city, it’s possible to promote some eco-friendly means of transportation – walking or cycling. There are a lot of amazing things to enjoy in these small neighborhoods, and Kathmandu is a very safe place, so actually, you can walk wherever you want, we never have any problem, and that’s great.