Thanksgiving marked our third month in France. As I reflect on the past year I can’t help but think about how much life has changed for us in such a short period of time. As the title might suggest, it hasn’t always been easy, in fact I can safely say nothing about it has been easy! It has without a doubt been the most difficult thing we as a family have ever done.
I find that when we get a bit homesick, or when we struggle with the various details of negotiating the curves of day-to-day life in a new country, we often make comparisons to life in California.
A few examples come to mind:
Southern California is a place built around convenience. Roads are paved, and organized into grids to make it generally easy to find your way. It’s pretty tough to get lost in L.A., especially for someone who has lived in there his entire life. I know the city well, and have used most of the shortcuts to get from one place to the next. Of course I’ve also spent my share of time stuck in gridlocked traffic too.
In France the village roads were built for horses and people, not automobiles. Many of these narrow lanes are still cobblestoned, and car traffic is prohibited or restricted to residents.
The small winding road and 100 yards of unpaved gravel that leads to our house is barely wide enough for one car. Oncoming vehicles, usually driving wildly fast, must slam on their brakes to avoid a head-on collision, then pull into a driveway or squeeze onto a bit of shoulder so that one car can pass. Folding in a side mirror is a popular strategy to gain a precious extra few inches of clearance between vehicles.
These windy narrow roads are even more fun at night, in the rain, in the morning fog, and when you have no idea where you are going. We were invited to a party and failed to realize that the invitation didn’t bother to include a house address. I’m sure they just assumed that anyone who didn’t know where the house was would just ask for directions.
After about 45 minutes of searching for a house with no number on a street that didn’t show up on our GPS, and calling cellphones that weren’t answered, we happened to run into a party guest we recognized walking towards his car. He led us up to the house, which was only 5 minutes from where we live. We were almost an hour late, missed dinner, but happily the entertainment hadn’t started (a group of folk musicians from Madagascar) and there was still plenty of dessert left.
It is worth noting that many houses here didn’t even get numbers until just a few years ago, and I have a feeling the residents really haven’t caught on to using them yet.
In Los Angeles the weather is generally a predictably comfortable 70-80F most of the year.
Provence may also be known for its sunshine and blue skies, but I can tell you that it definitely has seasonal weather. Autumn has brought with it the legendary mistral winds, intense rain, lightning, thunder, power-outages, thick fog, chilly temperatures, but also crisp sunny days, puffy white clouds, and glorious sunsets.
In L.A. stores are open all day, seven days a week, many even 24 hours a day. The consumer is king—heaven forbid a business should miss a sale because a customer felt like shopping at 2am and the store was closed!
Here in the south, most stores are only open mornings and evenings, closing for 2-3 hours in the après-midi for lunch (which is when people should be at home with their families). During the winter months, when the tourists are gone and the days are short, many shops close a couple of extra days a week, and some even shut down completely for a month or two to enjoy the holidays.
There are cultural differences as well, and these differences manifest themselves in unexpected ways.
In France the customer is most certainly not always right. While shopping in a local market where there was a long line of customers, Felicia witnessed one impatient woman, obviously late and needing to get home to prepare lunch, chastise the clerk. She suggested that the stock-boy should open a register. The clerk fired back that it was the stock-boy’s job to stock, and her job was to ring up customers. If the woman didn’t like waiting she could leave. She waited.
This is not to say that business owners are unpleasant—on the contrary we are now cheerfully greeted by name at many of the village shops we frequent. I have also noticed recently that the occasional complimentary croissant, or tasty dessert has been added to my shopping bag, perhaps as a small token of thanks for being a regular customer.
Prices can be confusing too. In the US there is an accepted practice of discounting quantity. Buying the 64 oz. jar of peanut butter is cheaper than buying four 16 oz. jars. That isn't always the case here--sometimes it is cheaper to buy multiple smaller items. I won't even pretend that I understand why.
How is it possible for the same culture that designed the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Metro to also be responsible for the water heater in my basement? It is a maze of pipes, dials, electric switches, and valves!
When the weather began to turn cool I asked our landlord to turn on our radiant floor heating. Apparently, turning the heat on is something so complex that it requires someone to come and activate the system. There are literally dozens of valves that need to be set to direct the water flow from the heater to the various rooms of the house. And unlike thermostat-controlled heat in the US, our heat is on 24/7 because once it is working you really don’t dare touch it again.
It seemed to be working at first, but after about a day we not only lost heat in the floor, but all hot water to the rest of the house as well. As luck would have it, this happened on a Friday and it is impossible to get anyone over the weekend. We spend a few long days heating water on the stove for baths, and bundling up in blankets at night. I have perfected the art of taking a shower with two big pots of nearly boiling water.
Fixing the heat ultimately required bringing in an expert heating technician who determined that the pilot light had gone out. After only an hour of work he was able to set the appropriate switches and dials so that hot water was properly directed where needed. Given that we’ve already used 70% of the propane in our tank in the first three months, I understand why many people here still rely on their fireplaces to heat their homes over the winter.
There is a respect for history and tradition here that, for Westerners with very little of either, can be unexpected. Most of our holidays in the US are noteworthy because they are a day off work or school. We even move the holidays around to make it more convenient to have a few days off in a row.
In France, if a holiday is on a Thursday they don't move it to Friday just to get a three-day weekend. Instead, they just take Friday off too (I've heard the phrase "a bridge day" used) and make it a four-day weekend.
On Veterans Day we took part in the village memorial to the soldiers who died in World War One. In the US the First World War is not something we really discuss much; most of our veterans are from the WWII era. The USA came into WWI quite late, and had far fewer casualties than the French and British.
In Bédoin, the children gathered in the centre cultural and sang a song, which was followed by a procession of a couple hundred people (including the mayor) through the village that stopped at several memorial sites, ending at the cemetery where the names of the local soldiers who died were read while the crowd repeated “Died for France” after each name. It was very touching.
The Great War tribute continued with a local reading of soldier’s letters at the English Library in nearby Beaumont-du-Ventoux. There were about 50 people attending to listen to a reading of letters and poetry from British, French and American soldiers. We were invited to attend by a British woman who directs local theater events. When I told her it sounded fun she quickly drafted me into reading a selection of the American letters.
Thankfully for the audience, the success of the evening didn’t hinge on my performance.
GETTING A LITTLE LOST IS OKAY
It was almost impossible for me to get lost in LA.
But here I often make a detour onto a road that looks interesting, just to see where it might lead. More often than not I’m rewarded with a beautiful vista, stone ruin or hidden little village that I would have never known existed if I hadn’t taken the time to do a little exploring.
I took one such turnoff while on my way to pick the kids up from school, just before sunset, and was rewarded with this lovely view. I set up my camera on the side of the road to take a few photos, and wondered at the fact that I was standing there with this amazing view all to myself.
In California, when we were looking for something to do we went shopping. Old Town Pasadena, The Third Street Promenade and various other urban shopping destinations have become the modern village squares. Even if we didn’t buy anything, strolling along the pedestrian friendly walkways was the closest thing we had to experiencing life on a human scale. Places like The Grove are even designed to look like European towns, complete with fountains and cobbled streets, albeit the Cheesecake Factory and The Gap replace le boulangerie and l’atelier.
We’ve been fortunate to meet some very nice people and find ourselves with a very full social schedule in this otherwise sleepy village. Most of the events seem to revolve around food and the arts, and almost always the two are combined. We've attended a party where folk musicians from Africa performed, and the food and wine was pot-luck style; a short film festival followed by aperitifs and cakes; J.M. Berrie plays by the local English language theater group, with wine and dinner served during and after; an arts festival in St. Remy where the shops handed out complimentary wine and appetizers.
In France, art, wine and food seem to go hand-in-hand.
And so our journey down these bumpy roads continues. It isn't all is sunflowers and lavender, but I never thought it would be. There are challenges to be sure. The biggest is a general feeling of homesickness for friends and familiar traditions. Being in a place where almost nothing is familiar is difficult. Learning everything over is just plain tiring at times. Add to that the cultural differences and our ongoing struggle with the language…well, you get the idea.
But these inconveniences are a small price to pay to learn, struggle and celebrate life together. And so we will navigate the bumps and the fog, get a little lost now and then, and do our best to find our way.
After all, isn't the journey what life is all about anyway?
All Images (unless noted) © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.