Bonjour Tout le Monde,
As we approach the end of our second month in France the theme for this update has to be “settling in.” Our shipments from the US have arrived, boxes have been unpacked, the kids are enjoying their autumn school break, and we have gotten our first French speeding ticket.
Having our things from the US has certainly helped to give us the feeling that we are “at home” and less like we are camping out in a furnished vacation rental. The arrival of our 20-foot container from the US was reportedly quite the event in town. The big yellow container rumbled through the center of the village and certainly didn’t go un-noticed. Several people commented to us that they saw it come through town, and I’m told a few even took photos.
Getting the monstrous truck up our narrow little road was truly a feat of master roadsmanship (yes, I made that word up). Unfortunately, the container and piano movers arrived before the rest of the furniture movers, and the driver had no idea how to open the sealed door. Luckily he had tools on hand: a big metal bar, a hammer and an old screwdriver, and proceeded to beat the hell out of the lock. After being hit in the face a few times with flying lock debris, it occurred to me that this was most likely not the way the lock designers intended it to be opened, and we must be missing some crucial piece of equipment, like a key or a bolt cutter. I asked the driver to pause the battering, and took a closer look. There was a small wire retaining-clip, that when removed with some pliers allowed what was left of the bent up locking pin to be pulled out by hand. Several "ahhhhs" later and the doors were open.
At the successful opening of the container, the piano movers, who had been waiting impatiently for the lock to be opened, rushed to the open doors to offload the piano. This would have been a perfect plan if the piano hadn’t been the first thing loaded into the container and therefore was now buried behind 144 other boxes. The piano movers explained to our driver that they only had 30 minutes and couldn’t wait any more on the tardy moving crew. With a shrug of their shoulders and a ”très désolé” they climbed into their van and sped away, never to be seen again. The moving people showed up about thirty minutes later, and luckily were able to move all 144 boxes and the piano without the help of the piano moving specialists. Miraculously, every box that was packed in Los Angeles traversed half the globe by ocean and made it unscathed to France. Not a single wine glass was broken, a testament to the excellent work of our shipping company, and the power of mankind’s greatest scientific achievement: bubble wrap.
At last the frenetic weeks of arrival are behind us and it is beginning to feel less like being on vacation and more like being at home. There are small signs that we may one day be a part of this community: the lady at la boulangerie knows what bread we buy each day without us asking. It’s nice to walk in and be greeted with “Bonjour Monsieur Wallace, un rustique?” Le Rustique being the rustic loaf of bread we prefer for lunch sandwiches.
At €1 for a loaf of excellent bread we find that it just makes sense to buy (and eat) a fresh loaf every day. For a small shop in a small village, our bakery of choice does a bang up business. There is often a line of 5-10 people waiting to purchase bread, and they are normally sold out by mid-day. Now that we are in the know, we put our name on their reservation book each day. We definitely feel like locals when there is no bread left on the shelves, but our rustique is tucked aside waiting for us!
Being in the countryside has also turned us into conservationists. We eat local produce, walk and bike ride much more, and even turn off the shower while soaping up and shampooing, though this is more a function of having a small water heater that runs out of hot water quickly.
We reuse plastic containers over and over. The paella-maker is pleasantly surprised when we return each week with the same plastic container for him to refill, though he has yet to discount the price of our paella to account for the savings. The fancy glass yogurt jars make excellent juice glasses, and plastic shopping bags make good dog poo sacks (judging by the amount of dog poo on the sidewalk I think we are the only people in town familiar with the "poo sack" concept). Even honey containers can be recycled, though after a questionable batch of salad dressing had to be tossed out we no longer put extra hair shampoo in the empty honey squeeze bottle.
I think one of the greatest pleasures is being able to buy food at the local market. Finding an interesting recipe in a French cookbook, then buying the ingredients from a local farmer, makes cooking and eating feel like something that is connected to the community around us. The food choices here can be a bit overwhelming at times. Forget having only to choose between whipping and heavy cream--here there are about a dozen different levels of cream, each with a very specific use. France has over 400 kinds of cheese, and there are two full aisles in the supermarket devoted to yogurt. When we asked a french friend about the choices of cream she just shrugged and informed us that most of the people she knows make their own.
Life in a small French village is full of little surprises. A couple of nights ago we saw a flyer for a music performance by a pianist and violinist. We didn’t recognize the venue (and there aren’t many, given that our village has one rue principale), so we didn’t really give much thought to attending what was obviously an amateur event. But that evening we found we had some extra time and thought it might make a fun adventure, so we decided to check it out. We drove about 10 minutes away to a small road with nothing but vineyards and the occasional farmhouse. At the noted address we found cars wedged into any available spot along the roadside. We found a place to park, and walked down a dark driveway and discovered we had arrived at a beautiful old mas where a crowd of fifty people were seated in a large barn-turned-studio. We were welcomed by the owner and we took seats at the back of the room.
The performers were announced, and for the next sixty minutes we were treated to a classical concert that rivaled anything we have ever seen. The female musicians (a pianist originally from Japan and a violinist from Texas) were highly talented professionals (both performed in Paris for noted orchestras) and seeing them perform in such an intimate venue was truly a special experience. The audience gathered for un apéritif avec les artistes in the garden afterward where we met the home owner and many of her friends, one of which it turns out lives just up the road from us. One of the ladies gushed on and on en française to Felicia about what an enchanting evening it had been and thanked her so much for being there. It was only after a couple of minutes of blank stares that we realized she had mistaken Felicia for the Japanese pianist.
Speaking of la langue française, our lack of French language skills is certainly the single biggest obstacle we have to overcome. Felicia and I started French lessons from a local teacher, and of course the kids have eight hours a day of French in school. We get by day-to-day with a few words here and there, some memorized phrases, and lots of hand gestures, grunts, and wild gesticulation, and somehow we make ourselves understood. It helps that most people here speak better English than they let on, even if, as one self-depreciating seller of delicious pesto claimed, “I speak English like a Spanish cow.” Considering that his english was about 100 times better than my french, I must speak French like an Italian pig.
So as we settle in to our expat lives we raise a glass of wine (being careful to look you in the eyes and not cross glasses!) and toast "à votre santé."
Bonne journée et merci for following our French adventure.
Ken, Felicia, Paige and Ryan Wallace
Bonjour Tout le Monde = hi everyone
très désolé = very sorry
la boulangerie = the bakery
un croissant, un pain chocolat, un pain aux amandes, et un pain aux raisins = various pastries
rue principale = main street
mas = farmhouse
un apéritif avec les artistes = a drink with the artists
en française = in french
la langue française = the french language
à votre santé = to your health
bonne journée = have a good day
Photos © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
As someone born and raised in southern California, I've never really experienced the change in the seasons. In Los Angeles the seasons are marked by holidays and store displays rather than changes in weather.
In L.A. you know summer is over after the Labor Day weekend has passed, and it is officially autumn when the grocery stores start advertising Halloween candy and sending out Thanksgiving advertisements. To get into the spirit of the season we break out our collection of orange plastic leaves and toss them on the dining table as though they have blown in from an open window.
Here in Provence l'été is over, and l'automne has announced itself in a rather more tangible way. While our friends in Los Angeles are sweltering in 100 degree (F) temperatures, we are experiencing cooler, windy days with the occasional rain, thunder and lightning storms. The swimming pools are closed for the season, and the stores that were opened all day for tourists are now fermé for a proper three-hour déjeuner.
This is agricultural country, so the weather drives much of life. The vendange is nearly complete, bringing an end to three weeks of dodging tractors filled with grapes on the school run. Melons and other summer fruits have disappeared from the market, and the quaint sound of shotgun fire can be heard at dawn signaling that la chasse has officially begun. We were told that if we plan to take walks in the countryside this time of year we might want to wear bells and orange vests to avoid being mistaken for un sanglier.
And while we don't have the autumn color show of New England, the leaves on the vines are turning from green to shades of amber and orange, and the cafes and fountains are sprinkled with golden fallen leaves. It is a welcome change from year-round evergreens and endless stretches of watered lawns.
Of course anyone reading this (assuming anyone actually is reading this!) in a place that experiences a proper autumn will wonder what all the fuss is about. And to our friends on the east coast who are already thinking about snow blowers, all I can say is "bon courage!"
l'été = summer
l'automne = autumn
vendange = the harvest
fermé = closed
déjeuner = lunch
la chasse = the hunt
un sanglier = a wild boar
bon courage = an expression to wish someone "good courage"
All Images © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
We hope this finds you enjoying le rentrée, as they call the return to school in France. Our rentrée was a bit sooner than would have been ideal, coming only four days after our arrival in France. We did our best to prepare ourselves. Since we had not driven to the school before (and because we shipped our GPS unit sans maps of Europe) we decided that it might be wise to scout the route to school the day before. Turned out to be a good idea, as our first drive in was a circuitous route that included missed turnoffs and detours through unknown villages until we finally arrived at the school, 3o minutes longer than our estimated drive time. But at least we knew how to get there.
On Monday morning our jet-lagged family piled into our Ford Focus rental car at 7:30am for le premier jour of class. Thanks to our previous day’s recce we arrived 30 minutes early and had time to meet several of the teachers who were delighted to meet the new American family who couldn’t comprehend a word they were saying. As most of you know, Paige and Ryan attended a Waldorf School in California, and we were fortunate to find one for them to attend here in France. Opening day at a Waldorf (Steiner) school entails a series of beautiful ceremonies, songs and speeches to welcome the families back to school. And I’m pretty sure that if we had understood any of it this was equally as beautiful.
We breezed through the three-hour parent meeting and collapsed back into the Focus for the 30-minute return home, imagining our children already well on their way towards French literacy. Or at least conscious.
I have only a vague idea what we did the rest of the day, or even the rest of the week. Our days were a blur of driving back and forth to school, interspersed with shopping at Auchan (the French equivalent of Target) for home and school supplies. Now I know that this doesn’t sound like the idyllic Provençal lifestyle glamorized in Peter Mayle’s novels, but little village shops really aren’t the best place to buy A4 notebook binders and toilet paper.
One of our main priorities was to buy a car to replace our rental Ford Focus (which is a fine American automobile, but at $250 a week not particularly a bargain). In California you can select pretty much any model of used car you want and have a dozen viable options. Not so in Provence. We were assisted in our search by a very sweet French woman who has been working at La Maison Rose, and offered to help us in the delicate art of French negotiation. She recommended finding a car at a dealer, because they offer a 12 month warranty and are less likely to try to sell you a piece of merde (Google it).
We spent two days visiting dealers and found a Citroen C4 with low milage and an automatic transmission (possibly one of the only voitures automatiques in all of Provence). We were ready to make the purchase, but our French negotiator had other plans. Felicia and I looked like Wimbledon spectators as we tried to follow a conversation that must have covered the entire history of the French automotive industry. Really, what could they have been talking about for so long? Perhaps this is a good opportunity to point out one of the first things we have learned since moving here: the French love to talk. I think it is because they sound so good doing it. As one of Paige’s classmates pointed out to her, “I like speeeking French becaussse eet ees suuch a beeuuteefull language.”
But I digress. Our Citroen negotiations stalled when the dealer wouldn’t agree to our negotiator’s demand to reduce the price by 30%. We were ready to pay retail, but this is not the way things are done in le Sud (the south). There is a process that must play out, and we were advised to come back in a day or two and certainly the salesperson would reduce the price. Since it can take up to a week to take delivery of a car after purchasing it, we decided we would come back the next day and take whatever price we could get.
That evening we had a meeting with a family with whom we hoped to covoiturage (carpool). The father, it turned out, worked for many years in the auto industry. When he heard we were searching for a car his only advice was to steer clear of Citroens, especially the C4, unless we liked frequent trips to the repair shop. He told us that of all the manufacturers, Toyota was hands down the best in terms of quality control.
To make a long story short, we bought a 2011 Prius that is very much like the one we sold in Los Angeles before we moved. We learned a very important lesson about the pace of life—sometimes slowing things down a little allows time to gather the important information needed to make smart decisions.
The other activity that consumes much of our time is the buying and eating of food. It now seems perfectly normal to eat a loaf of bread and drink bottle of wine daily. Even the most simple lunch of some ham and cheese on a baguette is accompanied by moans of pleasure at the taste and texture of the bread, the sweetness of the fruit, and the stinky ripeness of the cheese. A trip through the Bédoin outdoor market on Monday’s yields seafood paella, roasted chicken, artisanal goat cheese, walnut fig bread, wild boar sausage, lavender honey, and even a linen dress for Paige.
Our first two weeks haven’t been all work. We've spent time with friends from the US who have been living in France for almost five years, done a bit of site seeing, and attended a lovely aperitif party, thrown by the woman who is renting our village house. In her few months in France this outgoing woman from Seattle has become a part of the village social scene. She introduced us to a friendly group of artists, musicians and actors who generously shared valuable information about life in the village.
Meeting people in Provence in a social situation almost always starts with les bisous: three kisses starting with the left cheek. Messing up the left-cheek-first rule can be awkward, so concentration is required. We also noticed that the people we met, despite not knowing us, were very interested in having a conversation despite the limitations of our grade-school French. Why would we move from Los Angeles to Bédoin? How are the kids adapting in school? How long are we planning to stay? It’s a relief to be met with such openness, and makes us hopeful that we will be able to forge new friendships here soon.
No conversation would be complete without the requisite discussion about the weather. For the most part, il fait beaux. Days have been warm, with cool breezes blowing in during the evenings. Perfect for afternoon naps. But the weather can change quick. We had a brief introduction to the dreaded Mistral. The Mistral is a cold wind that arrives with a fury, often accompanied by hail, lightning and if you believe the rumors, can blow small children and pets into the next village. Our Mistral blew in, and it was quite impressive. Gusts of wind slammed shutters and doors open and closed, thunder and lightning put on a sound and light show, and sheets of rain washed over the dry countryside.
Alors, we were told that this was only a petit Mistral; just a taste of what we can look forward to in Winter. When the real thing hits we plan to keep the kids and dog inside, just to be safe.
Of course there are things we miss about Los Angeles: Leaving behind our family and friends has created the biggest hole in our lives. We miss them all and think about them every day. Other differences are more mundane. Shopping here takes much longer, primarily because we don’t have the advantage of brand familiarity. Staring down an entire isle filled with every cheese known to mankind is impressive, but intimidating. Thank goodness for gouda.
Simple business dealings are far more complicated. Opening a bank account requires an appointment a week in advance. Store hours are limited (and a bit arbitrary), nothing is open on Sundays after noon, and every official transaction is accompanied by vast amounts of paperwork. As the person who sold us our car said when handing over the contract, “C’est pour la poubelle.” (This is for the trashcan).
And of course the language barrier can’t be denied. Sitting through a two-hour school meeting in French left me brain dead. I can only imagine how the kids feel after an eight-hour school day, and try to be sympathetic when they climb in the car tired and grumpy. We also try not to instantly fall back on English, though almost everyone is very willing to try to communicate in English if they can. We really do want to learn French—it’s just so darn hard. By all reports, it gets better after about 3 months.
I can’t think of a better Christmas present.
The church bell in the village is ringing 11pm and I’m reminded that tomorrow is market day. I have to get up early to buy our paella and baguette from the boulangerie before they sell out. Life changes, but goes on, and we feel lucky to be together to experience whatever the future holds. Thanks for allowing us to continue to share our story with you.
Avec notre amour,
Ken, Felicia, Paige and Ryan Wallace
If you would like to receive more updates about life in France please subscribe to our newsletter.
All images © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
It hasn't been lost on us that if we are planning to live in France, it might be very useful to actually speak la langue française. A tally of our cumulative experience amounts to some books on tape (moi) some high school french (ma femme), some first grade french lessons (ma fille), and some french fries (mon fils).
With only cing mois before we depart on our adventure it is time to appuyer sur le champignon and learn the language of our soon-to-be home.
While we are searching high and low for the perfect professeur français, some of our friendly neighbors from French-Quebec recommended an on-line learning website called Duolingo. They offer free learning software which can be used via their website, or from an iPhone or iPad companion App (chosen by Apple as their App of the Year). Your progress is saved in your account and you can pick up where you leave off from any device with the App.
The lessons are fun, just challenging enough to be interesting, yet easy enough to keep a beginner like me from getting discouraged. They require both written and spoken interaction, and I find that the act of having to write what I hear really helps to make the lesson stick in my brain.
You are required to progress through the lessons in order, and have to pass each short lesson before moving forward. A game-like reward system awards tokens as you pass lessons, and there is a social aspect that lets you track your progress against friends en ligne, and share tips on learning french on public forums.
A study by university professors "estimated that 34 hours on Duolingo may yield reading and writing ability of a US first-year beginners' course college semester, which takes in the order of 130+ hours." The same study showed that the popular Rosetta Stone course takes almost twice as long to attain the same level of proficiency (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duolingo).
And all this is absolutely free, with no hidden up-charges (they make their money by crowd-sourcing the translation of documents, which Duolingo is paid for by the companies whose documents are translated).
So if you are looking to learn a language, give Duolingo a try and let me know what you think!
la langue française = the french language
moi = me
ma femme = my wife (f)
ma fille = my daughter (f)
mon fils = my son (m)
cing mois = 5 months
appuyer sur le champignon = step on the gas
professeur français = french professor
en ligne = on-line
bon courage = have courage (literally "good courage")