We’ve been blessed lately by a spate of sunny days that make it hard to remember what I was complaining about a month ago. (There’s a lesson in there somewhere.) Things are changing color, trees display their first tentative buds. The days quietly stretch out, waking from winter slumber.
The world feels full of possibilities, hope, renewal. The city might burst into song like a musical. Nevertheless, the 6 pm curfew still stands, as do the tired limitations: no places to gather. Nowhere to go for coffee or cocktails or a meal. We’ve had little in the way of updates about what’s to come. We joke that they (the powers that be) have simply forgotten about us. Jean-Michel, you did tell them the curfew ended two weeks ago? Euh…
The bright side of all this is the renaissance it encourages, that of good old-fashioned hospitality. Coffee and cake in a cozy living room instead of the middle of town. An all-evening apéro with the next-door neighbors. And picnics, a joyous mess for the toddler and parent alike. Eat with your hands: chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles and foil-wrapped focaccia sandwiches still warm from the oven. Crumbs tossed to ducks.
This was our weekend, and it was perfect.
Otherwise this month we’ve gotten outside as much as possible, even on the really chilly days. We’ve hiked in forests and on paths I don’t know the names of. We just jumped in the car and drove into the hills of the Beaujolais, stopping at trailheads and when we saw cows close up. We have an old-school running stroller given to us by Victor’s parents. It can handle anything. (Though Clara is wanting to walk by herself these days.)
To warm up back at home, we would bake. My mom said it was the right time to let Clara help, and she was right. She can stir with a whisk or wooden spoon, pour pre-measured ingredients, and test the batter. In addition to huge, floury messes, we made: pear muffins, banana muffins, a Dutch baby, Trader Joe’s pumpkin cookies from a mix I brought back in my suitcase, and Alison Roman’s Tiny Salty Chocolaty Cookies (the stuff of dreams).
I hope all this activity will help inspire in Clara an appreciation of food and the art of getting it on the table. I think it’s working, because already I’ve noticed things disappearing from my kitchen and popping up in hers (a bag of Korean chili flakes, an orange, an onion, the spoon that goes with the rice). The other day I noticed her trying to hack into a real apple with the wooden play knife that came with her “pink retro kitchen set.”
In other news, I completed what should be my last administrative task (as relates to living in France) for a long, long while. It was simple–a change of address on my carte de séjour, but still required a trip to the préfecture in Lyon and an hour-long wait in a packed room. After that, we couldn’t do much in the city for fear of curfew issues, but we did manage to visit Supermarché Asie in Lyon and stock up on things like tamarind paste, Shaoxing wine, fish sauce, and many kinds of noodles. I found everything I need to make several restaurant favorites at home. I’m loving the blog Woks of Life and in particular, the recipes for Pad thai, bibimbap, drunken noodles, and sesame chicken. They also have a great article on how to stock your pantry specifically for Chinese cooking.
Our renovation project is coming along. It helped to have two weeks of professional help with the floors. There were a few days where seven guys worked together on the project, which seemed so extreme we joked the Seven Dwarfs were doing our renovation. I can’t wait to keep showing this place some badly-needed love and see what it turns into. Here are Victor and Clara at a flooring store, negotiating parquet prices. You can see she’s really part of it. She leaned forward on her papa’s lap, hands clasped, and occasionally shouted no! or au revoir! at the employee. A tough customer.
January is the cruelest month. In every place I’ve ever lived, even the South of France, it is bleak. It is the color gray. It is lassitude and chapped hands, seasonal depression and teeth-chattering chill. I wish we could skip it altogether.
In France we are currently under a strict 6 pm curfew. This would feel utterly strange if there was anywhere to go, anything to do. If it wasn’t freezing cold and dark by 5:30. If we didn’t have a toddler who went to bed at about that time anyway. As it is, we just have to make sure we are on the road in time when visiting friends in Lyon, and vice-versa.
I’m dreaming of sunnier days. But I suppose the anticipation is part of what makes those days so sweet. It’s not all bad anyway. Here’s what we’ve been up to:
January is packed with family birthdays. Victor turned 31 this year and we celebrated with friends, toddlers, tres leches cake, and a big pot of carnitas. I gifted him a board game–Imaginarium–that, two weeks later, we are still trying to figure out how to play. This may become the family fruitcake. In any case, we live right next to a board game shop (really popular in France) and I sense a full and thriving game cabinet in our future.
The covered market is a short walk from our home. Open six days a week, it’s a nice winter outing. It’s loud and jovial and there’s plenty for babies to look at. It has taken me years to find my footing at a French market. Can I touch that or do I have to ask? Quatre-vingt-what?How do you say pomegranate? I never had any idea what something should cost or how many grams I needed. I was a market wallflower, stopping only for something simple and inconspicuous: a carton of eggs, a kilo of nectarines. Today I can hold my own, follow my list without giving up and slinking away in shyness. My favorite non-produce stand–so far at least–is the place selling farm-fresh crottin de chèvre, small round goat cheeses that are sorted by color, from bright-white to ash-colored, depending on age. I can never remember which one we like the best so I gesture at a cheese and let it fall to chance. We are never disappointed. You have to hack into the dry ones with your sharpest knife, but they melt in your mouth, luscious as butter.
Saturday night it snowed (for the first time, finally!) and Sunday when I made my way to the market I noticed that everyone (and their dog) was slipping and sliding all over the sidewalks. The thing to do was to adopt a cautious, lurching penguin-walk so as not to fall on your face. This made me feel a sense of camaraderie with my fellow pedestrian–and also cracked me up.
We started (and finished) watching French crime drama Lupin. It’s a retelling of a classic French story featuring the talented Omar Sy. It is something you’ll want to race through and it brings up some interesting ethical questions to chew on.
I’ve been making a lot of Israeli, Palestinian, and Tunisian food. So much so that we keep running out of harissa. Some favorites lately:
Lablabi: chickpeas in a thin broth spiked with harissa and toasted cumin. You fry cubes of bread in oil (we like sourdough) and spoon the soup over. You can top it with poached eggs, cilantro, green olives. I use this recipe.
Hummus and baba ghanoush. There are so many ways to make hummus, but our personal favorite comes from Adeena Sussman’s brilliant cookbook Sababa. It includes more tahini than chickpeas and a teaspoon of citric acid instead of lemon. She calls it Magical Hummus both because it’s wonderful and because it hails from HaKosem (“The Magician”), a restaurant in Tel-Aviv. Sababa was my Christmas present last year and it has brightened up two winters so far. Flipping through this book never fails to lift my mood–no exaggeration! If you’re needing a little sun, I highly suggest getting your hands on a copy. Make the triple-ginger persimmon loaf or the salted lemon spread (or the sesame chicken schnitzel or the falafel or…).
Palestinian roast chicken and green beans with olive oil and tomatos from Yasmin Khan’s book Zaitoun, another favorite. Zaitoun is full of accessible, quick-to-put-together recipes and interesting stories about people and places.
We havethe coolest neighbors. Kelly and I both love baking and speaking English (she’s a teacher in training). Instant friends. We spent a long afternoon baking and decorating gingerbread houses in December (when travel restrictions still prevented us from venturing much further than the grocery store). It is incredibly cozy and handy to have friends in your own building. A real blessing.
A new neighbor moved in just a few weeks ago, and…he’s also an English teacher! What are the chances? I don’t mind speaking French at all but this little anglophone island we’ve created makes me feel even more at home here. He and Victor have a lot in common and I sense a lot of apéros in our future. Every now and then we drop our cat Jojo off at his house for a playdate with his kids, to their mutual delight.
Two cozy rituals: making chicken stock and lighting a fire. There were many surprises (both delightful and bizarre) that we noticed when we visited our apartment for the first time back in May. One of the delightful ones: a mammoth wood-burning stove. It’s able to heat our entire home. Sitting in front of the fire with a magazine while aromatic chicken stock bubbles away on the stove? There’s nothing cozier.
Audiobooks and podcasts are my constant companions in the work of the home, in laundry-folding and dishwashing. I like apologetics podcasts such as Unbelievable? from England, in which Christians and atheists/skeptics debate all manner of topics. My latest audiobook to recommend is Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness. Short stories that surprise, startle, and stick in your head (for years, probably). In hard copy, I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time since high school, for the first time voluntarily. Really enjoying it.
Our home is now full of cute things, which is a bonus to having a baby. Our living room is probably a mess, but it’s a very sweet, colorful mess. You might have to step over an array of crocheted vegetables, a family of tiny velvet animals, or a fingernail-sized pair of high heels belonging to a bunny. We have a toy French press, toaster, sports car, grand piano… even so, one of Clara’s favorite things to spend time doing is reading (you know I’m happy). She puts dozens of her books on the floor and sits atop the pile to read, like a dragon guarding its gold. Our collection of Petit Ours Brun books is growing thanks to Clara’s Mamie. Victor’s mom kept all his old books, most of them featuring this lovable, ornery bear cub. We have them now, many marked with VICTOR: Christmas ’91 or something similar. Clara gets to watch the show too (it’s the only thing she watches, the only show she knows exists). When the theme song plays she twirls and claps like it’s the grooviest thing she’s ever heard.
Clara’s patois brings a lot of joy and laughter to all. What you understand her to say will depend on your native language–you’ll hear either voilà! or all done! Is that alors or hello? Not even her mother knows for sure. She interacts with strangers much more readily than six months ago. Ah vwa! she hollers from her stroller as she hears me trade goodbyes with the pharmacist, butcher, or grocer. She and Jojo have a sibling relationship, which we think is good for Clara. It ranges from her giving him a spontaneous kiss to shouting his name in a tattletale voice–see? Very typical. They’re both napping right now. He takes the rocking chair, she’s got the crib.
Clara gets mail from Grandma, so much that she’s learned the word. “Maa!” she cries, when I surprise her with a puffy envelope. “Maa!” My mom has developed a great hack with international shipping costs: turns out a standard letter-size envelope can deliver all sorts of surprises beyond just a greeting card. Clara has unwrapped CDs, colorful socks, a tiny tote bag, paper snowflakes, a velvet stocking, a Curious George book, and handmade toddler-sized pot holders.
Victor has been working on our apartment. The upstairs is hurting for renovation, so Victor has been tearing out old floors and knocking down walls for almost two months now, in addition to his day job. His work ethic is amazing. It’s long, hard, dusty, noisy, frustrating physical labor. It’s difficult to imagine the space as clean and fresh and beautiful, like we’d like it to be. But–just like January, it will end. Spring is coming.
We can hear the bells from our living room. Every time they ring I get a tiny thrill. I glance outside at the pigeons and red clay rooftops and just for a second, it’s another era. It’s time travel (no sacrifice of electricity or indoor plumbing required). Our oldest, grandest neighbor, the collegiate church Notre-Dame-des-Marais of Villefranche-sur-Saône began to take shape in the 13th century.
I’ve visited many impressive cathedrals in many European cities, but I’ve only visited, that’s the thing. This one, in the town where we’ve purchased a home and committed to stay, feels personal. Ours. It’s what I see on my way to our favorite boulangerie, on the way back from Monoprix, when leaving the library, when taking Clara to the playground that’s practically in the church’s shadow. It’s a neighbor, a friend; it’s what makes Villefranche look like Villefranche.
Most probably, it will remain here long after we’re gone. Such a strange, lonely thought. It’s almost as if we are the characters in the church’s drama, and not the other way around. Made by men, yet this place will outlast us all.
We are small in its shadow. I have to crane my neck, up, up, to take in the spire. How indifferent the church seems. How above it all. How outside the cares and constraints of time.
Look how it has loomed here in times of plenty and times of paucity. It has seen horses trot down the cobbled streets and much, much later, twentieth-century trains whistling down the length of the Rue Nationale. Today it presides over a busy shopping street. Drivers blast hip-hop and pedestrians amble, arms full of shopping bags and sandwiches and cell phones. Pampered little dogs in jackets stroll with their smartly-dressed owners. In summer, there are sidewalk sales and gelato stands. In winter, crêpes and mulled wine and Nordmann pines.
What neighbors has Notre-Dame-des-Marais known? Stables, blacksmiths, apothecaries? Today, in a wonderful example of anachronism, the church faces a trendy bagel-sandwich café and an upscale men’s clothing store.
For how many eras will this gorgeous, fearsome thing stand? It has never lived and will never have that privilege…but it has lasted. It has weathered blizzards and heat waves and perhaps provided shelter from any number of storms. It has been a stoic host: baptisms, weddings, funerals–standing strong, immoveable, through all the rites of passage that mark a human life.
While avoiding writing today, I found a book on my shelf from the eighties called “Writing Down the Bones.” My copy is yellowed and studded with bookmarks–receipts, clothing tags, and the business card of a Californian sculptor. It’s not really my copy, but my grandma’s, and the book’s history only adds to its mystique.
Hundreds of books are around that tell how to avoid bad writing. Here is one that tells how to create good writing. What a pleasant surprise.
The quiet of nap time is precious. When my baby sinks into solid afternoon sleep, I often freeze, unsure which venture to pursue. Today I resolved to write, but when no subject sprang to mind, I started flipping through “Writing Down the Bones.” I liked its cursive script and cover image showing a black pool of spilled ink dotted with stars.
I know this approach rarely works. It’s far too easy to spend an hour casting about for writing wisdom in lieu of actually writing. This time, however, I read something that helped make sense of my scribblings.
In the section titled “Composting,” Natalie Goldberg writes:
It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, “I’m madly in love,” over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to; it’s not yet in our body. We don’t know our new home, even if we can drive to the drugstore without getting lost. We have not lived through three winters there or seen the ducks leave in fall and return to the lakes in spring.
Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”
This is true of writing about new motherhood whilein the midst of it. Everything is fresh, compelling, but there is no perspective. I’m rarely more than a room away from Clara. I yearn to write about this baby, source of great inspirationjoywonder, but as soon as she’s asleep, the coffee’s hot, and the room is quiet–I have nothing to say. I don’t know what it all means. I’m trying to write about Paris in Paris.
Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.”
Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.
It’s not just new motherhood. When I try to write about anything that friends say belongs in a book, the obvious writing material, I sit intimidated and wordless before the page. I write differently; I write scared, leaning on clichés to parse big emotions. After a few painful minutes or hours, I delete everything, annoyed at the vast gulf between what I want to say and what I can say.
I’m better off sticking to details. Like that old joke: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Tiny sensory details have always seemed both accessible and vital to me, as if my life in some way depended upon this collecting of a few of the moments that make up a day or a few of the characteristics that make up a person.
I can’t ignore that tug, to get something on the page. Each moment, especially on these precious baby-full days, is as flighty and ephemeral as the monarchs I’ve seen fluttering high outside my window, gone before I’ve had time to really look. With a notebook and pen I can trap something of these days under glass, examine them more closely.
“Often I will stab many times at something I want to say,” Goldberg writes. She spent months attempting to write of her father’s death. One day, finally, “all the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity– a bright red tulip shot out of the compost.”
I can’t write about “motherhood,” full stop, right now. It’s perfectly sufficient to record something of my daughter’s sticky, chubby hands, something of her delight at crawling in the grass, something about the strains and surprises and messes that make up these days.
I can take ten minutes a day. Over months or years, I can stab many times in the general vicinity of what I want to say. In time, surely, disparate details will fuse and something bright and lovely will rise out of this compost.
Here’s something about living abroad: it offers the gift of perspective. You start to see most things not as the default way, but as one option among many. Time away creates room for inspection, the chance to hold each culture up to the light.
For a few years I had one foot in France and the other in the United States, with the wobbly balance only natural in such a position. The glimmer of my adopted surroundings quickly wore off and I spent enough time in the States to never feel like I completely left. Frankly, I pined for home. I missed the ease, convenience, and comfort. I missed people who understood–quite literally–where I was coming from.
It took one entire year away, my usual trips home all cancelled, for this to sink in: I live in France. It’s visiting Missouri that has made this point so strongly. Since being back, I’ve had the strange sensation of being a visitor in my own town, my own country, of no longer quite knowing how things work.
In past years, I’ve described my life in France as slightly off, comparing it to the practical joke where someone moves all the living room furniture a few inches from where it usually sits. The victim bruises a hip, stubs her toe on the coffee table, and wonders at her sudden clumsiness. So too with living in a foreign culture that on first glance resembles your own. Walk around long enough and you’ll keep stubbing your toe, without any obvious clue to what’s wrong.
Jokes don’t translate. Assumptions prove incorrect. Beliefs about the world go challenged. Text messages get analyzed. You acquire a squint of suspicion, always wondering if you’re missing something or doing it wrong, in realms as varied as errand-running and relationships.
You want to trade places with tourists–you want to return to guidebook French, ignorance and bliss. You want to taste the best of the place and return with a memory like a found treasure. Instead, you stew in the waters of an inscrutable, adopted culture, becoming bitter and tough.
Here’s what I think now, on the other side of this process. These emotions are normal. Many of them are necessary to work through and wrestle with. It is unavoidably complicated–leaving one home, making another. The culture we grow up in leaves an indelible stamp, not something to be washed away one summer in the salty waves of the Mediterranean. We bring a lifetime of accrued, implicit beliefs with us wherever we go. Attitudes and assumptions about liberty, money, privacy, politics, relationships, food, and much more have all been influenced to some degree by our culture, so of course there are going to be clashes should we settle down in a new one.
Some of these clashes merely puzzle, some of them really hurt. Acquiring French fluency didn’t remove this tendency, nor did marrying a French citizen, nor having a French baby, nor the stamps in my passport securing continued legal presence in France.
What did help is neither glamorous nor surprising, but it is worth remembering: time. Just that. At some point in the past year, I gave up. I stopped trying to bring the US to France. I stopped expecting these two places with different pasts, people, and politics to feel the same. There were no big epiphanies–rather, I ran out of energy and stopped fighting. I let French culture change me. Slowly.
I’ve made peace with my accent and the aggressive rules of politesse. I never drive, but walk or take the train. I shop local–at the open-air market when I can–and only buy what I can carry in my arms or stuff in a stroller. And it turns out, I like it that way. As a family, we’ve taken up the national sport of picnicking and we soak up the slower paced, closed-on-Sunday culture. We live in the center of town in an apartment (so different from the acres of land I played on as a child). We spend weekends looking for treasures at the huge open-air antiques market, rifling through copper madeleine molds and vintage escargot platters. We observe the sacred hour of apero, and I finally have a Carrefour store card–if that doesn’t say “settled,” nothing does.
It is being back in Missouri that has me thinking about all these new rituals and routines, for in Missouri, I keep stubbing my toe. The knowledge that was in my bones, the things I did for a decade with my eyes closed, reappear as mystifying puzzles. I have, to my surprise, new second-nature knowledge. The old is nearly atrophied. I fumble with money and gas pumps, I barely remember to tip, I drive with the caution of the elderly. In conversation, I search for the English translation of a French word I like and come up short, settle for a cousin. Politics, prices, portion sizes. All these things (and many more, surely, that I haven’t identified) are little jolts, evidence of how the familiar can become the foreign and vice-versa.
Everything seems new to me.
Costco quantities. Cultural Christianity. Roadside hay bales painted in red, white, and blue Trump support.
Delicate white fans of Queen Anne’s Lace. Darting hummingbirds. Cicada exoskeletons poised in a frozen march along tree branches.
Everything outside these windows moves if you look at it long enough. There are garden spiders, groundhogs, sunsets that streak the sky violet. Violent thunderstorms strike with operatic drama and then slink off like nothing happened, leaving behind blistering sunshine and a thick cloud of humidity.
Yes, these are gifts: to see what was once home through the eyes of a traveler. To make a home in a place I once studied in textbooks.
It’s good to be back. It will be good to go back. Both are true.