Monday, October 25, 2010

Well, how did we get here?

It's day one of the October school vacation (Toussaints) and, already, I'm on the verge. I knew it was going to be a long day when Isla asked me for a chocolate cookie immediately after breakfast.

Then there was that little regrettable instant when I tried to help her into her tights-- she was trying to go outside bare-legged, it's frigid. The kid still hasn't learned that tights go on much faster, and with help from a friendlier, more patient mommy, when you "POINT (pieds longs), rather than flex, your toes!"

By lunch time, when the girls realized I wasn't in a playful, playdough, cookie- baking mood--  I'm just not-- they decided to do a bit of playdough playing on their own, praise the lord, and commenced to arguing in French about who was the most beautiful as they sculpted. "Non. C'est moi qui la plus belle." "Non, C'est moi."
"Non. Tue est le plus moche," Isla said, which Esther tells me, means ugly.

It stopped when I pointed out that Isla had made a beautiful penis cake. It was a lovely blue cake with a baby phallus on top. It's not the first time she has made a penis cake. She might have been trying to make a birthday candle. I'm not sure. 

All of this is an overlong segue into what on earth we are doing in France in the first place. Really, what are we doing here?

Why I ever thought it was a good idea to pick up and move to France, temporarily, I’ll never know.

When the opportunity for Ian to renovate his sister's house in Burgundy surfaced out of thin air, it seemed like the escape we both had been waiting for. Ian and I have always had itchy feet. We've always lived with our mental bags packed and kept near the front door, just in case.

Here was our chance, as parents now, for an adventure. Something cool, bold, intriguing, hip, swaggerific. Something to talk about other than how many times our kid pooped or what was for dinner.  Here was a fresh new coat of paint to whitewash our predictably beige lives with. 

Our kids would learn French--they have. I would learn French-- I’m trying, but, if I”m honest, I have as well. I can pick up the paper, or a children’s book, TinTin, read a recipe, or turn on the radio and actually understand the words, follow the thread, even when it’s a poetic one, I love that.

I can make a phone call, make and cancel appointments, and make small talk about the weather with the postmistress. The other day, in what turned out to be a very expensive French lesson, I found myself wandering into a clothing boutique and trying on several pairs of overpriced pants and an amazing soft, green cardigan, chatting, all the while with the no-longer threatening saleslady. There was a time, must half a year ago, when I would have avoided that whole scene for fear of having to speak too much French. I'm not sure if this is good or bad.

Most importantly, I know how to pronounce the words properly, for the most part, though I’m still working on the pesky word for number one. "Un" is my least favorite word in the entire French language. One is the ugliest number and I avoid it like the plague. Like many an English speaker, I will even order two croissants rather than one to avoid sounding stupid.

“Unh, unh, unh”, sounds like a caveman having sex.

But, if I am in a good mood, French is a truly beautiful language no matter how resistant I’ve been to embrace it. I’ve made major progress. Progress.

But, I tell you, when my girl brings home her schoolwork and asks for help learning the historical timeline of the formation of the European Union, and the fundamentals of a feudalistic society, in French, I start to quake a bit. Math is bad enough in any language, but at least the numbers are the same.

And the temporary transience of our lives: our things, much of them are still in bags and boxes, with limited closet space and the constant sense that we might up and move again at any minute, drives me slowly nutty. One must stay forever in the now. I have nothing to cling to. No past here, no familiar landmarks or pastimes, just the here and now. I am like a practicing Bhuddist. Or is it something else?

And if I'm honest, if I'm really present, I have to admit to a constant, pervasive feeling of homesickness. An absent sense of place. A missing limb. It's not the "I want my mommy" kind of homesickness, but just an underlying thread of loneliness, displacement. It lingers on my tongue, and in my nose, under my skin, in my bones, and just underneath my eyelids, clouding everything I see.

It's stunningly beautiful here. But it isn't mine. None of it is mine. Why that matters, I'll never know. But it does. It matters, deeply. (Some day I'll write about my attachment, the true origin of my umbilical cord, to Vermont.)

We had hoped to live in the farmhouse as Ian renovated it. Now, one year and a half, or more, later, we have little hope of getting in there before Christmas, our second since we’ve moved to France.

I'm dying to get in there. If only for the bragging rights. "Ah yes, we live in a French farm house in Burgundy." Can you hear the snobbish, clenched jaw in my tone? I won't mention, however, that the farmhouse does not belong to us.

But I have to say, a year and a half in, my entire perspective of what is happening here, what we are gleaning, and possibly losing, our sanity?, from this experience, has changed several hundred times.

I don't regret our being here. And there are times I am genuinely smug about what we are giving our children in the form of exposure to foreign language and culture. There are others when I wonder,.what for?

Will we not go back to Vermont, eventually, and will they not promptly forget this lovely, aside from that one word, new language they have learned? Will they not forget everything?

Only time will tell.
































17 comments:

Kristi said...

It's gorgeous, Betsy. You will look back on it later for being an exciting adventure. Now though, you are simply brave!

Ida said...

Living abroad is like that - mixture of good times and not very good ones. I'm an expat myself and I can really relate. I have good periods and very bad ones too. It's hard sometimes to always feeling slightly different, not quite mastering the social codes and struggling in the supermarket to find equivalent products to the ones normally used at home, mundane things become so surprisingly difficult, etc.

When I have those moments of "expat blues" I try to do something very nice for myself. If I can find it, maybe read magazines and eat candy from home or if that's not possible go to the cinema. Basically anything which allows me to take a break from the current situation. Then usually it feels better again.

Your children might not remember all of the French they've learnt once back in the US but they'll always carry with them the useful experience of having lived in another culture, so it's a good thing you're doing for them.

Hang in there, tomorrow is another day.

Betsy said...

Thanks, Ida. I'm working on a huge pack of Twizzlers, sent by a very intuitive sister, as we speak. I feel loads better already.

Megan said...

About missing a place, missing YOUR trees, YOUR sky... - I so feel that. There's a very deep connection, a true bond that we can develop with the slice of Mother Nature that we grow up with. For me it's Austin, Texas and her water holes and rolling hills. It's summers spent living along the Guadalupe in the hill country. There are many rivers that are more beautiful than the Guadalupe, but when I'm there with the Cypress trees and the Sycamores I feel the most alive, I feel "right". It's where I belong, where I fit. If that makes sense. There's magic in that bond that's grown between a human and her natural environment. Between any animal and its environment, really, and we are after all, animals. Man, I miss the cicadas announcing the sun's departure and the giant orange dragonflies circling in a group over my grass at dusk. Only in my hometown do I know all the places where the crows will congregate at dusk. And then there were so many intimate bird moments! ... aaaaaahhhhh I could go on, but definitely shouldn't.

I am really looking forward to reading about your attachment to Vermont. I hope you do write that. I've never been to Vermont, but from what I have seen/read/heard it has for years been on my short list of those magical places in my mind where I want to live. And from what I've read of yours you are just the person to capture that magic.

But alas, I too am in France. And even though blackbirds do not sing in the dead of night here, the massive amounts of pigeons sure are fun to mess with.

You should totally come play with us because my kitchen is freshly covered in playdough crumbs and forgotten dreams of cookies before 8 am as well. Mine woke me up wanting to bake cookies for breakfast. Yeah, right. Instead I had my daughter bring me a nutella sandwich. As she eagerly made one for everyone, I daydreamed of never having to make breakfast again. Yeah, right.

The worst phrase to say in French:
UN ANNEE.
It's impossible for me. Have you heard David Sedaris's bit on only buying things in multiples in French? So funny.

It is so cool that your girls are arguing in French. You've got to love that. It is even more incredible that you are speaking as well. Just think how far y'all have come! I bet it's really fun to flow in this language. I wouldn't know because, well, for example- here I am writing comments on a blog instead of learning to conjugate important verbs like "go" or "have". One could say that I'm a bit of an underachiever in French lately. I have plans to work on that.

Your daughters won't forget the language if they don't want to. If they are speaking it together now, then hold on to that they will! (we watched Star Wars V today and Yoda is my religion now) That's awesome. If they can flow together then that is their golden ticket to remaining bilingual. Maybe. This experience is IN you all. However much is remembered, it's still all in you, forming you. I tell myself that, at least. For by opening the world up to our children and bursting out of one bubble, we are giving them that much more perspective. And perspective is good.

Please do post a photo of the penis cake.

Megan said...

About missing a place, missing YOUR trees, YOUR sky... - I so feel that. There's a very deep connection, a true bond that we can develop with the slice of Mother Nature that we grow up with. For me it's Austin, Texas and her water holes and rolling hills. It's summers spent living along the Guadalupe in the hill country. There are many rivers that are more beautiful than the Guadalupe, but when I'm there with the Cypress trees and the Sycamores I feel the most alive, I feel "right". It's where I belong, where I fit. If that makes sense. There's magic in that bond that's grown between a human and her natural environment. Between any animal and its environment, really, and we are after all, animals. Man, I miss the cicadas announcing the sun's departure and the giant orange dragonflies circling in a group over my grass at dusk. Only in my hometown do I know all the places where the crows will congregate at dusk. And then there were so many intimate bird moments! ... aaaaaahhhhh I could go on, but definitely shouldn't.

I am really looking forward to reading about your attachment to Vermont. I hope you do write that. I've never been to Vermont, but from what I have seen/read/heard it has for years been on my short list of those magical places in my mind where I want to live. And from what I've read of yours you are just the person to capture that magic.

But alas, I too am in France. And even though blackbirds do not sing in the dead of night here, the massive amounts of pigeons sure are fun to mess with.

You should totally come play with us because my kitchen is freshly covered in playdough crumbs and forgotten dreams of cookies before 8 am as well. Mine woke me up wanting to bake cookies for breakfast. Yeah, right. Instead I had my daughter bring me a nutella sandwich. As she eagerly made one for everyone, I daydreamed of never having to make breakfast again. Yeah, right.

The worst phrase to say in French:
UN ANNEE.
It's impossible for me. Have you heard David Sedaris's bit on only buying things in multiples in French? So funny.

It is so cool that your girls are arguing in French. You've got to love that. It is even more incredible that you are speaking as well. Just think how far y'all have come! I bet it's really fun to flow in this language. I wouldn't know because, well, for example- here I am writing comments on a blog instead of learning to conjugate important verbs like "go" or "have". One could say that I'm a bit of an underachiever in French lately. I have plans to work on that.

Your daughters won't forget the language if they don't want to. If they are speaking it together now, then hold on to that they will! (we watched Star Wars V today and Yoda is my religion now) That's awesome. If they can flow together then that is their golden ticket to remaining bilingual. Maybe. This experience is IN you all. However much is remembered, it's still all in you, forming you. I tell myself that, at least. For by opening the world up to our children and bursting out of one bubble, we are giving them that much more perspective. And perspective is good.

Please do post a photo of the penis cake.

Megan said...

oops. sent the longest comment ever not once, but twice.

Anonymous said...

Betsy:

The pictures are amazing and your post is, once again, inspiring. I admire your ability to take part in this adventure.

Take care!!!

Betsy said...

No worries, Megan. That comment was worth two posts. Thanks for all your insight and thoughtfulness. Sense of place is indeed fascinating. I have had great success with a audio French program called Learn French with Alexa.
learnfrenchwithalexa.com

The first 20 lessons can be downloaded from iTunes for free. I think it's called French Ecole. They have changed names multiple times.
I listen to it in the car and whenever I'm walking. But also, aside from lessons here and there and a learn to speak French book in every room of the house, especially the toilet, time and patience has been the best teacher. I've really struggled with my ego here but it is laughable to think you could learn a whole new language in a heartbeat.
Can't believe I didn't think to photograph that cake. I'm sure she'll make it again.

Betsy said...

By the way. If you say annee, you can say une because it's feminine. It's un an, ugh, that really makes me tap into my inner cavewoman and want to hit someone over the head with a club.

Karin (an alien parisienne) said...

Wow! Check out that progress on the house. Amazing!

"“Unh, unh, unh”, sounds like a caveman having sex." Heheheheheheheheh! It does, lol.

I love the comments so far, and yup -- could relate to all that is here. Part of it is that today I am unwell -- knocked down by some kind of viral crappiness -- but I am hiding in my Paris apartment today, feeling that thing you wrote of here:

"...but just an underlying thread of loneliness, displacement. It lingers on my tongue, and in my nose, under my skin, in my bones, and just underneath my eyelids, clouding everything I see."

I love that you can give expression to how it is, how it feels.

But I honestly can't envision it being any other way, cannot imagine *not* being here, or maybe, rather, what else I would be doing had I not come to Paris. What life I could envision back in the States does not have a lot of appeal, either.

There's something that another online acquaintance of mine says: "Only forward."

Yeah -- I have to live by that phrase. Too often, I want to dwell in the "what ifs" and that grass-is-greener other side, but I am here, now, for better or for worse, and there is only forward. I also know, too, with a similarly pithy phrase, that the only constant is change.

So, let this time in Burgundy be what it is. Like you write, time will tell what effect it has on the greater whole of you and your children. But by all means, keep reflecting on what you think and feel about it all here! I love being able to see many of my own thoughts so eloquently put into words. :)

Meowmie said...

I think you're brave because I am too much of a wuss to ever live with that sort of out of a box uncertainty. I moved many times in 10 years in my 20s and now I couldn't do it on my own again.

Megan said...

Thanks, Betsy, for the alexa.com suggestion! I'm loving her. It's like having the nicest, most encouraging French tutor right at my side.

... I forgot to say how beautiful the farmhouse is looking. Way to go Ian! What a cool project. I'm also digging that photo of Esther in the tractor thing. Her smile is perfect.

Seamingly Sarah said...

the farm house is looking amazing! I can't imagine being so able to want (not the actual going, because that is different and hard in itself) to travel so far and to so foreign of a place. My husband and I contemplate going from NY to VT and that seems like a big enough leap for us.

zenmamasan said...

Betsy,

So I read your blog, and my heart goes out to you and Ian, who are dealing with so much, and then I see the pictures. I found myself saying OH ! How beautiful ! The girls are beautiful. The beets are beautiful. Your man holding your daughters is beautiful :) Your writing is beautiful. Use your homesickness to craft that lovely memoir on place. I can't wait to read it !

Emma said...

oh wow, looking at the photos of the farm house is daunting! What a massive project Ian has taken on, but it looks like he's doing a great job. As we live close to a university we have lots of international students and professors who bring their families here for a few years and then return home. It's quite interesting to see their kids becoming little Aussies over the course of time. Sometimes they keep some of the accent when they return to their home country. A friend's daughter (from the States) still pronounces "bird" in an australian accent (berhd)some 6 years later.

I guess even if the girls don't end up remembering specifics about their time in France, you will have ingrained in them a sense of adventure and self reliance and sufficience. They'll be more open to change and become those fantastic adults who seem comfortable in new situations (unlike myself, lol).

sharon in prague said...

Have you thought about being a photographer? Your photos are incredible!

It get easier being abroad (but there are always bad days). We have been in Prague 5 years now, and overseas on-and-off since 1996. At least you are learning the language; I understand Czech, but am can't speak. And at least French is a beautiful language!

Betsy said...

Sharon: I take a shed load of pictures so at least 10 out of every 100 are good. But some of the best ones you see, like the banner of my blog, are Ian's shots and Ian is actually a closet professional photographer. He used to shoot world cup skiing back in the 80s, then he became a wedding photographer when he moved to Vermont for me. thanks for your supportive words. I naively thought all this expat living was going to be a breeze. Duh.