This time last year, we were packed tightly into a rental Peugeot, on our way from the airport to Normandy, working entirely on adrenaline. We had only what could fly with us, including Ti, whose little geriatric doggie world had just been turned upside down. All other important and/or sentimental possessions accumulated from our more than a decade in the Bay Area, were sitting on a ship in Oakland Port, with no clear idea when we would be reunited with them. The rest had been sold, donated, gifted, or dumped on the curb on 53rd Street in Oakland, in hopes some resourceful soul would come along and breathe life back into them before the trash truck arrived.
Beyond the basics of survival and legality, we had little idea what lay ahead. Thanks to Bill and Mimy we had a roof over our heads, wood in the cave, and a cozy fireplace. We were in the country under false pretenses and beholden to the immigration authorities in London and San Francisco. Greg knew he had a job to finish, and another one waiting for him at the end of a long road littered with French paperwork, all to be managed on a dial-up connection until further notice. I knew I did not have a job yet and could barely speak French, but come hell or high water, a yoga retreat would happen in the spring because I told my students it would. Nothing was in our names, therefore we were persona non grata as far as the banks, utility companies, and potential future landlords were concerned.
We also knew it was cold. Motherfucking COLD. It was the coldest French winter in 15 years. And we had limited fuel left in the ancient tank in the cave - and limited money left in the US bank accounts.
Everything was up for grabs and that's where we began. Since then, everyday has been a hustle; moving the boulder an inch along the never-ending path toward some sort of legitimacy in a never-ending bureaucratic process. Nothing has come easy, yet hard won battles are properly celebrated.
This is a sampling, a list of the little things; observations and direct experiences - what I've learned, loved, and loathed in our first year en France. I'm not delving into the big, heavy stuff here. This is not the place. If you're reading this, you're probably aware of a lot of those things anyway.
I couldn't bring myself to reduce the list down to distinct columns of "good, bad, and ugly." Life isn't that black and white. Even the things that were annoying, unjust, and painful, taught us a shitload of lessons. Not to mention that the opportunities to be properly awe-inspired in this amazing country, never end.
And that's how I hold it; this year of moving targets, contradictions, and extremes - from six dark, bleak hours of daylight to 16 glorious, spacious hours of daylight - and all the rest. You could live in constant duality, but it's just too exhausting. It's all just life. Our new life.
This is going out to a limited selection of people; people who have been a constant source of inspiration, support, and love from before and after our move - and who don't mind me being a little rough around the edges and swearing like a sailor. This is going out unedited and
Here goes: (in no particular order, just as it comes to me)
- Northern Europe is dark and cold in the winter, no two ways about it. Learn to deal with it and find the beauty or become a miserable boor.
- The holiday season wild boar hunt in Normandy does indeed look like a scene from Obelix and Asterix - or Rules of the Game - depends on when you're looking.
- I like fireplaces. I grow weary of fireplaces when they actually have to be started and stoked constantly for basic warmth, not just for xmas stockings and romantic ambiance.
- There's no denying that nuclear power is fucking efficient. However, knowing that every time I turn on a light I'm linked to those giant nuclear reactors, makes me nauseous.
- 11th century churches are beautiful and fun to do handstands against - pretending you are a Jean d'Arc super-hero. (Yes, I am six.)
- I have been known to go out of my way (read: hiding) to avoid deciphering senior citizen French.
- Crossing the border from the provinces into Ile de France, everything is 10-20% more expensive. Paris and the suburbs are giant energy and resource sucks, much to the chagrin of the Ch'ti (the hicks)
- The food. The local, seasonal, artisanal food. The dedication to quality and painstaking detail still remains a source of inspiration to me.
- Parisians know about as much about where their food comes from as your average San Franciscan, but likely more than much of the rest of the US. However, the urban-rural disconnect is growing, even if Parisians say it's not.
- Andrew Hussey says it well in Paris, The Secret History: "Paris is a beautiful woman, a sorceress, and a demon..."
- When frustrated by senseless bureaucracy, it is so not okay to jokingly utter to a French person: "Hehehe, we should have just let the Germans take over. They're so much more efficient."
- From a distance, the Eiffel Tower is the spine of Paris.
- The working class suburbs of Paris suffer identity crises and are wrought with xenophobia.
- Some days, I feel like Joni Mitchell just nailed it when she sang "...it's too old, and cold, and settled in its ways here..."
- I have indeed roasted chestnuts on an open fire in Normandy and they are delicious.
- Being stared at like the side-show freak does get tiring. Ah, the French and their icy, unapproving stares.
- The French and their dog shit: same old story.
- Doing yoga on Omaha Beach will give you chills and bring you to tears. I don't care who you are. (Or maybe it was just me and the overwhelming feeling of seeing the ocean for the first time in six months.)
- Being landlocked is energetically repressive and I hate it.
- Try telling a Norman cook (an amazing one at that) that not every course for every meal at a yoga retreat needs to be soaked in cidre, Calvados, or Pommeau.
- Paris is awesome.
- Paris is awesome when you're a rich tourist and a real drag when you're poor residents.
- Paris is still awesome.
- Bad things can happen when a nearly 20-year vegetarian goes on a duck binge.
- I doubt, no matter how culturally nuanced the argument, there will ever be a time when I think consuming horse meat in this day and age is acceptable.
- So help me, the next person I hear say, "Oui mais, le probleme c'est..." Everything has a "Yes but..." and a problem and rarely is anything taken on faith. Faith? Goddess forbid.
- The Norman sky is stunning and dramatic, all year round. It makes my heart sing.
- Teaching yoga in a studio in an 18th century building, in the historically Jewish quarter of Paris, around the corner from the city's oldest synagogue, and with a commemorative plaque two doors down reminding us that is the spot where the Gestapo killed members of the Resistance, brings a whole new meaning to the practice of Karma Yoga.
- When a drunk Portuguese man in a local bar declares loudly that he is - in all seriousness - the reincarnation of Che Guevara, do not laugh and attempt to engage him in conversation in Spanish. He will threaten your husband and then sob in his lap.
- "I hate Credit Agricole!" (our first French bank)
- "Credit Agricole rocks! I hate BNP! (our second French bank)
- French pharmacies are the best! They tend to put much of their holistic, eco-pure products up front, the pharmacists are as knowledgeable as doctors, and many carry the mid-to high end French cosmetics and toiletries. And, since 99% of the products are French, you have a no guilt carbon footprint.
- Mold will grow in your walls, in your closets and on your leather shoes. Calcium will build up in your hot water heater, giving you no water pressure. There will be a short in the electrical system, giving you no light in your bedroom. Giant trees will grow and block your neighbors' view of the garden. How much of this is your landlord's responsibility? Ne rien. How much is yours? Tous.
- Les Ticket Resto. Think FSA for meals at restaurants, for the daily inconvenience of not being able to go home for a proper lunch. They enable us to go out to dinner and without them that Patricia Wells restaurant guide to Paris would be never be used.
- The fabled French health care system is great - so we hear. We wouldn't know because there is such a backlog that after a year, we still don't have our social security cards.
- No matter how good your French is, you will often get the little-known foreigner surcharge in the market, at the dry cleaners, at the vet....
- I never thought I'd say this, but thank god for Sarkozy.
- If it hadn't been for the good fate of ending up with fabulous neighbors (and others) in both Chantrigne and Creteil, we would probably have been back in the US before now.
- French sheep farmers are 1) crazy, 2) pedantic, and 3) awesome
- French apple farmers/cider and calvados makers are 1) long-winded
- Just because we like a particular tradition does not necessarily mean it's anything more than just another habitual behavior.
- Looking forward to lots and lots and LOTS of tubers this winter.
- The Paris yoga community - such that it is - is a direct reflection of the larger culture, ie, a little less than warm and fuzzy.
- The French don't apologize, heavily over-intellectualize, and rarely breathe.
- French wine we drink = low alcohol, reasonable price, and exquisite taste.
CA wine = high alcohol, over-priced, and mediocre taste. French wine is better and probably always will be. Due to circumstances beyond their control, CA wine makers will never be able to compete. There I said it.
- California doesn't recognize French drivers' licenses, therefore France doesn't recognize CA drivers' licenses. This tit for tat is creating quite a headache for us at the moment.
- Sometimes just walking through a Monoprix will soothe my nerves.
- Weak dollar, strong Euro = faint light at end of tunnel.
- Fete de la Musique in Paris on the summer solstice = Magic
- Every French person is smarter than you. Just ask them.
- To fit in, it is necessary to deflect responsibility whenever possible.
- Knowing you'll never fit in, it is necessary to be a little outrageous.
- Tradition dictates everything and so many traditions just beg to be challenged.
- Culinary tradition dictates everything and so many beg to be challenged.
- "Activists are in the fringe here. Activism isn't embedded in typical life like in San Francisco." (Uttered by a wealthy Parisian who was unaware of the three-month long dairy farmer strikes and protests happening all over France.)
- There is something simultaneously heartwarming and repressive about living in Creteil Village among the real French proletariat, card-carrying members of the communist party, and hard-core labor organizers who meet every Sunday am for their many rounds of cafe and cognac.
- I put one of the world's most famous perfume makers into downward facing dog twice/week. I use extra deodorant on those days.
- French parents do not speak to their toddlers in baby talk. Perhaps that's why I saw a 13-ish yr old reading Voltaire on the metro the other day.
- Parisian teenagers are - for the most part - incorrigible.
- When dogs are really cold, they don't shed. Imagine that! Ti didn't shed for nearly three months last winter. She was a powder puff.
- Warm nights are delightful. Warm nights where twilight doesn't begin until 10:30 pm are heartwarming. Warm nights in August where nothing is open, suck.
- How does one actually fall asleep - alone - in an 800 yr old house with common knowledge that a suicide occurred there a few centuries before? For the first week - you don't.
- Learning to talk to ghosts is a handy skill.
- Perhaps making light of the fact that the 400 yr old grainery where your US yoga students are living for a week is known to be haunted, is insensitive.
- Having guests less than three weeks after moving into a tiny apt in the banlieue is not a great idea.
- Don't challenge your husbands' CEO to a Tomales Bay vs. French oyster contest. The French take these things very seriously. You will be left at the table having to consume nearly 18 oysters on your own before anyone else can eat.
- Held down the fort at the yoga studio this summer while everyone else went on vacation. For six solid weeks, my students were 99.9% expats and tourists. Nothing interrupts the sacrosanct French summer holiday.
- Send emails to people in the French countryside, don't expect responses.
- Don't off-handedly mention that you're offering a Sunday early am community yoga class in Chantrigne and because no one confirmed think that Sunday early am knock on the door couldn't possibly be students showing up out of the blue, especially when you're still in bed - with a hangover.
- Spring in France is all you could ever imagine. Think hectares of rape (the first commercial crop to blossom in the spring) in bright golden yellow against a perfectly blue sky. Breathtaking.
- French appliances and home accessories: over designed, under functioning.
- Apparently the heavy burden of being French gets heavier in the countdown to the solstice. Here we go again.
- Some days I would do anything for a burrito. A burrito from Papalote to be exact.
- Some days I don't want cheese, or milk, or butter, or cafe, or wine, or chocolate, or bread or pastries...I want tofu, lentils, a nice vegetarian noodle soup, and tea. It's harder than you might think.
- The French are extremely helpful because no one wants to admit they don't know something.
- The French love to impress with their knowledge and their charming Frenchy-isms that they assume the entire world wants to consume. They will also be the first to renounce those things and tell you "it's all shit."
- Without asking we get baskets and bags of: vegetables, fruits, jams...just left on our doorstep. We are nourished by these little gifts.
- As tough as it might be to accept this bold statement, try it on for size: sustainable agriculture in France is about a decade behind the US. Try having that debate with a French person.
- We've enjoyed sharing a little glimpse of this new life with dear friends from the US. Those of you who have visited - thank you. Those of you who haven't, allons-y!
more to come I'm sure.