Friday, August 21, 2009

We May Need To Start Seeing Other People

Apparently, I am not going to be able to meet people here by smiling manically at them and thus making them want to be my friend. According to Dave, my go-to guy on being American in France, smiling is simply not habitual here the way it is back home. It is likely to make me look nuts. Or at least very obviously American.

So far on this trip, Bill and I have spoken only to people outside of our family over a commercial exchange. Which is to say, we have had no true social contact with real people since we left Gus at the bus stop in Hanover on August 10. (This does not, of course, include the tons of warm and detailed digital news from our friends and family at home. Happily, there is plenty of that.)

Bill did make conversation with our man Cieran at the Dublin Jail, but since we had paid him to be our tourguide earlier, that may not count. A guy in Dublin also asked me the way to Baggot Street, and after I told him, we joked briefly about the irony of the fact that I was from Brooklyn and he actually lived there.

But that's been it.

Don't say that we were not warned. Lots of people told us that French families stick close to one another, and don't see the need to open their circles more widely. When I was with my French host family as a teenager, we attended precisely one non-family social event during the five weeks I was there. Don't get me wrong -- it was incredible. My French father took us to every chateau in the Loire Valley. We visited Chamonix and St. Tropez and Paris. I walked on a glacier and swam in the Mediterranean. We ate delicious meals and I learned to make clafoutis. When I left, I was thinking in French, and my family gave me a bottle of wine to drink on my wedding day. It was a life-altering experience, during which we spent all of our time in a little social (anti-social?) bubble.

Today we drove to Aix-en-Provence in our own little bubble, the Megane (which I now rarely, if ever, stall.) We sped along the narrow, twisting roads under rows of plane trees, alongside rows of lavender, rows of grape vines, and rows of olive trees. Close to Aix, Mount St. Victoire loomed up all hugely grey-brown and mottled and squared off. If I were Cezanne, I would have painted it all day long too. Bill put Coldplay on the ipod and made helpful suggestions at the roundabouts. There were enormous fields of drying sunflowers, their heads all drooping sadly in the same direction.

The sky was enormous like Montana, but the landscape was on the scale of Vermont farmland. We couldn't tell how long the land had looked as it does now, with its farms and wineries and peach colored stone towns on the hillsides. Fifty years? A hundred years? Nobody had put up billboards for anything but wineries or perhaps an individual house a vendre. We were not invited at any point to enjoy a McFlurry or to consider a new subdivision. Both Bill and I were struck not only with how beautiful it was, but how badly our own American countryside has got things wrong in giving up things bucolic for things that are safe and can be bought and sold.

In Aix, we did our usual carousel-and-ice-cream tour of the city, with lunch at a café on the sidewalk and some brief shopping for hiking guidebooks and shampoo. We planned badly and thus missed the window for buying tickets for the Cezanne and Picasso show at the museum. It was unseasonably hot, so we splashed in the fountains just like the French babies. I was perversely proud that we were the only family having a waterfight.

On the way home, we bought peaches, cucumbers, and big orange tomatoes at a roadside stand. Abigail was DJ, so we rocked out to Michael Jackson. It was a beautiful, incredible day and I was with three of the best people in the world.

Still, aside from the people who brought our food and took our money, we did not talk to anyone else. I tried smiling at a little girl in the pharmacy, and she looked at me, wrinkled up her nose in distaste, and scurried back to her mom. I was tempted briefly to engage with the other American family we kept running into (in line at the museum, sitting next to us at the ice cream store when we all overheated.) But something stopped me. I'm certainly not shy, and I talk to other people all the time. They looked perfectly pleasant and had kids that our kids might have talked to. It was more that I was keenly yet subconsciously aware that that sort of exchange isn't French. And if they were visiting France, perhaps they liked it that way, or at least wanted to play at it while they are here. Perhaps I was more worried that the French people around us would see us talking and think, "Ah, yes. More of those smiley Americans clumping up again."

I already have a favorite checkout girl at the Casino (her nametag reads, bizarrely enough, "Fanny.") She speaks slowly and kindly to me when she runs through her required statements, and thus when she wishes me my "bonne journeé," I sort of feel like she means it. She was the one who mimed and repeated herself to help me understand that each time I got to the counter, I was being asked if I had my Casino frequent shopper card with me. Fanny is my girl.

But at some point, somehow, we're going to have to meet someone French and have a conversation that does not involve what we would like to eat or what we might wish to purchase. School should help for the kids, as will living in a village rather than here at Les Baumes in our isolated paradise. By then, we'll also have many visitors on the horizon, both friends and family. Right now we're all a little homesick (aside from Bill, who misses mainly Samson, our family dog.) But the issue of social contact is broader than staving off isolation. To leap the hurdle between being a tourist and truly living somewhere, you need to learn to be with people. Some people can do this within days or even hours in a new place. For us, at least here in France where smiles are not cheap, and being reserved is a way of life, it might take awhile.


  1. Is it the same way at church? How welcoming are they at church or a church function?

  2. Please tell Bill that while we all miss you all wildly, we also miss Samson. Woofums.