Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Right Stuff

I must apologize; there is almost nothing specifically French in this post. Enjoy the photos of our little house and the olive-laden field below, but today's missive is mostly about the bits of American stuff we brought along with us.

Today Bill is going to go fetch our boxes in Hyeres, an hour away on the coast. (There is a backwards accent over one of the "e's" in that name, but I haven't yet learned how to make it.) The six 30-pound boxes he will get contain everything I thought we would need to be here a year in addition to what I could fit in the five big suitcases that came with us on Aer Lingus.

We mailed the boxes weeks ago to our landlady Alexia's house from the Fed Ex Kinko's in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Alexia is a warm and friendly woman who speaks melodious British English and tells great stories. We were overwhelmingly grateful when she kindly told us we could mail her the boxes, but we were not at all aware that she lived so far away. (Provençal geography in the abstract was not our strong suit.) Since then we have wished, almost daily, that we had elected to mail them to the other landlady instead, the one who owns our eventual house in Aups, and lives just outside town, which we visit every other day.

To get the boxes, Bill must drive, navigate, communicate, socialize, then pack the boxes into the car and get back here to his stranded little family, all on his own. Alexia has determined that Bill might like to meet a retired judge, so there will be a several-hour lunch in the middle of his trip. It's funny that the only one of us who doesn't seem to particularly care about talking to new people is the one who will be spending the day with real, live French human beings, exclaiming over the omelettes and courgettes. Of course, since he is also the only one with the language skills and the muscles to do this thing right now, we are all in his debt.

I mostly just want our boxes back in my hot little hands. I have unfairly high hopes for these boxes. I've tired of the two pairs of shorts and three hot-weather skirts that were in the Dublin luggage, and it's time for summer fashion reinforcements, packed in boxes #2 and #3. Abigail has become so enamored of her ipod that only box #4, full of paints, scissors, crafts, and most of her American girl dolls will drag her out into the world of her own imagination. Bill, predictably, has been lusting after his own incredibly sturdy hiking boots, packed last minute after our White Mountains trip in box #6. Little Buddha Grace, unattached to the mere things of this world, has spent her time looking for trap doors and secret passageways in the ancient house, and grousing over the fact that her sister is better and faster at swimming than she. She seem to need nothing; but presumably there is some magic for her in box #1 as well.

My hopes are high, but to be honest I can't be completely certain that whatever else is in those boxes will be helpful rather than dead weight for us to drag around. If that turns out to be the case, I would be embarrassed to tell you how much it cost to ship them over here. I vividly recall the tension and drama of choosing and packing every single item. It seemed that I was packing for outer space, and might not survive without this sparkly shirt, or that pair of Grace's shoes. The boxes felt like emotional oxygen tanks I was sending to all of us across time and space. Perhaps it is merely the memory of those intense days that makes those boxes feel as though they will overflow with rubies, gold and diamonds, rather than be stuffed with a few Beverley Cleary books and old hiking socks.

Here in Sillans-la-Cascade, we are away from our own furniture, photographs, files, and our sharp knives. I don't like being separated also from the magic oxygen treasure boxes. Yet I can't for the life of me recall much beyond the few things I feel we are so intensely lacking just now - the dolls, the boots, a few more summer dresses for me and the kids. I packed sweaters and boots and coats, although the mere thought of them in this 35 degree heat (that's 95 degrees to you, Mr. and Mrs. Farenheit back stateside) just makes me itchy and cranky.

Bill is not particularly thrilled about his upcoming mission. He is of the opinion that he is being sent to collect 150 pounds of hot trash, which we will move several times and later discard. Other than the boots, he is pretty much like Grace, unattached to most objects. He can get by, and in fact is happiest, with just a few Brooks Brothers shirts and his swim trunks.

There is a lesson for me here, of course, but it is not the ascetic one that we don't need stuff. While that is true for half of our family, the other half of us sure as heck need our stuff -- a whole lot of stuff, in fact, and for that reason, we never travel light.

We need a functioning salad spinner, and shoes that fit and can be worn in public fountains during waterfights. We need books and paper and pens, and we really need this one particular cord that connects this particular piece of technology with this other piece of technology. We need the soft cotton sheets Alexia left on the beds, and good conditioner to stave off Grace's chlorine-induced strawhair issue. I often desperately need very specific sorts of shoes for particular occasions, despite the fact that my havaianas flip flops are almost never off my feet.

I probably need to invent a word much stronger than "need" to describe my relationship to the coffeemaker.

It's just that I can never fully guess, out of context, what the essentials might be. It took me so many family camping trips to figure out what to bring and what to leave home; now I've got that down pat and throw the right stuff in our backpacks without a second thought. But everything here is new, every challenge unanticipated. The girls will need something particular to wear to school, I'm sure of it. I just can't know what that will be. My favorite sweater might be all wrong in what becomes my favorite café in Aups. When it turns cold (in October? December? Next week? I have no idea) I will desperately need the suede boots that now make me feel so scratchy to imagine. I chose my few books with such care, and I'm already realizing I will need to find a way to buy many more novels in English than I will be able to find easily.

I'll let you know what I find in the boxes, but experience tells me that at least half of what I thought was so crucial may be dross. And at least half of what will become crucial will be things we will need to learn to find, now that we are really, truly here.


  1. I'm so proud of you for putting the cédille (ç) on "Provençal"; mazel tov! :)

  2. I look forward to hearing about what you find in those boxes and how much you may or may not need those things at all.

    Happy shopping in your boxes!