Monday, September 28, 2009

"You Live Here?"

Grocery stores are turning out to be fruitful places for nearly all of my most important revelations. On Thursday, the girls and I pulled an old children's cookbook off the shelf of the library, deciding together to make some Quiche Lorraine and French onion soup to eat for dinner. Abigail and I would make the quiche (Grace hates quiche) and Grace and I would make the soup (Abigail doesn't really care for the soup, thank you very much) so we would cook separately then eat together to accommodate both girls. Before I picked them up from school, I walked into town to the tiny market to buy enough butter to accommodate both recipes. Yummy French butter, which bears almost no resemblance to Land-O-Lakes.

While I was waiting in line, a sunburned man in a t-shirt and board shorts was using serviceable yet poorly accented French to ask the woman at the counter when the butcher shop next door would be open. Apparently there had been quite an awful injustice, in that there was an "ouvert" sign, but nobody there to sell him any meat. And for this, the woman at the grocery store would apparently have to pay.

Our dear girl at the grocery store just looked at him blankly. There was no commerce between his question and her comprehension, and the fact that he merely repeated the question, louder, was not producing the response he desired. I decided to help both of them, first in French, then in English, telling them I thought it would likely open in ten minutes, just after school let out. I had seen the butcher's wife picking up her child at school, and then seen the shop open up again afterwards.

My little comment broke their stalemate, and when I spoke to him in English, he thanked me in British. That explained his rudeness to the French woman. As much as the English seem to love to vacation here, I've seen more than a little hostility on both sides of that particular cultural divide (Who knew? I thought the new European Union had solved all that!) I cautioned the British man, revealing in confidence a complaint I would never make in French in front of the shopkeeper (it's a small town and I would hate to burn any bridges so early): "You'd be amazed; it's hardly ever open."

The young man turned to me and asked, wonderingly, "So you live here?"

I learned the answer to this question, quite by accident, by hearing myself answer it: "Well, yes, I do."

He looked at me completely wide-eyed, and said with a kind of awed and completely friendly envy in his voice: "Well that's BRILLIANT! However did you manage to pull it off?" I blamed and credited Bill both for the idea and for the execution, then confided once again, "The best part is that we're spending the whole year doing next to nothing!" He congratulated me heartily on this impressive anti-achievement, and went back to not buying his meat while I joined the butcher's wife in waiting up at school for the kids to be released.

So now I see it. Often the most obvious things escape me, and I was pleased to know that our exchange had revealed a new and important truth: after quite a long time of staying places, here we are, living somewhere.

This summer, after we moved out of our house in Brooklyn on June 29, we planned an absolutely crazy summer having adventures and seeing as many people as possible in and around New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. In doing so, we stayed in a succession of completely dreamy and different places: our downstairs apartment in Brooklyn, the Temple family Farm, Bill's parents' at 1 Parkway Lane, our friends Mandy and Jordy's well-named Love Shack, Nona and Pops's Meg Bell Farm, my childhood summer haven Camp Fowler, the Zealand Falls Hut on the Appalacian trail, Katie's Cottage on Lake Ontario, back to the Apartment for Toni's birthday party, then the Dublin Bed and Breakfast at No. 31 Leeson Close, The Tower at Les Baumes, and then our Hobbit Hole, the Cottage. But now, we're living somewhere. It's Aups, our funny sometimes-picturesque, sometimes merely down-at-the-heels little village.

When I taught composition classes, my first writing prompt was always, "So, where you from?" It dropped the verb, wasn't even really a full sentence, but was meant to get across that conversational way we start to get to know someone. I was inviting my students, with that sentence, to start to dig deep and tell me stories, to start to get to know themselves as they began to type. A lot will change in me now that my answer to that crucial question has gone from, "Brooklyn" to "Well, for now, Aups."

We've gotten a lot of praise (not to mention flat-out envy, named overtly as such) for this brave Slip-Out-The-Back-Jack little trick of changing locations and changing our lives. But not everyone is so impressed with our bravery, or even sees it as a good idea.  

On Friday I slid back in to town to pick out a little hostess-prezzie for our friends Zaro and Gareth. They had been our first guests at Les Baumes, and now their home a few hours away in Saove would be our first overnight roadtrip. We had settled enough that we could once again take our show on the road.

Again just before school pickup, I ducked back into the grocery store to buy the girls a little snack to tide them over on the long drive. There at the counter were three Americans, revealed by something unmistakable in their dress: the cut of the chinos, the button-down shirt, the shiny shoes. We all imagine we look simply like ourselves, but really we are more strongly marked by our nations than we would imagine.

Apparently the grocery store will become the best place for me to go to get to talk to strangers in English rather than broken French. When one of the three spoke, and I could be sure of his U.S. bonafides, I said, "Oh, you're American. It's so nice to speak face to face with an American. I haven't done that much since we moved here."

He averred cautiously that yes, he was American, but looked a little guarded, needing to place me before taking the conversation forward. He was quick to pull out the few rigorous questions that we Americans are programmed to ask (usually right after "Where you from?") in order to cut to the chase:

So what was I doing here?

Ah, sabbatical. Really?

Well then, what is it that I do back home?

The story of our trip has gained a title for situations like these: we now refer to "our sabbatical year," even though that wasn't what we originally called our plain old year off and away. It's a nice shorthand, and while nobody has officially granted it (I resigned my job as head of a lower school, while Bill has a leave of absence from his legal non-profit) the term confers the positive connotation of doing something marginally useful within a career somehow related to the life of the mind.

Our American, of course, was a wise man. He wasn't buying my bill of goods quite that easily. Rather than praise me for my brilliance in electing to live for a year in such a beautiful place, like the young Brit in the board shorts, he gave me a knowing look. "Ah, so you're an academic. So what is it that you're supposed to be doing, then?" He gently chided me, with a friendly smile, "Are you really getting anything done?"

Instantly I was snapped back to a New York memory. For almost a year, I found myself persistently unable to effectively the question that New Yorkers asked us hundreds of times when we spoke of our plan to come here: "But what will you do?" As though without at least one job to anchor us, we might become babbling lunatics or lose all purchase on our right to continue to inhale and exhale the world's dwindling supply of oxygen. New Yorkers generally use doing, rather than being, to define a life, and couldn't imagine that anything would "get done" without paid work being involved. As we were leaving, it seemed doubly sinful that we were choosing to give up perfectly wonderful positions at exactly the same time that scores of people we knew were losing their jobs against their will.

I had a hard time answering this question, not because the question was unfair, but because I felt so uncertain, and so guilty myself.

"Seems like very little work gets done here," my new friend went further, and I had to agree that he's completely right.  If any Americans have even heard of Sarkozy's plan to start measuring a nation's success by the length of its lunches, vacations and naps, we aren't letting on.

But then I remembered to defend my adopted home, saying, "Yes. It’s quite wonderful." I then offered something about posting on a blog fairly regularly, but I might as well have told him I was spending the days making then burning a succession of paper kites without ever getting one into the air.

My new American friend was merely speaking the question I asked myself so many times. As we move from one place to another, we move from one self to another, and we ask ourselves different questions.  When we change our where, we change our how and also our why. 

Back home, the question was always about work. The self I left behind on June 30 spent hours sorting computer files, paper files, working hours past when I was required to in a frenzy to get it all done. How could I make things better? How could I get more done? How could I solve the insolvable problems? How could I leave room for the girls to have their own? I worried all those nights, wished I could have done simply everything better. Somehow the laundry got done, food found itself on the table. But so much was poured into doing that we forgot to leave much time for being.

Here, the questions are all entirely different. What vegetables are freshest at the market? What sort of wine might go with that? What should we make for lunch in order to cozy the girls through yet another challenging day of blah blah recess blah? What will I write? What sort of person am I becoming by asking all of these new questions all day long, instead of my old familiar ones?

And so, I ask you, dear reader, where you from?  

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