Sunday, November 15, 2009

At home (Chez Nous)

Friday was the 13th, which should have presaged all sorts of awful happenings: near-accidents, broken mirrors, GPS-induced wrong turns; unfriendly natives, ER trips, or possibly just forgetting to weigh the vegetables at the grocery store and thus being embarrassed in a foreign language.

But as it turns out, I've already had all those things happen since moving here. So perhaps we've run straight through our spate of bad luck, and have struck a vein of pure gold. I knocked on the wooden nighttable beside the bed as I wrote that sentence, of course, but damn does it feel good to feel good. After all those years of striving so diligently to be happy, willing the world into a shape that would somehow suit me, how strange to find myself fit the world instead… and a world so far away from the one I spent so much time wrenching into shape. Bien-être, indeed.

Since our arrival, I have been turning the tumblers of a very complicated lock, waiting for it all to snap into place. And here I find myself, simply happy, shoulders down where my shoulders belong, rather than lodged in my ears. How did that happen, all in one little week – and in mid-November no less, a month that is typically only slightly less awful than February?

First there was moving Grace's school home. I don't know which of the seven deadly sins was causing us to continue sending her off to a school that was clearly making her miserable, but sloth and pride are the top contenders. I was loathe to give up my free time (sloth, and, well, lust), and more than a little anxious about becoming one of "those" homeschoolers (pride). This is supremely weird and conflicted, as I hold the actual homeschooling parents I know in very high regard. But as we all should be able to predict by now, our family is nothing if not conflicted and weird.

Homeschool in reality is a lot more straightforward and a lot more engaging than any of us had thought. There are any number of incredibly useful ways for a kid to spend her days, and we have just picked the most likely ones at hand. She learns a lot of stuff online (a computer program is much better at generating appropriately difficult math problems and foreign language challenges than am I.) She is learning a ton about reading, writing, and research in English, which I have taught a few times. But she is also learning so much more in terms of the practical realities of life, which we have decided to make a real "subject." She spent an hour or so picking olives with Jessica and Gerard, learning both that it's hard work and that a fresh olive tastes simply awful. I was impressed that she stuck with it for so long, with so little input from me. She can now do the dishes, set the table, and make both sweet and a savory crêpes.

(And thanks to my French-teacher friend Jessica, I can now put a little hat on vowels when I need to, like this: ê.)

When you are not rushing around like a lunatic to try to get two relatively disorganized kids to school and get your sorry self to work on time, there is a lot more time for slowing down to the pace your kid actually needs in order to learn things. Grace learned the relatively complicated skill of using parallel structure with a list of serial clauses in almost no time flat (example: "I gave my dog a nice warm bath, he ate my only clean dry socks, and it all gave me a big fat headache.") She is also, thanks to our computer program, now a whiz with one-half base times height. But to learn to do hard things like open the door and turn on the shower to the right temperature and fold and put away laundry takes a lot more time than you might have think. Time which we suddenly, gratefully, have discovered, by the bucketsful.

On Thursday we met with the school principal to tell him what we had decided and see what he would say. It might seem difficult to be both armed for bear and also quietly, sweetly congenial, but I have mastered this art through several years of on-the-job training as a middle manager. I put on my best smart wool blazer and brought lots of curriculum materials with me, but also smiled and sought to give this perfectly kind and generous man my honest reassurance that I knew this was not his fault or his problem.

I had my soft voice and my big stick, but more importantly, I had my certainty. We had made the call, there was no going back. Certainty is like a very concentrated form of diesel fuel, rather than a GPS: it can take you an awfully long way, but won't necessarily give you any information about where you really are or which way you are tending. Certainty has done both for us in the past: it has propelled us all somewhere good, and also has snaked us all down the worst possible path towards hell. Time will tell, but for now, we’re zooming forward full speed.

Early on, we learned that in France, things that should be easy are often difficult, and things that should be difficult are sometimes easy. Since only a relatively tiny number of parents homeschool their kids here, I couldn't figure out whether homeschooling a kid should be hard or easy, and thus I had no way to predict the opposite outcome.

As it turns out, the homeschool legal-schmiegel is pretty straightforward in France. In Germany, homeschooling is illegal, as the Germans (with reason) are more-than-average afraid of the intolerance of zealots, and believe (perhaps without reason, but with characteristic Germanic certainty) that the German state is the best mechanism for teaching kids to get along with one another. However, in France, the nation that invented the words we use to describe "laissez-faire," they are more inclined to let it be. There is a relatively inexpensive way to get nationalized curriculum for kids who are traveling or sick or otherwise unable to get to school, and once the principal heard us out, he strongly suggested that we should use that.

I'm not yet convinced, but I can live with his strong suggestion, now that Grace is no longer weeping on a daily basis. Whether or not we end up teaching exactly what France tells its teachers to teach, we all feel as though we've come to this incredible revelation. So, at least for the time being, school works for both kids at the same time. Check.

In earlier posts, I've detailed our difficulties making friends with some of the more closed-faced denizens of this insular small town. But then, just when we had totally resigned ourselves to complete social reliance only on our generous angel of a landlord, there was Annamaria's birthday party.

Just after moving to Aups, we met a totally sweet British couple with a sunshiny blonde three year old girl in a pizza restaurant in the center of town. The pizza we ate that night was regrettable and forgettable, but we really liked our fellow ex-pats. First the three year old came over to talk to us. I really love three year olds (and four year olds, and generally most still-growing human beings) but this one was particularly stellar. Then we got chatting with the Mum and Dad, Anna-Maria and Dermot, who were engaging and funny and just as taken aback by the whole move to Aups as we were. But better yet, they already knew who we were: "Oh, you're that American family taking a sabattical!" I wasn’t sure how we had become famous, but I loved that we didn't have to explain ourselves for once. I also loved that somebody had chosen to speak to us, had sought us out. That somebody was being friendly for no good reason at all.

Anyway, we all said we would get together, but it was then over a month before we ran into them again. I didn't know their last names or where they lived, so I couldn't find them any way other than serendipity. But when Abigail and I went to the Intermarché on Monday at an uncommon time for us, there they were. I nearly fell over myself trying to invite them to our house first, (shameless social desperation) but they quickly extended an invitation to Anna-Maria's party, which was to be the next night. I didn't try at all to hide my excitement, but Abigail was positively ecstatic about this invitation, jonesing as she has been for more stimulation among people who speak English.

The party was lovely, start to finish. Their rented house was tall and warm and welcoming. They had lit candles all over the place, and had plates of speck and little crackers with salmon on them, and lots of tiny German beers. One of the guests had made a chocolate cake covered in sweet-tarts. She was a mom of three boys all under the age of six, bless her soul. She and her husband have lived in Portugal, Italy, and are now here in France, and they were both incredibly cool. The rest of the guests were a motley mix of artists and travelers and chefs and people who speak more than one language. Not unlike Brooklyn, I might add, minus a few stockbrokers and lawyers, so we felt right at home.

Nobody knew anybody else very well, so we were all on our best and most openhearted behavior. The little boys spent the night pleasantly marauding around, while our girls sculpted playdough and drew pictures and spoke English to people. There was funk and soul on the stereo, and my French had become perfectly serviceable - particularly with the certainty fuel of a few beers behind it. At least it had become adequate for me to express a variety of pet theories and little stories, and to understand the ones I was hearing.

At one point in the evening, Bill and I looked at one another across the room, with the same revelation: we wouldn't have to spend the year all alone saying curt hellos to the woman at the cheese shop and sending lachrymose emails to our friends back home. At that point, I would have made friends with a paper Obama cutout or even a particularly interesting rock, so to meet some people who were truly engaging and funny and had great stories to tell was more than I could have hoped for.

So some new friends -- people who actually live here, rather than are vacationing here: check. Add that to the food (check) the cool house (check), the weather (check) and the wine (checks all, for red, white, rosé, and quince.) Bill has found great hikes, and just this Friday met a drummer just up the road playing in his woodshed; once they find a guitarist, a multi-lingual garage band (OK, barn band) can't be too far off.

Also this week I also got some particularly great emails, and not just one but two friends have promised that care packages are in the mail, winging or crawling or slouching their ways towards us via La Poste. Much-loved family members are heading our way on airplanes as I post this, and we have promised neither to lose them nor to terrify them too utterly with our misguided tourguiding.

Fourteen weeks so far, and I will have many things to be thankful for when next week we improvise our way through a holiday that nobody but us in town will celebrate. So far, I’ve been wrong, I’ve been right, and then wrong and right so many times that it makes my head spin. But steadily, the landscape, the air keep telling me: you’re here, you’re here, you’re here.

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