Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In the Interval

It dawned on me the other day, as I stood in line at the grocery store and pulled out my carte de fidélité when Max asked for it, that I am no longer a stranger here.

I love the fancy French name for a plain old frequent shopper card, as it evokes the sort of relationship one has with the love of one's life, or perhaps one's dog. If I were a different kind of person (say the kind who actually can read in French) I could have achieved this realization with a library card. Instead, it happened -- like many of my big moments -- in the grocery store.

It's not like Max the cashier knows my name, but since he wears his nametag faithfully, I know his. And it's not like I would know what to do with an enormous can of duck confit, but I know exactly where to find it in the store, along with the frozen puff pastry, the almond paste, the pastis, and the M. Propre (Mr. Clean.) It's been a while since I was a tourist, and now I am no longer even a traveler. I just live here.

December has blown angrily into town, a solid ten celcius degrees colder than I would like it to be, bringing with it our fifth French full moon. The chill has made sightseeing and picnics a lot less pleasant, just as our decision to keep Grace home for school has made life a lot moreso -- for all four of us. We have hunkered down here in the house with our books and our new recipes, all four of us working with various degrees of diligence on our French. Bill is also (and still) working on the Visa Problem. We're not entirely sure they will let us come back after we spend a few weeks at home for Christmas. I'm carefully documenting our homeschool adventures in preparation for the day when the school authorities inevitably want us to account for ourselves and our strange decision.

But in all other respects, we're in an interval, the friendly open space between the chaos of getting here and the eventual misery-and-relief I anticipate when it is time to go back.

It's cold outside. We've started building a lot of fires and playing Monopoly in the evenings. We travel less, cook more. Five months out of my old job, I am a full-on femme de le foyer, one of the Real Housewives of Aups. I do the grocery shopping and the laundry, and cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in between teaching math, picking Abigail up at the portail, and helping Grace learn to write a research paper.

It's the last month of my thirties.

Edith Wharton, seeking to explain the essence of French Ways and Their Meaning, returns again and again to the assertion that the French are more "grown-up" than Americans. (See the post below for one of my favorite quotations from this book.) According to Wharton, this maturity is a result of hard and industrious work, but actually happens only "in the intervals" (italics hers) between periods of intense effort. We mature, she tells her readers, not while winning the bread, but while eating it, slowly, with our families over lunch.

A New Yorker who relocated to Paris and Provence at the end of her life to write and have a lengthy love affair, Wharton had plenty of time to reflect on the differences between the bourgeois classes in both nations. She begins her book with the usual caveats (comparisons are odious, most books like this are wrong) and then tucks into a series of fairly vague but undeniably accurate observations. As I was reading a reprint of this rare book of hers, I kept having that pleasurable "Ah! Yes!" feeling you get when somebody says something you have thought before, only better and more clearly than you could have said it yourself.

According to Wharton, Americans have a lot to learn from the French. They are less superstitious, less prudish, and much more aware of the value of history and manners. Cognizant of the real threats to their culture and way of life, they have the good sense to preserve, rather than constantly to jettison and reinvent. They live more fully grounded in their five finely-honed senses, and have oodles more natural taste than do most Americans. I would guess that Wharton sort of excludes herself from this group of "most Americans," as you must have taste to notice that others have it as well.

All of these factors are among the reasons she finds the French to be "grown-up" in comparison to the more childishly optimistic and Okey-dokey folkies she remembers back home.

I find that she's pretty much right on target with nearly all of her observations, despite their sweeping nature and superior tone. And it's possible that France, as a nation, is much more grown-up. But I have to wonder whether she notices so much growth and maturity because of where she herself was in her life. Or, more likely, whether she notices real differences between French people and Americans, but names the French qualities "grown-up" because she was so herself when she was living here.

At any rate, that is what we are up to in our own interval here: growing, and growing up. Instead of grabbing a cereal bar as we run out the door, then eating our sad little sandwiches at our desks at work, we're eating three meals a day together around a sturdy oak table. We're teaching the girls to clean up the kitchen with us (a more challenging task than you might imagine, and certainly more challenging than just doing it ourselves.) We're working towards the goal of letting them walk into town independent of us, although I'm taking this project awfully slowly and cautiously.

But I'm not there yet. I'm here, in the middle. Not just of this trip, but also, quite undeniably now, of my life. And at the same moment that it occurs to me that I really live here, I recognize with equal clarity that I really won't forever. It's not really just about France. It's about time, and I'm taking it.


  1. Yes, Launa - this is so wonderful. The ability to be really comfortable in the middle, to be there, rather than expending all of one's energy mourning the beginning or fearing the end ... well, that is the task of my life, at least.
    Thank you!

  2. Beatiful, Launa.

    Do you think this is 1/2? It might be closer to 2/5! Or if your glass is half french you might believe it's 9/10; you just never know. Tick tock either way I suppose. 1/2? Really? Gah.

  3. Lovely, Launa. Truly lovely. Being in the middle. Seeing ahead and behind. At peace with right here.

    Is it truly possible that they might not let you back into France? That would be awful. Do keep us updated as to how that process is going. Yikes. Whose life will I be envious of when you return to the States to live and eat cereal bars on your way to work?

    PS. Don't you sometimes get sick of eating every meal as a foursome? Even a little bit???