When the plane landed in Nice on August 14, we found ourselves dazzled and confused by everything we saw. It was Nice, indeed -- in fact a whole lot nice-r than any of us expected. The sun was so much brighter than we had thought it could be, particularly after the atomospheric gloom and chill of our few days in Dublin. The hills were surprising, and the plants lusher and more stark than we had imagined. Having never been here before, we found everything to be seriously new and terrifically exciting.
It was so new, in part, because we had barely cracked a guidebook before packing our four selves and six boxes of junk over here. Although we had spent well over a year carefully extracting ourselves from the jobs and lives that came before, we hadn't learned a thing about French geography in the old school sense: the landscape, plus the culture and language. And, as we are coming to understand, geography plus time multiplied by personality equals destiny.
Or, since I have now become a math teacher:
(G + T) X You = destiny
(Of course, right around cocktail hour, you can read "G plus T" as "G&T" if you wish. Throw a couple back and see how that makes you feel about things. As long as you're looking for a simple way to understand the meaning of your life, that probably works just as well as anything I'm going to tell you here.)
Geography plus time amplified by personality equals destiny. It's true in a short-term way for us this year. Living somewhere for a year is not the same as just being there on a long vacation. Once you're somewhere to stay, geography gets under your skin, starting to re-shape the life you had before. Not only do I no longer much need Liesel's GPS; I don't even really need the guidebook that I so stupidly forgot to read. France has now become part of me, a part of all of us, and being here has started to reshape our family.
But I think that my little equation is also true in a very, very long-term way. Think of the way that those smelly prehistoric nascent humans used this generous, forgiving, verdant and grottoed landscape as the setting for their long, slow crawl through evolution and into culture.
And then think about how that culture later became so highly evolved that it created things like Revolution, the Louvre, three-star restaurants and local supermarkets with twenty-six kinds of artisanal cheese. The remarkable geography and the equally impressive personalities of generations of French people thus share the credit for the capital D Destiny of this incredible nation, aided by the long march of time. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity don't just happen on their own.
In the four months of our adventure so far, we've been through any number of intense little stages and phases in our own development and evolution. So please indulge me as I overdetermine this imaginary link between the four months we have spent here and the four decades of my life up until now.
At first, we were amazed, overjoyed and a little afraid-- little children with our toy car, playing house in a borrowed castle. We learned the words for the moon and the mountains and how to ask for milk and bread and other sweet things. There were irrational tantrums, sure, and irrational fears, but also long lazy days and endless discoveries. And really yummy grape juice.
Then we set about somewhat more seriously to learn about where we were, and how to be in the world. The kids went off to school, and Bill and I set about trying to figure out who we would be, here. We were lonely and moody and despairing adolescents for awhile, firmly believing that nobody understood us. (Of course, since we were not particularly intelligible, they actually didn't.) Not long after, we pulled out of that tailspin, becoming all hopeful and industrious as we struggled to become responsible for ourselves and our kids in an entirely new context.
In the early twenties of the trip, I had a decided Talking Heads-style "This is not my beautiful house" sort of moment -- mainly because, in fact, this is not by any means my beautiful house. When the Dad of the house bought me my first (French) car, I went zipping around like the girl with the T-bird in the Beach Boys song. I will in fact have fun, fun, fun until he takes Diesel Liesel away, but relative to the life of this year, I've got decades of time left with her.
Most recently, we've become comfortable and all middle-agey in France, spending quiet nights by the fire rather than racing around trying to capture as many new experiences as possible. We know who we are here, we have learned who we can trust.
And if you are looking for proof that I am middle-aged -- both in terms of this trip, and in terms of my life -- today I made some dill-scented salmon wrapped in puff pastry. WITH A WHITE SAUCE. I dreamed it up around 1:15, and had it on the table at 2. And while it was delicious in the extreme, it wasn't hard in the least. Complicated food, plus a sauce, minus the drama: this kind of repast can only be prepared by a real grownup.
Bill's metaphor for the effects of time on our development is that we are seeing France through a series of different lenses. Each week, each month, each phase of being here has given us a new lens. We started out as tourists, then became visitors, then as all the visitors and tourists left town, and we hunkered down, into a life more steady and real, but also sort of ungainly and faux-permanent, when people started to smile our way.
The current lens makes it look as though we live here, but already we have to start thinking about where exactly we're going to go once the lease runs out. So no matter how much we get to know our new place, we are forever reminded that this is not permanent. Thus even though this feels real, we take in each new day with a lens tinted rose with anticipated nostalgia. We still photograph every incredible sunset.
This is the only December 13 I will ever have here. Whether I make the most of it, or spend the day being grouchy and reading The Times online doesn't matter in any larger sense. Aside from my family, three people who like it when I feed them and don't like it so much when I'm cranky, nobody at all is depending on me. No destiny aside from our own is affected by my slow swing back and forth between two modes -- between "living life to the fullest," and being irritated with myself for not having the right sort of personality to run on "high" all the time.
Even here, in Paradise, there are plenty of slow days. Because no matter what gifts the geography gives you, no matter how much time you have to enjoy them, those gifts of life are always multiplied through the lens of you -- and your shortcomings.
Which is a good reason to remember not to become less than the person you were meant to be -- because when you multiply geography and time by a fraction of a person, destiny shrinks to greet your foreshortened purview rather than grows to meet the horizon.
Each one of these months has brought us a full moon and a waning moon. Lots of high points and a few moments of panic and despair.
Or, as my good friend Kate put it in an email, speaking about life in general: "I've resigned myself to the fact that no matter where you are and what the circumstance there are happy/content moments and sad/anxious/yucky ones - sometimes within minutes of one another! I'm working on surviving the latter when they occur, and trying to the best of my ability to appreciate the former and create that state as much as possible."
Me too. She just said it first, and a whole lot better.
Right now, I'm in a funny anticipatory phase. If I were more religious, I would say I'm anticipating Christmas, but really it's a funny sort of gratitude for, and dread and acceptance of the big birthday quietly looming on the other side of the New Year.
I'm comfortable here by the fire, and here in Provence, and know my way from place to place without freakouts or even a lot of dissonance and discomfort. My French has developed from "seriously rusty" to "serviceable," and I can communicate just about whatever I need to just about whomever will listen. The merchants in the market tend to be the most patient and accommodating - for obvious reasons - but the rest of the world I encounter seems to understand me, and is able to make itself understood.
And my favorite recent pointless milestone, aside from the white sauce? Well, the other day, when a telemarketer called, I didn't instantly throw down the telephone and run to get Bill. He was sequestered in the library, finally returning October's emails, and so I managed to get across to Madame Whatserfrancer that while yes, I do live here, I'm not responsible for decisions regarding the house. I improperly conjugated the verb "louer," (meaning "to rent,") in several different ways. In trying to clarify what I was saying, she taught me its synonym, "vous etes location." But we eventually understood one another: I'm really still just playing house. The woman the telemarketer requested to speak with is not my beautiful wife.
In a week, I'll be back in the by-now dusty garden level apartment of our Brooklyn brownstone. Jet-lagged, confused, and excited as all heck. This will be our vacation from the vacation, the midlife crisis of our year, a disorienting two week swirl back into the world of cheeseburgers, big fat cars and artificial flavors. I will go to the mall. I will get my hair highlighted. I will bathe myself in a world where everybody speaks American-style English, no matter where they came from initially. It will be weird, and really really fun.
So it's time to let the fridge empty itself out in preparation for the few weeks we will be away. Time to start a slow fuse of pointless worry about the airplane flights. Time to figure out what to bring home and what to leave here; to sort the sheep of our possessions from the goats, and pack those sheep into a few pieces of luggage.
Because I am who I am, I've already started to make my little piles. Here is the pile of tiny little provençal Christmas gifts. Here is the pile of clothing I never wore, and the things that require dry cleaning. Here is the key to our (real) house and the cellphone to which I will add two weeks' worth of minutes upon our return.
And as I make these piles, and make plans with old friends over skype and email, the old world comes rushing back. The old geography will return to shape my destiny further -- or more accurately, I will return to it. And that return demands that I begin to sort this experience into what it has meant so far. I also can't help but guess at what part of the story -- of this year and of my life yet to come -- is yet unwritten. I do the math, I add it all up, I use algebra to determine what my destiny says about who I've become.
This is the math I learned on this not-really a sabbatical. This is the year that answered, so far.