Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Garden and the Game, continued: Competition and Chance

The last few weeks, we’ve hung out with more than the usual number of American-born ex-pats. I believe I claimed a few months ago that we seemed to be all alone as Americans in this funny corner of France. This was because, during the first part of the year, the only Americans we saw were our own visitors, or the friends we knew before we got here – Zaro further west in Provence, and Jessica, Nick, and Hillary up in Paris. There were plenty of friendly British people we came to love, (as well as a select few who gave us the politest form of the cold shoulder) but in terms of American citizens, I assumed we were the only odd ducks of our kind for miles around.

So, to learn my way around, I spoke French when I could, observed situations as closely as possible, and quizzed my British friends for clues about the world we all had entered. But there were still so many aspects of our life here I still failed to understand.

In my effort to better understand what was right in front of me, I also turned to books. I read A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi, the British author Charles Timony’s guide to quirky French habits. This very funny text comes complete with an index, and filled me in on “sounding, acting, and shrugging like the French.”

Believe it or not, before we arrived here, I had never read Peter Mayles’ book, A Year in Provence. I just carted it around from place to place all last year, thinking I might eventually find some relaxing moment to crack the spine. It was only after we moved into The Olive Mill, and I finally enjoyed that massive ten-year-long-overdue exhale that I poured over it – in part to figure out what the climate and the culture held in store for us here. So when the plumbing in this old house turned out to be a little quirky, and the wind started to howl in winter, I had been forewarned.

By mid-fall, I had already internalized Joie de Vivre, Robert Arbor’s useful-but-pretentious book on the rhythm of a French day, and was now on to real cookbooks in French. (Thanks, Jess!)

But I really wanted to find female role models, particularly for life outside of the kitchen. Specifically, I started to wonder how little old American me could encounter and understand the puzzles of French society. Over the winter, I read a lot of Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, smart American women from an earlier era who seemed almost instinctively to know how to negotiate France’s landscapes, and addressed any difficulty with masterful good humor, intellectual and personal flexibility, and a solid dose of confidence.

Then, all of a sudden, as the weather improved and we all started to trickle out of our houses, we met a whole bunch of new Americans. One was a couple we bumped into briefly and by chance during a stroll in a nearby town back in the fall. This spring they found me through this blog. We began corresponding, and had a drink together last week. And then, in a stroke of luck too happy to be believed, I bumped into a truly lovely American woman having lunch at the table next to us in Tourtour. She’s a chef, a Francophile, very cool and very fun. Plus, we both grew up in upstate New York, so we could instantly understand one another in terms of the true cultural distance between there and where we’ve ended up.

Like the nerd I have always been, I pumped these long-term expats for information and clarification. Most of them had been here for years and years – some of them had even become citizens. Certainly they could help me understand what France is, and why.

So last Thursday afternoon, over a few beers in our kitchen, I couldn’t stop asking questions of our guests, the couple from the nearby town. Both of them are those normal-seeming supergeniuses, successful professionals in challenging fields who had found work here in France and had raised children here. Lynn is an educator, a writer, and an expert translator. David is one of those people who can do impossibly hard thing with computers, things that leave the rest of us in the dust of age and time.

(You can probably guess why I would find Lynn’s writing, teaching, and French skills so impressive. But as far as I am concerned, anybody who can make a computer do something other than turn on and off, save, and print, is a kind of magician. A geek god, if that pun is not too awful. While I do OK managing the items on my computer desktop, don’t ask me to turn on the stereo, operate the DVD player, or even turn up the heat. Some of us work with words; we must rely on the rest of the world to find ways to help us to survive.)

Lynn and Bill got talking about just how different France is from the world we knew before. “It would almost be better,” she said, “if when tourists and travelers got here, the people were in mud huts or something. Then, they would really know just how foreign France truly is.” She explained further – there are so many surface similarities between France and the U.S., that most people who try to live or visit here just become frustrated by the inevitable and baffling differences.

We laughed over the tendency of French bureaucrats to use eighty-seven flowery words of elaborate well-wishing at the end of a letter, where “Cheers!” would do just fine. We smiled in recognition when they described just how off-putting their children’s school experience had been at times. One of their children had also been homeschooled, after realizing that if you don’t fit into the routines of French school, there is no other good way to get by. So despite the fact that every French bureaucrat we’ve met finds this homeschool thing totally bizarre, we’re not the only ones who have made this call for the sake of our kids’ sanity and educational success.

And then, over and over, we shared funny stories about the slow process by which we all had learned information, had overcome a particularly difficult immigration hurdle, or had found a better or more convenient way to get specific grocery ingredients we craved.

Then, near the end of our long, rambling chat about all these small and large victories, our conversation turned to voting. They would be voting the next day, in fact. Not just in their local elections (residents, not just citizens, get to vote for local officials) but in the national elections, for the very first time.

For both of them had very recently become French citizens. How cool is that?

When David pulled out his newly laminated identity card, our mouths hung open. Instantly Bill and I could both imagine the mountain of pointless paperwork they must have amassed. We keep all of our documents poorly filed in an enormous notebook that we have nicknamed “The Nondescript Notebook of Death,” in honor of its purposefully ho-hum appearance and its vital role in our lives. It is full of every important paper we have, usually copied in triplicate, and we take it everywhere we go. It took Bill almost all of his energy for several months just to create it. In comparison to our puny efforts to earn a year-long sabbatical visa with no permission to work, these stunning specimens had won citizenship. They had won France.

OK, so remember my friend Hillary from the last blog? The one who said that France is a game, and to like it here, you’ve got to like to play? Well, she also told me a little bit about game theory, a branch of mathematics that seeks to explain some of the more obscure truths about human behavior. People who study games have discovered patterns common to all of the games we humans play. Game theorists start with the most obvious games, like roulette and football, or Parcheesi and Clue, and have broken all games down into categories the various kinds of thrills that games provide.

Game theory is useful to those people who develop new games, of course, but it has also been used to explain economic decision-making, politics, social organization, and psychology. It seeks to explain otherwise invisible patterns in our interactions, the hidden ways in which our motivations become our actions, which in turn become our lives, our societies, and eventually our civilizations.

Recently, Hillary has been reading a lot of Roger Callois, a French philosopher who systematized and categorized different kinds of games. During our car ride from the train station, she told me about his theories, and how they apply to various kinds of human fun and human endeavor. (You know, like living here without any clue how.)

According to Callois, I later learned, any situation in which the outcome is known and there is no possibility for mistakes or surprises, can not be a game. To put it differently, the sort of certainty I have kept seeking for myself could not be fun. And it certainly was not what France, at its best, held out for me to grab and to master. To see something as a game is also to see it as separate from regular life, with rules that are different from those of everyday life. In this case, "everyday life" would be America. To be an ex-pat, playing someone else's game, it's awfully useful to keep all this in perspective.

Furthermore, Callois divided the pursuit of fun into four distinct kinds. Games could be categorized according to their relative measure of “competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo.” Callois calls these “agôn, alea, mimicry, and ilinx.” As he wrote: “One plays football, billiards, or chess (agôn); roulette or a lottery (alea); pirate, Nero or Hamlet (mimicry); or one produces in oneself, by rapid whirling or falling movement, a state of dizziness and disorder (ilinx).”

So that’s some of the background you will need to understand a little bit about how I’m starting to see France as a game, and how I’m gradually thinking-of-perhaps-maybe-someday learning actually to play.

And now, back to our afternoon discussion of immigration, bureaucracies, and grocery purchases.

Bill and I loved the stories about France that we were hearing from our new American (now French) friends. Only slowly did it dawn on me – these people people love France because they’ve figured out the game. And they not only figured it out - - David and Lynn had become citizens by mastering an obscure set of rules and laws that were never written for them. They like it here, and they figured out a way to get France to like them, too.

Like Hillary, who is a woman who can roll with life’s punches and never quite lose her balance, all good expats have to be great sports. When you see a foreign culture as a complicated game to be played, you are less likely to take your inevitable daily losses so personally. When – just for example – a great sport greets a fellow townsperson with a grin, and gets only a frown in return, that great sport has the gumption to try a different tactic later. A poor sport spends the rest of the day fretting over the grumpy interaction, which might or might not have meant a thing to the townsperson, but certainly ruined the bad sport’s day.

David and Lynn knew what they wanted. They mobilized their resources (useful skills, dogged persistence, personal organization, the careful application of charm, and all those extra IQ points.) They launched their campaign. They learned to write their letters in the high French style, with extra flourishes at the end. And they won. I hope that there was a whole cheering section there at the Mairie when they showed up to vote.

Hillary told me that this aspect of games is known by the Greek term of “Agon,” meaning competition. And our new friends certainly seemed to relish this aspect of the ex-patriot life. Typically, “agon” refers to more obviously competitive sports, where the thrill is smashing one’s opponent into oblivion. But in France, where grown men spend most of their waking summertime hours playing petanque, a handball version of croquet in which the object is to knock the other players out of the way to take your place, agonistic games can clearly take subtler forms.

(But don’t let me fool you: the French can also really kick butt and take names in a physical sense. The weekend Hillary was visiting, we all went together to a sort of European Superbowl Party, and watched the finals of the Rugby tournament among France, England, Scotland, Wales, Italy and Ireland. At this level, Rugby is NFL football crossed with wrestling, and played with no pads. The French National Rugby Equipe beat the stuffing out of the British team. Literally. Although I had promised Jessica I would root for England, I had to be a pretty good sport myself while watching the long-haired cro-magnon French rugby monster known as “Le Cheval” make paté out of his opponents.)

Hillary also told me about Alea, which is the Latin term for a roll of the dice. In games dominated by the spirit of Alea, it is destiny, rather than skill, that wins the day. You see Alea at work here in every shrug, in every casual smile when the way things aught to be suddenly isn’t.

In the U.S., if something goes wrong (the power goes out, your kid gets a rotten teacher at school, or you drive suddenly off a cliff with no guard-rail) you don’t take it lying down. You complain, at the very least. Perhaps you write a letter. Or, in plenty of cases that would be interpreted as the workings of the fickle finger of fate, you sue. Americans buy a ton of lottery tickets, and they might like to go to Monhegan Sun now and then, but they don’t really appreciate destiny showing up – or showing them up – in their real lives.

Typical Americans seem to expect life to accord with a totally nonsensical creed that extends back to the Puritan John Winthrop’s “City on the Hill” sermon in 1630: bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good Americans.

Here, there is a much greater acceptance of the actual fact of life: Stuff Happens. A poor sport living here might react to the vagaries of French life as though they were a personal affront to him or her. (And, as I am writing this, I know that this has been me on more than one occasion.) However, seen from a wider, cosmic view – or even from the view that France is a game to be played and ideally enjoyed – this is not the case.

When I think of the master players in this aspect of French Culture, I think of M.F.K. Fisher. She found herself high and low at different points in her life. Emotionally, she was alternately bereft and flush, seeing both states as equally likely and equally reasonable. More importantly, Fisher revealed herself, at least in Two Towns in Provence, her book about Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, to be supremely aware of and open to the various forms of chaos. She seemed to truly appreciate the endless parade of characters and events that sprawled her way, and rolled and laughed with the punches. She seemed to wake up every single day ready for what the new game of France would bring her.

The pleasures of Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence were of a similar sort. While at first he would find himself dismayed and irritated by the endless chaos of actually living in Provence (as opposed to merely visiting, just for the summer) he gradually become a whole lot happier – and more successful, as he recognized and welcomed the aspect of Alea in his new French life.

(Of course, now that I think of it, just about anybody who wishes to survive a major renovation with their sanity and/or marriage intact might do well to develop an in-depth appreciation for Alea, as all of one’s best-laid plans inevitably go awry in the face of the real people who must turn those plans into solid wood and sheetrock.)

So these are two kinds of games played here by the most successful and well-adjusted expats I have met. I will write more in the next few days on the other two types of games that our man Callois defined. Stay tuned for diverting explanations of Ilinx (“whirlpool” or vertigo) and – of course -- mimicry and imitation, the domain of Julia Child and the other brilliant English-speaking chefs who have made French cooking accessible to the rest of us.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Happy Birthday, Nona

We're so very far away, but we send you all our love from afar.

It has been great to have you visit us TWICE this year, and we loved spending Christmas with you and the whole family.

Fashion-conscious observers will note that Carol was beautifully coordinated during both of her sojourns to France.

Other fans of Carol will note how happy she looks with her granddaughters.

Nona, Mom, Carol: we love to see you smile!

Happy Birthday from your loving fans in France

The Garden and The Game

People really, really, really love France. According to Wikipedia, while there are about 65 million citizens living in France, over 82 million people visited here in 2007. We have been four of the 80-odd million here this year, and during our ten months, we will have encouraged almost two dozen more Americans to make the trip to stay with us. I know our friends and family have come over mostly because they love us. But I can’t imagine we would have had so many guests had we decided to spend a year abroad somewhere less romantically ideal.

So I’ve been thinking. If we 82 million visitors all came at the same time, maybe like next week, since the weather's finally nice, we’d totally outnumber the French. And in that case, I think we might be able to take them.

I’m kidding. Mostly. But it’s easy to see why plenty of people -- particularly more acquisitive types – might begrudge the French their lovely home, and want its chateaux and villas for themselves. For big parts of France are like the Garden of Eden: cultivated, beautiful landscapes of incredible variety and largely unspoiled beauty.

But France has one crucial difference from the original Eden. This is a wholly human place, dedicated to the thoughtful pursuit of consistent pleasure and eternal satisfaction. It is as though, after their initial quarrel, Adam and Eve had expelled God from Paradise, rather than the other way around. Instead of hiding their nakedness and feeling eternally lousy about eating the apple, the French Adam and Eve set to work finding all sorts of ways to turn the fruit of knowledge, the art of sexual seduction, and the miracle of all those different kinds of yummy plants and animals into art forms of the highest order. And it probably wasn’t long before they had turned those fig leafs into their characteristically swank fashion.

The French don’t spend a lot of time denying themselves things, fretting about their sins, or making loud expressions of their piety and goodness. If they do go to Church, they are just as likely to be there for cultural reasons as for religious ones. And if they are religious, they certainly aren’t all up in your face about it.

Religion stays out of their politics, out of their schools. The French flag and the U.S. flag are both red, white, and blue, but "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" is decidedly different from "One Nation Under God." Not only can’t you wear a headscarf to school here, but you can’t even wear a little cross on a chain around your neck. God is certainly an important part of many people’s private lives, (he is known as Allah for five million or so.) He’s got a ton of terrific real estate scattered around the place, but He is hardly spoken of otherwise.

Instead of loudly organizing their lives around religion, and spending all their time convincing other people just how virtuous they are, French people spend their time figure out really great ways to enjoy their lives and to revel in the world of sensory experience. As many people have told us, about life in the south of France, the aim is to sustain a feeling of well being (bien-être) throughout each day. Care is taken to move slowly and carefully from one pleasant experience to another, to avoid the unhappy feeling of dropping off into the abyss of ennui – bother and annoyance. Most of France’s most famous intellectuals crowd the streets of Paris –but your average Provençal townsperson is a PhD of Pleasure, and could give lectures on the advanced art of managing one’s life to maximize happy leisure and minimize pain and suffering.

They also don’t waste any time being friendly to those outside their world, unless it is specifically part of their jobs. The cynical part of my brain is starting to wonder whether all that American friendliness I’ve been missing is just another way of convincing other people just how nice and virtuous and friendly we are. Because the French seem to have less than no interest in impressing others in that way.

They are, instead, wholly absorbed with enjoying the Eden they know: the world of their families, their friendships, their hobbies, their food, and their homes. Maybe we Americans are only friendly out of an insecurity born of having to choose from an endless variety of cultures and approaches to life: we seem to need constant positive feedback from and interaction with complete strangers to know that we and our choices are OK. French people just care about being as French as possible.

But the French tendency to revel in the world of sensory experience rather than to focus on how to “be good” should not be confused with badness. There is no satan-worship going on, very little gluttony, relatively no tendency towards wanton, inhuman cruelty and violence. On the contrary, it seems from my vantage point here that French people are rather nicely inclined to manage and take responsibility for themselves, and to expect to let others do the same.

Not being so focused on denial and sin also seems to cut down on their level of hypocrisy and the gluttonous pursuit of excess. When you’re not obsessed with “being good,” and haven’t confused your ethics with your diet, it’s a lot easier to avoid excess. If you’ve got yourself and your emotions under control, you’re a lot less inclined to flip out into fits of violent rage. Perhaps when you get right down to it, any overwhelming emotion, or insatiable hunger for things you don’t really need is just the flip side of pious self-denial.

So, aside from the God business, France has everything you would want in an unspoiled Eden: walled gardens, picturesque valleys, scenic medieval hilltowns, and soaring mountains. Grapes and olives grow just about everywhere, and you can pick your salad with a ski pole alongside the roads on your way home from work. Granted, if you’re in Paris you don’t get all the nature stuff, but you have the consoling pleasures of living in a paradise of culture and refinement.

So it’s clear to me why the tourists come here in hordes. And why French people tend to stay close to home on their own vacations. While they may have strong feelings about America, actually going there is much less interesting to them than coming here is for us.

What hasn’t been so clear to me is what divides the tourists (who so enjoy their week or two of Eden, pick up an Eiffel Tower figurine and a few sachets of lavender, then head home to get back to work and pay off their credit-card bills) from the ex-patriots who can’t seem to get themselves to leave.

And what’s been even less clear to me is what separates the two main kinds of ex-patriots. There those who love France, but hate the French, and won’t learn the language (not to generalize, but many of these folks appear to be Brits.) But then there are those who really love it here, nature to culture, soupe to noisettes. In this category go Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Josephine Baker, and Nina Simone. Here are Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, American women whose autobiographies of their time in France have become touchstones for me as I’ve tried to find my own way.

So what makes one kind of person love France, but reject the French, and turns another kind of person into a contemporary Julia Child?

Like many of the questions I can’t stop asking, this one hits close to home. I’m not just a disinterested observer of the vagaries of the British in France; I’m also an American who can’t quite get with the program here myself, despite my best efforts and best intentions.

I’ve spent the last few months coming to grips with the fact that I don’t really have it in me to be as charmingly charmed as Julia. I can’t even blame this on the fact I have pesky kids holding me back, because M.F.K. Fisher did just fine with hers in tow. When I first got here, I mistook many of the things around me for similar versions of things I already knew. I thought France was like the U.S. in the 1970’s. Or I thought small-town France was just a grouchier version of my own small-town America. I thought this was all familiar enough, and with a little more practice, I’d get the hang of it all. However, as I have lived here longer, and French culture has proved only more puzzling rather than less, I’ve realized how little I really understand, and how hard it is to get inside of this culture rather than admiring it from afar. There is more to living here than learning to order meals and ask for directions in real French rather than tourist English.

Before coming here, I thought that living in New York had fit me to be a citizen of the world. I also imagined that growing up in a small town would give me clues about how to negotiate this one. But our lives here still often feel more puzzling than a tricolor Rubik’s Cube. The disorientation of living here (like the unsettled way I felt when I went to college, and then the time it took for me to adjust to living in Brooklyn) has forced me to admit that there are many, many things about life in this big world that I have yet to understand.

This little question about expats is probably just the tip of the iceberg of what I don’t get about this place. But it’s the one I’m stuck on just now. So in the next few blogs, I’m going to spin out a theory I have stolen from our college friend Hillary.

Hillary has lived and worked here in France for twenty years, all of her adult life, becoming fluent not only in French language, but also in French life and culture. She has done business here, made art here, found love here, and given birth to two most excellent French citizens.

Since we decided to move here, to become temporary expatriots ourselves, Hillary has become our mentor, one of our primary sources of down-and-dirty information. For example, she saved our life probably many times over by filling us in on the French traffic law that cars turning right at an intersection have the right of way over cars going straight through. This rule is further complicated by the fact that this is not the case if there is a stop sign at a given intersection. However, if you’re the car going straight, it’s not always possible to tell whether the would-be-right-turner has a stop sign or not.

I was baffled and irritated by all the cars zipping out in front of me, particularly at a very strangely angled intersection in St. Maximin, until I heard from Hillary how not to die and kill my family at the same time.

Then, when we took our first trip to Paris, back in the fall, she not only showed us the cool place to buy kids’ boots, but also gave us a safe harbor in which to be ourselves for a few easy hours. We shared several plates of charcuterie and peppered her with questions, curious about her life and about how we could make one here for ourselves.

On that visit, we met her three-year old red-headed daughter, Stella, who is truly a star in every way. Stella is a dream of a little girl, with soft red curls, a winning manner, and incredible charisma. At age three, she understands English perfectly (but, like a typical three-year-old, prefers to speak the language she hears most.) She speaks better and more correct French than any of us could dream to master. It was she who taught me that I should be saying a tidy and proper “oui,” pronounced with a puff of air through pursed lips: like “wheat” without the t. All this time I had been drawing out my “oui” in the Southern manner as “Waaaay,” which is the pronunciation equivalent of a Jersey Girl snapping her gum and saying “Yeah,” all the time.

Hillary has filled us in on the intricacies of where to smile and when, and how not to be offended when I don’t receive a smile I had expected. As I wrote more and more posts, she started to take on the role of cultural mentor, helping me through and cheering me on as I gradually learned the ropes.

Let’s just say that without Hillary guiding me from afar, this year might have been significantly more baffling and bizarre than it has been. And she guided with such love, really – never grudging us our weaknesses or laughing at our flaws behind her hand. She seemed to like us just as we were. This was an awfully welcome sensation, since we often felt so baffled by and excluded from the mysteries of French culture.

Hillary had her second child in December, perfect little Lucien, so we had to wait until he was a little bigger to have them down for a visit. We traded the usual mom emails about his sleeping habits and the terrors of sibling rivalry. And then, at long last, a week ago Friday, I took Leon the rental car to pick up Hillary and the kids at the TGV in Aix, to bring them for a little glimpse into the world we’ve pieced together here in the South.

They were eager for some time in the country, and for a glimpse of the warm sunshine of Provence. I was eager to see them all, and hopefully to provide a tiny sliver of hospitality and rural respite in gratitude for all those digital positive vibes I had been soaking up all year from afar.

But I guess I’m less of a hostess than I am an aggressive researcher. Poor Hillary wasn’t in the car ten minutes before I started quizzing her again. What is it that makes some people happy ex-pats, and turns others into miserable victims? How can so many people choose France as their adopted home, while others rant on about France as a haven for rude, small-minded snobbery? What is it that some people get, and others just eternally miss?

She had an answer for me, almost right away: “France is a game. There are rules, but no manual. People who like it here realize the game for what it is, and they like to play. For example, they like to spar with the waiters, seeing just how far they can press against his rudeness without being rude themselves. They like to figure things out, get things right.”

I have learned over this year to trust Hillary, so I took this statement as French Gospel right away. But the longer I have thought about it, the more I have become certain she is right: you have to be a good sport to be a happy ex-pat. During the rest of the ride, she taught me about game theory, and ever since then, I’ve been turning these ideas over in my mind. I’ve been thinking about the ex-pats I know and how they prove her point, giving it depth and texture.

So here’s my theory:

People love France because it is a secular Eden.

But not everybody likes the French, in part because the French are too busy enjoying their Eden to lay out 85 million personalized welcome mats.

To deeply appreciate the whole package – both France and the French, you’d better be like our friend Hillary: be a darn good sport, and love to play the game.

If I haven't lost you by now, stick with me as I spin this out, and try to explain.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cassis and Les Calanques

Got lost.

Market Day. Bought the usual (candy and coconut macaroons)

Got lunch.

Wandered the windy streets.

Took forever to find the trailhead. Lost hope. Then found the trailhead, and hope.

Long walk along sandy cliffs on one side, deep water harbor on the other.

Walk over polished rocks down to a tiny beach with blue-green water.

But the best part of the day? Post-hike, when the girls walked down the street chattering and laughing, their arms around one another.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Apple Tree Report

Spring, Sprung

Before, we were just on the cusp. Now we’re full-on. Finally. Each new day brings a new kind of tiny flower growing in the grass along the side of the roads. Or maybe there will be a new tree in blossom, in a color I hadn’t anticipated. A few weeks ago the soft yellow Mimosa emerged, looking like fuzzy muppets growing in and around Nice. Then cherry and apple blossoms burst forth gorgeous on all these new trees that I had never really noticed before. Suddenly a willow tree announced its existence to me, covering itself in just two days with that first fleeting green that Robert Frost calls gold.

Today the newest addition to the blossom Olympics were some trees that probably have a nice French name, but just might be those old, familiar redbuds: trees whose thin branches looked as though they had been encrusted overnight with small blooms, or maybe bright white mollusks.

I say that these flowers and these trees are “new,” as though they’ve never bloomed before. Of course they have – presumably for hundreds of years here in this deeply cultivated landscape. It’s just that they have never flowered for me before. And perhaps they never will again.

I never really knew that rosemary plants bloomed – with these gorgeous blue-purple flowers that smell incredible when you crush them between your fingers. But the next time the rosemary plants bloom, I won’t be living here anymore.

We just bought our tickets for the return trip. I pushed the purchase button at Expedia just before the equinox, and we will leave a few days before the summer solstice.

Right now we’re living in the last season of a “someday” we dreamed about for twenty years. We actively planned for over eighteen months. The someday is still today. But soon it will be our yesterday.

I got an email last week from a friend back home in Brooklyn. He took a picture of the tree growing in front of our house, a little dogwood with all kinds of unruly watershoots growing up around it and a funny, awkward shape. “You know it’s spring,” he wrote, “when your tree starts blooming.” The tree is no great shakes, really – other than being pretty much the first one to bloom in our whole neighborhood, mid-March every year. And for that, it is worth its weight in just about anything I can imagine.

More to the point, it’s the tree that marks the moment of each year when I stop white-knuckling my way through my life and re-emerge as a person. I looked at that picture, with the white blossoms beginning to unfold, and I started to cry. I had been missing home so much – yet I had pushed that homesickness down so deep that I had managed to forget. I was taken by surprise by how my throat tightened and my eyes filled up just seeing the tree – and thinking of the friend who had sent the photo. The tears hurt, like they sometimes can when they’ve been held back way too long.

Spring means a lot more to me than just another season. As I start to feel the sun warming things up enough so that I can drive with the windows down, I relax and start to breathe again. The muscles in the back of my neck start to untie themselves. The sunshine starts to win its battle with the chill in the air, and suddenly I want to move my limbs around. After a few months of being frozen into myself, I want to feel.

We traveled thousands of miles from home to get to this place. It has a whole lot more sunshine than Brooklyn generally provides. But in terms of the rhythm of the seasons, this year was like any other, just without the blizzards, shovels, or intense cold.

Unlike a the winters of my childhood, which could start in late October and occasionally stretch straight through to May, winter here seems to hew quite strictly to its proper boundaries. It was still plenty beautiful and warm right up until we left here just before December 21, with a last few roses blooming in the garden and the herbs pushing up out of their pots. When we landed back here, in early January, the ground was covered with the lightest coating of snow, but the trees and shrubs looked deeply chastened by a few weeks of deep cold. The cold moved inside our stone house, (you should see the heating bills we neglected to anticipate) and has only recently begun to recede.

The living landscape here never really died back fully, and the walls and lanes and fields stayed green all winter, even if they didn’t add on any new foliage. I learned this winter that olive trees do not lose their leaves. They stayed silvery green, clinging to their branches. I can’t tell you how deeply I have fallen in love with these olive trees, with the way the tops and the bottoms of the leaves create a texture that looks like soft velvet. I’ve taken to wishing that somebody could make wallpaper like these leaves, so that I could turn my house into an olive grove. Now, when I take my walks, I’m already starting to feel nostalgia, already trying to figure out how to bring home what I’m going to miss. (The best/worst part of the nostalgia is knowing just how fruitless this longing will be. As much as I fantasize about finding that wallpaper, or about importing cases of olive oil, I know I never will.)

Last week, I saw a farmer out by the trellised hills of olive trees I walk past every few days. He was hacking away at an olive tree, doing such violence to the limbs of the trees I almost wanted to call the gendarmerie. It looked as though the olive trees (his of course, but somehow mine) were being massacred.

The farmer was clearly out of his mind with his chopping. How could the trees possibly withstand so much cutting back, with so much dead wood and silvery leaves strewn around the base of each tree? (As though I know enough about trees to have opinions on how assertively an olive should be pruned.)

The ground was covered with branches, but as I looked more closely, I saw that his method was even-handed and perfectly sane. He had chopped expertly and sensibly, opening up the very center of each tree to make way for more growth. He hadn’t just given it a trim, cutting off its edges and leaving it bushy inside. He had made space right at the core, right where the tree had gotten crowded, and where room to grow was needed the most.

I also noticed, at the very base some of the trees, that their trunks were actually relatively tiny branches growing out of the edges of much wider, rounder stumps. The trees I had been walking past for months, the trees I had taken for old and wizened – they were all brand new growth springing out of an ancient source.

In contrast, my blooming dogwood back home is in its infancy. Imagining it to be the voice of the seasons, the wisdom of the years, I have organized my little life around its rhythms, allowing it to remind me to emerge back into life every year. It’s like I’ve been looking for life advice from a newborn.

A tree grows in Brooklyn, in fact lots and lots of trees. My dogwood, and all the others, will be standing guard there for me until I return. My friend who took the picture will be there too. The broad, wide tree trunk of my life so far hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s the base from which new growth will emerge.

Last spring, I had more second thoughts about this trip than any sane person could imagine. I imagined that I was chopping my life to bits. I panicked, even though Bill and I had both so freely chosen this – had elected to carve away our jobs and peel ourselves away from our friends and our hobbies and everything we loved. Last spring, even when the dogwood bloomed and urged me to get on with living my life, I stayed pretty much frozen up inside. Bill rushed around hiring the movers, opening up foreign bank accounts, arranging for a rental car, planning the year to the last detail. But I went to work, I came home, and then I sat on a doggy-smelling brown chair and played Sudoku online for hours at a time. You could say that we weren’t exactly on the same page.

I knew I would have to go, but I got awfully cold feet. It got to the point that Bill had to promise me that if things didn’t work out over here, we could fly straight home. I can’t believe, in retrospect, how patient and kind he remained in the face of all my foolish fear of change. (You don't have to read this blog too long, however, to see that this is often his role.)

Pretty much as soon as we landed here in August, touching down in Nice then driving to the Var, I saw what a ridiculous and short-sighted idiot I had been. This overwhelming new world opened itself wide to each of us, giving us a place to empty out the old stale air and fill up with something so completely new to all of us.

Last spring, I was so fearful and frozen. Now I see that my life was clearly just overdue for a pretty massive pruning. We sold one house, rented another, moved all of our possessions into storage or the basement, shipping over just six big cardboard boxes to sustain us through the year. Our kids left the only school home they had ever known. That old life went dormant, but somewhere deep inside all of us, we’ve been gathering strength, getting ready for the next phase.

At my old school job, spring break was always the last two weeks of March. Kids and teachers would slog out the door mid-March, then return sixteen days later. But somehow those sixteen days would fast-forward the kids into the next grade. Our first graders, who had looked to me like kindergarten children most of the fall, would suddenly arrive on April first looking ready for second grade. The fourth graders would suddenly go from being graceful little-big kids to proto-awkward fifth graders ready for their first pimples, cellphones, and crushes. (I know it sounds awful, but really their transformation was also beautiful in its way.) I looked forward every year to watching the kids make this leap – there is almost nothing I like more than watching other people develop.

The trees are blooming. The flowers are growing out of every nook they can find. On the lane between here and the school, an entire apple tree is growing out of the long stone wall. This week and last it has been blooming, and now it is dropping its petal confetti on the lane. Recently the stones, loosened by a winter of freezing and thawing, are being pushed aside by the tree trunk. They are falling down on the ground in a little pile. The tree is bursting forth, knocking the wall down around it. It's not just the little baby flowers, but even us big old trees, that can push time aside and find a new way towards the sky.

Time to thaw. Time to stretch. And, ready or not, time to grow.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Just Visiting

I was honored today by being asked to write today on the beautiful and compelling blog, A Design So Vast. I talked a little bit about what I've learned this year about being present. Once you're there, spend a while reading Lindsey's remarkable prose and observations about her world.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

My Child is an Honor Student at Aups Elementary School

In case you were wondering, parents here in rural France do not put bumper stickers on their cars that advertise their children's scholastic progress. There is no PTA (at least as far as I have been able to discern), no weekly parent bulletin, and no individual parent-teacher conferences. No "volunteer opportunities." The portail holds firm. This tall green mechanized gate that swings open and shut twice a day is a clear dividing line: school on one side, and family on the other.

One or two teachers do stand outside the portail to have a cigarette with a select few parents they have deemed worthy. For awhile in the fall, I tried engaging some of those parents in conversation, and tried saying bonjours to the smoking teacher. But when the gathered adults started up with just a tiny hint of gossipy complaining about one of the students, I saw the group for what it was. I have an almost allergic reaction to hearing any adult demonize another person's child. So I quickly gave up on becoming one of the ones lucky enough to be gossiped with over the teacher's Marlboro light. Now I know my place, and wait far away from le portail, just near enough so that Abigail can find me when she walks out onto the street.

I've also struck out in my attempts to try to learn about the school by talking to my own daughter. As a parent of a child who is not particularly inclined to share details of her school day under normal circumstances, I often go for weeks without any real sense of what she's been up to. And since Abigail still doesn't fully comprehend the language, even after seven months of school, she herself has hardly any idea what is going on in class. The entire enterprise is more than a little opaque.

When we arrived here as a family, planning to send our kids to this small public school, I knew full well that school would be very different from what we had left behind. I knew that nobody here would speak English -- with the kids or with me. I knew French families were tight-knit, and therefore often closed to outsiders; and I recognized full well that we had compounded the effect of that insularity by choosing to live in a tiny town without any other Americans. We knew that -- unlike in America -- parents in France have not battered down the schoolyard gates, expecting and even demanding access and information about every aspect of their children's school lives. We knew all this, and chose this life for ourselves and our kids: both despite and because.

I knew all the risks, but also recognized that there would be a good side to all of this distance between home and school. Part of me had been utterly exhausted by having my professional and personal lives so deeply intertwined, and I fantasized about a return to the Bad Old Good Old Days of Yore, when parents knew zip about school. We wanted the benefit of being in a place where we couldn't easily escape into English all the time. We wanted to be thrown together as a family. We wanted a different kind of challenge for our kids and for ourselves. (And we wanted it with good weather and even better food.)

But as you might imagine, I'm more conflicted about the difficult parts of all this than I had hoped I would be. Perhaps Bill and the kids should all start wearing t-shirts reading, "I'm with Conflicted."

Back home, the girls attended a school I knew inside and out, believed in, and even loved. Although neither of them was ever particularly forthcoming about the details of their days, as the head of their school, I had plenty of ways of knowing how things were going. For one thing, if I wanted to know what they had done on a given day, I could just reach in my desk and read their classroom schedule -- but really I already had a pretty good sense of it in my head, as I had created the darn thing myself. I could stop by Abigail's classroom almost any time of the day, as long as I was ready to submit to one of her gargantuan hugs, and thought that wouldn't too badly interrupt things in the room. I could stop in to sit near the kids in the lunchroom. I could spy out the window during recess.

So when it came to feeding my own parental curiosity/anxiety, it was always an issue of managing way too much access, rather than not having enough. I'm sure some of the teachers and other parents thought I was way too over-involved and intrusive, while others thought me too neglectful and hands-off. Being both the boss and a mom in the same school, I almost couldn't help drawing everyone else's critiques on the topic of my own flawed parenting. But since I quickly realized that whatever I did would draw simultaneous forms of opposed criticism, (always too much; never enough) I tried my best to try to strike a balance of involvement that would honor the teachers' expertise and be healthy for my growing girls.

Who knows whether I ever managed to do so. At work and at home, I could only do my best.

But even had I not been there at school all the time, with such extraordinary access, I would have had plenty of ways to know what was the what. There were classroom newsletters a few times a month, regular notices home from the main office, plenty of paper and electronic communications from and meetings with the parents' association. There were formal school social events, concerts and curriculum nights. There was also a circuit of kids' birthday parties just about once a week, at which the parents would all stand around and talk (usually about school!) for two hours while the kids bowled or made pottery or ran around Chuck E Cheese like hooligans.

In addition to all of this hefty communication, every single family in the school was asked to sit down at least twice a year with their children's teachers for half-hour formal conferences, and then were mailed reports detailing every aspect of their children's academic, social, and emotional development. And believe me, they were detailed. Because I read every page for every kid, three times a year.

But here? Abigail was invited to precisely one other child's birthday party. We heard about it from the boy's incredibly sweet mother, our neighbor, late in the week, but it happened to be on a Sunday in September we had planned to be out of town. Since then, nothing. I still have not had the privilege of hearing a full sentence spoken by her teacher, or of seeing her classroom. By way of paper communications, I got a Xeroxed notice once -- on the topic of how to treat head lice. We were happily nit-free, but I have saved it as a souvenir. There is no school website to check, nothing beyond a tiny bulletin board at le portail that reminds us when all the many school vacations start and end.

On the day before winter break, the school sent home a lengthy government-printed report card, a list of all of the skills that Abigail was to have acquired during her hours at school. The teacher had left the entire document blank, aside from two sentences in a tiny comment window. She wrote only that it was not possible to evaluate Abigail, as she remained silent in class and had not integrated herself into the classroom community.

That particular day I was not conflicted. Instead, I was so angry I cried. After how hard this all was for my kid, after how hard she had tried, she got two paltry sentences? She could only do her best, but her best was not good enough.

But then I remembered. We're guests here, the beneficiaries of someone else's school system, someone else's educational philosophy. This is France, so the school is not really set up to reach out to foreigners. Rather, it's set up to make children into French citizens, a task it takes seriously and does effectively. It is certainly not set up for me or for my benefit, or to earn my approval.

There will be no bumper stickers, no warm fuzzy conversation with the teachers, and no PTA. Get used to it, Madame.

I would like to be a bigger person. I would like to have the wisdom to figure out how to make this all work better. I would like to be Julia Child, just throwing herself at France with her enormous besotted enthusiasm, charming everyone by being herself so completely charmed. I ask myself, again and again, What Would Julia Do? I would like to have figured out how to help Abigail be successful, even popular. I would like her to like it here.

This all still escapes me. So rather than having things be great, or beating myself up for never being Julia, I've learned to settle for things being pretty much fine, and for noticing the ways in which Abigail is growing, because of and despite how different things are here.

She kicks and screams on Monday mornings, angry and miserable that she has to go to school. On these occasions I remind her, and remind myself, that she is not the only child -- either here or back at the school she can't wait to rejoin -- who doesn't like Mondays. But she's fine once she gets out the door, and by lunchtime she's back to her usual equilibrium, skipping down the lane and back.

She copies all her answers from whatever child has been unlucky enough to be seated next to her. She doesn't know what she's writing, but it has been terrific practice for her cursive handwriting. The teacher must have picked a smart child to sit by the American kid, as Abigail's answers on the worksheets and in her cahiers are pretty consistently correct. Plus, since she's been in class all year with students learning to read aloud, she can pronounce just about any French word more perfectly than I ever will. (Teachers these days call this skill "decoding," although when we were kids they called it "sounding out.") While she's still damn near mystified by almost any spoken French she hears, it's a pretty cool party trick for her to roll those r's and correct her parents' pronunciation.

We take her to French classes in a neighboring town once a week at the behest of the French educational authorities. I am assuming this is a useful activity. But since she refuses to tell us anything she does there (aside from being allowed to draw flowers on the blackboard with Fatima, the girl from Spain) I have no earthly idea.

Once we drove the half hour to Lorgues and dropped her off, having stupidly missed a telephone message from her French teacher that she would not be able to teach the class that day. The French seem not to have heard of substitute teachers, at least not in this small town; when the teacher isn't around on a given day, parents can just take their kids home. Any students who remain are farmed out to other teachers, and spend the day completing worksheets, or doing elaborate coloring projects.

The day we missed her teacher's call, Abigail stood there in the schoolyard until she realized that her teacher was not coming to retrieve her. In a panic entirely uncharacteristic of her, she then burst into hard sobs. This drew the attention of another teacher, who also made the uncharacteristic move of asking her if she were OK, and then inviting her into her classroom for the morning.

The school didn't call us. Either they assumed we didn't care, or figured we just didn't need to know that Abigail was spending the morning sitting in a random classroom for no particular reason. She spent the morning coloring, and proudly showed us her creations when we arrived to get her. After those few awful moments, I think she had a day that was slightly better than usual. "The teacher there spoke English," she told me, pleased and gratified. "She was very nice to me," she added, as though this had been a welcome surprise.

Generally, Abigail deals with the troubles of the world, and of the schoolyard, with a steely sort of privacy and unshakeability, flashing a little anger now and then, but only showing any trace of the intensity of her emotions when she is back home with us. But the traces are rare and oblique indeed. Once, when she was barely three years old, she fell off the jungle gym at school and broke both of the bones in her right shin. She cried like crazy just until I got her in the car, at which point she fell sound asleep. She woke up at the hospital completely silent.

After that point, she treated her broken leg as though it were a regrettable inconvenience. If somebody asked her about it, she was liable just to turn her head away, as though she were a queen being asked about something distasteful and beneath her notice, like flatulence or warts. She seemed simply to prefer to pretend that the large purple cast, immobilizing her from ankle to hip, did not exist.

For awhile, it seemed that Abigail would spend the year treating all of France as though it were that large purple cast. She wasn't going to kick and scream about her distress in public, and she wouldn't be caught dead misbehaving in class, but she was not about to let herself make the number of mistakes she would need to make in order to learn to speak.

It's clear to me what I could have, should have, and would have done had I known earlier what I have learned now. First, I would never have told her how quickly she would learn French. Pretty much every adult (including her parents) who had talked to her before our trip had promised her that it would come easily to her, that she would start to understand and speak almost effortlessly. When this didn't happen as quickly or as magically as she had been promised, when she went months in the schoolyard without really making a single friend, she just seemed to decide to hunker down to wait it all out.

In the meantime, almost despite how hard school feels to her, she is learning a ton, but she's just too darn ornery to admit it to herself. Or perhaps she's too much of a perfectionist. She learned the names of the numbers almost immediately, and while she still can't fathom "the weird way they add and subtract here," she came home and asked us to show her how to regroup tens and ones so that she could do the harder math problems of second grade. Now, she raises her hand to answer math questions nearly every day, and has even learned to multiply big numbers, like seventy two times six.

The other day I was shocked to overhear her singing a little tune in French, and asked her about whether she had had a music class. No such luck -- aside from a video about jazz that the class watched back in December, the teacher has stuck tight to reading, writing, verb conjugation and mathematics. Her French teacher in Lorgues had taught her the song.

And that French, that so bedevils us both? Well, despite her protestations, despite the way she still frowns and cringes when I speak to her in French, she usually seems to catch what I have said. She's trying her best to keep this hidden from us, but if I'm crafty, I can catch her understanding more than she will let on.

And then there was The Great Week. The week when I would have gotten my bumper sticker, if the school had had one to give me. It happened a few weeks ago, maybe mid-February. Abigail had just started in on a binge of serious hand-raising in class. I am embarrassed to admit that this was initially inspired by Bill's having bribed her to do so with the promise of Euros she could spend at the candy store. But with parenting, particularly when you've got kids as stubborn and unique as ours are, you've got to go with whatever works. She was still only willing to say numbers, but that still gave her plenty of opportunities to rack up the big bucks.

She had also seemed that week to have made a real friend. She and Claire had started playing during recess a few weeks before, little pretend games that did not require a whole lot of speech. Abigail had initially won her over when she started to bring a shiny purse to school each day (thanks, Zaro), full of markers and coins and little plastic toys from her room. Sometimes she brought the catalogue from the American Girl Store, which drew the other little girls like honey. These were dangerous gambits, for sure, as she had to weigh the social clout she could gain with her little trinkets against the serious likelihood that they would be broken or end up in someone else's pocket. It took me rather longer than it should have to allow her to take anything at all -- I had so fully imbibed our old school's attitude towards kids' bringing extra crap from home. But once I realized that all her tchochkes were helping her connect to the other girls in her class, I almost packed the bag for her.

We asked, all fall, who she would like to have come over and play. The answer, week after week, was "nobody." She really enjoyed playing with Jessica and Gerard's kids, and with the sweet boy who lives next door, but she couldn't make a new friend in school. Maybe she had a clear and realistic sense of her social position, and thus knew better than to be rejected. Perhaps she had simply had had enough of being yammered at in words she couldn't understand, and didn't want that to continue at home. She had met a younger British girl at the French class in Lorgues, when she had to go on a different day, and we invited her and her family over one afternoon. The kids all seemed to have a good time, and we all promised we would do it again, soon, but then the mother never called us back.

So when she mentioned Claire, several times over two weeks, saying that she was "fun, and wild and crazy just like me," Bill and I asked her if she would like Claire to come and play. She would, and so Bill wrote a note for Claire to give to her mom. She would come over after school for an hour and a half or so on Friday.

That was The Great Week. All week, we all looked forward to Friday. Emboldened by her success, Abigail even played with the boy next door a few times, asking if she could go ride her bike with him.

On Friday, when she came over to play, the little girl turned out to be incredibly sweet, and clearly really smart. She -- like all the French kids I have met -- was incredibly polite with Bill and me, and seemed to enjoy talking to us as much as she enjoyed playing with Abigail. The girls played dress up, and carted around the American Girl dolls. Abigail took her up to her room, and they played some tinny-sounding music on the ipod.

And then, as the girls were sharing an afternoon snack in the kitchen, Claire proudly told us that Abigail had -- just that day -- received the class's weekly honor of Felicitations ("Congratulations.")

Jessica had told me about this tradition of weekly Felicitations -- essentially, one child per week in this class was singled out and congratulated for some sort of meritorious conduct or academic achievement. There was of course the opposite possibility as well -- kids could be called out in front of the class for doing something bad. It struck me as stingy just to congratulate only one kid per week, and mean to correct a little kid in front of his or her whole class. But there I go again with my weird American expectations about the educational process.

You would think that Abigail might have mentioned the Felicitations herself, not waited for Claire to tell us that she had been publicly congratulated for her progress in school. That, in essence, she was that week's honor student in the Aups Elementary School's second grade class.

But when you're as self-contained as my little girl, it's not just the bad stuff that stays locked down tight. Apparently, the good stuff is also a big fat secret. As Claire filled us in, Abigail just looked down, and off to the side, as though averting her eyes from the large purple cast of her own achievement. But I could see a tiny smile playing at the side of her mouth. While she was not about to admit it, she was proud underneath her embarrassment.

That was the best moment ever of The Great Week.

But then Monday came, and the next week rolled our way. Bill teased Abigail sweetly that maybe she would be the first student ever to get Felicitations twice in a row. Claire's mom had been super friendly when Bill dropped Claire off at the end of their playtime, and she promised us that she'd call and have Abigail over. But something must have gone wrong, something none of us could see or understand. Abigail didn't mention it at first, but when we asked how things were with Claire, she told us that Claire had started spending recess playing with her other friends. This was OK with her, she said. She understood, and just went back to her former habit of privacy and containment within herself.

As did I.

The easiest way to look at this whole thing would be to tell myself a simple story: my school was great, and our kids were always happier there. But really what I'm dealing with -- what we're all dealing with -- is the fact that this is still just so astonishingly different. It's not about better and worse, but about a lifetime of cultural expectations so ingrained that I am only seeing them now -- raised in the harsh relief of feeling myself and my kids being so very out of place. In school, for God's sake -- the place I've always felt so at home.

That portail is not just out there, green and forbidding. There's also a portail in my mind, dividing me from here. To say that the portail is in my own mind is not to say that it's imaginary or unimportant, but rather to recognize that part of what makes this so hard is a lifetime of expectations shaped by my experiences back home.

When we moved here, we moved with deep and powerful cultural expectations about how people behave. About schools. About friendships. About how and when you smile, and who gets kissed and when. Even if the language barrier were to fall -- magically and fast -- the cultural ones would remain, ones it could take a lifetime for us really to comprehend.

We don't have a lifetime. We don't really have more than a last few months here, as I'm on the cusp of buying our return tickets for the middle of June. What Would Julia Do?, I still wonder, as though seven months were enough to help me figure out how to embrace a place that so resolutely resists my affections.

My American mind gets in on the wondering as well, wondering what it would take for me to overcome my own confusion in order to be more usefully intrusive on Abigail's behalf. Now that I have learned to hold my face stern and unsmiling, what would it take to loosen it back up, to call Claire's mom and see if we all might try again? Even as I ask these questions, I realize that the only sane response is to fall in with the French parents, and stop worrying so much about what happens behind the green gate. It's none of my damn business.

I curse my own hungry need to know, my insatiable curiosity/anxiety. It's always too much; it's never enough. I try my best, but I can't just let go.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What We Ate: Nice Edition

Those readers who were paying attention in high school history classes (and I hereby automatically exclude all readers who took not history, but “social studies,” which didn’t really teach us stuff like this) will perhaps recall vaguely that France was not always France. It’s been so nicely unified by now that your hazy memory on this point is to be expected, but really if you dig just an inch or two below the fact that every town has a Mairie and the same school curriculum and pretty much the same high tax rates, the culture varies like you wouldn’t believe.

Take Nice, for example, which is what my parents and my children and I did this weekend. Archaeologists tell us that the place has been continuously settled by humans, presumably starting with our proto-human ancestors, the Cro-Magnons, for over 400,000 years. Around 350 years BCE, some Greeks from Marseilles were the first to name it Nice (or Nikaia, which is close enough), after the goddess Nike. Then, after that, it functioned much more like a proto-Italian city-state than it did as a part of France.

A sunny port town with a terrific climate for growing food, but with a horrible propensity for being attacked by pirates, Nice was grabbed now and again by various other principalities and dominions. It was only truly signed over to France in 1860, as a thank-you gift for France’s support of Italy against Austria. Which is to say that Nice has really only been an official part of France only about forty years longer than Brooklyn has been an official part of New York City.

I know, I know – enough with the history, get to the food. But there’s a point to this political digression, which is to explain why eating in Nice is not exactly eating in France. The typical brasserie menu of salade bergiere, soupe a l’oignon and steak frites gives way here to a lot more fish, olives, and tomatoes. They speak French, of course, (and plenty of highly effective Tourist English and Tourist Russian) but they eat Niçoise, which is a little French, a lot Italian, but highly place-specific.

The town is pretty much dedicated to the art of chillaxing. You can sit on any number of sunny terraces, drinking a beverage appropriate to the time of day. Several of these terraces are right on the beach, but beverages there cost at least twice as much as usual. You can also get a picnic almost any day of the year, and make your own restaurant. The Fruit and Vegetable Marché in the Cours Saleya runs six days a week, and on the seventh day, they pack the place full of antiques. All summer long, one set of merchants sells food in the morning, and another crowd sells arts and crafts from evening until midnight.

They sell lots of stuff on the Cours Saleya, but really, you go there for the food. If not to buy it, at least to look at it. Table after table of artfully arranged vegetables, honeys, soaps, lavender, cookies, fish, and cheese. The girls’ favorite stall is the one selling glistening, sugar-preserved fruit, as well as marzipan sculpted into the shapes of other kinds of food – like cauliflower, pears, strawberries and eggplant. My favorite stall sells little glass vials of special salts, including sel du Camargue collected right nearby, salt flavored with lavender, with herbs de provence, with saffron, and even light pink salt from the Himalayas. But each time you go, there is a surprise. This weekend, the market was overrun with bouquets of puffy yellow Mimosa (the flowers we saw blooming for miles in the hills along the coast) as well as with boxes of impossibly huge strawberries on every next table.

You get yelled at a lot in the Saleya market -- which you might not be used to if you were generally spending your market days in rural Aups. In Aups, the people in the market selling things are largely friendly and warmly encouraging. But in Nice, the merchants are battle-scarred warriors for tourist and local dollars. They do not gladly suffer fools. Or fools’ parents. Or their children.

For example, let’s say that a particularly adorable American child takes her two euro coin to a stall selling clementines in Aups. When said child asks, in perfect French, to purchase just two pieces of fruit, the vendor is likely to give her three, for free. In Nice, she’s likely to be scowled at and shuttled along – they don’t have the patience to sell her anything less than a kilo.

A lot of the shouting is simple marketing (along the lines of: "Hey, you! My stuff is great. And cheap!") but more than once we were shouted at not to stand in front of someone’s wares for too long without buying. This is strange, given that the way the place is set up, it is impossible to stand at all without standing in front of one thing or another. I guess you’re just supposed to keep moving along, as though you’re in line at the Louvre to get a glimpse of the other tourists taking photos of La Jaconde. The market is beautiful, and smells terrific, but boy does it keep you on your toes, just at the edge of sensory overload.

You can buy food at the market, but you can also pick one of about seven hundred restaurants. So far, our favorite Nice restaurant, hands down, is Le Safari. We go for the intense Nice food experience, but also for the entertainment. Sometimes the entertainment is intentional – a man with the world’s most perfect abdominal muscles doing Capoeria dancing in front of the restaurant’s outdoor terrace. But often, the show is in the interactions between the staff and the restaurant’s patrons.

Here again, the contrast between Nice and the countryside is stark. In the hinterlands, waiters might not always smile, but they’re also not particularly likely to get into a tussle with the patrons. But in Nice, the vibe is so perfectly balanced between the outgoing vigor of Italy and the plain old Attitude of France that you get some real fireworks if you watch long enough.

Mom and Dad and I arrived with the girls at Le Safari as the market was just winding down. The terrace was about half full, but since we didn’t have a reservation, the only tables available were indoors. The outdoor manager, a seriously effective grouch with a scraggly graying mullet-braid, seemed surprised we were willing to accept such an indignity as an indoor table, and waved us in. He’s not exactly fond of American tourists, or children (he seems to prefer elegantly dressed Eurotrash girls in big sunglasses) and it’s not like he can’t fill his tables at the restaurant, even with his take-it-but-I’d-prefer-you-leave-it approach to seating diners.

We took the indoor table because we were there to eat. And, because even in Nice, the start of March is pretty chilly. Le Safari has (to nobody’s surprise) the best Niçoise salad I’ve ever had, plus half-bottles of crisp Chateau Croste rosé. They serve a pesto pasta Grace loves, and a thin-crust pizza marguerite that Abigail eats half of, and the rest of us scavenge on like vultures. Bill usually orders in more adventurous ways (here is where he ordered the nearly-unbearable smelling Stockfish soup) so we get to try a bite or two of new things, as well.

My Dad orders just as adventurously as Bill does, so I knew he’d be excited about the menu. He quicky sought out some of the more flavorful items, choosing little tiny fish as an entree, served looking like a mound of French fries. And then he ordered lambchops, which were served with a scoop of ratatouille and creamy-rich daupinoise potatoes. Mom had the fried zucchini-flowers we all love so much, followed by a beef daube, spiced with cinnamon and cloves, that was so tender it fell apart into slivers in your mouth.

I say this as though the food all arrived just after we ordered it, and that we just shoveled it in, paid the tab and left. But that would be leaving out the soap opera that played out at the tables around us. We arrived about ten minutes before everybody French did, apparently on a mutually-agreed upon cue. The five of us sat at a round table dead-center in the biggest room, just alongside the aisle between the kitchen and the terrace. Waiters and managers sped up and down this corridor in their black t-shirts and pants. One sang, loudly, each time he passed, giving us just three or four words of whatever song was emerging at that particular moment. Mr. Grey Mullet-Braid, his jaw set with characteristic irritability, swept in and out, presumably on errands from the Eurotrash girls to find out what had happened to their salades niçoises.

The managers seemed to enjoy bullying the staff, and the staff seemed to enjoy bullying one another, but the best interactions were between the patrons and the waitstaff. Not long after we were seated and gave our order to the positively adorable and warmly sunny waitress assigned to our case, a group of four older women were seated at a table just off to my right and my Mom’s left (unfortunately for my father, just behind his head.) While three of them seemed relatively innocuous, the eldest of the four quickly started in on our poor waitress, upbraiding her and taking her to task for a series of errors, missteps, problems, and oversights. Because the room was loud, and I don’t read lips (in French, either) I couldn’t ever quite pick up on exactly what the problem was at any given moment. But the women’s facial expressions – the patron’s face squeezed like she were eating lemon, the beautiful young waitress’s hands raised to shoulder height and out at right-angles, with the inevitable shrug – played out a sort of silent movie that I took to captioning aloud for the entertainment of Nona and Pops.

I’m sure that the elderly Queen was asking specifically French questions about the specifically French food, but I preferred to imagine that she had gotten turned around looking for take-out Chinese:

Mean Old Lady: “Where on the menu are my eggrolls, you useless kitchen wench?”

Charismatic Waitress: “But dear Queen Prissy-face, we haven’t served eggrolls here since 1862, when you last visited us, you elderly shrew!”

MOL: “I will have my wonton soup, or heads will roll!”

CW: “Good luck, windbag! I’m off to go prance around and ignore the other tables!”

Their all-out conflict raged for the entire two hours we were eating our lunch, and thus the topics must have varied as well. Presumably the free olives were unsuitable, as were the menu choices, the table settings, and the precise temperatures of the various foods, once they arrived. Soon even the other women, who had seemed gentle enough at first, were aping the Queen's displeasure, sending her on mutually contradictory errands in several different directions.

The waitress tried a number of different approaches, including cajoling, smiling, frowning, gentle scolding, and talking-with-her-manager, just near their table and clearly loud enough to hear. They didn’t give her the satisfaction of allowing her to fix any of their many complaints, but I did notice the elderly Queen Bee smiling on two distinct occasions: she would grin very slightly whenever she took a sip of her wine, and then smile broadly and cruelly whenever she managed to drive the harried waitress from her table with some other egregiously unreasonable request.

The upside of this lengthy interaction was that our table had Oscar-quality entertainment throughout our meal. The downside was that, as a relatively easygoing group of diners not so disposed to flag down waiters like we were Nascar officials, we got pretty soundly ignored by Charismatic Waitress.

Eventually a slight, speedy little man assigned to the tables near us started to take pity on us, and brought out a few dishes we could eat. But soon enough, he too was being attacked on two fronts – first by a man to my left, and then by a dowager seated on my right. The man disliked everything, and our waiter barely gave him the time of day. I would have to guess that the disliker is a regular – and regularly difficult – customer, as the waiter had so clearly given up on even trying to please him.

But he was still doing his level best with the old woman to my right, who was dining alone. At first I had taken her for a polite and cultured woman, not unlike the pair of ladies quietly sharing a full bottle of rosé and later a huge ice cream sundae. She seemed happy enough with her meal, and made good progress on the plate for quite some time. But she must have noticed that the grouchy women on the other side of the room were getting extra attention, and wanted to fit in with the more challenging members of the crowd.

Just about the time I would have been finished with the plate, had it been mine, she called the poor waiter over, raising a wild hand to the air to pull him into her Royal Aura. She had just polished off her potatoes and vegetables and had mowed halfway through her steak. Suddenly, she looked frankly angry as she held up the plate to him as though it were covered in mud. I assumed she was displeased with the steak, but luckily this time I could hear her – she was actually complaining that the potatoes had been cold!

This was a disgrace! And could she have some more! Immediately!

She and the waiter went back and forth a few times on this question, and seemed quite fairly matched until she gradually enlisted the support of the diners at the tables scrunched up next to hers. “The menu said potatoes in hot cream!” she argued. “Mine were barely warmed through!”

Her outrageous gambit paid off, for she was soon served an entirely new plate, which she polished off with great enthusiasm and apparent moral satisfaction.

Once our own meals (delicious, and plenty hot) had trickled to our table and we had eaten every bite we possibly could, we waited for ages for Charismatic Waitress to be released from the hold of the coven of witches so busily tormenting her over their meals. She responded to their spell by shuttling ever faster from their table to the kitchen, barely registering a glance in our direction. By the time she finally arrived to clinch the deal on our meal, the girls had gotten bored and restless, and we had already decided to forego the desserts included with Mom and Dad’s menu. She plied us with all the charisma she had left over, smiling winningly and flirtingly at my Dad, but all we wanted was our check.

We left because we had spent too long there waiting for her, but really also because we had plans to eat ice cream at Fennochio’s, a famous cremerie with over 100 different flavors. Dad got the rhubarb he’d been dreaming about since he read about it in a blog back in September. Abigail chose an unlikely combination of flavors that had only color in common: green apple and mint. Grace, presumably already overwhelmed by all the sounds, flavors, sights, and smells of the day, stuck to soothing old vanilla. Mom and I got caramel, mine with salt.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking on the Promenade des Anglais, staring at and being started at in turn by the Brits, Italians, Russians and French retirees along the wooden boardwalk. It was windy, and cold, but we watched a crowd of Italian teenagers – the boys in their underwear and the girls stripped to jeans and their bras – frolicking around in the enormous waves. There were rollerbladers doing fancy tricks, and an old man playing his guitar to recorded accompaniment. Each song was beautiful enough, but ended in a disconcerting loud BEEP sound as the background music stopped. Despite Mom's fear of heights, we climbed up to get the full view of the town, hundreds of steps above the beach.

After the girls splashed around for awhile in the hotel pool, we cleaned up a little and found incredible lasagne, moussaka, and seafood risotto at a place a few blocks from our hotel. We were tired and chilled from a day of walking in the wind, and we slowly melted into the red leather booths in the warmth of the restaurant.

But the real score of the evening was the strawberry desserts. Mom got mousse au chocolate, but recalling the huge berries at the market, Dad and I got berries. I ordered a strawberry sundae to share with the girls, and Dad chose warm berries with ice cream and a sort of liqueur-soup of Cointreau, rum, and Grand Marnier. The berries were huge and fragrant, with none of that sitting-on-the-shelf flavor that supermarket fruit tends to take on over time. They were fresh and delicious, made transcendent by the cream and the alcohol. We all poured ourselves into our beds, shut the blackout blinds, and slept like the dead.

Sunday dawned grey and cold. Our dismal winter is hanging on a little more powerfully than I really want to admit, and thus we spent our morning tramping around Nice in a slight drizzle that was never quite powerful enough to require an umbrella. Since it was Sunday, most of Nice was of course fermé, and all the life and dazzle of the day before had evaporated overnight. There is nothing quite as pathetic and pointless as tourists walking around a beach town on a Sunday morning in a steely March rain. If it was going to rain, we all might as well get rained on at home.

In honor of Nice’s complex and checkered political history, we’d had an authentic Nicoise lunch, an Italian dinner, and a pretty typical pan-European buffet breakfast, with scalding hot café creme. So how did we finish up our big intergenerational, international adventure?

If you know our family well enough, you may already have guessed it. Travel with children, no matter where you go, and pretty soon somebody’s going to demand some good old fashioned globalized fast food. Abigail spotted it early – the familiar Subway logo over a storefront a block away from our hotel. You would have thought she had discovered The Holy Grail, the way it inspired her dedication and endless (whiney) striving for its mysteries. So just before leaving town, we stopped in so she could get her fix. According to her, the ham-and-cheese sub was perfect: just like they make it in Brooklyn.