Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Stranger in a Familiar Land

Now that Bill is back to himself, all is right in our house. He's back to playing bass riffs on his bass guitar, and creating elaborate plans for New Hampshire adventures, and finding pleasure in runs and swimming and the taste of food. But for awhile there, things weren't so simple. Bill was in crisis, in mourning, in a sort of eddy of culture shock that took him weeks to escape.

At the time, it was too raw to write about. It's not exactly the kind of thing you want to write to the world: my formerly dear husband is miserable and behaving like a Eurobrat. I pretty much clammed up myself back in January when the miserable one was me. When it comes to writing, the past tense makes it easier -- "he was in a phase," rather than "he is in a state." He was in a state -- New Hampshire, the one he loves more than any other -- but it wasn't helping. He missed those other hills and valleys of home.

When somebody's in a bad mood, they're always casting around for reasons why. If that somebody is me, I tend to try to pin the mood on just about anything other than the actual cause of my distress. For example, maybe the weather is making me miserable, and I blame it on the Bush administration. Most days I choose the things and people closest to hand to blame, just one of the lovely qualities that make me such a wonderful wife and mother. Only rarely, and in retrospect, can I figure out what was causing all that chafing.

After we got back, Bill kept trying to find the pebble in his shoe. For awhile it was me, and then it was the impending threat of returning to employment after all the months of happy sloth. But soon enough, we hit on the real culprit: Var Withdrawl. He couldn't really be happy here in this world while he was missing that other one.

Var Withdrawl looked at first like plain old snobbery: France was Great. America was Gross. Like the night we went to get soft ice cream cones. You would think that a trip to the Dairy Twirl would remind one of everything wonderful about America. This one has adorable high-school girls scooping ice-cream, including a flavor called Moose Tracks, and two different colors of sprinkles for the cones. We've always loved this place, so familiar and wholesome.

We parked, then ordered up "smalls," smug in the way we have downsized our appetites over the course of the year. Still, the cones were three times the size of any of the cones we were served Over There.

The cones were mushy-delicious, soft-serve, but all of the sudden it felt all wrong. First, we were eating standing up, in an enormous lake of asphalt parking lot. Second, the people around us seemed very strange. One couple was eating while standing right next to their enormous Sport Utility Vehicle. The car was on, with the radio booming. They were wearing something like pajamas or athletic clothing, although from the bulgy girth of their bodies it was clear they did not actually own these togs for the purpose of anything like exercise.

But what really got Bill's goat about this pair? Well, they appeared to be sharing their enormous buckets of ice cream (no "small" sizes for this couple) with their dog, a Great Dane. They would take a huge bite, then hold it up to the back window so that Marmaduke could stick his head out of the A/C and take a lick of his own.

I just sort of chuckled at the scene of gross over-consumption, but I thought Bill was going to melt down into a puddle of chocolate goo.

This was not an isolated incident. The next day, he walked into town and came back raving. "It was three in the afternoon, yet the town was full of all these people walking around sucking on things. Coolattas, donuts, bagels, hotdogs. Every single person there looked like a giant hungry baby, their maws full of nipple-topped bottles. Why can't Americans grow up and eat like normal people? French people? At a table. At mealtimes. Without their dogs???"

For a few weeks, all his pro-Var, anti-American screeds were getting on my nerves. Or, more accurately, his nerves were getting on my nerves. Everything was bad, and therefore we were somehow bad, for being happy here. I might have felt lost in the supermarket. He was lost just about everywhere, a stranger in his own home.

But like I said, up above, things are better now. The world has righted itself, and Bill is back to his multi-national affection for this big old goofy weird world. In honor of his return to "normal," I thought I would interview him and ask him to tell us all about what he misses most.

Launa: So, you miss the food.

Bill: Yes. No. It's more than that. I really mostly miss sitting down at meals for more than twenty minutes. It's very difficult to get this to happen. I've tried this on several occasions, by cooking big delicious meals for people, and it seems that inevitably they have already had a hefty snack on their way over. Or they want to lay on the sofa while they eat. Or sit in a car. Even at restaurants: they're already setting the table for the next people while you're still digesting what you ordered.

At my family's famous Family fourth of July, all I wanted to do was have everybody sit down at a long table and have a nice long eating and drinking session. Instead, I was American Bill, and led multiple games of capture the flag, softball, croquet, tag, swimming. I love both places, but I didn't like being torn. I also just wanted the kids to go off on their own, like they do in France.

Launa: Well, not all Americans "get" to spend as much time with their kids as we have with ours. When you're back to work, you won't necessarily want them to go away.

Bill: I know. That will change. Probably. But remember those French parents, who only got involved if a child was bleeding? That seemed so sane.

I also really really miss all of the personal interactions when buying things: I particularly miss my Lady at the Vineyard. That long, cool, lovely earthy woman who would sell me that incredible red wine. I don't remember her name, but her whole persona is entangled with the taste of Domaine de St. Jean de Villecroze Reserve 2007. I miss Chateau Beatrice, too -- that range of red wine that is cheap, but good. Not fancy.

The farmer's market was a huge bummer here. My mother was being really nice, and took me to the Farmer's Market in town so we could pretend to be at the Marché, but the Farmer's Market there seemed to be missing food. There was lots of little jars of canned stuff, but I missed the Artisan Rotisserie. And the dinde, (turkey.) Remember the lunch we would have? Dinde, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits. Goat cheese. Beaufort? Herbs?

Launa: Yes, sweetheart. I remember. I just had it a few weeks ago. With some rosé.

Bill: Speaking of rosé, what happened to drinking in the middle of the day? I miss that too.

Launa: I know. You hate it that Americans dress like babies and suck on bottles, but you really want your nap.

Bill: Here, in America, there seem to be no naps for anybody over the age of 2. This makes people crankier than they should be, and pretty much kills the concept of a carafe of wine at lunch. We used to have a nice two-hour lunch in the middle of the day, have a few glasses of wine, and then go to sleep.

Everybody in the world feels tired then, but only the French people do the logical thing and just lie down. Even when we are by ourselves out here all day, and still unemployed, we can't seem to do that. We don't eat the long lunch and go to sleep.

And that's because we have to be Americans here.

Launa: I know, sweetie. It's true. We're Americans. It says so in our passports.

Bill: I even really miss the hiking there. It's just different. I miss the fit between the manmade stuff and the nature: there is a different fit between people and the environment there. Not necessarily better, but a Tetris like connection. Like, when there should be a tower on a hill in the Var, somebody has had the sense to build one. The Tower is exactly where it should be put. And the things are made of the materials from the place. All the colors are very similar.

I miss looking at Moissac, because it fits perfectly into the hillside that it is on.

I miss all the fresh water everywhere. Drinking fountains. Lavoirs. The Var is blessed with an abundance of delicious fresh water, free in the center of every town.

Launa: But do you miss the open sewers? Even in fancy towns, like Arles? That was so gross.

Bill: (pausing, longer than you might imagine, to think.) No, strangely. I do miss the other smells. It doesn't smell here, unless they are cutting the grass.

I even miss the town planning. When I go to a town, I'd like there to be a parking lot and a nice bathroom and cold spring water right there. Put the car away, go to the bathroom, get a drink. And you can do this on both ends of the town.

Why do we have fountains here you can't actually drink from?

I sort of in an odd way miss the spooky stuff from the Var, too. I got into the habit of sneaking up on the stray cats and trying to scare them on my way home. I miss the guy with the accordion with the cat leashed to his neck.

There were definitely more bizarre characters there. The Puppet Lady. The jolly vegetable man and his wife. The beautiful earthy lady who ran the agricultural coop, her husband David, and their daughter Alice.

People had that great habit of stooping down, pulling up, and eating things right out of the ground - asparagus, raspberries, rocket, dandelion greens, chestnuts, wild onions, wild garlic, rosemary, thyme. Or Gerard's truffles.

At this point in the interview, I was called away by some child or another, probably to fetch yet another snack, which was definitely not made of truffles. I thought perhaps we would resume the interview later, but Bill grabbed the computer and started typing his own memories, in the form of a free-associative list. And here I do apologize. If you haven't been there, this isn't going to make a whole lot of sense. If you have, just take a nice deep draw of this bong-hit of Bill-style Provençal memories:

I miss: (Bill wrote)

The Music. Our trips to L'Endroit. Dancing with Cyril, the only Rastafarian for miles. My funk-a-delic bass teacher Janique. My rock/folk band with the Communist Town Mayor on lead guitar.

Paris. And just about everything associated with it.

The Animals. Hundreds of stray cats. The white Pyrenee Alpha-sheepherding dog. Also the smart little black and white sheepherding dogs. Come to think of it, I even miss the French-dog-naughty-I-am-escaping-fast-trot they do when they know they have been bad.

French tempests in a teapot: Should we cancel bisous to fight H1N1? Should we outlaw smoking entirely? What is the proper way to make pastis? Where should we go in Morocco? What's the best way to cook duck?

The Towns. The Offices de Tourisme. The old guys with the blue high-visibility Capri pants who sit in front of the church. All the medieval stone buildings. The plane trees that look like old women's hands reaching out of the grave. The recurring fete with different names: tastings of specialities of the regions, traditional dancing, wine, endless hanging out, important elders milling about.

All those Places. Lac St. Croix. Grand Bessillon and Petit Bessillon. The historical monuments dotted all around the Var, mostly to the dead teenagers in 1919, or the Maquisard Resistance fighters of WWII. Caves and troglodyte dwellings. Scary religious shrines tucked away everywhere. Variations in geography - the Mountains, the Med, the Camargue, the Luberon, the Massif Centrale, Les Gorges du Verdon all within reach of Aups. Les Cretes. The small windy Var roads with death ditches on either side. Why are our roads so fat and straight with giant shoulders? Are we stupid? Can't we drive? Do we think we are going to live forever anyway?

The ruined fort/chapel up the hill from Bastide de la Loge. The Bastide and everything in it and about it. I loved living inside all that Collins family history and the incredible collection and taste of Liz and Jessica.

The Food. Again, and of course. Fresh eggs, rabbit, goose from Gerard and Jessica. The consistently delicious mid-level brasserie meal to be found everywhere. Salade de Berger. CHEESE. The crazy hippie farm with the dead animal sculptures. Or Aperitifs, like kir, super strong homemade fruit and berry liqueurs - we don't seem to have these.

Our friends. Weekend days at Jess and Gerard or Laurent and Mathilde. Those endless hours laughing and talking with Anna-Maria and Dermot and Lajla and Paula at the Marché. All the children.

And, almost with every breath, I miss the incredible air.

And, with that, Bill put down the computer, somehow cleansed. Since writing that list, about a week ago, he's been even more himself. He's still a little testy now and then when people won't sit down to a real meal, but he's started to love this home just as well as his memories of the old one.

Perhaps it just took awhile to get it out of his system, and writing it all down felt a little like detox. For Bill, there was definitely an addictive edge to all those long draws of Provençal memories: smelling the rosemary, the thyme, the air. Eating olives, going out and looking at the sunset. Drinking a beer or three with Dermot. Hanging out at Jess and Gerard's house eating goat face. And flirting with the lady selling peaches.

I'm missing France, too, but mostly I'm glad to have my husband back all to myself. Perhaps world travelers get used to this feeling -- of being comfortable everywhere, and yet a stranger at the same time. Bill's theory is that our brains, deep down, just aren't able to adapt to the pace of modern travel. The lizard brain buried deep inside all that cortex takes days, or weeks, or months to fully absorb the subtle changes in light and heat and landscape. Until that happens, until the deepest structures of ourselves catch up with the pace of change, we remain strangers. Even to ourselves.

So now that we've got that out of the way, who's up for a visit to Dairy Twirl?


  1. I think it wise that the nine of us sit down to regular--maybe monthly--French-style meals. You guys in?

  2. I, too, miss Paris. And just about everything associated with it. But, alas, it's not perfect, just as our hometowns are not. I'm glad your husband is working through his ennui. =>

  3. Wow. I got lost in this post. A GOOD lost. I've never traveled outside of this country, but reading this made France seem so much more real. So visceral. I can totally understand why your husband went into withdrawal. My serotonin dropped just reading his thoughts and memories!

  4. Launa, your writing is beautiful. So honest. So eloquent.