A House in France

We came here to Aniane at exactly the right time, just as winter was on its way out. Although the weather was certainly an improvement over Charlottetown’s “extended late winter,” the nights here were still cool, and the chill never really left the house during the day.

Over our three weeks spring has arrived in spades: the temperature has risen by 5 to 10 degrees, leaves on the trees and vines have sprouted, and everything and everyone seems to have an extra spring in the step.

We’ve been here long enough that the boulanger knows our daily order, the man at the épicerie knows Oliver likes Kinder Surprise Eggs, and the postmaster knows to prepare the international stamps for Oliver when he sees him coming with postcards in hand. Catherine got her hair cut and styled yesterday (entirely in French; a sheer force of will, a testament to her stubborn courage); the man who served her coffee at the salon was the same man we found, later in the day, behind the counter at the hardware store. (Her hair looks great, by the way).

I have begun to remember not to say bonjour after dark, learned that you buy artisanal chocolate by the plaquette and which is which in the fraise vs. framboises confusion. We’ve figured out which bac to put our compost, our recycling and our garbage in, and we know when it’s too windy to put our clothes out to dry. And that we need to move the car on Wednesday nights because Thursday is market day. I’ve even begun to form my own opinion about the oui vs. non on the EU constitution vote coming up later in the month (I’m leaning oui).

While I haven’t learned quite how the French television tuning system works (it seems to involve the letter “P” in a big way; I’m just not sure how), I have figured out that there is a movie on almost every channel every night at 8:55 p.m.

French and English have started to blur too. I’ll read part of a book, put it down, and then not remember which language it was in. I’ve slowly switched from the “simultaneous translation” method of living in French to the “taking French on its own terms” method.

Which is not to say that I’m any good at understanding, speaking, or reading French. I get the masculine and feminine mixed up. I express most everything using primitive building blocks (“do you have any things of chocolate that also have the name Oliver embossed on the top like these chocolates that are round that contain alcohol?”). But I’m not half as afraid as I was when we first arrived, and I’ve ceased to be too ashamed of my poor French (mostly) to venture forth into new territory (mostly).

Twenty-one days isn’t enough time to really understand anything about a place — we’ve been on Prince Edward Island for twelve years and we still don’t understand. Most of what I relate above is more about comfort and familiarity than about realizing French life, culture and history.

But I’ve a strong belief that culture is found not in the monuments and the museums but in the substance of everyday life: road signs, roof tiles, park benches, the little twist of the bag that keeps the croissants from falling out, saying bonjour to everyone you meet as you walk.

Living in the midst of what to us is a strange yet vaguely familiar land, and achieving some level of comfort and familiarity, has allowed us, if not to understand France, at least to realize that there is something here to be understood: that the wine and the land and the architecture and the parks and the croissant bag twist and the church and the war and the cheese and the strange opening hours are all part of a complex, interdependent system. This is not something unique to France, of course; it’s just that this system in this country has an integrity, a maturity, and tremendous sensual appeal that makes it an excellent selling tool for opening the mind to consider other.

If all Oliver remembers from the trip he took to France when he was four is a vague memory of that notion, then I think we will have done our job as parents well.


oliver's picture
oliver on May 5, 2005 - 16:52 Permalink

But I