One Sunday, after mass, we drove to our reserved table in a nearby auberge. Because I was tired of cooking, because it was a sunny, wonderful day. First daughter, however, remarked that it was a day to celebrate our one year anniversary
in Languedoc. It was in late January, last year, where we hurriedly packed our bags, begged for long term visas, and flew to this corner of France to relax, repose and immerse. Husband and I believed it would give our daughters a different but
improved perspective of how other people live and, hopefully, gain life skills along the way.
And what a year it has been! And what lessons learned as we adjusted to a different country, different language and certainly different
rules and protocols. We tried to avoid any faux pas so as not to offend our host country and we put all effort in learning to communicate, albeit haphazardly. We meant to be a part of, rather than apart from, the very place we now call home.
If one was to ask what the lessons were, I would list the following:
- Learn and use the language: This is undoubtedly the first rule and
one that every reference book on living abroad emphasizes repeatedly. And it is true. Even if in broken, butchered sentences (remember David Sedaris’ book: Me Talk Pretty One Day?), the practice makes it habitual and the effort appreciated.
People here have a way of helping you with words and sentences if you ask. Just ask.
- Practice courtesy: In our stressful, oftentimes harried lives, we
often forget the common courtesies that make the day a pleasant one. In our corner of France, it is expected, even imperative to offer the daily niceties. Whether it is bonjour to the boulangerie lady or the meat vendor at the market; the ça
va or vous allez bien prompt to a neighbor or municipal worker cleaning the road; the merci bien and bonne journée that accompanies someone’s greeting to you. Once, in the post office, a Frenchwoman approached the desk after waiting
in line (I was behind her) and proceeded to rattle off questions. The postmaster looked at her and said bonjour. She went on, so he repeated the greeting. After the third greeting, she got it and said bonjour. Then she was served.
Common courtesy... how refreshing!
- Join in: Immersion requires participation. So jump in and join the movie nights for 5 euros with your neighbors.
Or the Bastille day concert and dinner where for 15 euros you can enjoy a piece of a cow roasting on an open fire after you finish your bucket of moules entrée. And all you can drink red wine. If there are religious events, attend for the
special masses like one where the winemakers dressed in their robes and medals parade down the aisle and offer their wines for communion. Have a cup of coffee everyday in the same place and practice your French with the barista/bartender.
Living the vie en France means jumping in and going with the flow. You may not know where it leads to but the journey and the destination are worth it.
- Make friends:
Living away from the comfort of one’s primary residence means that the usual support and resource systems are absent. But new ones can be made through reaching out and nurturing friendships. These can be the new neighbors who are invited
over for an aperitif or someone met in church or friends of friends introduced over dinner at someone’s home. Making new acquaintances is easy; making them friends requires an investment of time. So have folks over for an aperitif or
invite them to celebrate a birthday at a restaurant. Cook dinner and introduce non-French cuisine or ask them along for a walk in the vineyards and serve tea and cookies after. It is amazing how open people are and how willing to help out when
they know you are sincere and welcoming. I have asked parents of second daughter’s classmate to watch her after school because of my scheduling conflicts, another friend to help me with bureaucratic processes and papers, a neighbor to help
me with my French and another local friend to accompany first daughter to the US to claim her birthday gift concert. Their gift of time and trust is truly priceless.
to know the neighborhood: Villages may be small but there will always be something going on. Know where the mairie (town hall) is and make a visit once a while. In our village, the mairie hands out the garbage liners as part of our
taxes. Or sometimes they sell tickets to the local events. They know who’s who and can make introductions. Find out where the doctor’s office is located and who they are; or the local epicerie for the kitchen necessities.
And the people on your street are better than any security alarm system. They know who’s coming and going and are quick to look out for your place when you are not in residence. A childhood friend who lives in Provence came by the house with a
key that I left her so she can pick up her lamp. The moment she came out of the house, our neighbor poked his head out of the window and demanded to know who she was. She quickly texted me to tell me all’s well because our neighbor
is watching out for us. Sweet!
- Play tourist: The privilege of living in the area comes with the added benefit of playing tourists to some
of the most enchanting sites. Some are world famous because of the UNESCO recognition while others are less known but much admired by locals and seasoned travelers. Take the time to drive around and get lost. There is no need to worry as
someone will help point to the right direction. Some villages are straight out of storybooks. There are usually cafés/bars and, sometimes, restaurants to discover. Walk the major towns to get a feel of the place and a sense of its
history. I am always in awe in Narbonne when I come upon the Via Domitia stones that Roman chariots rode upon centuries ago. Or the churches in Beziers burned during the first crusade against Christians. Driving around and visiting places
– both new and familiar -- is so enriching that I try to do so weekly.
- Experiment: Sometimes the unfamiliar is intimidating. But there is
no way to know whether it is good or not unless one tries. So the tielle setoise served by our neighbors may not look appealing but once bitten, it is tantalizing. Even the girls now look for the appetizer sizes in the supermarket to enjoy as snacks
after school. And yes, minced escargot wrapped in tortellini is an acquired taste but easily developed when served in a 3 star Michelin restaurant. And the array of pastries is always tempting even the unusual ones. Once in a while
we try something new and different. For instance, when an email promotion on the TGV to Lyon showed up on my screen, we barely hesitated before purchasing tickets to this grand ville. Fifty euros round trip for three people! The price
was not something to dismiss. And the value of the trip far exceeded the price. We were delighted with the journey and the destination.
local: Life is not about trying to find one but living one. The experience and the wisdom that come are gifts. Intentions and aspirations adjust accordingly. For instance, buying a village house or French country home in the
hopes of making money in the future is simply not the motivation for living here. The house, like a favorite dress or a sentimental ring or a reliable car is used to enhance day to day living. French people tell me that the return on the investment
should be the joy gained from having the habitat and its access to experiences. We buy things we need not what we want. Or we buy things to consume and not simply to save… to accumulate and put away. Only to be forgotten thus creating
waste (and storage problems). And here, waste is not acceptable. One has to bring their own bags to the supermarkets and recycled bins (plastics, batteries, lamps, etc) are ubiquitous. Brocantes are treasure hunts for furniture
and accessories once belonging to a family; oftentimes, many families. Friends chide me if I discard old things and not re-use them. So now, an old fridge is my wine cellar, torn linens are recycled as cleaning rags. As for communication,
we strive not to be discouraged. Learning should be fun and not a competitive sport. We don’t need to score big; only to be understood and to understand the gist of a conversation. So when neighbors ask us to come over for an
aperitif or ask the girls to take a slice of birthday cake from the next door’s children party, we go for it despite knowing that we will have to converse for an hour or so. As a writer once said, think of it as an exercise for the brain.
Work it out once in a while to keep it from being dormant.
- Learn new rules: Every country is different and sometimes at
odds with one’s own culture and practices. But the frame of reference is the “here and now.” This is the new “normal.” So if the driver’s license has to be translated even if there is reciprocity, one gets
it done. If the school requires parents to come and discuss grades before receiving the report card, so be it. If the bank requires your tax statement in the US before you can open a local account, provide it. If the ATM machine eats up your
US debit card and the bank manager tells you he can’t open the machine for security reasons, it is what it is. If the restaurant owner insists on serving you coffee only after you finish your dessert, that’s the protocol. Enjoy the
dessert. It can be confusing, and to those resisting, even frustrating to have to follow practices that are so unlike what we are accustomed to. But is it really worth the discontent when you are surrounded by majestic vistas, grand cuisine, exemplary
wines and the welcoming smiles of young and old alike? I do not believe so.
- Relax and Enjoy: The best part of having a place to go to is the chance to get
away from the baggage of living in the capital of one of the most powerful countries in the world. The politics, the corporate competitiveness and the material ambitions are so disconcerting that a sabbatical from all is necessary to keep one’s
perspective on what is truly important. Family, health, and simple generous living. So we come here to get away from it all; to refresh and rejuvenate and to return wiser and calmer. During our time here, we avoid or eliminate those
things – stuff, events, and people -- that can cause stress. We don’t go shopping every weekend just to be able to buy something unnecessary but expected from classmate and colleagues. We don’t really care about the make of our
rental car or the brand of our clothes or the price of our furniture. We don’t feel obligated to host our friends and family who want to visit or to reschedule our time to fit their vacation wants. But we welcome people who are
eager to explore our area and meet our local friends, who are independent travelers in outlook and habit, and who are not already predisposed to unfavorably judge the country and the people. We take pleasure in living here; this is our truly our home
away from home.