“All I have is a voice." (W.H. Auden)

Il faut laisser aller le monde comme il va.

 (trans.:  We must adapt ourselves to the world as it comes to us). 

  

True.  We take things as we find them.. different or awkward they may be.  But that is the joy in adapting to a different place, a new rhythm …..  a fresh outlook on life and living. 

 

I read so much and learned only a few about the challenges and opportunities the girls encountered when, plucked from their familiar surroundings, they have had to swim with the tide and go with the flow.  But it is not so much about academic excellence.  This was not the purpose of transplanting ourselves away from comfortable and predictable conditions.  The ability to learn the language, understand the culture and be sensitized and appreciative of a life distinct and less familiar but no less worthy of living is the heart of this exercise.  And now that the semester is coming close to the end, I like to think we have somewhat succeeded.

 

We began with tears and panic.  The first week was challenging.  Nothing was familiar, nothing was easy.  First daughter came home one day in tears saying she failed her test and she couldn’t understand the lecture nor comprehend the writings on the blackboard and test paper.  Second daughter clings for moments longer that normal when she’s dropped off at school in the mornings.  I repeatedly said not to worry about tests and grades.  Just adapt, make friends, be respectful of the teachers and behave properly at all times.  I knew that their curriculum is so different that their US catholic school will not be able to evaluate and use their French records.  Their school records over the years were good enough to guarantee re-entrée. 

 

Slowly they began to adapt and to like their surroundings and their schooling.  First daughter started to make friends with one of them helping to translate her class notes.  Another walking with her around the village.  Her teachers were patient with her and some going out of their way to accommodate her language needs.  And even with some disturbing instances, like one of her “evil” classmates pushing her down in the gym, she controlled her emotion and maintained her dignity.  She did not even smirk when the PE teacher summoned her classmate and noted down the bad behavior in the classmate’s cahier (in France, teachers note down these issues and do not accept the cahier or notebook back without parental signature.  This behavior evaluation – the vie scolaire -- is part of their grading process and is included in the overall academic grade). 

 

First daughter is amazed with some of the conduct she has witnessed: one of her friends being suspended for a week for PDA (public display of affections) with her boyfriend, another classmate in fistfight with another girl over a boy, a schoolmate expelled because she fought with the principal’s daughter while another schoolmate was suspended for his repeated cussing to the teachers.  So despite occasional teasing for her being American or Chinese, she does not let herself be provoked.  She knows the consequences and, for her, they are costly.

 

On one occasion, on a school trip for 3 days in Toulouse, three girls were caught at 11:00 pm in one of the boys’ rooms.  The parents were promptly called and ordered to pick them up (a total of four driving hours – two each way) and take them home.  “Mom,” she said, “if it was me you would have killed me on the way back.”  I responded, jokingly. “Not really.  I would have tortured you first.”  I assured her that I trusted her enough not to jeopardize an excursion that she had eagerly anticipated all semester. 

 

While first daughter was deep in immersion with her school life, second daughter was very slowly adapting.  Most of the pace is due to her shyness and her hesitancy to speak out loud.  The latter is not unique in France as she is noted for doing the same in the U.S.  But her school is relatively intimate; the class size not overwhelming.  She has her own private French language tutor.  A good looking young man enthusiastic about his protégé and her potential.  Her class teacher is kind and her classmates gentle. 

 

In church one Palm Sunday, the children were rounded up by Pere Bernard for a brief sermon and then directed someplace for some bible activity.  Second daughter’s classmate found her and stood by her side the entire time to be guide and guardian.  The classmate spoke to me later and told me that even if second daughter does not speak, “Elle comprend beaucoup.”  Sometimes in the mornings when I would take her to school, I would meet another of her classmate walking and I would ask Jasmine to walk with her.  Jasmine would then walk side by side with her and softly speak to her in French.  Recently, in a class concert, I accompanied her to the venue and once we arrived she was surrounded by her classmates.  I walked inside thinking that she would follow me but found that she was running around playing with her friends.  Funny that, for a moment, I missed the “clinging.” 

 

The school life does not only revolved around academics but also activities and meals.  First daughter sometimes complains that they eat later than other classes so the food is not so warm. Second daughter anticipates the weekly menu and gives a running discourse on every item of the four course menu she’s had at lunch when she gets home.  They enjoy both simple and Michelin star meals.  It is a joy to be able to observe their fascination and appreciation for cuisine.  I never regret the expenditure.  There is no waste.

 

More importantly, physical activities are “de rigueur” here.  Extracurricular activities are required as part of their education.  First daughter has had school marathons, one of which second daughter’s school participated as well.  Both had the walking/running exercise through the vineyards between the villages. First daughter was pleased that her sister did not come in last. Second daughter was annoyed that her sister did not give her the “proud sibling” attention that she anticipated. 

 

The ecole or primary school also schedules day long excursions in addition to the three week daily swimming beginning mid-June.  In one event, a bike ride through the vineyards was scheduled and the teacher sent a note inquiring for parent volunteers.  I sent the note back with a response that we could not participate since we did not have a bike.  She cornered me the next day and said “c’est obligatoire, madam.”  And she told me that she will ask the children if there were extra bikes that we can borrow.  Fortunately for us, our German neighbors arrived for spring break and generously provided the bike on loan.   Second daughter was thrilled not just for the bike but for the participation in the school excursion.  She said it was one of the most enjoyable school experiences of her life. 

 

Amidst all these curricular and extra-curricular activities, there are vacation days galore.  I mean holidays that would make schoolchildren all over the U.S. salivate with envy.  The school year has four major 2-week vacation periods.  The first in the fall is called Toussaint which occurs in the last two weeks of October for our region.  The second is the Christmas holiday, standard across most Western countries.  The third holiday period is called vacance d’hiver (winter vacation) and usually occurs in late February/early March.  And finally, the Pacque vacance or vacance de printemps which usually falls in late April or early May.   

 

Both the Christmas holiday and winter holiday periods facilitate the prosperity of regions dependent on winter activities such as skiing.  This allows equity with other parts of France that promote beach and/or warm weather related tourism.  There are also various religious and national holidays that, if scheduled early or late in the week, includes “sandwiched days.”  So long weekends are not unusual at all.  Call it the la vie est belle but, truly, the French observe and appreciate these breaks.  There is no such thing as “staycation” as one can find them in various places visiting family, friends or simply playing tourists in both new and familiar destinations.

 

As for us, we benefited from these vacation breaks.  We found ourselves in Nice for the Winter Carnival, Granada in balmy weather, and Lourdes, Espelette, and Biarritz for the vacance de printemps.  On a long weekend, with incredibly cheap train fares, we took a brief but satisfying excursion to Lyon.  And there are more places to see, things to do, people to meet.  We find it difficult to accept that time passes by so swiftly. 

 

But it does.  The school year is coming to an end.  We are already nostalgic for the time gone by and the experiences enjoyed.  But we are hopeful, maybe even a bit confident, that there are more to come.  Stay.Tuned. 

I grew up learning to drive in the unruly, unregulated, and congested roads of Manila.  It was often said if one can drive in Manila, one can drive anywhere else in the world!   I certainly put this skill to good use living in the U.S. in the last 30 years.  I can count in one hand the number of car issues I have had to deal with personally and, 9 out of 10, the causes are directly linked to the make and model of the car.

 

In France, however, it has been an interesting ride.

 

Armed with the confidence of youth and several years experience driving in Manila and Washington, DC, I had no hesitation renting and driving a car in Europe in the early 1990s.  On a trip to Geneva with an aunt from New York, we drove over mountains and valleys, through highways and country roads to visit my childhood friend in Provence.  My aunt, a lifelong Manhattan resident, claimed experience driving a manual car but never actually demonstrated this during our trip.  So I did all the driving.  Lucky for us, my friend took over when visiting places like Cannes, St. Tropez, and Aix en Provence which gave me bountiful opportunities to appreciate the sights. 

 

On the return drive to Geneva, my aunt and I stopped for gas.  This was an earlier time when those elevated road bumps with sharp traffic spikes were not yet introduced in the US.   Now of course they are ubiquitous in every car rental place.   There were signs in French which baffled us and which probably served a warning like “Do not back up.  Severe tire damage.”  But since we didn’t speak or understand French, we drove over these traffic spikes.  But our gas tank was not aligned with the pump so I backed up slightly and heard a loud pop followed by a hissing sound.  Aha! The universal sound of trouble.  We apprehensively filled the tank and limped slowly to the side.  We didn’t know how to change a tire but we pretended to fiddle around the trunk and spare, trying not to look too helpless.  Viola!  A mechanic of sorts came over and took charge.   Soon we were on way back to Geneva for our U.S. flight.   In my youthful ignorance of anything automotive (other than the ignition and gas), I did not know that one should not drive with a spare tire in major, cross-border highways.  But we did.  Safely.   Two months later, a bill arrived for replacement of the two tires. 

 

That first experience did not deter our car rental practices as we have a preference for visiting and staying in places not readily accessible by plane or train.  Once, perhaps due to lingering work stress and an extensively planned road trip from Brussels to Provence, we filled the gas tank with unleaded fuel instead of the usual gazoil.  Somewhere along the highway, in a rest stop between Normandy and the Loire Valley, the car would not start.  We called the number recommended and a tow truck appeared to take us to the nearby village and assess the situation.  The mechanic eventually diagnosed the fuel problem.  We were told that we had to go to the next big town where the car dealership with the proper tools can flush out the gas tank.  This kindly gentleman took us in his truck, car in tow, and drove us through beautiful countryside eagerly pointing out places of interest for our pleasure.   The girls thought it was the adventure of their lifetime.  I was seething; worried about hotel and auberge reservations with strict cancellation clauses.  Husband was trying not to look guilty!

 

At the dealership, the manager told us that we needed to leave the car overnight.  With my Provencal friend on the phone, she made arrangements with him for an overnight stay.  He drove us to a local hotel explaining that he would pick us up in the morning after our breakfast.  The next morning, we returned to the dealership and settled our bill.  The cost was much lower than we anticipated or feared.  Using my cell phone, my friend talked with him and later told me that he liked us and was concerned about our vacation experience.  And with these sentiments, he severely discounted the charges.  Sometime after, I read a magazine article on the same experience of American vacationers.  The author concluded that locals in the area still remember and appreciate the role of the U.S. during WWII and, because of this memory, we Americans are received with open arms and open minds.

 

Our car woes (and expenses) did not end then.   Years later, on a Christmas holiday trip, husband drove over a curb located near a construction site and burst a tire.  Fortunately for us, the gas station in the next village replaced both tires within an hour so we were able to enjoy the rest of the trip.  And once, in a desperate rush to make our luncheon reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, I dented the rental car when turning it around quickly and hitting a low stone wall unseen and unnoticed by any of us.   The resulting bill was husband’s mother’s day gift to me.

 

Despite these car mishaps, we do not feel so helpless or discouraged that we regret the trip or the residency in this part France.  We have only encountered kindness with our situation, honesty with the transaction, and sympathy with our inability to communicate our dilemma and requests. 

 

As another example, during the recent visit of an aunt from the Philippines, I made a sharp turn and hit a curb on our way to a scheduled lunch.  I heard the familiar loud pop and steered the car off the main road and into a side street besides a pair of recycling bins.  First daughter jumped out and opened the trunk.  She took the spare and tools out but was puzzled on how to proceed.  She ordered me to call her father.   “Mom, he promised us he was going to show us how to change a tire before we left for France and he didn’t,” she whined. She then badgered me to call him.  “Honey, it’s 6 am in Virginia, “ I said.   “He won’t even be awake enough to give instructions. Just figure it out.”

 

Meantime, I was rapidly dialing and emailing friends to cancel the lunch that I was hosting for my aunt.  I managed to get hold of Jen, a local friend, and asked her to call the restaurant because I felt that we would not make it.   “Where are you?” she asked.  “I am in Puisserguier.”  “I’m on my way, “ she responded.  Between trying to get through the car rental assistance line and another invited guest, Jen called asking for the specific location.  I told her I will be in the main road so she can see me.  Then first daughter called out that someone is helping her.  I rushed to the car just as Jen arrived and saw an elderly man taking over from first daughter.  Within minutes, we were on our way to lunch none the worse for wear.  Except perhaps for my aunt who is accustomed to having a chauffeur and/or someone handy to deal with automotive issues in her hometown.  She was silently worried that she would not be able to catch her flight back to Asia if there was no car to take her to Toulouse.   But that worry, of course, dissipated when she realized that we were at ease.

 

At ease, calm, unworried… none of these can aptly describe the confidence and knowledge that assistance will come.  Whether it is a new friend who, after coming to our aid and getting us to lunch, drew directions to the Peugeot dealership in Bezier. She also wrote, in French, instructions that I should hand to the mechanic with a directive that I should be given another car if the tires are not in stock.  Or a neighbor who insisted on my calling her from the Peugeot dealership if and when I needed assistance or translation that afternoon.  Or the kindly couple in the small villa across our disabled car whose husband changed our tire and gave recommendations on where and how to drive the spare so the police will not give me a ticket. Such generosity of heart and hand.  And such a privilege to be their beneficiaries. 

 

As many others in my home country, our lineage includes Spanish connections established, most probably, through a member of the clergy.  That it is, according to the oral recording of our maternal family history. 

 

So when I chanced upon a framed document with the Ezpeleta crest and background (in Spanish) at a distant uncle’s home, I decided to follow up.  Through online search, I discovered the source of the document and promptly ordered a few.  Upon my receipt of the documents, I had one framed and attempted to understand its meaning.  Something about its location along the Spanish and French border and service to the King.  Then conveniently forgot about it.

 

Sometime in the mid 2000s, we took the opportunity to rent a holiday home in Catalan and to use this as our base to travel to SW France, specifically to Lourdes.  I mentioned to traveling relatives that there is a place near Lourdes whose Basque name is Ezpeleta.  In France, it was called Espelette and is well known for its peppers.  So a few of them decided to continue to this village after our sojourn to Lourdes.  They returned to our holiday rental with plenty of souvenirs. 

 

Two years ago, the four of us ventured to this village.  First daughter was distraught as she forgot to wear her Ezpeleta family reunion shirt given to her by her great-aunt.  She had wanted to show off her connection as we ambled around the village.  It was the height of summer so the tourist crowds were plentiful.  After the dutiful purchase of souvenirs, our stay was short as we had other destinations to explore.

 

This time, with a visiting aunt in tow, we spent two full nights in a local chambres d’hotes (bed and breakfast).  Our GPS did not lead us to the right place so we parked and walked around to ask for directions.  Most of the people we reached out to were French tourists with no inkling of the Basque named streets.  We entered one of the retail stores and asked, in French not Basque, for the location of the chambres d’hotes.  I showed the woman my booking form.  She shook her head and pointed to a souvenir store across the street.  Ask the proprietor, she said.  He was born here and he would know that street.  So we followed her instructions, walked across the street and politely asked for help.  Immediately, one of the store helpers hurried me to the door and pointed out the direction.  He asked if I would like for him to accompany us but I graciously declined.  I figured out the way based on his directions.

 

We spotted the house but no one was about.  So I told second daughter to stay with her great-aunt and to explain that I needed to move the car closer to the house.  First daughter accompanied me to get the car.  Upon our return, both second daughter and aunt were with Madame Marilyn.  Both had the “deer in the headlight” look!  Clearly, there was no two-way communication going on.  I introduced myself and Madame showed us around and asked us what time we wanted our breakfast served.  I inquired about places to see in the village and driving instructions to Biarritz for a day trip. 

 

 Our room was huge (and so was the bathroom) and overlooked a charming meadow.  The “centre ville” was a 5 minute walk from the house.  We arrived in the mid-afternoon and settled into our room.  We immediately explored the village taking stock of the many retail outlets.  It was cool and a bit windy but this did not deter us from the constant picture- taking.  The village is so small that one can walk within and around in an hour or so.  Add in a little window-shopping and souvenir-shopping plus refreshment break and one is pretty much done.  We had a simple, pleasant dinner in a local bar/café loaded with young French men (members of sports team from what I can gather) which made first daughter full of nervous excitement.  Sigh.  They were eager for us to stay and watch a rugby game on the HDTV but, alas, the female adults were much too tired and too old for flirting!

 

The next morning, at breakfast, Madame engaged us in conversation.  She was curious about our trip to the village and I mentioned that my visiting aunt’s maiden name was Ezpeleta.  I told Madame that our family had always presumed our origins were in Spain and were surprised that Espelette was located in France.  Mais non, she says.  This area was part of the King of Navarre’s kingdom and at, one time, annexed to the Kingdom of Castile.  It may very well be true, she concluded, that people here traveled oceans under the Spanish flag.   But she urged us to go to the tourist office and make inquiries.   I did ask her about the lack of souvenirs that had both French and Basque names.  They were all in French.  She told me that the Basque language was not yet fully adopted and developed in France, unlike the Spanish counterparts.  This meant that I could not buy any Ezpeleta named shirts!!

 

We were not able to make the opening hours of the tourist office on Tuesday but on the morning of our departure, we were determined to check this out.  This was fittingly situated in the old chateau of the Baron D’Ezpeleta.  The mairie, the administrative center of the village, was also housed in this building. The exterior was an impressive sight.  The interior mimics the layout of ancient grand buildings -- impressive staircase, high ceilinged and spacious halls, turret rooms and stone walls.  We were told to go to the grand hall because the Ezpeleta coat of arms was hanging on the wall.  This is the room where the mayor holds court and village council meetings are held.   We were excited to see this and took many pictures. 

 

We ascended to the second floor and entered the tourist office.  The women were friendly and spoke some English.  As I was perusing the available French history and Espelette books, my aunt grabbed my attention by pointing to a poster that was branded Ezpeleta (not Espelette).   It was a poster of an older, formal-looking gentleman with a beret.  Was it the Baron, perhaps?   Whoever it was, we claimed ownership and purchased a few posters to take home.  We did not pursue any inquiries about ancestry, the Baron’s history and the like.  We wanted to get on the road and on our way.  More likely, we were hesitant to discover facts that may not align with our romantic notions of royal family connections.  We found out a few days later that the last line of the Ezpeleta royals died in 1694 without any heirs.  Official, legitimate descendants that is.   As for the unofficial line of descendants?  There are, obviously, very many.  Just ask the Ezpeleta aunts, uncles, and cousins! 

 

 

 

It must be the regularly scheduled catholic school retreats.  Or the religious fervor of my grandmother.  Or simply the proximity and access of places that are marked as religious sites.  Whatever the reason, I now have made the spiritual pilgrimage an annual, sometimes personal, tradition.  A year cannot be complete without a journey to a sacred place, renowned or not, for some contemplation and reflection.  So it must be pure luck (or the invisible hand) that drew us to country  where some of the world’s religious sites have been designated as such.

 

The most famous of these is the town of Lourdes located in the Southwest region of France known as Midi-Pyrénées.  This is approximately a 4 hour drive from our village through major highways.  The drive is pleasant and takes one through changing climate and topographies. From dry, warm weather overseeing vineyards to cool, sometimes wet, temperatures that give rise to emerald green pastures.  The town is recognized for the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to young shepherds and its healing waters.  The place welcomes people from all over the world who come to experience the hallowed grounds, participate in the sacraments and, in the experience of a lifetime, an immersion into the healing, invigorating pools.  The lines are long and the opening hours short but the wait is definitely worth the experience.  Not for the uniqueness of it but for the contented, peaceful emotions that infuse the mind, heart and body.    

 

Our first venture was in the mid 2000s when a group of aunts, uncles and cousins spent Thanksgiving day in very cold Lourdes.  Since it was winter weather, we had easy access to the pool.  Not really knowing what we were in for (I mean, we brought bathing suits, for goodness sakes!), we had no pre-conceptions, only heightened anticipation.  We discovered that the men and women had separate areas so even the children were divided among the relatives.  Second daughter was just a toddler then and I worried about how she would take this all in. 

 

In the women’s area, we went inside the building and waited in the chairs lining the wall.  Across us were multiple rooms divided by walls and protected by long, dark curtains from the waiting area.  When our turn came, the curtains divided and we were summoned by a lay person (sometimes a nun) to come inside.  Each large room can hold about 10 persons.  Despite the lack of partitions within, we were modestly covered while we undressed and changed into flimsy cotton wraps.  Only one person at a time can enter through another set of curtains.  First daughter had to go inside by herself.  Second daughter, who still had to be carried, was allowed to enter with me.  We went through the second curtain where two women stood on each side of an elongated stone bath filled with water.  There were steps leading down to it and the women held each of my arms to lead me to the water.   My fear about second daughter crying, screaming, wiggling to escape were for naught.  She, I believed, sensed something wonderful but reverent and so, remained calm throughout the brief but highly emotional encounter.   

  

Since then, we have had additional occasions to go to Lourdes when staying in the France.  One time, during the height of summer, the lines for the women’s area were so long that more than half would not make it into the building before it closes at 11:30 am.  Knowing this, I had informed husband that we will meet him outside the cathedral grounds after his visit.  I told first daughter (nearly as tall as I was then) that I would check the area where mothers and young children had access to see if we can take advantage of the much shorter lines.  But a guard was standing by the entrance to make sure that only very young children with a female companion can go in.  As I returned to the women’s line, I convinced myself that this was not meant to be. 

 

When I reached my daughters, the oldest was talking to another guard telling him that she won’t leave the line without her mother.  Apparently, the guard saw them standing in line and told them to go over to the young children’s entrance.  When I came over, he repeated the instructions.  Never one to miss an opportunity, we followed him to the other entrance.  The line was so short that we finished earlier than my husband.  The only troubling thought, perhaps driven by my catholic guilt, was that there were others with young children in the women’s line who were not asked or directed along with us.   I had to convince myself that this was meant to be.

 

This week, with the arrival of a dear aunt from the Philippines, we returned to Lourdes.  Upon arriving in the afternoon, I took the girls and my aunt around for a quick orientation and to check schedules.  The pilgrim crowds were up and about… mostly from Italy.  After seeing the grotto, I told my aunt that we will go to the pool area to check the schedule so we can plan to arrive one to two hours early the next day  and make certain our access.  Just before the women’s entrance, we stood aside to allow a big group of pilgrims through as they promenaded to the church.  I overhead one of the men inform a couple of pilgrims that they have 30 minutes before the pool closes.  I grab the girls and told my aunt to hurry as I did not see any lines in the women’s area.  We pushed through the parading crowd and was encouraged by the volunteer guard to hurry along.   One of the volunteer women was waiting for us by the entrance door.  I gave quick instructions to my aunt who was completely unprepared for the sudden visit.  All four of us were able to partake of the healing waters, unexpectedly but kindly welcomed.  As we left, my aunt turned to me, still dazed, and simply said, “This is such as a wonderful experience.  I feel better already.”   I know the feeling quite well.

For someone known to be a hard charging workaholic and road warrior, fanatically dependent on 24/7 blackberry service and, just as significant, living in the political heartbeat of the United States, it is hard to reconcile the image with the person now situated in a rural village in the south of France, miles from any major city such as Barcelona and Paris, and living in a 500 square foot home with barely a counter for a kitchen.  “What exactly will you do there” is just one of many questions posed by some friends who expressed mild shock and disbelief at our decision.   Others who expressed support, even envy, probably have visions of languid days eating gourmet food and drinking fabulous wines under the Mediterranean sun.  Not quite.

 

There are languid days, indeed.  But our days do not revolve around Michelin star menus and drinking copious amounts of Coteaux de Languedoc…. although the thought is quite tempting.  There is a slowing down of mind and body which leads to a clear focus on the here and now.  Not past, not future but this instant.  And in doing so, savoring the moment as it comes – cocooning with chocolates and a movie on a windy and rainy day, strolling through the village streets in the late afternoon sun for a bit of exercise, trying out a new restaurant for its cuisine or patronizing our favorite Vietnamese buffet, and doing the rounds of supermarkets and village markets for the weekly supply.  And there is the more ordinary but necessary tasks of cleaning the house, doing laundry and taking care of the family jewels – first and second daughters.

 

Typically, on a Monday, I would drive to Narbonne for my weekly banking needs and for a cup of coffee in a café facing the Via Domitia.  I watch people coming and going, for work or for shopping, or simply wandering about taking in the sights and the weather.   I buy a bag of choquettes for the girls’ snack at a patisserie and return to the parking lot.  There is, usually, some mendicant hanging out in the parking ticket booth but never, ever aggressive.  One time, in my rush, I inserted coins for payment and forgot the parking ticket.  He ran after me to warn me that I needed the ticket to get out of the parking lot.  I arrive home in time for a light lunch and perhaps a nap or some concentrated reading.   Then the girls come home and we talk about school as well as some trivia that made their day.  I prepare dinner and they do the clean up.  And yes, I do enjoy a couple of glasses of my domaine du vin finds.

 

Tuesday is almost always cleaning day.  That’s because a village neighbor, an elected town official no less, comes to the house in the afternoon to help me with the French language.  Mornings are spent dusting, vacuuming, and mopping floors to make the small dwelling presentable and welcoming.  I also prepare for this conversation session so Madame need not work so hard to make me speak French properly.  And it is a stimulating session.  I love the challenge of making new and different sounds no matter the strain on my tongue and my jaws.  A German language teacher once told me that if the accent sounds right, I will be forgiven for murdering the conjugation.  I live by that mantra these days. 

 

In our early weeks here, I've been able to venture into Olonzac for their Tuesday market.  It is a fairly large market even in winter and the offerings are varied and interesting.  There was even a vendor selling roasted pig (the carcass of the animal was laid out in this metal container) which was inexpensive and very tasty.  Much as I liked wandering around, I suspended the weekly trip after the day I nicked someone’s sideview mirror when I was sandwiched between an incoming large  truck on the left and the protruding car (inappropriately parked past the white line designating the parking area) on my right.  The back of my right sideview mirror flew off and I had to park my car to search for it.  Fortunately a resident German couple picked it up and returned it when I explained the situation.  I left a note (in French) on the windshield of the other car with my phone number.  But no calls have been forthcoming.  Still, the incident shook me enough that I decided to lay low.  When I told the story to the girls that afternoon, first daughter went to the car and patched the right rearview mirror with electric blue duct tape to prevent it from getting loose.  “Now it looks like a real French car, mom” she said.   Bruised and scratched.  Thank goodness for Peugeot’s insurance coverage. 

 

On Wednesdays, second daughter is off school so we drive around doing errands, shopping at the Capestang village market, or exploring other villages in Herault.   Second daughter enjoys a half day from school so we usually eat a late lunch.  Some afternoons we continue our errands, take naps (first daughter is wanting and enjoying this – which she refused to do in the U.S.), and stroll or walk briskly around the village.  We spend a leisurely afternoon watching TV, doing homework, and preparing dinner.  It is a good mid-week break for the girls and I enjoy their company.

 

Sometimes, I do major laundry such as linens and bath towels on Thursdays in the lavarie at Capestang.  I go especially for the large dryers ideal for sheets and bathmats.  I bring my Kindle and read through the 30 minutes wash cycle.  Once I load the clean laundry in the dryer, I take my Kindle along to the café in the town square and have my morning café crème while continuing to read.  I stay for probably close to an hour, even with my coffee cup laying empty, undisturbed by the proprietor or other patrons nursing their coffee or beers and reading their daily Midi Libre.  Starbucks it isn’t.  Coffee here is not as good as in Spain or Italy or even Starbucks, but the nesting atmosphere is better.  Collegial, safe, tranquil, it is a wonderful place to park oneself with a good read. 

 

Friday mornings are generally free. I simply go with the flow but mindful of picking up first daughter after lunch.  At first, I would arrive at the Collège at 1:30 or 1:45 pm and wait.  But she insisted she was not ready to come out until right before 2 pm when the gate closes.  Something to do with hanging out and chilling with newly found friends.  So one time, after working remotely with Microsoft to rid my computer of bugs, I arrived at precisely 2 pm.  The gate was closed so I went through the office to get her.  She was upset since the gate for that day was closed at 1:30 pm and she had to sit with the counselor until I arrived.  I am still not sure if her distress originated from her embarrassment of being with the counselor all that time or her anxiety that she may have to stay in study hall until the buses arrive at 4 pm.  So now, I get there by 1:55 pm. 

 

On weekends, we clean the house, do clothes laundry, and tidy up.   We attend mass.  We watch TV or TV movies.  Sometime we drive to Bezier for lunch and an english movie (VO= version originale – meaning its original language), go window shopping,  decide on a luncheon place or simply drive somewhere to experience a different ambiance, view a different sight, and try a different menu at another café/restaurant.  More often than not, we have to return to the supermarket, or go to the St Chinian or Capestang Sunday markets, so that the girls can pick up their favorites and make recommendations for the following week’s dinners.

 

Throughout the week and weekends, we Skype with husband/dad and we sometimes visit with local friends and acquaintances.  First daughter is now enjoying afternoons to wander with her friends in the village.  Second daughter practices with her borrowed bike.  And I have been, and will likely continue, walking in the fields outside the village.  One of my local friends is so familiar with the pathways, both hidden and exposed, that walking with her is pure, heavenly exercise that can take up nearly two hours.  There is a parcours de santé in the hills above our village that I have used with friends and with husband.  The walking pathways expose wild rosemary and thyme and offer spectacular views of vines settling on the plains as well as those hugging the hillside.  But despite the hushed, secluded surroundings, the paths feels safe.

 

Woven into this flexible rhythm constrained only by school calendars are the many task and activities that invariably crop up.  Visits to the doctors these past two months were frequent and necessary.  Our local doctor has seen us so many times that we now have a standing invitation to use her pool during the summer months.  “Just walk in,” she said.  There are forms to continually fill out for school or other administrative matters, bills to pay by French checks, online banking to manage, appointments with hairdresser or Institut de Beauté  (when in France….), letters and postcards to mail, and storylines to draft and redraft.   These do not produce anxiety or stress because time is not of the essence here.  And if this pace, this tempo, is indicative of future retirement, we are likely to live to a ripe old age. 

 

There are still places yet to see (Nimes, Lyon, Collioure, Perpignan, Camargue) and to revisit (Montpellier, Toulouse, Meze, Minerve, Lourdes), and things to do (soaking in the red wine Jacuzzi in Gruissan, driving through the African Safari Park in Sigean, learning to ride horses in Creissan) that will likely occupy us especially now that temperatures have risen, the sun constantly shines, and homeowners return to their maison secondaire.  I sometimes check the calendar to decide when I can schedule these opportunities.  But I find that I would shelve these ideas and plans within reach until the longing shows up on our immediate radar.     

 

But there are instances when I do miss the U.S.  Husband and the four gorgeous Himalayans pets reside there fulltime.  Family and family friends are within easy reach.  Everywhere is so familiar that the drive to malls, supermarket, or siblings’ home is automatic.   I can make luncheon plans with former business colleagues or after work drinks to catch up on office gossips and the job market.  There is always someone to take care of cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking dinner, and gardening.  There is also Chinese food home delivery.  Weekends are generally spent entertaining; pairing wines from the Eurocave with a carefully planned menu.   And there are no language barriers to overcome.  But it is our first and primary residence so we know we can return anytime.  It is our anchor. This fact comforts me and diminishes my homesickness.   So I focus on the moment, the here and now, and the gifts that it brings.

Latest comments

14.07 | 08:01

Beautiful! Vive la France!

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17.02 | 01:57

France is awaiting your return, Betty!

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16.02 | 10:07

Such a wonderful experience for all! Truly a beautiful region filled with lovely people, excellent food, and soothing wine! Am looking forward to returning.

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07.09 | 14:44

What a joy for this to be shared. I am reading several times, soaking it in and making my own movie in my mind of this adventure. So excited for you three!

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