Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad


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If only the tears would come

On Wednesday, I had a meeting with a French local. I was really happy to meet him. In an email he had shared he had built his 150+ member organization off of principles I had written about a while back. When we see each other face to face, I blunder through a sentence or two about why we should speak in English and not French but even this very simple sentence comes out all wrong. I know it proved my point. I know I should get over how embarrassing it is. But after this many weeks of trying to learn and doing drills and studying with private instructors, I can’t say even one sentence.

The next day is Thanksgiving and I’ve arranged to have lunch and church service with a friend. We end up at church only to find all the doors closed. She realizes the service is actually across town, at the American Cathedral not the American Church. We think about giving up, but decide to persevere. Persevere.

Enjoying this American friend’s company so much that what starts out as lunch goes all rest of the day. I blow off the work I need to do. I’m behind on this work. And really it’s one of the few things I get satisfaction from lately. So, I don’t mean to. It has its own regrets. But, it just feel so good to not be alone, to have a friend. To pray together. To say Thanks. Turns out her daughter has baked a pecan pie and a pumpkin pie. They pack me up pieces for home. Like a doggie bag. So American. It feels like it’s going to be okay. Even though it is dark outside, I am filled again. I’m practically skipping with joy. Right before we go, we find a little chocolatier shop that sells pavés. Pavé is the type of stones that makes up the sidewalks of Paris, and named the same, these little chocolates are tiny little squares, uneven and yet fitting together. 

As I leave this neighborhood, one I know like the back of my hand, some men stop and ask me questions. I can tell they are asking directions. I can’t figure out how to talk. I can’t figure out why I can’t say anything. These are really simple words. Words I know. But I can’t say anything coherent. All the good feelings of earlier that day escape. I feel the darkness of doubt and loneliness encroach. With just not being able to give directions. I know this place, I think. I do. I really do. I know the metros, and the buses, I know the streets. I know so many things. I wish I could be of help, I think. But all that comes out is small little fragments of jibberish. Neither one language, or the other.

We part.

Then, once again, I get lost out of the metro station as I go to pick up kiddo. I get lost nearly every time. EVERY. DARN. TIME. I’ve gone to this train station from all different spots in the city and each time, I manage to get out the wrong exit. Sometimes this costs me 5 minutes, and sometimes 30, depending on how badly I get turned around. Yesterday, I thought I was doing great only to end up kitty-korner-opposite of where I need to be (this after 10 minutes underground in the smelly urine-filled halls). I basically couldn’t have gotten further away from my end point destination. But I hustle and keep going. I deal with the cat-calling guy who almost always sees me on that corner. I step over the dog poop. I keep my hand on my bag opening so my phone or wallet is not picked again.

Then, I see him. But he’s not where he normally is. He’s leaving the building without me. And with two friends. I am excited to see him, and maybe even meet his friends. Mostly, I’m happy I’ve finally gotten to him. But he makes a face, turns away from his friends without an introduction, talks to me in so much French that I can’t understand a word. Not a word. At some point, I will cry, I think. I will. But there is no one to cry to. Curt is gone on yet another trip. And if I share with him what keeps happening, he will only try and problem solve to help me remember the sortie exit # to look for. Not that I can’t look it up. I do. But then I can’t remember it. I don’t know why I can’t remember it. Same reason why I can’t conjugate the two foundational verbs: etre and avoir. I feel infantile. He will not understand why I keep getting lost even when I am coming from the same spot.

If I mention to Kiddo about the 100% all french so fast I can’t understand, he’ll feel bad as if he’s done something wrong, when he has done only goodness. How do I get what I need when it has nothing to do with him. He’s struggling to keep up in school. And so he doesn’t want to slow down to help me. He has to go faster to catch up to these kids he’s with. He has his own race he’s running.

Our train is super full as it almost always is on this direction. We crowd on. One guy has his thing pressed up against me. It’s clear he’s trying to press up against me. But it’s super duper crowded and I can’t figure out what to do. Plus I don’t want to let kiddo know. Who, by the way, is speaking French super fast to me right at this moment unaware of my concerns. Then two stops later, the train stops and holds. After about five minutes, a message (in French) says thanks for the patience. I know word Patience in French. I should be grateful for that but I’m not. Another five minutes, the train is unloaded. We simply follow the crowd.  I understand every fifth word of this next message, but the gist is clear. Then we wait. During this time, Kiddo keeps asking if I know what’s going on. At one point I say, I have no idea in English. But after a second, I figure out the sentence in French and say. “J’ai ne aucune idée”. Kiddo corrects me. But not the words, only the accent. I’m crazy mad inside but I don’t show it. I just say, hey, isn’t it great that I got the words right. I want some recognition for trying and for the few times where I get it right, to be acknowledged for it. He looks at me, and I look off to hide my sadness. After several more moments of confusion and uncomfortable silence between us, another train comes.

I think of what food we have for dinner since I’m single-parenting… again. I look in the fridge. Cheese, lots of cheese. 8 kinds. Kiddo doesn’t like cheese. I offer the pies. He claims the pumpkin one, and tries to eat it as fast as he can so I can’t. I will hate myself in the morning, I think if I eat this all as my meal. But I inhale the pecan pie anyways. And then I think, oh, we should eat something healthier. We’re both hungry for non-sugary food. So we order take out instead of cooking. He wants a night off from homework, he says, so we agree to take-out and the movie. But kiddo seems uninterested in watching the movie even though he chose it. He keeps going to his own room, until I call him. It’s not a movie I especially like. We are in the space but alone, together. Alone, together. My friend Sherry Turkle wrote that book. But it would make a perfect title for what it is like to be here. Alone, together.

At the end of the movie, kiddo tries to convince me to watch another movie. He chokes me during a lopsided hug. He almost never hugs me unless he wants something. It’s his last resort. But his choking me wasn’t intentional. Even though I realize he doesn’t mean to hurt me, I just want to cry. But it’s silly to cry over a mistake. I know I’m really just sad. It’s not him. I will have to buck up to face another day. To deal with getting lost, with not knowing. And then the French language tutor is coming on Friday afternoon. I need to get ready for that.

Maybe, on another day, I can cry.


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Transitions

We’ve been saying “this transition” will end “soon”, and yet the “transition” seems elusive.

Then I started to think about all the different transitions we’re actually doing.

Kiddo learning French is going to take longer than a few months. As does getting used to a new school, a new country, and making new friends takes time. Cultures are not things you pick up on in a day or a week or a month.

Curt, too, has been going thru mega change. He has been in a big job transition with work travel taking up at least 50% of his time. He didn’t mean to pick up a new job while moving countries, that just got tacked along. (Oh by the way…) He has a new boss, and new demands, and also new work context. All while existing demands didn’t exactly die down.

And, I signed up to write a new (my third) book right before coming, a project I’ve wanted to put off for fear of doing it badly. It nearly killed me to do the book proposal because I never knew what was going to count as “done”. I kept getting told “you’re nearly there” but in reality that meant months and months more work. I couldn’t manage my pace, my expectations and to know how to manage my own energy. In the middle of the move, it felt too much and I know my frustration showed. But the “funny part” is that because I had let go of some corporate board roles before all this transition, I thought I had taken into account “enough” buffer for the transition.

And now as we’re here… we’re starting to realize there were a bunch of “unnamed” goals —  things that were largely unaccounted for. We wanted to be more present to one another. Maybe have more fun. Travel a little. While I hadn’t originally wanted to be fluent in French, that’s now on the list and any day short of complete success feels like an abysmal failure. We’re juggling a lot of things, lottsa notions of ourselves, and who “we are”, and who we will be.

it feels as if we’re stuck “in the middle”, some kind of purgatory spot. I was reading a management professor’s book (who also happens to be a Paris friend) for some research, and she writes about the word “transition”. Ibarra writes: at the root of transition is “in transit”, a voyage from one place to the other — a neither here nor there that William Bridges , the transitions guru says is one reason why people don’t want to make change. We lose touch with the ground.

And THIS explains so much how we feel in Paris.


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The Crosses of Normandy

When we imagined living in France, we thought we’d jet away on weekends to little get-aways to learn the area, culture, history. It’s not as easy as it sounds, given that Curt is traveling well over 50% of the time (and me just wrapping the Fall Speaking season), we are barely holding it together to be here, in Paris. But, after four months, we did our first trip and chose to go to Normandy! The thing they don’t tell you is Normandy is one big region hard to plan a trip without knowing what city to aim for. More on that in a minute.

We left from Gare St. Lazare. We took the metro (with our bags, coats, umbrellas in tow!) to get there.

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Going up and down stairs with bags is a good reason to always pack light. We only had two roller bags and one duffel bag. Turns out Duffel bags are hardest to deal with cause you do 2-3 miles on foot to get places when using things like the train. (Post-trip, we now own a third roller bag!)

At the train station, Curt noticed that the train right next to ours was going to a city called Caen. And we were going to La Havre. The “ruh roh” sound had to have been playing in his head but he didn’t say anything to us.

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I passed the time researching some stuff for Book III plus also reviewing some other’s proposals. Kiddo loves train time, and he bums my headphones when he forgets his. When we get to La Havre, it becomes clear that we’re a little discombobulated. Curt has forgotten his California Drivers License (why carry it unnecessarily in your wallet?) and we can’t rent the car we planned on. Plus, we’re now well over a hundred miles from our hotel because we went to the “wrong” city from where we could have gone.

I argue to turn around, and come back another day.

Curt insists on pushing thru.

Kiddo is more in my camp.

But Curt rarely asks us for things, so we decide the answer is to take a public bus to the other city we could have taken the train to (Caen). So far, two train rides, one bus ride. And we’re still not there. But we realize we’re at the mouth of the Siene and we should find it … (kiddo, not so happy, pictured.)

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Lunch helps attitude. It’s because the Restaurant Le Lyonnais in la Havre (7, rue de Bretagne) is very good with great service. We try some apple cider thing that’s the local specialty. Curt doesn’t mind it, Drew won’t try it and I pass on it after one sip.

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By the time we get to Caen, we still need to take a cab (Curt wants to take another public bus). I know, I know, you’re thinking… you live SUCH a glamorous, global life. But we finally arrive at the hotel at dusk.

Now, we’re talking.

IMG_1712( great b & b, the Clos de Bellefontaine, rue Bellefontaine, in Bayeaux) Champagne served when you arrive. Any time of day.

One of our favorite things to do is just walking around a city to orient. Found century-old walls.

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And some great street art.

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And the magic of the Bayeux Cathedral. Every major city in France has a “notre dame”. This one in Bayeux, is one of the largest and oldest — nearly as big as the one in Paris and it survived WWII in tact (which is why you don’t know of a lot of other Notre Dame’s).

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So first day didn’t start off so solid but we ended up glad to have come.

The next day, we got to see the Notre Dame Cathedral in full day light.

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Epic.

Also, saw the incredible tapestry that captures the Norman Invasion in the form of a storybook cloth. It’s super long and detailed and you wouldn’t think could be that interesting but it’s basically the first generation comic book with a gazillion hours of hand work. Kiddo liked it so much he wanted to see it again. I super wanted to get it as a puzzle but alas, they are missing out on the commercial application. (This, by the way, is VERY French.)

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Then onto the Bayeux Memorial for the British Soldiers of WWII.

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[ The solemnity and magnitude of the place really got to us. The acts of selflessness and community were conversations throughout these few days. ]

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Then, and because we didn’t have a car, we ended up going to Normandy Beaches “Places du Debarquement” with a guide. Bayeux turns out to be an easy 20 minute ride to the first set of beaches and the perfect spot from which to do this trip. Interestingly enough, we didn’t know that before we planned it. So if it helps you, man, we write it here. Go to Bayeux. (not by way of Lahavre etc). Take the direct train which is once a day from Paris to Bayeux.

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Bunkers.

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Omaha Beach.

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The crosses of Normandy.

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Lincoln Bear

When we were out and about one day, I saw this really cute mouse and bear in the corner of a shop.

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The bear turned out to be incredibly cuddly and so got packed up to take to Lincoln (kiddo’s nephew) in the US. We miss our family in ways we couldn’t possibly describe. They are always on our minds and even though we are doing a rather shitty job of staying in touch, it is not because we don’t care but that we do. It aches.


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Does This Make Me Look More French?

Last week I got my 2nd haircut in Paris. Pal Shannon turned me onto this salon. And I generally just let the guy, Leo, do whatever he wants to cause my french is pretty “mauvais” and he seems to have a handle on it. Plus I have a sense that if I let him, he might actually make me more chic. I have no idea what that means in reality, but sort of a *poof* moment will happen, and like Cinderella, something will be changed.
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This was my first one…

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I didn’t realize this “secret” desire until getting a postcard from Jubie back at home and she asks, “have you upgraded your style since moving to Paris?” and I was like YES, YES, YES. I have. I have no idea what that means but, YES. Recognizing, of course, that it could just be wishful thinking on all our parts.

It’s a funny thing to want to be French. I love the language and even though it’s not “sticking” in a way that I’d like, I so honor it that I want to learn it really well. I want to be more relaxed about the small things, like Bringing up Bebe pointed out. I want to be more “in the moment’ to enjoy the city. All these things and more, I want to be changed by Paris. Author of Bringing up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman, recently wrote that she’s applying for dual citizenship for France. And I had this little niggle that one day I might do the same.

Does a haircut change us? The food we eat? Perhaps those are just things we are doing while we are being changed by the essence of the place itself.

 


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Walking in Van Gogh’s Steps

After months of being here, we realized we hadn’t actually enjoyed this place we now live in. So we headed off to Auvers-sur-Oise, the city where Vincent Van Gogh spent his last days. IMG_1606

We took the RERC to get there, just a few minutes from the apartment. We definitely feel lucky to get so many places without a car. We had to take one train far out and then a tiny “milk train” to the final city.

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After which we walked around this beautiful city. It was raining off and on … Kiddo now has winter boots, which he has never had to have before. In California, you can basically wear summer footwear most the year round. We definitely notice the difference. <brrr. wet. colds.>

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The city had a lot to offer.

Besides Van Gogh’s tomb (he died in 1890 and was buried at the new cemetery inaugurated in 1858. Theo, his brother and bestie, who died a year later, is buried nearby.)

There’s the city’s Notre Dame (every major city in France has a Notre Dame!) IMG_1631

And the other requisite tourists being guided in English.

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(tilted cause, you know, it’s probably how Vincent thought of it.)

We also went by the Chateau that Vincent painted. IMG_1626

Which we imagined would be a great place to live. You know, our “place” outside of Paris. Our weekend place. Our chez-soi.us.

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We saw the Absinthe Musee whic was interesting enough. I finished early and found a lovely spot to rest while everyone finished. For some reason Absinthe seems like the weirdest drink to me. But the spoons — the accoutrement — definitely have appeal. Unfortunately, I dont have pics of that cause no pics are allowed inside the musee. I think they realize there’s so little to see that if someone saw pics ahead of time, they’d have seen everything in about 4 shots.

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While we were out and about, we thought of the people we miss back at home, who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Soeur is the french word for Sister.

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And finally we wandered our way back to the train for a return trip to Paris.
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Kiddo especially seemed to enjoy the day just being together. That’s been the hardest part of this move. We’ve lost our bearings on how to take time to be together. But this was a good start.

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