29 January 2015

Out for a Walk

Recently, we had a break in the frigid temps and we set out for a family walk. I must say, countryside walks are good for the soul.

And as idyllic as it was, we've just got to dork it up a bit. 'Cause that's how we roll.

21 January 2015

To Take Time

Time and how it is spent is an interesting thing. As a generalization, it seems everyone needs more of it and ... if you've already exited childhood ... find it to be racing by.

And even though I would say this holds true in France, I do find the idea of "busy equals productive" to be a rather peculiar concept here. This is not to say people do not work hard here or lead busy lives. They do. But there is an idea that being too busy is really just a bad idea in general. "It's not good for your health!" I hear often. "One must take the time to enjoy life and beauty. To rest and taste and appreciate."

There is a lot of political discussion of late about whether France should allow commerce on Sundays. Of course, everything except the restaurants close at lunch time, no matter what the day. (From noon to two, you should be eating and resting!) But for the most part, everything is closed on Sundays. Grocery stores, shops, pharmacies, libraries, and often, even the restaurants! At first, we would forget, and find ourselves trying to run errands or pop into the grocery on Sunday. Nope! Plan ahead!

It seems the French are in a great debate as to whether to keep this time-old tradition, Sunday as a rest day, intact. Certainly, there are economic implications to having the entire country shut down one full-day a week. And yes, it isn't always convenient. But can I say ... I like it! It keeps our family together and forces us to slooow down. There is no dashing out for milk or hairspray or a part to fix the bathroom drain. We read. Take walks. Tidy up the house. Play games. Talk. And if you do venture out, what do you see? Families! Families out and about together.

In a lot of ways, France can seem as if she exists several decades in the past. But really ... isn't that part of her charm? Isn't that why we are so entranced by her? For me, even in the inconvenience, the answer is a decided, oui!

So how about you? Would you like your little universe to shut down for a day? Would it drive you crazy?

**Isn't this photo of Pops and Jane rather magical? It was taken from inside the Musée d'Orsay, a former train station in Paris that has since been turned into an art museum. It's in a fantastic location, has a stunning collection of impressionist art, and is so much more approachable than the behemoth that is the magnificent Louvre. (Plus, you won't wait in a line all day!)

19 January 2015

Bonjour et Bisous, Bisous!

Photo of the sunrise through the car window, on a recent trip to Versailles

This weekend we went to a New Year's Fête in our tiny, tiny village. Not only did our next door neighbor invited us ... she is the village mayor! She has a few cows, some chickens, and a dog. Her French is rather hard for me to understand (my issue, not hers), but has a kindness in her eyes that makes me feel right at home.

I knew we needed to participate in this community event. (Plus, they were serving more galette pastries, hot chocolate and mulled wine. Well, okay!) It would be a small, but respectful gesture on our part. But, wow. It was intimidating walking into the village's salle de fête (a party or community room ... it seems every village, no matter how small, has one for it's inhabitants to gather).

Steeling ourselves for a social event all in French, we entered into the salle containing perhaps 60 or so people in all? And, as customary, you give everyone bises. You know, the kiss on each cheek thing. At one point I had to chasten myself to stop grinning like an idiot. I was so tickled by the mass bises-ing. And everyone gives a bise to everyone. Including children. And if you are thinking this might take awhile, you would be right. You may not have picked up their name or where they live or if they have a farm or just a house ... but you've given and received bises!

So, the whole bises thing (pronounced beez). I'm no expert, but I get asked a lot of questions about it. There is also the bisou (bee-zoo), which as I understand it, is appropriate for family, kids, or really good friends. It's the same thing, but one would call it giving bises or bisous depending on your level of familiarity or the age of the person. (Much like the pronouns "vous" vs. "tu" ... but that's a whole other conversation.)

It is used as a greeting in most every situation unless it is professional, or if for some reason it would be awkward ... which follows a confusing code of unspoken conduct. So if you see a friend? Bisous. For sure. If you are being introduced to a friend's friend ... bises. If you are meeting the entire village's inhabitants? Bisous for the people you know and the children and bises for everyone else. (Remember, it's essentially the same thing and I will now just use the terms interchangeably.) If you are greeting your 75 year-old grammar teacher? You do not give bises. That would be weird and freak her out. You know this because you did it once and will never do it again.

And what does the bise/bisou consist of? It's cheeks touching and making a brief kissing sound in the air. Cheeks touch, no lip contact. And it's not the goofy, affected Beverly Hills air-kissing thing. Because that's dumb. And for some reason, I always have this feeling that I might topple over while giving les bisous and tend to put my hand on someone's shoulder or waist. I'm pretty sure that's weird. People seem to keep their hands to themselves. I'm working on it.

Typically, you offer the right cheek first and then do the left. In the north, where we are, it's just the two bisous, one on each cheek. The further south you go, they add more. I've seen three, but I'm told it can go up to four-bises a person (right, left, right, left)! And if you goof and offer the left cheek first, everyone works with it but it's weird and you kind of smack faces a bit.

When you greet a child they will always offer you a cheek. Just one bisou for children (I think it turns into two about middle-school age?). It's a respect thing and even the toddlers will come up to you and just stand there with their cheek in the air until you get your act together and bend down for a slightly-goopy bisou. (Because, come on, they are little and they goop on everything.)

All of Lucette's friends (6th grade) give each other bisous when they greet each other. All of Peter's peers typically handshake. But if any of them greeted an adult ... bisous. And the men? Oh gosh. I don't know. Lots of bises still, but I think if they were at all unsure, a handshake is totally acceptable. But men and women? Bises for sure. Saying goodbye to your the husband of your friend? Bises. It's not weird, it's just normal.

{Sidenote. Want a sure-fire way to freak a French person out? Hug them. It's super weird and creepy to them. A hug is considered far more intimate than a bise, because bodies are touching. Which when you consider it, it actually makes a lot of sense. I'm not even sure there is even a French word for hug. I think it might be embrasser ... you know, to "embrace." In short, there is no informal hugging and it doesn't matter that you are an American. You will just oook them out. Promise.}

Sometimes I think we get the "deer in the headlights" look when we aren't sure to bise or not to bise. But people are quite understanding and handshakes are okay, especially if they realize you are a foreigner. But honestly, I am finding it a very charming custom.

We had a lovely time at the party. They began by listing all of the major events of the year (who got married, whose farm was doing what, some sort of an installation of a toilet (??), and the big introduction, name by name, to the wacky American family who moved into La Cressonnière. And then we had the galettes. And hot chocolate. And mulled wine.

Peter's piece of galette had the "favor" in it (a little ceramic figurine) so he got to wear a paper crown. And 13 year-old boys looooove to wear paper crowns at foreign-language parties! Woohoo! People were very kind and patient to us as we hacked out conversation in atrocious French and they said things like ... "Vous parlez très bien!" Which we totally were not "speaking really well," but that's okay too. 

We were informed of when the next fête would be and warm farewell wishes exchanged. And then off we trotted ... after, of course, giving the goodbye bises!

**Post-note. If you are learning French, you might be tempted to stick an "er" on the end and say Baiser (beh-zay). Don't. It used to mean kiss. It doesn't now. It's become a naughty word. Just stay away from it. Fa-far away.

**Post-post-note. Want to see a funny video on La Bise? It has one "ahem" moment, and it's in French ... but it's still rather funny.

17 January 2015

A Trip Into Paris and Expat Thoughts

Pops and Me on top of the Arc de Triumph

Before Christmas, we took a family train trip into Paris. In less than two hours, we are in the middle of one of the grandest cities in the world. It is a privilege that makes me marvel. I utterly adore being able to be in such an environment. 

And it is important to remind myself (ourselves) of elements such as these. Because much of our days are just straight-up challenging. And as a mother, challenging not just for myself ... but worrying over all that my kids are experiencing. Are the "Paris" moments enough? Enough to make all of the daily difficulties worth it? 

Lucette and Jane, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance

Before we even left the States, Pops and I did some reading up on the stages of Expatriate-hood. It's a very real thing for people transplanted out of their native environment and into a new. Language, culture, geography, food, shopping, driving, social communication, homesickness ... all of these things come into play. But like many things in life, knowing it and experiencing it are different beasts.

We've now been here for 5 months. We get lots of well-meaning questions like, "So, are you guys fluent yet?" Oh mercy. So. Far. From It. It's almost demoralizing how far from fluent we are. Even though we can step back and see marked progress from when we arrived, it's just still super difficult.

In front of the Hôtel De Ville, deciding to land-skate, because the lines were too long for ice-skating. 

Now, can I interject to say ... we're okay! Life isn't falling apart at the seams and we aren't caressing maps of the States and weeping to the melancholy sounds of Kenny G. But. It has to be okay for it to still be hard for us. We aren't acclimated yet, a "groove" doesn't exist, we are confused all the time ... and we are choosing, as a family, to be good with that. 

I recently saw a graph that marked out the stages of expatriate adjustment. We've barely arrived, so I don't have full perspective, but I'd say it seems pretty realistic. In a nutshell, there is the Honeymoon Stage (2-6 weeks ... weeks!), Culture Shock (6-8 months), Gradual Adjustment (1-2 years), Competency (2-4 years), and "Mastery" (5-7 years). 

Uh, yeah. We are 1.5 - 3.5 years away from Competency. Not mastery, competency.

 Lucette and Peter noticing something surprising (I can't even remember what!)

However, somehow seeing these statistics is oddly comforting. It would be strange for us to be any more comfortable or competent than we are. We are just a goofy American family fumbling through each day, happy to enjoy the beauty and magic of living here and trusting in the Lord to get us through all of the small, yet Herculean tasks of life ... like talking to the plumber when there is water leaking from the ceiling ... or figuring out French light bulbs ... or asking the butcher for a paper towel because the ham hock he gave you is dripping blood on your sleeve but he has to politely correct your grammar, have you repeat, and then go get a paper towel for you.

In front of Notre Dame de Paris

When we first got here, everything was so new and fascinating, it balanced out the smack-in-the-face of the language difficulties. It leveled out the feeling of having an invisible American flag above our heads, announcing the fact that we were weird and didn't fit in.

And I laugh now at thinking I spoke French "a little bit" when we moved here. Uh, no. I think I can speak about 10 times better now, and if someone asked me today if I speak French, I would chuckle and say, "hardly at all!" And those French school lunches! So exciting at first, and now it is balanced out with the mandatory "goopy cheese" and extreme suspicion over any dish with the word "tête" ("head") in it.

But we are also finding ourselves to be assimilating ever so slowly. When we first arrived, Pops announced, "I will not be wearing scarves." Um, yeah. He wears one every. single. day. I think he got three for Christmas.

In the above photo, Pops is in front of a Metro sign. Though he himself was, perhaps, in a bedraggled, tourist state, he declared he had found his "style icon." His style icon? Is this my husband talking? The man who thinks black athletic socks can take you from work, soccer, poolside, and then to a wedding?

Peter and Pops on the Pont de l'Archeveche, the "Love Lock Bridge" 

The children are navigating school and learning what to reserve their energy for and what to just not care about. We are learning how to rely on each other in new ways and support each other's deficiencies. A favorite meal time conversation starter is, "What embarrassing thing happened to you today?"

Sometimes I feel guilty about complaining or trotting out all of my "you won't believe this" stories. It is not lost on me that I am living the life I have literally dreamed of. Sure it's hard, but shoot. You're living in a farmhouse in France! How hard can it be? Get over it! 

But even when life is just as you would have it ... it can still be kick-in-the-bum hard, no?

Jane and I take a "selfie" while waiting for lunch

Yet here we are. In all it's glory. Indulge me, if you would, if sometimes I feel the need to unload. It's important for me to chronicle the joys and blessings, yet some of the beastly bits seem important too. Someday, we'll look back on this time and like stones of remembrance, recall all that God has done for us ... in all of our circumstances.

14 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie and Shared Humanity

Oh, it's been a hard week in France. It has been 7 full days since the initial horror of the shootings in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The days of senseless regard for life continued on through Friday. Everywhere, even here in our Norman town, signs were posted. "Je suis Charlie" ... "I am Charlie." Instantly, this became a very personal event for France

These events have been devastating for the country. It's a very "9/11" feel here for the French. Of course, there is the loss of life and the shock, grief, and fear that follows. What has also been interesting to me is how much the circumstances and target of the violence, satirical political journalists, has utterly outraged the French. The issue of "liberté" is very deeply apart of their cultural DNA. As Americans, it can perhaps be hard to understand all of it, particularly associated with a rather intentionally-offensive magazine/publication. But this form of satirical commentary is centuries old for the French. (Ever remember seeing some of Marie Antoinette from the French Revolution? Even citizens who couldn't read had a chance to be a part of the thought and controversies of the day.) It was explained to me that part of how thoughts and freedom and ideas are expressed here ... whether you agree or not ... are very much linked to "cartoons" of the Charlie Hebdo's of France. 

On Sunday, we had the opportunity to join our French neighbors to eat a traditional New Year's galette and watch the Paris march take place. A march where near 2 million people were brought together in an act of unity. Walking, crying, even erupting into collective clapping and cheering ... together. 

Sitting there, in the living room of Madame L., watching the event unfold ... it was a moment in history and an experience I shall not soon forget. I was struck that even in our our grief, even in our differences, our shared humanity is such a deeply beautiful thing.

02 January 2015

Reflections and a New Year

 We are enjoying the last vestiges of the holiday season. The tree (which came with the rootball!), decorated with dried orange slices, holly, and paper snowflakes, has been de-potted and is now living a happy life down by the creek.

These past weeks we have spent a lot of time in front of the fire together, staying warm and just "being." We've also used the time to make some touristy day-trips that we've been meaning to accomplish. Christmas sights in Paris, D-day Beaches, and even Versailles (brrr ... 2 hours waiting in 30+ degree temps! It was a bonding experience).

We've also been enjoying our gifts from each other. We kept it pretty simple this year, focusing on experiences and less stuff. As mentioned before, it's a practical approach, but also beautiful in its simplicity.

One gift I was rather excited to find was a print of the city we live in. Right in front of the church, our town still holds outdoor markets every Tuesday and Friday, so similar to as that depicted. I think our family will enjoy looking at this in years to come.

School is starting up on Monday, and the children are less than excited. I feel the same! It's hard to let go of these simple, quiet times together in exchange for days of challenge. But even though I want to fret and trouble over each little bump on our paths ... my desire for the new year is to worry less, pray more. And because I know how sick of my own problems I can become ... praying more for others in my time of anxieties. Gosh, it's good to not deal with myself all the time!

Have a blessed New Year and Bonne Année!

"... let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus." 
Hebrews 12:2