It’s September 4, one month today since I arrived in Montpellier to “officially” begin my new adventure to live in France. So far, it is wonderful! I was asked by my friend/landlord today when he stopped by what have I been doing? Wow! The question kind of stumped me. What HAVE I been doing?
It struck me that doing is not really why I came to France; that “being” was more what I was seeking! I found myself feeling apologetic, or inadequate, and wasteful sort of, for not coming up with a list of “Well, I’ve done this, and been here, and been there, etc.” Of course I came up with a few things, and overall, later, I tried to get into my head to see why that question gave me such pause. Another friend back home just casually in a text asked, “have you begun another adventure yet?”
From what I’ve observed over the years of coming here, the French are very much about Being vs. Doing. Being. Breathing in deeply, exhaling slowly; swirling life around on the tongue before swallowing it; enjoying a meal because it pleases to take time to relax, sit, savour the taste of fresh, and local food; spending a long time in a café with just one cup of coffee, with a friend, because you could stay for hours if you wanted and never feel your time was up! This is the true French experience….and there is also this….today I am extremely frustrated and feeling anxious because a major piece of business to make my life here work, is not working! Short story, I have been unable, through any means that I was assured would work after I arrived here, to transfer money from my U.S. bank account to my new account here. Lots of detail here which I won’t get into, but nothing has worked so far. I need money in an account here to pay rent, etc. It seems my patience and ability to “be” with what “is” is wearing thin!!! Oh, the dichotomies of life!
Of course, at the same time as I’ve moved to France, I’ve also retired! So, two major life changes at once. Naturally, with no where to be, at no particular time, and all days like weekends, I cannot know what changes are due to retirement and which just being in France. I suppose it doesn’t matter. I have a new appreciation for time and am learning how to manage it and be free at the same time.
So, what have I experienced? Wow! So much, I may have to continue in another post! I’ve experienced how lovely it is to have a few new friends here who have all gone through this transition or are still going through it. So I am supported that way. The city is bright and shining all the time…no rain to speak of in a month (wishing for it now!) Seeing the sun shining and skies blue with puffy white clouds is a pleasant change! There is always, something going on…musicians of all sorts in the square; parades with people dressed in costumes from the Middle Ages celebrating some historical event; sights and smells of all kinds of food; a little group of us who get together to practice our French with a lovely native Parisian woman who loves to help us. In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, we can have “Un Gouter” in the afternoon, around 4 (a little taste – usually something sweet like fruit or a light pastry along with tea or another non-alcoholic beverage); and then “Un Apéro “ in the evenings BEFORE DINNER, so at around 5 or 6 (dinner eaten usually around 8 or 9) which consists of a little cheese or meat with wine or a cocktail; don’t often do both of those! I have ridden one of the tram lines to the end!; love wandering the streets, paying attention to their names, so when I pass that way again, I can get my bearings! Montpellier is not a city on a grid…the streets run in all directions, with smaller ones (ruelles) between often used as short cuts with no cars allowed, so it is easy to get lost like in a maze. I have finally gotten to know my way around by sensing where I am and still have not got exactly where everything is.
I took a breather before finishing the above, and now it is Sept. 12. I have passed the one month mark and am at almost 5 weeks; we have had a whole day of rain…soft, sometimes heavier, drenching, nourishing rain. It was the kind of rain I’ve missed back home where every, and frequent, rainy day was flooding, torrential, damaging. Today was the kind of stay-at-home and read rain, the take-a-nap because you can rain, the take an umbrella to my hair appointment rain and I don’t care if I get wet rain. I loved it! That was 2 days ago, and since, it’s been back to blue skies, sunshine and cool breezes. Fall is in the air, and it’s hard to believe I am crossing into my second season here in France. My banking need, for the moment has been met, although it is not a long-term solution, so I will have to change my U.S. bank when I return for a visit, after an almost 20 year relationship.
I have found that it is time to put some structure back into my days…something I have always shunned, and done out of necessity rather than desire. It is so easy for me to come to the end of the day and feel I have not accomplished enough. However, that is something I need to let go of as well…maybe accomplishing something is just one or two things instead of many. Maybe it is the Being that is getting accomplished, rather than the Doing. I do see that having a specific time of day, a certain day of the week, would help me write my blog, which I do so enjoy and easily gets put off if I don’t schedule in a time for it.
There is a woman across the way, across the space between our neighborhood buildings, between our several rooftops, on the same level as I am. (Featured Photo above). She emerges every evening after dark, and sits at a table on her porch, with one, strong light to illumine her personal space. She is there most evenings, and I look for her when I come out onto my rooftop deck. When she’s not there, I find myself wondering why not. I have a story about her in my head. She is doing her Being thing…it looks like she has a table, and I think she is writing. Occasionally, I see the red ash of a lit cigarette. She is there till as late as 1 a.m….obviously, then, so am I! It is hard to see even if she IS a woman, and if she IS writing, and that is what I imagine. Something about this ritual seems so peaceful to me, so dependable, so count-onable! I feel a sort of connection to her and wonder if she knows I am here, too.
So, I plan to go on Being, and Doing only when it pleases me. Taking this time to inhale deeply and exhale slowly; walk at a slower pace; have a shorter “to do” list, and consider one, maybe two things in a day to be an accomplishment. It feels good to be here, to be in a new phase of my life, to welcome whatever comes and feel blessed and oh, so grateful for this gift of time and spaciousness. My Muse has returned to inspire my writing, and a-Muse me with her promptings.
I Got Naked in La Comédie!
Ha! Bet that got your attention! Well, it isn’t exactly like it sounds, and YES, I did take my clothes off in a little, tiny, circular makeshift dressing room at a vendor’s stall right in the middle of the public square of Montpellier! I was walking through the square called La Comédie (the largest square in Europe, so I hear!), and some lovely dresses in a vendor’s stall caught my eye…just what I’d been looking for. It is so hot here that breezy, loose fitting dresses are all I want to wear, and I only had 2! Rarely, if ever, do I approach vendors hawking their wares, and this place drew me in. Right away I found a navy blue, linen midi dress, with pockets and a handkerchief hem, I liked right away and the merchant began to engage with me and brought me yet another style in the same color and fabric. He chatted me up a bit…friendly-like (and salesman-like), and asked me where I was from! He didn’t think I was American! When I told him I was from America, he commented on how good my French was…of course that flattered my ego! However, I didn’t want to buy a dress without being able to try it on so I thanked him and was about to leave when he asked why I didn’t try it on. I looked at him as if to say, “Well, where would I try it on?” and he led me to another area of the tent, and showed me a flimsy curtain with no tie to secure it, where I entered and, after pausing for a minute or so, began taking off my clothes!!! Yikes! This was a first, indeed. A small puff of wind could expose me in the public square! Anyway, all was well and I had me a new dress!
Life Without a Microwave (or Cabinets in the Kitchen!)
Whenever people have asked me why I wanted to move to France, particularly, among the many reasons, and one of the first ones I mention is the much “simpler lifestyle,” the low tech, slower pace of life here. So, when I discovered one morning when I wanted to warm up my second cup ‘o that there was no microwave, I was amused, later, by how taken aback I was! “So, how do I warm up my coffee?” I asked myself. I even wondered perhaps if the oven might ALSO be a microwave if I just pushed some button!!! Hilarious! You’re in France, dummy, remember? Simple life. Healthy lifestyle. Nothing fancy. Within minutes, I was reminding myself that back in the day, I was one of the holdouts for getting a microwave, believing them to be unhealthy, breaking up all those food molecules and releasing free radicals! I actually still believe that…even though I succumbed years ago to the technology. I began to consider what I actually did use a microwave for and realized that it was primarily for reheating food and beverages and that there are other ways to do that. Ah, yes, I thought, simple doesn’t necessarily mean quick or easy, and it may mean healthier in a back-to-basics kind of way. “Problem” (not a problem) solved!
As for the (no) kitchen cabinets. This apartment I am fortunate enough to live in, is beautiful in every way. In a hundreds of years old building with exquisitely hand carved crown moldings, highly polished dark wood floors, iron work balconies, and 25’ ceilings and windows, the architect/owner renovated it in a somewhat contemporary and true to the “simple” style to which I referred in the last paragraph. The kitchen is almost industrial, with stainless steel appliances and sink, and butcher block counter tops. Under one counter are open shelves where the dishes are kept, and in the wall are a few openings cut out in which to place essential spices, oils, etc. one might need while cooking. Glassware is in these “cubby holes” as well as books and kitchen machines. Pots and pans, casserole dishes , etc., are kept in drawers below the counter. Again, simple, basic needs are absolutely met, and not much room for superfluous stuff, lazy Susan’s where food can accumulate and not get used, and extras of everything one really rarely needs! And no granite, or quartz countertops, now so “de rigueur” in the U.S. I am experiencing now, up close and personal, the lifestyle I have always admired from afar…and I think I’m actually loving it!
Le Temps (the weather)
It is gently raining this morning as I am writing, and the clouds are covering the sun, which in the 2 plus weeks since I’ve been here, has not been absent from full view in the South of France. The heat of the last days has abated somewhat, and a cool little breeze is wafting through the window. I am happy. In the weeks and even a year or more before I left the U.S. east coast to come here, I was getting pretty frustrated with rain. It had always been a source of comfort, washing life’s dirtiness and heaviness away and leaving a fresh, new perspective. Not lately. Every rainfall had been a deluge – flooding streets and properties to damaging amounts, leaving homeowners scrambling to shore up the ground, gardens and gravel before they completely washed away. No more gentle, moisturizing, nourishing rains like I am experiencing today. It is said that Montpellier experiences more than 300 sunny days a year, so I am glad for the town that we have received this gift of water today, for plants and people.
I am aware how it is our thoughts about things that creates the “bad” or the “good” we experience about them. Rain is rain. Water is water. It falls on all everywhere. It is what it is. Only when our minds get into it does it take on a sort of personification like destructive, flooding, depressing, or even delightful, nourishing, “needed.” What if we just let it be? What if we just experience it however it comes to us, or doesn’t, without judgment, characterization, or description. What if we did that with any situation or occurrence in our life? What if whatever happens, just happens, and we just.move.through. The great Indian philosopher, speaker and writer Krishnamurti said, “I don’t mind what happens.” What happens, happens…and our minds have nothing to do with it. Rain is rain. It is raining today.
Your Comments My Responses
In answer to your questions, YES! I respond to (and love!) all of your comments, right here on the blog. Please see the “Notes to Readers” tab on the opening page to FrenchAmusing.com where I try to put useful information for using this blog. Basically, I respond right on the page under the comment, so, if you go back there to check, you should see it! Now we can have a conversation…yay!
The fabric of my life has changed over my soon to be 70 years on this planet – different colors, different textures, different patterns in the weaving. I can look back and see how the mantle has gone from being quite a simple design to a more intricate pattern with fewer colors at the beginning turning into a richly colored tapestry as time wore on. In the last years, some threads have stretched to allow for more freedom of movement, less shape to the piece, and less binding. And most recently, some of the threads have frayed, allowing more light to pass through, more air, more exposure to the elements.
Friends and Awareness
Without our friends, where would we be? I have been so blessed by my friends’ offers of help from driving me to the airport, to helping me sell my car, to offering a place to stay after my home became someone else’s, to printing endless documents I needed for my VISA application! Being in someone else’s space and home has been most interesting. It is my usual thinking to not want to interfere or be in the way, and so I soon become familiar with routines and rituals and try to dance among and around them.
All my life I have identified as someone’s daughter, sister, cousin, wife, mother, single parent, aunt, as well as student, acupuncturist, homeowner, teacher. And for most of my life, each of those roles has been played out for many years. Who would I be without those identities? Without all the labels of family and career, who am I, and is it consistent with who I know myself to be?
Two years ago I made a decision that has had an effect, even an earthquake kind of effect, on most of those identifiers. All my life I was obedient, responsible, dutiful, professional, and dedicated to being the best I could be at each of them. As I held many of those roles concurrently, of course I wasn’t perfect, and I knew where I stood among the surrounding relationships and what my connection and responsibilities were to each of them. As a would-be drama major in college, I knew how my part needed to be played and how each line, each movement, each decision and action would affect the other players, and knew that any change, ad lib, unexpected action or utterance could affect every other performance in the play.
Trimming my Red Bud and Japanese maple for the last time before the new owners would move in in 2 days, I had an “AHa” moment! With all the rain in the past weeks, the overgrowth was fierce, and I just had to trim a few things back. With each cut of the lopper, the heavy, low-lying branch would SPRING UP skyward and dance there a moment before coming to a stop in its new place high above the ground. And with each cut, the tree would “S-w-i-s-s-h-h” as if releasing a big sigh and saying, “Ahhh, I feel so much lighter now.”
One month since I’ve been back from France and when I got home, I hit the ground
running. Four weeks to pack up and move – some things to store, lots to consign, and the rest to donate. Given that I’d been working on this for 2 years, I would be on Easy Street. NOT! Never had I anticipated the amount of stuff I still had left to sort and toss, and where to put what I was keeping with me. With no new home to go to, all of the remainder would be in suitcases, and several Wegman’s bags going with my vagabond, homeless self until I left for my long-stay in France.
I must admit that there were some days when I wasn’t sure I’d make it. It was getting down to the “little” things – things I can’t even describe like a zillion pens and pencils; pads of paper; my extra supply of batteries, boxes of Kleenex, plastic wraps and bags; hangers galore; a “medicine closet” FULL of remedies for whatever ailed me, or whatever might….and still more photos! Never an end to loose photographs representing moments of my life, significant and banal. It all had to go somewhere!! SO MUCH WASTE is what I kept thinking…so much to contribute to an already over-full landfill. I gave away as much as I could, even things like an old Fuller Brush push broom and dustpan brush (am I dating myself?) that belonged to my father, which my landscaper-handyman really appreciated! I remember so well when the Fuller Brush salesman came to our door with his suitcase full of brushes for every task! We always bought something.
One particularly stressful night, late, I still had clothing in the closets that had to be sorted into “store for 1 year, keep at a friend’s for next season, and take now.” I was far from finished, and I was exhausted. So much so that my brain just wasn’t functioning…and I couldn’t stop – the movers were coming in the morning.
And they did. Five of them! They worked for 4 hours, boxing, labeling, wrapping; and sorting into “Storage,”
“Consignment,” and “Donation.” They were amazing, and just watching them work gave me some peace of mind. As my family heirlooms were turned on end, my mother’s paintings wrapped, and things were carried to the truck, I watched as my home became, once again, an empty shell. I thought, “….and as we all must do, we return to the beginning.”
And, although not right away because first came the tears and boo hoos as I said goodbye to the home I’d known for the past 14 years, and recalled the many life stories that were created while I was in this sacred place, I could feel myself lighter, springy-er, and higher off the ground. Now, I could see with new perspective and, like my Red Bud, dance with a lighter step.
The first bird is singing
her morning song
Or her mourning song,
I know her not
A little Toulousaine.
She brings me melodiously
Into the day
In this country I love
In this city that shines
On the river Garonne.
Her full-throated greeting
Is calling me home
With a trill with a note
Solid and strong
Deep and long into my soul.
Flying off to a distant branch
Her song fades away,
And my heart it will stay
In this country of France
Where my story unfolds.
As the morning darkness was brightened by these cheerful notes from a bird I don’t know, as I know all the birds and birdsongs in my woods, I was aware that I will be leaving on Saturday to return home to finish my preparations for coming back here to stay for a much longer time. There is, once more, a mixture of joy and sadness inside me (like the mourning song, perhaps?) as I ponder selling my house; my furnishings, some I’ve had since childhood; selling my cute little Honda Fit that I have so enjoyed driving; and, in a sense, becoming unattached. I am aware of how much my identity has been wrapped up in my house, my work, my lifetime as a Maryland resident. I have been complimented on my décor, my choice of colors and fabrics, the openness and play of light throughout. My work as an acupuncturist these last 25 years has, also, been a source of identity and pride in having chosen, at the time, a path ”less traveled” and it has, indeed, “made all the difference.” The healing relationships I have had with my patients with whom healing happens more profoundly through trust, and confidence and vulnerability…the very reasons friendship with patients is discouraged…has been a gift I will carry with me always.
Soon, I will be a traveler, an adventurer, a stranger in a foreign land. Different language, different customs, different rules and ways of being. This old dog will be learning new tricks every day. So far, the experience has been intoxicating and expansive. I may at times feel ungrounded. And it is you, dear readers, these writings, and the knowledge that home is truly wherever my heart resides, that will keep me planted throughout my journey.
So, thank you to the little bird this morning that reminded me we all have a sweet song to sing us home.
Thanks to my friend, Mad, this expression has become one of my faves! It has come in handy so many times in the last month since I first heard it that I have decided to do a blog post every once in awhile, called “Bits ‘n Bobs.” It will be a collection of things I have learned, encountered, or experienced along this journey of mine, that may or may not be worth a dedicated post. Each day is so full with new information, new ways of doing things, ingenuity I must employ, etc., that it might be fun (for me and for future reference) to write about them. No particular order, priority or importance, just random bits and bobs picked up along the way.
STUFF – THE BANE OF OUR EXISTENCE
People have been asking me about the process of letting go, (see post “Letting Go”, January 27, 2019), about the actual doing of it…HOW? For many of us, our stuff weighs us down, maybe more than it uplifts us. It becomes a burden, and so we don’t think about it, and it grows into more stuff. So, best to get an early start, before it is left to our kids. I am assuming here that anyone going through this process to this degree has children that are grown, or mostly so, and is beginning to look at “the rest of your life”, rather than just another phase. Not meant as a depressing thought, and more as a freeing one!
So, how to begin. Briefly, I did it in what I think of as layers. You know how we save stuff often because we just don’t know what to do with it at the moment so, we put it on a shelf, in a drawer (how many “junk drawers” do YOU have??) in a closet, etc.? Well, most of those things are not can’t-live-without items…so I start there. I might pick a closet, or a drawer, or a chest of drawers. For example, I had a whole drawer in a chest in my den full of maps…maps to everywhere I’d been, and maps of all regions of France, maps of places I might go…time to let go of the maps! We have Google now, and can always get a new, updated map free from AAA, if a member. These are the things that are the easiest…if it’s been in a drawer or closet since you moved there, DELETE it! Another example is that my coat closet had NO LESS than 20 coats in it…when guests came, there was no room for their coats! And yes, I did wear every one of them…sometimes! It was hard with some of my favorites (and I just asked myself if I really needed it, and had I gotten good use of it, and if I could do without it?) One by one, I let them go. I do confess I bought 2 new coats, but they served the same purpose of several of my older ones. Now I am down to 5 coats! (P.S. it helps to have basic black in coats…they really do go with everything, where the colorful coats I had were limited in their use!…just sayin’. You can use scarves for a pop of color!)
Next, I might ask myself these questions: : “Do I want to PAY to move/store this? How many times have I used/looked at these things in the last 5-10 years? How many more times will I want to look at them in the time I have left (5, 10, 15 years..not to put an end point out there!) Who would really want these things? Would I want my children to have to decide what to do with these things? These are all questions that really help the process of letting go.
So I might go through this same process more than once in the same places…layers…the first time through, toss out a few things, next time more…often I realize that the rest can go, too.
Photos, letters, diaries, journals – if you really don’t have time to go through these (before moving, for example), ok, keep them…and plan a date when you will begin the final pass through with those. Or, read a few, decide if you even want your offspring to read them (and they probably won’t even want to), get a chuckle or a tear or two, and then toss…as I said, you’d probably never get to them again.
Kids’ stuff. Most of this – their early drawings, report cards, handmade projects, they don’t want or even remember. They might like to SEE them again, or have now, but YOU don’t have any obligation to keep them any longer. I have a plastic tub for each…whatever fits in there, I will store for them for 1 year; then they must decide or take or toss. Stuff FOR the kids?…realize that most of it, they have no interest in…especially not “brown” furniture…today it’s all “industrial,” minimalist; “ Wayfair, you’ve got just what I need” – get it now, toss it when the trends change! Wedgewood china, silver (real) flatware, punchbowls (who ever really needs a punch bowl anyway???), trust me, they won’t want it!!! Yes, even if it belonged to your grandmother…did they know your grandmother??) Even consignment and NICE auctioneers or antiques dealers won’t take it…they are inundated by all of us baby boomers downsizing…they have no more room, and it isn’t selling…millennials do not want it!
With all my “precious” objects, I do ask myself: “Am I able to let this go?” Usually there is an immediate, embodied or emotional response, “NO,” or a weak, “Eh, I don’t know,” or a “YES.” Anything but a definitive answer, preferably that you feel in your BODY, not just in your head, is the one you should listen to. Marie Condo’s famous, “Does it bring you Joy?” is another question…I don’t use it. Joy comes to me in lots of ways, and objects usually don’t JUST bring me joy…it is the CAN I let this go question that I feel the answer to in my body, in my heart. Sometimes even a tear lets me know. Funny example: I collected wind-up toys for a few years, proudly showing my crazy collection to anyone who would watch…jets with pilots who ejected, bunnies who did a perfect flip, doggies who rolled over, kangaroos who jumped with a baby popping out of their pocket! Seriously, I did this as an adult! What do you think my embodied response was to letting them go?….NO!!! I couldn’t. Go figure.
And lastly, what do I actually do with the stuff I’m not keeping? Much of it has been picked up from my front porch by local charities that come right to your door – Viet Nam Vets, National Children’s Center, Purple Heart, Arc. Next, I sold a lot of stuff through Facebook’s “Marketplace,” and “Nextdoor,” in most neighborhoods. I also spent some time thinking about people I knew who might like something I had that I hoped might bring joy to someone as it had to me. Surprisingly, I have been delighted to turn something over to someone who really loves it and has “just the place” for it in their home. This does bring me joy. Finally, as a last opportunity to have people I know or who I know really want my stuff have a chance at it, a day or two before I move everything out (either to storage or to consignment), I am holding an “Open House Yard Sale” where people I know can come do a “Cash and Carry” transaction and take one of my family heirlooms or treasured pieces home with them. Won’t that be fun?
(Not exactly a “bit” or a “bob” but something wanting a listening.)
For the second time since yesterday (Easter), I found myself in a pew of Basilique Saint Sernin here in Toulouse. The ”largest religious Roman ediface” in all of France, it drew me into its center as a mother would draw her child to her breast for nourishment. As cavernous and grand, soaring and open a place as it is, there was something intimate about it, something personal and grounding. Something comforting and inspiring.
At first I was a simple tourist. Gawking at the stained glass, the enormity of the space, the height of the vaulted ceilings, the brilliance of the altar, and the awesomeness of its age – built in the 13th century! So I sat down in a pew to take it all in. After only a few minutes
there was a breathy sound, and an echo, and then a note. And, tout d’un coup, I was engulfed in sound, the beautiful sound of the organ at full tilt! The organist was really there…this was not a recording…because he would pause, re-play a phrase, and then continue. He must have been practicing, or else just having a marvelous time! And I was grateful in the listening. At the end of one piece, there would be a long silence, and then it would start up again – a different piece, a different rhythm, a different pace. All of it washing over me, filling me, embracing me and reaching into my core. This went on for almost 2 hours! Tears began to roll down my face and continued during most of the time I sat there. Tears of joy, sorrow, gratefulness, blessedness, disbelief, affirmation, confirmation. Joy of just being here in my favorite country. Gratefulness to all of who and what conspired to bring me here – my parents who sent me, their 19 year old first born, to live with a French family for a whole summer because they knew it would be an experience of a lifetime; the years of French class with wonderful native French speakers who inspired in me the love of the French language; Facebook which created a format through which I could reconnect with my French family after 40 years. Sorrow at the passing 1 week ago of a good friend’s son tragically and suddenly; for the death from cancer 3 years ago of one of my French “sisters.” And finally, disbelief banished by the many affirmations over the past 2 years that my decision to retire and move to France was and is the right one. The upwelling of emotion overtook me, and my tears cleansed me.
Oh, sweet song of St. Sernin, thank you for feeding me with your music and filling me with your spirit. I will be leaving this beautiful city, and a piece of you will live inside of me forever.