Friday, June 27, 2008

Greener

Le Petit is almost a year old now, and will soon clear babyhood and catapult directly into toddlerhood. It has happened so fast. Selfish me, I'll admit I'm happy he still doesn't have much hair, for his bald head and the soft fringe of down above his neck are all that remind me of the tiny baby that so precipitously turned my world upside down.

He's almost ready to walk. Was it only a year ago that he was waiting in my belly, hiccuping and kicking me in the ribcage?

His favorite thing to do right now is to explore a patch of grass. It tops playing hide and seek with Daddy, stealing a pot lid from the kitchen shelf, and even emptying the box of socks on his changing table. He's an urban baby, so he doesn't often get to crawl around on the magic green carpet, but oh! When the chance arrives, there is nothing more marvelous.

Even before we place him on the ground his hands and knees are spread, ready to take off. He crawls a bit, then sits up and starts tearing up handfuls of grass. He brings each fistful up to his face and slowly opens his fingers to watch the blades stick or drift back to the ground. He repeats this with such a concentrated look that you'd think him a scientist in his laboratory or a painter in front of a canvas. When the grass starts making its inevitable way to his mouth and we intervene, he looks startled and indignant to be interrupted in the middle of something so important.

Aside from making sure that he doesn't swallow anything, we have little to do but sit and observe. Le Petit, who when at home will not stay in one place for more than the short time it takes for him to empty a bookshelf, can stay in the same patch of grass for what seems like hours. He sometimes scans around him, and if he sees an alluring patch of clover, daisies or dandelions he will wander off a few feet, but he stops before he goes far.

I realize I've found the only person on earth who does not think the grass is greener on the other side. No, it is just fine right here, where he's content pulling up flowers ("A bouquet for Mommy?" I ask. No, a bouquet to eat!) and learning about the sounds of insects, the warmth of the sun on his back, and the texture and the smell of the blades of grass between his fingers.

I want to stay still too, and freeze the moment in the grass with him forever. Time has dilated and contracted this year, and my head spins when I think about it. I've spent the longest hours ever awake between one and four in the morning, but the months then disappear before I remember to take a picture for the baby book. If I think about it too much I start to mourn what I haven't yet lost.

Le Petit could explain it to me simply enough: the present is my patch of grass. Just don't look for the other side.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Eat your numbers

I learned this week that what we call a pie chart in the US is a diagramme camembert in French. It makes sense, of course. It's round, it's tasty, and it is habitually sliced into wedges.

So in addition to learning the uninteresting ins and outs of business intelligence software from the consultant at work, I discussed the relative merits of pasteurized and raw milk cheeses.

(I'm still not excited about my new project, but as you can see, I'm searching hard for inspiration.)

Monday, June 23, 2008

So you want to pump and work... in France

Perhaps it is, ironically, because maternity leave is longer in France than it is in the US, but few mothers here breastfeed after they go back to work. Fewer still try to combine pumping and working: the assumption is that you must supplement with formula during the day. If you're feeling heroic, you may do your best to keep up a supply for mornings, evenings, and weekends, but even that is rare.

Although I have no official numbers, anecdotal evidence convinces me that French mothers wean far earlier than American mothers, whether or not they go back to work. When I passed the six-month mark I felt I'd already crossed into what is considered here to be extended breastfeeding. When our pediatrician filled out a mail-in government form at le Petit's nine-month checkup, I noticed that the "breastfeeding duration" box assumed that babies his age were no longer nursing, and my pediatrician was obliged to write "en cours" in the margin. I can only assume that any national statistics would show us as a blip, an anomaly.

So when I went back to work at nine months, I dreaded trying to explain to my colleagues why pumping milk at work was important to me, and I dreaded negotiating a discreet pumping location with my boss. I was so unsure of how I would be received that I almost let it drop and resigned myself to giving formula during the day, when an American friend of mine accused me of being a wimp.

Like so many things I've been scared to do, it turned out to be easy once I got over my fear and just did it. So to encourage other breastfeeding moms in France who are tempted to try it, I thought I'd share what I've learned.

1) Invest in the right material. It may be cheaper than you think, or even free. In France, you can rent a high-quality electric pump with a prescription from your doctor, your child's pediatrician, or even a midwife or hospital puericultrice.

Do not simply take your prescription to the local pharmacy, however, for they are likely to give you some ancient pump that will hurt your nipples, will not be efficient, and will make more noise than an idling deux chevaux. It will make you hate pumping and may make you worry unnecessarily about your milk supply. It is worth checking with your hospital to find out where you can rent a hospital grade Medela (I have the Medela Lactina Plus) . They may cost a bit more than the Sécurité Sociale will reimburse, but your mutuelle insurance company will likely cover the difference.

If you do not have access to a place to pump with an electrical socket, do not despair! When this turned out to be the case for me, I bought a Medela Harmony manual pump and I love it. Granted, at nine months, le Petit only took one bottle a day while I was at work, so I only had to manually pump for one feeding. More than two times a day would probably be rather tiring -- but there is a Medela pump with a foot pedal. (I love Medela products. And their baby bottles are BPA-free!)

Which brings me to --

2) If you want to and can afford to, take an additional parental leave. In France, we are lucky to be able to take up to three years of unpaid time off after the birth of a child and still be guaranteed to get the same or an equivalent job back. It isn't an option professionally or financially for a lot of women, but if you are in a position to consider it, do. I am happy to be back at work now, but I treasured the nine months le Petit and I got to spend together at home. And it was a lot easier to combine exclusive breastfeeding and working since he was well-established on solids. I was lucky that he took to eating solids well at seven months and started needing less and less breast milk, but there are no hard and fast rules. The best is to try not to stress, and to read the child to decide what's best. Do not push solids just because you have a deadline to go back to work.

I think the transition back to work is delicate, and every mother finds a different solution that works for her. You may be enjoying staying home with the baby, or you may be dying to go back to work and rejoin the world of adults, or you may be both at different times (often in function of how well you've slept recently). Honor your feelings. There are no right or wrong answers, and no reason for self-imposed guilt whatever your decision.

If it doesn't work, you can often readjust. Remember that a parental leave can be extended once, and can be transformed into part-time work. Make sure to read up on the formalities and discuss your options with your employer.

3) When looking for a place to pump, be creative. In the age of cubicles and open office spaces, it can be hard to find somewhere clean, private and discreet to pump. A common solution is the on-site infirmary, which many companies have for mandatory medical visits. I asked and it wasn't reliably available at my company most days of the week, but I discovered that the shower/changing room near the exercise room worked just as well. It is kept neat and clean and has a comfortable bench. I keep a bottle of hand sanitizer with me so that I can wash my hands well right before I pump.

4) Talk it over with your day care provider. Unfortunately, it is far from universal for day care centers to accept breast milk in France. If you live in Paris proper, you are in luck, for a city-wide directive requires all municipal day care centers to not only accept breast milk, but allow breastfeeding mothers who work nearby to drop by and nurse during the day.

I have no idea what our town's policy is, but I doubt they're so enlightened. Yet another reason I'm ultimately quite happy we were turned down at the crèche. Nannies and assistantes maternelles with home day cares are likely to be more open to the idea. Our wonderful nounou had no problem with it at all.

Note that you are likely to be questioned about how carefully you've ensured the temperature of the milk during transportation to and from work. The French are obsessed with la chaine du froid. I have access to a refrigerator at work, and I bought a great little backpack cooler and a couple of ice packs at Decathlon for the trip home. Voilà, the milk arrives chez moi nice and fresh.

5) People are more accepting, and less nosy, that you'd think. I expected my colleagues to comment on my odd decision, or notice uncomfortably when I disappeared briefly to pump in the afternoon. Most don't notice, and those who are in the know find nothing strange about my decision at all. If anything, they chalk it up to American eccentricity. Remember that being a foreigner gives you a lot of leeway to do things differently.

That's what I've learned so far. Le Petit is almost a year old now, and still enjoying his daily bottle of lait de maman at four o'clock -- and his tétée de retrouvailles when I pick him up, plus a morning and an evening feeding. He's growing well and has boundless energy, so I must be doing something right, right?

Of course, jobs and situations are different, and what worked for me will not work for everyone. I certainly don't mean to criticize moms who decide to supplement, either. Yet I find it a shame that pumping while working is an option rarely presented in France. Maybe I'm a pioneer. Maybe it will be easier for the next generation of moms to make the choice.

In the meantime, I hope something I've learned will be useful to another new mother, and if I can offer any specific advice (particularly about where to find a good Medela pump in Paris), feel free to email me.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Le foot

Soccer to us, football to the rest of the world, and le foot to the French. Whatever you call it, it is currently keeping Europe's mind off Ireland's veto of the Lisbon Treaty. Unifying treaties may come and go, but football is sacred. Two proposed European constitutions have been vetoed since 2005, but the European Championship only comes around once every four years.

(To think that like most good Americans, I used to see soccer as merely an adjective that modifies "mom," an after-school activity that mainly interests girls, or a quaint Old World custom.)

For a few weeks in summer the continent is obsessed, and the phenomenon fascinates me. I first experienced it during the 2006 World Cup, when France was defeated by Italy in the final match. It is the strangest sensation to know that absolutely everyone in the country is sitting, just as you are, in front of their televisions and biting their nails.

You hardly need a television to follow the score, just an open window. The neighborhood erupts in a collective cheer or groan when a goal is scored, and if France wins, car horns and inebriated shouts of glee continue until the wee hours of the morning.

The farther France progresses to the final, the more everyone becomes a football convert. Back in 2006, my husband's seventy-something aunt suddenly had her theories about Zidane's performance, while I searched desperately for a French flag to hang from our balcony. The day after France ultimately lost the country shared a rotten mood and a football hangover.

This year there was none of that build-up of excitement, for France was eliminated in the first round after once again losing to the Italians. We're stuck watching a dull match between Croatia and Turkey, shrugging our shoulders and waiting for the next World Cup in 2010.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Steps

Suddenly le Petit is obsessed with learning to walk.

It's new, this interest in vertical locomotion. He's long loved to pull himself up and cruise furniture, but whenever we tried to hold his hands and encourage him to walk with us, he'd quickly sink back to a crawl. Made sense to me. Crawling is less hazardous, and with four months of practice under his belt now, rather efficient. I'd gotten used to seeing him grab a toy and wander off on all fours, gleefully banging it along the hardwood floor.

No longer. Now when I put him down on the floor he often holds onto my hands and makes it quite clear that I must help him advance. Then we're off, one foot after the other, still pigeon-toed and with uncertain balance but with so much determination. He chooses where we go, usually round and round from the kitchen to the living room. I'm just along for the ride.

We'll see which one of us is ready to let go first.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Interview

I had a job interview today. Nothing worth reporting there, I suppose. I have doubts that I did sufficiently well to land the job, but it all depends on who I am up against. I don't intend to blog about work, and software engineering interviews do not make for absorbing narrative anyway.

But as I sat in the lobby of the company waiting, I realized that it was the very first time I've gone to an interview with dried baby food on my shoulder. I did my best to scrape it off: don't want to get Mommy-tracked from the get-go.

While I waited again in the lobby for the second interviewer to show up, I dug in my purse for some reading material and came up with nothing better than a Michelin pocket atlas of Paris. Did you know that there is a rue Vercingétorix on the border between the 14th and 15th arrondissements? Or that the massive office complexes in Paris' business center La Défense often have deceptively poetic names: l'Iris, Les Mirroirs, Elysées?

I stared at the map as if I were trying to figure out some complex itinerary when in fact I was five minutes by foot from home.

I'm far from holding my breath on the outcome.

But hey, if by some wild chance it works out, it would be one hell of a nice commute.

Monday, June 16, 2008

De Tocqueville du jour

Don't get me wrong: I know I sound just as silly when I make sweeping generalizations about life in France. The baguettes, the croissants, the Gallic shrug, the bureaucratic inanities and the strikes are all taken from real life here, sure, but a little exaggeration adds spice and cultural simplifications are crowd-pleasers.

But I smile when I hear the same complaints and observations about American life from nearly all of the French I've met who have spent any time in the US. There's exaggeration as well, but I can still recognize us a bit in their reflections.

They all have seem to have the same list, and it goes something like this:

1) "Everything is so big! I looked and looked for the smallest [car/t-shirt/refrigerator/bag of chips/pair of jeans] I could find, and it was enormous." Pretty much the same observation we make in reverse the first time when we visit France. Some of the cars here, such as the Smart, look like wind-up toys to us, and imagine my surprise when on my first Thanksgiving in Paris I found I couldn't fit my turkey roasting pan into my oven.

2) "That's what you call yogurt!" It apparently tastes like gelatin. And don't get them started on the cheese.

3) "Why does everyone keep asking me how I'm doing?" The forced cheerfulness of otherwise apathetic wait staff and salespeople drives most French nuts, my husband in particular. Paris waiters and shopkeepers may be many things, but no one can accuse them of being insincerely enthusiastic.

4) "When you say 'water' it sounds like 'waDer.'" Yes, we swallow the Ts. But I discourage French-speakers from trying to imitate us, for it aids our comprehension not at all and sounds profoundly silly. (My husband believes he can do it. I assure him he can't.)

5) "Don't you ever stop to eat?" There is no more horrible thought to the average Frenchman than that of eating a hamburger behind the steering wheel of a car, or a sandwich at one's desk, or even a slice of pizza in front of the television. Though the sacredness of a mealtime as a true break in the day may disappear here in a generation, if the crowds of teenagers that swarm Parisian McDonald's are any indication.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gers, part II

This is the second of two posts I wrote during our recent trip to the Gers. Sorry it took so long to get it edited and posted, and I hope you find it worth the wait.

For the past two days we’ve stayed in southern Gers, where the département feels wilder as it starts to climb towards the mountains. Yesterday we drove up until the rivers we’ve been crisscrossing shrank to small streams in accordioned valleys. I have fallen in love with the Gers’ civilized side and I am not sure I like trading vineyards for cows as the farmhouses become progressively more decrepit. The showers that dogged us all day did nothing to convince me otherwise. Yet I’m still smitten and I find the landscape beautiful even from the rain-streaked window of the car.

We stopped at a Romanesque chapel in the middle of a field. A hand-lettered sign told us we could find the key at a house nearby. A few feet away, a dirt road headed off to a couple of stone houses where an old woman wrapped in a heavy, dark coat stood stooped over working in her vegetable garden. She was digging up muddy parsnips and tossing them into a tub.

One of the joys of searching for forgotten Romanesque churches is the medieval quest you must often undertake to obtain the keys. With luck, a note on the door of the church or a mention in an obscure guidebook will give you a clue to the address, but if not, if your motivation is greater than your timidity (more true for my husband than for me) you can knock one by one on all the doors of the village until you find the right one. This time, we found the right one easily, for the woman with the parsnips directed us to a farmhouse at the end of the lane.

Inside the small church, we sank into the familiar sombre light and dusty smell and blinked away enough daylight to make out the details we had come to admire. There was a fourth-century Gallo-Roman sarcophagus behind the altar, eighth-century pillars flanking the dim windows, a twelfth-century fresco on the wall. All the flotsam and jetsam of local history, collected and assembled by those who hoped that their faith would be enough to float it farther down the centuries.

My husband read the description of the sarcophagus, and the symbolism of the bas-relief is all speculation now. I listened dutifully and tried to trace the figures, but eternity still means nothing to le Petit, who started to shriek and squirm out of my arms. I eventually let him crawl around on the floor under the pews – “But he’ll eat twelfth-century dust!” my husband protested – then finally scooped him back up and took him outside to admire the cows in a nearby field.

The rain had let up briefly, but soon started pouring again for the trip back.

Today Météo France’s non-committal prediction of calmer weather proved true, for once. The Pyrenees even made an appearance, and they are much closer than I had suspected. We drove a winding road up the crest of a hill and all of a sudden there they were, white and purple peaks still shaking loose stray morning clouds.

We seized our chance to take a hike. We hiked nine miles up and down a valley, through forests and pastures and frighteningly tall grass, and along a portion of the Way of Saint James. I am clearly in no shape for a pilgrimage to Compostela, for even just carrying le Petit on my back for a few hours wore me down. But we found a perfect spot for a picnic along the way, and I mostly forgot my fatigue as I hunted for wild orchids in the grass along the trail.

A thunderstorm chased us inside when we arrived back at the house, and we were reminded that it is still only May: an early summer day stolen from between two seas and the far away mountains.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Croissant

In France, picking up a fresh baguette in the evening for dinner at night is not a luxury, but essential. Dinner simply isn't served without bread. A quick phone call to my husband as I'm leaving work opens the negotiation of which one of us will swing by the boulangerie on our way home. The line is often long but it moves quickly, and most days the bread is still warm. Rarely does a baguette make it the entire hundred yards back to our apartment without one end torn off and eaten.

Le Petit, my mother-in-law and I went together to the boulangerie one evening this week. Le Petit, who has already learned how to charm the ladies, smiled and babbled at the woman behind the counter. Before I knew it she was leaning over the stroller and handing him an entire croissant.

I didn't dare take it away for fear of both offending the boulangère and inciting a screaming fit from le Petit, so I thanked her, we paid for our bread and left with le Petit clutching his new treasure.

It didn't take him too long to figure out that he was supposed to eat it. When it wound up in his mouth you could almost see him think, "Yum, butter!" His table manners left a bit to be desired, for he sucked and gummed it to a pulp more than he chewed and he scattered crumbs to the four winds. But within ten minutes he had finished the whole thing.

By himself.

And went on to eat a half an avocado, some puréed artichoke and a quarter of a nèfle* for dinner.

So while his American compatriots are chowing down on Cheerios, my little guy is already eating half of the traditional French breakfast. (I think we'll wait a bit before introducing him to the café crème.) And he's already showing the beginnings of the Frenchman's talent for flirtation.

Nature? Nurture? I guess we'll never know.

*A nèfle is an easy to peel, slightly elongated orange fruit that I've never seen outside France and Spain and have no idea how to translate. If anyone knows, please let me know.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

What I learned about being a mom from watching my dad

My dad is fond of saying that "grandchildren are a parent's revenge." The statement annoys me, even now that le Petit is here and part of me secretly hopes that some day he'll understand just what it means to be randomly woken up in the middle of the night. It is the wording I take offense to: it is as if somehow we children deliberately put our parents through the wringer (though there may be a grain of truth to that when we're between, say, ages fifteen and twenty) .

But I understand what he means, too, that there is a clarity that comes when the roles are shifted, and I'm sure some satisfaction when your children are "all grown up" and ready to bumble through parenthood in your footsteps. You wonder what they'll take from what you gave them to give to the next generation, what gifts they choose to become heirlooms.

I must have been seven or eight, I honestly don't remember, when my dad took me to the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge to go birdwatching together. It must have been early spring or late fall because the sky was a heavy gray and the tall rushes and grass had died back far enough to see into hidden ponds and pools. There were plenty of birds, and lots of slow-moving dabbling ducks that a kid could get a good focus on even in a pair of adult binoculars.

From the moment when we arrived and started on our hike, we weren't just father and daughter, we were partners on a mission. What I managed to observe and identify was just as important as what he pointed out to me. We both asked questions, thumbed through the bird guide, and stood at the waters edge quietly, waiting for the next feathered enigma to wander past.

A flock of jet-black birds settled around a pond. The tops of their wings were outlined with bright red and gold, and I found them beautiful, like no birds I'd seen before. They were red-winged blackbirds, my father explained, and the logic pleased me. I'd never before been interested in birds but I started to see the game in searching first in the air, then in the colorful pages of a book.

I pointed out a small, reddish-brown duck with a baby blue bill. For me, ducks came in two models: Mallard and Donald. This odd specimen looked like a freshly painted toy where someone had chosen the wrong pot of paint. My dad found it in the book for me: a ruddy duck. So it was real after all, and from then on, I decided it was mine. I saw another black bird, this one with a bright yellow head. I wondered aloud if it could be called a yellow-headed blackbird, and I was beyond proud when the book confirmed my reasoning.

I don't know if my dad set out to make that day particularly special. I know he always tried to share his interests with me, even when his efforts often failed. I could've cared less about the telescope that Santa brought one Christmas, and despite a year of playing the trumpet in elementary school, I never learned to play jazz or even joined the marching band. There were some things for which he planted the seeds young, like a love of travel or an appreciation of the natural world, but it took years for the seeds to blossom.

I often think about what I want to share with le Petit as he grows up. Will he pick up his daddy's mastery of maps and geography or my interest in weaving? Or a love of reading from both of us? His father's way with languages or my mania for running? Will he be a food snob, a classical music critic, a world traveler?

It may be none of the above, and that's ok. What I learned from my dad is that what your kid values most is the being and learning with you in the moment. That's what you share first. When we went to Nisqually together, when he took me to Seattle Symphony concerts on school nights, when we cooked or read together, it was always the together that mattered most. He is that kind of dad. And I want to be that kind of mom.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. Thank you!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Linguistic gymnast

I haven't been feeling all that positive about work lately. With le Petit sleeping so poorly, it's been hard to arrive early and well-rested and as motivated as I'd like, and with my project of four years recently canceled, I haven't been making too much of an effort anyway.

But today I finally gave myself a much-needed kick in the pants. I had to do a little bit of technical sleuthing to understand how a piece of code was implemented, and that involved calling three colleagues in two different cities. (Luckily, my telephone which had mysteriously disappeared during my maternity leave was recently reinstalled.)

I was pleased to discover that I could jump right back into over-the-phone business French with no problems after a year's break. One colleague understood "library" when I had asked about a "libellé" (label), but otherwise everyone understood me and I got my questions quickly and efficiently answered.

Then there was the little problem of saying goodbye.

For some reason, I can never elegantly conclude a phone conversation in French. I know the right words, at least theoretically, but between choosing from a formal "merci beaucoup, au revoir," a "bonne journée," or an "à bientôt" or the casual "a plus," "salut," or "ciao" and knowing when and how to combine them into the denouement of replacing the receiver, I get all tripped up. I inevitably end up mumbling something, sometimes an English "goodbye" as I sheepishly hang up the phone.

Happens every time.

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I may be dreaming, but I think I just noticed today that the RATP, Paris' transport service, has changed their last stop message.

It used to be a long-winded "Terminus, tous les voyageurs sont invités à descendre," which they often translated in English to the equally wordy "Last stop, all passengers should kindly leave the train." It is now the simpler "Terminus, vous êtes invité à descendre," a simple "Last stop, you are asked to leave."

I just wonder why this detail seemed important enough to go to the hassle of rerecording all of the announcements.

Does it add more of a personal touch? Does it give people who've fallen asleep on the train that much longer to wake up and jump out before the sliding doors close? That could be particularly important to, say, German-speaking passengers whose translation is repeated last, just before the closing door buzzer.

Clearly if I'm worrying about such things I'm spending way too much time in public transportation.

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Le Petit is still sleeping badly. I won't devote a post to it right now, but... ugh. Groan. When will it end?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sleepwalking, part IV

The Gers will wait. I must [talk about] sleep. My colleagues are all up-to-date since I give them the play-by-play as I try, bleary-eyed, to figure out which button to push on the coffee machine. Café au lait avec sucre looks remarkably like café au lait sans sucre when you're so tired your eyelids are involuntarily twitching.

Sunday night, le Petit decided a big family all-hands meeting was in order from one-thirty to five a.m. Yesterday night he woke up at twelve-thirty and again at five. When he was still wide awake and nursing at six a.m. I decided I'd had enough. My husband stepped in, explained to le Petit that he could stay awake if he wanted, but he need to do so quietly in his bed. And he left him, standing in his crib, where he protested briefly and then... O Miracle! We heard him jumping up and down for a few minutes, with no crying whatsoever, then fell asleep ourselves. When we checked on him an hour later he had fallen asleep.

On his own.

For the very first time.

So I spent the day exhausted but optimistic. Could this be the beginning of a trend? Will he start going to bed as happily and as easily as he now puts up with car rides? Dare I dream?

In the meantime, a colleague wished me a "bonne nuit" with a smirk as he walked out the door today, and another helpfully suggested I try napping during my long commute in public transportation. Which, when I lost an hour yesterday evening and again this morning stuck in the RER commuter train started to look like not such a bad option.

Métro, boulot, dodo. And if two out of three ain't bad?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Gers, part I

I surprised myself and did get a bit of writing done during our vacation last week. This is the first of two blog entries I wrote "unplugged." I'll post the second one tomorrow.

We arrived in Gascony three days ago, in the southwest corner of France, the département of the Gers. I cannot shake the suspicion that if I lived here my life would be golden-hued and perfect and nothing could make me unhappy again. I have decided that one day I must have the chance to prove myself wrong.

The Gers is just far enough from the Pyrenees for the valleys to settle into gentle, civilized slopes, but close enough that you can still see the snow-capped peaks on a clear day. Over rolling hills, fields of wheat and sunflower, vineyards and pasture alternate with groves of trees. You almost cannot look in any direction without seeing the steeple of a half-hidden church or a ruined watchtower, all built in warm, gray-ochre stone. Swap cypress for the plane trees that line the roads and the landscape could be the background of a Florentine painting.

It is the only place I know in France where houses that have seen more than a few decades of history don’t just huddle together shoulder to shoulder in villages but stand watch on the crests of hills. Gascon farmhouses are imposing rectangular stone buildings pierced with two rows of windows, with white or pastel blue wooden shutters and roofs of pink curved tile that slope off at a lazy angle. There are villages too, of course, where slighter but no less inviting houses lean into one another around an arcaded central square.

Roses grow everywhere in the Gers. Pink damask roses curve around doorways, bright red vine roses cling to church walls, and five-petalled wild roses play hide-and-seek in the hedgerows. They’ve made themselves so at home and cover themselves with such shiny green leaves and profusions of blossoms that it seems cruel to ask them to grow anywhere else.

I have been told, although during my days of wandering here I choose not to believe it, that this land was once ravaged by war. Empire-building Romans, conquering Moorish armies, English versus French in the Hundred Years’ War, Protestant versus Catholic during the wars of religion: the ruins of fortified castles and the vestiges of churches, temples and villas are their witnesses, but the calm of the landscape is such that I can picture none of it clearly.

An invasion of sorts is taking place now. Armies with foreign license plates are driving down semi-abandoned dirt roads and staking claim to ruined farmhouses and empty châteaux. Once more the British are here, and this time they’ve neither lances nor swords but plentiful pounds sterling and a love of the perfect countryside. And although one is inclined to distrust them after Aliénor d’Aquitaine and Jeanne d’Arc, their taste in wine and architectural restoration can only be commended. Local farmers are often only too happy to sell and build a new house of cinder blocks and stucco with modern comforts and central heating and leave the drafty old heap of stones to an eccentric foreigner.

I am not rich or brave enough to be that foreigner yet, so I come here on vacation and dream. We have rented an old mill house which spans a branch of the Arros river in the village of Plaisance, towards the southwest corner of the Gers. The mill house was recently restored from a near ruin. The water wheel is long gone, but the current still rushes under the main bedroom and the noise of a small waterfall competes with the chirp of crickets.

It has rained ever since we arrived, and spring showers and thundershowers have been shifting through with just enough clearing in between to tease us into planning and cancelling hikes. Yesterday we did go for a long walk, and in the afternoon a briefly cloudless blue sky gave us a glimpse of the Pyrenees. I am reminded that the climate here is more Atlantic than Mediterranean, and if most villages have streets lined with arcades there must be a good reason.

It can rain, it can hail, but I’ll traipse though the mud with a stupid smile on my face because I am here in my personal land of milk and honey and nothing can make me unhappy for long. I play a game with myself and choose which villages and which farmhouses are on the imaginary short list for where I will move someday, when… not if, but definitely when.

In the meantime, I have four more days.