Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Le Village Préféré des Français

Tonight France 2 is holding the most hotly contested competition since Cannes: the election of the "favorite village of the French" (crappy translation mine). I'm in search of some mindless entertainment at the moment, so I'm sitting on the couch watching Stéphane Bern, the perennial host of feel-good French television, introduce the 22 villages.  There's one from each region and, unjustly but unsurprisingly, the one from the Paris region came in last: La Roche-Guyon, where we've often hiked along the chalk cliffs that dominate the Seine.

I love this kind of thing.  French television celebrating the French and their quirks; cows and castles, wild mushrooms and kouign aman, ramparts and low-budget medieval battle reenactments.  First a fast-paced flyover of the village to admire the chateau, gardens, and tastefully restored houses.  Then we follow a fortunate resident as they enter a local restaurant and salute the owner (with a double cheek-kiss, of course) and explain over a glass of wine or a regional dish how either their family has lived in the village for five generations or how they personally moved there after stumbling across it and falling in love: le coup de coeur.  The segment concludes with a barbecue on the town square.  

Worth paying taxes for public service television in my book.  Two of my personal favorite villages happened to be nominated this year, Conques in the Aveyron and Eguisheim in Alsace. Eguisheim won, the mayor unveiled a brass plaque and accepted a commemorative t-shirt, surrounded by the village's inhabitants dressed in traditional costumes and bearing platefuls of pretzels.  What's not to love?  And they claim there's nothing on French television. 

Portrait of the Author as a Young Girl

This weekend we cleaned out the basement storage unit. Stated like that it sounds like a wholly unromantic task, so I'll start by using the French name: cave.  No, not "cave" -- we found no bats or stalactites, although I wouldn't have been entirely surprised -- but cave, with a short 'a'.  Sounds more intriguing already.

My husband got the unenviable task of shifting out boxes by himself while I stayed upstairs with the kids.  He found boxes of VHS cassettes, ancient camping equipment, pieces of broken IKEA furniture. Much of it was directly relegated to the basement dumpster as it was unearthed, but some things needed to be sorted out so my husband dragged a dozen dusty boxes into our living room at the end of the afternoon on Saturday.  The kids and I tore into them, and as I identified items to ditch or to donate, they tried on my old hiking boots and fenced with the beaters from a forgotten Sunbeam mixer.

I was baffled that we could have held onto so much crap.  When we left Boston, did we really need to take with us dozens of New England hiking guidebooks?  Or my Thanksgiving turkey roasting pan which is too big to fit into a French stove?  And how did I ever leave the house with that hideous puffy parka? I resolved that this move would be the opportunity to clear things out without pity.

As my husband was putting the kids to bed Saturday night, I sorted through a big box of papers from his graduate school days in Connecticut.  I happened across a stack of draft love letters written to a girl who once broke his heart.  I'd come across the letters before but had never read them, first out of jealousy and later out of discretion, but this time I guiltily and somewhat gleefully stretched out on the couch and began to page through them.  When my husband emerged from the kids' room I started to make fun of him about them, too, and he took the pile our of my hands and read them himself, shaking his head.

He's keeping them, of course.  Or I hope he is, at least.

My turn to be embarrassed was not long in coming, for on Sunday afternoon I discovered two spiral-bound notebooks containing two of my short-lived stints at journaling.  One was written in August of 1994, the summer before I crossed the country to go to college.  The other was written in 2002, the year before I moved to France.

I cringed as I read them, of course.  I opened them both, read a page or two, and closed them without reading the rest.  I then tossed them briefly into the recycling. I'd written them knowing I would cringe decades later and I almost state as much: This is my shortsightedness, I seem to be saying to myself; this is my frivolous self-absorption; these are the roadblocks I can't get past now and I know it well.  I was clueless but also somehow prescient, and the writing wasn't terrible despite an overfondness for ellipses: I fished the notebooks out of the bin and read on.

In 1994 I was terrified.  I was leaving the boyfriend I loved, the first one who had ever counted for anything, and moving back east.  It was my first experience of closing my eyes and jumping.  Although the journal ends before this, reading it I remembered how at the end of that month I'd sat with my parents in a hotel room off of I-90 in Western Massachusetts and fallen apart crying.  A day later -- I just found the photo tonight to prove it -- I stood with my dad, lonely but smiling, on the campus green.

I've done it before, see, you wouldn't think I'd be so scared now...

In 2002, I had been married for a year and was still in the intoxicating phase of new love when I would not have been able to face my husband's old love letters.  I hated my job, and had fallen hard from straight-A promise in college into a mediocre career no one seemed to care about, least of all me.  I felt ugly: I wrote about my zits.  I compared myself harshly to people I judged pretty and stylish.  Then I recorded how I felt better after I went to yoga class or for a run; that my husband made me feel sexy; how I'd promised to treat myself more kindly and how sometimes I succeeded.

The first thing I noticed was how much happier I am now, how much more bien dans ma peau, comfortable in my own skin, as the French say.  My thirties are much better than my twenties despite all I was led to expect and it was nice to be reminded of that.

I decided to keep the notebooks.  First I thought that they'd be an interesting document for my kids someday, but that thought made me cringe particularly, so I abandoned it.  (Funny, I had no problem imagining the kids having a good laugh and maybe gaining insight into despair and hope from my husband's lovelorn missives, but anyway.) Then I thought that this personal archaeological dig was useful... for me.  Hidden in the strata between the boxes of Le Petit's baby clothes and my prom dress were traces of a me that I'd forgotten about.

I've concluded that it is important to leave a couple cubic meters for this kind of ad-hoc archive.  We tossed the notebooks into a big box along with a stack of cardboard bar coasters, a program from The Phantom of the Opera, three folders of my papers and exams from college, my husband's signal processing papers, and the tickets and receipts from our honeymoon in Spain.  I'm saving, preciously, a worn-out old leather jacket my dad "loaned" me in high school and a t-shirt from a long-defunct favorite coffee shop in Seattle.  My husband has printouts of the first emails he ever sent and we even have saved -- yes, yes -- a box or two of unreadable 3.5 inch floppy disks.  Space well spent, I say.

But as much as it was a difficult decision, we just resolved to toss the VHS.