Sunday, August 06, 2017

Quelle mouche l'a piquée

Friday, August 4th

I won’t miss the flies. 

Four or five of them are cruising the living room as I type, landing on my fingers, knees, and the top of my sandalled feet. As Paris empties in July and August, rural flies wait in ambush for urban vacationers with as much as anticipation as the proprietors of seaside souvenir stalls, or so I imagine.
Our family took three weeks of vacation this summer.  The normal duration in France, or precisely enough to make my father in America roll his eyes over FaceTime.  The first week we spent in Ile de Ré, a flat island of salt marshes and sandy beaches halfway down the French Atlantic coast.  There are pine forests and whitewashed villages with hollyhocks lining picturesque lanes, and a healthy population of flies.

I often dream of abandoning our (sub)urban apartment life and moving to the country.  I’d have a stone farmhouse and a vegetable garden, and a patio with a giant table to host the sorts of wine- and food-fuelled joyful gatherings one is supposed to host on a patio in the French countryside in the summer.  There’d be a grapevine winding up a trellis and most likely a small fountain. “But you don’t know what life in the country is like in the winter,” my husband tells me, claiming cold and damp and loneliness.  And anyway, our jobs are in the Paris region, our kids’ beloved school is in our neighborhood, and the logistics of giving it all up to negotiate a full-time work-from-home contract with a slowish internet connection make me readily accept reality.

It isn’t Ile de Ré I dream of anyway — good thing, too, since the house prices are enough to make even my imagination seem too dear.  No, I imagine a stone farmhouse in the southwest of France, at the end of a winding road, nestled between meadows and forests of chestnut, beech and fir with a view of rolling hills in every direction.  We spent a week this year in the Tarn and another in the Aveyron, and I got to try on my dream for size.

Complete with flies.  And horse flies, spiders, wasps, hornets, mosquitoes, giant moths, and crickets, to cite merely the critters who made it inside.  My 6-year-old daughter started begging us to accompany her to the bathroom in our vacation rental for fear of the “bêtes” she might encounter.  I’ve been waking up lazily at eight-thirty or nine to chinks of light coming through the shutters and flies landing repeatedly on my shoulders and back.

“Why don’t the French believe in window screens?” I asked my husband.  “After all, other modern technology has made it out here to the country; you’ve got washing machines and iPhones.”  Occasionally butcher shops or bakeries will have a swinging curtain of velvet snakes in front of the door presumably to confound insects, or a humming blue-light insect trap in the back.  But houses never seem to have anything to keep the outside world outside, except flyswatters, which are standard equipment.  In the last rental I failed to find them at first, and sent my husband to the grocery store with instructions to purchase some.  “Two-for-one!” he announced proudly when he came back, but the Made in China plastic started disintegrating after a few swipes.  I’m pretty sure the flies laughed.  Back at the store today, our last full day on vacation, I noticed a different model.  “Made in the Aveyron, in Brusque!” Brusque is the village closest to where we are staying, and despite an gravel quarry, a café, and a grocery store, it hardly seems prosperous enough for such an operation. Did I somehow miss a flyswatter factory amongst the shuttered garages and disaffected furniture workshops?

“…bought one of those, she told me it is merde, starts falling apart as soon as you use it.” I overheard the two guys behind us in the checkout line talking and gesturing toward the Aveyronnais flyswatter display. 

“Yes, but you’ve got to support local businesses, right?”

“When I have my house in the country, I’ll have screens,” I explained to my husband when we were back in the car.  “I’ll make them myself,” I clarified when he sounded doubtful, since a hypothetical improbable country house must be protected from insects in a credible fashion.  “Just like the ones I made back in Levallois,” remembering the ersatz screens made with nylon netting and adhesive velcro that we briefly installed in our old apartment.

“You mean the ones that I made?” He corrected.

“Yes, to my specifications.” 

We both agreed that our current apartment, though lacking a fountain, a patio, a vegetable garden, a sweeping view and a grapevine, at least is remarkably free of mosquitoes.  

“I’m ready to go home,” I had declared earlier, almost believing myself.  We leave tomorrow, so starting tomorrow night I will sleep in my own bed, bathe in my own bathroom, and live once again without quite so many insects. Maybe that’s the true purpose of the flies of July and August: to convince us city-dwellers that heading back isn’t all that bad after all.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

New World/Old World

I can't help but wonder if the timing was off to re-brand themselves les Républicains.  But that's a singularly American way to look at things: beyond the similar spelling and pronunciation, the center-right French party shares little with the party of Lincoln, never mind the party of Trump.  Still, after five years of the hapless presidency of the Socialist François Hollande, they were supposed to easily win the presidential contest in May, but that was before their candidate François Fillon was accused of arranging a fraudulent work contract for his wife while he was a member of the National Assembly.  The practice is apparently not uncommon -- just French politics as usual, I've been told -- but Fillon had presented himself as a common-sense, fiscally and socially conservative candidate who wanted to cut hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs.  His wife, legitimately employed or not, was reportedly paid unemployment at the end of her contract.  Though he vows to continue his campaign, Fillon's polls have plummeted since the news broke, and we're left anxiously wondering who of the remaining candidates might effectively fight the far-right Marine Le Pen.

The mainstream French political landscape used to be binary, the center-left Socialists versus the center-right Gaullists.  The Communists had considerable clout after WWII but never enough to challenge the presidency of the 5th Republic, which was established in 1958.  The then-devised two-round presidential election, in which only the two candidates with the strongest showing continue to the second round, was put in place to keep extreme parties in check. But now French politics appear to be carved into rough quarters, the most solid one belonging to the far right National Front party whose extreme platform would cut immigration and take France out of the Euro Zone.  Mainstream right and left fight to divide the middle fifty percent, and a heterogeneous far left roughly claims the rest.  This is why although Marine Le Pen is the current frontrunner in the election, many doubt her chances of winning: in the second round, it is assumed more will be mobilized to vote against her than for her. 

This schema of fourths was described today on L'Esprit public, a political show on the national radio station France Culture.  I've been listening to France Culture on my commute somewhat obsessively since the American election.  When the news is catastrophic, I find it helps to hear intelligent people describe it calmly even if nothing they have to say is particularly reassuring.  I tuned in in the middle of the day on Sunday and discovered L'Esprit public, which not only took the same sane and measured tone, but managed to sound to me exactly like Meet the Press or the PBS News Hour, shows which were regular background noise in my childhood living room.  Back then, I assumed the world was run by rational adults who would do their best not to destroy it. I was too young to have practiced duck-and-cover drills in elementary school, and the Berlin Wall fell when I was middle school. I fell into an auditory cocoon of comforting nostalgia.

The commentators segued from French politics to the first month of the Trump administration, which was somewhat rattling despite the PBS-like voices.  As the Economist pointed out, much of Trump's talk is nothing new to Europeans.  But the America they suddenly have to engage with is utterly new.  It was noted that the checks and balances in the United States were beginning to function, both formally though the judiciary and popularly in the street.  One commentator rushed to say something close to "maybe it will all be okay" when another interrupted to anxiously wonder about America's new chaotic diplomatic policies. 

I'm trying to stay calm, inform myself enough (but not so much that I'm obsessing) from the right sources, and recognize the limits of my control over this suddenly crazy world.  Two months until the French election and counting.  

Wednesday, January 04, 2017


On an afternoon in early September I decided to park the car in the garage and pick up the kids on foot.  The school is only a ten minute walk from our apartment, but most days I take the easy option of swinging by in my car on my way home which saves me some time and some kid-herding.  But on this particular day the late summer sun was shining and I decided a block or two under the neat rows of linden trees would do me good. Mademoiselle had just started CP, the French equivalent of first grade and thus her first year in primary school.  Le Petit had just started CM1, the equivalent of fourth grade.  I suddenly had two big kids.  If I could make time slow down for a walk home from school, I'd take it.  

Once the car was in the garage, I left the building and started down the sidewalk, walking briskly since I was slightly late, swimming upstream while most of the other folks were heading back home.  I crossed a father and his three kids, neighbors in our building, and said hello.  I greeted another kids and his mother.  I nodded and smiled at another neighbor.  And just before I crossed the street, I saw one of Le Petit's friends, walking home on his own.  

When I got to the school, I realised I'd never before lived anywhere when I could walk down the street and recognise and be recognised by so many people.  Even back in the US, my life was from house to car to office, and the neighbors I knew by name could be counted on one hand. When I lived in the dense suburbs just outside of Paris, I hid in the anonymity of urban life and rarely exchanged more than a brief "Bonjour" with anyone.  Now in Versailles I felt like I belonged, which both startled and pleased me. 

For this I can probably thank Mademoiselle and Le Petit, who seem to know all the kids who go to their elementary school and a good number of their parents, and who fill me in when I'm clueless.  I'm an introvert, and I doubt I would've gotten here on my own.  But I also marvel that I've finally found a village for myself, in the suburbs of a city in another country on the other side of the world.