Whenever I return to France, I am overwhelmed by a rush of both joyful nostalgia and irritation. Living in the states, as we have for many years now, I miss the bread, croissants, supermarket brioche, cheese, yogurt, and real homemade pate. I miss the explosion of flowers in spring, and the coffee my father-in-law makes (used to make). I miss the softness of the air in the Vallée de la Course, in the north where my husband grew up, and the frigid rushing-ness of creek-water under bridges. I miss the smell of my mother-in-law’s laundry detergent, and the seemingly innate sophistication of dress and education of even the most provincial of villagers.
But there are things I cannot stand as well: the used and dirty feeling of public spaces, the near-constant aura of cigarette smoke, the weird modern design elements of almost any construction–from residential floors of antique houses, to public signposts–that pervade even the most charming of small towns. It’s as if the innate beauty of history is too much for Europe, that it needs to be tempered with a bit of modern grunge, just to make it palatable to the residents. We have no such hang-ups in New England, I’ll tell you.
I miss the feeling of omnipresent family we have in the north of France, but I cannot stand the fact that once people arrive they never seem to leave—not our immediate family, with whom I’m pleased to spend days on end, but seemingly-obscure second cousins, and ancient, mumbling neighbors, whose names I cannot quite remember. I miss how clothing styles that seem to change overnight here, but I hate the cheapness of the synthetic fabrics, and the flimsiness of the female footwear.
(My husband once pointed out, as I was wearing hiking boots on the beach in January, that French women don’t wear hiking boots, or any non-fashion, sporty footwear at all.
“But what do they do when it’s wet, and cold, and they’re hiking on the beach?” I asked, put-out.
“They wear their regular shoes,” he hazarded.
I tried to imagine his favorite cousin, who had worn low, pointy-toed white boots in the wet sand, wearing Timberlands, and I had to admit that she would look just as silly in my shoes as I would in hers. To me it seems silly, even irresponsible, to wear thin, city shoes to walk on the beach in 30-degree weather. And it is insulting to my American brand of feminism and practicality that I am deemed unstylish here when wear comfortable shoes. But I also hate that I feel that way: it makes me an ugly American, and I know it. So I bite my tongue, and go about my business, trying my best to make due with ballet flats and boots, or hide my feet. Although I can’t help but say to G, whenever we pack for France, that I feel my footwear to be inadequate.)
This time around all of these feelings are blunted, and also more bitter-sweet: we are not just here for vacation, as we had thought, two days before we left. We are now here to bury G’s father.
I knew, somehow, as soon as I heard the voicemail message from my brother-in-law, that a simple and unexpected tragedy had taken place. I remember calling my husband at work, to tell him to call home, and thinking “heart-attack” with my voice, although I said nothing of the kind. I wrung my hands and did not cry when we finally heard the news.
My daughter has no such preconceptions of this place. She does not remember her grandfather, I am sure. She has seen pictures. She sleeps with the stuffed animal he gave her for Christmas last year, and points him out in pictures, wherein he holds a strange baby she may vaguely understand to be herself. Thank goodness for her, because it is her lack of memory, and her smile, and her unencumbered joy, that will get us through all of this.
For her, this is just another great adventure, similar to the playground, or picking strawberries, or going out to breakfast. Except that, in this adventure, everyone speaks Papa’s language, and there are fewer strawberries, and better grass.