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Pacing Life

June 9, 2010

One of the biggest adjustments Americans have to make when living in France is that of pacing. Even after nine months here, we must remind ourselves that almost everything will be closed from noon until around 2 or later and all day on Sunday. We work furiously on the four days of the week when the children are in school (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday) from 9:20-5:00 p.m., and we expect that a special meal like the annual hunter’s luncheon (wild boar and four or five other courses) in the village will last at least three or four hours (not counting the two-hour nap one needs to recover from the meal). To accomplish even the simplest tasks (closing a bank account; getting school-bus passes for the children; the H1N1 vaccination), we have learned to schedule in delays. Offices and businesses are often closed with no explanation, and several of the many holidays on the French calendar “float,” meaning that the actual date is often not scheduled until the last minute. The relationship to time is simply different in French culture. And, after nearly a year, I have become convinced that the French have got it right. It is healthy and sane to slow down, to change priorities; it is, quite simply, more civilized.

Eating is, of course, the prime example. Almost everything in France (except restaurants) really does close down from noon until 2 for a good long lunch. And two hours is really not so long at all for most people. The shortest lunch “out” I had in France was when I visited the local college (the school for kids aged 11 to 14, equivalent to a U.S. middle school). The teachers (and students) only had about an hour to eat, but even there, not a single person had a piece of paper, book or pen at the table. Lunch required conversation, relaxation, a time separated from work and studies. These were not “working lunches”; these were social opportunities. On the day of a recent snowstorm (unprecedented) in May, our friends went to the village of St. Andre to the very popular Bistro de Pays for lunch. As they arrived and sat, the power went out, as all over the region the heavy snow weighed down fragile branches already in full leaf. The restaurant staff scurry around in candlelight, cooking on gas, serving a full house of diners, when Voila! a half-dozen workmen from the EDF (Electricité de France) appear in the entry. All heads turn. And the EDF workmen sit down at a table and order their wine and lunches, which will last until 2, despite the urgent need for their services outdoors. Only the foreigners found this surprising, of course. For the French it makes perfect sense: lunch—and life—before work!

In 2000, the French passed legislation mandating a 35-hour work week. The goal then was to lower unemployment, and, with most people working four days instead of five, reduced commuter traffic and office heat and electricity use have also benefited the environment. Studies in years following the shift showed no significant reduction in productivity despite the reduction in work hours. In a 2008 study, the Romney Institute of Management at Brigham Young University found that a four-day work-week (and this was a study of a 40-hour work-week/four 10-hour days) increased job satisfaction and productivity. The French can begin collecting retirement benefits at age 60, and virtually everyone retires before age 65, many as early as 50. In the United States, 5% of people over 70 are still employed. I expect that I’ll be one of those people who can’t afford to retire; most of my generation in the U.S. understands now that Social Security will run out before we’re eligible. And what about vacation time? Every French worker, from the minute he or she starts the job, is guaranteed at least five weeks of paid vacation a year. In the U.S., we consider ourselves lucky to get two weeks off in a year, and it’s well-documented that many U.S. workers don’t even use all of their allotted vacation time, most because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs or simply fall farther behind. In an average year an American will work 1777 hours and a Frenchman will work 1346 (OECD in Figures, 2004, OECD, Paris). What would you do with another 400 or so hours (that’s about sixteen 24-hour days, a month of waking hours!) in a year? For the French, the answer is easy. Spend time in leisure activities. Spend time with family and friends. Spend time eating, reading, and socializing.

The fact is that it is simply healthier to slow down. France has one of the longest life span expectancies: currently 80.98 years, 9th highest in the world. Life expectancy in the US is now 78.11 years; 50th in the world (CIA World Factbook 2009). No one has yet satisfactorily explained the so-called “French paradox,” which is the fact that the French have one of the lowest rates of chronic heart disease in the world despite a diet high in cholesterol, fat, carbohydrates, salt, and alcohol, and more smokers than in many countries. I’d suggest that it might have something to do with the pace of life. A slow meal is a better meal. A life with more time for living and less time working is a better life. After almost a year in France, a life that emphasizes the joy of living (joie de vivre) rather than making more money or having more things than the next person seems to me a key to a longer, healthier and happier life.

As we prepare to return to the U.S., Susan (my partner) has suggested that I make a sign for my office door: “I’ve been to France on sabbatical; this office will be closed from noon until 2 every day!”

It won’t work, of course. American culture is not French culture. If it is only one college professor refusing to work during a long lunch, no one will accept it. Students will bang on my door. Colleagues will schedule lunch meetings. I will be seen as a “slacker.” In France, the whole country (except restaurants, which are only open for lunch) shuts down for all of Sunday and two hours at every lunchtime. Paris closes for all of August. You learn to accept it because everyone else does. There’s no fighting it. And it doesn’t take long to learn to love it. A leisurely meal of three courses with wine and a coffee afterwards is just about right to move into the long afternoon and evening shift. Remember, the French usually work later, so that long lunch makes sense. The French are not lazy; they’re just relaxed. They are simply placing the emphasis where it belongs: living before working.

I know I have been very lucky to have this year off from teaching and university responsibilities. I will admit that the promise of occasional sabbaticals was one of the reasons a position as a professor appealed to me. A writer needs time to write—a reality that is hard to justify on a grant proposal to academic-type folks. Yes, I do research, and this year in France has been very productive in that way too, but it’s mostly the time to write, to sit at a desk and type out the words in my head (which is work, I might add, a bit defensively), that I needed. I’ve worked hard this year. I’ve finished a novel and a collection of short stories, and I’ve started another novel and this collection of personal essays on the blog. A sabbatical is no more a “vacation” than summers off from teaching, at least not for me; as they say, a writer writes. And teaching time (with comments for sixty or a hundred essays, stories, journal, etc. a week, plus consulting with students) is not very conducive to writing time, especially if one actually wants some living time of the French version (family, friends, leisure activities) as well. I know I’m lucky to have been able to be away from interruptions and responsibilities to focus on my writing work. And it’s not that I dislike my work; indeed, I love both teaching and writing. But the reason I love both is that they connect me to other people, and how much better it is to make those human contacts outside of the work context. The unexpected benefit of this year abroad, I now see, is that I have also learned to understand work in another way. I understand that work—including both the writing work and the teaching and university work—is secondary to the rest of living. What I wish, as I return to the U.S., is that I could change my culture, that I could bring home a new attitude for my compatriots: we should all learn to place living rather than working at the top of our lists of priorities.

Sacrifices have to be made, of course, when a culture or one person makes joie de vivre more important than work. In France, customer service is generally lousy, especially when you want something at 11:45 in the morning. Lunch, after all, is near. No need to start a transaction you won’t have time to finish. The other day we were hustled out of the supermarket at noon on a Wednesday, and no one cared how much we had planned to spend. In the caisse (line) at the supermarket, everyone is greeted by and greets the cashier, often chatting and even—if known to each other—exchanging les bises and gossip. There are few “express” lanes and it’s rare that another register will be opened up if lines are long. The French are accustomed to waiting. Each customer takes his or her time, fumbling with money or writing out a check in careful script, and bagging his or her own groceries. No one complains or gets huffy. The social relationship supersedes the financial one. No one expects to meet a deadline or buy gas or get a liter of milk on a Sunday; Sunday is family time, leisure time, time off for life. On the other hand, if an American worker decides to close her office for an hour or two at lunchtime, well, she must not be very serious about her work. If he takes a vacation with his family instead of working to meet the deadline, he must not much want to get ahead. Do we really need to be able to buy food (or anything else) 24/7 (a term that I’m not sure even exists in France)? Is it really more important to accomplish work tasks during lunch than to have a real discussion with other humans?

In France, we learned early on, it’s not polite to even ask another person what they do for a living! In America, it’s the almost always the first question we ask in a social situation. Here, work is simply not to be mixed with real living. Truly, what does it say about us that our economic status or job title is assumed to be the most important identifier of our person? It’s a subtle but huge difference in cultures. Not being able to say what it is that you do for a living, or to ask the other person what they do, changes the dynamics of any conversation and any new relationship. It forces you to connect on other—non-economic—terms.

As I think about returning to the U.S., I’m trying to think about ways to keep this year’s lessons alive in my life. I’m not sure it is possible to make so huge a shift to a slower pace within the American context, but I aim to try in my own little way. I think my mental and physical health, and the relationships I’ve grown with my family this year, are worth it. I’d also like to think that by avoiding shopping on Sundays, for instance, to devote more time to social and family activities, we’ll make a small step toward freeing up more time for the families of others—all those store clerks and cashiers—in our culture. By taking time to simply say hello in the check-out line, perhaps we’ll change the emphasis in the transaction from economic to interpersonal. And maybe by taking a little time out to eat slowly and converse—and refusing to take our work home—we’ll all live a little longer and happier.

One of our American friends who now lives in France told us about her return to Nice—a big city, not “slow” at all, except in the French way—after a month of visiting family and friends back in the States. “I found myself rushing down the sidewalk, passing everyone as fast as I could,” she said, “even though I was just going to the market, nowhere very important.” She realized then just how fast American life makes us all. We hurry everywhere. We hurry to work, to home, to the kids’ soccer games, to the store, to school, to the next thing and the next thing, packing in as much as we can. I guess what I’ve discovered here in France is not very much is as urgent than it seems in the U.S. and that the really important parts of life—families, friends, other humans—need to take priority over the economic parts of life. We’ve lived on nearly nothing this year (a sabbatical means partial salary, and only one income for us), but we’ve lived very well indeed. We’ve certainly lived healthier and happier. For me, a pace-of-life adjustment means a slower pace. We’ll get to the grocery store tomorrow. Work that needs doing will get done, but not at the expense of my health and relationships. Life—all eighty years, more-or-less—need living, and that means living with joy.

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Daily Bread

May 18, 2010

When I was a child, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer, Christ’s response to his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. The only request for a tangible thing in the entire prayer is “give us this day our daily bread.” Not for tomorrow, just for today, because we must remember to let the future take care of itself. We must eat today. And it’s not a six-course dinner we need, or even a full meal or meat or vegetables. Just bread. Just for today. Simple, plain, everything one really needs.
The French understand the centrality of bread to life. Remember that one of the causes of the French revolution was rising bread prices. When Marie Antionette cavalierly said, “Let them eat cake,” she not only dismissed the plight of the common people, she forgot that here, bread is an essential. Bread is life. According to de l’Institut national de la boulangerie-pâtisserie, in 2004, there were more than 34,000 artisan boulangers in France, accounting for more than 70% of bread production in the country. A “boulanger” (baker) and “boulangerie” (bakery) must adhere to strict regulations, including the choosing of the raw materials, kneading the paste, controlling the fermentation, and cooking the bread in its place of sale. None of the products used or produced may ever be frozen. This is by law, the “décret pain,” or “bread decree” of 1993. Bread is serious business here.

Bread in France is also ubiquitous and simple and delicious. Even when everything is closed for one or another of the many holidays, you can almost always find a boulangerie open for an hour or two with loaves still warm from the ovens. At any time of almost any day, we pass Frenchmen on the street with a loaf or two—no bag or wrapping—tucked under their arms. Most buy it daily. Even the shops in the aires (rest-areas) on the expressways sell baguettes, and I’ve often seen travelers grab a loaf and a package of ham to dine at a picnic table outside. Rip the baguette open, stuff in the ham, eat. Absolute satisfaction. Indeed, the bread is often a meal in itself. The truth is that a good bread really is all you need.

In Saint Araille, Monseiur Marty Chantal, boulanger, arrives at about noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday—not daily—but to my door, which is even better. We can hear the beeping of his little white delivery van across the hills, the dogs barking hysterically as he starts up the driveway to the château. He came during the snow-storms; he brings special cakes on holidays; he has chocolate croissants to lure the children clamoring down the stairs on cold mornings. If we’re not home or don’t happen to come when he beeps, he leaves the bread, au natural, tucked into the front door handle, in a bag only if it happens to be raining. If we’re in the mood for something special, he has a variety of extra treats in his packed van, baked fresh by his own hand during the night. When we arrived in October, we placed a standing order with M. Chantal for two baguettes (literally, “sticks”) every delivery day, and we often supplemented by baking in the bread machine in the tower apartment or stopping at the boulangerie on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. In mid-winter, we changed our order from baguettes to pain aux céréales (cereal bread), which is so good that we often lurk around at the window and delay lunchtime, waiting for the sound of M. Chantal’s horn. I’ve been known to eat a third of a loaf for my lunch.

M. Chantal himself has retired during our year here, turning deliveries at least over to his daughter, Mademoiselle Chantal, a lovely smiling young woman in her twenties. In one of our early chats with M. Chantal, we learned that he hoped to travel to the United States in retirement—to see the Rocky Mountains, he said—and we’ve been wondering if he’s on his way to Colorado now. This, as we gaze at the Pyrénées white-caps an hour to the south. Like these mountains, bread, too, has its cousins across the sea. And we discover that this desire—to go, to see, to adventure in the world where the unfamiliar becomes familiar—is a shared desire. A simple bread, different and sometimes better.

In the nearby villages, the bread baking is often an event, a community gathering with lines out the doors of the boulangeries. When we visit La Couvertoirade, a beautifully preserved bastide village in a remote corner of the Aveyron, we see the communal ovens such as once existed in every town. In the Middle Ages, citizens paid a tax for which everyone gained the right to bake their daily loaves. As we wait with the others for Sunday loaves to emerge from the heat, the community of the event—the sharing and visiting of the people—seems as important as the sustenance of the bread itself. Is not that too a kind of daily bread?

As a treat, I buy “American” bread for James and Isabelle at the Intermarché supermarket. The brand is “Sam’s,” but, despite the name, it’s actually French cereal bread baked in the regulation rectangle and pre-sliced. True “American bread” tastes like paste compared to this bread, rich and nutty and fresh. With a little Nutella and fresh kiwi jam from the abbey, this sandwich makes more than a complete meal. Even plain, Sam’s surpasses Uncle Sam’s. Why is this bread so much better?

I read the label. Seven kinds of farine (flour), plus fiber, water, grains, and some of the usual suspects, including ascorbic acid, diglycerides, and sirop de glutcose-fructose. In my research, however, I find these differences. Bread flour in France is rarely bleached. Flour used in the U.S. has a higher gluten level. Potassium bromate, which U.S. bakers use to strengthen bread, is banned in the European Union. French bread is legally controlled and may not contain anything but flour, water, yeast and salt. Traditionally, it should be baked on a hearth. It doesn’t keep for more than a day. Sam’s, I suspect, is not cooked on a hearth, certainly not in an official boulangerie, so maybe it is the flour or the water that make it so good. I used to know a very old New York bagel shop owner who swore that New York bagels get their wonderful flavor from New York City water. “You can’t get New York bagels anywhere but New York!” he’d shout. Maybe you can’t get French bread anywhere but France because of the wheat grown here on the hillsides all around us in the Haute Garonne. Maybe it’s the soil or the air. Maybe it’s just that Frenchmen have appreciated bread for a very long time.

At the Grottes de Gargas, we see hundreds of images of hands printed on the walls from the Stone Age, and it comes as no surprise to learn that these same hands might have worked the first breads. Neolithic peoples baked bread in this same part of the world before 10,000 BC. Bread—the stuff of life, the symbol of our only real necessity this day—was born here, raised on the very yeasts in the air, and has been perfected and become essential to everyday life over the 12,000 years since. Every culture has a bread that is born of its own history and land, and the bread in a contemporary culture reflects not only that history, but some of the modern values of that culture.

When I think about the relationship of Americans to bread, what seems different is that we have forgotten to appreciate bread. We have neglected the simplicity of this one essential need. We want more and more and more. We live in excess, like the bread shelf at the Safeway supermarket. We do not have time to stop for daily bread, much less bake it ourselves. Can you imagine Americans lined up and waiting for a loaf of bread fresh from the oven? We do not want to wait for our bread to be baked, but we expect our bread to wait—preserved with whatever additives are available—for us. We have valued the new, the next thing, that which might make life more efficient, faster, or better, and in our rush and cry and looking always so far ahead, we have lost something very simple and essential to a healthy life. This day, this bread.

It is not that the French are a simple people—far from it. This a land that values complexity, theory, thought and philosophy. Consider Sartre, Montagne, Irigaray and de Beauvoir. Nor is the difference that the French are not busy, hurrying from home to work and school just as contemporary Americans do. The difference, it seems to me, is one of priorities. And bread is a good example of this.

Daily bread is a priority in my life here in Saint Araille. Fresh, simple, a reminder of the only thing a human really needs. It provides a place of community and of intercultural exchange. Bread is a creation of earth and air and fire and water, worked by human hands, as straightforward and innovative as the stone wheel on a log axle. We make bread from the materials at hand, the materials of this Earth. We might pray for this one essential sustenance, but for what do we truly ask? To be able to create sustenance from the materials at hand, the things of the earth. To share with a community of people. To value this day, fresh and warm and simple. All we really need. The breadboard on our table in the tower here in France is carved with these words by which to live: Donnez-nous ce jour notre pain quotidian. This day. This bread. Enough.

Réveillon

December 31, 2009

This was in my email inbox this morning, 31 December 2009:

U.S. EMBASSY PARIS, FRANCE

NEW YEAR’S EVE CELEBRATIONS

This Warden Message alerts U.S. citizens to the latest information on New Year’s Eve celebrations in Paris and other urban centers in France.

Outdoor New Year’s Eve celebrations in Paris and other urban centers in France can be boisterous.  Last year, U.S. citizens reported that glass bottles were hurled, extensive public drinking and drunkenness occurred, and sporadic fighting broke out in Paris around the Champs Élyéees, the Champ de Mars, and Trocadero.  Parked cars being set ablaze is also a fairly common feature of revelry in France, occurring even in upscale neighborhoods.

Violent and boisterous behavior can be expected in spite of increased police and gendarme forces.  U.S. citizens who venture out on New Year’s Eve should be aware of the potential dangers mentioned above and are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.

Note that driving and parking restrictions will be in effect in the above-mentioned areas as early as 21h30.

United States Embassy, American Citizen Services Unit, 4, avenue Gabriel, 75382 Paris Cedex 08, France

Réveillon is actually the name of the all-night meal the French traditionally have to celebrate the New Year’s (or Christmas) Eve, usually with family and friends in private homes. In larger cities like Paris, apparently, it also reverts to its root in the word “revel,” which means a noisy celebration, or to party, get drunk, raise the roof, and paint the town red. Here in the rural part of the south of France, I suspect there will be less car-burning and more feasting involved in the revelry. I’ve heard that there are, indeed, traditional torch-led grape-picking excursions into the vineyards at midnight (accompanied by the drinking of hot mulled wine, of course). A couple of villages over from Saint Araille there will be a public réveillon tonight, but we—with small children and a limited budget—will stay in (safe from any car-burning) and have our own little feast of pâté, brie, baguettes, fresh fruit and salad from the garden. We hope the skies will remain clear for the full moon lunar eclipse at 8:15 p.m. Maybe we’ll allow the kids to stay up (if they can) for the line-up of family movies on BBC1, light a few sparklers and watch for fireworks (or torch-led grape harvesters) from the tower balcony at midnight.

I think it is simply human to mark time. The cyclical progression of the seasons, the march of the constellations across the sky, the daily movement of light and dark, the birth, youth, adulthood, and death we witness in our own bodies and in the lives of others: sometimes we need to mark the ending of a cycle and the beginning of something new. This might be at the turning of a New Year on the Gregorian calendar, the first day of a new week (based on the seven days of creation in the book of Genesis), the night of the new moon, the solstice, the date of a person’s birth or death, the sunrise or sunset, or some completely random or personal return. Some folks say that every moment is a new beginning—the cliché of opportunity to start again at any time. We all begin again, again and again. Why?

For me, it is the opportunity and optimism of newness. Something within me needs to be perceived or conceptualized (whether true or not) as open and possible. A chance for rebirth, reinvention. A new life, bursting from the egg of possibility.

And birth, certainly, is always reason for celebration. If that means you need to burn a car, well, I suppose if it’s your own car and you can do it safely, by all means, go ahead and burn a car to mark your new beginning. Leave those scorched hulks to the junkyard. Walk and breath the air in this new year. Revel in it.

Hindu calendar

Joyeux Noël

December 25, 2009

Our holidays began with about three inches of snow last Friday morning, resulting in cancelation of the last day of school before vacation… a child’s dream come true! We attempted sledding since we’re on top of a big hill, but, alas, not enough of the white stuff, which melted before midday anyway. We were disappointed that the children’s school holiday performance was also canceled, but we baked sugar cookies for the Loto benefit (Bingo) on Saturday night. Susan dropped them off to the teachers, who were in the back room cooking crepes to sell at intermission. She couldn’t stay, but they wished us all well for the holidays. “Joyeux Noël!”

On Sunday afternoon, we drove to Rieux-Volvestre, about 20 minutes east, singing Christmas carols in French in the car, to attend a free concert on a restored 17th century organ in the Cathedral Saint Marie. Some Bach, the Ave Maria, traditional Christmas songs, and selections from Occitan were on the program. We kept the kids still by plying them with sweets. Everyone in the small crowd—families with teenagers, grandparents with a toddler, a group of elderly women who sang along quietly, farmers with mud on their boots—sat happily in their coats and scarves the whole two hours. A clarinetist accompanied the organist for a few numbers, a wonderful mezzo soprano sang, and for the traditional Occitan songs, a man with a traditional instrument called a cornemuse, much like a bagpipe, played along. At the end of the standing ovation, the whole group joined in on an encore, which happened to be the same Christmas carols we had just learned in French in the car. At 4:30 on that clear, cool Sunday afternoon, we spilled out into the narrow streets—cobblestones, waddle and daub medieval houses close in—and wandered toward the center for the Marché Noël: donkey rides, a bounce house, handmade hats and soaps and Armagnac for sale in the covered market. Père Noël in his red velvet suit distributed sweets from a horse-drawn wagon, shouting it out: “Joyeux Noël!”

During the week we finished up shopping, got the kids’ second H1N1 vaccines, played soccer with the dogs, and made more ornaments for our little tree in the tower. On Christmas Eve the weather turned warm and gorgeous—around 60 F and clear. I went for my walk at about 3, and on my way home nearly everyone who passed was dressed up for the holiday evening out. A neighbor slowed and waved, rolling down his window to wish me, “Joyeux Noël!”

We too showered and dressed in our finery, got in the car and drove to Toulouse, stopping briefly at the supermarket to buy Susan black stockings. A supermarket on Christmas Eve is the same in France as in the states, save for the heaps of oysters in baskets in the aisles. And I’ve never seen such a mob of people buying black stockings at once! The check-out clerk smiled as I left: “Au revoir! Joyeux Noël!”

We had decided to splurge and attend the ballet in Toulouse–a first for James and Izzy–and cheap by American standards, €50 for our family of four. We arrived early enough to eat ham sandwiches in a café across the street, glasses of wine for us and lait chaud (big cups of warm steamed milk with sugar) for the kids. We chatted with the owners and other patrons, who admired Izzy, la Princesse in her crown and fancy dress, and James in his red bow tie who stole the crown for his moment. “Au revoir, Joyeux Noël!” we all said as we left.

The ballet was perfect—five short 19th century pieces, lots of tutus and satin, a fine troupe and good orchestra in the beautifully renovated Halle des Grains. At five minutes before the show was to start, the ushers appeared up in the cheap seats, got us all up and re-seated everyone in the empty seats down below. We ended up in the fifth row. The lights went down. The music came up. The dancers thumped onstage. James and Izzy sat forward in their seats, eyes wide, mouths open. I watched them watching the magic of their first ballet. On the far side, Susan too was watching the kids, her eyes shining. James turned to her and said, “I love this!” Izzy turned to me and whispered, “Mom, thank you!” Later, when she and Susan went to the restroom they met the prima ballerina–changed into jeans but still wearing her tiara, just like Izzy, in the hall. “Joyeux Noël!”

On our way out of the city, streets wet and shining, reflecting the blue strings of lights over the streets and the green and red-lit bridges over the River Garonne, we passed a phalanx of about fifty gendarmes around the Cathedral Saint Etienne, preparing for the mobs sure to appear in the next hour for the midnight mass. We drove home to the château through the countryside, farm houses and villages winking with holiday lights, little churches everywhere lit up for the traditional services. We would have gone, but the children were already asleep in the back seat. We arrived home just after 11. Izzy woke up enough to put out the cookies and milk for Santa, who brought scooters to coast down the driveway, and remote-control cars to torment the dogs, and kites to fly on the hill of Latour des Feuillants.

And another gorgeous day in the village.

James and Izzy Dressed Up for Christmas Eve at the Ballet

Joyeux Noël!

Relics

December 16, 2009

In Saint Sernin in Toulouse are hundreds of Christian relics, including what is said to be a thorn from Christ’s crown at the crucifixion, the skull of Saint Edmund, and a fragment of Saint Jeanne of Toulouse’s pelvic bone. Henry James describes being shown the head of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Saint Sernin’s crypt (Chapter 21 of A Little Tour in France), and in Saint Bertrand de Commiges, the body of Saint Bertrand is contained in a walk-through reliquary the size of a small house, illustrated with events from his life and death. The Monastery of Cluny houses both a finger of Saint Stephan and a tooth from Saint John. For the pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostella, visiting these churches and viewing the relics housed there was a chance to be closer to God and the saints, a brush with miracles and the divine which might just, with a little luck, rub off. The little casks or caskets (or other holders) in which these holy items are stored are gorgeous too, gold and velvet, carved ivory, marble, and these reliquaries are often all there is to see, the sacred bits locked within. As we visit church after church around southern France, I think a lot about relics, about the things we bring along to mark our pasts, to remember miracles, to bring a little magic into our lives.

For Isabelle, my daughter who is six, the little bracelet made of green yarn gleaned from her baby blanket, “Greenie,” who went missing last April, is the most important of relics. She tears up sometimes when remembering Greenie, and she wears the little fragment of the sainted security blanket when she needs comfort… though it’s not the real thing but a memory of it. Maybe it’s the memory of that time in her life that she is keeping. A touch of divinity in the assurance of safety the object seems to provide.

Izzy also brought with her to France a fragment of a blue robin’s egg shell, carefully stored in a small plastic spice bottle on a bed of Kleenex. She found the robin’s egg on a walk with Ingrid, our next-door neighbor, shortly before we left Vermont. She says it reminds her of home, of the day she found it, that it’s special. What does that mean? The hatching of the creature from the egg, perhaps, the magic of our eternal rebirth into the world.

For James, my son (Izzy’s twin), relics are important in a different way. He wears these days the scar from a dog bite incurred last summer, and it bothers him that his face is not perfect any more. When he sees himself in the mirror he says that he’s ugly. He is not exactly afraid of the dogs we live with here—very sweet Border collies—but he avoids the front door when we arrive home, knowing that they will rush out barking, excited to see us. The scar is a reminder, a warning, maybe something like the bone of a martyr or a grail miraculously survived.

James has been on a binge of collecting “stuffties,” stuffed animals, since we arrived in France, but we’re not sure why. He is six now, an age at which children usually move on to other interests. He buys these stuffties at the many vide greniers (empty-attic sales) we go to on weekends with birthday gift money or money he earns for doing special chores, a Euro here or there. He names each one of the new additions to his family—a puppy named Joe, a lion named Leo, a Tiger named Jessie (also the name of our recently deceased old dog). James brought two bears and an Ugly Doll named Igor from home, but it’s these “new” second-hand creatures to whom he seems most attached. I doubt he will feel the same way about them when we return home, but there is something magic about their place in his world just now, as if he is invoking a circle of friends or children to offset his isolation in this new place. Or maybe they are relics of a future, a way of imagining something elusive or intangible, a matter of faith. James talks to them about their “Poppy,” referring to himself as their father. Maybe he’s preparing himself in the only way he can in this fatherless family for his own future fatherhood.

James did bring his map of the solar system with him from home. When we make Christmas ornaments for our little tree in the chateau, he paints the Styrofoam balls as planets, just as he did in Vermont. The solar system has been an obsession for the last year. He learned all of the planets—and many facts about each—and collected artifacts—models, maps, books—about space. Is he mapping his past, marking the place he left off when we left Vermont? Is he keeping track of his place in the universe, France being—really—just next door to Vermont in the grand scheme of things?

My partner, Susan, brought her art supplies, paints, brushes, pastels, paper, and books. Of course, she buys more books here—at markets, vide greniers, junk stores. These are more obvious objects for working magic—she transforms ideas into art. And they seem to be security for Susan as much as Greenie was for Izzy. Her running things—her shoes, her Walkman, her books on tape—are Susan’s other essential supplies for travel. Susan needs her every-other-day run like the rest of us need air. When she runs, she can leave her body even as she inhabits it fully. Susan’s sneakers and audio-to-go are sacred objects, things she must have to be herself wherever she goes.

I too have brought a few special things with me from home as well—a favorite photo of the children; a stone—black with a magic white circle—from the brook behind our house in Newfane; a few of my favorite brand of pen; my journal. I also packed the Christmas stockings Susan made for each of us over the years, and we unpacked them and have them hanging by the fireplace now. I thought they would remind us of home, that they would help us feel settled—still at home in our own lives even so far away from home.

What does it mean to attach significance to objects? For the pilgrims, these teeth and locks of hair and bits of bone and splinters of the true cross reinforced faith. They were tangible evidence of something that is actually unknowable, intangible, abstract. God exists, these objects said. Miracles happen if you believe.

Home, perhaps, is the abstract unknowable intangible thing for which each of us needs reassurance. Even here on the edge of our universe, out in rural southern France, magic exists, miracles happen. We touch our little talismans and they help us conjure up strength and faith for the rest of the journey. Maybe home is something to do with faith, with believing and knowing that wherever we go—from security blanket out of the nest, leaving the egg behind; from a blue-green planet to the mysteries of fatherhood, the dangers of the world worn on one’s skin; from a paintbrush wand to the comfort of one’s own body moving through space and time; from a little house beside a brook in green mountains to a thousand-year-old château atop a French hill, stockings hung by a chimney with care—we house home in the reliquary of our souls, our imaginations. We take the objects to remember, to believe, to work a little magic. But the things we take are not nearly so important as the box we build to keep them safe.