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A Month Home and France is Gone In A Puff Of Smoke

24th September 2018

Photo credit: late Hungarian photojournalist Paul Almásy

I’ve spent a year limping my way through conversations in French; over the months improving by tiny, hard-won increments. During my first months I had to start every conversation with ‘Desolee, je ne parles pas Francais’. Later I adjusted this to ‘je parle Francais juste a petite peau’. Eventually, incredibly, I sometimes needed no caveat at all. I never got fluent, rarely managed a smooth conversation and in fact spent most French exchanges in a state of low-level, generalised anxiety. I thought of my unsophisticated, clumsy French as ‘Politician French’. If I ran the conversation I could rattle on quite happily; but then the other person would speak and I would be completely flummoxed. So I did a lot of ‘thank you for that question; and in response I will speak about an entirely different issue’. Politician French.

Learning to speak French was fantastic and awful. It was hard work, everything always beyond my comprehension, and I did a lot of nodding earnestly while I tried to translate. Oui, oui, oui, I would agree as the other person spoke. Exactemente! Et j’adore! Along with ‘c’est quoi?’, j’adore became something of a catchphrase. C’est quoi? Oui! J’adore! What’s that mean? Yes! I love it!

I worried that these conversational tics had become a little beyond my control. I was sure that once home, they would start popping out of me, at the school gate, for instance, and I knew that my Australian friends would never let me live down the pretentiousness of it all. Oui! Moi aussi! J’adore! I would say as my friend Sarah sank to the ground weeping with laughter.

But it never happened, because, as soon as I got home, it was like a curtain fell over our French life and it disappeared completely. Australian children were suddenly bigger, rushed without warning into the awkward bloom of puberty, and the babies I left had grown into people, but other than that, everything seemed just as we had left it a year ago.

Rue Taillade: gone like a puff of smoke. No more drinking wine with Manon and Caro on a Friday night at the sister’s bar; dancing, whirling and sweaty, to Irish music with the grinning stone-mason and his Harpo Marx curls. No more talking to Bastien the glamorous winemaker and groaning at the approach of aging punk Scotsman Barry, dressed like Keith Richards, and always drunk. If Barry wasn’t winking he was negging; both were tiresome.

No more laughing with my school mums Clemence and Steph and Estelle and Emilie and Ghislaine at the gates of La Condamine, trying to keep up with their rapid-fire gags and gossip. No more three-cheek kisses. No more trading jokes under my breath with Julia like schoolgirls in class at the Calade; no more throwing spitballs at darling Basel’s head and giggling at his bespectacled bemusement. No more walking arm in arm and drunk at midnight up Rue Taillade with beloved, fierce Elizabetta. No more watching paper lanterns float over the Roman bridge or wandering the markets with Australian Naomi, with whom I could suspend my efforts to speak clearly, relaxing with relief into Australian jokes and loose, slangy mumbling. No more efficient trips to the Intermarche supermarket, where I knew the aisles so well; planning my menus and stocking up for visitors. The Intermarche was where I felt in my element, and spoke my best French. It helped a lot with my self-esteem, which sometimes took a little battering; village idiot that I was.

It’s such an odd thing to build a whole, full life and then leave it, just as you are starting to figure out the rules. The transition seems so sudden, so final, made even more so by the geographical distance of France. It will be ten years, if we’re lucky, before we see these friends again.

The struggle I had adjusting to being home came as something of a surprise. I think I had the bumpiest re-entry of all five of us.

On arrival, Keith was back at work down in his cowshed in the backyard, and the kids were back at school. We bought a car, I filled in hundreds of forms to sort out schools and health funds and insurance and house stuff, and before I could blink, our Australian life was in the full and fecund flowering of spring, expanding under the weight of playdates and sports and piano practice and extended family. I was driving Foxy Woxy the boxy Forrester all over town, the house still full of crates and holiday-laundry, and trying to process the children’s adjustment to home, as well as my own. Suddenly, my mental load felt overwhelming.

Shit, that’s right, I remembered. This is how I feel at home. Stressed. Distracted. Annoyed. Like I am failing, all the time, in little ways, at everything. Like all this constant work is invisible.

Digging through crates exhumed from the shed in a hunt for school uniforms (what is uniform? What is lunchbox?) while fielding texts about play-dates and family parties and catch-ups, the running ticker of the schedule in my head coughed and muttered like a dusty engine, before kicking into life with a roar.

I clattered the washing-up pots, muttered darkly to myself and lay sleepless in the early hours, lonely and overwhelmed. One morning, my low level, simmering resentment burst into a rolling boil and l blew as Keith sat, deer-in-headlights, taking the force of my tears. Invisible, I wept. Unappreciated. Unhappy. Not a servant, I gulped. CHANGES MUST BE MADE.

I felt better immediately. Just the releasing of that toxic tide was the balm I needed. Better out than in!

Now I’ve rallied, I’m excited to think about the changes we’ll make to how we live now. I look forward to designing the next few years, to setting up a writing routine around tumbling and hapkido and art class and pick-me-up-here and drop-me-off-there and if-I-just-grab-milk-and-bread-and-apples-i-can-hold-off-on-the-big-shop-till-Friday. I’m happy to sit with my laptop in the back of community halls and in carparks; to drive around and listen to the ABC and chat to shopkeepers; to cook, endlessly; to drop in on Mum and Dad and to meet my beloved local crew of wise and beautiful women for morning coffee, where we sort out each other’s lives and laugh like the brilliant, dangerous witches we are.

It was a wobbly start, but the centre will hold.

Walking to school, we pass the miniature donkeys Chocolate, Harry and Marshmallow, and the occasional lyre bird (that wonderful, strange creature that imitates all the other birds) running with its awkward, comedic gait into the bush. Rainbow parakeets fly past, and the kookaburra we call Kevin Rudd (he’s been popping up for years) is back on the clothesline and on the deck, perching calmly and letting us creep close enough to marvel at the beautiful blue markings on his wing. I hang washing on the Hills Hoist as the surf booms gently in the background, like constant, soothing white noise.

This week, the pump that runs the water tanks broke down. Until we could replace it we washed out of buckets and boiled water on the stove to do the dishes. Yesterday a kid I haven’t met before came over for a play date and I explained the composting toilet to him. ‘Don’t be freaked out, it’s just like a normal toilet except that you don’t flush it. So you just go like normal, and then you wash your hands…oh. That’s right. OK, little buddy, you go to the tank out the back and use the tap underneath…’

On a bushwalk last week we nearly stepped on two brown snakes mating (or possibly fighting – that part is unclear but what’s definite is that they were Eastern Browns, the second deadliest land snake on Earth.) There’s a big brown rabbit living in our shed that we’ve called Sylvester, and yesterday I had to get out the tick kit to extract a big tick from Georgie’s head (first using scabies cream on it, as per the protocol against the Mammalian Meat Allergy tick that can be found in our area.)

Yep, we’re not in the south of France any more. But this place is paradise too.

What a joy to have lived that temporary life, and to have met those Sommières friends, who exemplify for me that wonderful Anaïs Nin quote: ‘Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.’ To have experienced that whole other world, and to return to one as lovely as this, even if there’s no water, and the ticks can make you allergic to roast lamb, and the snakes mate underfoot… Life is such a trip.

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