I begin my European journey in the heart of the French countryside, about two hours south of Paris in the Loire Valley. It is an area of gentle rises and falls, seemingly flat but not quite, and everything is grown here. Cassis, raspberries, apples, pears, corn, potatoes, lentil beans and more. I am living on a small island of green surrounded by recently harvested fields, brown now and waiting for their winter rest. The nearest village is about a mile away, a town of perhaps 70 residents, Le Plessis l’Echelle. It is the perfect place to catch my breath and prepare for the next phase of my journey.
In 1968, my parents sponsored an exchange student, a young French boy from Paris, Jean Marc. He was my brother Jim’s age, and they attended St. Pius High School in Nebraska together for their Senior year. Jean Marc’s father had died when he was eleven, from health complications resulting from five years in a prisoner of war camp during WWII, so Jean Marc and his sister were raised by his mother. As most people did, he loved my mother and father immediately, and called them Dad and Mom from the start. When my father died in 2008, Jean Marc came from Paris for the funeral, with only a few days notice. He loved America and still does. He has been to visit us many times over the last 45 years and we have been to visit him. He loves to tell the story of the first time he met my brother Jim, when Jean Marc arrived in the US and Jim came to pick him up. Jean Marc had been told by the Catholic group that organized the exchange that he must keep his hair short, he must not smoke and a whole list of rules. When Jim strolled in, he had long curly hair down past his shoulders with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. It was instant bromance.
While Jean Marc was with us in America, his mother bought a very old farmhouse named Maison Rouge, which is where I am now staying. It was a run down old one room farmhouse, a beat up shell of a building, but Mrs. Baffet thought she and Jean Marc could fix it up as a second home, a place to get away from the noise and bustle of Paris on weekends and holidays. When I was a child and we came to visit Jean Marc, in the fall of 1971, it was still a one room house, with an attic only accessible from a ladder outside, a bread oven built into an outside wall, no electricity, no bathroom, the only source of water a well with a hand cranked pump. There was an outhouse that, to a 10 year old, seemed very far away in the middle of the pitch black night. They slept in cots in the one room, with the fire in the fireplace the only source of light and heat, and my family slept as we always did, in the VW camper. We ate all of our meals outside at a big picnic table. It was a magical place and still is.
Over the last 45 years, Jean Marc has put in electricity, an indoor bathroom, a kitchen and turned the attic into three bedrooms. He has a huge garden and fruit trees, and the yard is fenced by hedges, birches and pines, all of which were planted and carefully tended by he and his mother. Nine years ago, the house was robbed. The thieves took everything, even the toilet, every dish, utensil, bed, sheet, towel-everything but a huge buffet that was too heavy to move. The saddest thing of all was the photo albums. These contained the only photo’s of Jean Marc’s father, an irreplaceable loss of memories that could have no possible meaning to anyone other than Jean Marc. Now, the home has alarms and he and Anita lock the place up every time we leave, just as if we lived in New York City.
A typical day here begins with my petit dejeuner, breakfast, a bowl of black coffee and a couple of pieces of toasted French bread, topped with some homemade compote of cassis or black cherry, which Anita, Jean Marc’s wife, has made from fruit they have grown. My place is always laid out when I get downstairs and we sit in the tiny kitchen at a counter and discuss our plans for the day. Nothing is done quickly here, there is no need to rush into anything. The planning of meals is usually the first thing to be discussed. The big meal is in the middle of the day, about 1pm, and it’s what we would consider dinner, so it’s important that it be done correctly. They talk back and forth and I can understand about every fourth word or so, kind of like listening to someone on a cell phone when the reception is bad and you can only catch the subject matter but not the details. I can usually figure out what the main course is, but have no idea what the hundreds of other words around that could possibly mean. At every meal, Jean Marc and Anita plan the next meal and this discussion can often continue on throughout the day, with refinements and changes made constantly. The actual preparation of the meals is another thing altogether, and I stay out of their way. They are a tight team, the kitchen is small and it’s best if I let them be. Anita wouldn’t even let me wash dishes afterwards until I snuck in on the third or fourth day I was here and, apparently, my work met with approval, since she now lets me help clean up.
Jean Marc of course speaks excellent “American English” he calls it, while Anita speaks none. I can understand and speak some French, and I get a little better every day. It’s difficult with Anita because she talks to me as if I understand every word and when Jean Marc tries to translate, she just keeps talking. He can’t possibly keep up so he usually just looks at me, shrugs his shoulders, purses his lips and says, “pfft” which is French for “meh”, which is high school slang for “ya know.”
Sometimes in the morning or after lunch, we walk or ride bikes. The roads are not too busy, and the land is basically flat, so riding is very easy unless it’s windy. The second day I was here, they went to the grocery store but I stayed home because I wanted to walk in the woods near the house. These woods are filled with deer, rabbits and wild boar, and in the Fall hunting season, the hunters fill the woods as well. For now it’s quiet and there are dirt roads and paths crisscrossing the acres and acres of trees. It’s cool and dark and a wonderful place to wander.
Other days, we go to a nearby town to wander. One small town had a vide grenier, which means “empty the attic”, a French garage sale but one in which the whole town participates. Tables and tables full of toys, French books, DVD’s, records, china dishes and knick knacks, rusty old tools, even an old wagon. One day we visited Chateau Talcy, a beautiful castle about five minutes from Maison Rouge and the village of Talcy also had it’s own vide grenier that day. Yesterday we went to Vendome, a charming town, with the Loir River, a small branch of the much larger Loire River, meandering throughout. The public spaces are filled with flowers in huge pots, gardens and hedges, the most beautiful landscaping, small parks and stone bridges with vines hanging down towards the water. They take me to their favorite Patisserie, Rodolphe’s, and we spend five minutes looking in the window, agonizing over our options as to which of the fanciful desserts we will buy. We each order something different and pots of tea and sit at the sidewalk table to watch the world go by.
At home, I spend my time sitting in the backyard chatting or just resting and I spend a lot of time on the internet, researching my next couple of months, trying to figure out what I want to do, where I want to go, contacting people for places to stay. When I first arrived in France a week ago, I was feeling so untethered and disappointed in myself. I felt nervous and tentative and overwhelmed. Traveling Europe has been a dream of mine since I returned from the year our family spent here in 1971-72. I wanted to do it with Michael, but he was firmly attached to home while I have always had a gypsy soul. I would come up with so many different ways that we could live and travel around the world. I almost had him convinced to let me teach in the Department of Defense schools (DoDDs) but couldn’t guarantee where I would be stationed, so he said no way. Then I looked into teaching in New Zealand but the pay wasn’t good enough. I tried to talk him into house trading through an internet site, just for the summer months when I was out of school but he didn’t want people “rifling through our stuff.” He was my home and the stuff meant nothing to me, and he let me drag him around the world just enough to keep my wandering spirit happy. Having my feet firmly on the ground with him beside me was fine, better than fine, but without him, the kite string I’m on has gotten a lot longer, and my feet are not as firmly attached to one place as they once were.
So, I thought I would be so excited and ready to explore when I got here. Then the thought of a year of freedom, with no job or responsibilities of any kind to tie me down started to scare me instead of thrill me. I couldn’t figure it out. What the hell was wrong with me? This was a dream realized. And that’s just it. A lifelong dream finally realized is not a let down but it is a milestone, a life-changing event and a letting go of the old life and a start to a new one. I am moving forward from my life with Michael and I know that mentally, but now that I am physically here and doing it every day, it’s emotional and tricky and uncomfortable at times. And it’s OK that I’m scared and nervous and tentative and that I don’t know what my life will be when I get back. I’ll move through this just like I’ve moved through everything else. I can drive on the left hand side of the road, I can eat at a bar alone, I can catch a train with two freakin heavy pieces of luggage, I can buy a train ticket from a person that doesn’t speak English, and I can live without Michael and be happy. I can be happy. I am allowed. I can make mistakes along the way because there aren’t any mistakes, there are only lessons to be learned and I can learn them and change and adapt. I’m on a leap of faith kind of trip but I have safety nets all around me and that’s OK with me. I am learning to be happy again and that’s OK with me too, even if it’s scary.
No matter where I go, I have my angels, living and dead, and I know I’m surrounded by love.