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ALL THIS WANDERING

S O N J A . L A R S O N . P A N A C E K

Friday Quiz 8

I am constantly reminded at how much I have learned — how I’ve grown, how I’ve changed, what’s different about me… In being removed from my American world, reflection has definitely become more insightful, but also very easy to do. I frequently joke here in France that the French language probably wasn’t the biggest “category” I learned about for my 10 months abroad. Much of it didn’t have to do with French at all — it was bigger than that. It was communication.

In a world where I have been forced to adapt to a way of communicating through something other than English, something beyond my words, I can now also say that I truly know the feeling of frustration — of not having the words, literally, to be able to explain myself, and instead just offer silence. Nothing. The thought or feeling passes uncommented, undocumented, unknown. And most of the time — it really doesn’t even matter.

I think after a while I figured out ways to find the words in French, but before that I had to find the actions. With this, I now know deep down that actions really do speak louder than words, and furthermore, it is not our words and intentions that define us — it is our actions that come across most vividly. What is the most important action? Listening — actively, attentively, silently, unprejudiced listening. Listening so hard your ears are tired at the end of the day. Listening so intently that it’s mentally exhausting. Listening so well that you can hear much more than what someone is saying — you are listening to understand, not to respond.

What else have I learned here? Well, a lot, and besides communication techniques and French, I would say I learned about me. I learned about my happiness and my sadness and my fear. I learned what I like to do and where I like to go and who I want to go with. What I want to eat and drink without question, what I’ll laugh at and what I’ll argue. This is a comfort — an extreme comfort to me now.

I do not applaud myself. Most anything at this time in my life brings obstacles and doubts and growing opportunities to both learn and understand more. I happened to follow my gut feeling and go through with all this, but with anything worth doing, I have reminded myself that it isn’t easy because then everyone would be doing it and it would be much less valuable. In October I remember reading — at a time quite different from now — “No one said it would be easy — they just said it’d be worth it.”

No, I don’t applaud myself, but I sit up straight and look behind me down the mountain I’ve climbed — and I’m happy about that. I’m smiling instead.

And now I’ll get to see how all of this will translate. Great — more translating.

248 Days in France

For all the places I’ve traveled here — which has been quite a few, actually — something I read had a profound impact on me a few months ago and changed the way I did things.

"Would I have enjoyed the snow as much as I did at the top of the mountain if I was clamoring to document it? Would I have remembered to soak in the briny beaches of Brittany if I was worried about how the various shades of grey would translate to an Instagram filter? Part of me feels like, when I’m taking pictures, my brain almost relaxes, assuming that something else is keeping the memory for me. Without a camera, I remember thinking to myself ‘Memorize what this looks like. Keep it with you.’"

- Chelsea Fagan

Yes, I’ve done this a bit intentionally, but I’ve also been leaning towards this unintentionally — being that how I absorb an experience has changed (remember when I said this about listening?). Seeing it with my eyes in the moment is fleeting — and with that, more valuable. It will not live forever. It’s already gone. Instead of taking a picture, I try and just take a deep breath.

My time in Bretagne with the family and the beach and the boat and the food all are in my brain and not on paper. This is just one weekend trip. Enough of these examples brings me to tears thinking back because the small memories are so valuable, so dear to me now to hold onto. Instead of photographs of these places and people, I have glances and smiles — I have absorbed an image of the dusk sunlight hitting the food and wine on the table. It’s better than a photograph — I have noises to go with it, and it’s actually a different kind of ‘long exposure’ shot since I’ve captured an essence, not just a picture. Thank you for this inspired change of doing things, Chelsea Fagan, and none the less, in France also, where it inspired you to do the same.

We went on a bike ride last week that lasted over 4 hours through the Beaujolais region just north of Lyon. Yeah, WINE, WINE, WINE. Vineyards galore for hours biking on little roads then dirt roads then cutting through farms. Sprinkled along the way were old castles that used to be the estate for the vineyard, now embellished with little groups of houses that now have the vines’ caretakers. Talk about mental absorption instead of pictures! It was beautiful. I DID take a few pictures with my iPhone tho, and got one of me since Brigitte nicely offered.

This past week has been full of French BBQ’s — or basically outdoor drinking grilling eating drinking etc. until it’s dark out and then everyone get’s out their digestif collection. All yards have cherry trees in them, so there’s plenty of cherry-type desserts, and with the charcoal-y grilled chicken, lamb, and chorizo I might just have to adopt the ideas as my own to take home in my suitcase. 

I finally got my trip to the south with a southerner this weekend. My friend Clémence who lives here in Lyon invited me to her family’s farm in Montélimar for a quick getaway. As bee farmers (honey collectors, whatever you want to call it) they also have chickens, two enormous pigs named Paté and Jambon (respectively named for their future employment, I’m assuming), a little dog named Penèle, and of course a ton of bees. Saturday we drove with her friend Lori to a small seaside town, Camargue, while singing a lot of old 80’s French songs and of course Johnny Hallyday (basically the Bruce Springsteen/Michael Jackson for France). We enjoyed a nice lunch, ice cream, milling around the small town, and of course a dip in the Mediterranean, which was quite cold but of course I did it anyway.

Clém’s boyfriend, Nicolas, grew up not too far from Montélimar, so for dinner, after we got back, we joined him and his family and extended family for one of these famous French BBQ’s. This one was extra country. Though I never got a taste of Pastis (the southern French equivalent of moonshine or whatever else they make down in the mountains around Tennessee/NC/etc.), I DID learn how to play pétanque. Everyone gets a few solid metal balls with different markings and your team needs to have as many of them as possible near the cochonnet to get points and win. You play it in the dirt driveway and it’s super-country. I loved it. Basically it’s southern French summer curling but instead of those sticks you have a glass of rosé and don’t chase the ball. Voilà

So we had pork with herbes de Provence of course for dinner, potatoes, cold pasta salad with olives and peppers, bread, and various other southern things — it was wonderful. They’re really into rosé wine — which is totally okay with me — and after dinner, cheese, and dessert we had the necessary tasting of three or four digestifs, like I mentioned before. They spend forever à table! I feel like in the US we want to get up and move somewhere else as soon as possible to eat dessert or drink coffee after dinner. Meals here, like I’ve said before, last forever and then everyone lingers and tries to think up ways to prolong awkward silences.. but then they still have stuff to talk about and I’m stunned. The French are actually very celebrated for this long, conversational meal style, because they eat slower, and therefore less, and over a long period of time — et avec du vin. Apparently this all has serious health benefits.

I think a lot about things I’ll miss and things I won’t miss. Of course the simple food and cooking, but I can take much of that home with me in ability and recreate it. I will miss hearing the language — being able to communicate easily and fluidly with others in humor, discussion, and the like. I will miss my little studio — perfect size and placement, and what luck to have my own little space. I will miss all the wonderful people I’ve met, of course, and hope that one day they’ll let me know when they’d like to see the US. 

What won’t I miss? The tiny wine glasses, the public transportation, my dinky little cell phone that takes forever to text on and talking is impossible because it’s so static-y, being so far from my family and home for such a long time, never having good internet access, not having any money, language frustration, my interesting French school, determining whether or not I can use vous with someone yet… Yes that still stresses me out. I also won’t miss being on a young-kids-in-the-family schedule, if that makes any sense. I love them but I’m okay with a near-future distance.

Brigitte and Matthieu were nice enough to plan a small party for me before I leave, for next weekend. I can’t thank them enough for their support, guidance, care, and encouragement — and here they are saying thank you to me. And good bye. Ah!

But not yet. I have yet to finish an actual French novel, no matter how short, so I better get going.