August 19, 2016
We have been in Provence for over a month now. I feel like our noses and lungs are full of beauty. We are breathing it all the time.
Colette told me that she is starting to like our new house, but still wants to go to back to New York to be with Claire. Romy also often chatters about Claire - brings her up most days. Xavier and I feel sad thinking about her too. There was something really special about sharing the intense devotion we have for our girls with someone else (and something very special about Claire). Our family feels smaller here. We had Claire in New York, and also a whole network of close friends and family who shared in celebrations and everyday toil.
Xavier found a babysitter this week (someone local) and it was the first time we had extracted ourselves from the girls, together, in over two months. It was odd leaving them with someone we hardly knew. We pulled back up a few hours later and Colette burst out of the house with a huge smile on her face. Relief. The babysitter represented lots of current apprehensions: language, culture, strangers.
The reality is we have two little American girls. Even if Xavier has spoken French to them their entire lives, they are American. They have listened to him and understood him, but they’ve always responded in English. I can see the beginnings of a new thread weaving. At the little village park: Romy shouting to another kid, “c’est a moi!” (It’s mine!). Colette repeating French words without the dripping American accent she’s always born when forced to speak French. After playing with one of her little Joly cousins she came over to me delighted and breathless and said, “We were doing n’importe quoi everywhere with Siméon!” With the babysitter there was some pantomiming, but mostly Colette and Romy worked it out in their new tongue.
Romy starts ’school’ on Monday. It is actually the village crèche, but she is insistent. She is starting school. She is most excited of all by the idea of a backpack - totally fixated. French infrastructure for parents is unreal when landing from New York. We will spend very little money to have Romy occupied, playing with other kids for a few days a week - essentially becoming French. We were both certain we wanted Romy in some kind of care center, if only just for language. We recently met with the director of this particular program and saw the other children at play. The director took 30 minutes to sit with us and describe their center. Some things were spectacularly French. Food. Food first, every time. The director outlined the cadence of a given day and gave particular focus to meal and snack time. The children slow down and read books before meals and snacks. They have to be prepared and calm to enjoy the food. She doesn’t want parents coming to get their children during the ‘collation’ (goûter): translation, snacktime. Too distracting. It is a time when they need to sit calmly and pass the snack to one another to partake around the table. Other things too. There is a ‘doudou’ wall. Storage pockets for all the children’s doudous - their little blankies/lovies. Also very French. They all have one - very sweet. The director informed us that the children are free to take the doudous when needed, except during mealtimes and the goûter, of course. The 18 children (with 5 care providers) are of all different ages, 0-3 years old. I am excited and nervous for Romy’s transition.
"Doudou wall" at Romy's school
Colette will start school with the rest of the nation - at the much-referred-to ‘rentrée.’ La rentrée is essentially ‘back to school’, but adults use it as a point of reference as well. It is part of the collective conscious, how the nation meters its calendars and tempo. Beginning of September. End of prolonged vacation. Shops re-open. People pick up their pace.
School formally begins in France at 3 years-old. Colette will be in the second year of school here. We will go to meet with her teacher at the end of the month and she will have the chance to see the school and hopefully get mentally prepared for what is coming. Colette’s transition worries me. She is an articulate 4 year-old, with some big worries in her heart. It helps her enormously to express things. The month or two of feeling stunted in saying how she feels will be a burden for her. I know she will be fine, but we expect some outbursts and sulking. She told me the other day - curled in a ball, crying, “It is hard to move to a new country.”
I understand where Colette is coming from, although I haven’t had the chance to feel lonely - we’ve had so many visitors already. Mostly bits of the Joly family from around the area (or vacationing in the south of France from Paris) - and even some friends from New York who stopped by to stay a couple nights in our new house. I do feel curious though. Curious about what comes next. When la rentrée comes around and the pace of life returns to a non-vacation clip. I haven’t really tried to connect with people yet. I am not even sure how to begin.
I feel much less foreign this time around, thankfully. When we moved to Paris in 2007 for a few years it was full system shock for me. It took a couple of years to feel like I could surface and just sort of breathe normally. This time I benefit from 10 years of being with Xavier and his family/our friends, lots of French media consumption, books, movies, culture - quoi - and ease in the language. I haven’t felt a lot of cultural strain.
I have re-remarked with admiration some things about the French. Food. It is trite, but it is so true. The French understand the importance of good ingredients (oh the markets!). Of sitting to eat a meal. Of enjoyment. They admire and congratulate their fellow-citizens who know how to do these things well. One of Xavier’s cousins was telling a story about a person she doesn't admire. Her chief complaint: “Elle ne sait pas profiter.” ('She doesn’t know how to enjoy things,' although the notion of ‘profiter’ is truly cultural). She couldn't sit and drink her coffee purposefully, for instance.
Here’s to learning to be a master of ‘profiter.'
Walks with the girls behind our house
Out the front door
Key to our front door! Foot for scale
Sky out the girls' bedroom window at dusk
August 14, 2016
We are all excited to be out of most of our boxes. For a few days there we felt like we were eating them, there were so many. About a week ago Colette told me, "I want a better house." I was surprised and asked her why. "I want one with a living room and a couch." I smiled. Thankfully, the paint job in this room is finished and so we have unpacked our things and have started to place them about - with fresh paint on the walls. Colette and Romy were both jumping for joy (on the couch) when they understood a living room - in this house - was part of the plan.
We love the vaulted ceilings and think this lambent white makes the room luminous.
The paint in this room was originally like this:
We teamed up with a true artist to do the work of recasting the light in the space. Our painter: Fabrizio, the Italian. So incredibly meticulous. Prepping took a couple of weeks. Arriving early each morning, gently, deliberately persisting in his work. Dabbing and brushing as if the room were his own canvas.
A look at his tools says a lot about his approach. This brush (below) is his principal apparatus. He uses one of these brushes for 6-8 months before replacing it with another. His hand just above the brush shows how long the bristles (made of wild boar hair!) was when he bought it. He says there are a few centimeters left on this one.
Mid-way (with the fissures opened and being glued back together):
August 9, 2016
Some very local exploration led us to the blues in these domes. We were all awestruck. And to this fountain. Mode of transportation: a green bricolaging wagon. To the market, to the town. The villagers clucked at the girls and the wagon - admiring. I was grateful.
Then I randomly saw a posting for an open-air classical music festival in this region: Festival International de Piano: La Roque d’Anthéron. Our village happens to be hosting this week's performances. I snuck away at dinner time to take my seat in front of the local church (blue domes above), where two grand pianos were puzzled together to host two sisters - four hands playing Schumann, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Brahms. Bizjak sisters. Wind, ambiance, air. So lovely. The page-turners did battle with the wind.
Other windy moments include visits from the mysterious and powerful 'mistral' (the famous Provence wind). Perfectly blue skies, 90 degree days and wind that takes your breath away. The back of papa's convertible produces the same effect. With hair pulled back, the girls are all in for local exploration. Nighttime ice cream cones and long walks.
Sometimes produces this effect:
Otherwise, we are simply persisting in chaos. Slowly, slowly rooms are taking on our trappings and this house starts to feel like it is breathing us in.
Little Romy Danda - cracking us all up with her wildness. She watched two guys laying a floor in our house the other day (big, burly guys) and said, "We cannot hold them. They are too big."
August 3, 2016
I have a long list of things I want to see and places I want to go - all within an hour’s drive of our house near Aix-en-Provence. I’m putting most explorations on hold. Our house and getting settled in is proving to be a true feat. We have 45 projects going all at once: painting the house, unpacking boxes, new furniture to sand and restore/move into proper place, power washing/staining the outdoor furniture, ripping out old closet structures/setting up the new, installing a watering system for the yard, new kitchen cabinets, removing parts of the walls in our bedroom (our bed won’t fit into the ‘bed alcove’ - common feature of 17th c. design), ripping out carpet in one small section of the house - refinishing the floors (we will eventually put the customary tiles of this region there), installing a fence around the pool (Romy!), repainting the shutters on the house, preventing Romy from squeezing the kittens too hard, working with an architect (Xavier’s fantastic cousin who lives 15 min from us - we love him and his family) on finishing a back portion of our house for airbnb and guests, deciding what goes where (!), working with the mayor of the town to get a number on our house, the list goes on and on. I don’t believe I have ever felt quite so inundated with things to accomplish. I also feel really excited about the prospect of seeing these projects completed. Xavier remains dauntless. Not an ounce of hesitation. He wakes up and announces what he will begin - dives in and doesn’t come back up for air until about midnight.
The view out one of the windows on the top floor of the house. A field of Provence sunflowers.
Appreciating the details in the house while unpacking boxes this morning.
Fabrizio, the Italian painter, hard at work. Admired by two little ones.
I have stopped to admire the sky. Over and over. When the stars come out at night, we see the whole thing. Like a huge dark bowl above our heads, glazed with stars. After putting the girls to bed, sometimes I float in the pool with my ears under the water, rim of water just around my face, gazing up. Sensory therapy.
Colette and Romy feel as intense as everything else. Colette - daunted by the whole thing. We were driving to a little farm the other day and she told me, “Mom, I really like New York better than this place - even if we didn’t have a pool.” I was tempted to push back and list the reasons Provence is so great. Instead, I just gulped and said, “I understand, Colette. I miss New York too. What do you miss most?” She had a good list (Claire was at the top).
She is still feeling the influence of Our Lady Of Lourdes catholic school. She was pensive this morning and said, “Jesus and God are in our heart. I really want Jesus to come out. I want to see him. Maybe he is stuck in my heart forever.”
Colette thinks about safety quite a bit (thankfully, since the topic never seems to cross her little sister’s mind). “How many numbers strong is this house?” and “What is kidnapping?” (almost in the same breath). Oh, Colette.
Romy wants to be helpful. In fact, if you let her ‘help’ she will happily do your job for an hour or more. The trick is your work is unraveling in the process. She looks up and says, “I good jobbing. See?” Indeed.
We have lots of little lizards around - Romy is very impressed. She gets as close as she can and says, “I want to hold him. So sweet!” Moving her shoulders and arms in a cradling motion. They inevitably scurry away. “I miss him. He is gone.” The lizards are lucky she can’t get a hold of them. The kittens have a different story. She pulls their tails and squeezes much too hard. We are constantly steering her to be gentle…they protect themselves - they scratch and bite her. She is undeterred. There are moments she is overcome by their cuteness. She is shaking while petting them, placing her head on their body to ‘caress’ their fur. They paw at her wild hair, thinking it is a little creature itself.
We miss Marguerite terribly. Excited that she will come every other weekend and lots of her vacation time - more time with her is a total treat for everyone.
All in all, this feels like a mammoth affair. Mustering all the grit I have to keep up.
Xavier, a great papa (the candy bracelets are a nice touch). He pauses to play with the girls and the kittens - that is about it.
Art study in the front yard.
Meeting new friends at our house.
Even Colette's shadow is getting accustomed to the new place.
Trips to the market - lots of fun. This pic sums up each of the girls personalities.
Provence bounty - feels like such a luxury to have all of this at a market just down the street.
July 29, 2016
Yesterday our things arrived from New York. We were all crazed to receive this delivery. We've been camping in the house for about two weeks now and living out of bags for six. The girls especially are very excited about seeing their toys and beds again.
The container - because that is what we were waiting for, a shipping container - was placed on a truck and driven up to Aix from Marseille. The crew arrived in the area and couldn't find our little street (persistent issue - Xavier has befriended the mailman to grease the wheels of the pony express a bit already - old fashioned problem solving). Once they managed to locate a street that doesn't register on a GPS, they attempted to turn and maneuver through the sycamore trees lining the connecting street. Impossible. After a few failed attempts, they gave up. They brought in a smaller "navette" truck to do trips back and forth with all the furniture and boxes.
At the same time, we had two masons out back working on some tiling around the pool, which needs repair. Aly, the principal mason, is a jolly sort of French guy. In good humor despite the heat or other circumstances. Calls me Madame and bows his head slightly - makes me a bit embarrassed. Brings his own umbrella with him to create shade wherever he is stationed. He started earlier this week and from the very first morning, we've found a bag of croissants "pour les filles" (for the girls) sitting on the table - waiting for us when we wake up. The girls and I always walk over to the pool after we've had our morning treat to thank him. His thick southern accent makes his warm gesture - his insistence that the girls start their day with a good croissant - even warmer.
Another character in this cast is the Italian painter, Fabrizio. We are revamping the paint on the main level of the house, which was trimmed with green and red - the moldings and doors and some built-in furniture. We want a fresh start with white and a bit of gray/blue. Simple and beautiful, we hope. The house is replete with some flourishes. We want to tone it down a bit. Fabrizio is an artist. Paintbrush behind one ear, he stands gazing at the color swatch he has placed along the base of the walls - wondering. He whistles the same few stanzas of a Bach Minuet repeatedly. He has opened all the cracks and fissures in the ceilings - gotten into to their depths. I didn't even know there were cracks in the ceiling before he did that. Now they are filled with a bonding substance and have been patched. He is almost ready to actually begin painting...he is meticulous (maybe to a fault - we shall see).
So there was Fabrizio and Aly and the five movers - scurrying around improbably with heavy loads. And all of our stuff. The girls have been opening boxes wearing Christmas-morning-expressions. Every toy like new again - Mr. Potato Head, dress-up gowns, winter boots. Hilarious concoctions. We are about up to our noses in cardboard and wishing we had fewer things. In general. Feels like endless chaos. If I know Xavier though, he is going to be tearing through this and we will be "established" within a week. The girls are also delighted by the piles of paper and boxes - they have created a paper pit for jumping.
A good example of Xavier’s efficiency while managing all of this at once: while unpacking boxes of tools yesterday, he realized that he will need a proper tool table - a big one. He pulled out his phone and did a quick search for such a table on the equivalent of a local French ebay. I heard him on the phone shortly thereafter negotiating. An hour later I heard another truck pulling up, then Xavier was helping a guy unload the exact table he was looking for. Paid the guy in cash and chatted amiably about the merits of the region and the best brocantes (antique sellers). He is incredible. Never overwhelmed.
The girls strolling down the little lane that leads to our house.
A summer read (The Life of Helen Keller - so sweet) - her senses full in the olive trees.