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.
July 26, 2016
I set off at dinner time last night to go for a drive. The reality of life for me right now, however incredible the setting, is a huge adjustment. I don't mean that we are in a new country or that we have uprooted our lives or that we are still waiting for our furniture and things to arrive from NYC or any of that. I mean, I am spending all my time with my children. Up to this point, I've worked. Every day of the work week, I had expanses of time that were dedicated to tasks that had nothing to do with caring for small people. The huge stretch of a day and a night without a break or distraction or engagement in other work is taxing.
I actually think the most difficult part of parenting for me is responding to extreme emotions. I don't mean that my children have a problem. I mean that children generally express emotions in extreme form. The hard part is that they learn how to express them more calmly by watching me (us). So my reaction really counts. I think about my mom a lot. 8 children. Not a lot of acting out or yelling. I remember now how she would be aware of what was happening without really reacting to it. I don't mean that she didn't care - more that she would observe us and intervene when necessary. It is so much easier said than done. I read a really good article recently by Dr. Laura Markham (I admire her approach to parenting): Mindful Parenting.
One of the things I was most looking forward to moving here was more time with them. And I do appreciate it. I also realize the importance of balance. I am in pursuit of that. I certainly didn't have it in NYC. Am trying for it here in Provence. The structure of school this fall and the time school will allow us to all engage in our own activities is something to which I am really looking forward. We actually visited Romy's 'school' this week - which was enlightening and exciting for everyone. We also passed by Colette's. More on French education and our plan soon.
Luckily, Xavier is a good partner and is sensitive to the need to be alone or away for a while. My drive was blissful. The peak moments of a day in Provence, I think, are between 7-9:30pm. Heaven. The light, the smell of the air, the wind, the trees, the sky. I drove about 20 minutes to Lourmarin, a picturesque little village in the Lubéron - that protected hilly region of Provence bursting with beauty. I had a walk and a chat on the phone with my sister Julie, which is always restorative. The tiny village streets twisting upward, the clambering plants, the village church, the olive groves: all at the close of day was just the kind of lull I needed.
July 21, 2016
We arrived at our new house about a week ago. We drove in at 11pm last Friday night and crept up the big stone stairs to put mats on the ground to sleep for our first night - the girls all wide-eyed, sleep far far away, overwhelmed by the house. When the sun got up the next morning, so did we. Poured out of the house and looked back up at it, as if we were seeing it for the first time (they were). They looked quizzical. All feeling a bit of unrest. It was the first time for me that it all really sank in. The view was glorious, but the unknown was just as impending. Occupying a house like this one felt like an incredible project.
Jean-Marie, the prior owner of the house, came by that morning to give us a little tour. [Note: only a certain generation of Frenchmen are called Jean-Marie]. I appreciated his frankness. He wasn’t going to reassure us or just convince us that everything would be fine.
He started with flooding. He had great metal panels we must use to cover the line of windows/doors along the front of the house - the floodwater won’t drain entirely and it can be a catastrophe, he insisted. He looked at me with intensity and explained that when I hear on the television the orage (thunderstorm) alert is yellow - we should probably react, but when it is orange or red, it isn’t even a question. No playing games. “C’est très grave.” Honestly, it is difficult for me to imagine a time when there could be clouds in sky, let alone a huge thunderstorm with violent rain at hand. The sun feels so permanent - scorching the earth here in Provence. The sky - exactly the same shade of blue. Every day is the same forecast: 90 degrees and sunny. Period. I am really curious about the drastic seasonal changes.
Jean-Marie informed us that during a recent period of flooding, a neighbor (a person he clearly didn’t appreciate - shrugged his shoulders and puffed out his cheeks - ‘she is a left-leaning retired civil servant,’ as if that were an explanation) had built a concrete wall to direct the water back toward our house. Up to this point they had been friendly, despite her political leanings, and he had invited her to park her car on part of the property he wasn’t using. “Immediately I asked her to remove her vehicle and told her that was the end of that.” Xavier has since met said neighbor, found her rather charming and invited her to re-park her vehicle in that same spot. Perhaps his opinion of her will change once the rain comes.
During the tour of the property, Jean-Marie would off-handedly say things like - that is really a museum piece (the portail of the house), that is definitely 17th c., these cypress tress - they are over 30 feet tall, etc. I was stunned by all of it.
The highlight of the tour for Xavier was the foundation of the house - the electrical wiring, the heating system, the water purification system (we get water straight from the Canal de Provence and is filtered by UV and a hearty paper filter before we drink it), the bricolage room - as Xavier has named it. The house has sound bones and great systems, from his analysis.
The highlight of the tour for me was the portion regarding the trees. We bought a house that is very old. We also bought land that is very well established. The cypress trees, but also the enormous oleander bushes, the 2 gigantic sycamore trees in the courtyard of the house, the 25 olive trees, 4 fruit trees (apricot, cherry, pear, plum) and almond tree. The sycamores have something - a virus or a mean fly. The olive trees need a drip sprinkling system installed. The pear tree blooms on June 24. That date is not to be missed - such delight - such sublime sweetness. Jean-Marie announced all without blinking an eye.
I was daydreaming a bit as we all walked along. More plans for the property. A big thick line of lavender. More pots to line the front of the house. A cutting flower garden or vegetable garden (?) both a question mark when water is part of the equation. To be determined.
At times during the tour, he looked at us and squinted his eyes a little bit, looking doubtful and then would throw in a comment like, this is the country. You know that, right, you city-dwellers?
The girls aren’t sure yet. Colette was downright trembling and terrified the first night. Came sobbing down - saying how scary this house is and that she cannot live here. “I think there are skeletons here.” Poor thing. All the girls are camping right next to each other in the same room, so that softens the fear a bit. Every morning I ask Marguerite how she and the other two slept the night before. She inevitably reports that she sang a song to Romy at some point during the night, sweet sister. She has been such a help during this transition. Colette and Romy look to her for all sorts of cues. She feeds back calm and composure.
The kitchen from the stairs above.
We are making progress though. I will say a week later, they are all running through the house, playing all the way on the third floor by themselves. Exploring. The best sign. Marguerite loads her sisters in a wagon in the yard and pulls them around, on a ‘tour.’ She announces, “museum here. Everyone out.” Then gives the ‘museum’ facts. Loads them all back in and moves to another part of the yard, “Bathroom stop right up here. Please make sure no one forgets her bag or camera or sunglasses.” The other two love it.
Everyone is delighted to have a swimming pool. Hours of giggling and kicking and diving. Clear blue water and a toy it is hard to imagine anyone getting sick of.
One of the best parts of the house is discovering its small and large spaces and how they shift with the changing light of day and the mood of the house. It is really captivating.
We also found a basket of keys. Seriously. We looked at each other and thought, what on earth? How could there possibly be such a collection of keys, without explanation to where they belong? Xavier, in his determined fashion, spent a good chunk of time trying the various keys in locks in and outside the house. He successfully identified the keys on the exterior of the basket in this picture. The large (really large) skeleton key is the key to the front door.
A week in and we are all looking forward to the local market tomorrow morning - the one right by us is known regionally, apparently. I won’t lie - the markets were a big attraction for me in thinking of setting up life in the south of France. All the rest of this too. It feels more raw in real life than in my imagined version of how this would go. I am trying to take big deep breaths and be fair to the girls (although I’ve yelled more than I would like - Romy has become a truly defiant 2-year old) and adjust to a new role with them. Anyway, we got what we wished for. Feels daunting. And wonderful.
July 18, 2016
Such a place. We spent a long weekend on this little island in the Golfe du Morbihan in Bretagne. It was a place of extreme beauty: every turn a confession of the haphazard charm of the island. Nothing overly manicured, everything under its lure. We took the time to be together - all the Joly clan - ate oysters, rode bikes, marveled at the hydrangeas.
I got up early one morning for a run and found this remote chapel skirting the sea. There were moments where I wondered if I was the only one in the world - a very reassuring feeling, oddly enough.
Romy was a total character the whole trip. She kept asking, "where is my home?" and we all understood what she meant. She discovered hermit crabs with her cousins. They would pick up a shell on the beach and ask, "il y a quelqu'un?" Later when she found a similar shell, she demanded, "where is my quelqu'un?" She found these sunglasses and wouldn't remove them. When we tried to hide them somewhere, "Where are my glasses?!" with a heavy lisp.