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Saturday, May 9, 2020

An Anniversary and A Trip to France

This month marks 19 years since I returned to Iowa. From where? Please sit back and adjust your swivel desk chair for a voyage, into the past, across the Atlantic Ocean and down the coast of Europe to Southern France. Feel the sun, a gentle caress as you step out into the warm air. It is 27 or so degrees Celsius, or 80 degrees Fahrenheit, if you are not accustomed to the metric system. 

It is 1999, but not much has changed here in the last hundred years, nor will it for eons. This is the Bay of Arcachon, in a little town on a beach. The town is cuteness personified; not the grandeur of Paris, but a cheerful, white-washed, red-tile roofed, blue-trimmed town along the coast.

I am the mother of two toddlers, with three goals; raise them well, make sure they speak English and finish a year-long translation project to complete my MA, in that order. I am pushing a double-stroller to school to pick up my eldest child. The younger one is happy to be on a walk, he always likes to be out, especially with no one to pull his hair from behind, at least on the first leg of the trip.

The water is IN our part of the bay and it is very blue, sparkling in the sun today as we walk along. The carpricous, moonstruck Atlantic leaves each day with the tides.

And every day, I wake up ecstatic to be living in this beautiful world.

If only that were enough. I often feel defined by something I am not; a French housewife.

As a linguist, I should know better; just picture it; a dictionary full of words defined by what each word is not; each entry would fill a dictionary on its own, as our useless words fill our own brains when we focus on all we are not.

All around me in France, homes seem to fall into two categories; fresh, modern IKEA catalog-perfect or elegant Old World; antique-market finds with chic draperies, and tiled floors in a home full of charm. Everyone else seems… put together.



Us? We live in our house. It is clean, but always with a number of ongoing projects making for a gently chaotic vibe. I really should do something about my personal decorating style, but instead...

I pick up my darling daughter at school, release the impatient baby from his seat, and they run on the beach while I gaze out at the horizon and glory in my fortune, living here. I keep an eye on the boogers. It is not warm enough for swimming, but they love the water, and I have a towel stashed under the stroller, because something will get wet before we leave. One of my secret joys is watching a tourist run after their kids. They have fun, of course, but the lack of towel gives away the fact that they have to go home to somewhere that is not here, poor them. 

We play and have a picnic on the beach before heading back to read books aloud and finger paint our comfortable but not perfect house.

Perfect is a standard to which I will simply not live up.  It is sometimes more than I can handle. I share this sentiment with my friend, Sophie, who lives here. She is daughter to a French mother and an American father. She too, is to a married to a French man, which includes a whole set of French in-laws. She knows her stuff.

And Sophie puts it to me straight; “You will never be the perfect French housewife or daughter-in-law. Quit trying and relax, it does not matter what you do, you will always be seen as l’americaine.” I mull this over for a bit. "But, Soph, I can actually vote here now. I've given them grandchildren they adore, I..." "Forget it. Makes no difference."

This is not news, I was born in Iowa. American through and through plus new citizenship does not equal new personality. We all have our non-defining characteristics. Accept and move on. Or sit and stew. It is a choice.

A few months later: the sun is shining. The phone rings. It is Sophie calling to see if the tide is in or out this afternoon. Because, as she knows, the best you can hope for here when the tide is out is eating croissants on a soggy beach while stomping on the little hills left by disappearing sand worms.

I look at the tide booklet I keep next to the phone: tide IN. I look at my kitchen which could really use my attention. It has rained almost every day for the past two months. A second later, my decision is made. As I call D, Sophie is calling J and C and we are packing up diapers, water, snacks. I decide to make the most of a perfectly gorgeous day with friends. These are the women who make up my Franco-American cohort, the ones whose presence means my kids get to hear and speak English once in a while. They are also the lifeblood of my sanity some days.

The children and I headed down the bike path I once believed I would be strolling or riding down every day of my life. But, in less than a year, this house would be all but forgotten. The friendships, on the other hand, would remain. Soon, our family would be in one of the places the furthest from a beach you could hope to find; Davenport, Iowa. But: close enough to home turf that I could start to find the real me again.

*Adapted from a speech given  this past week, to the best Toastmasters Club in the world: QC Execs.
I appreciate the help rewriting, the feedback and the support of you all! 

2 comments:

  1. A lovely, evocative scene, Angela. Well done, and beautifully presented. Once again, thank you for taking us along on your journey!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for the kind words and the helpful questions as I was re-writing the speech.

    ReplyDelete

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