Living in the Present Tense
Returning to "real life" after six months in France, Wendy Nelson is determined to find joie de vivre in New England.
The slim leaves of the willow tree outside my condo window are turning yellow. The soft swishing whispers they make is so gentle, so self-effacing, so New England compared to the rattling and slapping sounds of the palm trees outside the apartment in Montpellier, where I lived for the first half of 2021. So much to adjust to in returning to the US, and I hadn’t expected the sound-profiles of foliage to be one of them.
I had expected coming home to my life—my American way of life—to be easy.
The first few weeks following our return to Rhode Island in mid-August after eight months in pandemic France are already a bit hazy. There was a lot of running around to check in on friends and family, trips filled with joy and relief in discovering that everyone had made it through Covid thusfar with health and sanity reasonably intact. There was unpacking to be done, our condo practically pulsing with the toxic odor of the mothballs that had protected the heavy wool clothes we had abandoned in search of a city where sweaters are a fashion statement, not a survival tool.
As we unpacked I embarked on a valiant effort to bring some French joie de vivre into our New England life. French shoes went into the closet. French cookbooks went onto the shelves, and we eagerly sought to replenish our larder.
It turns out a weak opening move involved feeding ourselves. Our initial forays back into the American food scene were, frankly, both depressing and infuriating. Cut to the chase: food in France is cheaper and better and more fun.
Exhibit A: Restaurants. Many in the US are simply terrible. All the purveyors of fried calamari rubber bands, I’m talking to you. But that doesn’t mean they are inexpensive. Good restaurants—never mind premier restaurants—take us aback by their prices. Thinking that perhaps I was misremembering, I reviewed photos of menus I had taken in France. Yup, I was right: many two- or three-course meals cost 12 to 20 euros, or about the price of an appetizer here in Providence. (The readers in LA or San Francisco or New York are snickering at my provincial sticker-shock.)
Exhibit B: Our local farmer’s market, a weekly event through the end of October. It’s a bit precious, but in the months between Covid starting in March 2020 and our departure for France last December, it had become an anticipated weekly activity. Masked and gloved we would collect fresh produce, bring it home and enter each item into a notebook, then meticulously map out a week’s worth of meals around our harvest.
Admittedly, the thrill bar was set pretty low during the early months of Covid.
But because of these fond memories, one of our first stops when we returned home was the aforementioned farmer’s market. I cased the joint for good tomatoes (it was mid-August, after all). A couple of stands offered underwhelming crates of roma tomatoes. In the French construction, these “like to be made into sauce.” (It’s more plangent when the French say things like “the pig likes to be cooked low and slow,” which seems pretty unlikely.) The last stand had some beautiful heirloom tomatoes: all misshapen and parrot-colored, they were just what I was looking for.
“How much?” I asked, hefting one.
“Four dollars,” the woman answered.
“I’m sorry...what? Four dollars a pound?”
“Four dollars a tomato.”
It’s possible some Anglo Saxon escaped my lips.
“They’re heirloom tomatoes,” the usurer sniffed, condescendingly.
So….one of the things I had reflected on as I prepared to come home to the US was that the only thing more insufferable than someone who had hidden from Covid in the south of France for eight months was someone who then threw that privilege around.
Which I did.
“I just came back from France where heirloom tomatoes” (I may have sneered the words) “were four euros a kilo.”
It was pretty clear from her face that she was thinking some Anglo Saxon.
Okay, so if a farmers’ market in the snow belt couldn’t offer the same depth and breadth of produce as a region that gets 300 days of sunshine a year, I had to turn to other sources of joie de vivre.
Nothing represents the joy of living quite like a French dishtowel. This most prosaic item comes in vibrant colors and patterns that demanded to be bought in quantity and crammed into my suitcase. It just makes me happy to see a couple hanging off my stove.
And if you want to talk about the joy of cooking, forget the incomprehensible guidelines for thickening the sauce of your boeuf bourguignon (including the dreaded beurre manie,) and reach for the French cook’s secret weapon: Maizena. It is amazing stuff. Ostensibly some kind of corn starch, it’s not fussy like the American version: you don’t need to whisk it into a cup of water to make a slurry before pouring it into the cooking pot. Instead, there is a pelletized version that you pour directly into whatever you have on the stove; just keep pouring and stirring until your stir-fried broccoli or your chicken stew has the saucy consistency you desire. If I hadn’t been on the razor’s edge of baggage weight, I would have brought home a crate of this culinary miracle cure. I had to settle for one box. Each time I pour out a couple spoonsful here in my Providence kitchen, I feel like a Real French Woman.
Now about being a RFW: I admit that I don’t don an Hermès scarf to take out the trash, like one of my neighbors in Montpellier. Nor do I wear stilettos to the farmer’s market, like some of the shoppers in Paris. But I am more likely to consider my attire when I leave the house than I was before France, less likely to wear ratty tennis shoes everywhere. I discovered there is joy in making an effort.
It turns out that what is easy isn’t always what satisfies. I know, shocker, right?
I’ve been clicking through the thousands of photos D and I took, and I’m reminded of the challenges that lie hidden behind the deceptively cheery smiles. The rental house that greeted us with no power, a defrosted freezer flooding the kitchen, and the pervasive smell of mouse urine? The photos capture only the happiness of the beloved friends and family who made the trek to see us and gathered around the big dining table. What about the hundreds of miles of hair-raising roads that led to the quaint villages and brooding castles, narrow routes bereft of guardrails that had me covering my eyes and moaning (mostly when D was driving). The terror is not visible in my big grin in the photos, only the thrill I felt in reaching such spectacular destinations.
How many bike rides or hikes did we embark on, somehow calculating them to be far more modest in duration and altitude and fear-factor than they proved to be? I am so grateful for all of them, though in the moment I was sweating and swearing.
Every purchase in France demanded effort, whether it was calculating my clothing size (a particularly gruesome activity), or figuring out quantities in metric, or finding what I wanted in the grocery store (those illusive tins of anchovies hiding in the refrigerated section come to mind).
And of course, every interaction with humans—whether in French or in English—required careful thought: lots of it, in order to make myself understandable in French, and a different kind of consideration when talking to D’s colleagues, all of whom were vastly more fluent in English than I was in French, about American politics and religion and gun laws.
Living abroad demanded thinking and engagement all the time. I couldn’t be lazy, moving through my French life. Nothing was automatic. Every sign had to be read.
As I sit at my desk on a beautiful New England fall day, I appreciate how much I deployed my energy in France to being present. All those little things that seemed so French were mainly special because I noticed them. That’s a transferrable skill, right? Can I now look at the familiar landscapes of autumn hills or the local Stop-n-Shop with the eyes of a confused innocent, and really pay attention?
Wendy Nelson is a writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. She and her husband lived in Montpelier, France, for the first half of 2021, an experience she shared with CA readers.