Vive Le Buffer Zone
Where does a feeling of safety come from? Wendy Nelson admits that not being able to fully understand a language offers unexpected benefits
Before we left the US in late December 2020, the political life of my country scared me. The outcome of the presidential election had offered some relief, but it was short-lived. Mis- and disinformation fanned the flames of resentment, frustration, fear, and in some cases, ignorance to ignite a rage that truly terrified me. To some, my husband’s and my decision to go through with his sabbatical, scheduled during what turned out to be a pandemic, was incomprehensibly risky, and/or idiotic. We felt the opposite: we felt we would be safe in France.
What was happening in the US as we lifted off from JFK alarmed me, but distance dulled the fear. I could—mostly—sleep at night in my Montpellier apartment. On January 6 we were glued to our French television stations and to CNN, watching the attack on the U.S. capitol. The next morning, we valued that it was the number one story on all the French news shows, and continued to be for days. The French broadcasters that we watched seemed to share our horror of the debasement of democratic norms.
That is not the case everywhere in France. The country has its own Fox News-like newscasts. Marine Le Pen, the strongly anti-immigrant, right-wing leader of the National Rally (formerly the National Front, as it was known under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen), looks to be the likely candidate against incumbent President Macron in the next elections, a year out. A number of the people I have spoken with here voice a message not unlike what many Americans said in early 2016: “I don’t like Trump (Le Pen) but I really am fed up with Clinton (Macron). I feel we need a change.” Most of my friends here are confident that when it gets down to the wire, Le Pen will be defeated. D and I argue vociferously with them against this kind of sanguinity. We saw where it got us in 2016.
Whereas political fears in the US drove me to door-to-door canvassing in 2016 and uncounted hours on phone banks in pandemic 2020 as I deployed my long sales experience to engage with voters (or, as we say in our family, used my powers for good not evil)…here in France, what I wrote in the prior paragraph is about all I can contribute. The French of political discourse—whether it’s talking with friends, or watching the news—is mostly beyond me.
I am not proud of this.
However, I am grateful for the buffer it affords me. For these eight months I am enjoying a distinctly individual-level experience of France and the French.
There is a lot that I love in France. At the top of my list in this strange pandemic year is how awesome it was getting vaccinated. Never mind the cheese and the pastries….it’s how a country gives you a shot that really counts.
My delight with French vaccinations began when I realized that I could actually get one. In February, France laid out a very French (by which I mean bureaucratic) list of dates when certain groups could expect to be vaccinated. While my age bracket didn’t quite make the cut, it seemed plausible that it would surface sometime in March or April. I took France at its word that it would vaccinate everyone without regard for whether they had a carte vitale (the universal health care card) or not.
Then in early March the delivery of doses to the EU ground to a near halt and I lost hope. As those ambitious dates that were proclaimed in February were postponed, as France struggled to ramp up its vaccinations but fell further and further behind the US, D and I began to resign ourselves to the possibility that we would have to wait until we returned to the states in August to get vaccinated.
Still, we registered on Covidliste, a national site that promised to let us know if a dose became available somewhere near us. Weeks passed; we received nary a ping.
Suddenly, on April 9, the government announced that my bracket would open to vaccine appointments. Two days later we scored appointments, at the end of that week. Bereft of proper French documents (like the precious carte vitale, or a lease, or a utility bill) we brought everything we did have: passports, Airbnb confirmation, my husband’s work certificates. We had already learned that when it came to bureaucratic procedures, you couldn’t offer the French enough paperwork, always with duplicates.
Our appointments were at the vaccination center at the Hôtel de Ville, aka city hall, which we hadn’t visited before. It’s a striking black glass modernist cube on the banks of our deceptively placid little river, the Lez. From the moment we arrived at the first checkpoint (where they inspected my purse and confirmed our appointments), all was polite and gracious efficiency. We each spoke with a doctor, who made sure we understand the paperwork we were signing; as nurses and others realized that we were Americans—apparently the first to be vaccinated at that site!—they generously offered to let us go into each step together. Our jabs were absolutely painless. No one asked to see any of our documents until AFTER we had been vaccinated. They conferred over how to enter us into their systems without carte vitale numbers, and expeditiously invented a new bureaucratic process that seemed to work for them. It was clear that they were thrilled to be vaccinating us.
When we returned three weeks later for our second dose, we were profoundly impressed that at the initial checkpoint, they instantly pulled up the paperwork from our last visit. Again, smiling staff encouraged us to do everything together. At the end, there was some confusion about the documents we were given to verify that we were fully vaccinated. As I approached the processing desk for the third time, the woman who was helping me—and seemed not remotely frustrated that I was pestering her yet again—unexpectedly asked me, in French, “Are you a UCLA Mom?” I was wearing my UCLA Mom t-shirt (both because it made me think of my son, who I am missing on this epic trip, and because it afforded the easiest access to my biceps). “I am a UCLA Mom, too!” she said delightedly, explaining that her daughter was on Covid leave from her junior year there. We had a lovely chat about UCLA in the Montpellier Vaccination Center. As I am repeatedly reminded, the French value communication. Interactions that would last a few minutes in the US extend far longer here.
Now, thanks to France’s excellent phone app TousAntiCovid, I have a scannable QR code that proves my vaccination status. More amazing professionalism and efficiency from a country whose initial vaccination effort was a bit of a shambles.
And a myth to bust today: that the French won’t make friends with Americans, because we are too transitory. Allegedly, if your roots don’t extend to the ancien régime, the French view you as temporary and thus not worth the effort to befriend you. As we prepared to leave Montpellier last week for the next stop in our French journey—Provence—we were overwhelmed by the generous gifts of time and meals that our French friends shared with us. Lunch with two parents and their eight-year-old daughter lasted for three hours….and then was followed by the recommendation that we move to a second café across town to have another coffee together, which we of course did. When we were invited upstairs to visit our neighbor’s newborn for an apéro, we expected a glass of wine and some olives. Instead, waves of snacks were brought out and frankly, more wine and champagne was consumed than I can remember. We stumbled downstairs five hours later. When the next morning came much too soon and we blearily began ferrying our luggage (which had swelled to include romantic cases of wine and a not-so-romantic bathroom scale) down two flights of stairs, this same neighbor arrived to help carry everything down and then argue on our behalf with the man running the newsstand regarding where we could illegally park our rental car.
As I left each of these goodbye encounters in which I burbled away in some language that was French-adjacent (and my friends patiently waited for me to say something that made sense), I wished that my command of the language was far stronger. I am frustrated with myself that my French has not improved more—and sad that acquiring new vocabulary and keeping all those verb endings straight turns out to be a lot harder now that I’m in my late 50s than when I studied the language 40 years ago.
Preparing to leave Montpellier, I visited my favorite haunts: the lovely young woman who made the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever hand (brown butter is the secret); the second-hand clothing stores where I regularly endured the shame of being handed larger sizes; the boulangeries that made our preferred baguettes traditions (predictably, lots of bureaucratic rules governing what goes into a tradition as opposed to another kind of baguette); my favorite stalls at the indoor marché, like the vegetable stand where the owner always threw in a handful of parsley for me after she had given me the price on my purchases.
I haven’t discussed politics with any of these people who were both patient and kind to me. While I do know that they are pro-vaccine, I have no idea how they vote. And for this short period, in this foreign language and foreign country….it’s been a blessing.
Wendy Nelson is exploring pandemic life in France.