ProvisionalsAbout three months after we arrived in France, I had a vivid dream about home. A blow-dried young salesman was trying to sign me up for some kind of new-fangled private mail service. You can utterly free yourself from the post office, he told me. The new system will provide sleek curb-side machines that deliver your letters automatically. No more lines or surly clerks, he said. No people to deal with, none at all.
No people? I sent the guy packing with an impassioned lecture about the neighborliness of the post office in Gambier. The post office anchors my day, I told him. I can always count on running into friends and colleagues there. I linger in the P.O. to chat, set up lunches, trade family news, gossip. Chuck Woolison, the postmaster, and every one of his clerks know us all by name; they've always got a smile and a friendly word for our kids. The post office is one of the places that makes Gambier feel like home, like family.
I want to deal with people! I want the comfort of familiar faces: I want to be known. What kind of life is anonymity?
How I went on, in this dream of mine. It was as if this was a story I urgently needed to tell--to myself, of course--as if I needed to reassure myself that here in France, I am not anonymous, that I do have a life.
The dream had less to do with homesickness, I think, than with our groping to assemble something like a new home, with its own daily rituals and points of anchorage. As residents of France for a year, courtesy of a sabbatical for my wife, Associate Professor of French Jane Cowles, we're not quite sure how to place ourselves. We're not tourists. We're too settled to be travelers. Clearly we're not natives. But we don't feel exactly like foreigners, either. We speak the language, rent an apartment, commute, pay bills, get junk mail, send our kids to school, and look forward to "going on vacation"--as if this were indeed home.
In reality, France is only a provisional home, and this fact shapes our whole out-look. The true expatriate thinks in terms of making a life in his adopted country. It's different for me, Jane, and our two sons, Greg and Alex. Even when we're thoroughly immersed in our current lives, there's that phrase lurking somewhere in the back of our minds: ". . . when we go back to Ohio."
What sort of life do we make for our-selves, then? What is a "provisional home," anyway? And how can you feel "at home" when you are, in a sense, provisional?
None of these questions troubled us during the first weeks after we arrived last summer. Everything seemed a marvel then. From fireworks at Versailles right down to haircuts around the corner, France glinted with a kind of exhilarating strangeness. At every turn we met with novel sensations--vats of seasonedolives in the market . . . Stone Age fertility figures in the museum . . the radio weather report with its rushing torrent of verbiage . . . teenagers' sweat-shirts with their weird Americanesque slogans . . . the streets, shops, and monuments of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the bustling Parisian suburb where we settled.
But soon novelty gave way to routine. School started for the boys. Jane began commuting to Paris to pursue her research. I opened the laptop every morning to face the blank screen. I did laundry, ran errands, and found myself troubled by a vague sense of dislocation. We no longer had time for Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. The daily encounters with shop-keepers were no longer linguistic adventures. The sidewalk crowds, once so curious and colorful, were now simply further proof of my own facelessness. I began to feel that I wasn't "taking advantage" of my year in France. I began asking myself, "What am I doing here? What should I be doing here?"
It was around this time that the Gambier Post Office floated into my sleep, suggesting a diagnosis for my malaise. The post office is a place where you cast out your lines--to friends, to family. At the post office you keep up your ties, all those relationships and personal histories that in a sense define you. For it's through these connections that you have a place in the world, that you're something more than anonymous. Connections: that's exactly what I had left behind in coming to France. Once the novelty of France wore off, only a kind of emptiness remained--places I didn't really belong, routines devoid of context.
In this provisional existence, we have had to make new ties--in effect, to create ourselves. And even as I drifted into my malaise, I felt new ties beginning to form.
Some are a function of daily routine--small, commonplace signs of familiarity. There is, for example, "our" boulangerie right around the corner, where the ladies recognize us. There's the check-out girl at the supermarket who always gives me a smile (and who seems to understand that that is exactly why I always bring my basket to her line, no matter how long it is). Greg and Alex frequent the fantasy-game store, whose proprietor readily gives them advice on Magic and Star Wars cards (and readily collects their allowance).
There are the newspapers we buy, in irregular rotation: Le Monde for its intellectual authority; Liberation for a trendier, more left-of-center slant on things; and Le Parisien for easy-to-read people features, practical tips, the latest on the Paris-St. Germain soccer team, and a back-page factoid-graphic called "Le Petitplus." (What percentage of Beaujolais wine is exported? Forty-two percent, much of it going to Germany and Switzerland.)
And then there are the bits of language that we've incorporated into our family vocabulary. We'll give the boys a hug and a playful slap, saying Caressez-les bien fort!, using the expression that Greg's pony teacher uses when she tells the kids to thank their ponies with a good hard pat. When the sun makesone of its rare appearances, we'll exclaim in exaggerated wonder at the belle eclaircie, copying the weatherman's term for a break in the clouds, and then remind one another that a nouvelle perturbation is on the way. A small, gratuitous pleasure has become a pourquoi-pas (a "why-not"), because, at the beginning of the school year when Alex's French teacher was telling parents about field trips and special events, she repeatedly used that phrase as if to rationalize and apologize for non-academic activities. ("We'll make breakfast in class one day. Pourquoi pas?")
Each of us, moreover, has a small circle of affiliations. Jane is a regular in the researchers' room at the Bibliotheque Nationale, attends two series of lectures on culture and psychoanalytic theory, and goes to an acting workshop every Wednesday evening. I made the happy decision to bring my trumpet to France and now play with two amateur bands, a municipal harmonie (wind ensemble) in a neighboring town and the raucous Orpheon de Saint Germain, a bunch of middle-aged guys who occasionally don top hats and tails and march through the streets blasting out old standards and bawdy classics.
The boys' school has turned out to be an important source of community for all of us. While the Lycee International is a big institution, with about twenty-seven hundred students from more than fifty countries, it's also an enclosed world, with its own campus, its politics, its gossip, its rituals and social events, even its own cafe, where parents and teachers stop for coffee, older students buy sandwiches, and younger ones line up for candy.
The Lycee has a strong tradition of parent involvement, both on the "French side" (the kids spend most of their time in regular French classes, following the national curriculum) and within the ten "national sections" (where they get six hours a week of history and literature in their native languages). To the extent that we belong to anything in our uprooted existence here, we belong to the Lycee's American Section, with its fall picnic, its soccer program, its fifth-grade Thanksgiving pageant, its spring potluck, and its networks of volunteers.
Through the American Section, we are part of a subculture of families who share a certain apartness from France even as they participate in it. These are people we can turn to when daily life offers up one of its many little puzzles. When you're invited to a French dinner party, what do you bring as a gift? Should you buy an extra insurance policy to cover your kids at school? Where are the best places to get sports equipment, shoes, practical furniture? We trade advice on everything from pediatricians to seaside vacation spots, from favorite museums to stores where you can find cranberry sauce and pumpkin-pie filling. We share discoveries, in this land whose wonders bathe all five senses and touch every realm of cultural activity. We complain together--about French drivers and about the weight of our kids' school backpacks. As outsiders but also insiders in both France and America, we continually compare the two countries, criticizing, appreciating: their bureaucrats, their business practices, their public traditions and private habits,their expectations for children's behavior, their styles of individualism and conformity.
Most importantly, school has given us friends. Alex has two pretty good buddies who are in both his French and American classes. Greg pals around with a gang of four or five American Section kids. The boys have become particularly close to two boys in Greg's American class who, as luck would have it, live right around the corner. Carey, whose family has been here for two years, will be moving back to Chicago this summer. Malcolm, with his American mother and French father, has lived in France most of his life but regularly visits the States. The way the four boys talk on the telephone, make themselves at home in one another's apartments, and head out together to the Magic Card store reminds me very much of kids in Gambier.
As in Gambier, the kids' friendship has pulled the parents together. Joe and Cathy (Carey's parents) and Robert and Nancy (Malcolm's) have become neighbors in the fullest sense of the word. We live close by. We see them regularly. We like them. We trust them with our sons. We know we can count on them.
It's a funny thing about making this kind of friend--a friend, that is, who takes part in the rituals and routines of your daily life. Every morning, for example, I walk Greg and Alex to the bus stop, where we meet Carey and Malcolm along with Malcolm's dad, Robert. He's another literary sort, who works at home, tapping at a laptop. Robert and I watch the four boys clamber onto the bus. We smile to see how they always manage to claim the back right corner, where the seats face each other. It's "their" spot. Walking away, we glance up at them through the window and catch a glimpse of their animated conversation.
Then we head down the street to "our" tabac, Le St. Malo, where we find "our" place at the zinc--the metal counter. The barman knows we want two coffees. And for ten minutes, or fifteen, or longer, we drink and talk. Trade our triumphs, our gripes, our worries, our anecdotes, our plans. There's usually something to laugh about. We take turns paying.
The funny thing is, though this daily coffee with Robert is on the one hand just another provisional arrangement--in July I'll be gone--it doesn't feel the least bit provisional. It has become one of those ties that I count on, that anchor my day. His day, too. Robert and I joke about it all having to end when I leave France. How will we be able to start the morning without a stop at the tabac for this banter, this contact? What could I possibly find to replace this in, of all places, Gambier, Ohio?
Well, there's the post office, and everything the post office represents. Belonging. Neighborhood. Essential ties. Home. The need for connections, so powerful that it fashions dreams.
Yet I wouldn't be at all surprised if, sometime this fall--say, about three months after my return--I have a vivid dream about coffee with Robert at Le St. Malo.
Dan Laskin is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group.
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