By the Belgian border: Bailleul beginnings

I have been living in France for just over nearly three weeks now, and my former life in Brussels has begun to fade into the stuff of dreams. The ease of walking along trails in the forest, letting my dog run free off leash with relatively little worry (certainly, there were no cows to incite any canine excitement and subsequent human stress). Greeting neighbors and talking with friends and familiar staff at the small local grocery store, who asked after my dog and were always happy to see me. The feeling of nearly belonging, if only for a brief moment, now fast fading into that hazy place of memory.

I am a creature of contradictions, my mind consumed by concerns of past and future while my body resides firmly in the very physical, tangible present. If I am warm, it is as if I have never known any other temperature and I long for cooler weather. If I am cold, I cannot remember every being warm. And so it goes.

I have been taking notes and sharing little bits and pieces of my daily trials and tribulations via social media, but I have not as yet shared a longer reflection. So here it is.

Week 1: Where no one knows my name

My husband presented his public defense of his dissertation two days before we were slated to move just beyond the Belgian border to a small farming community called Bailleul (pronounced “buy-yule”). He spent the week preparing for the defense and entirely occupied by thoughts of philosophy of technology while I was surrounded by boxes, bubble wrap, and cleaning materials.

The public defense came and went in a bit of a blur. With social distancing and COVID precautions, we could not host a formal celebration but thankfully friends and colleagues suggested a small gathering at the office following the event. I was relieved my husband passed the defense (c’est le principle [en français]) and that he could have closure and the special moment during and after with his academic community.

I left early to go rescue the dog and continue trying to organize the chaos at our house in Brussels before the following morning, when my husband would be picking up a moving van and friends would meet us to load everything.

Morning came and went. Twenty plus typewriters were loaded onto the van, plus all of our other stuff. This had been my longest stint living in one place since leaving for university at the tender, idealistic age of 18, and the stress from unfinished business in the United States and living the unfunded doctoral student life (on a budget and the vicarious stress I experienced from my husband’s academic overwhelm) left us with a lot of items to pack (left me is more apt). I tend to fixate on things and buy things when I am stressed out, and the four years were not the smoothest of rides.

Still, it was a far easier packing experience than previous moves in the United States, and I will take all of the blessings I can get. While my husband and a friend drove the van to France, I cleaned. Our official leave taking happened Sunday afternoon.

I literally had been stressing out about litter box training her for the entire three years we had known and come to welcome her into our circus of weirdos. I had texted my sibling to ask how you litter train a cat, and they had suggested placing the cat into the litter box over and over again. I was able to do this for a little while since we had heavily sedated said cat (remember I wrote she is a wild thing, which is something I deeply admire in her character but also which makes it challenging to actually take hold of her in any physical way).

Seven hours after our move, at 12 minutes after midnight, I woke up to the sound of scratching and witnessed our wild backyard garden cat using a litter box for the first time. I am not sure I have ever been so very proud of one of my four-legged, adopted progeny.

I spent the first full week in our house, winding around boxes and trying to move furniture and clean to create enough space to walk around. We were staying at an Airbnb/Gîte half of a farmhouse, which meant it was a very small space and was also fully furnished.

For half of the first day in the house I pondered over how to open the door to the washing machine. I tried to pull it open without luck. Periodically, I returned to the scene to try to open it again, thinking, “maybe this time it will magically open…” No such luck. Finally, I noticed a small button above the door to the far right of a series of buttons with foreign writing/icons inscribed upon them. This one was a familiar icon: a key. I pressed it, and eureka! The door popped open.

Of course, I still had absolutely no idea how to actually run the washing machine. I wound up trying one option, which our property owner later told me was essentially doing a rinse of the load of the clothing I had placed in the machine. He had not been entirely sure how to run the machine either, but he explained to the best of his knowledge what all of the different settings meant.

I had discovered the camera option on my Google Translate app when traveling across eastern Europe with my mom and our friend a year ago. In Vienna, I used the camera to decipher to German writing inscribed on the machine. However, there is no app (that I know of, at least) to decipher visual images, so I was at a loss with the machine in Bailleul.

Just that morning, my husband had shown me how to lock our front door before he went to work. Apparently, all doors in France have a special system for locking. Unlocking is the usual deal. You have to lift the handle all of the way, cranking it up and left. Then you can turn the key to the left to lock it. Who knew?

The weather our first week was gloriously sunny and hot. During the day, I explored around the town on foot with my dog. In the evening, we sat on our back terrace in the evenings, eating dinner at the table and watching the sunset over the neighboring farm field.

Every morning and evening, my husband negotiated his new commute to and from work. We had thought it would not be a big ordeal since there was a 23 to 25 minute direct train from Bailleul to Lille. As with most things France related, this was naivete.

The first week, he would spend upward of two hours or more in both directions. One time, he stepped onto a train and then thought maybe it wasn’t the right train and stepped off. It turned out (of course) to be the correct train, and instead he had to take the slow train (the Alaska equivalent would be the “milk run” flight, which stops at every single small town). He would miss a train by a minute or two. He would get on a train, the train would start its journey and then just stop in a random place for an hour. Workers went on strike. You get the idea.

We literally fell into bed with exhaustion every single night. This helped my slight anxiety over the enormous spiders we found all over the place. There was a bit of a mass exodus with my beginning to deep clean all of the nooks and crannies, but one night I shined my flashlight every 30 seconds up at the ceiling to see if the very large, black spider was still there.

While I noticed the spiders, mold, sticky gummy dusty places around the house, my husband battled the mosquitoes. We have not found many incidence of screens on windows in our time as renters in Belgium and now France. I think for rentals people just don’t bother because you have to had them specially made for each unique window. So we had long nights of hearing buzzing. I would wait for the mosquito to buzz right in front of my face and then slap my head in the hopes of killing it. Probably not the best for my brain, but my brain has already gone into a bit of a fog this year with everyone else going on so it seems like the least of my current concerns.

One night, I made a general overview list of my experience, along with a pro and con list to help me try to fall asleep and remember the details I wanted to write about to try to capture our first moments in this new (for us) place.

State of life
Boxes no room to walk around
How to lock the door
How to open to washing machine
How to start the stove
Need for marieke clean
Mosquitoes and spiders
Where can we walk? Off leash? Cows
Slooooow Internet
New grocery store where no one knows my name

Look for the good
Dark at night without street lights
Mostly quiet
Tile floors don’t scratch easily because they are tiles
Big fridge!
Open space
We can see Belgium from our house
House of Nederlands

Need to find opportunities to practice French husband and I have reversed roles for speaking French
Slow internet
Small space
Crazed dog
Compost? Don’t have a system for everything (walking dog off leash, recycling trash and compost etc.)
Crashing into things and breaking them
Floor gets dirty very quickly

The list exercise must have worked because I fell asleep.

At some point during our first week, it occurred to me that our house was reminiscent of the place my family used to stay when we would spend a week on Cape Cod in August every summer. We stayed in a basement apartment of a large house set atop a bluff, overlooking the ocean and with a private beach below. It was not the kind of place you would want to live long-term, but we had a great time for a week. This place feels (and even smells) similar, and I am trying (trying being the key word, as opposed to succeeding) in thinking of our stay here as an extended “holiday.” Will see how that goes.

Used dyson take II

New feline neighbor

Reminder of the cape cod house, trying to think of our stay in France as an “extended holiday.”

Street name originally là colline aux oiseaux.

Interdiction de parler Nederlands.

In Brussels, we had a system. We knew how to organize our trash and recycling and when and how to bring it out for collection. We composted. There was an order and rhythm to our lives that we could (mostly) predict and rely upon.

With this transition to a foreign land, everything is in disarray once again. The trash and recycling bags are different. We have not figured out if it is possible to compost and if so, where we can bring our “déchets alimentaires.”

I detest wasting any kind of food, and it stresses me out to no end to put anything organic into the trash. I know it is just going to sit in a landfill and never produce anything helpful for the earth.

I felt waves of overwhelming grief and sadness that week, the sense of being completely alone. It is difficult to explain the all-pervading nature of this darkness. It covers me like a heavy blanket from without and fills up every corner of my inner being. It is difficult to breath, and I feel a sense of utter hopelessness that I can ever feel anything else ever again.

I noticed all that was lacking in our new life. No forest. One trail. No people and a feeling of spacious quiet. No people so no friendly neighbors to chat with or people to talk to about my “beau chien” along the trails in the forest. In two days, only one person told me, “il est beau.”

I drove back to our house in Brussels a few days after our move to Bailleul in order to finish cleaning the fridge and the windows, and it was a surreal experience to return. The house was empty and already no longer felt like home. But I was overjoyed to walk into the forest with Atticus and meet his malamute puppy friend for a play romp and do a little loop along familiar paths beneath a canopy my community of tree friends. While I love the dynamic, wild feeling of the wind and open spaces across farm fields in Bailleul, I sorely miss communing with the forest and the protective cover so many trees provide, particularly with the rains that begin in the fall (and will endure for many months to come).

It was a kind of closure to return to our neighborhood. I went to our local grocery store, where everyone knows me and Atticus and was able to say goodbye for now and thank them for all of their kindness. I was also able to buy a ton of our favorite items and pack them into the car before the drive home. I even had a few minutes to visit with a neighbor and her dog, who is one of Atticus’ best friends in the neighborhood.

By the time I had returned home, I was once again completely exhausted and passed out before 9pm.

By the end of the week, we did have some space to walk around, though many boxes and pieces of furniture still remained. Not too bad for a first week in new environs. Just another epoque (as they say in France) for the life of Marieke.

Stay tuned for more reflections on my new life chapter in northeast France, and thanks for reading. 🙂

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