Some of what I experience in my new life in France is reminiscent of any foreign place I have called home. The grocery store is a new adventure and opportunity for social research. First, I have to reconnoiter and figure out anew where all of the usual items live.
Toilet paper (because life and also, pandemic)
Lasagna (haven’t found vegetarian here yet)
Vegetarian faux meat products
Butter (“real” and vegan)
Batteries (those really threw me for a loop)
Tea strainer (that one, too, and the options were decidedly not impressive so I didn’t buy any)
Oat milk (on sale 34% off [no idea why that particular amount] so like a good Jew I bought 4 boxes)
I was most intrigued by the “international” aisle at the second large grocery store I visited in our new town of Bailleul. Apparently, European countries like Poland and Belgium are considered international, alongside Mexico, Japan, and Thailand. Bit of a head scratcher, though not as much as the near lack of beer and waffles in the Belgian section. It was mostly different variations on the theme of mayonnaise and sauces for frites (what we refer to as French fries in the United States, though they are more Belgian than French).
There were no waffles to be found in the cookies section. And, horror of horrors, I found no tidy bags of pre-cut frites anywhere in the store. It is still early days, so I have hope that I just haven’t happened upon the exact right alimental cranny as yet.
The section without a country name was also intriguing. I couldn’t figure out if it was the United States or Britain and decided (with the help of participation from friends on social media) that it was a combo section of the “best” from both countries, which included marshmallow fluff, something called “fluffy stuff,” Heinz beans, a variety of preserves from one company I didn’t recognize, Reese’s (for vitamin R, of course), etc.
I figured there were no waffles or beer because those would be found in the usual cookies and beer sections of the grocery store, but alas and alack I was mistaken. There was no differentiation of geographic places in the beer section, though to be fair most of the beer was indeed Belgian in origin.
Flour has already been a little bit of a head scratcher, along with corn flour and other items I realize once at the store that I should have looked up in advance. The traditional white flour we use for pancakes, vegan biscuits, and sourdough is just called “farine de blé,” which translates to flour from wheat. My US-indoctrinated brain immediately assumes this is whole wheat flour, but that is actually “farine de blé entier.”
Farine (pronounced “far-een”) means flour
Entier (pronounced “on-tea-ay”) means “whole”
Blé (pronounced “blay”) means wheat
I went to this grocery store three or four times and walked past the plant section without buying any tiny cactus (Europe must be quite taken with cactus because I seem to see cactus plants and designs all over the place). The most recent visit this past Sunday, I treated myself to the two tiny cactus in the double barrel porcelain holder (replete with smiling faces) after taking the world’s most depressing visa photos yet. I literally look like what I imagine I would look like if I were a drug addict. It was a serious blow to my ego. I am not the kind of person people do a double take or stare at by any means, but I think I am fairly pleasant to look at. These photos made me want to start weeping while still sitting in the photo booth. I have never worn makeup (except for my childhood dance recitals) and never thought I needed makeup. I don’t like foreign stuff on my face, which gets greasy enough throughout the day without extra layers of something made to look like skin that isn’t actually skin. It’s just a strange concept to me. I remember when I was in high school and a young woman in my class told me she absolutely could not leave the house without “putting on my face.” It was a nonplussed moment for me, to be sure.
But when in France, there is makeup a plenty, lingerie everywhere, and I am wondering if now as I am well into my 39th year I need to step up and put on a new face.
The photos seem to match my contrarian attitude of the past four years. At least, my husband tells me I am contrarian. People on the outside think I am a ball of positive energy, but the truth is that I struggle with extreme anxiety and depression, OC without the D (though these days it feels like the entire acronym), and what several therapists have informed me are symptoms of Complex PTSD. Add to this fabulous cocktail that I am also a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), and maybe the hideous photos tell the story of life on my face?
I don’t believe in hiding who I am, which is what makeup feels like to me. If I have a zit, I have a zit. In all honesty, I did try to use coverup for the zit, but the color did not really match my skin so it just added to the unflattering photo experience.
Anyway, my husband shared an interesting reflection on moving to a new place:
When you move, there’s not any prearranged place for you in the world. By moving, the world opens up and adapts to you. So the first, and it’s more dramatic in a foreign country. So at first, it’s you are imposing a bit on the world. You have to make space for yourself, for your existence in this new place. I don’t think it’s ever home in the beginning. And all you have is the home you’ve left.
So now here I am in France, comparing Bailleul to Boitsfort (the commune on the outer edge of Brussels where I most recently lived). It is like the sun shines just a little brighter on the Belgian side of the border between the two countries. And while I feel a bit like Sarah Palin in saying this, I can literally see Belgium from my house.
One of the most exciting developments in these first few weeks in France was my discover of the Maison du néerlandais (The House of the Dutch), where…drum roll please, I saw a poster in the window for beginning Dutch language classes, slated to begin the week after we landed in Bailleul. There was a class on Tuesday mornings. I was relieved by this stroke of luck because I am not an active evening person and so many events take place late at night. Europeans, man. I am ready for a meditation sit, reading out loud with my husband, and bed starting at 8pm when I think many of our neighbors are just starting to think about dinner. When my sibling studied abroad (what Europeans refer to as Erasmus) in Madrid, Spain, the earliest they would allow us to go out for dinner was 8pm, and even that was fairly embarrassing from a “trying to fit in in Europe” point of view. It seems like the closer you get to the Mediterranean, the later dinner starts.
When I lived in France many years ago, I made an effort to dress nicely except when out looking for birds. I was overjoyed (I still am) if someone asked me for directions in French. I wanted to fit in. Now, I openly gush over the fantastic outfits worn by the woman who sits behind me in Dutch class. This woman has style. She is so French. So European it is like they are born knowing how to put together a stylish ensemble. And not just that they look dashing in stylish clothing. They also seem to look graceful and stylish in clothing that would make me look like a total frump queen. The look these days seems to be oversized everything (reminiscent of the clothing I wore in the 80s and 90s when I was growing up). A scarf draped just so around my neck would not save me from looking ridiculous in one of these outfits, however. I am just too American.
I will say that I preened just a little bit when my stylish French fellow student gave me a thumbs up today for my own outfit. I had traded my New Balance fluorescent pink, ever practical (except when it rains) sneakers for what my husband calls my “witch boots,” lime green velvet pants from a brocante (neighborhood second hand sale) in our neighborhood in Belgium, a cotton tank top with v-neck lined with lace, and a bright pink wool cardigan. This ensemble is nowhere near the ones she wears, which are organized by color and fabric and delight my sense of sight to no end. But now, I am happy to admire her style and then be comfortable in class in my sneakers and sweatshirt. Anyway, the closest I have ever gotten to heels are my Dansko clogs, and I still manage to roll my ankle in those from time to time. On a side note, while I am not super graceful in heels I also think I may not be alone in the Dansko ankle injury department. At one point years ago, I did a Google search for Dansko ankle injuries and found entire websites devoted to the ankle roll.
Another habit that is oh-so-easy to dive into is the void of bemoaning what is and wishing for what I don’t have.
If we had been able to go back to Arizona, I would have:
A local swimming pool
A stand-alone house
Dry air (aka, less frizzy hair and an interior of a house that does not feel like a steam room after someone takes a shower and/or hangs up wet laundry to dry….come to think of it, I could just put the clothing in the dryer, though the air is so devoid of moisture that if I hung the clothing up to dry it would be dry quite quickly)
A water softener
A dryer to get all of the animal fur off of my sheets and clothing
Room for my stuff
A room of my own
My sibling would be a short flight away (still across an international border so I couldn’t fly all the way to see them, but we could meet at several places along the border for a visit where we kept social distance from either side of the border…still better than Skype any day)
People who speak English
People who speak English who want to study yoga in English
At any administrative building, I have to go the counter for “étrangers” (foreigners) because I am not from ‘round here (aka, I do not belong)
My house is metric-sized and attached to the neighboring house
The air is thick with moisture
There is no dryer for our clothing, and it does not dry on the clothing wrack and begins to smell like mildew after more than 24 hours have passed
There is mold growing in places both seen and unseen
My husband, our four animals, and I are a mighty circus troupe but are still outnumbered by the spiders and mosquitoes who have inhabited this house far longer than we six
My weather app shows rain. Forever.
My husband and I have each claimed a room of our own, and I call mine “the litter box” (don’t think I need to elucidate)
Our internet is one step up from dial-up…it’s that slow
On an excursion across the border to the historic town of Ypres, Belgium, I discovered a material item that seemed like a recipe for countering my propensity for being a contrarian. At one point, my husband suggested tattooing something on my arm as a regular reminder to shift my perspective from what I don’t have to one of gratitude and acceptance of what is and what is “good enough.” In the interim, I can just hold this cup up in front of my face.
Actually, it does work. Even when I am out walking and start focusing on what I don’t like about our life in France, I picture the cup and try to come up with a list of things I am grateful for.
When in France:
Study Dutch, which I was remiss for not having tried to learn when I was in Belgium
Go for long walks around windswept farm fields
Enjoy the verdant fields of unnaturally green grass (the grass really is greener here)
Eat the most wonderful bread that has ever been made
Drink wine. Because. France.
Bring home an exotic French cheese from the grocery store each week
Appreciate my tiny cactus in their smiling porcelain cache-pot (hidey-pot)
Watch “Emily in Paris” and note all of the similarities in our experience (minus the ridiculous outfits that I would never wear and the atrocious American accent with which she speaks)
Eat pastries….holy yumminess!
Enjoy affordable healthcare
Go on adventures to quaint little towns along the French-Belgian border now that I have a car for the first time in four years
I have a roof over my head and plenty of food. My husband has a full-time job. I have part-time, intermittent paid work and a full-time karma career.
The weather app for the area is about as accurate as the one for Brussels, which means that when the prediction is for rain all day, the ever-tenacious sun still finds a way to shine for a sometimes lengthy window so I can get outside for much needed movement and communing with the wind and sun.
Focus. On. Happy!