I cut my toenails twice while we were in France. I did it slowly and carefully, always before it was too late, which is the opposite of what I do at home. And that’s how our three weeks in France went—slowly, carefully. The days unfurled. We found our route before starting the engine of our little Citroen rally car. We watched the ivy on our stone house turn from emeralds to fire as October progressed. We wandered. Time passed at a thick liquid pace, each day surrendering into the next not with the violent crash of fatigue we know at home, but with a shrug and a lazy turn of the covers. I relearned how to live.
Over those three weeks, I realized how many things I’d plum forgotten how to do, like listen for birds and make paper airplanes and walk down stairs softly and eat just cheese for dinner. Now, as my last day here dawns at the airport and I break out my husband’s computer to type for the first time in three weeks—not to actually work, but because the words just seem unavoidable—I wonder what I’ll take home.
First, there will be memories of the house in Provence, including the crumbly mortar between the stones that formed one wall of our little bedroom there. The house was old, clearly—although in France, 1904 is practically infantile for a residence—and it since the wall used to be the outside of one building, before the home we rented was tacked on, it clearly wasn’t meant as a morning headrest for an American coffee drinker. When the wind blew, the mortar sometimes loosened a bit and I had to pick it out of my hair.
The houses, which look like Siamese twins from tiny, narrow Chemin Saint Martin but don’t have any awareness of one another from anywhere inside, are collectively called Mas de la Laiterie. They sit on land that was once the town diary, and until the 70’s, when modernity stomped in for real, folks picked up their milk in what’s now our living room. Then the whole place was purchased by an old French Resistance fighter who had retired and, with 3 buddies, apparently started a little travel business called Club Med. The owner lived in our house, and the offices were in the original house next door until the firm outgrew the space and sold the older house to the current owner, our landlord. The resistant lived to a ripe old age before passing, at which point our landlord bought the house we’re in as a rental property. In typical French fashion, the two houses technically have the same address, and save the entrances, which are on different streets and are a good 500 yards apart, it’s difficult to describe the difference between the two if the landlord’s dog, aptly named Caffeine, isn’t home.
Anyway. That’s all to say that we came to France with one plan, which was to rent a fantastic place and spend time with friends and family. It worked. We lived just outside the medieval walls of Pernes-les-Fontaines, a town known for its 36 working fountains. It has an old-school boulangerie with a giant indoor cast iron oven—the kind Bob Cratchit must have bought his bread from—and a single popular café, called Café de la Place, where we spent lunches drinking cheap, delicious local rosé and feeding our child his abominable but dependable French diet of frites and ice cream.
Some days, we’d wander the town, hitting one of the two local aire de jeux with Graham, but more frequently, we’d start the morning with a map, tracing our fingers over the towns we’d seen and the towns we still wanted to explore. We consulted the market calendar and scouted parking and packed the car and left, mostly in quest of a view and something to eat for dinner. It was an ideal existence. We had time to talk, the three of us. We all read books, including one on raising kids with special needs that will, we think, lead to a sea change in the way we’re approaching cerebral palsy. We slept enough to make up for the last decade.
Paris was busier. We had a tiny hotel room and a short list of things to do and friends to see and places to eat. We walked and walked and walked, and rode enough escalators to satisfy Graham for at least a month. We taught Graham to drink out of a teacup. When Jim and Graham pulled away in a taxi, leaving me to go to Normandy for a few days to finish the last photographs for the book I’m working on with Renee Erickson and Jim Henkens, I burst into tears. We had fun, our little family.
Today, honestly, as I see the pink tinge on the puffy clouds outside, it’s all run together a bit. My muscles are sore today—more from drinking wine, I think, than from actual athletic use—but my brain isn’t tired. And that was the other goal, if I remember. We wanted to stop thinking so much.
I wonder how I’ve changed, flying back. I have a bit more luggage. My French is certainly better than it was when I arrived. And in my back pocket, stuffed between the list of antiques markets I found in an old Gourmet magazine and the receipt for my carrot and duck mousse sandwich, I’ll carry the memory of the three weeks we spent as a family in Provence, paying attention to where we were going, and what we ate, and to each other.
I hope I don’t lose it.