People have been asking how this new life is going, this dream made manifest in some ways. Dreams don’t step into the real world without alteration—what we have here is life, a bunch of lives, really. Perhaps a story about Thanksgiving would help you see a piece of it and some of the lessons we are learning.
First know, it has been cold and wet here. For weeks. I did not know that I was trading the wet cold of London for the wet cold of France. But that is what I did.
So it was raining on Thanksgiving too. And also cold.
Knowing the risks of too much reliance on the American Thanksgiving story—which tends to ignore the horrors of the colonial experience for the indigenous people who were the alleged guests at the feast—we decided that the idea of Thanksgiving is itself beautiful. Minus colonization and violence and smallpox. We thought perhaps we could keep the gratitude as our centerpiece. So, those of us who were in residence that week—eight of us, from six different countries—decided we would offer our thanks-giving to those who had made our safe landing here possible. We invited the person who helps with the gardens, the person who helps with the housekeeping, the person who found us the house, and the person who tries to help us understand and be understood—our French teacher. Our teacher couldn’t come, but the rest came, bringing partners and children, and our Thanksgiving table was set for 18.
This context, that we would make dinner for people we mostly couldn’t communicate with, was already a piece of what it is like to be here in France. Any social context is hard on nearly all of us. It’s always a stretch to find a word, to make sense, to feel or be understood, to understand others. I mean, I find small talk hard in English; I find it impossible in French. When we thought about hosting, we joked about the competition among us for who got to stay in the kitchen to do dishes (much less work than trying to carry on a conversation).
But first, there was cooking. Almost none of us who were cooking had ever even been to a Thanksgiving dinner, so there was lots of improvising. K and MV, as the omnivores among us, were in charge of meat. K had found himself at a grocery store and perhaps somewhat indecisive (or hungry?). As he tried to decide between turkey, chicken, and beef, he picked them all. Our guests would have a meaty feast. On Thanksgiving morning, K and MV chopped and braised and talked complexity together. Their gite began to smell like a diner, somehow their braised beef with mushrooms and chicken legs with onions and herbs creating the sensory imprint of thousands of hamburgers and chicken wings wafting its way from kitchen into clothes and upholstery. When you got close to either of them for the next 24 hours, all you could smell was meat.
Meanwhile, in the manoir, the vegetarians were doing what vegetarians do, which is mostly chopping vegetables. Piles of onions, potatoes, and broccoli, enough garlic to win our freedom from vampires for a decade, and pounds and pounds of grated cheese gave way to orderly casseroles of mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and a couple of broccoli cheese pies. Finally, the hours of slicing and sautéing and assembling were behind us. All that we needed to do was heat things up. How hard can that be in a place with seven ovens, nearly all in empty buildings? It turns out, that can be pretty hard.
Into the rain one of the vegetarians went, to heat up ovens in dark and deserted spaces to hold the casseroles now in the fridge. But he returned, wet and confused—the ovens were already on! The vegetarians and the carnivores had not communicated their plans to one another, and there were dueling oven requirements. So the next hour was spent negotiating and figuring and racing through the rain with casserole dishes and pie plates. It was spent losing and finding the chicken and the stuffing and the second dish of macaroni and cheese. It was spent getting grumpy with one another, getting overwhelmed, and falling over with laughter.
And at the end of the running and the searching and the jockeying for space in ovens, there was dinner on the table. There were guests packed around the two tables we had carried into the dining room. They had made our full table even more full, now groaning with good local wine, bright flowers and the most extraordinary local dessert, Pastis Gascon, an apple confection that had taken V and his family a whole day to produce for our Thanksgiving. There was laughing and chatter in at least two languages, and there were halting attempts at communication across languages. As the dinner was cleared, we stopped trying to talk, and somehow there was singing. A Basque song, a Maori waita, a Spanish love song. French songs. English songs, American songs. Everyone knew some songs; no one knew them all. So the chorus of different voices mixed and remixed around the warmth of our table on a cold wet night.
So, the lessons you might take from a bunch of folks who think and teach about complexity, development and communication and who now live together in rural France?
There are the obvious lessons: Living in another language is hard. Really hard. This takes up some percentage of our energy every day. (Except for Z who is instead burdened by the fact that his is the only perfect French and thus is called on whenever good French is necessary. Which is often). Michael and I had often joked that the only way for us to really learn French—which we had studied and studied and studied—was to live in France. But it turns out that—alas—this does not happen by osmosis as it would if we were small children. Although sometimes I feel sort of like a toddler. Our French teacher comes each week and we sit and practice naming body parts. I point to my nose, my ears and tell the imaginary doctor which one hurts and how. One day we just practiced spelling my email address (why oh why did we pick such a long company name??). This is hard.
Then there are the lessons that perhaps should have been obvious: everything is a negotiation, particularly in a community where we love to cook and eat together. We are all grownups who have cooked for decades in our own kitchens. This means there were hundreds—thousands—of small rules we might not have known we have. Does one refrigerate citrus? Does one use the same sponge on the dishes as on the counters? Does one dishwash the sharp knives? We are constantly on the edge of our knowing, constantly making things up, constantly bumping into small differences that someone thinks are important. I have a habit about the sponges, but I don’t really care. Others care a lot. I have to learn a new way. I care about the knives and I want others to bend to my will on that one. This means that we need to figure out which of our thousands of rules matters the most, and we have to convince the others that what matters most to us should matter enough to them.
And as the oven story signifies, sometimes the difficulties of sharing just sneak up on us. Sometimes it just feels harder to have to negotiate everything. Sometimes we get grumpy. Sometimes we get overwhelmed. Sometimes the frustrations are aggravating and sometimes they are hilarious.
But mostly, the big surprise I have at this moment, nearly two months into this grand experiment, is how lovely it is, how warm and wonderful and, in so many ways, how easy it is. And perhaps that’s because humans were meant for this, meant to share meals and stories and roofs over our heads. We were meant to care for one another, to help one another, to laugh together.
And just because this story is about the day called “Thanksgiving,” and I am writing this on a day just called “Monday,” doesn’t mean the giving thanks is over. This is the biggest lesson of our little community. Gratitude is our foundation. The rain has finally stopped, but not before eating the walking path along the river and causing alarm about flooding all over this part of France. I am grateful that the river did not flow across the field, across the road, didn’t lick at the stones of our wall. Today the house is quiet, our numbers down to four in the lull before the holidays. I am grateful for the quiet that a dinner for four enables and more grateful that Aidan will join our dinner table tomorrow. This morning we woke to frost on the fields and the impression that every blade of grass had been dipped in diamonds while we slept. I am grateful for the open spaces and the quiet beauties of this rural land.
This is what our life is like here. We find ourselves in big gatherings and small ones. We are splashed by mud and dazzled by frost. And we are always weaving a new song together, the new voices sometimes loud, sometimes halting, but always trying trying trying to find some semblance of harmony, where each voice is distinct and also part of the bigger whole. The music we make is not perfect; there is no possibility of perfection here in this rambling set of ancient buildings. But we have a warm dining room, steaming food on the table, and the desire to make it work for all of us. There is love and shared hope and the quest for understanding. And, on that one night, a flaky apple pastry that tasted like Armagnac and butter and left the aftertaste of friendship lingering on the tongue.