Saturday, December 23, 2006

Fighting the cafards

Before coming to France we were warned by the Fulbright people about the winter doldrums that typically hit people during exchanges. They showed us a graph (see the facimile below...obviously I had no help with the art work) that resembles an inverted bell curve with the lowest point of the trough coming in the dead of winter. (Note the precipice at the end of the year too...something to look forward too.)

Beth and I had fun mocking the graph, feeling ourselves to be chosen even among the lucky ones.

It's a little annoying to be so predictable but I guess we have to admit to feeling the cafards or blues these days. It's all about the cultural context and social connections. The former is different enough to keep us off balance and the latter is a puzzle that we've had a little difficulty solving.
The two are intertwined of course with the result being that even the smallest incident can trigger the onset of loneliness, self pity, and even a juvenile sort of whining about the culture. The whining part is pretty simple. It goes something like this...
French culture is so rule bound and hierarchical and they (the French people here) are so reserved and distant.
There is a lot of truth to these observations but as with everything else these truths are best understood in context.
Beth drops off the kids at school on Tuesday and learns that the kids will be attending a "spectacle" in the morning. Some parents are attending too, she learns. There was probably a message about all of this but it got lost in the translation and transmission. Beth is excited about the opportunity to sample a bit of our kids' school experiences and so she asks Colm's teacher if she can come along. The teacher (who is truly excellent, bright and enthusiastic and warm with Colm) smiles politely at Beth, wags her finger and says, "No, you are not signed up. Maybe next time." With that she is off to deal with her students, the matter is closed.
Beth is left there a bit stunned by the finality of hadn't occurred to her that she wouldn't be allowed to go. One of the other parents who had observed the interaction suggests to Beth that she ask Tess' teacher. Perhaps he can arrange for her to come along. But the answer is the same, same words, same finger wagging. The parent appears dismayed but she shrugs. Particularly difficult for Beth to absorb are the words, "Maybe next time." Nobody seems to account for the fact that for her, there will certainly not be a next time.
Early this week the social calendar was looking pretty plans to go anywhere or see anyone. When I asked people at school what they were doing for the holidays the response was typically, visit family and/or stay at home. Beth too at her weekly gym class heard the women there talking about planning for the family visitations, their favorite vodka drinks...
Sometimes people ask us if we are going home for the holidays...that's when I realize that they are probably assuming we're going home for the holidays - it becomes clear to me that we are not on the social radar here yet.
On the interpersonal level, people here are friendly but getting beyond the perfunctory greetings to an opportunity to socialize or even dine together is another matter altogether. About a month ago a couple of colleagues promised to invite us over - in January...that, I think, reveals just how protective the people are here of their family time.
That's why Wednesday was a big day.
I am taking Tess to dance class in the morning when I see our neighbor Crystelle there with her daughter Constance. She says, "Beth says that you are not going anywhere for Christmas?" "That's right." "You can come with us for Christmas Eve dinner, if you like. Yannick is preparing it." I am momentarily at a loss for words. Crystelle interjects, "Of course you should think it over..." "No, no, need. I accept." She laughs at my maladroit acceptance. I am so happy to bring this news home with me.
Then the next morning at the lycee Helene and I meet at a classroom door during a changeover. Helene and Franc are the only other people besides Yannick and Crystelle who have invited us into their homes. (We have hosted them in our place as well.) She asks me how we're doing. I say fine. Helene seems to understand. She tells me to tell Beth that we should come by Friday evening to prendre un verre (have a drink). Bring the kids, she says. I thank her trying to strike a more poised tone...but she laughs at me. "I'm not inviting you because I'm trying to do a good turn...we enjoy your company." I want to believe her, I do believe her.
Two days, two invites...already the cafards are lifting. It's sobering how fragile our sense of well being can be. Crystelle and Yannick- Helene and Franc...they are our knights in shining armor. They are both families with whom we feel a genuine connection and fondness. It's easy to imagine becoming friends with them...
Yesterday we took the kids to the marche de noel in Lege. There the kids get their faces painted and they run happily about with other kids who go their school. We've done right by the kids...they are having a good time here.

I am watching them play when I make eye contact with an african woman who looks familiar to me. She is holding her daughter. I smile and her smile emboldens me to cross over and speak with her. It turns out that we had met weeks earlier on the beach...just for a few minutes. Her name is Ginette. I remember how her husband, Serge, and I had tried to recreate a tour he had taken years ago in the western U.S. We had drawn a map in the sand and had tried to pin down the locations of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver B.C...
In the course of talking to Ginette, I learn that she and Serge have lived in Lege for five years and that we are practically neighbors.
We move the conversation outside where there is an iceskating rink. Serge is out there with their oldest daughter Chloe. In the course of talking to them I mention how challenging it is to break into the social scene here. Both of them agree vigorously. Serge tells me that even though they'v lived in Lege for five years, and ten years in Ares before that, they still don't know anyone here. I am reminded of a similar comment made the proviseur of the lycee where I work, about how even though he is from this region, that since coming to his post in Andernos he still feels himself to be an outsider in this particular corner of the Gironde.
I have to admit that I felt the same way about La Grande for a good ten or fifteen years after having moved breaking through the intitial level of hospitality and courtesy into networks of friendship is a slow process.
Then Serge adds that the Bordeaux area is a bit unusual in this regard. He is from the southwest of France, basque country. People there, he says, are much different, much more open. It is plain that Ginette agrees with this assessment.
I venture an observation that I've been harboring for awhile...the architecture here, I say. It seems to reinforce or even enforce a certain closed attitude vis a vis the outside world. All the homes are enclosed within walls and their entries are all blocked by locking gates. Serge nods. Five years ago when I build my house here, he says. They showed me the regulations and the styles of gates I could choose from. He shrugs that shrug that is part and parcel of daily life here.
They probably help with security I say, trying to sound positive. Serve scoffs at the suggestion. Not really. Besides, here we don't have that problem, not like the banlieue of Paris. No, the only thing they are really good for is keeping the neighbors' dogs from crapping in your yard. I laugh. It's true, Serge says. Only last month I forgot to close the portail one night and the next morning there was dogshit everywhere in my was if word got out around the neighborhood and all the dogs took advantage.
I laughed and said well at least the gates are good for something. That one thing, yes, he said with a wry smile.
We part, they are going home for lunch; we are going to take kids skating. Before leaving, we exchanged phone numbers and agree to get together next week for a snack...we were perfect strangers an hour earlier.

Funny how this stuff works. Reminds of the the line "I've always relied on the kindness of strangers" (which by the way inspired the title of a good travel book, The Kindness of Strangers... highly recommended).
Meanwhile, we're chasing the blues...

p.s. - chasing the blues also happens to be the refrain of a bluesy song I composed a few years back.. the title is Quilt Blessing. It seems a propos now focused as it is on warmth. Here it is:

Quilt Blessing
chasing the blues
to the four corners of the covers
dreams of cotton colors
we're kindling our limbs together

chasing the blues
to the far reaches of the rainbow
dreams of vermillion
under an aubergine sea
we're going down together


Anonymous cjones said...

The cafards graph brought back memories of AFS hosting. They, too, supplied hosts and students an emotion v. time graph for a typical exchange student, one with several ups and downs -- with the biggest valley being at Xmas. Seems there was an upswing about Feb when most students started dreaming in English. Tor, however was a bit of an anomaly -- he was pretty much always at the top of his game.

Time for me to go to bed this Xmas Eve, which is maybe about the time Colm and Tess are checking out their stockings and what's under the tree. Christmases with small ones are never forgotten.

Merry Xmas to all, most especially to brave sojourners across the wide Atlantic.

(received your lovely bird card Thursday... thanks so much.)

7:09 AM  

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