The Stranger Across the Aisle - IV
A vision for our sabbatical year and planting the flag on our family mountain. Part 4 of 5.
This summer we travel around France in a vast circle staying in ten separate rentals arrayed in one-week intervals. We have stops in the Dordogne, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Brittany, Normandy, Burgundy, Paris, the Alsace. The glories of the south of France will be part of weekend jaunts later because they’ll be so close to us.
In the fall the children will attend a pair of international schools just south of Aix. With classmates from all over the world they’ll spend half the day speaking in English, the other in French. We’ve been assured by the headmaster (in worryingly broken English) that if the children don’t speak French by the end of the year, they will erect a statue of them at the front door. Aux enfants Nathan qui, hélas, n'ont jamais pu apprendre le français.
The plan is to visit Greece, Israel and Italy during their school breaks which are split up into four two-week blocks. Friends and neighbors from the States are coming for Thanksgiving. We’ve found a local farmer to raise a turkey for us. There will be fifteen visitors that week, and the our old house will be packed. And still everyone will have their own bed.
We’ve reserved the Christmas break for immediate family. We’ll stay home and entertain even as the Mistrals batter the shutters and great flashes of Provençal lightning and thunder crash through the skies. Visitors in their pajamas will pour out of their bedrooms and meet on the stair landing in the middle of the night. They’ll ask each other if they heard that.
We’ve been calling it “The Year.” We won’t work. We’ll frighten our friends and family burning through our savings. We’ll eat and drink and laugh and stay up late watching old movies if there’s a whim to.
We’re still on the road crammed into our car with our bags doing our great clockwise circle around the country, our family Tour de France, but when we get back to the house in Rognes in September, we’re going to settle in and retrench.
One of the first orders of business is that I’m going to rent a piano that Alannah and I can both play. It will be the largest piano I can fit in the living room without ruining a visitor’s this-is-incredible-Melanie moment, and I’m going to play it at all hours and for as long as I like without the nagging guilty feeling that I’m not being productive. Because not feeling productive is my curse. And I will practice and practice and practice — late at night and first thing in the morning and when the kids are in school. Because discipline comes easily to me; it is my gift. It is the Pandora blessing hidden in my self-flagellating curse.
We’re going to need to buy bikes or find a rental place and get a rack so everybody can ride together as a family because, kid-you-not, if you have never been here, this may be the most exquisite place in the world with its green olives and its lavender air, its white cliffs, and its pale blue Mediterranean sky. God has situated stunning hilltop trails behind our house that are so deserted you can skip along them like the Tin Man, iPod blaring in your ears, and nobody will be any the wiser.
And Dad who’s always been so, so busy will drive the children to school in the morning and maybe pick them up in the afternoon, too. For at least one year of their childhood, he’ll be present when they need his attention. He won’t feel like he’s become the Cat’s in the Cradle dad, and he can maybe let that unsettling anxiety go once and for all.
Because from the beginning I’ve had this vision of our year in France being a touchstone, a flag at the top of the family mountain, a gift for the four of us. I’ve had this idea of The Year coming up over long dinners while they’re in college, and maybe Mom and Dad are visiting and we’re at some restaurant near campus, and we switch casually over to French as easy as that and take a moment to remember our magnificent adventure together.
As if all that wasn’t enough:
On top of this Whole Wild Everything I have the ambition of walking Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Campostelle to Santiago, Spain along one of the four main pilgrimage routes from France. The walk is literally a journey of a thousand miles, the one you’ve always heard about, the one that starts with the proverbial single step. Mine will start at our doorstep in Rognes. I’ve been quite insistent on this threshold detail even though I won’t hit a main pilgrimage route until the end of the first week. Then I’ll backpack for ten weeks through southern France, up and over the Pyrenees, through Basque country and into and across the hot plains of Northern Spain. March and April and then May. Maybe early June.
I’ll stay in ten euro a night pilgrimage hostels. When it’s my turn at the hostel spigot, I’ll clean my clothes beneath the cold tap. I’ll dry them in my bunk on a cord I stretch over my sleeping bag. I’ll tend to my aching pilgrim back and knees and feet and try to keep my spirits up. Officially the pilgrimage ends with a special service in the great cathedral in Santiago de Campostella, but many pilgrims continue for another three days to get to Finisterre, Spain which is further along and out on the coast.
The last of the die-hard pilgrims make this final push, heading slowly and painfully down to the ocean, to the finis terre, literally to the end of the world. And an unremarkable daily fishing life surely moves about them there, a steady life taking little or no notice of them, although maybe the older folks acknowledge the hikers with a respectful nod. And the pilgrims take their last look at the edge of the world, a long, steady look to try to fix and freeze the moment, to will the mind to remember, to please save this, a prayer to the gods of memory. And then the pilgrim turns away and heads off to his bus or train station knowing that he will never do anything like this again.
I do know I’m going to have to come down from all this.
Feel something. Twice a week.
🚨Late-breaking addition before we go to press here. Saw Bottoms last night. It’s howlingly funny. I had to control myself in the theater. Will 💯 be a cult classic. It’s next level Animal House funny. Very raunchy if you can handle it. 🚨
Some of you may remember the description above of walking the Camino de Santiago from the Preface to Finisterre. In the final edit, those paragraphs were all that are left of what you’re reading here. Next Saturday, I’ll post the last of this piece, the original introduction to a much more broadly scoped project for the year in France. With luck this will all come together.
I’ve settled on a publishing schedule of Wednesdays and Saturday mornings. Wednesday’s posts will be shorter: under five minute read. Saturday’s will be longer because I can’t describe someone passing the salt and pepper without turning it into War & Peace. Saturday posts will be backlog writing I’ve completed over the last two decades. Wednesday’s writing will be net new.
Figuring out when to bother you all and what to bother you with is not an easy problem, partly because I’m coming at you from fifteen directions and forty-seven writer voices: Tippi and stories and serious essays and memoir and who knows, not even me, what else.
I’m not sure what to do about that to be honest. I know it’s confusing, and I read that it’s terrible for a writer’s “branding” lacking a clear niche and focus and all the rest. I should only publish 250 words once a week, but the better part of me doesn’t care — and prays, prays, prays you won’t either. Or that you’ll forgive me.
Next Wednesday is another “Actor” entry. We’ll be in the basement cafeteria of an elementary school for a production of A Christmas Carol. I’m going to spend some time with Actor, it’s tapped into something I want to get at. Please indulge me or holler.
And, if you would be so kind, pass the salt and pepper.