Monday, 20 April 2020
Asked the question, "What is your greatest achievement?" obvious answers come to mind. But, whether I have middle-child status to thank for this or not, I have always hated conforming. So, clear and clichéd answers I give you not. In fact, I don't even like the question. Why do I have to have just one? I guess you could turn all pedantic on me and state that the word 'greatest' was used. Q.E.D.
France. That's my answer. Getting there, being there, living there. It was one of the most - and least - obvious things to do at that point in my life. I had ticked off study, work, travel, home, marriage and children and might have simply continued down this path. What would that have looked like? Next step in my career? Nicer car? Home renovation? BBQs on Saturday with good friends? Increasingly brief communal family moments? Dissatisfaction with the mundane or the routine? Who knows? Perhaps, I am being overly dramatic, overly pessimistic but I know that I would have struggled with continuing the trajectory that I was on.
“It was just a normal morning. Almost exactly five years ago. I was making tea in the kitchen. Bobby was still in bed. And we get this knock on the door. I opened it up slowly, and saw the police standing there."
My daughter kept speaking. I closed my computer and sat back in my chair. My son kept playing with his Rubik's cube but edged closer to where she was sitting on the deck, separated from us by a metallic fence.
"They went straight back to the bedroom, and walked up to Bobby. I heard them ask: ‘What’s your name?’ And he said, ‘Bobby Love.’ Then they said, ‘No. What’s your real name?’
Even my husband looked up from what he was doing.
We had arrived on the deck individually, no doubt hoping to give some moral support to my daughter in self-isolation.
"It didn’t make any sense. I’d been married to Bobby for forty years. He didn’t even have a criminal record. At this point I’m crying, and I screamed: ‘Bobby, what’s going on?’ Did you kill somebody?’ And he tells me: ‘This goes way back, Cheryl. Back before I met you. Way back.."
Despite it being a sunny day, despite the fact that we were outside, each cradling high-tech devices, her reading aloud of one of the stories from the Instagram account of @humansofny felt more like a scene from a London living room during the Great War. She was our radio and we were tuned in attentively.
Since that day, Covid 19 confinement has imposed aeons of family time: multiple opportunities for talking, sharing and debating. Not unlike when we went to live in France.
My intention in writing this is not to reduce the seriousness of the health pandemic that we are living through now, but back then, on arrival in France, there was fear, there was uncertainty, there were moments of intense frustration and even anger, there was little outside help and a lot of the information coming through to us was hard to understand.
There was also shared joy at minor successes, solace in diary writing and time to chew the fat around the dining room table or squashed into the car for our hour-long morning and afternoon trips to school or, thanks to an empty social calendar, to sit and have a coffee under the quince tree, or play 'pin the tail on the donkey' (map of the Haute Savoie region) in order to select a destination for a family outing...
Just being there, living there, making it through each day was a great achievement and, with the exception of not being able to choose where to go, not unlike this period in our lives.
But, back to Bobby. What did happen 'way back', before he met Cheryl? I will give you the pleasure of heading to @humansofny to find out. (This excerpt is Part 1/11)
To read more of our family's French story, click here for your copy of 'But you are in France, Madame'.
Thursday, 19 March 2020
Its big steel pockets were filled, and filled me, with joy, but time was of the essence so my selection was haphazard. Sitting on the floor, I would start at the bottom and work diligently at building up an effective and sustainable rhythm: take, devour, replace, repeat. An occasional slight sideways push kept the turnstile in the 'ready' position.
Somewhere else in the store, my father, an important Maths professor, would be doing....mmm, I'm not too sure. In my mind, he did what he did. I was proud of him and that was as far as it went. I guess, though, he was buying books or stationery.
I nearly made it to the top of the stand once. Every other time, conscious of, but not distracted by, the coolness of the big white floor tiles, a dozen or so books would fly into and out of my hands before time was up and I'd be called to head to the bookstore door.
I would never be allowed to buy a book but we did have books in the house. Christmas would generally offer up one each and birthdays had potential too, but these books were so special and so revered that I couldn't bring myself to read them...much like the Easter eggs that I refused to eat and that I would then proudly place on the communal table for my very-long-time-from-Easter class Christmas party.
Time passed and priorities changed. Work, study and all the usual growing-up distractions took over. And, then came France....and time...and the re-discovery of libraries and books and reading.
Today, for many of us, although the circumstances are not right, we have been given a gift of time. What if we embraced that gift and turned it into a magical turnstile of possibility?
What if we opened up and savoured a book?
- a great gym for the mind
- a remedy against anxiety
- a support to help traverse a difficult time *
*Article, in French, here
Share, talk, send messages, jokes and love. We need to feel strong connections from all over the world right now, but I'm convinced that, like the little girl in the bookstore, escaping into books will help too. #tryabook
PS I'd be upset for you to think that this blog was a ploy for you to buy my book. It isn't, but if you don't know our story and would like to find out more, 'But you are in France, Madame' is available in print or Kindle here
Tuesday, 18 February 2020
Sightings of and brief conversations with: it has been a big week for celebrity in my family. Nothing too deep and meaningful, but they have kept our little family group chats animated.
By far my favourite encounter came about as a result of my husband travelling for work far, far west of the Eastern coast of Australia. In fact, in a monster of a day, he left for the airport at 4 am, took two planes, rented a car, drove 350 km, did some seriously onerous labouring, got back in the car and rang ahead to a hotel to let them know that he'd be there by midnight. He didn't make it and fortunately had enough good sense to pull over and sleep rather than trying. The only comfort was the knowledge that the cramped sleeping quarters in the car, not terribly dissimilar to the hotel room he had optimistically booked, cost nothing and were not booked out, plus the fact that he was not attempting to outrun a fierce storm, as he had been the week prior. Bringing his numb feet back to life after a couple of hours of roadside slumber, he raced to the airport to take a 6 am flight and was back in Sydney by early afternoon. Distance travelled: over 2600 km...one way. Time away: 34 hours. Time slept: approx. 2 hours.
But, back to celebrity brushes:
"You've got a rather famous name."
"Yeah, but I'm better looking and can cook better."
Flash, real name Gordon Ramsey, was also a real outback character with a gloriously gravelly voice who, having lived in his remote patch of Australia for many decades, had more than a yarn or two to tell.
Truth, it appeared, was an unnecessary hindrance to many of his delightful anecdotes.
These are the stories and the people that excite me. I'm guilty of the occasional glance at the vacuous tabloid celebrity articles, based on nothing more than the sound of a good headline. I'm also guilty of skim reading whilst champing at the bit to get to my next task, spending far too long flicking through screen posts and neglecting both the pleasure of slow reading and the wonder of debate, conversation, disagreement and acknowledgement.
"Start an argument," I said to my daughter.
She looked at me quizzically.
"No," I laughed. "Not with me, right here, right now, but with your friends, over dinner. See what their opinions are, what they have to say and enjoy the thrust and parry."
Still, she looked bemused.
"Be French," I grinned. "Just, don't forget to close the conversation and leave as friends."
PS I didn't actually use the words 'thrust and parry' - that might just have produced its own, non-sought-after argument...but you get the drift.
I wrote about the contrasts between our French and Australian lives in a previous blog (wow, nearly four years ago). Click on through for some more beautiful photos taken by my husband (who can be found, if you are interested, on Instagram @rustymarmot)
Wednesday, 15 January 2020
It hasn't been an easy start to the year here in Australia. So much so, that the well-intentioned, somewhat compulsory sharing of 'Happy New Year' or 'Bonne Année' good wishes has stuck in my throat. It has somehow felt sacrilegious (which I inadvertently initially spelt scar..ilegious) splashing around smiling goodwill at a time when the world feels dark. I know that I should be mature about this and sensibly declare that that is exactly the reason why I should be emanating joy, but I'm here to declare that I'm a bit over doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
In a moment of clarity this morning, I also realised that one of the downsides to my restless need to keep moving cities/countries - and contributing to my mood - is that I miss my friends. I know. Melodramatic. Churlish. Childish. But there it is. The good old ones who have been with me... and stayed through my yellow tracksuit and permed hair phases. I do miss them, their closeness, their 'sureness'.
In my second revelation of the morning (see, life is looking up), it also occurred to me that friendship happens differently now. And, as if to put a boldly underlined 'point final' to that thought, a message has just popped up on my Instagram feed. 'Coucou ma belle' writes @frenchwithnicole in response to my message on @lostinarles post. I have never met either of these ladies, but I had just admitted that, when it comes to social media, I am still hiding a little too far along the safe end of the ‘open and honest’ continuum.
... just taking time to shake off those New Year blues, I guess.
... time to let go and see where the year takes me.
PS If you have just found your way here, to my blog, welcome. Another story with a similar theme 'Words and friends in a French life' and to read more about our French life, 'But you are in France, Madame' is available in print and Kindle by clicking here.
Wednesday, 1 January 2020
It was still morning and I had already shed a few tears. I had also answered my own question as to whether the airport would be busy not long after midnight on the first day of the year. The roads there, after all, had been quasi deserted.
We were standing in a circle at the international departure gate and my daughter was saying 'good-bye' to us all with hugs and kisses. I was third in line but she by-passed me.
Isn't it funny how an overlay of perspective can change a message.
On this first day of the year, I hope that to someone you are their last.
Bonne année. Happy New Year. And to one special girl newly arrived in Montréal - bienvenue. Have a ball.
PS Price reduction for Kindle versions of 'But you are in France, Madame' until Wednesday 8 Jan for UK and US readers. Link here