les vosges

Last week in the Vosges, I cried many times.

The first time, I was at Julien’s house for dinner. After spending my first morning in the mountains pruning the lavender fields in the blissful October sunshine, and the afternoon crafting apple-pumpkin-ginger jam, I had worked up quite an appetite. Exhilarated by my first taste of life in plein nature, I was ready to relax.

Being my first official dinner invitation chez un francais I was a little nervous. But with  my hosts Guy, Solonge, and Tom by my side, their friends welcomed me with open arms. Over plusiers coups de champagne, Julien had us going. His animate personality was a perfect match for the kind and more introverted Dominique, his wife. After four hours at the table, a game of touche-moi-la-fesse got a little rowdy (don’t ask), and the music was turned on. It started with Dr. Dre, followed by Eminem, Nirvana, and eventually ABBA. By the time the air band got going, Dominique mistook Julien’s symbols for the triangle, and I couldn’t hold it in anymore; tears were streaming down my face, I was laughing so hard my belly hurt.

The second time I cried, I was on a quad, raging through the forest, dodging branches and plowing over potholes. I was holding onto Tom with all of my might, the wind whipping at my face so hard I could not hold back the tears. A rush of adrenaline poured over me, a we passed waterfalls and sweeping autumn cascades. A veteran driver of sixteen years, we even popped wheelies over the plains. Ca va?, he asked me. My laughter was my only response.

Then, came Into the Wild, film version. Curled up in the family room, we watched as Chris, the main character, traveled the country to find personal solitude. When he finally realizes that even amongst the most heavenly wildlife, even when one has created something out of nothing, one cannot be happy without anyone to share it with, tears dripped right into my steaming mug of thé, made with homemade sirop de menthe.

And of course, the onions. While working happily next to Solange, churning the apples from the garden to make fresh compote, she asked me if I wanted to cook something for them. I decided to make a pseudo-Thanksgiving dinner for my hospitable French hosts. After a horrible explanation of pumpkin pie (it just doesn’t come in cans in France), I knew I had to whip up something good to destroy the American cliché. Guy had been chiding me all along, if it’s not ready by seven we’re going to a restaurant! he joked. I was taking my time, looking at the view as I slowly pieced together my American App-le Pie, twice baked sweet potatoes, green beans, and chicken. But those darn onions. When Tom offered to cut them, I happily conceded. But when it came time to put them on the stove, the heat got to me, and a little tear slipped out.

Brenna, what will you tell your family, that you cried the whole time you were in the Vosges?! Guy joked. Little did he know, I would.

The most lovely part about this little adventure was not the allure of a 400 year old stone house in the middle of the forest, because the isolated mansion is a little paradise in and of itself. But the sharing of moments; a mid-morning thesane break next to the fireplace, a mandatory apéro following a surprise visit from friends, a pair of slippers neatly placed outside your bedroom door. That warm welcome into another person’s life is something you won’t read in guide books, you can’t pay for at museums, and you won’t find in hotels.

Merci à Guy, Solange, et Tom pour une belle experience 🙂 Je  ne vous oublierai jamais.

life’s funny timings

I woke up around eight am, jumped out of my bed and into the cold, and set the kettle to brew some Saturday morning coffee. I was leaving Verdun for the day! Or so I thought. I couldn’t help pushing C out the door, I was just so excited to visit Metz! But, much to my dismay, I arrived at the train station and alas, there were no trains to Metz because of the strikes. Foiled again! Those persistent compatriots have really got it in for us!

Yet for some reason, I was more than disappointed about this particular snafu in my weekend plan. Sometimes it’s a weird trigger that reminds you, hey toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Except I wanted to take my sparkle-y red heels and chuck them at the ticket agent’s face.

Even when C bought my favorite, pain au chocolat, I could not get out of my funk. Even worse was a particularly upsetting phone call “reminding me” of my part-time work constrictions under my visa status. As I ran along the Meuse, watching the rowers glide through the water, a sadness came over me that can only be understood by fellow expats, that question inside of me doubting my own abilities (despite all the encouragement of family and friends). I hated my own negativity.

This morning, I woke up, a little less energetic, to brew my Sunday morning coffee. I trekked up the big hill to the Cathedral, in an attempt to bring myself to the one place that is constant no matter where in the world I am. During mass in the elegant, dignified, old crypt church, I watched as children played jokes during the sign of peace, smacking each other on the back and getting scolded by their parents. Ah…there’s no place like home.

I spotted one of my little students, D, after mass, and went to say hello to her. Her eyes lit up when she saw me – a teacher outside of school? – and I nodded a Bonne Dimanche to her mother. When I headed to pick up a baguette after mass, D’s mother saw me and asked me to lunch at her house. Even as my jaw dropped (has a stranger really just invited me into their home? In France?), I joyfully jumped into the car.

D’s parents introduced me to each little smiling, beautiful, daughter – five in total – as we headed to their house. I slowly took off my shoes and followed the sounds of giggling girls up the stairs, the smell of pot roast simmering in the oven. D’s dad a militaire, he took out a map and taught me a little about the history of Verdun, and soon we settled down to a deliciously French lunch. Homemade terrine de campagne with fresh baguette, boiled potatoes with pot roast and mustard, a fabulous cheese plate with a side of Merlot, yogurt, fruit, and of course, café. As the sun beamed in from the windows, we sat in the salon as I watched the girls color and play with their loving parents. D’s family offered more than a delectable and blissful Sunday afternoon. Their kind gesture to invite me into their home completely changed my outlook, and as I walked home I saw Verdun in a completely new (shiny) light. I am constantly amazed by life’s funny timings, by the fact that everything happens for a reason. As my friend L tells me, ca va aller, it will be alright. Thanks to my experience today, for once I can finally listen to her.

impossible n’est pas francais

Last night, I saw a sign! Le sign!

H and I started talking, and at first, I was skeptical. He told me about his fiancée, how they are in love and want to start a family, how it is so beau l’amour (just like a movie, right?) How love is the best feeling in the world, etc. Do people really say these things? Men?? Out loud?? To a stranger?

He asked me about how I am faring in Verdun, and I expressed my frustrations in getting French people to open up to me. He let me in on a little secret, la code secret, au fait.

H told me that when French people meet a foreigner, they are automatically afraid. He told me I must briser la glace. Break the ice. You can’t be friends instantaneously. Of course, I thought I knew this, but maybe I have been too hasty. I want to fit in and find French friends so badly, I have not put myself in their shoes. Americans are used to hospitality, plus I am pretty outgoing, so it is out of my comfort zone to have to work so hard to meet people. I knew cracking the French code would be tricky, but as my friend told me, once you break in, French people are very loving. It does make me sad that Americans who come to France for vacation never see that side of the French.

Today, au marché, armed with new knowledge, I tested out H’s theory. The woman whom I bought a pumpkin from last week was there again, and she recognized me right away! She asked me how I was doing this week, if I am liking Verdun. I told her I am well, and I made a delicious risotto with the pumpkin she sold me. She beamed, and handed me a bag full of fall apples, opening the bag and switching the bruised ones for the best. “See you next week”, she said, as I trotted off, ducking me head to hide the giant grin sprawled across my face.

I know I will make friends here, no matter how difficult, because as H told me last night, impossible n’est pas francais.