An Ode to Home
This time of year the South of France turns freezing when the sun goes down. The climate is only like California for those who leave before Labor Day, which doesn’t exist here. The giant sycamores lining the street into our village change color every year just as my beloved St. Louis Cardinals are eliminated from the playoffs. All summer they’re strong and beautiful and suddenly they’re withering until they fall ignominiously, breaking my heart. It happens with the leaves too.
When the clocks jump back here, on a different day than in America, I’m temporarily thrown off kilter. Do NFL games start at 7pm or 6? Can I still call my mother in Los Angeles early in my morning? Do we invite the Hussons at 5:30 (disturbingly early for an apéro) so we can watch the sunset from the patio? Do I change the manual clock in the car or just leave it? Decisions long ago made get thrown back at me and I must deal with the anxiety of re-deciding. I never get used to it.
As each fall creeps toward winter I’m confronted with an advancing life that feels less American than my dreams: Halloween here is a macabre affair dominated by cheap-looking witches and white-faced ghouls. The sense of humor is different: Last year I dressed as an evil clown and walked up my street dragging a rusty scythe, which I found hilarious until the police showed up.
My children — largely blonde and light-eyed rather than the dark mediterranean look more common here — send Snapchats to their friends in a French-English pidgin indecipherable to an adult. My older son follows the English Premier League and wears a Bayern Munich jersey, when I’d prefer he follow the National League and wear Stanford cardinal. My younger daughter jabbers in French all day yet eschews all televised media except Netflix. She locks herself in her bedroom for five hours at a stretch devouring episodes of Friends. I hear her laughter from the hallway.
If I had a dollar for every holiday taken by the French I’d have more unearned money than Bobby Bonilla. But in November the only holiday is Armistice Day and finding a turkey is an ordeal. No one understands the cultural importance of the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving, and Black Friday is just another day here: big sales are illegal except during specific periods, sanctioned by the government.
But the worst part of the onset of year’s-end is the feeling that I’ve done so much less than I was sure I would back in January. And that I’m running out of time.
Work goes, but less well than I convince myself it would if I had stayed in the US. I will never be the CEO of Slack. We didn’t drive to Italy this year and my wife still hasn’t been in Bruges. Sometimes she still tears up when talking about going to Target. The Cannes Film Festival is down the road but the only movies I watched were on airplanes. Hope has faded that I will ever again bench press what I could in 2011. I missed too many of my son’s soccer games and didn’t tell my daughters often enough how smart they are.
For the 9th year in a row I will miss my mother laying Thanksgiving pies out to cool on the counter and my father gathering everyone into the dining room for a long, heartfelt prayer that makes the grandchildren fidget. He is more stooped now; my mother has rheumatoid arthritis.
As I’m getting to work my sister will iMessage selfies of the Black Friday midnight stampede at a strip mall in Phoenix and will then go back to her house and eat pie with my brothers at 2:30 in the morning while they laugh and reminisce. As Christmas approaches and the incessant December rain falls in Mougins, my siblings will surround my parents’ enormous Christmas tree while the grandchildren jump on the trampoline outside in the sunshine. Those images of The Beautiful America will tear my heart out.
But each year here has its rewards. In April my old friend Saad drove us to the property on which he’s building his home in the hills outside Amman. Fifty miles from the bombs destroying Syria I saw Israel across the valley and heard goats bleating for their mothers amongst the scrub oak and shimmering light. When a few days later we prepared to ride down the narrow canyon leading to the treasury at Petra for 20th wedding anniversary photographs, a shopkeeper ran out and handed a traditional scarf to my wife. “Put this under you in the carriage to keep your dress clean”, he said in Arabic, and refused payment for his kindness.
French people of both genders seem to swoon at my grating American accent. I understand Ramadan and l’Aïd now, and what it feels like when someone says “Go back to where you came from”. My children’s friends come from a dozen different cultural backgrounds and most everyone here speaks two languages, which means they inherently understand that the American Way may not be the way at all. And this spring our Pierre de Ronsard bloomed in an impossibly beautiful way, with hundreds of perfectly white-pink cabbage roses climbing the stone wall of our house.
A few weeks ago a photographer came and took pictures of the six of us, in the old village and at the beach. It was the same photographer we had eight years ago when we were new here, taking photos in the same spots. To see my children grown, and my wife even more lovely than she was then, reminded me that time can be as kind as it is cruel. And in May when I saw my oldest daughter in San Francisco for the first time in nine months — to bring her back from a high school year spent in Arizona — I broke into tears as we embraced. Living so far from those most important helps one realize love transcends distance. Perhaps, then, it can transcend time and just maybe we can somehow, in some way, last forever.
French employment law is killing the country, airplanes don’t have Internet and supermarkets look as if they were stocked by a tennis ball launcher. But trains and roundabouts are to die for, the health care is incredible and no one calls Donald Trump a “candidate”. I even suspect they’re starting to get Halloween.
It’s those little things that stick out more than the magical or the incredible that feels so de rigeur in America. There’s perhaps more of the quiet, the peaceful, the almost imperceptible here. I can’t tell if I appreciate that because I’m getting sappy in middle-age or because I’ve been gone for so long.
But absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
I work often in Paris so rent a tiny hovel on the first floor of a building that gets no sunlight; as if there was any sunlight in Paris to get anyway. I have never met a neighbor. One day in June I was locked out by accident, but the weather was so good I decided to spend the night on the roof. As I climbed out an open window from the 6th floor the view literally took my breath away: there was the Eiffel Tower, bigger and more beautiful than even at sunset from Trocadero. Three working years I’ve spent at this apartment and had no idea such a view existed.
A few weeks later I found myself in the same place, alone on Bastille Day, July 14th. As night fell I heard fireworks on the Champs de Mars and went to the roof again. There exploding from the Eiffel Tower were the most beautiful pyrotechnics I had ever seen set to music, the colors and shapes impossible to describe. France celebrating her independence.
As I stood a hundred feet up on a four inch ledge I was taken back to when I was seventeen years old, watching a similar show at the Washington Monument. We all cheered as the bombs burst in air, listening to John Mellencamp’s Pink Houses. “Ain’t that America”, he sang. “Something to see.” The future was wide open.
Years later I saw both events simultaneously as I white-knuckled the Haussmanian windowsill. The future is more narrow now, and I’ll probably always be a stranger in a strange land. But I’ve also become a better version of the American me: one who loves the world as if it’s the neighborhood from which I came.
The crowd below cheered. “Happy Birthday America”, I whispered.
It was like most everything around here: a little late, a little hushed, but worth it to have been there. I can’t say I have any regrets.