There’s a story in my family that has become our motto. Once upon a time, my mom was talking to my great-aunt Betty, telling her about her upcoming trip to Italy. My mom, who was nearing 70 and hadn’t been out of the country for quite a while, was telling Aunt Betty how she was feeling a bit nervous about the whole thing. Aunt Betty, then in her late 90’s, ignored all that and said “Oh, do it while you’re young! I never regretted any of my trips”. So whenever I feel time creeping up on me, I think of her, and I think of how my future self will likely look back on this time as a golden age. Young is always relative.
A friend gave Mark the Dr. Seuss book Oh, The Places You’ll Go during a time of great uncertainty in our lives, and it has served us well ever since as words to live by. Like everyone else, we’re now stuck in the doldrums, in what Dr. Seuss called The Waiting Place and what the French call reconfinement.
…a most useless place. The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or the waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
While we’ve been waiting, cooling our heels and growing our hair, our physical driver’s licenses arrived. Hooray! These in hand we can rent a car, something that was not permitted by our temporary licenses. But seeing as how we’re only allowed to go 1 km from home, it seems like another one of 2020’s cruel jokes. I’ve made a shrine to the god of travel, who is of course the Michelin Man. I will be sprinkling it daily with coffee from a thermos, the holy water of the road trip, and beseeching for better days to come.
Occasionally on an excursion, Mark will look at me and say, Monster Park, Maer, and I’ll know exactly what he means. It sums up for us in one short phrase all the squealing delights of wandering around, looking at things, and getting surprised. We went there in 2016, midway through our 9 month are-we-really-going-to-pack-up-and-move-to-France-? tour.
What the hell is Monster Park? It’s a 16th century sculpture park/garden near Viterbo, that was commissioned by a great patron of the arts as a place of consolation after his beloved wife’s death. It was done in the Mannerist style, which is what art became after everyone got sick to death of the stifling symmetrical classicism of the High Renaissance. Which basically means art got weirder and a lot more fun. Then it fell into decay (the park, not Mannerism), and that must have made it all the more delicious, spooky, and surprising for anyone stumbling upon it. Dali made it famous in a short film and then in a painting in the 1950s, and afterwards the park was renovated and reborn as a tourist attraction. Without further ado: Monster Park!
We don’t generally think of France as being Roman, Italy of course has that claim wrapped up. But France was indeed Rome back in the days of empire. There’s even an arena smack in the middle of Paris, for Jupiter’s sake! France, particularly Provence, has excellent Roman remains. Not all are ruins, there’s a bridge (Pont Julien) that was still in use for car traffic until 2005. I’d once read that the best preserved, most intact examples of Roman engineering and architecture were found in Southern France. In your face, Italy!
Nîmes is probably my favorite Roman French town, and at just a half hour by train from Montpellier, it’s easy to go and hang out there for a few hours or the day. All the good stuff is easy walking from the train. I love how very ordinary it all is. Turn a corner, and there’s the arena, just hanging out in the center of town.
But first, a shopping trip adventure! We went to an international grocery store that is in the next town over from Montpellier, but which is so difficult to get to via public transportation that we hadn’t gotten there until we were able to tag along with Paul and Paula during their rental car fest. It’s called The Five Continents, and judging from its products, they’re counting the British Isles as its own continent, which is terribly British in my opinion. I wondered if there was anyone who would be as excited to see their selection of tinned meats as I was to find their large selection of Mexican food? I never thought that finding big bags of pinto and black beans would count as a red-letter day, but that was before I moved to France. The only thing I miss from the US besides y’all is Mexican food.
From our front windows on the 7th floor (8th floor to y’all in the US), we can see the local iconic mountain Pic Saint Loup in the foothills of the southern Cévennes range. At only 2100 feet it just squeaks past being considered a hill. Friends Paul and Paula had been wanting to hike it for some time, so during their last hurrah car rental week we tagged along. Hill or mountain, I don’t care, it’s all fair game for a day trip in my book.
It took us about 45 minutes to get to the trail head from Montpellier. We’d been warned that the trail is quite rocky; Paul noticed that the trail is where the rain washes, the path of least resistance which has eroded the topsoil. It occurred to me that the rocks were the bones of the mountain that we were climbing.
I’m going to start writing more frequently, on a schedule (-ish). To see if I can write without being first inspired, or rather to make inspiration in the doing, like when I used go into my studio just to mess around and to see what would happen. As with all of my experiments, this is subject to change. This blog is the travel journal that I’d long meant to keep but never managed to keep up with. A way of formalizing memory, of putting words and pictures together, where we’ve been, what we’ve done and thought. Of what our plans are because those get revised so frequently. And as memory also gets frequently revised, this is meant to keep my future, misremembering self honest. Writing “publicly” makes me think and write more deliberately, and as we carry very little with us, this functions as a dematerialized travel journal. Whether or not this is actually public in the broad sense doesn’t matter, I’m perfectly happy sitting here muttering to myself!
Pop the champagne! Mark has passed the practical portion of the French driver’s test ! After far, far too long (some due to our schedule, much more due to Covid and the slog that characterizes French bureaucracy), Mark is now legal to drive in France. Getting our driver’s licenses has been the single hardest thing we’ve done in setting up our lives here. I swear I will fight anyone who trash-talks a US DMV in my presence.
We’ve been nowhere but home lately, with very few exceptions. This feels strange for someone whose life’s aim is going places and walking around looking at things. A few years ago, when we’d just moved to Paris but were away, I was talking with my mom and I said that we were going home tomorrow. She paused for a second and said, oh wow, I just realized that home means Paris. So my mom got it right away, we did in fact live abroad. It wasn’t just a trip, we had shifted our allegiances. Friends were a bit slower on the uptake. Anytime I said we were going home, they thought I meant returning to the US. Confusion and disappointment ensued. Much like this whole freaking year, but confusion and disappointment is only the tip of that whole melting iceberg.
It has been a long and tortuous road getting French driver’s licenses. In an absolutely unfair twist of fate, I now have the right to drive (in the form of a temporary license), and Mark does not. See, we’re allowed to exchange our US licenses, given that they’re issued by Illinois, one of 17 states that have reciprocity with France. (I don’t know why, I’ve learned it’s best not to ask. To try to understand the logic is a recipe for madness.) You must make your exchange request before the end of your first year of residency. As fate would have it, the end of our first year coincided with the bureaucratic untangling that is Brexit, resulting in hundreds of thousands of resident Brits now needing French driver’s licenses, and the simultaneous centralizing of the exchange process, causing a backlog that increased every time I dared check on it. Ultimately, mine came 18 months after submission, arriving right before confinement. The next step, post-confinement, was to mail in my original Illinois license, and in return I got my temporary French one while they confirm its validity. Continue reading →