Our pillows are square. The ones on our beds. It’s tough finding the right angle for your neck and shoulder if you’re a side sleeper. I often end up feeling like my head is inside a giant taco. They seem to be square in most homes. Not rectangular like in Canada. No idea why, this is just one of the many little differences that have started to feel normal since we’ve been living here in the small village of Villegaihenc, France. Our town is about 10 minutes drive from Carcassonne where we have been taking French lessons every morning for the last 4 weeks. We try to speak and write simple French words and sentences for three hours, with a merciful tea break somewhere in the middle. In France one ‘takes’ tea or coffee. Like you ‘take’ a nap or a picture. It feels more like a break that way. One of our most helpful phrases goes like this: “Avez-vous soif? Voulez-vous prendre quelque chose?” “Do you have thirst, would you like to take something?” See , not a total waste of time.
You never (ok, rarely) stop while you’re driving in France. The round-a-bout is king. It’s apparently a British contribution but one the French have come to love and master. Sometimes they are small with only two or three spokes to choose from. Other times they are big scary octopus monsters. If you are exiting at the first opportunity just stay to the right and you’ll be fine. If not you must merge over to the left lane slightly then merge back over when you want to be spit out. Don’t lose speed. This is very good for core strength and stability. I feel like a race-car driver every day. Parking is by feel. Most cars have dented corners on the bumpers and quarter panels because you are given about three centimetres between you and the car in front…and behind. Tailgating at high speed is also very popular. So is passing on blind corners on the single lane country roads. The weird thing is, we have yet to see an accident. While the drivers, both male and female, are more aggressive than any rush hour businessman on an LA freeway they are also incredibly patient. We’ve yet to hear a honk. If you are taking your time parking or an old lady crosses the street, no problem. They will just sit and wait. No huffing or puffing or gripping of the wheel. It’s very zen.
You never use the clothes dryer, or tumble dryer as it’s called, unless there is a major downpour. Even then you would be more likely to just wear dirty clothes than use the old Maytag. Laundry is hanging everywhere. Clotheslines, window sills, garden walls and fences, apartment patios are especially popular. Oh, the sheets and towels smell heavenly. I’ve picked up tea towels that have blown down the main street of our little town because they weren’t pegged on sufficiently…to the drying rack by the front door, did I mention this is the main street? I think we have seen the knickers and tightie whities of most of the French population. They also take their underpants very seriously. French women may appear well put together, subdued and monochromatic on the outside but underneath it’s all very Moulin Rouge. Perhaps that’s why they all seem so sexy. They walk around knowing they are ready for a tryst at any moment. I suspect even the bag lady near Place Carnot with no hair and a stringless guitar has matching lacy undies.
Most everyone has impeccable manners and social skills. You say hello, how are you and good day and thank you, to everyone … everywhere. Shop keepers, kids, people who’s paths you cross, dog walkers, the old woman who sits on the bench by the church watching the world pass by and the weather worn gents who gather for a beer together at the corner sports bar Friday evenings after work before heading home to dinner. There is a lot of eye contact. When you cheers with someone you must look directly into their eyes or you’re considered rude. Children and teenagers greet each other in the same way they greet all adults, with a hello and two bisous. A small kiss on each cheek. This process can take a long time but it always happens. We sat in a cafe one day and watched as about 20 teens meet for what looked like a birthday party in the pizza place across the plaza. Each and every one kissed each and every one on both cheeks. The whole process took about half and hour. I have seen big burly police officers kiss each other on both cheeks at lunch break. I have seen rugby players kiss each other like you would tenderly kiss grandma. More than a hollywood air kiss, the bisou is a very sweet and caring jester. Don’t be surprised if I kiss you on both cheeks when I see you.
Drinking. Booze. It’s constant. Like the slow trickle of a quiet stream. Not to excess, although I’m sure there are plenty of distended livers and Advil sales in France. The concept of alcohol consumption just seems so much more civilized. It is slow and thoughtful. It is meant to compliment the food and the conversation not be the event. You would never ‘go drinking’. In France drink is more of a noun than a verb. Wine with lunch, yes please, just a small glass or two. An aperitif before dinner? Oui, merci. Some cold bubbles when you meet a friend at the café for a gossip? But of course. It does help you drift easily into that afternoon siesta. Now I know why lunch is two hours. One hour for lunch and one to sleep off the vin rouge. Wine again with dinner and likely a
digestif after to help…well…the digestion. Our town has a wine cave or cooperative where you can bring your own jug or bottle and fill it with a good quality local redor white from the tap for about $1.50 per litre. You can stop for gas on the highway and have a beer or a glass of wine with your lunch then continue driving. I have never seen anyone drunk. No stupid teenagers howling in the night or up-chucking in the bushes. No obnoxious red faced staggering gents making you feel uncomfortable. It’s just part of life and nobody seems to get too carried away. The important thing is not the alcohol, it’s the time spent with others. The café lifestyle that insists you spend time quietly sitting and talking with each other, over a drink, not a hand held device that disconnects you from those nearest.
While there are big supermarkets starting to make a dent our village still has different shops for bread, meat and veggies. They all have their specialties and fresh is the expectation. Each morning while Lyla and I are still rubbing our eyes, Cam walks around the corner through the early Fall mist and crunchy leaves to the local boulangerie. By the time he gets back the tea is ready and we sit down together with home made black cherry jam from the weekend market to spread on our warm buttery croissants. We stop again in the afternoon for another freshly baked baguette to go with our dinner. Though I know we would never eat like this at home and my pants are getting tighter because of it I still feel it is somehow the right thing to do while we’re here. Life in a french village is different in so many ways. Little ways and big ways. It’s more than the just the language and the driving, the food and the pillows. There is a different feeling about life here in the French countryside. It’s slower and more thoughtful. It’s practical, patient and kind. As our teacher Dominique says, sometimes you can’t translate. It’s just French.