I have been to the doctor on several occasions while living here, but so far none has yet said, “Alor, Monsieur Cheche, are you aware you have a dent in your forehead?” But I’m sure it is coming, and when it does my response will be, “Of course! Its from smacking myself and saying, I don’t believe how we have been assimilated into the village! I can’t believe how much we are a part of life here!”
It’s not supposed to be this way. From the very beginning of our travels in France more than 20 years ago, we have driven through literally thousands of tiny villages, paused at cafes, had roadside picnics, or merely sat in town squares watching, catching the pace of life, watching the people, sensing the centuries of lives past. “What, I said on that very first, life-changing visit, is it like to live in such a place?”
Enter Beloved Wife, who, holding a Ph.D. in Speculative Rejection with a minor in Predisposed Negativity, quickly and with cheerful certainty announced, “You will always be a stranger. You will always be a outsider. The French never invite strangers into their homes, either.” She had apparently done her homework.
“Oh,” says I, “what lovely towns and villages! They’ll be so beautiful at Christmas.”
“Oh yes, they’re lovely. We’d always be alone, though. The French never take in strangers at family occasions like Christmas” replies Madame Buzzkill.
All of which held absolutely true until, like, our first ever road trip when we immediately discovered how universally, enormously friendly are the provincial French, and we began, almost instantly, to make friends, real Friends.
There is Sylvain, a young man I met on a photography trip to the Normandy beaches, a battlefield guide with a passion for history. We met, me as his client, departed as friends, remain in touch and visit when we can. Karen met him, fell in love with him too.
There is the family in Alsace, friends of friends who befriended us, and promptly invited us into their home for a gathering of their friends, with whom we remain friends and have been back to visit. There are our Belgian friends who own the B&B in the Argonne. Again, began as customers, became friends. And there is, of course, the miracle that was the entry of Anthony and the family into our lives.
Family is a word kicked around easily these days. Start a new job and you are welcomed to the “family,” until the downsizing gets you a pink slip; buy a new SUV and be welcomed to the Ford Family, or the family of new mattress and box spring owners. The French don’t seem to toss family around like that. Family is more tightly guarded here. It is a more insular, sacred thing, making it all the more unfathomable that we are privileged to have been welcomed into not one, but two distinct families; welcomed for the most private of events, family birthdays and holidays.
We repeatedly and self consciously offer easy outs for our friends. For Christmas, or a birthday, or any other family event we will say, “Look, it’s a family event. You don’t need to invite us…it’s family.” Anthony will respond with thinly veiled disgust.
“Shut up. You are family. Don’t you understand? You’re family. Now, coffee or wine?” We were as honored when Christophe asked us to join him for his birthday fete, an intimate gathering of only-best friends.
Beyond family, our simple day to day life within the village is just as astounding to me. I blather about it but it is true; the depth of social life and interaction here simply dwarfs what we had back in the US, in a very Mayberry USA kind of way. Truly not a week goes by, often just days, that we don’t have some spontaneous and unexpected interaction of friendship that confirms we are indeed of this village now.
A couple of days ago Cecile, the owner of the pharmacie, showed up at the front door. Turns out our erstwhile landlords Alain and Mary-Therese had accidentally left her critical medical card at the pharmacie by accident. Did we think we could return it to her? Easily done, since at that moment Mary-Therese was right there in the apartment with us. I was a little surprised Cecile knew where we lived to find us, but upon reflection realized that probably everyone of importance in the village knows.
That was brought home a day or so later when Alexandra showed up at the front door one evening, with her young son Antoine, who was swaddled in coat and scarf so as to be unrecognizable, looking like a mushroom with feet. With them was a gentleman I had never seen before, a charming gent who wanted to meet us, les Americains, and who Alexandra thought would be a great fit for a new friend. We chatted amiably and allowed as how it would be good to get together soon, when along came his wife, who, seeing her husband was chatting with les Amis, dashed up to introduce herself, telling me how very happy she was to get to meet us.
And then there are the texts we get; frequent, usually unexpected and often, well, really unexpected. Oh, for example just this week. From Anthony:
We have a huge piece of boar from my dad. He killed the boar today. But you may need to ask Manu to cut and prepare it. You should like it, its a filet. One of the best parts of the boar. Are you interested?”
And the answer to that, translated to English is, Oh Hell Yeah!
Next morning, Beloved trundles the haunch of boar a few steps away to Manu’s butcherie to ask if he would butcher and trim it. He offered to do it on the spot, but she told him no, I’ll be back later. When she returned he had not only trimmed it, he had put the massive filet into a roullade, wrapped and tied it for cooking…a good 3 full dinners worth. When she tried to pay him he waved her off refusing to take a centime in return.
It’s the kind of thing that has us saying, with startling regularity, “Ya know, ya just don’t see a lot of that back in Maryland.”