Several lifetimes ago, two small brothers (and a third as-yet unborn brother) left America with their parents and moved to France where they lived for four years. They went to school everyday where at first they were utterly bewildered and dismayed at the harsh teaching methods, but in time they learned French and came to speak it better than English. They made friends and even become well liked at school due to their supposedly-cool American background.

By the time they returned to the states they might as well have been little Frenchmen, and the process of re-integrating into a new society began all over again.

Two little Frenchmen

One of those brothers was myself. We have tape recordings from childhood where we can be heard falling back on French words when the English ones eluded us. Even over a year after being in the States I can still remember being ribbed at school due to our odd mannerisms and possibly our accents.

At one time, the very same clueless foreigner in France who is presently typing this could not only speak French, I apparently could even write it in cursive:

Now some many lifetimes later I’m lucky if I can get through a trip down the elevator without embarrassing myself, and I can’t write so much as my own name in cursive no matter what the language.

If we are lucky to live long enough, and it really doesn’t have to be that long, we find that we pass through many lifetimes during our one life. Some lives end and new ones begin rather abruptly, others fade away imperceptibly until we wake one day to find all our surroundings have changed and the old life with its familiar people and places and routines are all gone, forever. And yet here we still are, and maybe those other things are still somewhere too, possibly even close by, but between us and all that is a chasm impossible to cross. 

The little boy I used to be not only spoke French better than he does now, I think he was quite a bit better at handling change as well. Perhaps this is an advantage children have over adults generally. When Mom took us to JC Penney we didn’t stop and question the whys and wherefores of this interruption to our day. Great, now we’re at Penney’s. Who knows what we’re doing here, but at 5 years old we’re not used to being consulted by life nor had we probably made any other plans for the afternoon.

When Dad takes us to France and drops us off at school, well it’s rather unpleasant on the first day, but as kids we didn’t have the inclination or even the faculties to ponder the various burdens of existence. Who knows why Dad does anything, but he probably has one of those job things adults talk about. I do remember some tears and frustrations but I don’t remember much questioning or consequently, much resistance. And with acceptance a foregone conclusion, adaptation happened a lot faster and with less pain than it might have otherwise.

At our house in La Ravoire

Coming to France as an adult has made me think a lot about what it must have been like for my parents when they moved here. My dad had just turned 30, my mom was only 26.

They had never been overseas before, yet they knew in advance they wouldn’t see America again for years. There was no internet back then, no blogs or Instagram where you could at least make yourself appear artificially cosmopolitan and adventurous to your friends at home. There were no cell phones or Skype, and long distance calls back to the US were so expensive as to be virtually unaffordable. They had a lot of supportive people behind them but the challenge of figuring out a new culture in a strange land was theirs alone.

Whereas I dread the inevitable humbling that comes from stammering my way through the check-out line at Carrefour, Mom had to deliver a baby in a French hospital after being here only a few months. Talk about being in a vulnerable position!

Of course it was their choice to go overseas. It was something they wanted to do and planned and worked for a long time to accomplish. Even so, the most challenging parts of life often come from decisions we make ourselves.

I do wonder if they ever thought, “What on earth have we gotten ourselves into?” But if there were doubts they didn’t wear them on their sleeve. In the end they managed to learn the French ways, do their work, raise us kids, and make a life. A life that became really quite good from my point of view and I remember being sad to leave.

Whatever else, that lifetime ago definitely changed the trajectory of our futures. Our brother who was born in France and given a French name, grew up to be a very unusual person in a wonderful way. Ironically in one of his multiple lifetimes since he has learned to speak French Creole. My other brother, only a year younger than myself, re-learned French as an adult and has been back to France several times. He may even be visiting me in a few weeks.

The old familiar people, places and routines from childhood are long gone. But here we still are, and somehow, we are back in France eating croissants once more.