Small Moments

It’s been nearly a year since I returned to the US from France and during that time this blog has been put aside for other things, but to the excitement of everybody it is now revived. Although I think the grand total of five people who read this are already well aware of where we’re at, both literally and chronologically, let’s recapitulate for the benefit of future lost wanderers of the internet who stumble across this site.

A few years ago I happened across a picture in a book of the 12th-century cathedral in Amiens, France. That is the somewhat arbitrary moment where the story began that we are still writing about today. It seemed clear to me then that a life lived without seeing that pile of stones would have been a life incomplete, so on the first of December 2019 this utterly clueless American moved to Amiens. Where he promptly fell in love with a pile of stones.

Amiens cathedral

Other than seeing the cathedral I had no real plan of action. I ended up spending three months in Amiens, six months in lockdown in Scotland, and returned to France for a further three months in the fall of 2020, that time to the village of Annecy. That year of travel was documented in these pages.

Ultimately coronavirus and passport limitations necessitated a return to the US. But experiences were had, sights were seen, lessons were learned, languages were butchered, shoes were shredded, friends were made; hearts were broken – and thoughts of the future were pondered some more. And when I thought of the future, I thought that I would like to spend more of it in France.

Obviously the current moment in history is not the greatest for international travel, but the French government was eventually convinced to grant me a visa and I prepared to return – not as a tourist, but as a resident. (If you are interested in the visa application process I recommend reading The American In Paris blog for invaluable information.)

So begins a second journey, but the story of the journey always starts with the story of the leaving. And even though parting only ever takes a brief moment, the leaving is a long process with many dolorous chapters.

Winter at my apartment in Kansas

It is only ever an idea that starts the whole affair, theoretical at first and powerless; pregnant maybe, but invisible and unreal for all the difference it makes around you. Maybe the idea is planted by a picture in a book; what could be more harmless? If the idea doesn’t die, get forgotten, or find itself shot down by the world, it might grow into an intention, a plan, and eventually preparations. Then starts the visible journey of departure, and the first of many increasingly troublesome disruptions to the habitual routines of what will later be known as “that other lifetime ago.”

There is a stage early on where it is entirely possible to announce “Hey guys, I’m moving overseas!” and yet your apartment still looks the same, nothing has changed, everything is where it should be, there is even a car in the driveway for when you want to go buy Pringles. But when you start preparing for the move all the familiar things become disordered and the comfortable environment of home itself starts to look foreign, long before we have arrived in a foreign country.

Instead of storing a lifetime’s worth of possessions I decided this time to dispose of it all. Since that is a surprisingly time-consuming process that can’t be put off to the last minute, I spent months in an apartment that did not look like home and certainly wasn’t tidy. The general tendency in life is to accumulate more stuff over time, not to become possession-less in middle age. The psychological impact of becoming devoid of all things was itself a foreign experience, disconcerting to say the least, and left me feeling as if my self identity had undergone major surgery.

Somewhere along the path of preparation trivial things and routines become tinged with melancholy, even advance-nostalgia. It began with brief flashes long ahead of time: “This is the last bottle of laundry soap I will buy here,” was the stupid thought I had months ago. But these flashes become more frequent until they are no longer passing thoughts so much as a constant affliction, and the trivial things become the profound: “This is the last time I will drive my car with the windows down on a Kansas summer evening,” or “this is the last Monday I will spend in America,” or “this is the last time I will turn off the lights in my apartment.” Anxiety about the future and the countless details of the transition grow to an almost unbearable strain which nothing but the final doing will alleviate, and mixed into everything surfaces perhaps no small amount of self-doubt and second-guessing.

Where we left

For a long while the Big Day looks to be so far off and approaching so slowly as to be immaterial. This phase can last for what seems like forever during the time you are living it, but inevitably the moment of panic arrives when you look up to see it directly ahead and rushing towards you at breathtaking speed. This is when you would trade large sums of money if it would buy you even another 24 hours – but really, time isn’t the problem. If you do not feel prepared it is because you aren’t. And you won’t be, not until after you have gone through the changes that you are not prepared to go through.

The final weeks and days are filled with last meetings and farewells. I feel these are always unsatisfying for everyone: the person leaving is too stressed and those remaining too sad for anyone to relax. These get-togethers are burdened by significances they can’t possibly support or contain, no matter how dearly we try to gild them with consequence. In truth the real goodbyes and all we wanted to go along with them were said in the ordinary small moments long before the words were ever spoken. We realize, too late, how important those times were that seemed so unexceptional when we lived them. But in the small moments are found all the big things.

Finally with a silent sweep all that is today suddenly becomes the irretrievable past. The person who embarks on the journey is instantly caught up with a million concerns and challenges, and grapples at last directly with his nameless apprehensions. In fact this comes almost as a relief – even though it is likely the most difficult period in terms of effort, at least he is too preoccupied, overwhelmed and sleep-deprived to reflect on what was lost or left behind. For those who remain at home life goes on as before except for the empty hole that has opened up besides them. Up to this point it was for them maybe easier to forget the future, but now the decisions of others have caught them up and for them there will be no distractions or novelties to soften the blow.

Where we’ve arrived

Eventually a new equilibrium is established for everyone and all the acute agonies of the disruption fade back into the concerns of the every-day, however different the every day may now be. But the journey to start the journey is always painful, bittersweet, and maybe excruciating. One wonders why anyone does it. I suppose it comes down to a simple hope for something better.

Will it be better? The answer to that question only comes much later, often at the end of the story when we look back in hindsight and with greater wisdom. But for the story of the leaving the answer to this question doesn’t matter. The leaving happened, and so long as hopes arise leavings will continue.

And so on the first day of October the final woeful goodbyes were pronounced and I left the US once more. Landing many hours later in complete darkness I felt I could have ended up anywhere, but the proliferation of scarves and broken escalators gave proof through the night that France was still there. Ultimately we made our way back to Annecy, and that is where we have settled, and that is where we wait to see what small moments the future will bring us.

And that is where our family and friends are not, who we miss dearly.

Annecy

The End of the Beginning

Our planet having completed another trip around the sun, it is now my turn to take another trip around the planet and return to the place called home. America awaits, for me as it did my ancestors. How much they left behind, I see now! They left to pursue a dream, but I must wake from mine.

Faubourg des Annonciades

Before I get too sentimental I thought it would be a good distraction to take a look back at the last year in numbers. In fact I have not been gone exactly a full year, only 352 days. Americans may be interested to know that I did not have a clothes dryer, a microwave, or a car during that time. Croyez-le ou non, I can report that it is indeed possible to live without such things – and much else besides. But I will be happy to have them back when I return.

During my travels I spent 38 nights in a hotel. As such things go I thought this was a pretty impressive number, until comparing notes with one of my brothers I discovered he’d made it to 62 nights this past year. Then I got to thinking about what the number of nights would be beyond which it is no longer fun to be in a hotel, and I concluded it was far less than 38, let alone 62. Brother, let’s try to avoid such numbers in future!

Mont Veyrier from my balcony

Having discovered Candarel sweetener pills in Amiens, I ultimately consumed over 3,500 of them in my daily tea and coffee. This will no doubt be alarming to my mother, but I can assure everybody that my condition would have been a lot more alarming if I’d eaten 3,500 sugar cubes. (I did not count, and do not want to know, how many chaussons aux pommes I ate.)

In addition to the three cities in which I lived, I travelled to 18 others for some kind of visit, sometimes just for a day, sometimes staying several nights. I have no idea how many trains I took, but it was more than enough. With a few exceptions almost all these trips took place in France since travel was impossible during my time in Scotland.

Also in Scotland I went 124 days without a haircut, which is a lifetime record that – for the sake of all humanity – I hope never to repeat.

Rue Grenette – vide pendant reconfinement

I read 38 or 39 books, depending on whether I finish the current one on the plane back (Villette by Charlotte Brontë). As already mentioned in an earlier post I did also watch all 121 episodes of Lost, which was probably less edifying than reading but did help pass the monotonous days of lockdown.

Having left hobbies, pastimes as well as my car behind in America, the main thing I did this year was simply walk around. I didn’t count every step but I believe I walked over 1,600 miles. This is roughly the equivalent of walking from Paris to Rome – and back. We know medieval peasants made this very pilgrimage (Joan of Arc’s mother is believed to have done it), and while it is a long way, I now understand it is certainly not impossible. But I don’t think it took them an entire year, and it is still a mystery to me as to what kind of incredible shoes they must have had then, because I went through a bunch. In addition to the 6 pairs I brought at the start I’ve purchased 5 more since being here, and multiple tubes of shoe glue. (To be completely honest I also just like owning shoes, but it is also true that many of them have been destroyed from overuse.)

I like walking almost more than anything, but the miles definitely took a toll on my feet, feet which had already been through three surgeries before I came here. I swallowed fewer Advil than Canderel in the last year, but not by much.

Route du Semnoz
North Annecy from Sentier des Crêtes – Basilique de la Visitation in foreground

Of course I also wrote 46 blog posts including this one. Having never kept a blog before, I learned along the way what it can be, and what it can not. My goal was to share experiences with family and friends, but this turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. I am sad to report that the majority of what was most interesting about my experiences never made it on to these pages, mostly because it did not take me long to reach the limits of my descriptive abilities.

Naturally enough, the topic of language has often been in my thoughts over the last year. When I think of the tremendous effort it has taken me to learn just a few words of French, or understand even the simplest of sentences and then only when someone speaks slowly and clearly, it seems nothing short of a miracle when a French person speaks to me in English. By what magic can they possibly string together these intelligible sentences in (what is to them) a foreign language, let alone understand the strange sounds of my reply? Although they look normal on the outside, these people possess a true superpower.

La Tournette from Quai du Semnoz

Equally, as alluded to above, I have thought about the limitations of language, even of my native language. Anyone who has ever tried praying to a divine being will know of its utter insufficiency. What (we think) we know about the people around us is rarely based on what they have told us about themselves, but what we have observed, and that over time. Most of the questions we have as adults do not have verbal answers, or any answers at all; and most of the challenges we face as individuals or as humanity can not be resolved merely by discussion. Of human suffering: what minute fraction has ever been alleviated by words? For that matter, what true joy has ever been precisely described by them? This is not to discount the achievements of the poets and novelists, but most of us are not Byron or Dickens, and no word can banish a headache, nevermind a heartbreak.

Language, as with every human thing, has a limit. In the early days of this year I dearly wished I knew the right words to navigate my way through the bakery. These were ultimately acquired, but I have yet to acquire the words to impart to the reader what it is like to be in a French bakery – thus I have not tried.

Le Palais de l’Île

The problem is not actually the terrible uniqueness of French bakeries, nor even the novelty of being abroad. At some point, certainly in adulthood if not before, each of us begins to accumulate a string of experiences that are increasingly defined by their singularity relative to anyone else’s. We drift farther and farther away from the shore of easily-shared anecdotes and find that fewer people really know us; those who do are the ones who have been with us on our journey the longest.

As for the blog, so long as I was merely traveling around, sight-seeing and posting pictures of old buildings, then it seemed to fulfill its purpose, or so it seemed to me. But somewhere along the way the voyage become more than a trip and turned into something else we have yet to communicate (or possibly comprehend). Such a development – for it definitely was a development, and an unforeseen one – seemed like the sort of thing I should most want to write about, but every effort to write anything at at all was always to misrepresent what I had set out to explain. But to keep on going describing only the lesser things was to misrepresent even more profoundly by omission the actual experience I was having. Either way I realized with frustration that I was no longer sharing anything with anyone; at least not reality.

On the last day

In truth, some experiences can only be shared when two people go through them together. A blog is not going to cut it, although there may be other good reasons for keeping a journal, and I hope this one has served other purposes. If nothing else, I trust it will bring back good memories when I read it again years from now.

It may also be wise for that future self to be reminded of some things he learned this year. Therefore, dear Lewis:

  • You learned that visiting a new place can be a wonderful experience. Getting there is usually not. Travelling hither and yon as a lifestyle for its own sake is not sustainable, no matter what someone said on YouTube.
  • However, living out of a suitcase for a year has taught you that material things are neither as important or gratifying as the people who want to sell you material things have led you to believe. This knowledge, we know, will not prevent you from buying more shoes. Maybe it can prevent you from buying more rusty antique cars.
  • French pastries will not go to your waist if you have to walk every day to get them.
  • Stepping into a cathedral, no matter how beautiful, is not a guaranteed way to encounter God; though he may well be there – but stepping into a cathedral is a worthwhile experience all the same, and kneeling in one every day may be good for you in ways that the people who built them knew better than us.
  • You have been reminded that life is not over until it is over. Living as if it were is a wonderful way to miss out on the few moments that make any of it worthwhile. But every lesson takes its own time to learn, and to live as one alive you must become ready to be in pain.
  • Finally, you have seen that even when you have no clue what you are looking for, if you go searching, you may yet find it in spades.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Like an employee who has given notice and immediately becomes worthless to everyone, the looming expiration date on my experiences abroad has served to place my life into an awkward limbo, and often tempted to me to feel the days are become pointless.

The problem with happiness has always been that once acquired it can then be lost or taken, and will be, sooner or later. The process of watching it go entails pain, which most people would say is the essential opposite of happiness.

Église Notre Dame de Liesse

The best thing to do (as they tell us) is enjoy what you have while you have it, to appreciate the moment in the moment without casting eyes to the future, and “to love that well which thou must leave ere long.” And so I have tried my best to do.

Meanwhile the world keeps turning, or devolving as it seems to prefer, but I felt certain the course of history would continue to take into account my dearest preferences, at least for my remaining weeks in France. Of the universe nothing could be more reasonable to ask, and so when rumors reached us of hard times in the large cities, and then curfews, and the closing of restaurants and other annoyances, I did not let it trouble me too much. Always these things happen elsewhere, and always serve to annoy someone else; for example, whoever thought it was a good idea to live in Paris.

Basilique de la Visitation

As for Annecy, I told myself it was like The Shire, a small out of the way place through which troubles never pass. The worst that could happen to someone in Annecy, it seemed clear to me, would be to leave it. And indeed I must leave it, but not at present, and at present we were channeling Budha so the future could worry about itself.

So it went until one afternoon in October, when shuffling through yellow leaves on business of my own, I was pulled aside by a gendarme and told to put on my mask in an area where it had never been required before. A consequence of not reading the news is not seeing when things start to change. Shortly after and seemingly out of the blue, but which was probably a surprise to no one but me, the nighttime curfews came even to this small corner of the country, and with them the end of the Annecy social club.

L’amour dans les Jardins de l’Europe

Finally on a random Wednesday evening Macron gave an address to the country and announced the re-imposition of what he previously promised was inconceivable, a second nationwide lockdown. The French were given scarcely 24 hours to prepare; God forbid they have a final weekend. And what weather we were given that weekend, that no one enjoyed!

I went out on the last afternoon of freedom. Everybody else in the world was out too – meeting friends for the last time at the café, eating the last crêpe, buying the last roll of toilet paper, or saying the last prayer at church which henceforth will need to be recited in the kitchen.

I saw tears, I saw heads in hands, but amongst others the mood was almost festive; though this was possibly a form of delirious incredulity. Confinement means different things to different people. For some it is nearly a joy, a chance to work from home; or not at all, a time of quiet and reflection, a temporary escape from the world. To others it means disruption, isolation and separation, going broke, or worrying about a business descending further into debt. For one American it meant an end before the end, and a sudden collapse back into solitude.

I realized that without ever knowing to say goodbye, I had already seen everyone I knew for the last time.

The thought crossed my mind that perhaps I should just go back to America three weeks early. What could be left to do here, and what difference does such a short amount of time make anyway?

But in fact I do not know the answer to those questions. What could be left to do here? What difference does a few weeks make?

We shall find out.