Many Lifetimes

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.

About Town

This blog hasn’t had enough pictures yet, so here are some from about town.

The cathedral isn’t the only interesting church here, as we saw with Saint Martin earlier. Here are two more a very short distance from the cathedral.

l’Eglise Saint-Leu
l’Eglise Saint-Germain

I’ve yet to find a good place to photograph the cathedral exterior, it is surrounded by buildings and there is no high ground nearby. But here are a few attempts anyway.

The Somme river passes through the old town and the picturesque St Leu district is located along the northern bank.

The Amiens belfry (Beffroi d’Amiens) is across the street from my apartment and I pass it every day to visit the cathedral or go anywhere else downtown.

The ruins of the convent of the Grey Sisters (couvent des sœurs grises), a Franciscan order that dates to the 15th century, is visible from the windows of my apartment building. Like most other religious property it was appropriated by the state during the French Revolution and not apparently taken great care of afterwards; what remained in the 20th century was mostly destroyed by bombing during WWII. Now only the cloister walls still stand, with a grassy square within.

View from the 6th floor of the apartment
Square de Sœurs Grises

During December downtown Amiens is completely crowded with Christmas decorations and small red stalls selling all manner of sweets, crafts and gifts in what they call Le Marché de Noël (Christmas market). I have taken some video but not many photos yet. This one shows the Christmas tree in front of city hall.

Outside the cathedral, blurry and befuddled as usual.

A First

Prior to moving I tried to line up an apartment from the US, which is a story in itself. There were two that seemed willing to rent to me and in the end I was fortunate enough to be accepted into what I think is better of the two.

But just to see what my alternate future would have been like, today I decided to walk over to the area of town where the other one is.

We had clouds all day but no rain and the forecast showed a decreasing chance as the day wore on, so naturally I decided not to bring my umbrella and even more naturally the skies let forth no sooner did I walk out the door.

While passing a bus stop a guy approached me for money, and when I told him I didn’t speak French he launched into very good English, albeit with a thick African accent. I never give money to strangers just out of principle (not sure what principle that is exactly), but in this case I was so happy to be able to speak to someone in English I gave him a little just to keep him around for a moment.

I couldn’t begin to pronounce his name but as we sheltered from the rain under the bus stop this guy told me he was from Rwanda. He’d been in Europe 15 years he claimed, but it quickly became apparently his real dream was to make it to the US. He told me he’d met many Americans who said they’d help him gain admittance, but they all ghosted him once they left France.

Not apparently deterred by these previous betrayals, he was very desirous of me helping him make it to the Promised Land.

“When you get back to America call me, and tell the immigration office I’m family so I can come over.”

“I don’t think they’d believe me because you know, we really look quite different.”

As in day and night.

“Well anyway you can just tell them I’m a friend.”

“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way,” I said. In fact I told him if he really wanted to get to America he needed to forget about the official channels altogether, that takes years even for people who qualify. I told him the place he really needs to get to is Mexico and from there entrance into the US is easy and he’d be welcomed with open arms.

However as he rightly pointed out, to even step onto an international flight he’d need to show a passport so that route was never going to work. He seemed fairly unhappy about his lot in this matter, but continued to try to convince me that I could easily help him if I’d just make an effort.

I remarked that getting to France from Sub-Saharan Africa seemed pretty good to me, and how did he like it? Well according to him France had a superior health care system to America’s, where he was convinced you need lots of money to get care (not wrong), but on the other hand according to him the French people place too much emphasis on education and treat as second class citizens those without sufficient achievements in the proper schools. I can’t speak to that personally but I can say it’s not the first time I’ve heard the sentiment.

“The great thing about America,” he said, “is that their buildings aren’t so old. Look around,” he said as he swept his arm at the beautiful stone structures all around us, “you won’t see stuff like this in America!”

I allowed as he was right once again. Whether that’s a good or bad thing I guess depends on your perspective.

Anyway we parted and he said God-bless and I said à Dieu . It was the longest conversation I’ve had with anyone since I’ve been here and I appreciated it very much.

Walking on I eventually saw the other apartment and concluded that I was glad my alternate future hadn’t panned out.

From studying the maps beforehand I also knew there was a church nearby that I wanted to get a picture of so I headed in that direction next.

I have seen almost no (seemingly-) homeless people here but the downtrodden that I have seen have been hanging out at churches. There was a malingerer at this church as well, and pretty much no one else since it was raining and this was the “sleepy neighborhood” (a selling point mentioned by my alternate future landlord).

I really didn’t want to mess with this guy but due to the trees the only spot to take a picture was right near where he was sitting.

As soon as he saw me he roused himself and confronted me, clearly drunk and in a bad mood. He said something to the effect of “what do you think, you can just take a picture anywhere you want?”

Hoping that like the last guy all he really wanted was money I tried to put him off by telling him I don’t speak French. But apparently what he wanted most was to be belligerent.

He kept haranguing me with words I didn’t understand and exhibited the same ignorance of personal space I have come to expect from the French. This is all in a day’s work for me, so thus far I was not too bothered. But then he escalated by grabbing my camera. I yanked it back and said Laissez-moi!

I turned around to leave at which point he gave me a half-hearted kick and spit on my back.

You’d really like to think that when your time comes to get spit on you at least have the composure to be prepared for it, but I didn’t see this one coming. I’d been less surprised to be robbed or shanked or beheaded by ISIS. Heck, it wouldn’t surprise me to get arrested just walking down the street, everywhere I go here I already feel like a not-so-secret impostor.

But since at that moment we were both already getting drenched by rain from the same God I guess it didn’t much matter if he added some spit to the mix, and as he didn’t follow me across the street that was the end of that.

When I got home I had to Google “laissez-moi” to see if I’d been talking gibberish again. The problem with Google is that it will tell you what Google thinks but not what French people would actually say. Maybe it meant “leave me alone” or maybe it was an incomplete sentence. I don’t know where I got those words from and even more stupid is how I keep trying to speak French when it would make a lot more sense just to say something in English. I’m pretty sure everyone knows English swear words. (But Mom if you’re reading this, I mean “everyone but me.”)

So ends another day. I wasn’t macheted by a Rwandan but I did get spit on by a Frenchman.

L’église Saint Martin (from a block away)