France

One Word

At work this week, we were asked to describe ourselves using one word. This word could be anything that defines or describes us, something that explains who you are, how you are, what you value.

After careful deliberation, I threw out the losers like, clever, travel, artsy and settled on La France. (yes, technically, two words – I could have also chosen rule breaker defiant).

To explain why France is what defines me is difficult, complicated…but easy too. I’d taken French since middle school and had always been in love with France. I don’t ever remember deciding to study abroad. It was not a big decision in my life. I didn’t weigh the pros and cons. I didn’t wonder how I would get along overseas. I didn’t even think about where I would sleep, where I would study, how I would eat, how I would take out the trash….(most people probably don’t think about that one either – keep reading).

So, when I started my junior year at Central Michigan University, I went to the Study Abroad fair, picked up an application, was accepted a few weeks later and in February, I was at Detroit Metro Airport ready to fly to Paris. Alone.

It dawned on me at the airport that I was going abroad for five months. Alone. Holy Crap!

I was numb. My chin quivered, as it always does when I hold back tears. As I remember it now, it was foggy, hazy, blurry. I said goodbye to my parents and went through security in an almost dreamlike trance.

~chateau d'angers~

My first few weeks in Angers, ninety minutes southwest of Paris, were the hardest days of my life. My host family was nice but I was a business transaction; a tenant in one room of their home.

~my home in Angers~

I was very shy. I walked on eggshells around the house. I didn’t eat meals with the family, I didn’t ask for anything. I didn’t understand anything. I was so homesick – even writing about it now, I remember the weight of that unbearable feeling – so far from anything familiar.

I cried myself to sleep every night for the first weeks. I would sneak to the kitchen after everyone was asleep and drink water out of the faucet in the tiny kitchen. I ate food out of the vending machines at school or would buy food from the grocery store and hide it in my room. Then I would take the trash with me to school and throw it away in the bathroom because I didn’t know where to put it at the house. It sounds silly now, but I was painfully shy and every moment felt awkward and uncomfortable.

~the kitchen~

After four weeks, I planned a visit to my friend who was studying in another town in France. We decided to meet in Lyon. I got on the train, by myself. I got to Lyon, alone. I had to ask where the metro was to get to the hotel. I had to ask someone where to buy a metro ticket. I had to ask directions to the hotel. I had to.

When I saw the hotel sign, I dropped my bag in the street and I cried. But these tears were different. I did it. A seemingly small and insignificant event: I made it from Angers to the train station, to the metro, to the hotel. I accomplished something. I did it. What else could I do, I wondered.

This was the turning point in my experience. After a weekend with a good friend who encouraged me to speak French without thinking too much, I was refreshed. She built me up and boosted my confidence. I felt more self-assured. I had a positive experience behind me that would propel me until the next one. And it did. I started to be a bit more outgoing; I started eating some meals with my host family, I forced myself to watch TV with them and I finally asked what to do with my trash.

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A Sleepy Moment

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines

 Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines

 In two straight lines they broke their bread

And brushed their teeth and went to bed.

They left the house at half past nine

 In two straight lines in rain or shine-

The smallest one was Madeline.”  ―

   Ludwig Bemelmans,    Madeline

As far back as I can remember, this is where it began. My love affair with Paris started with this book. I dreamt about going to Paris, speaking French, riding a bicycle in a striped shirt, with a beret atop my head and a baguette under my hairy armpit. Well, maybe not that last part.

To say that I have been incredibly blessed with the opportunity to realize my dream would be an understatement, I have been to Paris a handful of times though my thirst will never be quenched. It will never be enough.

A few months ago ( it feels like longer) my husband and I were sitting in the Tuilerie gardens feeling jetlagged and exhausted after having been in Paris only one day and spending the majority of that time in the Louvre.  We had just finished our jambon et fromage sandwiches in the park. I looked over at Matt to discuss what was next on the very specific agenda I created, prior to departure, to see him sleeping in the chair beside me.

This was my first visit to the city of love with my husband and he was sleeping. Just as I was about to flick his ear it dawned on me that that might not be so loving. So I sat there overlooking the flowers, reaching their heads to the bright, warm sun, with the Louvre in the background, enjoying a sleepy moment in Paris and a break from the minute by minute agenda.

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Following in the Footsteps of Vincent

~church at auvers sur oise~

 

In 2005, I took an art history course in Angers, France and realized every girl’s romantic fantasy: falling in love, in a foreign city, with an older man. He captivated me. I could not stop thinking about him. I wondered what he thought, what his hopes and dreams were. Though, I knew in my heart, he was not thinking of me, did not know I existed and had absolutely no interest in me. He was dead.

Vincent Van Gogh has always intrigued me.  When I went back to France in 2011 with my husband, I dragged him with me to Auvers Sur Oise on a personal pilgrimage to see where Vincent spent the last ten weeks of his life.

He was a tortured man. He was lonely. He had some mental problems. It is speculated that he was in love with Paul Gauguin. He had a tremendous love for his younger brother, Theo and the feelings were mutual. So strong in fact, six months after Vincent shot himself, Theo died (in my opinion) of a broken heart.

Despite his shortcomings, Vincent was a genius. He was one of the first artists to use colors opposite the color wheel together – notably red and green.  And maybe I making something out of nothing, but I swear every flower in this town was red resting on a bed of green ground cover. I was (read: am) obsessed.

~a secret tribute to Vincent~

 

 

~red flowers on a bed of green~

After a horrific experience at the train station, Matt, my husband and I were on our way to follow in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh. After about an hour, we disembarked and I had butterflies in my stomach. I had printed out a walking tour and we began our journey with a picnic lunch in Parc Van Gogh, where there was an incredible statue that looked like it was created in the style of his final period.

~parc van gogh~

We continued on our walking tour to the Maison Van Gogh – now a small museum slash tribute to the artist. Vincent spent ten weeks in Auvers Sur Oise and created over seventy works of art.

The town itself was in no way a touristy town, it was quiet, reserved, and paid tribute to the man who put them on the map but in a modest way; the way Vincent would have liked it. There were copies of his paintings throughout the town next to what he painted, so we saw what he saw and then saw how he saw it. The church which he painted, so dramatically, stands towering over the village right at its center and beside the church is a copy of his painting and it makes you wonder was he creative or did he really see it like that? Either way, it was beautiful.

~my eyes~

~vincent's eyes~

 

The last stop on our tour was the fields on the outskirts of the town. He shot himself in one of these fields where he frequently painted – so artistically poetic and so Van Gogh. He died two days later in small house where he rented a very modest room. His brother was able to come in from Paris to say his final goodbye. When Theo died, just a short time later, he was buried in Paris….and then a few years after that, his grave was moved to its rightful resting place next to his beloved brother. Nothing special about their graves. If you didn’t know where to look, you’d miss them. We almost did. (But then again, on a pilgrimage like we were…well, like I was, we looked for them for quite some time).

 

~the simple graves~

At the sight of the grave it’s hard to explain what I felt. Buried here was this incredible man with an incredible talent who struggled from the beginning. He was the second born to his parents after their first child, also named Vincent, died at birth, exactly one year before my Vincent. He never lived up to his parents expectations and was doomed to a destiny of failure in some ways. But look at what he accomplished.

<sigh>

The journey for me was incredibly meaningful. The atmosphere of this tiny village was so tranquil, it was almost difficult to imagine the events that transpired but then again, it wasn’t.

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A Small Moment in Daily Life

A few years ago, I developed a love for photography. I was given an incredible camera as a gift and I became obsessed, intrigued. Behind my lens, I felt like I could see a different view than everyone else, exclusive only to me.

On my most recent visit back to Paris, with my husband, we took a short journey by train out of town to Auvers Sur Oise – the petite village where Vincent Van Gogh spent the last few weeks of his life.  There, I captured one of my all-time favorite photos.

The sun peaked out from behind a single solitary cloud and shed its light on the small boulevard through town and warmed our faces. As we meandered through the winding streets, I thought I heard a bike behind us, so I turned around to see that I was right. There was a bicycle but its rider had just dismounted and turned away from us to ascend the hill, leading away from town. She began to walk her bike up the hill and I fumbled for my camera, popped off my lens cap and captured a small moment of daily life.

~a small moment of daily life~

Seemingly insignificant, this photo represents what France is to me. Classy – the skirt she wore for her ordinary ride into town. Old Fashioned – a bike with a woven basket on the back. Historic – the brick wall that frames the photo. Magical – the sun shining down on her at just the right moment. Familiar – she could have been my grandmother (though I never saw her face).

When I see this photo, hundreds of questions are raised. Where was she going? Was she on her way home? If so, why was her basket empty? Was she delivering something? Bread, perhaps. Where did she live? Beyond the hill, there was a large open field that inspired many paintings from Van Gogh but no housing. Was she on a similar pilgrimage, like me, to follow in the footsteps of this tortured, talented man?

Questions, yes. But no answers, only speculations. What I do know, is that I was lucky enough to capture this small moment and catch the briefest glimpse into the daily life of a women in Auvers Sur Oise.

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