Sunday, June 12, 2011

Déjà Vu All Over Again

I am in France – yes, France – yes, again. I attend a business meeting or, rather, a series of business meetings in Lyon. The last time I was in Lyon was with Mike for the Fete des Lumieres in December. It was cold, a little drizzly and packed with people. Now, it’s warm, sunny, and, surprisingly, not packed with people.

The afternoon was sunny and warm but not hot when I arrived. The Congress Center, the site of our meetings and of my hotel, is across the street from a large park with a lake, zoo, botanical gardens and rose garden - all criss-crossed by paths. My meetings left little time for exploring the city, but I was content with remembering our trip in December. My only personal task was to collect the items on Mike’s grocery list.

On arriving, I decided to take advantage of the good weather to do my shopping. Plus, I was less likely to fall asleep if I was walking. The bus took me downtown in search of a grocery store. But I’d forgotten French business hours. Everything is closed on Sunday – shops, department stores, grocery shops and many restaurants. Exasperated by not accomplishing my tasks, I was “forced” to go for a walk in the park. And that’s where I found French life – cyclists, families on roller blades, a dad rowing his kids across the lake, a young man juggling tennis balls to impress his girlfriend, runners, old couples walking, and others relaxing in the grass. Burly dads with muscles rippling under tight tee-shirts were on daughter duty. A tall, fit, young dad pushed a tiny, pink scooter as his toddler daughter ran ahead flat-footed with arms flailing and dark curls blowing. Teenagers clustered tightly looking oppressed. Their expressions reeked of, “I’m so misunderstood.” In the background, frogs chirped and geese honked as the adults nudged teenage geese (they looked fully grown except for their fuzzy, downy heads) back into the water away from the grasping hands of kids. Ahh yes, life – at the speed of life, not light. Closing stores on Sunday may not be a bad idea.

I took every opportunity to be in that park – in early mornings before meetings began or late afternoons after meetings ended. It felt refreshing, healthy and whole. The morning walks were the best. Crisp, sweet smelling air compelled deep breaths. The mirror-finished lake reflected sunlight so that leaves were backlit and glowing. Birds squawked and chirped filling the air with unexpected sounds. I counted a handful of duck varieties some with fluffy ducklings zipping along next to mom. Fir and pine trees dominated. Some had wiry branches with stubby needles. Others had layers of assertive branches, straight and long. Still others had curved branches with fingers of needles casually draped like curtains. My favorite trees were the sycamores – or plane trees, as they are called in France. They towered with sunlight striking the top leaves while the branches created shaded pathways below. Couples, families and friends strolled in the comfort of the shade.

As much as the park called to me, I could not neglect my grocery shopping. It’s not what you may think – the shopping. The bottom of my suitcase looked like a grocery aisle – cans of tuna filets, chicken bouillon, lavender honey, tilleul menthe herbal tea. I felt like a local. After all, who brings bouillon home from France? But these were things we’d grown accustomed to and could not find in the US. The big news was finding Mariage Freres tea at the Primtemps department store. My French teacher in Cotignac, Catherine, introduced me to Mariage Freres teas. Last January, I bought a box of Mariage Freres Marco Polo tea bags in Paris and carefully saved most of them to take home to Annapolis. The tea bags were sealed in a plastic bag and traveled around the world with us – or more accurately to Texas – the last time I saw them. Unpacking in Annapolis, I searched every pocket of the luggage. No tea. My mother looked in her house in Texas. No tea. It was my sister who solved the riddle. She knew exactly where my precious tea bags were. The dog ate them. Apparently, my mother’s Jack Russell terrier, Daisy, enjoyed the tea as much as I did.

This was my first opportunity to talk with professional colleagues from Europe. I laughed at how they teased each other about cultural stereotypes. I will forever be in awe of how they smoothly move between French and English. Even though English was the official language of the conference it was a wide range of “English.” I was entertained by English with the deep “lu-lu” of French, the clip of German, rolled rrrrs of Italians, and the lilt of the Irish. They comfortably accept difference in language and styles resulting from their long histories. I was included with ease and I felt a companionship now. So much so, that I was surprised when they referred to me as their American colleague. Which, of course, I am, but I feel a closer kinship than that like a distant cousin who is familiar but not.

Everyone asked how it felt to be back in France. The short answer – great! The real answer – confusing. It felt familiar but not quite; comfortable but not. Gone was that first-time flush when everything has a glossy veneer. But I did not feel like a native either. There is a wide space in between. In that space is where my relationship with France will likely stay. I like that space. Mike and I saw most of the main sites when we were in Lyon in December. That left me liberated from touristique pressures and open to observe French life - kids playing in the street, pretty waitresses in jeans and tank tops serving tables and smoking between. The comforting buzz of conversation rising from packed sidewalk cafes and bistros. I eaves drop on conversations, although it’s not really eavesdropping since I only catch a word or two.

Between work commitments I strolled along regular streets past a few charming buildings and apartments that were square, plain and industrial. Old women walked arm-in-arm, workers stole sidewalks for demolition remains, and kids returned from school. Ordinary life. A refreshing change from tourist shops.

Still, the desire for familiarity called. My ego was gratified with my ease in moving through the city, ordering at restaurants, and generally getting whatever I needed. I had a history here that gave an extra layer to the sites and streets. Turning each corner evoked memories: the broad, pedestrian street, the hotel where Mike and I stayed; the fountain from which Neptune rose from the mist, the bridge where fireworks spewed. Food, too, brought back memories. French food was a treat particularly the foie gras and cheese which I had at every opportunity. We had a group dinner at a restaurant next to the Place de Celestin. The Place is home to the Theatre des Celestin. During the Fete, it was made of light. Windows were eyes and doors were a mouth. Now, windows were windows and doors were doors.

Once again I found myself in a time warp, just when I was beginning to adjust to the U.S. The confusion felt stronger the longer I was there. France – US – France. Where do I belong? Honestly, I know the answer. It is here in my odd combination of Annapolis and Smithville. But the back and forth is disorienting. And, I was gone long enough from France to forget the sensibilities. I discovered – again – that even with best intentions, in the US, I measure “success” by how much I get done. In France, I measure success by how much I absorb of life.

I write now sitting under a blooming tilleul tree like the one on our patio in Cotignac. I smile at the memory of its beauty and shade and I whisper thanks that I’m not cleaning the pollen from the table top. My wine is finished and I sip tilleul menthe tea after a leisurely dinner. I’ve written more in the few hours since I arrived than in the last two months. Why does it feel natural here to sit, feel and write when it is seemingly impossible at home? Yes - it’s simply a choice but not a simple choice. I feel inadequate for not having the will power to make this choice at home. Maybe, that’s why artists go to places that inspire them. Maybe they too can’t make this choice when surrounded by pressures of “normal” life. There is a long history of artists and writers who traveled to France and back from the US. I wonder if they too, had that sense of déjà vu all over again. While I struggle with choosing wisely, I will take advantage of this moment to revel in French life that flows in all directions. I guess you could say, it is ubiquitous everywhere.


  1. Nice that sometimes the Universe has other plans for us ;o) I absolutely love this: "In France, I measure success by how much I absorb of life".

  2. I imagine that you saw more conference & meeting rooms this trip than the previous visit to Lyon :-)