After what seems like years living in the French countryside (it’s been a scant 8 months), I can more fully appreciate the contrasts between this and my time living in Paris (which lasted 6 years).
At the risk of repeating myself–I discussed this subject briefly in a previous post, I believe–I wanted to provide a more detailed picture of the differences between city life and country life. Some of these differences are universal. Some are perhaps uniquely French, especially when they relate to owning a chateau…
It seems that our chateau holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the people who live in the area. This may be true of all chateaux in all of France. I don’t know. But what I do know is that people consider the property to be, in a sense, public property, as it is part of their history–national and local, ancient and current, factual and mythological–and treat it, and us, as such.
Since the day of our arrival, residents of the area have dropped in unannounced at all hours of the day–and sometimes night–to confirm the local gossip about inquire about us as new owners, introduce themselves as the local mayor, fire chief, neighbor, or simply interested passersby.
Never mind the ‘Private Property – Entry Prohibited’ signs that are posted (in French) at every entrance to the place. The locals stroll by them obliviously, climb over our makeshift but formidable barriers, then proceed to marvel at the chateau and to investigate the outbuildings, to knock on the front door, to ask if they can take pictures (No, merci), or to inquire about the chateau’s non-existent tours.
Ironically, it is the local children who, noticing the signs and barriers on the driveways, have been most respectful. They once treated the property like a public park, riding their bicycles with abandon among the crumbling outbuildings and overgrown forests. Now, they simply cruise the perimeter, content to look on at a distance until we actually do open for the public.
To summarize this aspect of life here, I would say it’s a little like living at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s estate in Memphis. It may be private property, but emotionally, well, it’s public domain.
And it’s not only the curious who ‘just show up’ at our front door. Vendors, neighbors, and the frequent lost traveler all seem to feel free to arrive at any hour to ask for directions (I don’t know where the chicken farm is), have a conversation or coffee, drop off an invoice or estimate, discuss the garden or the gutters. It has become almost impossible to get any creative work done. Obviously, the blog has been neglected. Progress on the next book has stalled. Only recording songs for my page on Soundcloud has continued with any consistency. (Watch for another song to be uploaded later this month.)
Frustration has mounted with this always unpredictable and usually unmanageable environment. I was certain that a move to the country would provide more isolation, more time for writing, more productivity on the creative front. Not so. Hopefully the colder, wetter winter months ahead will discourage the daily traffic and reduce the daily tasks, but I remain uncertain about that.
Chateau maintenance and renovation is a startup business that you live in.
The 10 to 12 hour days, six days a week, have taken their toll. Surprisingly, the physical work has not been fatiguing–it’s been energizing. Yes, we’re tired at the end of the day, but my wife and I are in much better physical condition now than we were walking the streets of Paris everyday. We’re eating farm-fresh (literally) vegetables that come directly from our garden. We’re breathing fresh air.
What we are not doing is getting dressed everyday. By that I mean this: we wake up, throw on some clothes, grab some fruit or oatmeal to fuel ourselves, then head off to the garden, the outbuildings, the rooms (I think there are about 30 in the 9,000 chateau) and start to clean, repair, pick up, haul, dig, dump, or destroy something. Gloves and protective eyewear are par for the course. Chainsaws and trimmers, shovels and hammers, sweat and profanity–all are in use most every day.
Absent is any concern for appearances, which caused us concern initially when people would, you know, just show up. (See above.) We soon learned to not worry about this because, you know, they don’t worry about this. Nobody dresses up. Dress codes are nonexistent. Clothing is purely functional. Style is a foreign concept. Personal hygiene is a broad term practiced at times in a very casual manner…with sometimes startling results.
Everyone wears work boots or sneakers, Wellies when it’s raining, or if they’ve just come from the fields, which is not infrequent. Haircuts are practical and, for the women, short, with very few having locks that touch their shoulders. (Wash and wear.) Clothing runs a very narrow gambit from jeans, t-shirts, workwear, to cut-off jeans, sweatshirts, and my personal nemesis…cargo pants. There is no difference between what people wear when they are working and what they wear to dinner or to church or to anything else.
It is, to summarize, the polar opposite of Paris. I may have mentioned that one aristocrat warned me that I would need to make regular trips to Paris or else ‘You’ll forget to polish your shoes and comb your hair.’ Country life would erode elegance, he warned me in all seriousness, and this was a threat more dangerous than fire to the chatelain. (More on this in a moment.)
In terms of the pace with which work is contemplated, initiated, and completed, it is also different. Make no mistake: work does get done out here. Family farms prosper as a result of long hours, patience, planning, and skill. However, just when work gets done is very fluid. People will commit to talking to someone or coming by to do something here at the house. When we first arrived, no one ever followed through. We spoke with a half dozen electricians who came by the chateau, walked through, discussed the necessary repairs, promised to send an estimate, and were never heard from again.
That’s typical, we soon learned. Slowly, however, through referrals of neighbors and a few reliable vendors, we have now learned that most of the time people will do what they say they’ll do…we’re just never sure of when that will happen. We’ve learned to be patient…and persistent.
Not that being persistent to the point of being pushy is a problem here. French people living in the country can be surprisingly pushy. This has caused me, the ever-diplomatic gentleman, a few moments of awkwardness and a newfound sense of Pushing Right Back. While the French as a people are overall one of the more polite cultures I’ve encountered, they do have their moments when they simply insist that something must or can’t be done. I’ve had to politely but firmly take adversarial positions with everyone from rental car companies to hardware store clerks.
When I conveyed these thoughts to an American friend in Paris, he admitted that I was too nice, too easygoing, and that some French people would recognize that and attempt to take advantage. I’ve taken that on board, as they say, and now I find myself a little less open, a little less agreeable, and a little happier with the results in the social sphere.
It’s never too late to learn and grow, I tell myself.
And as I may have mentioned, the spontaneous and genuine generosity of the people we’ve met here has been heartwarming. Not a second thought is given to helping, sharing, offering an introduction or referral, or responding to an emergency. (Thankfully, ours have been few and minor.) It would be easy enough to let the new Americans fend, stumble, fall, and learn the hard way. But our neighbors and complete strangers have decided otherwise.
Their actions have been straightforward and clearly understood, but that’s more than I can say for their accents. Parisians warned me that French in the country is a totally different language than French in the French capital. I doubted it then, but not now. The country French do not pronounce their words as clearly as the city French. Here, they tend to mumble and swallow parts of words or phrases, making it difficult for the uninitiated to follow. The fault also lies with my limited French, but the dialect here is challenging.
Visits back to Paris have offered a welcome respite recently. Dental and eye doctor visits offer the most obvious excuse to return to my spiritual and creative hub. The familiarity offers comfort: the urban energy and pace, the chain-smoking citizens, clad habitually in black, huddled outside the Montparnasse train station like so many ominous crows…they tell me I’m home.
The crowded cafe life wraps around me like a blanket. The effortless elegance of patrons soothes my eyes. Some read newspapers, which offers me hope for journalism and democracy. The crisp service of the waiters gives me solace: civilization is holding. I can be optimistic.
But the chateau beckons, and I return. To space, nature, duty, and history. I return to the train station. Climb aboard and fall into my seat. I have learned to love the rail journey to and from the chateau and Paris.
For now, I am a man in between.