A Lady unformed
«My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.»
I was destined to take root in France. I know that now, even if I didn’t know it back when I had the dream. This path was ordained for me as surely as my brown hair and green eyes, my chubbiness set on an Anglican frame. My path was ordained for me as surely as yours was, even if it’s just a whispered promise from a distant dream.
Of course it’s only now, mid-journey, that everything starts to form a picture that resembles something – the rich-hued threads of identity woven together, the nearly forgotten events tied in tiny silk knots – all this has transformed itself into a tapestry of a story, almost without my perceiving it.
My journey begins in Avignon, on the bare fringes of adulthood. It seems fitting to start here somehow, as our family is staying in the Alpilles of Provence this week, and today I walked down the broad cobblestone streets towards the Pope’s Palace in Avignon for the first time in twenty-three years.
I kept holding off from taking pictures, confident that I would stumble upon that special square or shop or street that would unleash all the memories from the period I now regard as a turning-point. I kept looking around for something to hold onto that would bring me full circle, but two decades soften the details. Time shrouds in foreignness what was once a significant city to me.
I was nineteen at the time, and studying abroad my junior year. I stepped off the bus alone in the small town center of Montfavet, as my roommate, Jill, had decided to linger a bit in Avignon on this particular day. From there, I started walking along the country road, grateful for once, that I lived so far outside of the city.
My surroundings were delightfully foreign to me. The pastures on the right where the sheep grazed were quartered into small, green patches of grass by low-lying trees and tall bushes. The scent of burning leaves was pleasing and brought gentle notions of Fall to my senses, without accosting my nostrils. A few large stone manors were intermingled with more modern houses – the former set back on the hill and the latter bordering the street with thick cement fences. Just ahead on my left was a larger field with a straight row of tall trees, dividing the space in two. Breathing in the crisp air on this deserted road was like breathing in the spirit of adventure.
After a twenty minute walk, I reached the house in which I was spending those few months. I turned into the tall, wrought-iron gates – left permanently open with their flaking white paint – and headed down the gravel path towards the back of the house. The dog came bounding towards me, but he knew me by now.
When I walked around to the façade of the house and opened the heavy wooden doors, I found the house still. The floors, stairwell, and steps of the corridor, all made of grey stone, were cloaked in the shadows of late afternoon. I turned to open the door on the right, which led to the echoing living room, whose threadbare oriental rug didn’t completely cover the floor. But no one was there. I then peered into the study on the other side of the corridor and saw the matriarch of eight children, sitting at her messy desk and staring straight ahead, lost in a cloud of smoke.
Jill and I discovered that this woman had just lost her husband two months before our arrival. We had been surprised at her reserve in welcoming us, until we figured out that her tradition of taking foreign exchange students stemmed from financial necessity, rather than desire. Why else would anyone invite strangers into their home so soon in the grieving process? But this coldness, this reserve, was hard on me; I had been hoping for maternal warmth to help me through my first sojourn away from home, my first tightrope act without the safety nets.
My favorite season in all its hues was coaxing me outside, and there was nothing indoors to keep me. So I grabbed an apple and my camera, and walked over to the shady path leading towards the bed of tall reeds. I took pictures of these straw-like plants that were about twice my height, and then sat down on the bank, eating my apple and basking in the late Autumn sun.
For a moment I forgot about the loneliness and strangeness that sometimes haunted me – the frigid bedroom my roommate and I shared, and the midnight trips down the icy stone corridor to the bathroom. I forgot about how much I missed my small upstate college and sorority, and the large place I held in a small town.
The family I was staying with was an old aristocratic family with every sort of heritage one could wish for, except money. The eldest three children were out of the house, and one of the sons was already married. The one time he visited, I found him so handsome I was too tongue-tied to talk to him. There was one daughter living in the North, and I never met her during my stay there; the next two daughters were attending high school and university while still living at home.
These girls were born with a poise I envied. They wore modest skirts, thin-knit navy or red cardigans, and scarves around their necks. Their hair was always swept loosely back in a headband or chignon. The younger one smirked at me when I first arrived and asked if it was safe to drink the water at her house. But how can I blame her when I wore my naiveté so openly? The French keep their cards close to their chest.
They showed me how they danced “Le Rock,” spinning each other effortlessly without any music in their spacious salon. At night we sat around the tiny table in the kitchen, splitting a pizza four ways that would have been meant for one person back home. This was followed by a green salad with garlic or dijon mustard dressing, bread and a modest cheese platter, and a piece of fruit. We rarely drank wine with our meals, and were educated on the proper amount of cheese to serve ourselves from the cheese platter – not very much, that is.
After dinner, Jill and I would wind our way upstairs to the bedroom we were sharing. It was a drafty room with antique flowered wallpaper, and a hodgepodge of paintings in mismatched frames that stretched up to the tall ceilings. When we opened the long windows from the middle to reach out and pull the wooden shutters closed for the night, the cold air would accost us and make our dim room seem even more desolate. How different that is to now when I fling open the shutters in the brisk morning air as my husband and children are leaving for the school, and wave goodbye to them from our cozy home!
More often than not on these evenings, the younger three sons, aged three to eight, would come and talk to us before getting ready for bed. Somehow this simplistic dialogue with its childish concerns was our best forum for practicing French, and I was grateful for the carefree exchange. Then, when all was quiet in the house, we would sit on the beds that faced each other, and write letters or read in those hours before falling asleep.
When Jill and I talked in the evenings, I wasn’t lonely – wasn’t as lonely, I suppose. I have this memory of us wearing gloves indoors because our fingers were nearly numb with the cold. Or, as we talked about our day, one of us would warm her hands on the bare lightbulb of the desk lamp with twinkling irony. But outside of those moments of complicity, I often felt isolated by a fear and worry that the other exchange students didn’t seem to feel.
Why did I go to France in the first place if I was so fearful? And I am about one of the most fearful people you can meet. I have been terrified of everything outside of my small life, haunted by the “what ifs,” accosted by worry and the fear of dying or of grief, ever since I can remember.
But I had these grains of courage that propelled me towards France because the alternative was worse: it was the fear of not being good enough as I was – of remaining the same. I was compelled to do something extraordinary in order to be worth something, and to seek every opportunity to remake the old model that I knew to be deeply flawed.
And I did recreate myself in France. When I was sitting outdoors on a stone bench eating a baguette with butter and cheese, and sharing a bottle of wine with friends over lunch, I became a bohemian. When I was in class speaking with, what I considered to be, a good accent and with great fluency, I was an intellectual. When I met friends after school for wine or beer at an outdoor café (cheered by the no-age-restrictions in France), I was a sophisticate. And when I took the train to Besançon and Montpellier by myself for an overnight stay, I was an adventurer.
I was full of hope and promise of becoming something extraordinary during these times. It was just in those hours alone, especially in the dark, that I would always come back to loneliness and fear; I always came back to myself.
It wasn’t the country that attracted me – at first. I had even stopped taking French in tenth grade since I wasn’t particularly gifted at it. Nevertheless, I took French up again in college as a predecessor to studying abroad, and I think I might have been prompted to do so because of the dream I had when I was seventeen.
I was walking through a forest, hand in hand with someone. The trees made everything seem dark and shady, but I wasn’t afraid, just curious. We walked for a bit before entering an open sunny space where we spotted a low, stone wall in front of us. We sat down on the wall together, enjoying the day and the warmth of the sun.
We were having an easy, intimate conversation, and he said something which made me turn to look at him, and laugh. At that moment, I remember being surprised about two things: For one, I had grown up and become the confident woman I longed to be, so that I was almost unrecognizable to myself. For another, the man I was talking to was French, and he was my husband. I was surprised to be so at ease with a man – any man, much less someone who was from another country.
So I found myself going to Avignon, feeling quite small, but determined to inject the necessary elements of change – a cosmic Botox for the new and improved soul. There, I discovered that I actually did have a knack for languages, discovered that I actually was smart, and got my first rush from traveling.
Oh, and I sunbathed topless on the beach in Cannes.
But all along, deep down inside, I think I was searching for that French husband of my dreams. And I’m guessing that is why I went to France.
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