04 March 2012

Notre petite vie

Earlier this week as I was refreshing the flower pots on my front window sills with bright orange ranunculus flowers, I realized what has been so fun about apartment living in Aix.  It's like playing house!  On a much smaller scale than in our previous home, we've set up housekeeping here, filling the nooks and crannies of our French flat with our furnishings from home and whatever we've been able to find from other ex-pats and at dépôt-ventes (consignment stores) and thrift shops.  While our apartment isn't tiny, our adorable French kitchen requires a great deal of efficiency, with bowls stored inside other bowls on top of platters, and once Saku or I are seated at our small kitchen table, there's no vacating until Allen or Jori get up from the table.  (Here's Saku in his corner along with Jori, making egg rolls this week for dinner, on our very full little kitchen table.)  Likewise, our bathroom is also the laundry room and kitchen storage, so there's no room for 12 or 24-pack toilet papers or cases of tomato sauce or any of those features of the super-sized American lifestyle.  We do of course have a few cases of wine and champagne, but those are French essentials, and we have a space for them in the cave (cellar) many floors below us.

Our life in many ways is much smaller here. It's not that French live small lives, but relative to the very big and full U.S. life that we left behind last August, what we have here is smaller, simpler, and dare I say it, more relaxing?  Some of it may be a factor of apartment living, or of urban life, or of life particularly in the South of France, I'm not sure.  On the other hand, this small, simple life here in France, which while quite pleasant, is also a bit paradoxical, because to have it means to put up with some hassles that we are not used to.  I've heard others say that life is just a bit harder in France, or in Europe, compared to the U.S.  I think in some ways yes, but in other ways, perhaps no.

*SHOPPING for daily essentials: Not shopping every few weeks for jumbo packs of toilet paper as we did in the U.S. means going to the store more frequently here and buying smaller quantities.  I always found Costco warehouse shopping exhausting in Seattle, but it's equally physically grueling to walk back and forth across town, stopping at various shops for this or that item (never everything in one store), and then schlepping all back home.  (And imagine all this in the scorching heat of summer!)  I use my wheeled cart more and more frequently, and when I can, I use delivery service.  When we do shop with the car, driving to the megastores in the outskirts of the city, we have to drop bags off at the apartment main floor, and then circle around the city center to park the car in its garage, and then walk back across town to get those groceries hauled up to our floor.  Stores are also organized differently here, which may mean standing in various check-out lines for different items, like the kleenex I was trying to buy two weeks ago at Monoprix which was on a different floor than the groceries that I'd already stood in line to pay for.  At the warehouse hardware store, Castorama, which resembles Home Depot in Seattle, one has to walk back and forth across a parking lot to three different buildings and stand in three different check out lines to purchase garden items, home furnishings, and building materials. You just can't be in a hurry to get your shopping done.

*daily BREATHING: Living closer to other people on a smaller land mass, and especially in a concentrated urban setting in Aix, much like I had in Helsinki several decades ago, means everything and everybody is closer together: lots of people, little space, and lots of germs.  I still remember the wicked case of the Shanghai flu I got in Helsinki over 20 years ago, and these past two weeks, I am afraid that the French flu epidemic has ravaged our town and our family. (See http://www.connexionfrance.com/France-flu-grippe-epidemic-H3N2-13500-view-article.html )  You cannot walk down the street without hearing someone coughing or sneezing, and it just feels like that everywhere we go, hundreds of people have touched that same railing or those same door handles.  It's true that people get sick in Seattle, and my sister reports that a school in her San Francisco neighborhood actually closed due to a widespread outbreak of gastroenteritis last month.  But the space we have in the U.S., at least in our Seattle life, means we could isolate ourselves a little more easily from others.  We've been sick more than usual this year, but perhaps we are simply being exposed to many new and unfamiliar viruses and bugs.

*DRIVING small cars on small roads: As we did in Seattle, we have sports' activities to attend on the weekends, many of which require some travel.  We've also occasionally had conflicts with both boys' games on the same day and time.  These we've managed relatively smoothly, thanks to the willingness of parents on both the soccer and rugby teams to help drive our kids, and this was no different in friendly Seattle.  The bigger differences have been in the actual travel; much of it has been within a relatively small geographical radius, within our région Bouches-du-rhone, for both sports, and the routes are much more idyllic than any of the traffic-laden routes on the freeways near Seattle.  But, they are so idyllic that it's necessary to use a GPS or Navigator application on one's phone to find the way to the complexe sportif (sports complex: usually 2 soccer or rugby fields, some stands with locker rooms and restrooms, and sometimes even a snack shack, serving cafe and sometimes bière) in some small, sleepy Provençal village.  The roads are often pretty quiet on the weekends, but Sunday driving this is not, because the speed limit on the narrow two-lane routes départmentales (secondary highways) is a nerve-wracking 90 km/hour and there are ditches on each side.  Seattle traffic is stressful, but so is trying to listen to the Navigator narration, (which exit from the next roundabout?) while keeping one's car on the road and avoiding the sideview mirrors of the rapidly approaching little cars.

*TIMING: And, after our breathless arrival, the start of any sports' event is, like all other activities, on French time.  Here's Saku's team last weekend waiting for their coach on the fog-shrouded pitch in Meyreuil, about 20 minutes from Aix.  Game warm-up at 8h30?  Expect the coach at 8h45 or closer to 9h.  Game time at 9h30?  Expect it to start by 9h50.  Yet no one seems agitated by this.  At home, we were always watching the clock, because there was always that next activity to get to after the game.  Here, it seems the only thing most of us might be rushing back to is our next meal, and heaven knows, those are also very languid affairs.  Maybe I'll have more to say about those meals next time.  We're in the middle of school holidays, so our life is even quieter than usual, and our family has downgraded its vacation plans a bit due to work commitments.  Instead of a ski holiday, the boys and I are heading to Lyon, the city that some describe as a small Paris.  In characteristic over-programmed U.S. fashion, I've mentally planned out our days, with three museum visits, and shopping, and sightseeing, but I'm sure once we get to our first bouchon (small French bistro typical to Lyon) and I have my first sip of wine, everything will s-l-o-w down and we will experience the city in more typical and relaxed French fashion.

No comments: