I haven't been to France in sixteen years. I was always a dreamy Francophile, but one day, when I was a brand-new mom, walking down Valencia Street on a cold San Francisco day, an artist friend of mine, Spain, stopped me by the laundry-mat and asked if I knew anyone who'd like to swap their home for a few months with an ex of his, living in Southern France.
"Yeah, sure— me!" I cracked. I was glum that day because I had just lost my job, and had no idea what to do next.
Off I went, with six-month-old Aretha in tow. I had never used my French language skills outside of a high school classroom. "Où est la bibliothèque?" was about my speed.
I ended up making some of the best friends of my life in this little village, in the Valley Herault. It's near where they had all those McDonald's riots. Lots of organic, grape, and pot farming. Very much like California's Mendocino County in its climate and beauty. It also was a place where many leftwing and hippie Parisians had fled to, to form land communes, in the early '70s. They were called "soixante-huit-ieres" or "babacoux"— I'm probably spelling that wrong, but that's what it sounded like.
The communes had the usual utopian-decay problems, but some of those folks actually got seriously into organic farming and rural life.
I also discovered this area had been a respite and refuge for many San Francisco artists and bohemians, from the Zap comix veterans, to the founders of COYOTE, the first hookers' rights organization. Margo St. James had a beautiful place there, where we'd eat her famous stews and sit out in the garden. Aline Crumb can talk the birds out of the trees in perfect French.
I learned a lot about the country living there, staying in a stone fort from the 11th century. C'est froid! But it was paradise, compared to my house-swapper, who got my pad in San Francisco, across the street from a freeway entrance and a 24-hour drug-dealing gas station. Interestingly, she survived a teenage burglar at my house, and I got my car smashed and broken into by teenage boys in Montpelier. But how could I complain when I had just spent the day at a public beach covered with pink flamingos, wearing nothing, kids running around everywhere, being served steaming hot sweet mint tea?
I remember when I first took Aretha to the creche, (nursery school), and met a young girl, Doudoune, who offered to babysit for me. She spoke a little English, because her sister had emigrated to New York. She was so enamored of all things Americaine that she even saved the Coke can her sister had left behind on her last trip.
When she told me she was Algerian, and hinted at the issues that raised for her family, I said, "Really? How does anyone know you're Algerian, or Muslim? You look like everyone else here..." She stared at me like I was daft— which I was— but it just goes to show how hard it is to understand other culture's prejudices when you didn't grow up with them. I had a lover there who was a light-skinned child of an African-American father and Parisian mother. He was stopped in his car, or on foot, almost EVERY day for being "Arab," and when the police would realize that he was actually half-Baptist-Yankee, they would become amused, apologetic— and act like profiling was the furthest thing from their minds.
I also had a little "Michael-Moore-Sicko-style" experience too, in my Fort. I got sick with pneumonia, and was vomiting up blood, when my neighbors sent for the doctor. He came to my bedroom to diagnose and treat me. I didn't understand a thing he said, but he fixed me up good. He then asked a nurse in the village to come see me every day, and help me with Aretha, until I got better. This took a few weeks.
I kept worrying that someone was going to send me a bill for some ungodly amount, but it never came. I thought I had gotten away with something special, but now I realize it was just routine. Meanwhile, here I am turning 50 in the U.S., and I can now no longer afford health insurance for myself without moving into a pup tent.
I brought together a lot of new friends during my stay in France, people who normally would never socialize. But because I was a visitor, oblivious to the "social divisions," I got away with it! I had a Pancake Party one morning, which brought everyone to my apartment out of sheer curiosity about American Johnny Cakes. Yes, they were a hit, especially since I had brought in Canadian maple syrup.
With all these adventures, I never spent more than a few hours in Paris, changing trains or going to the airport. So this is really my first time in the most beautiful city in the world.
Have you been? What would you inspire me to do, if you only had one thing to suggest?
I don't know anyone there, except the folks whose apartment we're house-sitting, and obviously, they're not around.
I am busy worrying about what to wear, and finding the ideal, fashionable pair of walking shoes. I made two skirts. I am practicing my manners and irregular verbs. By the time we arrive, the dollar should be worth about two cents, so I should really practice my busking! Perhaps the Parisians would like to hear me sing this:
Photo: A postcard my Uncle Bud sent my mother from Paris when he served in the Air Force during WWII.