We learned a lot in our first two weeks. Not everyone in the South of France is charming and colourful. Few people live in a villa gilded with lavender and olive trees, twinkling stone fountains, and a field of grapevines. Not everyone pulls fresh figs and nectarines from their gardens, draws artisan chevre straight from the goat.
Not everyone has a swimming pool.
During the European heat wave at the end of August, there were a number of radio and television reports about the elderly abandoned by their indifferent children, suffocating to death in their apartments. Many of them were not immediately discovered. My French was woefully imperfect but there seemed an air of artful nostalgia in the announcers’ voices as they delivered this news, as though it were the opening chapter of an award-winning novel. In her final hours, the forgotten great-grandmother looks back upon a life of love, war, grace, and plump market tomatoes as she is swallowed by the unbreathable air of urban Provence.
Our house lacked central air conditioning, and we had been acclimated by an unusually cool summer in Canada, but we were determined to thrive in the exotic heat. One afternoon, Gina and I put hats on our children and walked down a pedestrian street lined with tourist shops heavy with the scent of soap from Marseille. We rounded the corner and spotted, for the first time, an ancient Roman bridge.
A flood of the Ouvèze River in September 1992 had killed thirty-seven people in this village. It had swept houses and cars away. But the 2,000-year-old stone bridge in Vaison-la-Romaine had survived, just as it had survived German bombardment during the Second World War. For the moment, the trickling Ouvèze did not appear at all threatening. We horrified the chic Parisiens and Luxembourgeois who had come to Vaison for cultural treasures, afternoon Muscat, and terrace-side cigarettes by giggling and hooting and running toward the riverbank.
People were swimming down there.
We pulled off our clothes and joined the locals, splashing about in cold water under the wholesome shade of plane trees. The town mongrel galloped in and out of the river, shaking and stinking. Even so, Esmé wanted to hug him. Every time the dog came near, we shouted at him — broadcasting our anxiety and our Englishness. Which, to the French, amounts to the same thing.
The Vaisonnais looked up, noted the foreigners participating in a distinctly non-foreigner activity, and welcomed us. Families had set up on the dusty banks with wine and baguettes, coolers full of Orangina and Babybel. The teenage boys who blasted through the streets every night on their dirtbikes, helmetless and often shirtless, backflipped off a large rock and into the river for the studiously unmoved teenage girls.
From the swimming hole, the view our new home was spectacular, of the Roman bridge and the medieval upper town above. Avia was drawn to the local children, who chattered at each other in quick, glorious French, filled with abbreviations and slang I didn’t recognize. I looked over at Gina and we passed a silent note between us.
It had been good and right to leave our comfortable lives behind, to unnerve our parents and shock our banker and come to this place. My secret about this sabbatical, that it had been inspired by a nightmare about one of our daughters being murdered by a drunk driver in a village plaza, had an addendum. As much as I was apt to weep when a Canadian athlete won a gold medal, I was tired of having no culture, no identity, no history, no regional cuisine, a mediocre anthem; I had endured so many withering conversations with literary agents in Toronto about the puff of boringness that entered every New York and London publishing office when the word Canada was uttered. When I broke myself down I was a mongrel with at least sixteen ethnicities, three religions, one language. There wasn’t a corpuscle of French blood in me, but I had chosen this language. Not Québécois, which would have been the honourable thing do to, but French: the whimsical bicycle, the baguette, the beret, the wine, the overdressing, the enforced politeness, the hauteur, the accordion.
Maybe, just maybe, we would change our lives by turning into French people.
One of the little boys politely addressed me, as he swam. It sounded something like: “Blah-blooh-portez-vous-ploop, Monsieur?”
“Oui?” I said.
The boy pointed to my Capri pants, which were soaked. “Mont-Blanc-les-short, Monsieur?”
“Ah oui,” I said, with growing confidence. Yes, youngster, I am wearing clothes.
The boy gestured to his friend around and about the pelvis, they both shrugged and chuckled, and swam away. I looked down: my fly was open.
The following afternoon was even hotter, over 40C, so we gathered up our gear and walked through the post office plaza to the municipal pool. The invisible cicadas, saw-chirping in every bush, seemed to slow the air further. To be a more helpful father, I had already changed into my trunks. Surf shorts, really. Long blue ones decorated on one leg with a series of off-white flowers I can only assume were Hawaiian.
The women at the counter informed me that surf shorts were not allowed on deck. It took a few versions of this rule before I understood. French humour is entirely different than North American humour, and I found someone had to tell me when something was funny. Perhaps these three pretty women had decided to mock the étranger?
No, they were serious.
Even then, I didn’t understand. What was the trouble with surf shorts? I showed them the liner. The supervisor, who was dressed for a garden party, with a tan skirt and white top and a pink silk scarf, admitted she could not say precisely. However, they did have three extra pairs of regulation swim trunks that I could rent for one euro. They pulled out the rentals and displayed them like pearl necklaces: I had my choice of three bikini-style Speedos that demonstrated, by their dampness, they had been worn recently. That day recently. To be sure, I asked if perhaps there was a washing machine behind the counter, tucked away somewhere. The women looked at each other as though it were the most peculiar question they had ever been asked. Now I was the wacko.
I told Gina she could swim with the children. I would sit poolside and read Le Monde. My daily subscription had just started and it was taking me two-and-a-half hours to get through every issue. French journalists love acronyms.
“No way. I can’t watch these girls by myself.”
Only one of the three pairs appeared small enough for me but they were comically small. Avia and Esmé stood looking up at me, thin in their bathing suits, their heads too big for their little bodies. I whispered to Gina in English that I wasn’t sure I was capable of this.
“There’s chlorine in the pool. It’ll kill whatever it is you’re worried about.”
“I don’t think chlorine is strong enough to…”
“We’re here to be French. Be French.”
Gina took Esmé. I took Avia to the men’s side and, first, helped her into her little pink swimsuit. Then I prepared my moist trunks and spotted a pubic hair, coiled up demurely inside. Avia is an anxious girl, a trait she has surely inherited from me. Gina and I wanted to change our lives but Avia needed some changing of her own. Before we had left Canada we had visited the pediatrician because of her nightmares, her fears and anxieties around other children and strange adults. Three times a week she woke up at midnight and opened the fridge door and hunched and cowered in the light, afraid of the semi-darkness of her bedroom. The pediatrician, a former Londoner, pinched her thighs and suggested we put her to bed at seven every night. To me, it did not seem so simple. I was nearly thirty before I figured out how to calm my own machine of thinking about myself thinking about myself thinking, and I already saw it fueling up in my three-year-old daughter. My parenting strategy, in moments where every instinct calls “Freak out!” is to appear that I am a relaxed and philosophical person.
But kids with mild obsessive-compulsive disorder are perceptive.
“What’s the matter, Daddy?”
“What? What do you see? Can I see?”
“Everything is marvelous. I’m so happy to be here!”
Avia was on a wooden bench, as I didn’t want her to stand on the concrete barefoot and contract an untreatable fungus. I abandoned my three-year-old daughter and rushed to the nearest sink to rinse the trunks. Without a word she watched me, in my shame.
Back in the stall I steeled myself and stepped into the wet Speedos.
“Are those Mommy’s?” Avia said.
Out in the sun, Gina laughed. Esmé pointed at my Speedos and said, “Mommy’s!” I would not permit a photograph and dragged Avia into the pool. The lifeguard, a man in his twenties who spent most of his time texting, wore surf shorts. He stopped a tourist, a tall Dutch or German gentleman, who also wore surf shorts.
In French, the lifeguard informed the gentleman that surf shorts were forbidden. The gentleman spoke no French so the lifeguard switched to an approximation of English. It was the only language they both nearly spoke.
After a number of misunderstandings, the lifeguard’s message became clear: if others were to see the Dutch or German gentleman wearing surf shorts, they too would want to wear them. This would be disastrous to order and civility in and around the pool. Would Monsieur kindly change into regulation trunks? He could rent them for a euro.
“No,” said Monsieur. “I can never. No one will.”
“But it must,” said the lifeguard.
“The others see. They reflect. They want the same thing.”
Monsieur pointed at the lifeguard’s shorts. “You.”
“We are adults here. Except children.”
It was agreed that the Dutch or German would wear a towel around his waist, to hide his surf shorts from those of us who might be encouraged, by his example, to break a rule. He would not go into the water.
As much as I am a freedom-loving person, I like rules. I like French rules. I like that when you walk into a bakery or a cheese shop you say, “Bonjour, Madame” or “Bonjour, Monsieur.” Never “Hey” or “Yo” or “S’up?” In France, even beggars begin conversations courteously.
Walter and Patricia Wells, who live in a villa on the other side of the ruined château in Vaison-la-Romaine, published a book together called We’ve Always Had Paris… and Provence. In it they describe the French tradition, at the end of a dinner party, whereby the host serves a carafe of orange juice — elegantly signaling to the guests, without an awkward word or a pretend yawn, that it is time to leave.
What I do not understand, in France, are the ways rules are enforced. It may be forbidden to roar up and down the street on a dirtbike, shirtless and helmetless, until one in the morning. But enforcing a rule like this, it seems, would be against the rules.
One little girl in the municipal pool, with her mother, swam about with a long blue floating noodle. She abandoned the toy and Avia snatched it up. There was some fussing over this until the mother instructed her daughter to retrieve the noodle. I advised Avia to give it back to the little girl, who said, “Merci,” tearfully.
Gina had spotted a pile of blue noodles in the lifeguard’s office and enquired about securing one.
“No, Madame,” said the lifeguard in surf shorts. “If your daughter has a toy, then all of the children will want one.”
We had only been here two weeks. Gina was not yet able to explain, in French, that there were far more noodles in the office than children in the pool. Instead she stared at the surf shorts lifeguard for a moment, hoping he would be undone by all of the contradiction he represented. He returned her glare for a respectful moment, called her Madame again, apologized, begged for her kind understanding, bid her a joyous day, and returned to his phone.
I purchased my Speedos at a chain store called Intersport on the outskirts of Vaison-la-Romaine. No one was selling them at the market. A woman at the store, about my age, chose them for me, my size and the style, after a frank assessment of my build and personality that made my neck sweaty. I had thought for a moment, as she stared fixedly at my crotch and then walked around me, as she put her hands on my waist and breathed cigarette breath on the back of my neck, that we would be having sex momentarily. But she was just doing her job. My French swim trunks are black and tight, with an abstract white design on one side. When I wear them, my vocabulary improves by thirty percent.