Emigrants? Migrants? ex-expatriates, patriots, Americans again, Oaklanders? Still settling into this new/old thing .
So here it is, we lived the first 4 decades of our lives as Americans…..
One decade as frenchmen -
Back to reality.
We had lived 14 years in California before we moved away.
4 years in “NOLA” house,
Oscar’s first 4.
12 years in France
Back to the house we have owned for a long 18 years, but lived in only 4 and its all so strange and familiar.
As we unpacked our “stuff” we found some of the items landed in their spots from 12 years earlier, and some floated off with a question mark. There were things we didn't recall owning, things which didn't fit into our new lives, things we tried to get rid of 12 years ago, the boomerang stuff that has returned to treasured status and some of the treasured stuff which is already adorning the shelves of Goodwill…
The house is desirably sparse, as are the closet rods and the bookshelves, but we have notice the French stuff is soon onto a boat and will crowd our lives mid October. Perhaps by then we will remember which cabinets are for cereal and which are for spices, the kitchen is a grab bag for now, Bob Barker would appreciate the randomness.
But what I want to try to understand is the changes in life that re-patriation has bestowed? I only sort of understand what it meant to be an “ex-patriate”; that is a heady mix of belonging to several cultures at the same time. A treat compared with belonging to either ONE. We were part of the French community, the local American community and the ‘absent from America’ community as well.
Repatriation was a process, starting with the straddling of the previous 3 communities and the decision to exit, stage east. There is an element of quitting a club, perhaps that is because there is a common challenge to living offshore, in your exp. community. There is a brotherhood of complaints and compliments around the society you are invading. So we quit that! We left some soldiers behind, but America is undesirable enough that we will be replaced. May they love it as much as we did.
So we are back, new & old, not really challenging, life in someone else's culture is challenging, life here is home and familiar, I think a French person would feel the same returning to their shores. Perhaps life in France is more challenging on a technical level, but their complexity might in fact be what we are missing. Obvious differences, turning on the machine of daily life is a breeze, buying/ renting/ turning on a phone or a gas line is so streamlined in the US, it boggles the mind that it could be so simple. No-one is asking how long you will stay, instead there are the open arms which presage a hug. There is not the tensing of the posture before a double kiss, wondering is it 2 or 4 and do I start on the left or the right? But neither is there the acknowledgement that we have grown so fond of. When you walk into a store in France, you ALWAYS say “bon jour” to the store! or whomever might be listening. In a doctors waiting room, you say hello to the collected masses, in an office, or a party, the custom is to bon-jour everyone first, THEN chat, or work. In America, California version, the greetings are sadly unimportant. They might happen, but just as likely, there are those people you might never say hello to?!
The food is expensive in California, but deliciously innovative, the service is over the top, the pace is on speed, the cars are too big and there is traffic of epic proportions! I am happy to see there are high heels, there are silly little jackets on enough of the men and the proliferation of yoga pants is not as bad as all of the French think it is. The weather is better, the amount of Organic food is off the hook, but then again, the majority of the already less expensive food in France is of a better quality than here in ‘the states’.
12 years has made some inroads here. There are farmers markets everyday, there is “grass fed” beef at every store I have visited, tipping has climbed from 15% to 20, but I understand that wages haven't moved, so its a decent way to tax the rich and gastronomically inclined. The radio stations are still bad (download the app “FIP), and the cable TV bills are whack! Cell coverage has improved and American prices are starting to drop. We have been used to paying a fraction of what you pay, like 10 to 50%, that’s whack too!
We have given up succulent duck on every menu for the welcome plethora of Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican….. We are getting used to short showers and smelly toilets, still surprised by the homeless camps behind the bustling shopping centers, the cars everywhere, the outrageous prices for bread! And OMG how early ya’ll eat! I’m still not sure what you do all night after you leave the food behind before the sun has set!?
But it is our heritage too, and we are happy to be back within it, hoping that we manage to hold onto whatever bizarre or sensical habits we were exposed to over the 1.2 decades as frenchmen!
Martel. 10 years later
Objects in the mirror can be larger than they appear
Returning to Martel makes them clearer too.
On vacation in Europe, we had the chance to be guests in our old home, we have stayed friends with Marie Josée , who we sold the home to in 2009, and while she was away we got to spend a week alone in our old dream!
Since we left Martel, fell in love with Bordeaux and then back in love with Oakland, coming back to Martel has been an overdue do-over. I have always believed that our big house,”RD2”, was the apex of my life as a craftsman, so having the opportunity to stay in that same home 10 years later was exciting, and wonderful. I think I had built it up in my mind over the decade and held it up as a home we should never have given away. But then so many other things might not have occurred and maybe we wouldn’t be here right now!
Walking in was an emotional moment, catching glimpses of the stairs and the walls and the ceiling, the door knobs, the centuries old indentations in the walls, every centimeter an object of discussion and labor and memories which clung like dust on the ledges. A door lock I remember buying in a brocante, polishing on a workbench, oiling, fiddling, and being the last thing I touched in 2009 and the first thing in 2019. It’s been a profound bunch of moments!
So Marie Josée bought the home from us, and has been in touch ever since, appreciative and welcoming, like one dreams of in a foster parent assuming responsibility for your child ( ok I’m breathing too much into this), the point being that she has always offered us a place to call “home” when we visit Martel, and here we are, and she’s on vacation somewhere. Once the initial absorption phase passed, we settled in and became the lords of the manner once again! This time we slept in the guest room, but we lazed around as if we’d once owned the place. It feels so familiar! That feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night and know your way around in the dark. We have been on the road for 6 weeks and I’ve stubbed my toe in the dark as many times! It is sublime to be familiar once again.
The “big” room is smaller than I’ve been describing it for years, the stair creaks even louder than I recalled, but the views of the rooftops and the sound of the church bells surprise me with their beauty. The functionality of the kitchen as it nestles between new elements and old is one of my best, and the attention to silly details is testament to the intensely slow pace of its rebirth in our hands. Now Marie Josse is the custodian of these stones and it has a life of its own.
One interesting note is that I feel the home has settled into its adolescence. This 1000 year old presbytery, that fell into near ruin, was a fresh thing when we left it, like a car with a “new car smell”, it was once again in its initial break in phase. But now, into its next set of double digits, it’s no longer new, it no longer belonged to that sad family (from whom we purchased it) but now it’s in its adolescence, it’s the house the Parisian woman owns... but wasn’t it transformed by some odd American Family whose son was french? Or something like that?
I’m exaggerating, but the house has shed its past and has a future, and WE DID THAT! As we stroll the streets of Martel, 99% is just the way we left it. The faces are mostly familiar and while I don’t have the names to associate, I never really did. So many people look with a curious eye, wondering if we’d ever left, and why we are back cueing up at their butcher counter, or mispronouncing “bonjour” and “Martel” the same way we did 10 years ago. Half of the restaurants have turned a new leaf and there are half as many new ones too, half of the shops are new and the center of commerce is surprisingly creeping back towards Rue Droite. The 100’s year old Hall in the middle of town is .0001% older than when we were here. Many of the youngest faces have replaced those of Oscar’s generation, and almost none of Oscar’s generation are to be seen. Any stroll presents old acquaintances and long conversations, people who may have felt snubbed by our departure seem to have forgotten the slight and hearts and minds are re-opened.
The light of Martel has returned, after days of clouds and rain, and with it our humor and the recollection of the love inside these walls, this is a wonderful home! This was a wonderous time in our lives, an it gives me optimism as we wonder what the next amazing home might be?
We retraced our steps through the valley of the Dordogne back to Bordeaux, driving past and through every memory we could find. We wandered around Ed’s village and peered through his curtains, we wandered the ramparts of Baynac château and even revisited the Relais of our dreams in Trémolat, where we had a coffee in the chateau where we spent our tenth anniversary. It was all a promenade through another chapter and it was perfect!
Another lap around Bordeaux
Similar to staying in our own home in Martel, we returned to one of our old neighborhoods near the Porte de Bourgogne in the hyper-center of Bordeaux, one block from our Rue de Boucheries home. We Home-Exchanged again and had the pleasure of someone else’s stone walls and retrofit. We settled in and commenced radial spirals out from there touching back upon the datums of our Bordeaux life. We had half of our time to ourselves, peppered with revisits to old friends and obligations. Each was wonderfully exhausting in its own way. Living as a guest in what feels like your own back yard is strange, we wanted Bordeaux to feel like home and not at the same time. We don’t want to admit that we made a mistake by leaving and at the same time we don’t want it to be home again, this is a sentiment still in progress.
The question keeps percolating between us: where would you want to visit-live next? And we can’t help but to contrast the recent ports in the storms (it rained a lot): Amsterdam, Haarlem, Paris, Bordeaux..... rinse and repeat! It would have helped if Bordeaux, or any of the above, had been ‘en soliel’, but as it is, it brings up the flavors of exploration vs. familiarity and architecture, language, culinary, and proximity, each with their own merits. And certainly the base of the conversation is everywhere and nowhere! We created a call and response where we were reevaluating our visits, as in ‘could you live here?’ .... ‘1 to 6’. Meaning that we could live in this place for 1 to 6 months in some future scenario. Like giving two thumbs up to where we were, great fun to think about.
Bordeaux was wonderful but dis-spiriting. The streets were unkept and everything seemed tarnished. This has plenty to do with the grey skies and the modest accommodations, and both of us stubbornly holding on to traveling colds, and objects in the mirror always appearing larger than they were. We circled on familiar routes and shared waves and kisses with familiar folks, we compared every twist to previous turns and every meal to a previous one that cost less and tasted better. The lesson of trying to go home again and finding it all different. I’m not certain anything was more expensive or dirtier or even more crowded, but we remarked at what seemed to have been lost and the certain treasures that did get sweeter in our absence. One can go home again, just leave your expectations at the border.
This was an outlier on our schedule. An unknown destination, a short stay and a rural adventure all combined. It was splendid. Such a beautiful city, crazy hills in every direction, a vibrant downtown, wonderful architecture and the locals we spoke to all had such optimism, it was infecting. Our first meal cost us 6 euros each, and that included a pitcher of wine. Our second meal was inventive and fresh and all about the sea. Everything that appeared far on the map was as close horizontally as it was far vertically. That is to say: near and hard to get to! We had a gracious apartment overlooking the river and the Port wine lodges. We learned the Port is primarily for export and the tourists while the locals preferred wine or the eau-de-vie that was made to fortify the Port. The cheese is wonderful and there are more things one can do with a dried piece of cod than you might imagine! The city has the feeling of emerging from the cloud that is their recent (1970’s) authoritarian government and the esprit that everything is possible! We both left the city feeling that everyone should put Porto on their list.
After a short 3 days we rented a car, we were upgraded to a sweet Mercedes and headed east to the Douro Valley. I was so amazed by the scenery along the river that I didn’t notice a curb as we pulled over for a stroll and PAFF! Our day was ruined, these fancy new cars, no spare tire! In its place was an industrial can of fix-a-flat, plastic gloves and a cigarette lighter version of an air compressor. But a rock and a hard place (the curb and my alloy wheels) had sliced a hole in the tire and knocked it off the rim, so there was no field fix for this one. The sun was setting and our plans were dashed on the curb! But... a Portuguese couple, as friendly as EVERY OTHER Portuguese person we rubbed elbows or cheeks with, helped us out. They called Enterprise on their phone, described where we were and what had happened and 30 minutes later, in the middle of nowhere, arrives a tow truck and a taxi. 30 minutes after that we are back in a new, identical Mercedes of a new color. The day was not ruined, and we still had our sunset drive into our hotel in the hills above the Douro. Enterprise and the kindness of strangers, and some well earned resiliency had saved the day, literally! I later realized, that there was a button I could have pressed on the dashboard that would have located us and sent help. Amazing new, luxury, tech but no spare tire!? A lesson learned.
The Douro Valley was heart stopping! Steep slopes planted from the banks of the river to the tops of the hills. Terraced plots with grapes and olives and a few orange groves. If you slipped while picking grapes you might not stop till you hit the water. Some vineyards were planted horizontally and the newer ones vertically. The production is increasing and the population is decreasing so by planting them in vertical rows they are able to use tractors that can drive up the slopes and machine pick the grapes. It defies common sense, that they ever would have discovered this area as a place to grow anything other than mountain goats or more rocks. But it’s beautiful!! And still, the locals don’t drink much of it, beer seems to top the list of beverages along with the wonderful Douro appellation wine. Port is made of low quality grapes and industrial alcohol. Certainly some of the grapes and some of the alcohol are better that others, but in the end, it was a manner to preserve the wine and get people comfy and I’m all into that. I have long been a Port fan, and even with a new understanding, I’ll continue to enjoy a Port & Tonic and a cocktail we learned of that includes: Port, juice of one lime, a small spoonful of fig jam, and tonic water over ice. I wish I knew the name, for now it’s just an Oh—Porto!.
We have been in Madrid 10 days, with a few more to go. It’s been cold, but with plenty of sun. We have been watching the city crews installing lights above our paths and metallic trees in our nodes and then last night they turned everything on to the joy and participation of half the population, the other half seemed to be blocking the sidewalks queuing up for lottery tickets or theaters or at dinner in our restaurant. This city loves to go out! We used to think rue St Catherine in Bordeaux was busy, but this city put’s it on a RITZ! There are so many main roads shoulder to shoulder with Spanish tourists and locals alike. The crowds ebb and flow and everyone gets along, people are promenading, shopping and a whole lot of dining. There is more fried food in the Spanish diet than if Long John Silvers was its own country! There are three courses of fried food, even the salads are topped with fried bits... and what’s not fried has its share of oil. There is a wonderful traditional dish made up of bread torn up and mixed with sausage, then baked. It sounds like America’s thanksgiving stuffing but they top it with a poached egg. And the padron peppers sautéed in oil, I saw one patron, not Spanish, using her napkin to ‘dry’ off the oil before consumption. And last night the opening salvo was olives, stuffed with cod, battered and fried! As if an olive needed that!
But, don’t get me wrong, we are loving the food, and the lights, and the crowds....Madrid is a wonderful energetic city, filled with happy people and art museums, and incredibly quaint restaurants.
Our voyage together has been more than expected. I was afraid, at the start, that we would tire of the pace and process, but we are pacing ourselves with a blend of entertainment and “down-days” which are nothing of the sort. Two weeks in a town such as Madrid is an appropriate amount of time to appreciate the city, just enough retracing to make it feel understood without getting boring. Pat teases me that if we walk in the opposite direction on any given street, I’ll think it’s some place we’ve never been. It’s kind of true, especially if you manage to cross the street and walk on the opposite side! The architecture here is so wonderful, making me embarrassed for what passes as architecture in our own country. We often wonder what europeans must think when they visit our major cities? American food is terribly expensive, the wine double to that, and the architecture is boring or much worse! The streets are dirtier, the homelessness inexcusable, the roads are pitiful, the “local” cuisine doesn’t exist. Here, a glass of wine is 2 euros, in a nice restaurant!, and the waiter speaks your language and several others!
America has cultural diversity, wonderful national parks, and some free museums in DC, but after that I am not sure why everyone dreams of visiting the US? Plus they are required to buy expensive visas while our american passports open doors worldwide!
Back to the subject.... our voyage....We have managed to find a rhythm that sustains us. We have peppered our travels with friends and old neighbors, so just as we need a new face to talk to they arrive into our lives for a few days and then we are happy to return to our dynamic duo. Tom and Ruth departed in the wee hours this morning, back to their lives and we back to ours.
The last time Tom and I traveled in Europe together was 40 years ago. After a summer in Greece we reconnected in Hamburg for a few days before Tom flew home (to Ruth) and I stayed behind to continue that voyage. I remember it better than I remember most things, the sentiment better than the city (I forgot I had ever been to Hamburg). It was devastating at the time, I wanted to go home too. I was worn out from traveling, and thought my life was back in the US. I was wrong about so many things in those years of my early 20’s. The oddest part is that now I know I’m wrong about so many things as I have accumulated enough rings to appreciate my hubris, but then...I thought I knew it ALL. I thought I was so smart and wasn’t. But I’ve returned, with a larger view, happy to have a few of the same friends and even happier for the few things I’ve learned in the spanning years. Madrid has been a dream, definitely a one to sixer!
The last stage in this RETOUR
We left home on this trip 3 months ago, and it’s still working. The pacing has been a hot and cold pattern of being tourists and then slowing down to smell the roses, or to ruminate over the roses from the previous rush. It’s like the dense winter growth being complemented by the rapid summer growth. We hook up with friends to blitz around the city and fill the brief time together and then catch our breath and wallow in the afterglow of daze well spent. Elizabeth is at the airport, and Pat may not make it out of her pajamas today!
It’s time to look at the lists and plan out what we want to squeeze into the remainder of this city and this dream of a holiday! Another Gaudí adventure? Another flea market? Some home cooking? Get a head start on our future life of diets and exercise?
We walk around these European cities and fall in love with the dream, they seem so much better at knowing how to live, how to build their cities, how to feed themselves and take care of their masses. I have the impression that our American mentality is to squeeze harder and extract the last drops of life, to frack the earth and monoculture the land, where Europeans are still playing the long game, despite such a long history they are still planning for a long future, still paying for bridges and tunnels and pneumatic garbage removal systems, while the means in the US is so much more important than the ends!
The cities are clean, easy to move around in, architecturally dynamic and well used. If it weren’t for the fabric of our american lives I am certain we would not live there. Now this is easy to say, since I have the option, and since I’m not trying to live IN their system, but rather outside and above...but we did live in their system for 12 years, we made it work, and with enough room to keep our american fabric from tearing. Maybe we could do this again!? Europe seems like such a better place to grow old, despite the shining examples in our lives.
This is why I’m writing this down, so that in a couple of years, when I’m used to the hot water back at home and I wonder if this frog should leap out of the frying pan, perhaps I’ll remember that all the world is not an adjacent griddle, but there are rather wonderfully safe spots to land!
We joined a sold out mass at Sagrada Familia this morning, now there’s a way to mess up a 150 years of inspiring architecture! I needed to be reminded that the fanaticism that gave us that work of art, also brought all of the mist and obfuscation that was/is and probably always will be the church. I have always been able to separate the two, but somehow it bothered me today and I felt false for pretending to enjoy one slice of religion, the architecture, while forgetting how much the rest of religion (the destructiveness) bothers me. There was maybe a time where it did good, but I doubt it was the only way our civilization could have made the same progress. Had we put the same energy into education for instance, perhaps we would all be marveling at libraries and ivory towers today instead of centuries of religious paintings and bishops palaces! Oh it makes me mad..., and perhaps we are on a similar wrong direction today as the world seems to turn inward and away from a singular path. Britain, America, France, Spain...and those are only the four I kind of understand. Self centered entities; religious orders, political parties, soccer fans....If our species survives, none of these things will be any part of the reason. Only Education has any part in the solution, and we are headed in the wrong direction! According to Zillow, the elementary school and the high school whose district my million dollar home is situated, rank 1 & 2 out of a possible score of 10! And as a country we are bickering over war dollars! WTF?!
I’m way off track...again.
This is our second visit to the Sagrada Familia since it’s consecration. It is a marvel of a space and it’s lines and broad strokes are testament to the genius of the human brain. It’s details and nuances are proof of another sort of genius and to appreciate that ALL of it came from the mind of one man is a humbling statement to our capacity and to the insignificance of anything I’ve ever done, other than maybe an isolated sandcastle or bit of carpentry that engaged my mind for a few hours in a row! But Antonio Gaudi, like so many others, was able to focus his artistic mind and stir it together with his engineers logic, and give us gifts like these, original thoughts, fantastical built environments, years ahead of his time. He did with strings and weights what we are only recently figuring out how to do with computers and 3D printers. It’s really breathtaking. Now let’s just get rid of the clergy and turn it all into a creative space!
Wrapping up..... it’s been 14 weeks on this voyage, our “retour”, and we have paced ourselves well. It hasn’t been the live like a local that I had aspired to, but that really didn’t make sense given the itinerary and the pace. But we did stay engaged and energized and that was my worry. Now we talk about doing it again, but in our “1-2-6” plan, staying in one place for 1 to 6 months. But I still don’t know what I would do with that pace? Best would be to find projects to work on, bathrooms to remodel, Venetian plaster to perform...it’s hard for me to imagine 126 without some structure.
As we move towards our final days we continue back to the question of what else should we try to squeeze in? We have checked all the boxes, we have seen everything we wanted to see. Our suitcases are provisionally full with no more space for souvenirs or wheels of Manchego and our bellies are full with just a few special meals in the wings.
I have often glanced over Pat’s shoulder at the “other couple” who dine in silence, feeling sorry for them, that they have exhausted their ability to surprise each other with interesting conversation. Now here closing in on 25 years of marriage and 14 weeks of coupled isolation, I feel the traveller’s exhaustion and the slowing down of the excitement. We spend a fair amount of time congratulating ourselves for all the wonder in our lives, for the places and faces we have shared, for not breaking bones or beating retreats, but the reality is we are ready for the recharge of getting back to our lives, even if what we are returning to is something yet to be understood. We spend every moment together and in some ways are in a lower gear as we work our way up grades and over hills, winded and searching respite.... But then we arrive, the destinations still enthrall, the sights and sounds so much richer from the shared experience. I’m just noticing here at the end of this incredible voyage that we are ready for the happy ending. It’s crazy to be making plans for the end of THIS week that include friends and family and landlording and filing boxes! This time away has been entre guimet as a French poet might say, between quotations. Like a stage whisper, a bit of direction, an exception from whatever our real lives are. Living in France for all those years was certainly our life, but this has been a vacation from our life. I suppose I’m saying that we are looking forward to the “close quote”.
In the “come back different” goal of travel...have we? What have I gained from this retour?
The reaffirmation that Europe is a better place to live?
The appreciation for European cities and architecture and food? But I had that, so where can I claim change? I’m not sure I can, this may not have been a ‘come back different’ kind of trip. Even the title I gave it: The Retour, doesn’t sound loaded with the right ammunition for enlightenment. I’d like the next trip to be more of a challenge, more confusing culturally, more to learn and absorb. Perhaps it’s Asia or South America? But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now let it be Davis, let it be Oakland, let it be friends and family..... life is long and my brain needs a rest.
We have been home for a week and the common query is for the hi lights, usually over a cocktail since ‘tis the season and all.....It’s kind of like the ‘elevator pitch’..... needing to distill the story before the doors open to the corner office, or in my case the cocktail shaker needs to be pressed back into service... The hi lights were in the returning, the going home again. And The pinnacle of that, was the opportunity to spend a short week alone in the home we created in Martel. But the point is, the special wonders of revisiting the landmarks of that life. Those were amazing years and we seem to carry them with us wherever we are. It was sublime to be reminded of those fortunes.
There was also a mountain top wedding in Connecticut,
A New York harbor sail away on the QM2,
The Planten and Bloomen city park in Hamburg,
A bike ride through the lowlands in Holland,
Another bike ride along the Seine,
Bistro Michel in Bordeaux
Pinxtos in San Sebastien,
The Mercado San Miguel in Madrid,
A sangria infused sunset in Barcelona
And then having this life to come home to!
4th floor, men’s haberdashery