Flipping through my expired French passport, Gilles made a loud gasping noise, “You haven’t been back to France in 18 years!” “C’mon. It can’t be that long,” I countered. Squinting to see the faded passport stamp, I made out 15/06/2003. “Yikes! Where have I been? What have I done? Where’d the time go?” I wondered. Those years were a blur.
The sands of time had slipped through my fingers in a blink of an eye. I was mortified. Going forward, I was intent on figuring out a way of decelerating time. And I think I’m on to something. But first, the backstory.
In 1989, Gilles and I met in Grenoble, France. I was on a Fulbright scholarship in Grenoble. As an aside, when I told my family and friends I was going to spend a year in Grenoble, many heard Chernobyl (site of the 1986 nuclear accident) and completely freaked out. A year abroad in Grenoble was much easier to swallow.
Gilles was returning from the US, where he’d been employed by IBM in California. We met through my brother, Ray, who essentially set us up on a blind date (a story for another time)! Two years later, we were married in Biviers, France. 2 years after that, our son, Yohan, was born, and 2 years following that celebratory day, I threatened divorce!
We had a very disturbing conversation which went something like this:
G: Elizabeth, want to move to California?
E: Are you high?
G: Seriously, I’ve been talking to colleagues at HP in Palo Alto, and they’ve offered me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (this is a phrase I hear more and more with time).
E: You’re a funny guy!! Fat chance. I love my life here.
G: We can buy a nice house, be close to the ocean, and travel the country!
E: Are you freakin’ kidding me? Nope. No way. Negatory. I am not moving. We’ve been here for 7 years and I’m loving my life. Why would I want to go to a place where blond hair, big boobs, short skirts, and facelifts were a thing? (In my defense, as a Vermonter, my only real experience with Californians was the TV show, Baywatch. That’s not me. Although I’d never really spent any time on a farm or in the backwoods, I considered myself a VT country girl!!)
This same dialogue went on for weeks, took different twists and turns, and created a lot of tension:
E: You can’t make me.
G: Why don’t you talk to my friends Jo and Neil.
E: Why don’t you take a flying leap off a cliff?
After 4 to 5 pressure-filled months, Gilles convinced me. I totally caved. Begrudgingly, I moved to the Bay Area with Gilles and Yohan in 1995, and though I rarely admit Gilles is right, he hit it out of the ballpark on this decision. I’m glad we moved.
During our first preview trip, I sheepishly realized the Bay Area is nothing like Bay Watch…dodged that bullet! In fact, people were friendly, the weather was ideal and life seemed bearable.
This past November, I went back to France after an 18-year sabbatical. I cannot pinpoint why I avoided France like COVID; it just sort of happened that way. Gilles’ mom, Blanche, has not been in the best of health, so I wanted to spend time with her. Life is super fragile.
Leading up to our European adventure, Gilles encouraged me to reach out to good friends with whom we’d lost contact. Remember, in 1995, PCs were beginning to make their way into the homes of the general public. Up until then, the only way to stay in touch was through costly long-distance phone calls or letter writing. Cell phones were a luxury item, texting came much later and internet searches were done through Yahoo.
Except for an infrequent “Like” on Facebook, notification of a Linked-In anniversary or a kudos for a Strava accomplishment, I’d little to no communication with my French friends. In all honesty, I was afraid to look up certain people in the white pages for fear that they had died. What if my email landed in the hands of the grieving family members or was simply launched into deep chambers of cyberspace, never to be found? I would never know if it was outright rejection, death, or incorrect contact information.
With a little luck and a lot of research, I found my friends; they were all living and breathing! We made breakfast, lunch,4pm tea, appetizer, and dinner plans (sounds caloric, right? I just decided I no longer cared about calories and chose to eat when I was hungry, not obey random habits or schedules). More difficult still was the 20 years later, 20 years older (not necessarily wiser) problem. How many wrinkles, liver spots, and white hairs can you count? Ugh.
Lastly, we don’t speak a lot of French at home, so my language skills were rusty. I worried I would not be able to hold an in-depth conversation which would have literally killed me. Take away my ability to talk, I flatline.
This trip was about diving in headfirst, living with doubt and being spontaneous.
Grenoble (not Chernobyl)
Driving into Grenoble, I recognized the snow-covered Alps, the Italian pizzerias next to the frigid Isère, the supermarket, Carrefour, and the eggs of the télépheric slowly gliding their way up and down the hill of the Bastille Fortress. If those reference points had disappeared, I would have had to make an appointment with a memory doctor for creeping dementia.
I used to walk everywhere, hour after hour, mile after mile, and I knew the name of the streets, the shortcuts through farmers’ fields, and every neighborhood store. I was shocked to realize the local bakeries, butchers, fishmongers were few and far between, and the restaurants had changed hands at least ten times, with new buildings everywhere. I guess that sort of thing is to be expected over a 20-year period.
In addition to my disorientation, I was surprised to see so many food/drink machines in France. When did France become automated?
Want some wine? Just bring your bottle and fill ‘er up!
How about a baguette? After some thought, I cannot figure out how the long baguettes make their way out of that machine? Maybe it’s a new thing – flexible baguettes!
Feel like eating a pizza? Put your Euros in the slot and they come out piping hot!!
In retrospect, I don’t think I ever really felt French. Being French is much more than language or a French passport. Being French is a way of dressing and thinking. It’s commitment to good food, pleasure, endless nonsensical arguments and a teasing sense of humor. And, as toxically positive Americans can be, the French weigh the scales in the opposite direction.
For example, if you like a meal, you’d say, “That was not bad. Maybe just a little more pepper next time.” Or, if you think someone is nice looking, you’d say, “He/she is not ugly!” Just a cultural thing that was really hard to get used to for a glass half full girl.
Annoyingly, my traitorous American accent was considered, “cute.” Okay, I’ll take the compliment. But, at the time I just did not want to be different. I yearned to fit in.
As for my size 11 athletic shoes, yoga pants and 5’9″inch height (skyscraper tall in France), my being screamed, “American Tourist! Right HERE. Come and see the American Tourist!!”
As we visited friends and family, many of those same fears and inadequacies came roaring back with vengeance. But, I was able to move beyond the discomfort, because those details were no longer important to me. If I was seen as too loud, too tall, too hard to understand, that’s okay. It just did not matter anymore. It’s taken 59 years, but I am more and more comfortable with who I am. Love me for me, or not at all.
As I look back on the 2 weeks we spent in France, I am grateful to have had quality time with Gilles’ mom.
We also reconnected with many good friends, who welcomed us with open arms. The icing on the cake was the time I spent with my good friend Bethany, catching up, visiting Monaco and celebrating her 30th birthday together at the fancy Negresco hotel.
So, what’s the secret to slowing the perception of time?
First, as I age, I realize that time slows down when my attention is on the now and I prioritize mindfulness.
Secondly, boring daily routine is a time-eating monster, so seeking out novelty, as would a child, is a must. Long-lasting memories are built on deep emotional experiences.
Next, I am starting to limit my time checking email and scrolling through social media channels…..literal time wastes.
By seeking quality over quantity, and focusing on the present moment, I am making a conscious decision on how I spend the seconds, minutes, hours of my life. I know. It sounds good on paper, and no, I don’t have this all down to a perfect science; I am a work in progress, but aren’t we all?