Apology: this is a re-publication of a letter I wrote on my last day in Paris. Saying goodbye to Paris was inextricably linked to letting go of my mother and it was important to me that I wrote my final letter from France on the day I was leaving. I even missed the start of the Queen’s funeral to do it. I discovered in Dubai that not only had I not achieved my publication goal, but that diywoman.net had fallen off the internet altogether. She remained in the twilight zone for six long weeks. Of that there will be more later. For now, please forgive this repeat post if you were one of the few who managed to read it before the Crash of September 19 2022.
I’ve just come back from a late afternoon stroll in the Place des Vosges, a green square flanked on all sides by beautiful 16th century buildings. There is a chill in the air despite the rays of sunshine beaming through the threatening bank of cloud.
With less than a week to go, I’m already feeling homesick for Tramayes.
The French for ‘I miss Tramayes’ is ‘Tramayes me manque‘. Literally, ‘Tramayes lacks me’. I love that the French translation hands the active verb over to the object of my affection. I think you’ll find that interesting too.
I’ve already written a love letter to this small village in the south of Burgundy. You get a mention in there somewhere too. I know this will both astonish and delight you.
The free-range Australienne with the sunhat. Or possibly that eccentric writer who sometimes does aeroplanes with her hands when she’s roaming down a quiet country lane listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral in her ear buds. Occasionally my solitary antics are witnessed, owing to the aforementioned earbuds blocking out the sound of cars (and occasionally tractors) approaching me from behind.
I have been spotted wandering dangerously on the verge of a busy road at 8am – I was impressed with the forensic nature of this infringement notice – by someone with whom I had sipped Apérol a few weeks ago. Today she drove up behind me on a country road to tick me off about my prior misdemeanour. I felt cared for rather than chastised.
On at least two other occasions, I have been wandering along with my back pack and carry bags full of groceries – no aeroplanes this time – and strangers driving by have slowed down to offer me a lift to wherever I happen to be going.
‘J’aime marcher,’ I say.
The locals find it hard to believe that I like to walk. But we smile at each other and wish each other une bonne journée. Another transaction of mutual goodwill that puts a spring in my step the rest of the way home.
Those are some of the reasons I love Tramayes. Here are some more:
1. Apéro can take place any time after 11am.
Friday is market day in the village and you’d be surprised what thirsty work early morning shopping can be. And who you might bump into who is similarly parched.
2. French children and adolescents say bonjour to strangers even if their parents aren’t around.
They are also included in dinner parties and soirées, sitting at the table and contributing to the conversation. I suspect this is the case throughout France.
3. Everyone says bonjour madame when they pass you in the street.
They are often keen for a chat if you can string more than two French words together in reply, mistaking you for someone who is fluent in French. I do a lot of smiling and nodding and afterwards wonder what on earth we were talking about.
4. Everyone says a general cheery ‘Bonjour, ‘sieurs ‘dames‘ when they walk into the small village supermarket.
This is short for ‘Bonjour messieurs et mesdames‘ and is another example of good manners mixed with inclusivity. I’ve started doing it myself.
5. Once inside the supermarket, one can feel free to ask the opinion of any random shopper of any product.
A crowd will soon gather, the merits of one product over another will be discussed in forensic detail and friendships will be made. You may, as I did, end up going home with yeast (levure de boulanger) instead of baking powder (levure chimique). A brisk walk back to the supermarket soon solved the problem and this time I learned about the merits of whole versus powdered nutmeg.
6. Older women – and possibly men – are not invisible.
They are treated with respect, especially by their grandchildren – of any age – who seem to enjoy close bonds with their grandparents and seek out their company.
7. The thunderstorms are cataclysmic.
There can be rolling thunder for hours before a single fat drop of rain heralds a downpour. But when the storm hits, it hits with house-rattling intensity. On a similar note, jet fighters perform random flyovers low and fast, their supersonic roar heralding the end of days. They vanish from view within seconds and life as we know it continues.
8. Queuing here is an art form.
At the market the butcher is happy to chat and joke with a customer even after she has paid for all her purchases. He does exactly the same with the next customer. The queue builds up but no one seems to mind. I held up the line in the post office to discuss the merits of buying a pre-paid 5kg box to ship home to Australia compared with sending any old random box and paying per kg. No one in the queue behind me seemed to mind. (NB. Buy pre-paid every time.)
On the flip side, don’t commit the faux pas of popping your head into the fruitshop back room and saying ‘coucou‘ to get someone’s attention after standing at the counter for five minutes. It will not be appreciated. You should wait meekly at the counter hoping someone will see you there. Which they eventually will.
9. Tramayes is un village renouvable (recyclable).
Everyone takes their rubbish to large enclosed bins. The black bin is for household rubbish, the yellow bin is for packaging. Glass goes in another bin. (Of that more later.) You must take care to place the correct items in the correct bin. It is rumoured that those caught not doing so are made to eat their own rubbish.
Glass bottles go into a very large communal bin in a public parking space in the village. I tend to deposit mine in the early hours when no one is around. This walk of shame involves carrying all my empties in a shopping bag – try doing that without clinking glass at every step – and hiding in the long shadows of every house I pass en route to the bin. Once there, I shoot each bottle individually into the hole provided, the sound of splintering glass drowning out the early morning birdsong. I then fold up my shopping bag and conceal it on my person, then decamp with haste, whistling an innocent tune all the way home.
It’s wise to expect one major bureaucratic disaster per overseas trip. Especially if you are foolish / optimistic / besotted enough to buy an apartment just days before you leave Australia. And thank you for being so utterly non-judgmental about that decision, along with all the other dubious decisions I’ve made in my life. I miss you.
When I left Australia, I left behind a team of volunteers who basically moved all my possessions from my old place to my new place and prepared my old place for sale. There will have to be a lot of payback when I get home. Not that I will ever be able to repay them as they deserve.
This trip, I didn’t expect smooth sailing but nor did I expect a perfect tsunami of incompetence and withheld information that could so easily have had disastrous consequences. Travel has its drawbacks and these first few weeks have been a perfect storm of them.
I knew the internet at my home in Burgundy might be unreliable so I bought a European SIM card with 20 GB of monthly data allowance. It seemed like a princely amount of data to me and I used it unsparingly during my time in Paris. I purchased it with my Australian credit card while back in Oz, of which more later.
Once in Burgundy, I was entirely reliant on my phone data for internet connection. Within two days, I was down to 4 GB, then 3, then 2. I was using more than 1 GB per day. These days I am much better at conserving data, but back then – it seems like a lifetime ago – I was profligate.
So here I was in the French countryside, with no financial or online means of paying for a data top up and no other means of communication with friends and family back home. I was utterly alone: for two days I didn’t hear the sound of a human voice. Except thank dieu for France Musique – a daggy blend of classical music and 1950s crooners. I’d packed my old tranny for just such an emergency. You raised a resourceful daughter. Possibly two.
I made several attempts to top up my phone data online but each time a security code sms was sent to – you guessed it – my Australian phone number. My online activity was identified as potential scamming and my credit card was rendered inoperable.
At this point I will divert to my second major disappointment …
In the days before my departure for France, I spent some time at the local branch of the bank. Our bank, Mum. Since last you were out and about in the leafy suburbs, things have changed. Our bank has had major renovations in many of its branches. The goal of these renos is to remove all opportunity for customers to sit down and have a discussion with any member of staff.
You arrive and wait in line for access to the one remaining teller station.
This is manned by only one teller during the lunch hour and smoko breaks. During those same breaks, the patrol officer who vets the queuing public is also absent. If you encounter such a patrol officer, nine times out of ten you will be sent home to make your enquiry via the telephone. That poses its own set of problems. Again I’m not sure how long it is since you’ve waited on the telephone line to the bank. These days, it’s long enough to knit a beanie and possibly matching socks.
On the day in question, I cunningly arrived at the bank at 9.30am sharp and was the first customer of the day. As I approached the glass window, I was assailed by both the teller and a random scary woman sitting at a low desk (without a chair opposite her). Both demanded to know the nature of my business.
Having just bought an apartment and being in the process of selling another while overseas, I said mildly, ‘I have a few questions. Can I please sit down with someone to discuss them?’
‘What kind of questions?’ barked the scary woman.
‘Oh, moving large sums of money from my account to the vendors, that kind of thing.’
‘You can’t do it from overseas.’
And so it went on. As other customers trickled in, they too were treated to the story of my finances. Finally, close to tears of mortification, I sought refuge in the manager’s office where I had seen him cowering throughout this exchange.
Note to the bank renovators.
I know your evil plan in introducing see-through offices without doors. It is to impress upon your customers the impossibility of conducting a confidential discussion at the actual bank. That kind of discussion belongs in the privacy of the call centre. But the absence of doors and places to hide means that riffraff like me can march right in if we spot our prey (assuming we’ve managed to evade security).
Once inside the hallowed – erm – open space of the manager’s office, I sat myself down in the one spare chair and said, through wobbling lips, ‘That was inhumane.’
‘I agree,’ said he. He did nothing to address it.
The bank insisted I set up a large deposit transfer to the vendor’s account at the branch, conducted by a teller. The bank charged me $35 for this service. The large deposit was returned to my bank account four days later when I was in Paris. The $35 fee was not.
No reason for this epic fail has been given in the six weeks since it happened. I have had to borrow the large amount from elsewhere. The Customer Complaints division is still ‘reaching out’ to the Bentleigh branch – oops did I just mention the branch? Next thing, I’ll be naming the bank.
SMS security codes.
On one of my visits to the bank, I requested that sms codes be sent to me via email, as had been the case in all my previous overseas trips. The conversation went something like this:
‘We don’t do that anymore.’
‘So how do I overcome the problem of not having access to my Australian phone number while overseas*?’
Which leads me back to…
The internet (continued).
When my credit card was frozen, the bank told me it was the credit card company’s fault. *The staff at my local branch hadn’t told me that I could have removed the sms security code myself while still in Australia. Unfortunately you have to enter a security code to do that, so not an option now I’m in France.
In the end I had to use a neighbour’s mobile phone to ring the bank’s Australian landline number listed on the back of my credit card. My only option was to nominate someone to receive and relay my sms security codes to me via text. How’s that for security?
If I sound bitter and twisted, it’s because I am. You know what, Mum? I reckon you’re right to stay at home. Remind me next time I get restless.
In the meantime, I’ll sit on my balcony ‘office’ on the south side of this gorgeous old pile of stone overlooking the undulating hills of this beautiful part of the world. A place where locals pull over every time they see me trudging along the dusty roads with my backpack and ask if I need a lift.
‘J’aime marcher,’ I say. Then we wish each other a ‘bonne journée‘ and go our separate ways. I love those moments. On second thoughts, Mum, I don’t think I’ll stay at home for too long. I know you won’t mind.
I don’t have to convince you there’s a downside to overseas travel. You tried it once and didn’t like it. Not one bit. I think it was mainly because you thought it was a holiday and Dad thought it was a business trip. You did look chic in Paris though.
I’m a late-in-life travel evangelist – the worst kind.
But I’m never going to convert you so I’ll just tell you my thoughts and we will have a most rewarding to-and-fro about it. Because even though you have no intention of ever travelling again, you will listen, reflect and gently give your opinion if asked.
The flights, the trains, the taxis – so much can go wrong. As you know, I am geographically challenged. Anne and I inherited it from you, and it’s so severe it has been referred to by various in-laws – we know who they are – as a disability. It’s never occurred to me to be ashamed of it, although a friend once applauded me for not caring.
I couldn’t tell you where Burgundy is on a map, even if I studied it for some time.
I simply wouldn’t retain it. Google maps and public transport signs tell me where I have to be and at what time. The first downside of train travel is the electronic timetable gremlin, who likes to keep the weary traveller on tenterhooks regarding their actual departure platform.
Despite that, I found my way without incident to the Gare de Lyon, and to Platform 19, carriage 11, seat 62. And what a comfortable seat it was. I will have to do some divesting of belongings though Mum. I can’t rely on kind young men to lift my case on to and off trains forever. And in one case to rearrange the suitcase section so my monster could nestle safely among its little friends. But once my Samsonite and I were settled, it was a breeze all the way to Macon-Loché TGV.
Every time I catch the TGV I have a brief moment of sheer panic.
It happens when the driver announces in French that the train is going to Milan. Or Timbuktu. Or somewhere other than the destination I’m after. I’ve learned to breathe through that first announcement and wait for the English version.
I arrived 90 minutes later at my destination station with nary a taxi in sight. I’ve decided to go car-less because a) I don’t fancy driving on the opposite side of the road this time and b) it will tether me to my home base and hopefully to my laptop.
There’s a strange gadget at the local TGV station that lists various taxis and their mobile numbers.
My first attempt to call one of the numbers elicited a flat no. My second resulted in an offer to pick me up if I didn’t mind sharing. At least I was pretty sure that was the offer. It turned out I was right and I met a lovely Indian man who runs some corporation or other in Macon.
I’m sorry to think ill of any Frenchman as you know but for the second time in a week I was charged about $170 for a 25 minute taxi ride. C’est la vie maman. I told you there was the occasional downside to travel.
My travel preference is to arrive somewhere and prop for a while. I’m certainly doing that this time. Seven weeks without wheels. My feet are taking me where I need to go, treading the well worn path between chez moi and the village boulangerie for my morning baguette, and the occasional ramble further afield before the day warms up. It’s just as idyllic as it sounds Mum.
At the writing workshop last week in Paris, we had a discussion about endings and beginnings. In case you’ve forgotten, my Young Adult manuscript is a mother / daughter dual coming-of-age story set in Paris. The mother is newly separated, the daughter is on the cusp of adulthood, and each of them is leaving something behind to begin the next phase of their lives.
My last night in Paris felt like an ending of something very special.
I decided to go to a performance of baroque classical and sacred music at a local church. On my walk there, I paused at the end of my lane and looked back at my open window. The window through which I watched my Parisian neighbourhood in all its glorious mundanity. For the first time since I arrived, I felt at home.
Waiting in line to enter the Eglise St-Paul Saint-Louis, I was reminded of the high tolerance of the French to a queue. While US tourists behind me complained loudly, the French just chatted amongst themselves. I have learned to follow their lead.
At weekend markets, I always head for the stall with the longest queue because I know the produce will be good. When it’s my turn at the counter, I know I can take all the time I like to ask questions and make my selection because I have earned the right. I am a different person in France Mum.
The musical performance was entertaining: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played at high speed.
The lead violinist took every opportunity to steal the limelight and work his colleagues to the bone. The result was a case of catch up that didn’t always quite get there. I was concerned for the young cellist who discreetly stretched and twirled his left hand during every brief respite from playing.
But the audience loved it – the return of live performance in France is as welcome as it is in Australia – and the church setting with its towering marble columns, chandeliers and ornate sculptures was almost as baroque as the music.
Afterwards I wandered out into the Rue de Rivoli – it was still bustling at 10pm – and made my way to the bar across the road from my apartment building.
The Royal Turenne is my local.
On my first night in Paris – could it only have been a week ago? – I foolishly ordered a ‘piscine’ of champagne at this bar. Piscine means swimming pool and I thought I deserved one after a 24 hour flight. I wanted to bathe in that goddamn stuff. What I wasn’t expecting was a vase full of champagne with ice cubes floating in it. Quelle horreur!
This time I didn’t make the same mistake.
I sipped my average-sized coupe of Taittinger and revelled in the late evening dusk of Paris in summer. Above me, suspended between two buildings, was a rising crescent moon. It glowed brighter as the sky deepened to a darker shade of blue.
Endings and beginnings mama. We know all about that. This phase of my journey is coming to a close. Tomorrow holds the promise of the unknown. I can hardly wait.
It’s been a week since last I wrote. I made new friends at the writers retreat even though I told you I had enough friends and I wouldn’t. You were right yet again.
There were 13 of us from all over the world, 12 women and 1 man.
The standard writing class ratio. Most of them were writing non-fiction. Only two of us were working on fiction and both for a younger audience. There is too much to say about the past 5 days to put in a letter. I’ll tell you the long version next time I visit you and Dad. It’ll be springtime in your rose garden by then. I’ll make a cup of tea and we’ll have a long chat.
In the meantime, I’ll just say that every one there had an incredible story to tell and a unique voice and that we shared the most intimate, painful, joyful, hilarious moments of our lives. It reinforces my belief that everyone has a story and deserves be heard. Of course not everyone wants to share their story, but for those of who are drawn to the writing life, it’s like oxygen. We need it to make sense of our lives, to understand the world we inhabit, to thrive.
In other news, I have discovered the best boulangerie in my part of the Marais.
The owner of Brigat’ is a friendly, bright-eyed man who slowed down his French for me when I asked him not to speak in English. Then he sped it up, telling me my French was beyond the need to parler lentement. So you understand why I like him mama.
His baguettes are warm when I buy them after my early morning laps of the Place des Vosges. I do a circuit and look down the road to see if his blinds are up or down. The sight of them furling (is that the opposite of unfurling?) makes my heart sing just a little bit.
I carry my baguette under my arm and make my brisk way to chez moi where I set myself up on the desk overlooking the Parisian laneway with beurre de Baratte and – occasionally – jam. But the butter is good enough on its own.
I watch the street wake up through my open window.
In the apartments across the way, blinds come up and French doors open to let in the morning sun. Diagonally across from me lives someone who loves to let in the Paris air as much as I do. Her bed must be directly behind the shuttered window, and when she opens it I can see the shape of her under her doona, raising her knees or turning over.
Sounds a bit voyeuristic, but in a city where I know practically no one, it’s reassuring. Companionable somehow. There she is in her bed, and here I am in mine, sitting up peeling an outrageously expensive Spanish orange. I’ve blanked out the cost of the 8 oranges I bought on my first day in Paris. Back home in the arctic Melbourne winter, excellent oranges were my one consolation and I have got into the habit of eating one to start the day. I counted the days of my Paris sojourn and ordered an orange for each. It had slipped my mind that they were out of season over here. And honestly Mum, I don’t even care about the expense. I’ve got you sitting on my shoulder telling me I deserve it.
When I’m home in my apartment, my main preoccupation is gazing through the window at laneway life.
During working hours there have been roadworks at the far end of the lane. Watching the baby digger zipping up and down, coordinating with the ‘mother ship’, I’ve noticed how this kind of activity involves a lot of standing around by road workers, shouting their two bobs’ worth to the drivers. If there are any tight corners to be negotiated, a small crowd of onlookers gathers to watch the manoeuvres. Once I saw a huge bus do a 20-point turn into a one-way street. Mesmerising.
After work and on weekends, small groups of handsome young men gather in my laneway, drinking coffee and talking animatedly. I don’t know why it heartens me so to see young men having conversations that involve both speaking and listening intently. They may not be discussing Proust but that’s what it looks like from my eyrie. I also love the unselfconscious kissing between these young men. I’ll miss my window onto the world when I leave for Burgundy, but I’m looking forward to my return here in mid-September.
So much has happened since I last saw you. It was back in February: you were in the sunroom surrounded by homegrown summer roses. Something I said amused you. I asked you why you were smiling and you said ‘Stop asking me how I am.’
How annoying of me. How typical of you. The most humble, most deserving and least demanding of women. It’s been a long five months since then.
Somewhere along the way my mojo went missing. I knew I had to make some changes so I booked a place in a week-long writers retreat. In Paris. That seemed to do the trick – enough of my old blind optimism returned to convince me that everything else would fall into place.
Friends offered me a place to stay in Burgundy for two months. But why stay for two months when I can stay for 90 days without having to apply for a visa? So I am.
You’ll be pleased to hear I’ve reconnected with an old flame, one you wrote about in your journal with great fondness. I’d forgotten how kind he was to you the first time round: that connection has taken on an extraordinary significance for me.
So that’s two changes. There’s just one more. I bought an apartment Mum.
Stop laughing. Not quite such a laughing matter when you sign a contract five days before leaving the country for three months. And your lawyer finds a major problem with the contract when you’re somewhere over Western Australia. And solves it somewhere over the desert sands of Dubai.
I have handed over the execution of both sale and purchase to a band of volunteers in Australia to whom I will be forever grateful. Then buggered off to Paris.
And since you’ve always been my favourite correspondent, you’re the one I’ll be writing to. So strap yourself in mama…
There is a story in Helen Garner’s 2016 collection of short stories Everywhere I Look titled ‘The Insults of Age’. She rages against the condescension masquerading as kindness directed towards her: ‘Are you right on those stairs, Helen?’, ‘How was your shopping, ladies?’ and the final un-take-backable ‘Helen. You. Are. Seventy-one.’
On 25 April 2015, I left Australian shores for rural France.
I chose the date – Anzac Day – on a whim, a symbolic recognition of the culmination of a lifelong dream to run away to France. I made 25-4 my suitcase pin number. For six months, I house-sat my way from Normandy to Provence, mostly on my own, and lived like a local.