France, to me, was the way the breeze caught the clothes on the line.
I spent the entire month of September stumbling through an accent that, now, I'm certain, I'll never master. I've grieved it, grief in all its stages; but I did so want to do justice to the language. With my French lacking, there were many humbling lessons in our time there--some that bruised the ego and some that were tremendous demonstrations of grace.
An important lesson was to consider the way we observed and participated in a culture with which we were unfamiliar. A month's tour through a country is a very different thing from a few nights in a major tourist city; and so blanket statements that Americans love to make (you know, like that the French are rude) do not cover the multitudes of situations encountered in a cultural immersion. By a certain standard, maybe some of the customs felt rude; but that standard is foreign in France, and there, their own social currency is gravely important. This was the sort of thing I discussed ad nauseam with my sister and brother-in-law at a bistro table on a sidewalk in the heart of Paris, like we'd pieced together some clues and then made our peace with it.
And I would come back to these thoughts lying under a chair, watching the breeze catch the clothes on the line.
Our first stop was Canet-en-Rousillon, a small seaside community that had essentially closed its doors on the summer season just as we arrived. I wasn't disappointed in the sleepiness--after Spain, I was sleepy, too. And so, in our tiny apartment with a neon green kitchen, we fell into a lullaby routine and declared, "There! This is how we will live our lives abroad." It didn't stick beyond Canet; but it was fitting to the place, where we had a garden with high walls covered in purple flowers. And a clothesline.
There was a peace that I needed to make in France, and it wasn't solely the reclaiming of our time and routine. Certainly, I needed to know how we were going to make things work; but I also needed to know that it was going to be okay. I'd love to tell you that once we landed in Europe and the adventures unfolded that I never looked back and existed always in the moment. You know that's not true. The doubts came harder at every little obstacle--restaurants that were closed for the winter or the challenge of beginning homeschool or the difficult neighbors who snickered every time I said, "De rien," even though, I swear, it sounds right in my head.
Humility is actually a practice, and the more I practiced it, the easier it got. From Canet on to Lyon, the language barrier shrank, but my embarrassment didn't. Still, how could I let that rob me of the joy of the Parc de la Tete d'Orc or the rich, late night dinners in a neighborhood bouchon or the stretches of stained glass in the Notre Dame perched on a hill above the city? To choose the joy over what was hard, it was good practice, so that Lyon was easier than Canet, and, in turn, Paris was easier than Lyon.
The last time I was in Paris, it was a whirlwind trip with my family, the summer after I graduated high school, with just enough time to climb some cathedral steps and make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower. What I loved about my second time in Paris, was that I did it with my family all over again, and the Kincheloes had little reunions, overcrowding the hamburger joints, loitering in front of the Louvre, and taking turns lifting up Iris and Edith to peek in on the service in Notre Dame or over a bridge into the Seine. I had a night on the town with my love, wandering down alleys for secret restaurants and buzzing home in Uber pools, unable to speak to our cab mates.
And when I looked up, out of the taxi window, up between the windows of the homes that floated over the city streets, they were all connected with clotheslines, dangling wardrobes between them.
I think the reason that I kept coming back to the clothesline was the simplicity of it, the every day of it, and the way that an everyday sight could be like poetry. Even flitting across the French countryside in a high-speed train, there were commonplace markers, the makings of regular life--a life that works and a life that is okay. When we reached Toulon, I fell deliriously ill, and I couldn't get over what a thing it was to have a fever in France. Who gets sick when they're in France? But we weren't on vacation; we were living abroad. And out the French doors from my bedroom in Toulon, I could see the clothesline of the house below us. I hung our towels and swimsuits to dry on the wrought iron railings of our balcony.
Our month in France ended in Toulon with a split-second decision to stay two nights in Rome before flying to Sicily--a choice I made with no worry or fear about how it would all play out. I'd made my peace with it all, with the adventure and with the inevitable challenges, and I had France to thank for that.
There were sure to be clotheslines in Italy.