Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crossing the Rhône-Changing Values

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I spent the first fourteen years of my French life on the Eastern side of the Rhône, in Provence, the hub of the former Roman Catholic Empire. Erick, the father of my boys, though an avowed atheist, has all the habits and mannerisms of a good Southern Catholic: distrust of the taxman, very generous, a bon-vivant; he can be chaotic, letting money burn the proverbial hole in his pocket. He lives in the moment, often neglecting his health, his future, but with few regrets.

His is a good personality for receiving people, for dealing with whatever comes up. And, I am the first to admit, a crazy and ambitious American wife 16 years your junior isn’t the easiest person to bring into your life, attractive though she’d been. I’d always said his gray hairs dated to my arrival… and the complexities and twists I added to his life.

With his skills in the kitchen, and his love of his region, plus my marketing skills, enthusiasm, and willingness to constantly try new things, to explore and seek.. we built our culinary tourism business centered on the cooking school and Erick’s recipes. Later we added the bed and breakfast, making everything from scratch, as organically as possible. With Erick's funky renovations, it all came together. The fun people who came to visit, the visits in themselves, the hikes, excursions, conversations, meals and more fully occupied my life for the over 10 years.

From Catholic Provence I crossed over the Rhône to the West, the Gard/ Languedoc-Roussillon and there found my organic vintner. Protestant France with its history, its traditions, greeted me. Here many battles were fought for the freedom to practice a different faith, and the over the years, a majority has chosen a simpler, more legalistic, restrained living style. This world is familiar to me. I'm living moments reminiscent of my Protestant New England background: waste not, want not – JP actually is willing to eat left-overs, something Erick would sooner let mold over than dig out of the fridge - and prepares just enough, never in excess. He keeps his house cool, spends a minimum of money, believes sincerely in “if it ain’t broke, don’t replace it)” and spends quite a bit of his time repairing old tools and vehicles. His house is spare, minimal, with no excess. No piles of books, mail, magazines toppling over on every surface, few but well-chosen art pieces on the shelves and walls. Old and serviceable, if not particularly good quality pots and pans.

Part of this world is comforting to me, but it's also disorienting. I was order to Erick’s chaos, and now I am apparently chaos to JP’s order. How far can and will each bend to accommodate the other?

You take up quite a bit of space, he said to me this summer. Yes, I agreed, I brought cooking utensils because I like to cook, and I brought a ¼ of my summer wardrobe, because I like to look well – which you appreciate as well I believe. I brought photos of my boys, and my dog, and my cat with her 5 kittens. And yes, I brought my boys for a time as well. OK. I don’t travel lightly. But, ahem, have you made room for me? Your closets are full, and what closets there are are small. Your kitchen is minimalist if artistic, built for two people who rarely cooked, or rather took small pleasure in cooking. And, forgive me, but I am simply amazed that you were able to share a closet of a meter’s width with the mother of your children …..

The discussion brought me to look at my own house, my manner of living amongst my belongings, collected over multiple lives, in plain view. I have no closets, no attic, no basement or garage. Nor do I really want them. Why hide what I possess? Then it wouldn’t exist anymore, and what purpose would it serve. I am a visual. Either I see and use my possessions, or I might as well get ride of them. And yes, I have (had) cats, and a dog. They get on the furniture, and are frequently on the knees and in the arms of my children, warming their nights. My rooms are painted in different colors, and I frequently bake and have music blasting. Sights, smells, sounds. It is a lively place filled with warm and active bodies who leave their prints.

Meantime JP couldn't operate more differently than myself. Nothing goes to the Goodwill, nothing is thrown out. There is a huge barn on the property into which he's put everything from his past life with the mother of his children and his now-grown children. There it all stays, safely molding away, stashed out of sight. His closets shut with opaque doors behind which order is not always a primary goal (though he's definitely making progress on this aspect). Thus visually communicating a certain Zen ambiance. He lives and eats simply--not monastically, but terribly reasonably and rationally.

Though we have many elements in common, in many important ways we are trying out the cliché of “opposites attract”. Will I adapt to his more restrained ways? Will he adapt to my exuberance and more colorful existence? Lovely as this year has been, the future is yet rather uncertain. Time will tell.

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