It’s a wrap! The production that was Petersens Unplugged has come to an end … almost. The episode set in France has anyway. How on earth do I answer the question a sweet innocent asked the other day: “How was it?”
Do I conjure up the perfect set of superlatives to describe, in a nut shell, that we thoroughly enjoyed just about every single aspect of our eighteen months abroad? That the adventure was not only six months longer than originally intended but ten times as rewarding as I had anticipated? Or do I pick a couple of highlights to explain in more detail? You see, that’s the problem. There’s more than a couple of highlights. Even the ordinary day to day living in a French village was extraordinary in its own way. We walk away with smaller egos, bigger minds and full hearts.
We can’t define if we have aged and matured significantly in the last couple of years or if the environment we placed ourselves in has rubbed off on us. Probably a combination of the two. Our priorities have been shuffled, like a mixed up playlist on Spotify, and our attitude towards living and loving are much clearer now. We’ve taken shelter in over 30 different houses, apartments, camping grounds and hotels. Some were humbling and uncomfortable, most were interesting and a few were luxurious. But we needed the variety to truly appreciate the contrast. We’ve peeked into how other people live, we’ve jotted down ideas that other people employ habitually and we’ve made decisions for the future.
We’ve met people who were interesting and interested. We’ve heard people’s stories of heartbreak, triumph, adventure and perseverance. We’ve connected with many other expat families, a community I barely gave a thought to before we left Australia. My visions of integrating into a French community shifted fairly early on in our trip, but the community we would find ourselves slipping into was more than a pleasant surprise. To bond so quickly over a shared love of the unknown, the foreign and the uncertain meant most other details were not as important. Being able to communicate and express ourselves in English, was the refuge we found in one another. It’s ironic that our first invitation from a French family came just two weeks before we left the country. I hold no resentment whatsoever. I am merely curious, and it helps me understand my own multi-cultural community back in Brisbane with greater compassion for foreigners. Meeting many transient friends has taught me not to wait to invite people to connect, not to wait to give compliments, not to wait to ask people about their story. Time is fleeting and people come and go. Opportunities don’t stick around and a deeper experience to love and be loved requires movement on your behalf. Action is required, and all too easily you can miss out by being complacent.
I owe a great deal to the French people, to their heritage, their traditions and their stubbornness towards change. So often I have grown frustrated towards their lack of evolvement, their sheer tenacity to stand strong in their conventions and customs as if giving in to modernisation shows weakness. But the more I travel, the more I realise the world has enough modern, busy cities that risk looking and feeling the same as many other big cities. Country France, in particular, is unique in the way it looks just as it did hundreds of years ago. And there are many people, the older generations for sure, who still go about their daily life in a very similar way to their ancestors. We can learn a great deal from them.
We can learn to slow down. We can learn to structure our day around business hours and time for family. We should take time to select fresh produce, take the time to prepare meals with love, and eat it deliberately with family. Eat smaller portions, but greater variety. Eat what’s in season, eat what tastes good and what brings you pleasure. The daily discussions on the streets of the centre ville almost always involve talk of what they’re cooking and how they’re cooking it. Market vendors are so much more than just “checkout chicks”. They hold the secrets to what is growing particularly well this season, to what produce is bursting with flavour. They pass on recipes, they suggest unexpected combinations. And they do it all with such pride and passion.
Pride is something I have seen a great deal in the French people. Not always a virtue, that is certain, but I have come to love the way a French person has pride in their metier, their work. Regardless of whether they are a health professional, a tradesman, a leisure activities co-ordinator, an administrator or a gardener, each of them talks about their work with great pride, and does it to the best of their ability, willing to discuss it with anyone as if it was their life’s passion. I don’t see them striving for more the way so many do – the way I have been guilty of in the past. They are content with their position in life, and in their minds, work is simply one piece of the life puzzle, not the be all and end all.
There will be many idiosyncrasies of life in France I now take for granted, of that I’m sure. I won’t know what most of them are until I return to life in Australia. There are a few I can foresee, including driving on the opposite side of the road, and tearing film wrap up instead of down. I will dearly miss Roquefort cheese and it’s affordability, the world’s best breads, the sweetest red wines and the melody of the French language echoing down our street as neighbours go about their morning chores, greeting almost every person they pass.
But perhaps the greatest gift France has given me, is a new closeness with my dearest four. Michael, Sam, Charlotte and Chelsea have always been my world. But they are even more than that now. They are the special few who experienced every part of my dream right alongside me, who enriched it with their own growth. It was the shared glances at new sights, the laughter over an embarrassment caused by the difference in culture, the sounds of awe we made at vistas we never expected. It was the way they embraced our family adventure that made it incredible. They lived every last morsel with zest and a sense of “why not?” that propelled us through village after city after country.
We will arrive home in Australia with tears in our eyes, of that I am sure. Those tears will represent relief at having touched down, joy at seeing the faces of our family and excitement at seeing new faces of nephews we’ve not yet met. They will be tears of gratitude to God for the uncountable blessings we have received. They will be tears of sadness that our adventure has come to an end and that we have left friends behind. But they will not be tears of regret. That is something I can say for certain.
Thank you, France, for showing me what dreams can look like, what they can feel like and how they can change you. I found a piece of myself here and whilst I’m taking that home with me, I’ll leave you a piece of my heart with a promise to come back for it.