I sensed early on that living in a medieval village for two months in the South of France, writing the second draft of my memoir, would be an initiation. I could feel it beginning long before Tom and I drove to San Francisco, and boarded our flight to Paris.
I read Malidoma Some’s memoir, Of Water and the Spirit, several years prior to our trip. The heart of the story is about his coming of age initiation as part of the Dagara tribe in West Africa. Initiation is soul work, a way of being present in the journeys that change one’s life, and making meaning along the way. It is characterized by three stages: separation, ordeal and homecoming. Of the three, ordeal is the most difficult experience, plummeting into the unknown, and demanding all of one’s inner resources. The experience can be expansive and exhilarating. It can be frightening, depleting, and lonely. Ordeal crosses comfortable boundaries.
My initiation started with the dream of going to rural France for two months to work on the second draft of my book. It felt radical, and disturbing. I had never taken two months off work. Tom speaks French, but I don’t. We knew no one in the small, isolated village of Le Broc, but it was on my path. Although I had felt a similar calling before, climbing Half Dome in Yosemite with a buddy, trekking the Himalaya with a woman guide, and hiking the Andes with a group of spiritual seekers from Brazil, this felt different. Those experiences were physical, outward journeys. This one would be inward. But writing a memoir is by definition introspective, and I had been “introspecting” for eighteen months. What was there to fear?
Our trip from San Francisco took about twenty hours. Marie-Paul, the woman who owns our apartment, came by train from her home in Munich to welcome us. She was waiting for us in the pouring rain on the train platform in Nice. She hopped in the car, greeting us with “Bonsoir! Bienvenue!” and in perfect English, proceeded to give Tom directions through city traffic, and up winding mountain roads while he was relearning how to use the stick shift in our rented Citroen. I don’t have words to tell you how grateful I was to see the twinkling “Joyeuse Fetes” lights on the arched entry to Le Broc, wishing us a joyous holiday. It was midnight and the village was asleep. Streetlights illuminated the way to an old stone chateau. Thank god our apartment was on the ground floor. We were exhausted. Mary Paul had arranged for heat and lights to be turned on for our arrival. We didn’t notice the white roses in vases throughout the house until we woke up the next morning.
There is so much to share that I must be selective. My memories of our first two weeks are a collage of images and emotions. I’d like to scatter pictures across the page with captions to give you a sense of the kaleidoscope in my mind, but I’m not computer savvy enough to do that.
My office is a small room with a single bed, covered in a white quilt. My desk faces the window. Opening the curtain in the morning, I’m greeted by a toy Santa Claus climbing up the wall of an arched patio entry, with a stuffed giraffe peering over the gate. I imagine that our neighbors have children, but I’ve never heard them. A postage-size garden, lying fallow in the winter, separates their home from three other stone structures of varying heights, standing in a row. They look like medieval Monopoly houses, with tile roofs and heavy wooden doors. Even though it’s not visible from my window, I can hear the Catholic church bells ringing the hour. It feels like a monk’s cell, or the garret room in a seventeenth century stone house, except it’s warm, and perfect for a writer.
Before we could even begin our work, we had to take care of our essential human needs. We had shelter and water, but we had to hunt for and gather food. In France, the language is French, the medium of exchange is Euros, weight is measured in liters, temperature in centigrade, and distance is in kilometers, and everything is more difficult. Mary Paul had pointed out Carrefour, the French equivalent of Walmart, while we were driving to Le Broc. Did you know that you can call upon Saint Siri in France? She heard our plea and guided us to our destination. It was the most mind-altering shopping experience I’ve ever had. Carrefour is as enormous as an NFL stadium with a dizzying selection of everything. One whole section was devoted to seafood, piles of oysters on the half-shell, mountains of shellfish, and varieties of fresh fish laid out like jewels on black velvet. And the cheeses…just the seductive smells are enough to guide you toward them. The wine selection took up aisles, all French of course. In our jet-lagged state, it was a miracle we got out before the store closed.
The next day we slept until noon, too tired to do anything but make breakfast and wander around Le Broc. The bar on the corner was open, so we walked in and introduced ourselves to the owner, Christophe. There was a poker game going on in one corner, and a kid playing on his cell phone while his dad watched a soccer game with a couple other guys. Christophe was more fluent in English than I am in French, so I was able to order a glass of wine and ask where the toilet was. When I returned, he and Tom were in animated conversation while I listened. I am intrigued by the way French people speak with their hands. They smile easily. I enjoyed seeing Tom so happy to be speaking a language he loves. But, in my state of fatigue and cultural disorientation, I felt myself hitting bottom. I told Tom I was tired. He should stay and finish his glass of wine. I could find my way home. He asked, “Are you okay?” I nodded my head yes, and walked to the apartment, feeling like a child with no one to play with, left out and vulnerable. I knew that ordeal would be part of my journey. I just didn’t think it would start this soon.
The next morning, I woke up feeling defeated, but was determined to get back to my manuscript. When I opened my office window to breathe in fresh air, the weather matched my mood, dark and gloomy. I thought I could get by in Le Broc for two months, with smiles and my meagre store of French words, but it wasn’t good enough. I was depressed and afraid I couldn’t pull out of it. I told Tom.
He said, “Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry. It’s hard for me, too. My French is enough to get by, but I have to concentrate to understand what people are saying unless they speak very slowly. Let me hold you. We haven’t been here a week yet. It’ll get better.” I sat on Tom’s lap, hugging him around the neck, and cried. It got better.
There is a positive side to this kind of isolation. It’s quieter in my mind. Last night Tom and I went to a beautiful performance of Bach Cello Suites at a Catholic church a few kilometers from Le Broc. Before introducing the cellist, two people talked on and on about Bach’s spiritual devotion and the significance of the piece being performed at this holiday season. Even the French were getting restless. I just meditated, undistracted and at peace, a perfect preparation for hearing music that touched my heart.
I feel transported by your words and prepared for your journey. Thanks so much for sharing this and allowing us to accompany you from afar. It is awe-inspiring.
Thanks Sharon! Can you add me to your notification list?
Your description of your initial experiences is perfect! Almost word for word what I wrote in my journal a few days after I moved to Leeds in 1969! I couldn’t understand the Yorkshire dialect and felt all those feelings- it’s still so easy to access even 50 years later. Important to fully experience in order to fully enjoy the journey to integration!
Oh, dear Sharon, thank you for sharing your experience with such honesty, and yes, I too know that feeling so well. The anticipation, the excitement about what is to come, and then a sense of anticlimax – which often comes from exhaustion and all the challenges of strange surroundings. Thank you for reminding me to be honest about the “ordeal” part of the journey and to experience it just as fully as the exquisite moments.
I love seeing Tom’s and your photos and hearing about your delightful moments – croissants, cellos and Chagall!
Wishing you warmth in every way,
Few of us, I imagine, take the opportunity to step out of our “comfort zones” to learn and grow. John and I have been fortunate to travel much – and hope to do so more – but would offer that for the most part we have had friends and acquaintances in those far flung places. Others who spoke the local language, knew the culture, were our guides and touchstones of comfort. You are a brave soul indeed, Sharon. I look forward to reading more of Tom’s and your journey.
Hi mom! So glad you and Tom are having such an amazing experience.
Looking forward to more pics and stories of your magnificent journey.
What an amazing journey Sharon. You are embracing life. What a gift. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to hear more.
Peace and Love
Oh Dear Sharon, your writing is beautiful. I love the description of your parallel journeys, inner and outer and circumstances and the landscape which inform them. I would imagine that the ancient village would offer some solidity against which you will draw out your story. The unfamiliarity might add to the mystery of the creative process and the interplay of THEN and Now. Bonne chance, Vlatka
Aaaahhh, Sharon, the phases of initiation. Since our wonderful interview (wow, years ago, now) for my writing class, wherein you introduced me to this marvelous notion, I will forever be grateful to you for the concept of moving through new life phases in a deeply conscious manner. I am happy you’ve reminded me of it.
I, like John above (Hi, John!) resonate very much with your experience in France. You probably remember Conal and I lived in Antwerp for three months. Every dang thing was hard, at first. The constant unfamiliarity exhausted me; different languages, navigation, measurements, heck, even the light switches worked opposite to US switches! A thousand little differences added up to constant extra bandwidth needed to just get through the days doing normal stuff. A crash course in Paying Attention To Small Things. Travel Zen.
One afternoon, waiting for Conal to walk home from his office, anticipating an evening out and dinner at one of the dozens of superb restaurants within walking distance, I was in our flat channel surfing Dutch TV when an old American movie popped up. I smiled at hearing the familiar broad accents speaking English, and then literally moaned at seeing beautiful scenes depicting grand, wide-open landscapes of the American West; mountain, rivers, forests, and rolling hills to the horizon, all under brilliant blue skies.
Tears burst from my eyes despite my best efforts.
It was my first time overseas. Despite all the magically wonderful experiences we were having, I felt terribly lonely and a looooong way, both in time and space, from home. There I sat in our weird European “home”, with its strange furniture and bizarre layout, while outside the windows the ancient, foreign city hummed under a low, flat, gray sky (God, how I missed big blue skies that summer!). I realized I had never truly felt what it meant to be “homesick” until that moment—felt it as a physical force. I learned viscerally that I am from somewhere, and that that somewhere holds powerful meaning and resonance within me. I marveled to have not really noticed it before.
Wow, that was fun to remember! Thanks for sharing with us on your blog. Hey, you are having an online initiation, too, oh ho. So many levels of growth. Wheeeeeee…
Can’t wait to see what you write next. Much love to you, Sharon.
Dearest Sharon and Tom, I’m overjoyed to hear about some of your experiences so far and I feel an indescribable emotion that takes me back to my experience of traveling alone on the “bullet train” from London to Paris and finding my way to the Latin Quarter to stay with a friend for a week. English is my one and only language. I have no foreign language talent! My friend took ill so I journeyed mostly on my own for the week. It’s amazing how much can be communicated without verbalizing!
The very unique experiences the two of you are sharing is such a beautiful thing. Both of you are so inspirational and in my book beautiful people who bring a wealth of love, concern, knowledge and experience to those you touch in this world. May you both enjoy each and every day of this magnificent journey-experience to the fullest. Be Happy and Safe. You are loved.
Dear sweet brave friend,
yep, I can relate, it pushes me back decades ago now when i rode around and around on San Francisco buses, hopelessly lost and utterly unable to understand a word of what some well meaning , patient black bus driver was saying…
My advice: just go with the music of French, just sit in the cafe and let the conversations flow all around you, get the rhythm, let your intuition loose, invent meaning to the words exchanged, that is the privilege of being a foreigner somewhere, it gives you a free pass, a momentary exemption from the conventional interactions…No one will mind, and i think you will find that, little by little , you will start understanding the words…I miss you, and I am thankful for this way to keep track of your adventures a little bit, at least… Curious to know if you will have some insights about the US, looking at the whole thing from a different window…
I am expecting my French nephews and companions here for the holidays, Fidel is so happy to be with his cousins and his french tribe again, big blooming bouquets of joy in the blue house on the canyon right now, and of course, a lot of French spoken!!! Lots of love and respect to you and Tom, Catherine
Thank you for sharing your personal journey. I am honored to here and feel your journey through your writing! Please know you are in our hearts! You and Tom will be GREATLY missed at Solstice this year. Please know we will feel your spirits will be with us and be feeling the toast for a growing and fulfilling new year!
Ah, the universality of lessons learned from living abroad. I look forward to vicariously enjoying this journey you and Tom are on and to seeing the fruits of your labors as the book progresses.
All I can say is WOW !
You both were in our thoughts tonight as we celebrated Solstice. You were missed, but we are all supportive of your journey. Looking forward to seeing you when you return.